Log In to your EdNext Account UPDATES BY RSS | E-MAIL | TWITTER SUBSCRIBE to EdNext ADVERTISE in EdNextHOMETHE JOURNALARCHIVESTOPICSBLOGMULTIMEDIAMYEDNEXTEDFACTS Search All Together Now?Educating high and low achievers in the same classroomBy Michael Petrilli54 COMMENTS | PRINT | PDF | SHAREWINTER 2011 / VOL. 11, NO. 1
Video: Education Next talks with Mike Petrilli.The greatest challenge facing America‘s schools today isn‘t the budgetcrisis, or standardized testing, or ―teacher quality.‖ It‘s the enormousvariation in the academic level of students coming into any givenclassroom. How we as a country handle this challenge says a lot about ourvalues and priorities, for good and ill. Unfortunately, the issue has becomeenmeshed in polarizing arguments about race, class, excellence, and equity.What‘s needed instead is some honest, frank discussion about the trade-offsassociated with any possible solution.U.S. students are all over the map in terms of achievement (see Figure 1).By the 4th grade, public-school children who score among the top 10percent of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP) are reading at least six grade levels above those in the bottom 10percent. For a teacher with both types of students in her classroom, thatmeans trying to challenge kids ready for middle-school work while at thesame time helping others to decode. Even differences between students atthe 25th and at the 75th percentiles are huge—at least three grade levels. So
if you‘re a teacher, how the heck do you deal with that?
In the old days, ―ability grouping‖ and tracking provided the answer: you‘dbreak your students into reading groups, with the bluebirds in one corner,tackling advanced materials at warp speed, and the redbirds in another,slowly making their way through basic texts. Likewise for mathematics.And in middle and high school, you‘d continue this approach with separatetracks: ―challenge‖ or ―honors‖ for the top kids, ―regular‖ or ―on-level‖ forthe average ones, and ―remedial‖ for the slowest. Teachers could targettheir instruction to the level of the group or the class, and since similarstudents were clustered together, few kids were bored or totally left behind.Then came the attack on tracking. A flurry of books in the 1970s and 1980sargued that confining youngsters to lower tracks hurt their self-esteem andlife chances, and was elitist and racist to boot. Jeanne Oakes‘s 1985opus, Keeping Track, was particularly effective in sparking an anti-trackingmovement that swept through the nation‘s schools.According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, this advocacy ledto fundamental changes at breakneck speed. In a report for the Thomas B.Fordham Institute last year, he wrote,An eighth grader in the early 1990s attended middle schools offering atleast two distinct tracks in [each of] English language arts, history, andscience. Mathematics courses were organized into three or more tracks. Theeighth grader of 2008, however, attended schools with much less tracking.English language arts, history, and science are essentially detracked, i.e.,schools typically offer a single course that serves students at every level ofachievement and ability. Mathematics usually features two tracks, oftenalgebra and a course for students not yet ready for algebra.One of the reasons that detracking advocates claimed so many victories isthat they painted their pet reform as a strategy in which everybody wins.Oakes and others insisted that detracking would help the lowest-performing students (who would enjoy better teachers, a more challenginglevel of instruction, and exposure to their higher-achieving peers) while nothurting top students. But by the mid-1990s, researchers started to compileevidence that this happy outcome was just wishful thinking.In 1995, scholars Dominic Brewer, Daniel Rees, and Laura Argys analyzedtest-score results for high-school students in tracked and detrackedclassrooms, and found benefits of tracking for advanced students. Theywrote in theKappan magazine, ―The conventional wisdom on whichdetracking policy is often based—that students in low-track classes (whoare drawn disproportionately from poor families and from minority groups)are hurt by tracking while others are largely unaffected—is simply notsupported by very strong evidence.‖
And this was before the policy incentives shifted sharply to prioritize low-achieving students. In another study for the Fordham Institute, Lovelessfound a clear pattern in the late 1990s when states adopted accountabilityregimes: the performance of the lowest decile of students shot up, while theachievement of the top 10 percent of students stagnated. That‘s notsurprising; these accountability systems, like No Child Left Behind (NCLB)in 2002, pushed schools to get more students over a low performance bar.They provided few incentives to accelerate the academic growth of studentsat the top.This dynamic might have been most pernicious for minority students.Earlier this year, an Indiana University study found that the ―ExcellenceGap,‖ the racial achievement gap at NAEP‘s advanced level, widened duringthe NCLB era. One possible explanation is that high-achieving minoritystudents are likely to attend schools with lots of low-achieving students,and their teachers are focused on helping children who are far behindrather than those ready to accelerate ahead.The Power of PeersThe attack on tracking also claimed an innocent bystander: abilitygrouping, which became suspect in many circles, too. Yet in recent years,the ―peer effects‖ literature has shown the benefits of grouping students ofsimilar abilities together. One clever study, by economists Scott Imberman,Adriana Kugler, and Bruce Sacerdote, looked at the fallout from HurricanesRita and Katrina. They wanted to know what happened when students whowere evacuated from New Orleans ended up in schools in Houston. Theyfound that the arrival of low-achieving evacuees dragged down the averageperformance of the Houston students and had a particularly negativeimpact on high-achieving Houston kids. Meanwhile, high-achievingevacuees had a positive effect on local students. As Bruce Sacerdote toldme, ―The high-achieving kids seemed to be the most sensitive. They doparticularly well by having high-achieving peers. And they are particularlyharmed by low-achieving peers.‖ He added, ―I‘ve become a believer intracking.‖In 2006, Caroline Hoxby and Gretchen Weingarth examined the WakeCounty (North Carolina) Public School System. For the better part of twodecades, the district, in and around Raleigh, had been reassigning numbersof students to new schools every year in order to keep its schools raciallyand socioeconomically balanced. That created thousands of naturalexperiments in which the composition of classrooms changed dramatically,and randomly, and that, in turn, provided Hoxby and Weingarth an
opportunity to investigate the impact of these changes on studentachievement.They found evidence for what they called the ―boutique model‖ of peereffects, ―a model in which students do best when the environment is madeto cater to their type.‖ When school reassignments resulted in the arrival ofstudents with either very low or very high achievement, this boosted thetest scores of other students with very low or very high achievement,probably because it created a critical mass of students at the sameachievement level, and schools could better focus attention on theirparticular needs.Does that mean students should be sharply sequestered by ability? Notexactly. Here‘s how Hoxby and Weingarth put it in their conclusion: ―Ourevidence does not suggest that complete segregation of people, by types, isoptimal. This is because (a) people do appear to benefit from interactingwith peers of a higher type and (b) people who are themselves high typesappear to receive sufficient benefit from interacting with peers a bit belowthem that there is little reason to isolate them completely. What ourevidence does suggest is that efforts to create interactions between lowerand higher types ought to maintain continuity of types.‖In other words, a little bit of variation is okay. But when the gap is toowide—say, six grade levels in reading—nobody wins.Enter Differentiated InstructionSo if grouping all students together leads to pernicious effects, but divvyingkids up by ability is politically unacceptable, what‘s the alternative? The ed-school world has an answer: ―differentiated instruction.‖ The notion is thatone teacher instructs a diverse group of kids, but manages to reach eachone at precisely the appropriate level. The idea, according to CarolTomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to ―shake up what goes onin the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking ininformation, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.‖Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level. Every childreceives a unique curriculum that meets that individual‘s exact needs. Ateacher might even make specialized homework assignments, or providethe specific one-on-one help that a particular kid requires.If you think that sounds hard to do, you‘re not alone. I asked HollyHertberg-Davis, who studied under Tomlinson and is now her colleague atUVA, if differentiated instruction was too good to be true. Can teachersactually pull it off? ―My belief is that some teachers can but not all teacherscan,‖ she answered.
Hertberg-Davis worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiatedinstruction. Teachers were provided with extensive professionaldevelopment and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researcherswanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But theywere stumped. ―We couldn‘t answer the question,‖ Hertberg-Davis told me,―because no one was actually differentiating.‖Teachers admit to being flummoxed by this approach. In a 2008 nationalsurvey commissioned by the Fordham Institute, more than 8 in 10 teacherssaid differentiated instruction was ―very‖ or ―somewhat‖ difficult toimplement. Even ed-school professors are skeptical. A 2010 nationalrandom survey of teacher educators asked them the same question and gotthe same result: more than 8 in 10 said differentiated instruction was veryor somewhat difficult to implement.But that doesn‘t mean it‘s impossible. I was curious to see differentiatedinstruction in action, so I visited my local elementary school in TakomaPark, Maryland. Piney Branch Elementary serves an incredibly diversegroup of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, from the children of übereducated whiteand black middle-class families, to poor immigrant children from LatinAmerica, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, to low-income African American kids. I sat down with theschool‘s principal, Bertram ―Mr. G.‖ Generlette, who has the friendly, laid-back manner of his native Antigua. I cut right to the chase. I‘m wondering if
I‘d be making a mistake to send my son to a school like Piney Branch. Is itgoing to slow him down if his classmates are several years behind or stilllearning the language? (Of course, not all poor or minority children arelow-achieving, nor are all white students high-achieving. Still, achievementgaps being what they are, the range of academic diversity does tend to belarger at schools with lots of racial and social diversity.)It was pretty obvious that Mr. G. had heard these questions before,particularly from white folks like me. I asked him if that was the case.―Parents come in, yes,‖ he told me. ―They are new to the neighborhood. Ortheir child is in kindergarten, or they are moving from private school. Aftera few minutes, you get the idea.‖ However, he said with a sly grin, ―theyvery rarely ask the question directly.‖But he wasn‘t afraid to answer me directly. ―We are committed todiversity,‖ he started. ―It‘s a lens through which we see everything. We lookat test scores. How are students overall? And how are different groupsdoing? It‘s easy to see. Our white students are performing high. What canwe do to keep pushing that performance up? For African American andHispanic students, what can we do to make gains?‖Since Mr. G.‘s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5thgraders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. ForHispanic children, it‘s up from 46 to 74 percent. It‘s true that scoresstatewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.And there‘s no evidence that white students have done any worse over thistime. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived,33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the statemath test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white studentsoutscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.What‘s his secret? Was he grouping students ―homogeneously,‖ so all thehigh-achieving kids learned together, and the slower kids got extra help?―There‘s no such thing as a homogenous group,‖ Mr. G. shot back. ―One kidis a homogeneous group. As soon as you bring another student in, you havedifferences. The question is: how do you capitalize on the differences?‖Well, that sounds OK in theory. But come on, Mr. G., how are you going tomake sure my kid doesn‘t get slowed down?―My job as a principal is to let my parents know that your child will get theservices they need,‖ he answered patiently. ―We are going to make sure thatevery child is getting pushed to a maximum level. That‘s my commitment.‖And that‘s when I was introduced to the incredibly nuanced and elaborateefforts that Piney Branch makes to differentiate instruction, challenge everychild, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms.
So how do they do it? First, every homeroom has a mixed group ofstudents: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents thediversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then,during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time insmall groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirdsare back!) However, in the new lingo of differentiated instruction, the staffworks hard to make sure these groups are fluid—a child in a slower readinggroup can get bumped up to a faster one once progress is made.For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneousclassrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middlestudents in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shufflingthe kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school‘s 3rd-grade math classes,for example, is tackling the district‘s 5th-grade math curriculum. (Becauseof large achievement gaps at the school, these math classes are moreracially and socioeconomically homogeneous than the student populationas a whole.)The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies ortaking ―specials‖ like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneousclassrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to ―differentiateinstruction,‖ which often means separating the kids back into homogeneousgroups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to thehigher-achieving students.It sounds like some sort of elaborate Kabuki dance to me, but it appears tosucceed on several counts. All kids spend most of the day getting challengedat their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that‘s entirely segregatedby race or class.Reading WarTest scores indicate that the strategy is working, too, but that doesn‘t meanall parents have been thrilled. Three years ago, Mr. G. told me, a group ofwhite parents pushed to get the school to move to homogeneous classroomsfor reading as well as math. ―Parents felt that the only way to get kids toread at a high level was to have other kids around them who read at a highlevel,‖ he explained. (That didn‘t sound so unreasonable to me.) ―We had alot of meetings. The staff overwhelmingly supported the diverse approach,the heterogeneous approach. That was good for me as an administratorbecause the staff was behind me.‖I tracked down one of the ―troublemaker‖ parents. Her name is Sue KatzMiller and she personifies much of what makes Takoma Park great: she‘s
smart, she‘s an activist, and she‘s committed to helping make the city awelcoming community for families of all incomes and backgrounds. (Aneighbor of mine called her ―a force of nature.‖) A formerNewsweek reporterand now a regular columnist for The Takoma Voice, she spent two years asPTA president at Piney Branch and is an enthusiastic booster of the schooland its diversity. ―My kids have both benefited enormously from being in aPiney Branch social milieu,‖ she told me.But the reading decision still sticks in her craw. ―Why is it OK,‖ she asked,―to have homogeneous grouping in math and not have it in reading? Theanswer you get is: well, we can‘t do both, they would be switching classes allthe time, it would be like middle school and they won‘t be able to handleit…. It‘s a huge disservice to the kids who are ready for rigor in thehumanities and are not math kids. It‘s bizarre. We‘ve said we‘re going toaccommodate kids in math but not in reading. It‘s completely insane as faras I‘m concerned. It makes me angry.‖She lost that battle, but Mr. G. and his teachers didn‘t ignore the parents‘concerns, either. He went out and found reading programs suitable foradvanced students, like William and Mary, Junior Great Books, and Jacob‘sLadder. He trained his teachers on these programs, ensuring that thestudents in the top reading groups would be challenged with difficultmaterial. (The teachers loved it.) He tried hard to live up to his promise topush all students as far as they could go.Competing for Kids
Mr. G. and Piney Branch face some healthy competition. MontgomeryCounty offers a half-dozen ―Centers for the Highly Gifted,‖ magnet schoolsthat are designed for supersmart kids and located in elementary buildingsthroughout the district. Pine Crest, just a few miles away from PineyBranch, hosts one such center, and an increasing number of Piney Branch3rd graders were testing into it for 4th and 5th grades.A year ago, 25 Piney Branch kids were accepted—more than any otherelementary school in the district. If they all took up the offer, Mr. G. said,―That‘s a teacher walking out of my building.‖So in 2009–10, in cooperation with the district, Piney Branch launched apilot program to bring the ―Highly Gifted Center‖ curriculum into itsclassrooms. This wasn‘t easy; there wasn‘t a curriculum, per se, at thecenters. Teachers had the freedom to do what they wanted. So the districthelped the teachers put down on paper everything they were doing in theclassroom.Mr. G. arranged to have a 4th-grade and a 5th-grade teacher trained on theHighly Gifted approach, and formed a ―cluster group‖ of gifted students intheir classrooms. This means that, in one classroom in each of these grades,there are 12 or so gifted students, along with another 12 or so ―on-level‖kids. While they are taught together some of the day, they are frequentlybroken into small groups, so the gifted kids can learn together at anaccelerated pace.Pulling this off takes an energetic and gifted educator; 4th-grade teacherFolakemiMosadomi, who has the gifted group in her classroom, appears tofit the bill perfectly. Now in her 5th year of teaching (all of them at PineyBranch under Mr. G.), Ms. M. acknowledged that differentiating instructionin this way requires ―extensive planning and training,‖ not to mentionsomeone who is well-organized and creative. But even that‘s not alwaysenough.In the first year of the pilot, she had four different reading groups in oneclassroom, from kids still learning English to the highly gifted students. ―Iwent from sounding out the ‗A‘ sound with one group, to talking to anothergroup about how the Exxon Valdez oil spill was like the Battle ofNormandy.‖ That range was simply too much for one teacher to handle—remember Caroline Hoxby‘s finding about ―continuity of types?‖—so thenext year she had just two groups: the gifted students, and the next leveldown. ―Now it‘s easier to do more with both groups of students together,‖she told me.And the strategy seems to be working in one important way: last year,about half of the gifted children chose to stay at Piney Branch.
Fragile CompromiseSo with a well-trained and dedicated staff, and lots of support,―differentiated instruction‖ canbe brought to life. But even at Piney Branch,which benefits from the vast resources of a huge, affluent school system inMontgomery County, Maryland, it sure seems rickety, held with lots of ducttape and chewing gum, and subject to collapse without just the right staffand parent support.If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids toachieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it wouldprobably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace ―abilitygrouping‖ and homogenous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip allthe gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, andsocioeconomically diverse throughout the day. But Piney Branchunderstandably seeks to balance its concerns for academic growth with itsinterest in maintaining an integrated environment, so this uneasycompromise is probably the best it can do.Piney Branch and Ms. M. might be able to pull it off. But how many PineyBranches and Ms. M.‘s are there?Technology may someday alleviate the need for such compromises. Withthe advent of powerful online learning tools, such as those on display inNew York City‘s School of One, students might be able to receiveinstruction that‘s truly individualized to their own needs—differentiation onsteroids.Perhaps. But until that time, our schools will have to wrestle with the age-old tension between ―excellence‖ and ―equity.‖ And that tension will beresolved one homogeneous or heterogeneous classroom at a time.
Michael J. Petrilli is executive editor of Education Next, research fellow atStanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a vice president at the Thomas B.Fordham Institute. He is working on a book for parents considering diverse publicschools like Piney Branch.RELATED EDNEXT ARTICLES The Hazards of the Great Example To YouTube and Beyond Digital Discipline Behind the Headline: Who Should Be in the Gifted Program? Alabama School Choice Decision as Theater of the Absurd Behind the Headline: Read It, and Finally, Dont Weep Emphasize Civic Responsibility and Good Citizenship Focus on Higher-Order Literacy Skills Action Civics It Can Be DoneCOMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE AnthonyGuzzaldo says:11/18/2010 at 11:15 amAre there are studies on differentiation in high school?I am a differentiation skeptic because of the incredible amount of work ittakes to pull off correctly, especially at the secondary level. But, when I askfor examples of cases where differentiation has been feasible andsuccessful, I am only given examples of elementary classes and schools.The differences between elementary and secondary instruction are great, asis the disparity between the highest and lowest achievers at the secondarylevel. I just do not see how it would be possible for one person to tailor theirinstruction to individual students in a given class at the secondary level. Susan Katz Miller says:11/18/2010 at 7:08 pmAs I‘m sure Mr. G recalls, it was not a group of ―white parents‖ who pushedfor more accommodation of fluent readers and writers. It was a diversegroup of parents, including African-Americans Denise Jones, Mia Allen andDenyse Hamilton, who signed letters, attended meetings, and lobbied overmany years to achieve some balance between the extreme grouping and
acceleration in math, and the total lack of grouping in reading. What weshare is not race, but the desire to make sure the public school inspiresstudents at each point on the unusually broad academic spectrum at PineyBranch. We also shared a desire to staunch the flow of talented students outof our local school. While it is not a perfect solution, I am proud of our rolein bringing the Highly Gifted pilot to Piney Branch.Sue Katz Miller Rich says:11/18/2010 at 9:01 pmAnthony: Differentiation is the norm in Montessori-model schools, so Ihave to believe it can be made to work. The model goes nominally through―8th grade‖ but the curriculum covers much of what we would considerhigh school level work. Unfortunately, in the US there are relatively fewMontessori schools above the preschool level…and those that do exist oftenface pressures to pervert the model, e.g. by assigning ―normal‖ homework.—Switching gears: a factor that is not investigated in this article, however,what I might call ―non-academic‖ ability in the student population. Mychild was in parent participation schools, up through 3rd grade, and I wasconsistently amazed at how much ultimately hung on the self-control levelof the students. A kindergarten classroom where the students had notalready had a couple of years of preschool was a nearly-unmanageable zoo.And at higher grades, tracking showed up in other forms (e.g. theAsperger‘s kid and the twice-exceptional one, both mainstreamed) exerteda substantial drag on everything. The less able the students are to perform atask and stay on it independently, the harder it becomes to differentiate.What this suggests is that a wealthy school district–where the kids arelikely to have had preschool experiences, and more money is available foraides and other special services–has the potential to accomplish a lot more(for everyone) than a poorer school district. Perhaps the first things weneed to accomplish are remediation of self-management skills for kids whoare weak in that area, and creation of different kinds of environments thatcan adequately accommodate kids who are outside-the-box. Joye Walker says:11/18/2010 at 10:59 pmI agree with Anthony Guzzaldo‘s skepticism about differentiatedinstruction. There is just no way to get it accomplished in high school withevery student emerging with necessary knowledge and skills to go to thenext level of math, especially with 30+ students in a classroom. In many
ways, high school math is tracked by course, though certainly students ofvarying ability levels might coexist in, say, an algebra 2 class. However, ifthey are to be successful in precalculus, they can‘t be skipping topics ormaking choices about what to study or hazing over/watering down in anyway the topics of algebra 2. Allowing this sort of diminished expectation is adisservice to the students and sets them up for failure at the next level. Imight add that studies of effectiveness of programs are always suspect inmy mind because of the fairly large amount of private tutoring andsupportive instruction outside of school received by those children whohave parents of means. Ineffective curricula and instruction usually leadparents who are educated and have resources to hire tutors or work withtheir children themselves to fill in the holes they see in the learning process.In my opinion, this contributes to the achievement gap. Having consistenthigh expectations of all students is a must, starting in the lowest grades andcontinuing all the way through the K-12 system. LydaAstrove says:11/19/2010 at 8:47 amRich said:―Perhaps the first things we need to accomplish are remediation of self-management skills for kids who are weak in that area, and creation ofdifferent kinds of environments that can adequately accommodate kids whoare outside-the-box.‖We used to have those different kinds of environments here in MontgomeryCounty Public Schools until Jerry Weast embarked on a wholesaledismantling of special education…and the Board of Education let him do it.Rich, as a parent of a son with autism, it saddens me that anyone wouldview a child with disabilities as a ―substantial drag on everything.‖ All themore reason to ensure that our local school system provides a ―continuumof alternative placements‖ for kids with disabilities so that, if necessary,their needs can be met in a different setting.And we already know that differentiation for kids with significant learningchallenges isn‘t happening in Montgomery County Public Schools: theirown Office of Shared Accountability said so:http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/sharedaccountability/reports/2009/LC%20Transition%20Final%20Report%20Feb%2009%2009.pdfSee specifically page 14. FrederickStichnoth says:11/19/2010 at 9:19 am
With reference to your first paragraph: is there ―enormous variation‖ inevery classroom, or are some variations more enormous than others?I‘m pretty sure that the variation is broader in Takoma Park than in theBethesda and Potomac homes of your Private Public Schools. So I questionwhether it is even meaningful to talk about differentiation at Cold SpringES (FARMS 0.49%). Differentiation is a Takoma Park tactic, not a Potomactactic (as we say in MoCo, a red zone, not a green zone, tactic).Differentiation is the fall back when MCPS has chosen to optimize racial,ethnic and SES integration of red zone classroom chairs (it‘s visible–theoptics of integration). But it deprives the most able of Takoma ParkAfrican-American, Hispanic, poor, and white students of the educationaland life opportunities they would have in Potomac. (Please re-read HeatherSchwartz‘s ―Housing Policy is School Policy.‖)It is thus ironic that a tactic for visible integration of Takoma Park chairscontributes to our less visible two school systems, separate and unequal;and exacerbates housing segregation according to wealth. KatharineBeals says:11/19/2010 at 10:51 amAt many schools ―differentiated instruction‖ has come to mean mixedability groupings in which each student is assigned a different subtask. Toquote one example cited in the Harvard Education Letter:―To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlementfailed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advancedstudents may be ―producers‖ charged with stopping their group periodicallyto summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might beassigned to be ―prop directors‖ to keep track of supplies needed to make achart for the final presentation.‖There are so many problems with this sort of differentiated instruction thatit‘s hard to know where to begin. But clearly, this is not what Mr. P. and Mr.G mean here by ―differentiated instruction.‖ In Mr. P‘s words:―during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time insmall groups appropriate for their reading level.‖―All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students inanother, and the struggling kids in a third.‖Naturally, ―differentiated instruction‖ lends itself to many definitions. Butthere‘s a problem with using the term to describe the sorts of highlypromising, fluid yet homogenous, ability-based groupings discussed here.The problem is that proponents of the more ridiculous versions ofdifferentiated instruction will skim through this article through the prismof their ideological commitments, or encounter references to it by others
who share these commitments, and conclude that it supportsheterogeneous groupings with differentiated subtasks.Katharine Bealshttp://katharinebeals.com BarryGarelick says:11/19/2010 at 11:11 amMsBeals hits it right on the head. The principal‘s description of what hethinks of as differentiated instruction is ability grouping.Carol Ann Tomlinson, who promotes differentiated instruction provides adescription of what she thinks it is, in a book she co-wrote with JayMcTighe called ―Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understandingby Design. In a nutshell, sequence of topics and instruction doesn‘t matter.Each student constructs his or her own meaning at their own pace, by beingimmersed in what the authors term ―contextualized grappling with ideasand processes‖. Loosely translated, this giving students an assignment orproblem which forces them to learn what they need to know in order tocomplete the task. Say it is quadratic equations. Rather than teach them thevarious methods of factoring first, with the attendant drills leading tomastery, they might instead start with a problem such as x2 + 5x + 6 = 0.The teacher may then provide some activities that illustrate what factoringis, and then provide some exercises. The goal would be to factor the aboveequation into (x+3)(x+2) = 0 and, from there, lead the students to see thatthere are two values that satisfy the equation. This is what they mean by―contextualized grappling‖ as opposed to ―decontextualized drill andpractice‖. It is a ―just in time‖ approach to learning, (my choice of phrase,not theirs) in which the tools that students need to master are dictated bythe problem itself by not burdening the student‘s mental inventory with―mind numbing‖ drills for mastery of a concept or skill until it is actuallyneeded. In the example above, the teacher may differentiate instruction byassigning extra factoring problems for students having difficulty, andprovide instruction to the more capable students on how to solve quadraticequations by ―completing the square‖ for expressions that cannot befactored.The authors believe that ―Just in time‖ approaches that work as a model forbusiness inventory work equally well in education. The result is anapproach that is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in thedeep end of a pool and telling them to swim to the other side. For thestudents who may already know a bit about swimming, they may choose totake that opportunity to learn the butterfly. For the students who don‘tknow how to swim, the teacher might advise them to learn the breast stroke
and provide the much needed direct instruction which they may nowchoose to learn. Or not. Michelle Gluck says:11/19/2010 at 12:31 pmThis is an excellent article because it illustrates beautifully a fallacy ofdifferentiated instruction: When proponents of differentiation point tosuccesses, they point to programs like this one. But what is going on atPiney Branch is not differentiated instruction, it is cluster grouping byability. And it only works if the number of clusters per teacher is small (twoas opposed to four or five.) The success of Piney Branch does not provideany support for differentiated instruction as a successful tool for teachingheterogenous classrooms as integrated units.Notably absent from the long and wonderful description of Piney Branch‘spractice: any suggestion whatsoever that the higher-level students arelearning something academically meaningful from being grouped with theirlower-achieving peers,or vice versa. These students are thrivingacademically because they are spending the majority of their instructionalday grouped with ability peers, either in homogenous (math) classrooms orheterogenous cluster-grouped classrooms. The benefits they accrue fromheterogenous diversification of the classrooms are social and emotional,not academic. If we could find a way to achieve those social benefits fromintegration without sacrificing academic opportunities for higher-achievingstudents across the county, including in less heteregeneous communitiesthan Takoma Park, it would be a wonderful thing.Fred, your comment assumes that what happens in Bethesda and Potomacis like this — ability grouping — but in my experience what happens in thegreen zone schools hews much closer to the ―ideal description‖ of(ineffective) differentiated instruction than to ability grouping/clustergrouping. Higher-level students are not routinely getting higher level workin any subject except math, because they are grouped with lower-abilitypeers and treated as role models and peer instructors or just allowed toread for hours during the day while they wait for everyone else to finish thewhole-group assignment. The results aren‘t as dramatically evident becausethe middle point of those classrooms is higher, and therefore these abilityof the higher-level students to break out into advanced classes in middleschool and high school is less impeded than in red zone schools. Putanother way, differentiated instruction doesn‘t inflict as much damage inthe green zone as in the red because other factors compensate somewhat.But green zone students are are not spending their elementary school yearsgrouped by ability.
Regardless of whether one believes that forcing SES integration of schoolswould solve the problem of the vast differences among schools in the longterm (housing as school policy), in the short term cluster grouping byability would be better for everyone in both zones. Robert says:11/19/2010 at 5:01 pmi think this is a logically situated argument but pre-supposes that thestandardized tests are actually the single measure we want to use to assessstudent achievement. without getting too p21 here, there are other purposesof schooling besides filling in bubbles on lower-level rote memorizationtasks. Karen Paul-Stern says:11/21/2010 at 7:25 amI have had three children go through Piney Branch (the third is currently inthe wonderful FolakemiMosadomi‘s — mentioned in the article — 4th gradeclass this year. The oldest went through before Mr. G arrived and before the―differentiated learning‖ was in place, and I got down on my knees andblessed the ground for the tracking that was available when he reached ourlocal middle school. Today, that same middle school is moving rapidly awayfrom tracking and my middle child will be in more heterogeneousclassrooms throughout her three years there. But she had the benefit of theincredible ―cluster learning‖ or ―differentiated learning‖ that has beenchampioned by Mr. G. It has been a marvel to watch.Although I have strong feelings about the way Montgomery County forcefeeds accelerated math to all of its students (and which is a different issue),I have been delighted with the individualized attention my younger twochildren have received with the teachers at PBES. Each has needed to movein and out of reading groups, and of math classes, and their teachers havehad their fingers on the pulse of each of my childnren‘s needs every step ofthe way.I am neither an educator nor an education advocate, but I am the daughterof highly experienced and well regarded retired New York City schoolteacher, from whom I have conversations about my children‘s education allthe time. While my father is quite skeptical about the ability of schools totrain around and for teachers to properly learn how to implementdifferentiated learning in the classroom, he sees and understands that someform of it is working in my children‘s school and applauds it. And I see itworking every day in my kids‘ lives and today, I get down on my knees with
thanks to Mr. G and the PBES staff, who have turned this school around forALL of its students since my oldest son was there.I don‘t have anything but anecdotal evidence about the relative success ofthe cluster or differentiated learning style at Piney Branch, but I do see amarked change in feel of the school and in the incredible teaching team thathas been cultivated, trained and encouraged to look at each student‘s needs,no matter how hard it is to do, and ensure that that student is learning at alevel that is appropriate. The most remarkable thing about this approach isthat it brings the enrichment curricula, previously available only to thehighest achieving students, to all the students, regardless of ability. It istaken and taught at different levels. That in and of itself is an achievementof which to be proud. AnthonyGuzzaldo says:11/21/2010 at 10:05 am@Rich―Anthony: Differentiation is the norm in Montessori-model schools, so Ihave to believe it can be made to work.‖Why do you have to believe that? What research says the Montessori model―works‖ and what exactly does ―works‖ mean? Why do you assumeMontessori 8th grade curriculum ―covers‖ what students are supposed to bedoing in high school? How do you know Montessori students are choosingto ―cover‖ the same material? What does ―covers‖ even mean?The contention that the Montessori model would work at the secondarylevel carries as many assumptions and generalizations as the contentionthat we can differentiate properly at the secondary level. I‘m not evenconvinced of their success in the primary grades.I have yet to see a convincing argument or an ounce of research or evidencethat support these contentions. Rich says:11/21/2010 at 4:46 pm@Lyda: I apologize for distressing you. My comment ―a drag on everything‖was meant as an observation of the inadequacy of the classroomenvironment, not a comment on the children themselves and mostdefinitely not one that is meant to be applied beyond the classroom. Myown was one of the kids who was providing the ―drag,‖ in fact, and althoughwe tried hard to make school work for him, we eventually saw it as a lose-lose-lose for him, the teacher, and the other students.
@Anthony: I am not knowledgeable enough about Montessori methods tobe a proper advocate and did not know that I was being held to that high astandard here; I only offered it up as a possible existence proof. Cal says:11/21/2010 at 6:16 pmAs has been noted, this school is not differentiating, but ability grouping. Ashas also been observed, it is much more difficult to do this sort of clusteredability grouping at the high school level.I taught math and humanities last year, and differentiated reading/writingpractice successfully, although it took a huge amount of work in terms ofproducing copies of appropriate material (I didn‘t teach lessons, it was self-study). I began differentiating my geometry class halfway through the yearinformally.This year, I‘m teaching algebra to 120 kids, all but five of whom took it lastyear, and who have star test scores from Far Below Basic to Basic(Inexplicably, I began with many repeaters who had Proficient andAdvanced scores, but I all but drop kicked them out the door intogeometry).The range of abilities was so wide that I felt it was irresponsible to let thestrong kids read books or ―help‖ the other students. In two of my classes, Ihave 8-10 students who simply get a different lesson. Some days theysimply learn from the book, working independently on lessons that theother students will do with much help several weeks later. Other days theyhave challenge problems that force them to think through familiar math ina different way. Other times I create a handout that they work on and turninto me as a formative assessment. They get different tests, much moredifficult (with the understanding that they have an A in the class). They allsign on for this extra work, as I tell them that math isn‘t always going to beeasy, so I want them to be challenged now.It is very difficult to do, and only works with highly motivated kids. I don‘tthink I should have to do it, nor do I think it‘s good for any of the kids tomix abilities this widely. I am a strong proponent of ability grouping, and Iam deeply bothered by the politics that prevent us from doing what‘s bestfor all kids.I also think most teachers refuse to differentiate for perfectly good reasons.It‘s a lot of work, and I happen to be pretty good at planning andmultitasking in the manner that suits the sort of path I‘ve chosen. It‘sabsurd to expect teachers to do what I‘m choosing to do. Mick says:
11/22/2010 at 8:41 pmThank you, Mr. G, Ms. M, and the teachers striving to provide for theirstudents, regardless of ability level. This is a crucial step toward meetingthe needs of all students within the school system. In addition, thisapproach can accommodate students with uneven academic profiles byallowing them to be highly placed in math while staying at grade level inother subjects (a real problem in education today).However, I am skeptical as to whether or not such an approach as given inthis article would work for all potential students coming into a given class.For instance, could the ―high‖ level fourth grade math group adequatelychallenge the profoundly gifted 10-year-old who may be ready for algebraor even calculus? Following this, how would keeping a child in aheterogenous science course allow a fourth grader who devours physics orgenetics books by flashlight at night to progress in science? Could aprogram (or school, such as the Montessori ones) truly provide theflexibility required for such students? Challenge problems and beinggrouped with students a year or two ahead will not likely slake their thirstfor knowledge, nor will it provide an opportunity for them to stretch theirabilities and creativity.This is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to suffice as a means toeducate all children (especially those children left in other teachers‘classrooms for reading, who may not have a teacher willing to challengethem). Tuesday Tidbits, November 23, 2010 | Dacha.com says:11/23/2010 at 8:11 am[...] Next is out and is very much worth reading. I was particularlyinterested in Mike Petrilli‘s piece on differentiated instruction, somethingthat was covered in this blog a few weeks ago. The article put the spotlighton the good [...] karen says:11/23/2010 at 9:35 amWow, now I understand the author‘s comment on ―uber educated parents‖Clearly that are a lot of involved parents at PB and this makes a hugedifference.I have 3 kids involved in Fairfax/VA ―gifted‖ public education, so the articleis interesting, so many similarities with Fairfax.I was a bit surprised the Petrilli mentions Black, White, Hispanic, AfricanAmerican many times but never once mentions ―Asian‖, which is huge in
Fairfax ―Acheivement Gap‖ discussions. If you can leave ―Asian‖ out of thediscussion, I wonder why you can‘t just leave race out of it alltogether andfocus on the real issues that cause the disparity levels, which aresocioeconomic, (culture, history, education level, career, income of familyand prioritization of that inclome and other resources by parents) notracial.As for differentiation, I see teachers in my 8th grader‘s Gifted Center dothis by assigning work with alternative options for completion…one optionusually requires some drawing so my daughter always chooses that one,while some other kids never choose that one. I guess thatcan be morechallenging for the teacher and requires a bit more planning andpreparation, but from my view it happens and works well. sam says:11/24/2010 at 9:33 amI taught HS math and there seemed to be some definite differentiationamong staff as well. You had the 20+ year veterans making a lot of moneyand mostly teaching honors students due to seniority and the newerteachers (high turnover) teaching the ―on level‖ classes.Looking at a syllabus you‘d think honors classes do 20% more materialthan on level, but it is far more than that. The uncurved pass rate (over60%) for the standardized final in regular algebra 2 was under 20%.It begs the question: why are we putting them in a class they arent readyfor? Well because they ―passed‖ the previous class.Parents: do everything you can to get/keep your kids in honors classes.Having peers who value education will do more for their learning thananything you can say or do. Whitney Hoffman says:11/28/2010 at 7:28 pmI have 2 children- both with ADHD, one with some language issues. Onehas an IEP and 1 has a 504. While they are both bright, they have issueswith ―material management‖ and need some extra attention andreinforcement from their teachers. By letting the teachers know this inadvance, and by being a pro-active part of the process, I can help mychildren meet their classroom expectations, as long as I am part of the loop.As with many kids, in some subjects, and in some units, my kids accelerate;other units, they struggle. Not all kids are uniformly bright or uniformlylower performers- it can vary subject to subject, unit to unit, so havinginstructors who can differentiate when necessary has been a real blessing.
Despite having high IQ‘s, their ADHD makes meeting all the book-keepingaspects of school difficult for them. But by having kids submit homeworkelectronically- preventing it from getting misfiled, misplaced or otherwiselost between home and school- is a simple ―accommodation‖ ordifferentiation method that makes all the difference in their performanceand the level of frustration they cause their teachers. Sometimes,differentiation can be as simple as being a little flexible and understandingwith students- you just give it a fancy name, but it counts in the end just thesame. Tracking | Profit of Education says:11/29/2010 at 5:00 am[...] ―All together now‖ by Michael Pettrilli over at EducationNext.org,which explains that mixing students of [...] SusanGoding says:11/30/2010 at 2:12 pmMichael Petrillisay, ―Technology may someday alleviate the need for suchcompromises.‖ Why someday, why not now? Computers with adaptivesoftware are available now. What in the world are we waiting for? November 29, 2010 – Volume V(15) | Smithfield Elementary says:11/30/2010 at 4:09 pm[...] ―All Together Now? Educating High and Low Achievers in the SameClassroom‖ by Michael Petrilli in Education Next, Winter 2011 (Vol. 11, #1,p. 48-55), http://educationnext.org/all-together-now [...] BelindaLaumbach says:12/03/2010 at 3:02 pmChildren self-track and adults self-track. I wonder why we design schoolsand curriculum in such contrived ways that it ends up not resembling reallife at all. This results in students living in two distinct worlds until theyleave school and get thrown into the real world. One which they are notprepared to negotiate. There will not be anyone there to differentiate lifeexperiences for them, develop their self-esteem, nor mandate that higherachieving people socialize with them or help them learn. We need to makepublic schools like institutions of higher learning. With the help of advisorsand parents, let students develop their own schedule based on a program ofstudy. If they don‘t want to be in school, leave and come back when they areready. When they do, charge them tuition for their classes if they are overthe age of 18.
MarkSchneiderman says:12/03/2010 at 4:48 pmAs a parent of 5 and 3 year olds in nearby Silver Spring, MD starting toexplore these same issues, I especially appreciate Mike‘s look at these issuesin the local context. But only at the end does the piece hint at thefundamental alternatives — We have a system that has always started withtthe teacher/school and been built around fixed time and place.Differentiated instruction is ther term du jour for how to deal with thisamidst an increasingly diverse student body facing increasingly highlearning expectations. The alternative paradigm is outlined in the recentSIIA-ASCD-CCSSO report, System Redesign for PersonalizedLearning http://www.siia.net/pli It calls for a reengineering of oureducational system around the student, where educational path,curriculum, instruction and schedule are personalized at the school, course,lesson and learning object. The report provides a roadmap of what thismeans and includes examples. Its execution is certainly not a simplematter, but thinking outside the box, literally and figuratively, is needed forus to engage and prepare students in this flat, digital, knowledge-basedworld. Tracy Lee says:12/04/2010 at 1:02 amAs Lydia said, ―Rich, as a parent of a son with autism, it saddens me thatanyone would view a child with disabilities as a ―substantial drag oneverything.‖ All the more reason to ensure that our local school systemprovides a ―continuum of alternative placements‖ for kids with disabilitiesso that, if necessary, their needs can be met in a different setting.‖I am also a parent of a student with AS, and have AS myself. My son is in aHighly Gifted Magnet school in Indiana, and there is a cluster within theclass of other kids with AS, and I‘m sure other issues. I am a parent whospends considerable time working with the Special Ed teacher, theclassroom teacher, and others on ensuring he is able to work on level, but Iam certain he and the other special needs students do not ―drag the othersdown. In fact, we have worked to make sure the others see their strengths,that their weaknesses are viewed as areas they need to focus effort on, andthat their differences are not a handicap. We have a ―No ‗I can‘ts‖ rule inour house, and that applies most especially to areas of struggle because ofour Asperger‘s.And at the report card conference at the end of the first marking period,they told me of a critical thinking skills test they had just administered. My
son (and several others in the class) scored extremely high, and whatamazed them is he seemed distracted, almost bored, by the test, and wasfinished distressingly quickly — until they scored the test. How does such astudent ―drag the others down.‖I do ensure that my son is placed each year with a teacher that can meet hisneeds. Someone who understands 2E, the profoundly gifted, AS, has strongclassroom management skills, can be firm and flexible at the same time,and has a sense of humor, or at least is willing to learn about these things.To me, doing anything less would be unfair to the teacher, the otherstudents, and my son. Lee Underwood says:12/09/2010 at 4:47 pmOne of the most important aspects of differentiation in my mind is that itprovides an opportunity for accelerated students to teach less strugglingstudents the material in ways that only a peer can. Studies do show that themost effective learning is done by teaching the concept. Reading groups canconsist of mixed abilities that address and achieve a raft of educationalobjectives, from comprehension to mastery and evaluation. I have includedas part of my units an activity where an accelerated student designs,administers, and evaluates the results of a quiz that the rest of the studentsin his or her group have to take.The arguments I have read tend to maintain the old idea of teacher driveninstruction. Given this antiquated teaching method, I can see why teachersare throwing their hands up; one teacher can not possible directly instruct30-40 different abilities. When the teacher becomes a learning facilitator,they hand the keys to the students. This empowers students to own theireducation while providing them with the benefits of a diverse classroomexperience. That‘s differentiation to me.Lee UnderwoodPhilosophyMillikan High SchoolLong Beach, Ca Mick says:12/10/2010 at 4:07 pmI do think that students teaching other students has merit; however, thepoint of going to school is learning something new and gaining anappreciation of working for outcomes in school (and later work). If astudent has already mastered the material and is made to teach strugglingstudents, it is not differentiation. It is being an unpaid teacher, and it
teaches the student that it is important to meet other students‘ needs butnot his or her need to learn.I say this as a profoundly gifted student who spent fourteen years (minusthe times my parents took my out of school after learning that I had donenothing but teach during a given school year) waiting to learn somethingnew in school. Instead, I was used as a teacher‘s aide and spent my entireeducation until partway through my freshman year of college waiting to dosomething in school besides teach the struggling kids my age. Most of thembeat me up every day for being the ―smart kid.‖ I learned to hate educationand to hate myself for not being worth enough for a teacher to teach mesomething new. I doubt this was what my well-meaning educators aimed toteach me in peer-teaching differentiation. However, it was the lesson that Ilearned, and it took quite a bit to undo this lesson. Lee Underwood says:12/13/2010 at 5:36 pmMick, as a ―profoundly gifted student‖, you were in the perfect position tolearn a valuable lesson. Are not managers and professionals inadministrative positions masters in their field? And are they not heldresponsible for collaborating and training their employees (with varyingabilities and prejudices) to perform their jobs well and work towardsdesirable outcomes? Learning new content is good and is indeed one aspectof school. It is not, however, the ―point‖. Content knowledge is moremeaningful when students are trained to apply it within the diverse societythey will inherit and beyond. Teaching a skill or a concept doesn‘t lead topersonal intellectual stagnation. It leads to a desire to dive deeper into thesubject and to know it on a level most teachers do not have the time topursue. Just when you think you know something well is the moment yourealize you don‘t know much at all.Also, this kind of peer teaching, if done right, can cultivate good ethicalqualities such as empathy, patience, and cultural awareness. Mick says:12/16/2010 at 8:32 pmTo start, I am not arguing that peer teaching never serves a purpose.However, I grew up in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the US,and when I was left to teach my class with no adult supervision, I was usedas my classmates‘ gang initiation victim (in elementary school). Theadministration‘s response was that I had made myself a target for myclassmates by ―acting white‖ and that my teachers were not responsible formy safety, as I constantly pushed to learn more, to the point where my
teachers did not have answers to my questions. At safe schools, leaving aclass under the supervision of a classmate for an entire morning may instillgood ethical qualities; however, at a violent school, leaving a student at themercy of children who are in the juvenile justice system is akin to childabuse.On the job, all of my colleagues have graduate degrees, as do most of mysocial acquaintances and friends. In my profession, incompetence leads tomore than unemployment; it endangers lives. I chose this professionbecause it challenges me and inspires me to push for new innovations andanswers to previously unanswered questions. I am constantly remindedthat human beings have discovered very few of the universe‘s secrets and,paradoxically, that human beings have discovered more than I could learnin five lifetimes. For me, the ennui of a less intellectually rigorous careerwould drive me into dispair.I assume by the quotations that you are doubting the veracity of myexperiences and, perhaps, have not experienced teaching a profoundlygifted student. (If I need to qualify, I took the SAT as thirteen-year-old andnearly hit both ceilings.) The alacrity with which I learn, as well as the pacewith which I learn, has discombobulated many educators over the yearsand, quite frankly, was not seen as an asset until I entered college. Learningand discovering are as vital to me as breathing, and I never stop acquiringknowledge and delving into new fields of research. I would suggest lookingat ―Genius Denied‖ by Jan and Bob Davidson, as well as ―ExceptionallyGifted Children‖ by Miraca Gross. Both of these books chronicle theexperiences of such children in light of research on the subject. Cody says:12/17/2010 at 8:40 pmI think Petrilli hits it on the head at the end of the article, technology will bethe ―differentiator‖ of instruction for kids and teachers. Look in theory, it isgreat to say we should all learn how to ―differentiate instruction‖ but thatplaces the teacher at the center of student learning. At least with anincorporation of high quality online curriculum (ala K12 Inc.) in theclassroom with the teacher serving as the facilitator and focusedinterventionist students will have a more engaging experience.I have sat and observed MANY urban classrooms and when you haveteachers not engaging students the system needs to find a way (onlinecurriculum in a lab setting) to engage students in the modalities of learningthat they enjoy (gaming, electronically). Good article to peel back the onionon the notion of differentiating instruction as a holisitc practice of teachers.
DianeHanfmann says:12/21/2010 at 6:00 amGifted students have no obligation to go to school to teach others. I send mychildren to learn something new each day and that is a war not often won.Rather than my children being obligated to raise the tide so all ships float, Idemand the school demonstrates its duty to provide appropriate growth tomy child. Differentiated Instruction | School of One says:12/21/2010 at 3:01 pm[...] out this piece on the challenges of differentiated instruction, by theFordham Institute‘s Mike Petrilli, in [...] Jennifer Pour says:12/23/2010 at 6:02 amThis approach does sound wonderful, and it sounds like students arebenefiting from it in Takoma Park. This article, however, lacks discussion ofthe other factors that contribute to the school‘s success: involved parentswho support their children‘s education, a community that is middle/upperclass,and the resulting adequate funding for education. I‘m curious, too, if theteachers at this school are given paid time to collaborate about the differentgroups they teach, or if they are doing all of the work outside of schoolhours. This article, like many others about education, looks at one schooland its success, and over-simplifies all of the factors that play intosuccessful schools.Full disclosure: I‘m a teacher at Philadelphia public school. pm says:12/24/2010 at 1:58 pmI think at least part of the reason that we have grades, K-12, is abilitygrouping. Teachers do teach mixed grade classes, but there seems to bewidespread agreement that is a challenging task and is avoided whenpossible. So it seems as if many educators/administrators/school boardsare accepting of handling the surface problem, but not the deeper problemof classes that are mixed in reality but not in name. Blue Sky says:02/08/2011 at 3:54 pmAs the 1st Lawton commenter, I hope we can keep it civil. I think this articleshows how social goals and academic goals both conflict and overlap. A
delicate balance to be sure. We don‘t have the race and class issues atLawton but we have a real issue about Seattle style anti-elitism. Do yousacrifice some kids‘ potential for the good of the community or do you tellthe community to get over it, some kids are more mentally equipped thanothers, just like some are better at sports. Give the kids what they need in amodel that is efficient, even itit is offensive to some people. AlbertNuberry says:02/09/2011 at 1:50 pmI think the quote towards the end of the article sums up the situation atLawton.―If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids toachieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it wouldprobably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace ―abilitygrouping‖ and homogeneous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip allthe gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, andsocioeconomically diverse throughout the day. ‖What is it that we value higher at our school? Staff opinions about SeattleSchool District policy?Parent perceptions of unfairness or inequality?Socialblending of students?Academic excellence for all students? Piney Branchchose social factors over purely academic. I hope it works for them. What isour path? grass says:02/11/2011 at 12:39 pmMy concern would be that teacher needs are being put ahead of studentneeds. Where‘s the proof of learning problems for the non-spectrumchildren? Yes, teachers have a dislike of segregating students by ability andthey want the school to level society. Guess what? Schols are for academicsand not social agendas of teachers. If they really wanted to do both theycould do it by engaging kids in activities between classrooms that involvedfield trips, gym, art, music, special projects but keep the academic stuffgrouped so kids could really learn at their optimal speed and in the stylethats suits their way of thinking. Is this a crazy idea or common sense? Iwant my kids to be with all the other kids as friends and schoolmates andneighbors – but thay all learn differently and the more they are put withsimilar children the better they learn, providing the teachers demand themost from each kid. Putting kids who read fluently next to strugglingreaders does not help them read better. It discourages them. Teachingthose kids to read well and letting them grow as readers in a classroomcloser to their level gives them confidence and encouragement. Do the
research yourself and read the peer reviewed studies. Don‘t make kids whohappen to be quicker at academics feel they are weird or different. Theyneed to work as hard as other kids and putting them together does that. It isnot fair to let them goof-off, show off and dominate the classroom ofnormal kids. Normal is what a regular classroom is, these spectrum are notnormal as far as academic ability. They are the top 10% in nationwidetesting for ability. Like kids who have athletic ability. There is the top 10%of those kids too. It‘s just the way God made people. There‘s also a bottom10% and do we give them special consideration? Of course we do, they havecertain needs and we as a society have decided to embrace those needs andbring those kids into our schools as much as possible even at considerableexpense. The top 10% can be served at no extra cost but teachers-mainly-resist this as unfair. My guess is that some teachers feel special ed is alsounfair but you can‘t attack those kids like you can the top 10%. So teachersneed to look inside themselves and decide what they stand for and against.They have a very powerful position in society and they do themselves adisservice by forcing their world view on others. Of all members of a societythey should be the most sensitive to public policy, explaining it to eachother and the community. Reaching out to try new ways of expandingpossibilities for not just their students but the the parents and thecommunity, the nation and the world. Use the minds that we entrust to youeach day to their fullest, not to your ends. Kids need things that none of usfully understand. Educating high and low achievers in the same classroom | Schooling& Learning Choices says:02/26/2011 at 10:07 pm[...] in the same classroom Posted on February 26, 2011 by slchoices| Leavea comment Source: Education Next, Winter [...] Jonina Lerner says:02/27/2011 at 9:13 amI think that ―differentiation‖ rarely works since there is no incentive tomake sure that it is really implemented. The case that you cited here is theexception — as you have noted. Why is it working here? Well maybebecause the principal is exceptional. But I think that the real reason is thatthere is competition for the best students. Mr. G realizes that if he does notprovide something for these students they will leave. Unfortunately,competition for high achievers is the exception, not the norm. So studentswho are at the top are forced to wait & learn nothing while their peersstruggle to catch up. That is the situation is the vast majority of classrooms
— since competition for students is limited!!! And no incentives exist forgetting kids who are already above grade level to do more!!! Education Next says:02/28/2011 at 2:29 pmThe following was submitted as a letter to the editor:I am writing in response to Michael J. Petrilli‘s article. Many years ago, inmy third year as a public school teacher, I discovered that about half of my7th-grade students read four or more years below grade level, and abouthalf read four or more years above grade level. There were few, if any,students in the middle range. I had to figure out how to orchestrate alanguage arts classroom that worked for students at a wide range ofreadiness levels. There were no books on differentiated instruction to guideme.Once at the university, after 20 years of teaching middle school, I foundthat many teachers were eager for strategies to help them teach successfullyin heterogeneous settings. What I began to write about and to call―differentiated instruction‖ was rooted in what I learned through classroompractice and now has become more fully developed through observingmany other practicing teachers, conducting research, and studying theresearch of others.Here are two conclusions that seem solid to me at this point: The idea ofhomogeneity in a classroom has always been a myth. When educators sortstudents into those whom we perceive to be capable of learning robustlyand those whom we perceive not to be, we are often inaccurate.Most of the research that is positive about tracking or ability groupingcompares two conditions: 1) heterogeneous settings in which teachers dolittle to attend to student differences, and 2) tracked or grouped classes,where the teacher teaches at the perceived readiness level of the students.There is rarely a third group studied—one in which a teacher differentiatesinstruction in a knowledgeable way to address student differences.Teaching with student differences in mind is not easy (although, likevirtually all other learned skills, it becomes much easier and more naturalwith sustained practice). Like students, teachers differ at any given point inskill and will to learn new things. They learn when someone meets them attheir point of entry and persistently supports them in moving forward.Practicing teachers who learn and sustain these skills most often do sounder the sustained guidance of effective building principals, who provideintelligent, proactive support for teacher growth.In a nation where ―minority‖ students are already the majority in someschool districts, and where they will become the national majority within a
few years, we cannot afford the cost, ethically or economically, of ―teachingdown‖ to any group of students. We might do well, in fact, to study thoseschools and teachers that have learned to ―teach up.‖Carol Ann TomlinsonCurry School of EducationUniversity of Virginia MilesDovecoat says:03/02/2011 at 2:50 pmMs. Tomlinson,It‘s an honor to have your comments. The issue we face in Seattle is aprogram that groups the top 7% or so in CogAT in self-contained classes.The classes are located at a school that accepts students from 3-5 otherelementary schools in nearby neighborhoods. Seattle Schools also has twosites for highly gifted, about the top 1%. Can all teachers differentiate andfully serve the gifted or does this 7% program serve them better? What isthe cost to other students? Does this ―teach down‖ to kids not in theprogram? I realize I‘m asking for free advice but we are in a real jam at ourschool over this. Carol Tomlinson says:03/03/2011 at 8:32 pmMiles, your question is a good one, but not one easily answered. While I ama proponent of differentiation (which I‘ll discuss briefly after I address yourquestion), I do not think every teacher can meet the need of every studentall the time. Some students with severe learning difficulties can and do havetheir needs met in general education classrooms. Some cannot. Someteachers can meet those students‘ needs in a general classroom setting, withor without assistance. Some cannot. The same, in my experience, is true forstudents whose performance is very advanced. For some of them, withsome teachers, a general education classroom is a very effective placement.For others, and with other teachers, it is not. The issue of how a communitydecides to use its resources is very specific to that community. My concernis not so much whether it makes sense to have a school to which very ablelearners can go so much as it is with the basis on which we‘d decide that thetop 1% of students should have that option rather than, say, the top two orthree or five percent. That‘s a risker call to me.In terms of differentiation, at its core, it‘s an approach to teaching thatsuggests teachers should have a clear learning destination, consistentlycheck to see where students are relative to that destination, and make
adaptations in instruction when it seems warranted to ensure that allstudents in a class have the support necessary to succeed.The discussion that is taking place here has moved away from that idea totalking about issues that are related, but not in any way synonymous withdifferentiation.Differentiation belongs in classes for students with identified learningproblems. It belongs in honors classes. It belongs in whatever we think of asa ―typical‖ class. Otherwise, we subscribe to the idea that all a teacher needsto do is ―pitch‖ a lesson and let it fall where it may. Students need academiccoaching to achieve their potential just as members of a swim team orbasketball team do–and for the same reason.The issue of ability grouping is a complex one–with huge societalimplications. Underlying it is necessarily a belief about the capacity ofyoung people to learn. If we believe some kids can‘t learn very robustly andothers can, we give ourselves permission to separate the learners and thenon-learners. If we believe that most students can learn far more than wecan envision, then it‘s necessary to ensure that the maximum number ofstudents are taught as though they are able.Effective differentiation seeks to begin teaching at a high level, supportstudents who have struggled in school in working toward that high level,and extend the reach of advanced students from that high level. Whenteachers work from that perspective, a broad range of students benefits.Teachers, like students and all humans, are variable as learners. Someteachers learn to differentiate effectively in a relatively brief span of time.Others do not. Where the majority of a faculty learns to differentiate well,there is predictably a leader who provides consistent, informed, andintelligent support for those teachers.The question of how broad a spectrum of learners can be served in a givenclassroom at a given time has much to do with the skill and will of theteacher in that classroom–and with the support of school leaders to enablethe teacher to work with an increasing range of learners. Some teachers areeffective with a broad range of academic diversity. Others are not yet readyfor broad diversity. Teachers in contemporary classrooms, however, do nothave the option of one-size-fits-all thinking. And our country will pay ahefty price, I believe, for assuming that only a small percentage of ourstudents can be academically successful. BarryGarelick says:03/08/2011 at 4:59 pmWould Dr. Tomlinson care to comment on how one addresses students whodo not have the adequate skills in basic arithmetic but are placed into an
algebra class? Does she believe that ―inauthentic practice‖ may have a placein such students‘ lives? Alice Fuller says:08/19/2011 at 1:18 pmAlthough I have taught in Public School for 14 years, I began my teachingcareer in small private schools. I taught 20 students in grades k-8 in oneclassroom. After returning to school for my Special Education Mastersprogram, I used the techniques I learned to reach my varied level of specialed students. These two experiences have helped me more than any other inaddressing the variety of levels in my classroom. I actually find teaching 4thgrade with a wide variety of levels easier because at least the curriculum isthe same. Until our teachers learn how to differentiate and move away fromstanding at the front of the room, presenting a new concept and thenhaving the students complete practice exercises or worksheets, nothing willhelp. Teachers have to be willing to change the way they teach and realizethey can no longer just teach to the middle and hope the lower ability grouppicks up something and the higher ability group can keep themselvesentertained.Our teacher prep course are doing a great inservice to future teachers bynot teaching them how to handle this while they are still in college. WEhave to change our methods, mentality and attitudes! Carol Brinkman says:08/19/2011 at 1:45 pmI read with extreme interest this article on educating high and low achieversin the same classroom i.e. differentiation in the classroom. While I cannotspeak to this topic in reading, I can enthusiastically address the concept ofsuccessful differentiation in math. One answer is ALEKS! In the interest offair disclosure, I am a sales consultant for Aleks, which does not influencethe truth and efficacy of the program. Aleks allows a teacher to differentiatehis/her math instruction in a single classroom to reach the extremes ofability – from underperfroming students, to gifted, to those at grade level,It does it by using a powerful Artificial Intelligence Engine and adaptiveonline questioning to assess what a student knows, does not know and,most importantly, what he is ready to learn next – and then Aleks providestargeted instruction at the precise place the student is ready to learn!Because instruction begins at the point of the gap in a student‘s knowledge,it immediately reduces student frustration and maximizes his chance forsuccess. A powerful side effect is the building of math esteem. Aleks takesthe quesswork out of who to teach what, when! The power of this
technology frees up the teacher‘s time to be more of a mentor and providesmall group and one-on-one instruction – at the point of readiness. Aleks isevidence of the power of technology in the classroom, if even a few sharedcomputers: It does require a computer and internet access. The mission ofAleks is to provide powerful, targeted math instruction to differentiatedgroups who might be in the same classroom and solve the complexity ofeffectively teaching the redbirds and the bluebirds sitting side-by-side inyour heterogeneous classroom. It is an example of how the use oftechnology in the classroom will prepare students to be better educated andready for the workplace and global economy. Sue King says:08/19/2011 at 3:14 pm―If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids toachieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it wouldprobably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace ―abilitygrouping‖ and homogenous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip allthe gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, andsocioeconomically diverse throughout the day.‖I have no idea how this conclusion was reached, but I find it an outrageousstatement to make and evidence that a person‘s personal belief systeminfluences how they gather and interpret ―research‖ and evidence. Perhapsif we measured students‘ abilities and aptitudes in ways that did not alwaysgive advantage to children from the upper levels of the socio-economicstatus and if we had educators who did view children through their ownself-serving lenses, we would not see the ―either/or‖ situation Mr. Petrillisees. Mr. Petrilli‘s viewpoints appear to me to be very biased and very elitist– and very much in keeping with the stance of the organization for which heworks. Voices like his do such great harm to our country. Keep buildingyour walls of separation, Mr. Petrilli, between the ‗haves‖ and ‗have-nots.‘We will see how much our country benefits from attitudes such as yours. Iam dismayed, but not surprised. Cap Lee says:08/19/2011 at 3:19 pmAll kids are different and blossom at different times. Although I saw greatsuccess with some ability grouping, most is not necessary. And ―Centers‖ orminimal grouping only works when the issue is not winning but learning,i.e. no grades, ever! My school had tremendous success with our readingclubs.
Having said that, most everthing can be done in a classroom withdifferentiated teaching. The most important thing is to understand andaccept that kids are different. When this reality strikes, grade levels becomemute, letter grades are seen as the lies that they are and a whole bunch ofsystemic dominoes fall one by one. Let them fall as we designed a systemand philosophy of education that truly does respect the intelligence andabilites of ordinary people.The plan for systemic change is documnted in th book Saving Studentsfrom A Shattered System. Greta K. Nagel says:08/22/2011 at 3:57 pmI‘d like to recommend the book Effective Grouping for Literacy Instruction.It provides timeless advice for those who are struggling with equity andexcellence. Although the copyright is 2001, this book keeps on going(selling). Effective Grouping explores socio-psychological theory behindeffective grouping and gives lots of examples from practice. The book waswritten with an eye to literacy, but has applicability across the curriculum.Just Google the title. And, I should add, the book is based in my Ph.D.dissertation that has the short title Good Groups. George E. Hohl says:08/23/2011 at 11:21 amAs an elementary school principal for 33 years in Baltimore County I canassure you that Mr G and the Piney Branch staff are going in the rightdirection. We believe in differentiated instruction for all children. Havinghomerooms as the reading group we needed to only change classes onceand still be able to differentiate in reading and math. All of our classes werediverse in every ay possible. karenslikas barber says:08/26/2011 at 6:56 amAn interesting article resonating with the way I‘m been learning to teach mymulti-level (elementary, pre-int, intermediate, advanced English) AdultMigrant English Program students in Perth. Each day I have beenexperimenting with purposeful peer learning with more advanced studentswith less, with grouping, in just two distinct groups doing like tasks, butextending the higher level students. (A 100-word report with less complexsentences vs a 300-word report with sentence variety) And doing twocompletely different language/language skills activities with the ‗higher‘and ‗lower‘ students. It is not difficult to keep the students ‗happy‘ because
the class is cohesive, but is the language learning efficient and is thereenough ‗high challenge‘ for the advanced students and ‗high support‘ for theless advanced language learners?Karen Barber Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… - August’s Best Tweets says:08/30/2011 at 12:38 am[...] Thoughtful article on differentiated instruction by Michael Petrilli [...] Bach says:11/30/2011 at 10:54 amHi, you make a reference to a study done by Holly Hertberg-Davis andCarol Tomlinson on DI where the researchers determined that ―no one wasactually differentiating.‖If you or anyone could provide more information on this study I‘d reallyappreciate it. Was it ever published? If so, what was its title and journal? NJ says:12/02/2011 at 3:54 pmThought some people might appreciate this op-ed. It‘s specific to onecommunity in New Jersey, but some of the topics resonate nationwide.http://southorange.patch.com/articles/differentiated-instruction-easier-in-theory-than-in-practice The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform « educationrealist says:09/09/2012 at 1:47 am[...] softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli nowwrites about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical,but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way [...]Comment on this ArticleYour CommentNAME (REQUIRED)EMAIL (REQUIRED) Submit
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