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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. A-
    This post really made me stop and think. I too obsess over the children I feel I’m not reaching. It’s not that I never considered developmental levels And readiness….it’s just not acceptable for me to tell a parent or principal ” oh it’s okay, Johnny will learn to read when he’s ready. Let’s just let him tell us when he’s ready and in the meantime ill just stop putting literature in his face” absurd and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have a job! But, if documentation supports all the strategies tried…admitting readiness might be plausible. I just don’t know if it’s in the cards for me. Regardless of odds, I’d die trying (just like you all!!)

    1. I hear you–the way school is set up, it is very hard to tell parents that it’s okay for kids to be “behind”…and it’s impossible to a tell a principal that.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot this year…in teaching kindergarten, I’m facing children with vastly different abilities in September, and trying to bring them all up to the same speed by June (and this pays no attention to any students who may be ahead of the curve!). Of course, all of my theoretical knowledge of differentiation finally gets put to good use but it’s still a huge challenge. It makes me nostalgic for my 1.5 years in special education, where the entire focus could be placed on one particular need at a time (for just one or a small group of students). Definitely has its perks.

  3. There is an Indian movie on Netflix called Taare Zameen Par, that I think you would love. It fits perfectly in this discussion, showing what a kid goes through when not meeting school, family, and peer expectations. It also gives one approach, through art, to help the kid through this ‘impossible’ situation.

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