By Jennifer Orr

“That’s a good school.” I’ve heard people say that many times. If the speaker’s child attends the school in question, it’s possible they have many reasons for such an assertion. If not, chances are good they are basing the statement on test scores.

Test scores are certainly one way to determine the quality of a school; an easy, simplistic way. Using test scores as the measure of quality results in a certain set of schools being deemed failing, mostly schools serving students living in poverty. Not only are such schools considered to be failing, but the students and teachers there are as well.

If, instead of considering test scores, one looks closely at the teaching in various schools, I believe the labels would look quite different.

I have spent my 17 years of teaching in Title I schools at which more than 75% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Similar numbers of students are English Language Learners.

Our students often speak two or more languages, help their families navigate bureaucracies, care for younger siblings, and support the family in a variety of ways. Our students are skilled and smart in many different ways. Unfortunately, those ways aren’t always reflected in school-related skills or on standardized assessments.

Spend some time in ‘failing’ and ‘successful’ schools. Watch how the time is spent. Look carefully at the instruction. In schools in which students struggle to pass tests, you will find consistent, thoughtful instruction. Teachers in such schools have to make sure every activity and every lesson is well designed and meaningful. Not to say teachers in ‘successful’ schools don’t do so as well, but the urgency is not the same.

A quick search online for elementary activities and projects will result in some fun, cute activities. Activities you might see in many schools. Word searches on scientific topics are fun, but it’s not clear they do much to support deep learning on the topic. Colonial Days are fond memories for many, but I wonder what people learned from them beyond how people dressed and what they ate. Colonial Days happen at ‘successful’ schools. They aren’t successful because of their Colonial Days, they have the time for such events because their students are lucky enough to come in prepared for typical school skills and assessments.

At ‘failing’ schools you won’t often see Colonial Days or science fairs or cute projects. Click To Tweet

At ‘failing’ schools you won’t often see Colonial Days or science fairs or cute projects. You’ll see guided reading groups digging into and discussing books, students writing and sharing what they wrote, math games being played in a way that includes a conversation about numbers and learning. You’ll see teachers working with students, as a class, in a small group, or one-on-one, but always working with students. You’ll see classes waiting in line for a bathroom break playing a math game. In P.E. students will be skip counting as they do warm up exercises. Every minute will be accounted for and a part of meaningful learning. It has to be.

You may see these same things in ‘successful’ schools, but not as consistently. The urgency simply isn’t there. The best teaching is happening in our ‘worst’ schools.

The best teaching is happening in our ‘worst’ schools. Click To Tweet

Bio: Jennifer Orr is an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, Va. She was selected as a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader and was a panelist at ASCD’s fall 2014 Whole Child Symposium on teacher leadership. Connect with her on Twitter at @jenorr.

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