Making Differentiated Instruction Work

“The greatest challenge facing America’s schools today isn’t the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or “teacher quality.” It’s the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom,” writes Mike Petrilli in a new article from the Winter 2011 issue of Education Next.

The article, “All Together Now?,” looks at the challenge of serving high- and low-achieving kids in the same classroom.

In the old days, Petrilli explains, tracking and ability grouping provided the answer, but in the 1970s and 1980s, detracking advocates argued that kids on the lower tracks suffered low self-esteem and diminished life chances. They insisted that detracking could help the lowest-performing students without hurting the higher performers. But, Petrilli notes, this turned out to be wishful thinking. Research now suggests that “a little bit of variation is okay. But when the gap is too wide—say, six grade levels in reading—nobody wins.”

“So if grouping all students together leads to pernicious effects, but divvying kids up by ability is politically unacceptable,” Petrilli writes, “what’s the alternative? The ed-school world has an answer: differentiated instruction.” In theory, this means that teachers reach each student at precisely the appropriate level, but teachers admit to being flummoxed by this approach, Petrilli notes.

Curious to see differentiated instruction in action, Petrilli visits his local elementary school in Takoma Park, Maryland. In the article, he describes the “incredibly nuanced and elaborate” efforts that Piney Branch Elementary, which serves an extremely diverse community, makes “to differentiate instruction, challenge every child, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms.”

He writes:

It sounds like some sort of elaborate Kabuki dance to me, but it appears to succeed on several counts. All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

He concludes:

With a well-trained and dedicated staff, and lots of support, “differentiated instruction” can be brought to life. But even at Piney Branch, which benefits from the vast resources of a huge, affluent school system in Montgomery County, Maryland, it sure seems rickety, held with lots of duct tape and chewing gum, and subject to collapse without just the right staff and parent support.

For more, please see “All Together Now? Educating high and low achievers in the same classroom,” by Michael Petrilli, which will appear in the Winter 2011 issue of Education Next.

Mike Petrilli also discusses the article with Chester E. Finn, Jr. in a new video on the EdNext website.

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