In our latest Education Lab IQ feature, we answer the question: “Is it true that teachers must concentrate their teaching on the lowest common denominator of learning capability in each classroom?”

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(Note: As this school year started, Education Lab asked readers what questions were high on their minds. This is the seventh one we’ve answered in our Education Lab IQ series — find the others at seattletimes.com/tag/education-lab-iq)

Not all first-graders entered class this fall with the same level of ability and skills. Neither did all second-graders, or high-school seniors. How do teachers create lessons for a wide range of needs? Reader and retired teacher Richard Pelto wondered whether they end up focusing on students who need the most help — which is what one principal once told him to do.

“Is it true,” he asked, “that teachers must concentrate their teaching on the lowest common denominator of learning capability in each classroom?”

To answer that question, Education Lab talked with four teachers — three of whom have earned the prestigious National Board Certification and all of whom have been honored as regional or statewide teachers of the year.

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Here’s what they said, edited for length and clarity.

Nathan Bowling, 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, finalist for National Teacher of the Year, teacher at Lincoln High in Tacoma and host of  the Nerd Farmer podcast

“If I aim at the lowest common denominator, I am going to disengage nearly all of my students … If we look at a classroom where there are behavior issues, we’re looking at a classroom where students aren’t all engaged. If you lose your high-functioning students, you’re going to have chaos in your classroom.”

“If you’re aiming at the bottom, you’re not serving kids. If you’re not differentiating, you’re not teaching. You have to have points of entry appropriate for all students.”

“I try to aim for the high end of the middle range … and have my high-flying students do some co-teaching with me. One of the reasons I know government so well is that I teach it and if you teach it you’ll remember it almost always. I often rely on my high-achieving students to create context and to paraphrase and translate for lower-functioning students.”

“The metaphor that I come to is equity versus equality. If I have one student who is starving to death, and one who is dying of thirst — if I give both of them a sandwich, I’m not filling the need of the child who needs water. Differentiation means some kids need a sandwich sometimes and some need a sandwich and water.”

When asked whether it takes a lot of time to craft lessons that meet the needs of all students, Bowling agrees it does. “But that’s the work, that’s why they pay me the medium bucks.”

Melissa Charette, a special-education teacher in the Olympia School District and a 2018 Regional Teacher of the Year

Charette said she loves this question because working with students of varied abilities is what she does every day as a special-education teacher. She aims to help all students reach the state’s learning standards, but offers them many ways to do that.

“I focus on modification because that’s my realm. I figure out different ways to teach (the material) to my students so they are successful … whether that’s through pictures, or through sign language, or working with general-education peers …”

She outlines a set of goals for each student and when they reach them, moves on to the next set.

“It is more work, but it’s the right thing to do and if you’re kid-focused and want (students) to succeed then it’s worth it. “

When asked for an example, she talked about what she sometimes does on tests with fill-in-the-blank questions.  For some students, she puts a list of words above the question so students don’t have to pull from their memories.

“If they know what the answer is, it will still come from the word bank, it’s there.”

Many general-education teachers, she said, haven’t learned how to differentiate extensively since it’s not their area of expertise, hence the need to build relationships with special education teachers. “Every year, I learn different methods and I’ve been doing this 19 years. I think it’s seeing other people do it, and realizing that it’s successful.”

Camille Jones, K-3 schoolwide enrichment and highly capable teacher at Pioneer Elementary in the central Washington town of Quincy, and 2017 Washington State Teacher of the Year.

The question, she said, is a little bit complicated. “I definitely don’t think teachers have to do that … but I do think it’s a challenge given the way our accountability system has been set up.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (in place from 2001 through 2015), schools were judged by how many of their students passed state reading and math tests.

“That forced teachers to make sure that every student is achieving this minimum. It hasn’t put a lot of emphasis on teachers thinking about how students can grow beyond that.”

“I used to be a third-grade teacher in a school that was struggling. When I first got there … and if students weren’t getting the math content, we said, ‘let’s give them a little more.’ “ She’s seen that happen at many schools across the state — to the point where subjects like science, social studies, and the arts are greatly reduced or eliminated from the daily schedule,

“We need to do a better job as a system of looking for students’ strengths. We spend so much time on how they’re failing …”

That’s worked for Jones. She started out with four students in her first grade STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) enrichment courses. Now she has 40-50 who qualify to participate throughout the year.

Jon Magnus, French teacher at Wenatchee High in Wenatchee, Wash., and a 2018 Regional Teacher of the Year.

Before Magnus became a French teacher, he ran his own business in Europe.

His answer to Pelto’s question? “Absolutely not.”

“To me, an educator who is truly effective at the art of teaching … strives daily to meet the needs of all learners in the classroom.”

“Some students struggle academically. Others, who are excellent scholars, struggle because of challenges they are facing in their personal lives.”

“As teachers, we need to establish authentic relationships of trust with our students to better understand and meet their individual learning needs. I also believe that we need to shift our focus from scores and testing to learning. This is an important issue for me … we have gone very far in the pursuit of using data to measure the success of our students, and in that pursuit, we’ve lost our way a bit.”

“Coming from the business world, I understand how vital it is to collect data to affect change.” But in schools “too often, that data is driving teachers to teach to the test.”

“We’ve forgotten that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive. It’s imperative that students experience the joy of learning. When that becomes our focus, test scores fall into place.”

This story, originally published Dec. 13, has been corrected.  Three of the four teachers have National Board Certification, not all of them.