What Is Necessary: Did I fail my students this year?

Take a look at these darlings in their pajamas, then try to guess: Which six children did I fail?

At the beginning of the year, seven of the 22 children in this photo were reading on or above grade-level. As of this week,16 of those children are reading on or above. Nine have caught up. That leaves six students who are still below.

Have I failed those six children?

It’s not as simple a question as it sounds. True, each of them has made at least a year’s growth. But if they make one year’s growth every single year between now and high school, they will still be behind. Their chances of going on to college, getting a good job, and living the lives they dream will be vastly diminished.

These six kids aren’t reading below grade-level because they’re lazy or dumb. Their parents aren’t lazy and dumb, either. Neither is their teacher—I swear.

I met with them every day of every week for guided reading. I sent books home with them. I observed other teachers in kindergarten and first grade to get new ideas for teaching phonics and phonemic awareness.

Each child received a home library of 25 books matched to their interests and reading level. I tutored these kids at 7:00 in the morning every Tuesday, and my partner teacher and I made sure they got the services they need—including a pullout intervention by a remarkable reading teacher named Ms. Acosta that brought about a dramatic increase in their growth.

Winston Churchill’s words reverberate in the back of my mind like a struck gong that won’t stop ringing.

It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” 

I didn’t.

I have a luxury most teachers don’t: I will be looping with these children to second grade. I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, exclaiming with glee and gratitude, “The spirits have given me another chance!”

In August we can hit the ground running with increased tutoring, more targeted guided reading, conversations with their parents about what to do at home, and everything else it will take to help these six readers reach proficiency before Earth completes its next orbit around the sun and May 2016 looms like an unstoppable asteroid.

Did I fail these six struggling readers? After one year with them, my answer is a cautious “Not yet.”

Ask me again next May. If they have not caught up by the end of second grade, my answer will be different.

The spirits have given me a second chance to do what is necessary. I won’t get a third.

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  • ReneeMoore

    Get Rid of “Grade Levels”


    Your touching (and familiar) description of your students’ progress over the school year, reminds me why I object so strongly to the outdated concept of grade levels. They are capricious at best, more often they are harmful.  Grade levels exist for the convenience of the factory model of dividing children, and for making unnecessary, even shameful comparisons. 

    None of the 11 children I raised was ever “at grade level” in every subject. Our deaf son developed most quickly in reading comprehension, but slower in mathematics. Our daughter with dyslexia struggled as a reader, but flourished in math. Both were forced to repeat a grade level, which caused everyone unnecessary stress. What they both needed was time to grow and grasp. Instead, they were labeled failures and forced to repeat even the areas in which they were more advanced (which in our daughter’s case caused regression).

    Think how much less harm we could do to children, and how many resources we could redirect more efficiently if we kept our focus on the ultimate outcomes, eliminate grade levels, and set individual learning goals for each student. When a child meets a goal, set a new one, until all outcomes have been met or surpassed? Setting up grade levels is a shortcut for a more individualized, and humane approach. 

    • JustinMinkel

      Intriguing idea.


      You make a compelling case. I’d love to hear more about how you’d envision this working in practice at the elementary level.

      I have mixed feelings about the idea of “grade level” proficiency. The reason I favor an emphasis on growth is that the concept of “proficiency” (as brought to us by NCLB) sets a line that is way too low for some students, unrealistic for others in a given year.

      That said, I think it’s important for teachers and parents to know when a child is in serious trouble. Those six struggling readers in my class need to catch up, and they need to do it soon; the window is closing. Part of why I almost never retain kids is that their gaps aren’t as glaring when they repeat a year, and they often don’t get the services they need as quickly.

      Thanks for the kind words and provocative idea. 

    • BillIvey

      Bless you, Renee.

      You said more or less exactly what I was thinking and was about to say, and eloquently so.

      Justin, I’ve known you to be a phenomenal teacher, and this blog could serve as evidence of that. Your caring and willingness to be honest with yourself about what you can do better epitomize for me a major part of good teaching. But kids will have their own developmental rates and stage no matter what levels are prescribed for them, and any such “grade level,” no matter how objective one tries to be in setting it, is both arbitrary and ill-suited to some percentage of the kids you teach.

      My son’s elementary school managed to avoid “grade levels” nearly entirely, for starters by referring to kids as “first year,” “second year,” and so on. Reading and writing were largely learned through a workshop model (I’m not sure how that worked with kids who didn’t read yet, but I know they handled that, too), math was learned in skill-level groups (the number thereof varying year to year depending on the kids’ needs), and everything else was learned through project work with students setting their own individual topics.

      I know that’s not your school, but it is a model I hold dear to my heart. Meanwhile, I’d suggest you keep doing everything you do so well, keep trying your best to support kids’ growth to the greatest extent possible, but not get too caught up in arbitrary stages and benchmarks as long as kids are happy and progressing (keeping an eye out, of course, for those kids with more complicated learning needs and styles who may need educational testing to give you guidance along the way).

  • ReneeMoore

    Teamwork and Parent Engagement

    It would be quite a paradigm shift in some places; though some are closer to it than others. I would imagine in what we now call grades K-3 for example, it would require all the teachers of those levels working as one team (with other support personnel), and developing individual learning plans for each child–along with their parent(s) or significant adult(s). Ideally, it would also include the learning that students do outside of school that usually doesn’t get counted as school work (hobbies, interests, cultural knowledge, etc.) 

    I’m used to working with high school age and up, so I wouldn’t have a whole lot of specifics for your age group. When I’ve attempted this in limited fashion with my own students (whom I also used to loop with), the students were very much involved in developing the individualized learning plans and in monitoring their own progress or making adjustments. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to win over the school district to formally change the system, but my colleagues and I did work it informally for a while. My dream is to see a seamless, gradeless, learning continuum for children and teachers that runs from preK through grad school, with students have many opportunities along the way to branch out and try new things, explore their learning passions, as well as gain proficiency in skills across subject areas.

    Of course, this is also why I plan to live to be 120.

    • JustinMinkel

      Paradigm shift

      Renee, I love the audacity of the vision (not to mention the audacity of your plans for longevity.) Let’s sit down over a cup of tea once a decade, starting once you turn 90, to talk about what’s possible.  Thanks again for the thoughts!




      • ReneeMoore

        More Info

        While you’re waiting, here’s a piece on this topic you might also find provocative:



        • Wanda Porter

          Paradigm Shifts

          What are the limitations of paradigms in education?  How does sociological education apply? In other words, how does the realit of the classroom impinge?  Where do you currently teach?

        • Wanda Porter

          Paradigm Shifts

          What are the limitations of paradigms in education?  How does sociological education apply? In other words, how does the realit of the classroom impinge?  Where do you currently teach?

  • JustinMinkel

    Which way ensures more equity?

    Bill and Renee,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion. Here is my main critique of doing away with these kinds of grade-level-based benchmarks:

    For middle-class kids in middle-class schools, their parents have the resources to make sure they get help in school or outside school (i.e. tutoring, a diagnosis from an outside reading specialist) to make sure that eventually they read proficiently. That doesn’t always happen for high-poverty kids.

    I do think that learning English is a key factor in how rapidly kids learn to read, given both the immense vocabulary to acquire and differences in the sounds themselves, not to mention the letters that correspond to those sounds. That said, I think that for almost all the kids who enter my class, I should be able to get them to the benchmark for grade-level proficiency in reading by the end of the year. 

    If kids don’t reach that benchmark, it’s an orange/red flag, not necessarily that I’m a bad teacher, but that we need to do something new for that child. I just don’t know whether that would happen if there was no system of benchmarks corresponding to a given year in school.

    There is an argument to be made that the fixation on basic skills in math and literacy robs high-poverty kids of all the other stuff kids need to experience and learn (the arts and even sciences have been gutted in most high-poverty schools ever since NCLB, not to mention open-ended creative design challenges), but I think there’s a way to ensure that richness while also making sure that kids are learning to read in a reasonable timeframe.

    I’d love your thoughts (or any reader’s thoughts) on how best to ensure equity.

    • BillIvey

      First of all,

      … you know way way waaaaaaaay more about your age group than I do, and I am well aware that anything I say needs to be filtered through that lens. With that in mind…

      I think there are several underlying questions here. One is at what point in time normal developmental differences can’t adequately explain why a specific kid is advancing more slowly in reading than others. Another is to what degree unconscious bias may be coming into play with a given teacher (no matter how good their intentions). A third is to what extent a specific standardized test is genuinely diagnostic at the student level. A fourth is to what extent a school has the necessary resources to provide to kids who may need extra support. A fifth is what is the best way to ensure those kids who may need extra support are identified. A sixth is, given the research-proven positive effects of a broad and multifaceted curriculum, how does one know when and if to opt a specific kid out of one or more aspects of that curriculum in order to get extra support in one specific area. A seventh is how a school identifies which areas are important eough for that opting out in the first place.

      And that’s just brainstorming off the top of my head. I don’t see how any one system is going to adequately handle all of those questions. Instinctively, I think that multiple perspectives may help here, specifically (still brainstorming here):

      • a specific teacher, working to identify and overcome unsconscious bias to the best of their ability, monitors the progress of each individual student and acts as the primary wielder of the orange flag
      • a second teacher, either another classroom teacher or a specialist (or, I suppose, first one and then the other), can be called in to provide additional perspective and/or support
      • the family can be consulted, to provide perspective on the reading history of the parent(s) where pertinent and of any older siblings, on their own sense of worry and/or urgency, on their desire and/or willingness to work in partnership sith the school, and on their knowledge of what needs to be done to help
      • some sort of standardized, non-high stakes, outside assessment can be given as a quadruple check
      • finally, outside psycho-educational testing can be called for if all parties involved agree it might help
      • oh, and all of this takes place within a system that funds for equity in the first place

      Again, that’s just brainstorming. I imagine all of this could happen in a school without grade levels. I also imagine I am far from the first person to think in these terms. Perhaps, if we dig around, there is research on any or all of the above ideas. I know, for example, there is research supporting the positive effects of funding equity. That is for darn sure.

      There are my first thoughts. Renee will no doubt have major insights. I’ll look forward to hearing what she, and you, have to say as we move forward with this discussion.

  • TriciaEbner

    Fascinating discussion, fascinating ideas . . .

    Maybe I’m echoing Spock a bit much here:  fascinating.

    My district passed a bond issue earlier this month, so we will soon begin a building project that will completely reconfigure our district. Our current middle school/high school configuration is going to switch, and we will have a 7-12 building that keeps the kids in their grade-appropriate bands . . . except that the idea has already been floated out there that perhaps we need to reconsider how kids progress through school. So if someone is ready to move on in the middle of a year, they move on . . . they’re not limited simply because of being in a “grade level.” There is a lot to like about this idea . . . and for a 24-year veteran like myself, it’s also a little scary.

    Justin, I see your point about whether or not we’d recognize these grade-level concerns if we didn’t have the grade level set-up. Renee, I also see your point about how grade levels are really outdated divisions. As a teacher of gifted, I’ve often wondered what my students could do if we weren’t “fenced in” by the grade level designations.

    And I wonder what I limit the kids to doing, simply because I see them as “my seventh graders” or “my sixth graders.”

    This is going to require more exploration and thinking. I think I have some additional “summer reading” to do!

  • Alysia Krafel

    Failing Your Students

    It seems tragic to me that a teacher as dedicated and talented as you are would have to ask this question.  Kids grow at different speeds, learn to read in different time frames, everyone knows that to be true. NCLB assumptions and factory models have always defied the bell curve of natural growth in children.  It is that assumption that has failed the real human kids in our schools and caused teachers who think they have failed if they don't live in Lake Wobegon. And yet, teachers get and assume the blame for not being able to move the kids all at the same speed which is dictated by birthday rather than the way children really grow.  That everyone ends up feeling like a failure after working so hard is true testament to how bent NCLB is.

    Renee – I got to work in a university lab school called the Farm School at University of California at Irvine in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a K-6. I can tell you it is possible to have something like the structure you are talking about.  We did not do project learning in the way you are invisioning because children were very young, but the groups kids were in for learning were ungraded, highly fluid and experience based.  Very responsive to individuals.  The teaching ratio was only about 1 to 12. It was great fun, very hard work and a small school that was outside the regulatory reach of the traditional school system. The pay was terrible and the school had to charge tuition, (and give scholarships), but it was a magic place.  We did have what Justin called expectations for kids to read or do math in a reasonable amount of time and resources were brought to bear if there was a serious delay.  Kids who were growing in the normal range, say 40% and above were allowed to grow at their own speed, some faster, some alot faster, some slower without much hoopla. Teachers worked in teams grouped by Primary, Elementary and Intermediate.

    At Chrysalis Charter School, a small K-8 public school, we founded after the Farm School, we group by age for everything but math and language arts.  Those classes are populated by where kids are in their learning, and what their needs are rather than by how old they are.  A faster growing child can speed up, the slower moving one slow down.  The two biggest pressures we have to pushing us back to graded by age structures are special education laws and the tests grading on % proficiency at grade level.  We are strongly penalized when we allow students to slow down to accomodate their natural learning speed. We do our best to have the whole process be humane.

    I think the only way we can really, really fail is to stop trying.  I think, Justin somehow you will not stop trying.  But I can not imagine that you failed your students when you love them so much, PJs and all.

  • JustinMinkel

    A relativity mindset can do damage.

    Alysia, I appreciate your very kind words, and the school you founded sounds innovative. Bill, that’s a thoughtful and complex list.

    To me, this question plays out very differently when we’re thinking about policy than when we’re thinking about what mindset is most useful to an individual teacher.

    At a policy level, any “failure” to achieve learning goals by a teacher, school, or district should trigger support rather than sanctions. These goals should also take into account the obstacles that kids in poverty and kids learning English will face. It is harder in most cases to elicit a year’s growth for a child learning English and living in poverty than a middle-class native English speaker, let alone make more than a year’s growth so that child can catch up.

    But as a teacher, I don’t want to do less than what is necessary for every child in my class to get where they need to be, even if it’s harder or “unfair.” I believe that in most cases, if I can figure out the right combination of instruction and interventions outside school hours, almost every child in my class should be able to reach or surpass proficiency by the end of the year.

    I don’t want to let myself off the hook by saying, “But I tried really hard.” 

    I talked about this with a superintendent I respect whose schools in the Delta consistently outperform other high-poverty predominantly African-American schools. He said words to the effect of, “I get tired of being told ‘You’re doing such a good job given your student population.’ We can’t lose sight of the ultimate goal. It’s not enough to do relatively well; we need to make sure every one of our students goes on to graduate from college.”

    I want to get to the point as a teacher where every year, 100% of my students get to where they need to be by the year’s end. In practice, this means giving of more of my time and mental energy to the kids who need the most help. It also means letting go of comforting things I could tell myself–“Those 6 kids made more than a year’s growth.” “My class had the highest reading growth in the grade.” “They did really well considering they’re English Learners who live in poverty.”

    It’s a very different mindset to give up those comforting assurances and ask, “What will it take to get every child to proficiency by the end of the year?”

    There’s a balance somewhere in there–teacher burnout is high, I have young kids, and as long as a child reaches proficiency by 3rd grade, they seem to do OK as far as their trajectory after that. But I worry that letting go of benchmarks and considering learning in a relative way can end up letting us off the hook for outcomes that are harder to get with high-poverty kids, but are also more essential for those kids.

    • BillIvey

      I think it’s time for me to step aside

      It’s the time of year when I’m hardest on myself, the most convinced I’ve failed my students and they just don’t know it yet – in short, the subject header “A relativity mindset can do damage” just hits way too close to home. You are a phenomenal teacher, and you are as motivated as anyone I know to do right by your students. That will carry you far. Thanks for a thoughtful discussion.

  • JustinMinkel

    Growth mindset vs. Relativity mindset, deepest thanks, apology

    Bill, for you, me, and all the great teacher leaders we know, compassion is easier toward others than toward ourselves. All the kind words you said to me are exactly what I would say to you in a moment when you were being self-critical.

    It’s good that we hold high expectations for ourselves over the course of our career and don’t succumb to relativity–given the relative brevity of the time in teaching for many new teachers, we quickly become relatively competent, and that turnover is much higher in high-poverty schools, as Paul Barnwell’s recent piece in the Atlantic highlights.

    That said, we can also end up diagnosing sickness but not strength in ourselves. Part of the balance is practical, I think–to the degree to which being hard on ourselves makes us better teachers, it’s good; if it demoralizes us or causes us to overextend ourselves and lose balance in our lives/families, it’s bad.

    One of my many takeaways from this rich discussion is the distinction between a growth mindset and a relativity mindset. A growth mindset honors individual growth over (sometimes arbitrary) middle-of-the-road benchmarks and acknowledges that it will take some kids longer to master certain skills. A relativity mindset can lower expectations for ourselves and our students, especially for populations of kids that tend to perform lower academically for a host of reasons.

    All this to say a mighty thank you for the discussion and the support, and an apology if my own self-scrutiny triggered that self-doubt that can lurk for those of us who care deeply about whether we have provided our students with the year they deserve.

    • BillIvey

      First, thanks for your thoughtfulness.

      I appreciate the understanding, empathy, and kind words. You’re absolutely right, seeking balance is super important, as is learning to be as forgiving and understanding of ourselves as we are of others.

      This has been a great chat. I still want to believe that a growth mindset can be fostered without benchmarks, and I still concede that it’s really important to periodically get some sort of second opinion (one that is as objective as possible) in order to check ourselves. I have a feeling that I’ll be thinking on issues this has brought up for some time to come.

      Keep being awesome. I learn so much from you! Thanks! 🙂

  • CossondraGeorge

    failure.. and letting them go

    This IS the time of year teachers pause for reflection, feeling our shortcomings, questioning our efforts, and search our souls as we set our students free to next year’s teachers.

    I know I have failed some of the students I had this year. Without a doubt. 36 kids in an 8th grade history class, and just last week, one young lady tells me, “I know you hate me. I don’t know why. But I know you do.” Wow.. talk about a slap in the face. Honestly, I don’t hate her, but from her perspective, have I ever made an effort to interact with HER? Probably not. She is quiet, reserved, reluctant to join to boisterous discussions dominated by 12 of the 36 students. Even in a small group, she is one of the quiet ones, the ones who get their work done, but never sparkle in their presentations, in their contributions to projects, or even on a paper pencil test. She is a model C student, average in most every way possible. But to think I don’t like her??  Even as a I tried to make it up to her, explain to her I DO like her, I could hear in my own voice, the guilt of the failure I felt.

    The others I have failed…

    those with 35 absences this semester alone. I failed them. How could I not engage with them enough to make school a place they WANTED to be?

    …those who are planning to be homeschooled next year. I failed them. How could I not make school a place they want to be instead of home on a computer all day. 

    But I try to focus on the successes, the achievements, the progress – social, emotional, and academic. I try to see the silver lining for each child.

    and  yet, I know… My best simply wasn’t good enough for some of them. 


  • JustinMinkel

    The Middle Path… (thank you, Buddha…) and the hidden harvest




    Two stories came to mind after reading your post.

    1. The story of the Buddha

    The legend has it that Prince Siddartha was starving himself into religious enlightenment when he heard a musician explaining as she strung an instrument, “Too tight and the string will snap. Too loose and it will not play.”

    The Buddha went for the middle path after that, between gluttony and starvation. I think we need to do the same with self-scrutiny–enough to keep us constantly reaching for what is beyond our grasp, but not so much we become despondent and forget how much good we’re doing.

    Teaching is always going to be an imperfect science. Human beings are just too complex, and they need too much and too many different things. I struggle to keep track of 25 kids’ needs; I can’t imagine doing it with 150 or more as middle/junior high/high school teachers do.


    2. The Hidden Harvest

    I’m not sure we always know what good we’ve done until years later, if ever. Some of the teachers I wasn’t crazy about in junior high actually taught me at deep levels I didn’t appreciate until college or later. 

    Some of the teachers I thought were awesome taught me very little; they had charisma (in the eyes of a teenager) but didn’t impart much of lasting value.

    I do think we can often rely on our instincts about ways we have succeeded or failed in a given year, which children we have helped or failed to help. But I also think we do a lot more good than we realize; we take our strengths for granted (patience, compassion, simply being a consistent and professional presence in our students’ lives) and fixate on the child we failed, or seemed to.

    My sense is that you and I are in the same boat–we both had a pretty good year, with much we did right, but we want to do better next year. Our reach exceeds our grasp.

    That’s probably the way it should be.

    • tonireynolds

      The Hidden Harvest–and working in a small community school

      I’ve been enjoying reading through some of these blogs over the last week of school (but just too busy to respond–I still got vicarious enjoyment out of them!) Thinkng about the “hidden harvest” analogy that was brought up– teaching here in a small community in West Hawaii, I often run across my students outside of school.  And,it’s likely that I’ll no doubt have the brother or sister of one of my recent/former students–soo…Rreputation here is everything: “Oh, you have HER for a teacher this year; yo’ll LOVE her” (is what I often hear, or hope to overhear when parents are talking); The impact you have on a child also adds to your “reputation” at the school community levbel. I may nothave had the best year academically (yes, some of the students in my 2nd grade are still not reading “on grade level”),but the emotional content, my caring and personal interest in the lives of my students is what I believe may have the longest impact on them–they remember how they felt and how the classroom environment was during thheir yearwith me.  Hopefully the emotional impact was positive and I’ve helped instill in them a love of learning that will continue to grow throughout their lives. Yes, helping students obtain “grade level proficiency” is important, but not the primary goal in my classroom.  I’m contented knowing that I’ve helped develop future intellectual passion in my students and they’ll take that spark of learning from my class on into their future schooling, wherever that may be.  Testing, grade level norms, etc….well, I’ve got a chance to start again next year!