Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven’t yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn’t quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don’t even know what to do. And that’s where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance….

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It’s the students at the bottom that I feel like I’ve let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do the work. And, of course, that’s how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn’t do it anyway.

A middle school math teacher wrote this in 2005. It applies, I believe, to most public school teachers who face 25-30 students (or more) in an elementary school classroom and use ability grouping for about six hours or 150-plus students daily in 50-minute segments who are tracked into math, science, or history classes for a secondary school teacher.

It surely applied to me in the 14 years that I taught high school history and social studies between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and then in the mid-1990s. That I was doing so in schools where students were tracked by subject area was unclear to me in the early years of making lesson plans for my classes. But it became clear to me by the third or fourth year that I was doing exactly that. I had mentally divided up each class into top-of-the-ladder, middle rungs, and bottom of the ladder students. Sure, I varied my questions, activities, and assignments to get across-the-board student participation but my choice of content and skills aimed at the high-middle of my imagined distribution in performance across classes.

And this was true for me, as I suspect for others, who teach (or taught) classes tracked for similar abilities and performance. In Washington, D.C. in the 1960s where I served for a decade, the “track system” used group intelligence test scores to sort students into the “Honor,” “College Preparatory,” “General,” and “Basic” tracks.  For example, I would  teach College Preparatory and Basic Track classes and even in these classes, students ranged in performance and, yes, I would teach to the middle.

Like the above blogging teacher, she and I did a lot of things to mitigate the thrust of our lessons to the middle. We used small groups, set aside time to work individually with low- and high-performing students, offered extra credit for additional reading and projects, etc. ,etc. All well and good but within the confines of our limited time with the students and having a life outside of school and few additional resources, there was not much more that could be done.

What the blogging teacher and I faced was a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. We prize the historic and pervasive American values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers teach mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited resources.

Recognizing this dilemma, then, I ask: Is teaching to the middle of class another way of saying teaching for mediocrity? No, it is not.

Mediocrity, as used in describing U.S. schooling means inferior quality of a product and performance. It is a slur slung at those who are “average” or in the middle of a distribution–the C student or the girl who finishes 15th out of 40 in the 100 meter dash. Both tried hard but came up short in earning that C or finishing in the middle of the pack in the race. And it is unfair.

Why unfair? Two reasons.

First, few policymakers, administrators, and practitioners acknowledge, much less recognize, the inherent dilemma of crafting compromises–you sacrifice to satisfy–to achieve some version of these prized values embedded in the American ethos. A prime example is the value of excellence–creating a meritocratic ranking of excellence (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)–yet parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few grab the high letter grades and achieve excellence as defined by the school while most others fall in the middle.

Such teacher decisions (including mine for many years) are an open secret that often goes unmentioned by current practitioners. As a result, ignoring the dilemma faced by all teachers, decision-makers see the situation as simply teachers not delivering high-quality lessons, not fulfilling what they should be doing. Teachers then are mediocre.

The second reason are social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve. Teachers see the distribution of students in classrooms as “natural” and a fact of life anchored in the socially-constructed bell-shaped curve. Most policymakers and practitioners accept the distribution of intelligence and performance as true and use it as basis for ability grouping within a class and tracking in a school. Surely, varied talents (e.g., artistic, athletic, cognitive) are distributed unequally across individuals. In a competitive society where individual performance and equal opportunity are prized everyone can not get As or win races.  The middle is shunned because “average” and “middling” have become synonyms for mediocrity in American society.

The larger issue of fairness is whether the purpose of the school is to continue reproducing the societal inequalities embedded in the grading system and through ability and tracking policies or embrace a belief that the primary purpose of the school is to reduce–not reproduce– racial, ethnic, and class inequalities through restructuring the age-graded school and its schedule, grouping policies, letter grades, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the iron cage constructed by social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve and the existing age-graded school.

But a teacher now faced with the practical issue of a class of students with varied talents, motivations, interests, and performance–whether it is a class sunk in the bottom quintile or Advanced Placement students–wants to be fair and equitable to each student. She wants excellence and a classroom community. She wants all students to achieve. But she cannot because of insufficient personal and organizational resources and the existing structural trap within which administrators require the teacher to grade students and assign groups of varied individual students to her classroom who must follow a rigid daily schedule, do homework, take tests, and receive report cards. The steel-lined beliefs held by so many educators about the “natural” distribution of talent and achievement plus the inherent dilemma facing all public school teachers working within the structures of age-graded schools, in effect, may help to explain why so many teachers teach to the middle.







Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

6 responses to “Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

  1. Doug Johnson

    Larry, I wonder if this holds true for professional development as well. For years I have half-heartedly joked that when I teach a class on some aspect of technology, I always teach to the middle explaining up front that half the class will be bored and the other half frustrated. Pairing students and other forms have grouping helped of course, but the basic idea of teaching to middle is still there. Doug

  2. In teaching science to a an extraordinarily wide range of abilities, my approach to this dilemma has been to “stretch” the expectations at both ends of the spectrum. I teach to the upper end of the ability/motivation spectrum while allowing pure effort to prevail at the lower end. I rarely have more than 10% of my students in the 90s, yet a passing grade can be earned by any student who attends class regularly, pays attention, and tries their best. Most students consider the class challenging, as pre-high school science should be; and most students appreciate the challenge because it sets expectations that does not insult their age or intelligence. Teaching to the middle often results in the upper end student saying, “I got a 95 in Mr. Cuban’s class and I didn’t have to do anything.” Why wouldn’t you present a program that you would want for your own child?

  3. Amanda L. Bruce

    Nice read!

    I had one year in my career where I did everything in the name of differentiation. It was out of necessity; my class was filled with lazy geniuses, ESL students, and second or third-time repeaters (who actually weren’t that lazy). I had focus groups and employed multiple modalities. I pulled in separate supplemental readings for each ability level and gave them all turns teaching the class.

    I did this for a year, spending 2-3 times as long planning and researching materials for each lesson, and at the end of the year, the results were marginal. I won’t say there was no improvement, but for the extra time and resources it took me, it wasn’t worth it to me to continue.

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