A colleague of mine recently mentioned that she really learned to teach when she arrived at our school. She spent the first few years of her career at another school, just down the road from ours. It has a very different population. It's in a middle class neighborhood and hosts one of our district's gifted and talented centers (meaning that children from a number of schools are bused there to be in special, accelerated classes).
When she came to our school she realized that she had to raise the bar for her teaching. I'm not saying that her teaching was bad before, it wasn't. I am saying that I believe the majority of students in schools like her previous one will learn, and learn fairly well, even with mediocre teachers. That's not to say that they don't deserve fabulous teachers, they do. All kids do. Simply that they don't rely on them the way our students do.
The students in our Title I school are missing many of the advantages those other students have. Many of our kids are hungry. About 2/3 of our students receive free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches. Many of our kids don't have books at home. They may have parents who struggle with reading, especially with reading in English. Many of our kids have led exceptionally mobile lives. They have not had the opportunity to remain in one place for multiple school years. That lack of stability has hurt their learning.
There are many other issues facing our children. As a result of all of this, how we teach matters immensely. We can't assign a project asking students to build a model of the Susan Constant (one of the boats that brought settlers to Jamestown) and expect that they have learned all they need to know about Jamestown. We can't just hand them a book about insects and assume that they know how to make sense of a nonfiction book. We can't just give them a worksheet of multiplication problems and send them off to work. We can't make assumptions and expect that they will learn regardless.
We do lots of fun learning, but it is all carefully planned. We are focused on the skills our children need, what they already are able to do, and how we can move them forward. We are constantly taking anecdotal notes to help us plan the next lesson or next unit. We are constantly talking to one another about individual children and how we can meet their needs. We are constantly learning ourselves; reading professionally, taking classes, reading blogs, and listening to podcasts. The level of instruction at our school is higher than at many middle class schools. Because it has to be.
If you want to see powerful, meaningful instruction taking place, look for schools teaching struggling learners. The students may not be scoring on standardized tests as well as their middle class peers, but I'd bet they're making more progress on a daily basis thanks to their hard work and their teachers' dedication.