A reader asks if teachers must focus on students with the lowest skills. Here’s how four star teachers answered

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?”

(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 — all of whom have earned the prestigious National Board Certification and 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…

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