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Uncategorized   |   Dec 6, 2011

Artificial benchmarks and forcing kids to “catch up”

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Artificial benchmarks and forcing kids to “catch up”

By Angela Watson

The fabulous Charity Preston shared this question recently on her Facebook page:


The responses from teachers were fantastic (click the screen shot above to read all the comments): a personalized alphabet chart, specific songs/books/movements, and a number of commercial reading programs (including The Letter People, which I adore!) Many people mentioned the need for starting the Response to Intervention (RTI) process and testing the child for a disability.

I agreed with all of the suggestions. And I also wondered this:


The teacher who posted the question is obviously jumping through every hoop she can to help this child understand letter sounds. She’s so dedicated that she’s even spending her personal/family time in the evenings seeking out the assistance of other educators. Obviously, the students’ lack of progress is bothering her and making her feel like she’s just not doing enough, and she’s willing to try anything. I empathize completely. And when I’ve been in her shoes, these were the questions that kept running through my mind:

Why do I worry that not getting all kids to master all standards at the same time means there’s a problem with them…or with me?

Who says that if a student can’t master a skill by a certain month that something is developmentally wrong or that I’m not doing my job well?

What expert mandated that all children must identify 10 letter sounds by the 6th month of their 5th year (or whatever)?

If schools didn’t group students by age, would I worry so much about learning disabilities?

Is it possible for me to ignore these artificial benchmarks and let kids grow and develop at their own individual paces?

Should I?


When I say that I have lost sleep over children who were behind their peers, I’m putting that mildly. Figuring out why a child’s just not “getting it” has been no less than an obsession at times, and I think most teachers can relate. Parents, too. I have seen families worry themselves sick over the fact their baby is reading more slowly than his friends or not memorizing her multiplication tables as quickly as her peers.

Trying to make all students hit all the same goals at exactly the same time is exhausting. But there’s an enormous amount of pressure from school districts and states for us to do so. There’s no obvious alternative, and no teacher wants to let a child fall through the cracks and fail to make progress because she assumed the student would get it eventually. I just wonder how much good we’re really doing for kids (and ourselves) in the endless quest to get all students meeting the same benchmarks at the same time. Sometimes it feels like nothing more than an exercise in frustration.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Just want to say thanks for always being willing to share your unique point of view. It’s so easy to jump on the bandwagon -I have to admit I would have probably advised that teacher about some program or the other myself. As you said, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you often have me contemplating a different approach to things…a feeling that it’s okay to do what you know is right, even if it is different than the normal approach or even what’s expected. It’s like swimming against the current, but it makes you feel empowered!

    1. Great reflection, here! Thanks for sharing! I, too, have a tendency to jump right in and start problem-solving, but sometimes it’s better to take the approach that there may not BE a problem, and perhaps there’s an alternate interpretation.

  2. Angela. This is my first visit to your corner of the world. I am the grand-mother of that child, the one at 5 years and 6 months, who in kindergarten is no doubt driving his dear and dedicated teacher to her professional wits end. This same child is the one I LOVE above all others.

    This little WonderBoy was born 4 weeks early, in an emergency induction. He was slow to walk and slow to talk….. at 5.5 he does both of those with ease. He is the youngest in his kindergarten classroom — why on earth anyone would think that he could grasp the sounds of letters at this point would be beyond me. Yet those are the dittos that he brings home daily. He would be the child in the cartoon. Time will tell if kindergarten ‘burns-out’ his natural sense of inquisitiveness, his love of all things in the natural world, particularly those that fly & swim.

    I am very grateful for your insightful post. It should be required reading for every elected official generating standards regarding education. I believe my WonderBoy will read and write on his own time-table, just like he learned to walk and talk. I’m willing to bet that it will be outside of the norms and expectations of his school district and that’s a sad indication of education in this country today.

    1. Hi, Debbie! Thank you for coming by. The story about your grandchild is very precious. He is the type of kid I was thinking about as I wrote this. It will be exciting to see how he grows and progresses throughout the years!

  3. It is very tough for teachers when the student is not able to grasp things up. I believe that a teacher must not feel bad when one student is not performing, there are other students who are getting stars. When I was an IELTS tutor there were students with different levels of knowledge. Those who were poor at English took a great deal of time in performing in all the sections while those who were already good at English came out very well within the first few weeks. So, it depends on the students ability.

    1. Hi, Leonor! You are right: all of our students have different levels of knowledge. There’s no reason for us (or them) to feel badly about that fact, because guilt doesn’t produce anything positive. Better to be accepting of where we are at in our teaching, and where students are at in their progress, and move on from there!

  4. Yes, there are some slow learners in every class irrespective of the age. When it comes to small children it really gets tough as some students my suffer from dyslexia or any other disorder that is identifiable at a older age. I believe this teacher is making great efforts to help out her student. Hope she gets some way working.

  5. My heart goes out for that teacher who is trying so hard for this student. There are bright students and dull as well and teaching both together is a real challenge. I feel that in this process the teacher must be confident so that she can explore ways to help her weak student out.

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