‘All together now’ Meets Differentiated Instruction

I walked out of a sixth-grade classroom yesterday with my head spinning, having watched a long discussion, lead by a veteran teacher, about why little Mary was upset and couldn’t concentrate on her math. I was stunned, but not surprised; thanks to Mary’s problem, none of the class was learning math!

As luck would have it, I came home to a copy of Mike Petrilli’s new story for Education Next in my (Internet) mailbox: “All Together Now?  Educating high and low achievers in the same classroom.”

Mike tackles the age-old question of what to do with performance diversity, but he suggests that it is now “the greatest challenge facing America’s schools.”

Indeed, it’s one thing to think, rather generically, about the achievement gap between races and socio-economic groups, but as I saw up close and personal in that sixth-grade classroom yesterday and as Mike makes vividly clear in his Ed Next story, our relatively recent headlong rush to celebrate diversity—and integration and “mainstreaming”—has brought with it new achievement gap challenges. Writes Mike:

By the 4th grade, public school children who score among the top 10 percent of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are reading at least six grade levels above those in the bottom 10 percent. For a teacher with both types of students in her classroom, that means trying to challenge kids ready for middle-school work while at the same time helping others to decode. Even differences between students at the 25th and at the 75th percentiles are huge—at least three grade levels.

In one classroom.

Mike discusses traditional responses to these gaps—“ability grouping” and “tracking”—and reminds us of the “attack on tracking” in the 1970s and 1980s (self-esteem and elitism were two of the bad guys of that era), which was fine until the evidence started to arrive suggesting that pretending everyone was smart did not do much for anyone’s academic achievement (or self-esteem). That’s when ed-schools unveiled “differ­entiated instruction,” which is where we are today.  “One kid is a homogeneous group,” as a school principal tells Mike.

The idea, Mike writes, is that “instruction is customized at the individual student level. Every child receives a unique curriculum that meets that individual’s exact needs. A teacher might even make special­ized homework assignments, or provide the specific one-on-one help that a particular kid requires. If you think that sounds hard to do, you’re not alone.”

Even Holly Hertberg-Davis, who studied under Carol Tomlinson, one of the pioneers of DI, and is now Tomlinson’s colleague at UVA, admits that “some teachers can but not all teachers can” do DI.  Hertberg-Davis and Tomlinson worked on a study of DI, Mike reports, but the researchers couldn’t find out if DI worked because, Hertberg-Davis told Mike,  “no one was actually differentiating.”

Mike cites a recent national survey of teachers that found more than eight in ten said differentiated instruction was difficult to implement. Even Tomlinson, in a spirited defense of DI in the current Ed Week, says that “there is no magic word in education, including differentiation, that will save us.”  (Though he doesn’t take on DI directly, E.D. Hirsch does worry about the “contradictory and self-defeating situation” that comes with “child-centered educational theory,” stepfather of DI, in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books.)

Wanting to see for himself, Mike visits his local elementary school in Takoma Park, Maryland, where “the children of übereducated whites” are in the same classrooms as poor blacks, black middle-class families” and “poor immigrant children from Latin America, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.”

There he discovers “incredibly nuanced and elaborate efforts … to differentiate instruction, challenge every child, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms.” As Mike says, it was “like some sort of elaborate Kabuki dance.”

Read the story and see how it all turns out.

—Peter Meyer

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