All Together Now?

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Educating high and low achievers in the same classroom


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Winter 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 1

Video: Education Next talks with Mike Petrilli.

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. How we  as a country handle this challenge says a lot about our values and priorities, for good and ill. Unfortunately, the issue has become enmeshed in polarizing arguments about race, class, excellence, and equity. What’s needed instead is some honest, frank discussion about the trade-offs associated 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 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. 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’d break 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 separate tracks: “challenge” or “honors” for the top kids, “regular” or “on-level” for the average ones, and “remedial” for the slowest. Teachers could target their instruction to the level of the group or the class, and since similar students were clustered together, few kids were bored or totally left behind.

Click to enlargeThen came the attack on tracking. A flurry of books in the 1970s and 1980s argued that confining youngsters to lower tracks hurt their self-esteem and life chances, and was elitist and racist to boot. Jeanne Oakes’s 1985 opus, Keeping Track, was particularly effective in sparking an anti-tracking movement that swept through the nation’s schools.

According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, this advocacy led to 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 at least two distinct tracks in [each of] English language arts, history, and science. Mathematics courses were organized into three or more tracks. The eighth 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 of achievement and ability. Mathematics usually features two tracks, often algebra and a course for students not yet ready for algebra.

One of the reasons that detracking advocates claimed so many victories is that 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 challenging level of instruction, and exposure to their higher-achieving peers) while not hurting top students. But by the mid-1990s, researchers started to compile evidence that this happy outcome was just wishful thinking.

In 1995, scholars Dominic Brewer, Daniel Rees, and Laura Argys analyzed test-score results for high-school students in tracked and detracked classrooms, and found benefits of tracking for advanced students. They wrote in the Kappan magazine, “The conventional wisdom on which detracking policy is often based—that students in low-track classes (who are drawn disproportionately from poor families and from minority groups) are hurt by tracking while others are largely unaffected—is simply not supported 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, Loveless found a clear pattern in the late 1990s when states adopted accountability regimes: the performance of the lowest decile of students shot up, while the achievement of the top 10 percent of students stagnated. That’s not surprising; 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 students at the top.

This dynamic might have been most pernicious for minority students. Earlier this year, an Indiana University study found that the “Excellence Gap,” the racial achievement gap at NAEP’s advanced level, widened during the NCLB era. One possible explanation is that high-achieving minority students are likely to attend schools with lots of low-achieving students, and their teachers are focused on helping children who are far behind rather than those ready to accelerate ahead.

The Power of Peers

The attack on tracking also claimed an innocent bystander: ability grouping, which became suspect in many circles, too. Yet in recent years, the “peer effects” literature has shown the benefits of grouping students of similar abilities together. One clever study, by economists Scott Imberman, Adriana Kugler, and Bruce Sacerdote, looked at the fallout from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. They wanted to know what happened when students who were evacuated from New Orleans ended up in schools in Houston. They found that the arrival of low-achieving evacuees dragged down the average performance of the Houston students and had a particularly negative impact on high-achieving Houston kids. Meanwhile, high-achieving evacuees had a positive effect on local students. As Bruce Sacerdote told me, “The high-achieving kids seemed to be the most sensitive. They do particularly well by having high-achieving peers. And they are particularly harmed by low-achieving peers.” He added, “I’ve become a believer in tracking.”

In 2006, Caroline Hoxby and Gretchen Weingarth examined the Wake County (North Carolina) Public School System. For the better part of two decades, the district, in and around Raleigh, had been reassigning numbers of students to new schools every year in order to keep its schools racially and socioeconomically balanced. That created thousands of natural experiments 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 student achievement.

They found evidence for what they called the “boutique model” of peer effects, “a model in which students do best when the environment is made to cater to their type.” When school reassignments resulted in the arrival of students with either very low or very high achievement, this boosted the test scores of other students with very low or very high achievement, probably because it created a critical mass of students at the same achievement level, and schools could better focus attention on their particular needs.

Does that mean students should be sharply sequestered by ability? Not exactly. Here’s how Hoxby and Weingarth put it in their conclusion: “Our evidence does not suggest that complete segregation of people, by types, is optimal. This is because (a) people do appear to benefit from interacting with peers of a higher type and (b) people who are themselves high types appear to receive sufficient benefit from interacting with peers a bit below them that there is little reason to isolate them completely. What our evidence does suggest is that efforts to create interactions between lower and higher types ought to maintain continuity of types.”

In other words, a little bit of variation is okay. But when the gap is too wide—say, six grade levels in reading—nobody wins.

Enter Differentiated Instruction

So if grouping all students together leads to pernicious effects, but divvying kids up by ability is politically unacceptable, what’s the alternative? The ed-school world has an answer: “differentiated instruction.” The notion is that one teacher instructs a diverse group of kids, but manages to reach each one at precisely the appropriate level. The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, 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. I asked Holly Hertberg-Davis, who studied under Tomlinson and is now her colleague at UVA, if differentiated instruction was too good to be true. Can teachers actually pull it off? “My belief is that some teachers can but not all teachers can,” she answered.

Hertberg-Davis worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction. Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were 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 national survey commissioned by the Fordham Institute, more than 8 in 10 teachers said differentiated instruction was “very” or “somewhat” difficult to implement. Even ed-school professors are skeptical. A 2010 national random survey of teacher educators asked them the same question and got the same result: more than 8 in 10 said differentiated instruction was very or somewhat difficult to implement.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I was curious to see differentiated instruction in action, so I visited my local elementary school in Takoma Park, Maryland. Piney Branch Elementary serves an incredibly diverse group of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, from the children of übereducated white and black middle-class families, to poor immigrant children from Latin America, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, to low-income African American kids.

I sat down with the school’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 it going to slow him down if his classmates are several years behind or still learning the language? (Of course, not all poor or minority children are low-achieving, nor are all white students high-achieving. Still, achievement gaps being what they are, the range of academic diversity does tend to be larger 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. Or their child is in kindergarten, or they are moving from private school. After a few minutes, you get the idea.” However, he said with a sly grin, “they very rarely ask the question directly.”

But he wasn’t afraid to answer me directly. “We are committed to diversity,” he started. “It’s a lens through which we see everything. We look at test scores. How are students overall? And how are different groups doing? It’s easy to see. Our white students are performing high. What can we do to keep pushing that performance up? For African American and Hispanic students, what can we do to make gains?”

Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.

And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.

What’s his secret? Was he grouping students “homogeneously,” so all the high-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 kid is a homogeneous group. As soon as you bring another student in, you have differences. 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 to make sure my kid doesn’t get slowed down?

“My job as a principal is to let my parents know that your child will get the services they need,” he answered patiently. “We are going to make sure that every child is getting pushed to a maximum level. That’s my commitment.”

And that’s when I was introduced to the incredibly nuanced and elaborate efforts that Piney Branch makes to differentiate instruction, challenge every child, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms.

So how do they do it? First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!) However, in the new lingo of differentiated instruction, the staff works hard to make sure these groups are fluid—a child in a slower reading group can get bumped up to a faster one once progress is made.

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the 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. (Because of large achievement gaps at the school, these math classes are more racially and socioeconomically homogeneous than the student population as a whole.)

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

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.

Reading War

Test scores indicate that the strategy is working, too, but that doesn’t mean all parents have been thrilled. Three years ago, Mr. G. told me, a group of white parents pushed to get the school to move to homogeneous classrooms for reading as well as math. “Parents felt that the only way to get kids to read at a high level was to have other kids around them who read at a high level,” he explained. (That didn’t sound so unreasonable to me.) “We had a lot of meetings. The staff overwhelmingly supported the diverse approach, the heterogeneous approach. That was good for me as an administrator because the staff was behind me.”

I tracked down one of the “troublemaker” parents. Her name is Sue Katz Miller 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 a welcoming community for families of all incomes and backgrounds. (A neighbor of mine called her “a force of nature.”) A former Newsweek reporter and now a regular columnist for The Takoma Voice, she spent two years as PTA president at Piney Branch and is an enthusiastic booster of the school and its diversity. “My kids have both benefited enormously from being in a Piney 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? The answer you get is: well, we can’t do both, they would be switching classes all the time, it would be like middle school and they won’t be able to handle it…. It’s a huge disservice to the kids who are ready for rigor in the humanities and are not math kids. It’s bizarre. We’ve said we’re going to accommodate kids in math but not in reading. It’s completely insane as far as 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 for advanced students, like William and Mary, Junior Great Books, and Jacob’s Ladder. He trained his teachers on these programs, ensuring that the students in the top reading groups would be challenged with difficult material. (The teachers loved it.) He tried hard to live up to his promise to push all students as far as they could go.

Competing for Kids

Mr. G. and Piney Branch face some healthy competition. Montgomery County offers a half-dozen “Centers for the Highly Gifted,” magnet schools that are designed for supersmart kids and located in elementary buildings throughout the district. Pine Crest, just a few miles away from Piney Branch, hosts one such center, and an increasing number of Piney Branch 3rd graders were testing into it for 4th and 5th grades.

A year ago, 25 Piney Branch kids were accepted—more than any other elementary 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 a pilot program to bring the “Highly Gifted Center” curriculum into its classrooms. This wasn’t easy; there wasn’t a curriculum, per se, at the centers. Teachers had the freedom to do what they wanted. So the district helped the teachers put down on paper everything they were doing in the classroom.

Mr. G. arranged to have a 4th-grade and a 5th-grade teacher trained on the Highly Gifted approach, and formed a “cluster group” of gifted students in their 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 frequently broken into small groups, so the gifted kids can learn together at an accelerated pace.

Pulling this off takes an energetic and gifted educator; 4th-grade teacher Folakemi Mosadomi, who has the gifted group in her classroom, appears to fit the bill perfectly. Now in her 5th year of teaching (all of them at Piney Branch under Mr. G.), Ms. M. acknowledged that differentiating instruction in this way requires “extensive planning and training,” not to mention someone who is well-organized and creative. But even that’s not always enough.

In the first year of the pilot, she had four different reading groups in one classroom, from kids still learning English to the highly gifted students. “I went from sounding out the ‘A’ sound with one group, to talking to another group about how the Exxon Valdez oil spill was like the Battle of Normandy.” That range was simply too much for one teacher to handle—remember Caroline Hoxby’s finding about “continuity of types?”—so the next year she had just two groups: the gifted students, and the next level down. “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 Compromise

So 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.

If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids to achieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it would probably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace “ability grouping” and homogenous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip all the gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse throughout the day. But Piney Branch understandably seeks to balance its concerns for academic growth with its interest in maintaining an integrated environment, so this uneasy compromise is probably the best it can do.

Piney Branch and Ms. M. might be able to pull it off. But how many Piney Branches and Ms. M.’s are there?

Technology may someday alleviate the need for such compromises. With the advent of powerful online learning tools, such as those on display in New York City’s School of One, students might be able to receive instruction that’s truly individualized to their own needs—differentiation on steroids.

Perhaps. But until that time, our schools will have to wrestle with the age-old tension between “excellence” and “equity.” And that tension will be resolved one homogeneous or heterogeneous classroom at a time.

Michael J. Petrilli is executive editor of Education Next, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is working on a book for parents considering diverse public schools like Piney Branch.

Comment on this article
  • Susan Katz Miller says:

    As I’m sure Mr. G recalls, it was not a group of “white parents” who pushed for more accommodation of fluent readers and writers. It was a diverse group of parents, including African-Americans Denise Jones, Mia Allen and Denyse Hamilton, who signed letters, attended meetings, and lobbied over many years to achieve some balance between the extreme grouping and acceleration in math, and the total lack of grouping in reading. What we share is not race, but the desire to make sure the public school inspires students at each point on the unusually broad academic spectrum at Piney Branch. We also shared a desire to staunch the flow of talented students out of our local school. While it is not a perfect solution, I am proud of our role in bringing the Highly Gifted pilot to Piney Branch.

    Sue Katz Miller

  • Rich says:

    Anthony: Differentiation is the norm in Montessori-model schools, so I have to believe it can be made to work. The model goes nominally through “8th grade” but the curriculum covers much of what we would consider high school level work. Unfortunately, in the US there are relatively few Montessori schools above the preschool level…and those that do exist often face 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. My child was in parent participation schools, up through 3rd grade, and I was consistently amazed at how much ultimately hung on the self-control level of the students. A kindergarten classroom where the students had not already had a couple of years of preschool was a nearly-unmanageable zoo. And at higher grades, tracking showed up in other forms (e.g. the Asperger’s kid and the twice-exceptional one, both mainstreamed) exerted a substantial drag on everything. The less able the students are to perform a task and stay on it independently, the harder it becomes to differentiate.

    What this suggests is that a wealthy school district–where the kids are likely to have had preschool experiences, and more money is available for aides and other special services–has the potential to accomplish a lot more (for everyone) than a poorer school district. Perhaps the first things we need to accomplish are remediation of self-management skills for kids who are weak in that area, and creation of different kinds of environments that can adequately accommodate kids who are outside-the-box.

  • Joye Walker says:

    I agree with Anthony Guzzaldo’s skepticism about differentiated instruction. There is just no way to get it accomplished in high school with every student emerging with necessary knowledge and skills to go to the next level of math, especially with 30+ students in a classroom. In many ways, high school math is tracked by course, though certainly students of varying ability levels might coexist in, say, an algebra 2 class. However, if they are to be successful in precalculus, they can’t be skipping topics or making choices about what to study or hazing over/watering down in any way the topics of algebra 2. Allowing this sort of diminished expectation is a disservice to the students and sets them up for failure at the next level. I might add that studies of effectiveness of programs are always suspect in my mind because of the fairly large amount of private tutoring and supportive instruction outside of school received by those children who have parents of means. Ineffective curricula and instruction usually lead parents who are educated and have resources to hire tutors or work with their children themselves to fill in the holes they see in the learning process. In my opinion, this contributes to the achievement gap. Having consistent high expectations of all students is a must, starting in the lowest grades and continuing all the way through the K-12 system.

  • Lyda Astrove says:

    Rich 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 of different kinds of environments that can adequately accommodate kids who are outside-the-box.”

    We used to have those different kinds of environments here in Montgomery County Public Schools until Jerry Weast embarked on a wholesale dismantling 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 would view a child with disabilities as a “substantial drag on everything.” All the more reason to ensure that our local school system provides a “continuum of 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 learning challenges isn’t happening in Montgomery County Public Schools: their own Office of Shared Accountability said so:

    See specifically page 14.

  • Frederick Stichnoth says:

    With reference to your first paragraph: is there “enormous variation” in every classroom, or are some variations more enormous than others?

    I’m pretty sure that the variation is broader in Takoma Park than in the Bethesda and Potomac homes of your Private Public Schools. So I question whether it is even meaningful to talk about differentiation at Cold Spring ES (FARMS 0.49%). Differentiation is a Takoma Park tactic, not a Potomac tactic (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–the optics of integration). But it deprives the most able of Takoma Park African-American, Hispanic, poor, and white students of the educational and life opportunities they would have in Potomac. (Please re-read Heather Schwartz’s “Housing Policy is School Policy.”)

    It is thus ironic that a tactic for visible integration of Takoma Park chairs contributes to our less visible two school systems, separate and unequal; and exacerbates housing segregation according to wealth.

  • Katharine Beals says:

    At many schools “differentiated instruction” has come to mean mixed ability groupings in which each student is assigned a different subtask. To quote one example cited in the Harvard Education Letter:

    “To discuss and present various theories for why the Jamestown settlement failed or why the dinosaurs became extinct, for example, more advanced students may be “producers” charged with stopping their group periodically to summarize what is being said; those with attention deficits might be assigned to be “prop directors” to keep track of supplies needed to make a chart for the final presentation.”

    There are so many problems with this sort of differentiated instruction that it’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 in small groups appropriate for their reading level.”

    “All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third.”

    Naturally, “differentiated instruction” lends itself to many definitions. But there’s a problem with using the term to describe the sorts of highly promising, fluid yet homogenous, ability-based groupings discussed here. The problem is that proponents of the more ridiculous versions of differentiated instruction will skim through this article through the prism of their ideological commitments, or encounter references to it by others who share these commitments, and conclude that it supports heterogeneous groupings with differentiated subtasks.

    Katharine Beals

  • Barry Garelick says:

    Ms Beals hits it right on the head. The principal’s description of what he thinks of as differentiated instruction is ability grouping.

    Carol Ann Tomlinson, who promotes differentiated instruction provides a description of what she thinks it is, in a book she co-wrote with Jay McTighe called “Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by 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 being immersed in what the authors term “contextualized grappling with ideas and processes”. Loosely translated, this giving students an assignment or problem which forces them to learn what they need to know in order to complete the task. Say it is quadratic equations. Rather than teach them the various methods of factoring first, with the attendant drills leading to mastery, they might instead start with a problem such as x2 + 5x + 6 = 0. The teacher may then provide some activities that illustrate what factoring is, and then provide some exercises. The goal would be to factor the above equation into (x+3)(x+2) = 0 and, from there, lead the students to see that there are two values that satisfy the equation. This is what they mean by “contextualized grappling” as opposed to “decontextualized drill and practice”. 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 by the problem itself by not burdening the student’s mental inventory with “mind numbing” drills for mastery of a concept or skill until it is actually needed. In the example above, the teacher may differentiate instruction by assigning extra factoring problems for students having difficulty, and provide instruction to the more capable students on how to solve quadratic equations by “completing the square” for expressions that cannot be factored.

    The authors believe that “Just in time” approaches that work as a model for business inventory work equally well in education. The result is an approach that is like teaching someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool and telling them to swim to the other side. For the students who may already know a bit about swimming, they may choose to take that opportunity to learn the butterfly. For the students who don’t know how to swim, the teacher might advise them to learn the breast stroke and provide the much needed direct instruction which they may now choose to learn. Or not.

  • Michelle Gluck says:

    This is an excellent article because it illustrates beautifully a fallacy of differentiated instruction: When proponents of differentiation point to successes, they point to programs like this one. But what is going on at Piney Branch is not differentiated instruction, it is cluster grouping by ability. And it only works if the number of clusters per teacher is small (two as opposed to four or five.) The success of Piney Branch does not provide any support for differentiated instruction as a successful tool for teaching heterogenous classrooms as integrated units.

    Notably absent from the long and wonderful description of Piney Branch’s practice: any suggestion whatsoever that the higher-level students are learning something academically meaningful from being grouped with their lower-achieving peers,or vice versa. These students are thriving academically because they are spending the majority of their instructional day grouped with ability peers, either in homogenous (math) classrooms or heterogenous cluster-grouped classrooms. The benefits they accrue from heterogenous diversification of the classrooms are social and emotional, not academic. If we could find a way to achieve those social benefits from integration without sacrificing academic opportunities for higher-achieving students across the county, including in less heteregeneous communities than Takoma Park, it would be a wonderful thing.

    Fred, your comment assumes that what happens in Bethesda and Potomac is like this — ability grouping — but in my experience what happens in the green zone schools hews much closer to the “ideal description” of (ineffective) differentiated instruction than to ability grouping/cluster grouping. Higher-level students are not routinely getting higher level work in any subject except math, because they are grouped with lower-ability peers and treated as role models and peer instructors or just allowed to read for hours during the day while they wait for everyone else to finish the whole-group assignment. The results aren’t as dramatically evident because the middle point of those classrooms is higher, and therefore these ability of the higher-level students to break out into advanced classes in middle school and high school is less impeded than in red zone schools. Put another way, differentiated instruction doesn’t inflict as much damage in the green zone as in the red because other factors compensate somewhat. But green zone students are are not spending their elementary school years grouped by ability.

    Regardless of whether one believes that forcing SES integration of schools would solve the problem of the vast differences among schools in the long term (housing as school policy), in the short term cluster grouping by ability would be better for everyone in both zones.

  • Robert says:

    i think this is a logically situated argument but pre-supposes that the standardized tests are actually the single measure we want to use to assess student achievement. without getting too p21 here, there are other purposes of schooling besides filling in bubbles on lower-level rote memorization tasks.

  • Karen Paul-Stern says:

    I have had three children go through Piney Branch (the third is currently in the wonderful Folakemi Mosadomi’s — mentioned in the article — 4th grade class 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 and blessed the ground for the tracking that was available when he reached our local middle school. Today, that same middle school is moving rapidly away from tracking and my middle child will be in more heterogeneous classrooms throughout her three years there. But she had the benefit of the incredible “cluster learning” or “differentiated learning” that has been championed by Mr. G. It has been a marvel to watch.

    Although I have strong feelings about the way Montgomery County force feeds accelerated math to all of its students (and which is a different issue), I have been delighted with the individualized attention my younger two children have received with the teachers at PBES. Each has needed to move in and out of reading groups, and of math classes, and their teachers have had their fingers on the pulse of each of my childnren’s needs every step of the way.

    I am neither an educator nor an education advocate, but I am the daughter of highly experienced and well regarded retired New York City school teacher, from whom I have conversations about my children’s education all the time. While my father is quite skeptical about the ability of schools to train around and for teachers to properly learn how to implement differentiated learning in the classroom, he sees and understands that some form of it is working in my children’s school and applauds it. And I see it working 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 for ALL of its students since my oldest son was there.

    I don’t have anything but anecdotal evidence about the relative success of the cluster or differentiated learning style at Piney Branch, but I do see a marked change in feel of the school and in the incredible teaching team that has 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 a level that is appropriate. The most remarkable thing about this approach is that it brings the enrichment curricula, previously available only to the highest achieving students, to all the students, regardless of ability. It is taken and taught at different levels. That in and of itself is an achievement of which to be proud.

  • Rich says:

    @Lyda: I apologize for distressing you. My comment “a drag on everything” was meant as an observation of the inadequacy of the classroom environment, not a comment on the children themselves and most definitely not one that is meant to be applied beyond the classroom. My own was one of the kids who was providing the “drag,” in fact, and although we 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 to be a proper advocate and did not know that I was being held to that high a standard here; I only offered it up as a possible existence proof.

  • Cal says:

    As has been noted, this school is not differentiating, but ability grouping. As has also been observed, it is much more difficult to do this sort of clustered ability grouping at the high school level.

    I taught math and humanities last year, and differentiated reading/writing practice successfully, although it took a huge amount of work in terms of producing copies of appropriate material (I didn’t teach lessons, it was self-study). I began differentiating my geometry class halfway through the year informally.

    This year, I’m teaching algebra to 120 kids, all but five of whom took it last year, and who have star test scores from Far Below Basic to Basic (Inexplicably, I began with many repeaters who had Proficient and Advanced scores, but I all but drop kicked them out the door into geometry).

    The range of abilities was so wide that I felt it was irresponsible to let the strong kids read books or “help” the other students. In two of my classes, I have 8-10 students who simply get a different lesson. Some days they simply learn from the book, working independently on lessons that the other students will do with much help several weeks later. Other days they have challenge problems that force them to think through familiar math in a different way. Other times I create a handout that they work on and turn into me as a formative assessment. They get different tests, much more difficult (with the understanding that they have an A in the class). They all sign on for this extra work, as I tell them that math isn’t always going to be easy, so I want them to be challenged now.

    It is very difficult to do, and only works with highly motivated kids. I don’t think I should have to do it, nor do I think it’s good for any of the kids to mix abilities this widely. I am a strong proponent of ability grouping, and I am deeply bothered by the politics that prevent us from doing what’s best for 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 and multitasking in the manner that suits the sort of path I’ve chosen. It’s absurd to expect teachers to do what I’m choosing to do.

  • Mick says:

    Thank you, Mr. G, Ms. M, and the teachers striving to provide for their students, regardless of ability level. This is a crucial step toward meeting the needs of all students within the school system. In addition, this approach can accommodate students with uneven academic profiles by allowing them to be highly placed in math while staying at grade level in other subjects (a real problem in education today).

    However, I am skeptical as to whether or not such an approach as given in this article would work for all potential students coming into a given class. For instance, could the “high” level fourth grade math group adequately challenge the profoundly gifted 10-year-old who may be ready for algebra or even calculus? Following this, how would keeping a child in a heterogenous science course allow a fourth grader who devours physics or genetics books by flashlight at night to progress in science? Could a program (or school, such as the Montessori ones) truly provide the flexibility required for such students? Challenge problems and being grouped with students a year or two ahead will not likely slake their thirst for knowledge, nor will it provide an opportunity for them to stretch their abilities and creativity.

    This is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to suffice as a means to educate all children (especially those children left in other teachers’ classrooms for reading, who may not have a teacher willing to challenge them).

  • […] Next is out and is very much worth reading. I was particularly interested in Mike Petrilli’s piece on differentiated instruction, something that was covered in this blog a few weeks ago. The article put the spotlight on the good […]

  • karen says:

    Wow, 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 huge difference.
    I have 3 kids involved in Fairfax/VA “gifted” public education, so the article is interesting, so many similarities with Fairfax.
    I was a bit surprised the Petrilli mentions Black, White, Hispanic, African American many times but never once mentions “Asian”, which is huge in Fairfax “Acheivement Gap” discussions. If you can leave “Asian” out of the discussion, I wonder why you can’t just leave race out of it alltogether and focus on the real issues that cause the disparity levels, which are socioeconomic, (culture, history, education level, career, income of family and prioritization of that inclome and other resources by parents) not racial.
    As for differentiation, I see teachers in my 8th grader’s Gifted Center do this by assigning work with alternative options for completion…one option usually requires some drawing so my daughter always chooses that one, while some other kids never choose that one. I guess thatcan be more challenging for the teacher and requires a bit more planning and preparation, but from my view it happens and works well.

  • sam says:

    I taught HS math and there seemed to be some definite differentiation among staff as well. You had the 20+ year veterans making a lot of money and mostly teaching honors students due to seniority and the newer teachers (high turnover) teaching the “on level” classes.

    Looking at a syllabus you’d think honors classes do 20% more material than on level, but it is far more than that. The uncurved pass rate (over 60%) 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 ready for? 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 than anything you can say or do.

  • Whitney Hoffman says:

    I have 2 children- both with ADHD, one with some language issues. One has an IEP and 1 has a 504. While they are both bright, they have issues with “material management” and need some extra attention and reinforcement from their teachers. By letting the teachers know this in advance, and by being a pro-active part of the process, I can help my children 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 uniformly lower performers- it can vary subject to subject, unit to unit, so having instructors who can differentiate when necessary has been a real blessing.

    Despite having high IQ’s, their ADHD makes meeting all the book-keeping aspects of school difficult for them. But by having kids submit homework electronically- preventing it from getting misfiled, misplaced or otherwise lost between home and school- is a simple “accommodation” or differentiation method that makes all the difference in their performance and the level of frustration they cause their teachers. Sometimes, differentiation can be as simple as being a little flexible and understanding with students- you just give it a fancy name, but it counts in the end just the same.

  • […] “All together now” by Michael Pettrilli over at, which explains that mixing students of […]

  • Susan Goding says:

    Michael Petrilli say, “Technology may someday alleviate the need for such compromises.” Why someday, why not now? Computers with adaptive software are available now. What in the world are we waiting for?

  • […] “All Together Now? Educating High and Low Achievers in the Same Classroom” by Michael Petrilli in Education Next, Winter 2011 (Vol. 11, #1, p. 48-55), […]

  • Belinda Laumbach says:

    Children self-track and adults self-track. I wonder why we design schools and curriculum in such contrived ways that it ends up not resembling real life at all. This results in students living in two distinct worlds until they leave school and get thrown into the real world. One which they are not prepared to negotiate. There will not be anyone there to differentiate life experiences for them, develop their self-esteem, nor mandate that higher achieving people socialize with them or help them learn. We need to make public schools like institutions of higher learning. With the help of advisors and parents, let students develop their own schedule based on a program of study. If they don’t want to be in school, leave and come back when they are ready. When they do, charge them tuition for their classes if they are over the age of 18.

  • Mark Schneiderman says:

    As a parent of 5 and 3 year olds in nearby Silver Spring, MD starting to explore these same issues, I especially appreciate Mike’s look at these issues in the local context. But only at the end does the piece hint at the fundamental alternatives — We have a system that has always started witht the teacher/school and been built around fixed time and place. Differentiated instruction is ther term du jour for how to deal with this amidst an increasingly diverse student body facing increasingly high learning expectations. The alternative paradigm is outlined in the recent SIIA-ASCD-CCSSO report, System Redesign for Personalized Learning It calls for a reengineering of our educational 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 this means and includes examples. Its execution is certainly not a simple matter, but thinking outside the box, literally and figuratively, is needed for us to engage and prepare students in this flat, digital, knowledge-based world.

  • Tracy Lee says:

    As Lydia said, “Rich, as a parent of a son with autism, it saddens me that anyone would view a child with disabilities as a “substantial drag on everything.” All the more reason to ensure that our local school system provides a “continuum of alternative placements” for kids with disabilities so 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 a Highly Gifted Magnet school in Indiana, and there is a cluster within the class of other kids with AS, and I’m sure other issues. I am a parent who spends considerable time working with the Special Ed teacher, the classroom teacher, and others on ensuring he is able to work on level, but I am certain he and the other special needs students do not “drag the others down. 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, and that their differences are not a handicap. We have a “No ‘I can’t’s” rule in our house, and that applies most especially to areas of struggle because of our 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 what amazed them is he seemed distracted, almost bored, by the test, and was finished distressingly quickly — until they scored the test. How does such a student “drag the others down.”

    I do ensure that my son is placed each year with a teacher that can meet his needs. Someone who understands 2E, the profoundly gifted, AS, has strong classroom 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 other students, and my son.

  • Lee Underwood says:

    One of the most important aspects of differentiation in my mind is that it provides an opportunity for accelerated students to teach less struggling students the material in ways that only a peer can. Studies do show that the most effective learning is done by teaching the concept. Reading groups can consist of mixed abilities that address and achieve a raft of educational objectives, from comprehension to mastery and evaluation. I have included as part of my units an activity where an accelerated student designs, administers, and evaluates the results of a quiz that the rest of the students in his or her group have to take.

    The arguments I have read tend to maintain the old idea of teacher driven instruction. Given this antiquated teaching method, I can see why teachers are throwing their hands up; one teacher can not possible directly instruct 30-40 different abilities. When the teacher becomes a learning facilitator, they hand the keys to the students. This empowers students to own their education while providing them with the benefits of a diverse classroom experience. That’s differentiation to me.

    Lee Underwood
    Millikan High School
    Long Beach, Ca

  • Mick says:

    I do think that students teaching other students has merit; however, the point of going to school is learning something new and gaining an appreciation of working for outcomes in school (and later work). If a student has already mastered the material and is made to teach struggling students, it is not differentiation. It is being an unpaid teacher, and it teaches the student that it is important to meet other students’ needs but not his or her need to learn.

    I say this as a profoundly gifted student who spent fourteen years (minus the times my parents took my out of school after learning that I had done nothing but teach during a given school year) waiting to learn something new in school. Instead, I was used as a teacher’s aide and spent my entire education until partway through my freshman year of college waiting to do something in school besides teach the struggling kids my age. Most of them beat me up every day for being the “smart kid.” I learned to hate education and to hate myself for not being worth enough for a teacher to teach me something new. I doubt this was what my well-meaning educators aimed to teach me in peer-teaching differentiation. However, it was the lesson that I learned, and it took quite a bit to undo this lesson.

  • Lee Underwood says:

    Mick, as a “profoundly gifted student”, you were in the perfect position to learn a valuable lesson. Are not managers and professionals in administrative positions masters in their field? And are they not held responsible for collaborating and training their employees (with varying abilities and prejudices) to perform their jobs well and work towards desirable outcomes? Learning new content is good and is indeed one aspect of school. It is not, however, the “point”. Content knowledge is more meaningful when students are trained to apply it within the diverse society they will inherit and beyond. Teaching a skill or a concept doesn’t lead to personal intellectual stagnation. It leads to a desire to dive deeper into the subject and to know it on a level most teachers do not have the time to pursue. Just when you think you know something well is the moment you realize you don’t know much at all.

    Also, this kind of peer teaching, if done right, can cultivate good ethical qualities such as empathy, patience, and cultural awareness.

  • Mick says:

    To 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 used as my classmates’ gang initiation victim (in elementary school). The administration’s response was that I had made myself a target for my classmates by “acting white” and that my teachers were not responsible for my 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 a class under the supervision of a classmate for an entire morning may instill good ethical qualities; however, at a violent school, leaving a student at the mercy of children who are in the juvenile justice system is akin to child abuse.

    On the job, all of my colleagues have graduate degrees, as do most of my social acquaintances and friends. In my profession, incompetence leads to more than unemployment; it endangers lives. I chose this profession because it challenges me and inspires me to push for new innovations and answers to previously unanswered questions. I am constantly reminded that human beings have discovered very few of the universe’s secrets and, paradoxically, that human beings have discovered more than I could learn in five lifetimes. For me, the ennui of a less intellectually rigorous career would drive me into dispair.

    I assume by the quotations that you are doubting the veracity of my experiences and, perhaps, have not experienced teaching a profoundly gifted student. (If I need to qualify, I took the SAT as thirteen-year-old and nearly hit both ceilings.) The alacrity with which I learn, as well as the pace with which I learn, has discombobulated many educators over the years and, quite frankly, was not seen as an asset until I entered college. Learning and discovering are as vital to me as breathing, and I never stop acquiring knowledge and delving into new fields of research. I would suggest looking at “Genius Denied” by Jan and Bob Davidson, as well as “Exceptionally Gifted Children” by Miraca Gross. Both of these books chronicle the experiences of such children in light of research on the subject.

  • Cody says:

    I think Petrilli hits it on the head at the end of the article, technology will be the “differentiator” of instruction for kids and teachers. Look in theory, it is great to say we should all learn how to “differentiate instruction” but that places the teacher at the center of student learning. At least with an incorporation of high quality online curriculum (ala K12 Inc.) in the classroom with the teacher serving as the facilitator and focused interventionist students will have a more engaging experience.

    I have sat and observed MANY urban classrooms and when you have teachers not engaging students the system needs to find a way (online curriculum in a lab setting) to engage students in the modalities of learning that they enjoy (gaming, electronically). Good article to peel back the onion on the notion of differentiating instruction as a holisitc practice of teachers.

  • Diane Hanfmann says:

    Gifted students have no obligation to go to school to teach others. I send my children 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, I demand the school demonstrates its duty to provide appropriate growth to my child.

  • […] out this piece on the challenges of differentiated instruction, by the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, in […]

  • Jennifer Pour says:

    This approach does sound wonderful, and it sounds like students are benefiting from it in Takoma Park. This article, however, lacks discussion of the other factors that contribute to the school’s success: involved parents who support their children’s education, a community that is middle/upper class,
    and the resulting adequate funding for education. I’m curious, too, if the teachers at this school are given paid time to collaborate about the different groups they teach, or if they are doing all of the work outside of school hours. This article, like many others about education, looks at one school and its success, and over-simplifies all of the factors that play into successful schools.
    Full disclosure: I’m a teacher at Philadelphia public school.

  • pm says:

    I think at least part of the reason that we have grades, K-12, is ability grouping. Teachers do teach mixed grade classes, but there seems to be widespread agreement that is a challenging task and is avoided when possible. So it seems as if many educators/administrators/school boards are accepting of handling the surface problem, but not the deeper problem of classes that are mixed in reality but not in name.

  • Blue Sky says:

    As the 1st Lawton commenter, I hope we can keep it civil. I think this article shows 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 at Lawton but we have a real issue about Seattle style anti-elitism. Do you sacrifice some kids’ potential for the good of the community or do you tell the community to get over it, some kids are more mentally equipped than others, just like some are better at sports. Give the kids what they need in a model that is efficient, even it it is offensive to some people.

  • Albert Nuberry says:

    I think the quote towards the end of the article sums up the situation at Lawton.

    “If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids to achieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it would probably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace “ability grouping” and homogeneous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip all the gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse throughout the day. ”

    What is it that we value higher at our school? Staff opinions about Seattle School District policy? Parent perceptions of unfairness or inequality? Social blending of students? Academic excellence for all students? Piney Branch chose social factors over purely academic. I hope it works for them. What is our path?

  • grass says:

    My concern would be that teacher needs are being put ahead of student needs. Where’s the proof of learning problems for the non-spectrum children? Yes, teachers have a dislike of segregating students by ability and they want the school to level society. Guess what? Schols are for academics and not social agendas of teachers. If they really wanted to do both they could do it by engaging kids in activities between classrooms that involved field trips, gym, art, music, special projects but keep the academic stuff grouped so kids could really learn at their optimal speed and in the style thats suits their way of thinking. Is this a crazy idea or common sense? I want my kids to be with all the other kids as friends and schoolmates and neighbors – but thay all learn differently and the more they are put with similar children the better they learn, providing the teachers demand the most from each kid. Putting kids who read fluently next to struggling readers does not help them read better. It discourages them. Teaching those kids to read well and letting them grow as readers in a classroom closer to their level gives them confidence and encouragement. Do the research yourself and read the peer reviewed studies. Don’t make kids who happen to be quicker at academics feel they are weird or different. They need to work as hard as other kids and putting them together does that. It is not fair to let them goof-off, show off and dominate the classroom of normal kids. Normal is what a regular classroom is, these spectrum are not normal as far as academic ability. They are the top 10% in nationwide testing 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 bottom 10% and do we give them special consideration? Of course we do, they have certain needs and we as a society have decided to embrace those needs and bring those kids into our schools as much as possible even at considerable expense. 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 also unfair but you can’t attack those kids like you can the top 10%. So teachers need to look inside themselves and decide what they stand for and against. They have a very powerful position in society and they do themselves a disservice by forcing their world view on others. Of all members of a society they should be the most sensitive to public policy, explaining it to each other and the community. Reaching out to try new ways of expanding possibilities for not just their students but the the parents and the community, the nation and the world. Use the minds that we entrust to you each day to their fullest, not to your ends. Kids need things that none of us fully understand.

  • […] in the same classroom Posted on February 26, 2011 by slchoices| Leave a comment Source: Education Next, Winter […]

  • Jonina Lerner says:

    I think that “differentiation” rarely works since there is no incentive to make sure that it is really implemented. The case that you cited here is the exception — as you have noted. Why is it working here? Well maybe because the principal is exceptional. But I think that the real reason is that there is competition for the best students. Mr. G realizes that if he does not provide something for these students they will leave. Unfortunately, competition for high achievers is the exception, not the norm. So students who are at the top are forced to wait & learn nothing while their peers struggle to catch up. That is the situation is the vast majority of classrooms — since competition for students is limited!!! And no incentives exist for getting kids who are already above grade level to do more!!!

  • Education Next says:

    The following was submitted as a letter to the editor:

    I am writing in response to Michael J. Petrilli’s article. Many years ago, in my third year as a public school teacher, I discovered that about half of my 7th-grade students read four or more years below grade level, and about half 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 a language arts classroom that worked for students at a wide range of readiness levels. There were no books on differentiated instruction to guide me.

    Once at the university, after 20 years of teaching middle school, I found that many teachers were eager for strategies to help them teach successfully in heterogeneous settings. What I began to write about and to call “differentiated instruction” was rooted in what I learned through classroom practice and now has become more fully developed through observing many other practicing teachers, conducting research, and studying the research of others.

    Here are two conclusions that seem solid to me at this point: The idea of homogeneity in a classroom has always been a myth. When educators sort students into those whom we perceive to be capable of learning robustly and those whom we perceive not to be, we are often inaccurate.

    Most of the research that is positive about tracking or ability grouping compares two conditions: 1) heterogeneous settings in which teachers do little 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 differentiates instruction in a knowledgeable way to address student differences.

    Teaching with student differences in mind is not easy (although, like virtually all other learned skills, it becomes much easier and more natural with sustained practice). Like students, teachers differ at any given point in skill and will to learn new things. They learn when someone meets them at their point of entry and persistently supports them in moving forward. Practicing teachers who learn and sustain these skills most often do so under the sustained guidance of effective building principals, who provide intelligent, proactive support for teacher growth.

    In a nation where “minority” students are already the majority in some school districts, and where they will become the national majority within a few years, we cannot afford the cost, ethically or economically, of “teaching down” to any group of students. We might do well, in fact, to study those schools and teachers that have learned to “teach up.”

    Carol Ann Tomlinson
    Curry School of Education
    University of Virginia

  • Miles Dovecoat says:

    Ms. Tomlinson,
    It’s an honor to have your comments. The issue we face in Seattle is a program 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 other elementary schools in nearby neighborhoods. Seattle Schools also has two sites for highly gifted, about the top 1%. Can all teachers differentiate and fully serve the gifted or does this 7% program serve them better? What is the cost to other students? Does this “teach down” to kids not in the program? I realize I’m asking for free advice but we are in a real jam at our school over this.

  • Carol Tomlinson says:

    Miles, your question is a good one, but not one easily answered. While I am a proponent of differentiation (which I’ll discuss briefly after I address your question), I do not think every teacher can meet the need of every student all the time. Some students with severe learning difficulties can and do have their needs met in general education classrooms. Some cannot. Some teachers can meet those students’ needs in a general classroom setting, with or without assistance. Some cannot. The same, in my experience, is true for students whose performance is very advanced. For some of them, with some teachers, a general education classroom is a very effective placement. For others, and with other teachers, it is not. The issue of how a community decides to use its resources is very specific to that community. My concern is not so much whether it makes sense to have a school to which very able learners can go so much as it is with the basis on which we’d decide that the top 1% of students should have that option rather than, say, the top two or three or five percent. That’s a risker call to me.

    In terms of differentiation, at its core, it’s an approach to teaching that suggests teachers should have a clear learning destination, consistently check to see where students are relative to that destination, and make adaptations in instruction when it seems warranted to ensure that all students in a class have the support necessary to succeed.

    The discussion that is taking place here has moved away from that idea to talking about issues that are related, but not in any way synonymous with differentiation.

    Differentiation belongs in classes for students with identified learning problems. It belongs in honors classes. It belongs in whatever we think of as a “typical” class. Otherwise, we subscribe to the idea that all a teacher needs to do is “pitch” a lesson and let it fall where it may. Students need academic coaching to achieve their potential just as members of a swim team or basketball team do–and for the same reason.

    The issue of ability grouping is a complex one–with huge societal implications. Underlying it is necessarily a belief about the capacity of young people to learn. If we believe some kids can’t learn very robustly and others can, we give ourselves permission to separate the learners and the non-learners. If we believe that most students can learn far more than we can envision, then it’s necessary to ensure that the maximum number of students are taught as though they are able.

    Effective differentiation seeks to begin teaching at a high level, support students who have struggled in school in working toward that high level, and extend the reach of advanced students from that high level. When teachers work from that perspective, a broad range of students benefits.

    Teachers, like students and all humans, are variable as learners. Some teachers 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, and intelligent support for those teachers.

    The question of how broad a spectrum of learners can be served in a given classroom at a given time has much to do with the skill and will of the teacher in that classroom–and with the support of school leaders to enable the teacher to work with an increasing range of learners. Some teachers are effective with a broad range of academic diversity. Others are not yet ready for broad diversity. Teachers in contemporary classrooms, however, do not have the option of one-size-fits-all thinking. And our country will pay a hefty price, I believe, for assuming that only a small percentage of our students can be academically successful.

  • Barry Garelick says:

    Would Dr. Tomlinson care to comment on how one addresses students who do not have the adequate skills in basic arithmetic but are placed into an algebra class? Does she believe that “inauthentic practice” may have a place in such students’ lives?

  • Alice Fuller says:

    Although I have taught in Public School for 14 years, I began my teaching career in small private schools. I taught 20 students in grades k-8 in one classroom. After returning to school for my Special Education Masters program, I used the techniques I learned to reach my varied level of special ed students. These two experiences have helped me more than any other in addressing the variety of levels in my classroom. I actually find teaching 4th grade with a wide variety of levels easier because at least the curriculum is the same. Until our teachers learn how to differentiate and move away from standing at the front of the room, presenting a new concept and then having the students complete practice exercises or worksheets, nothing will help. Teachers have to be willing to change the way they teach and realize they can no longer just teach to the middle and hope the lower ability group picks up something and the higher ability group can keep themselves entertained.
    Our teacher prep course are doing a great inservice to future teachers by not teaching them how to handle this while they are still in college. WE have to change our methods, mentality and attitudes!

  • Carol Brinkman says:

    I read with extreme interest this article on educating high and low achievers in the same classroom i.e. differentiation in the classroom. While I cannot speak to this topic in reading, I can enthusiastically address the concept of successful differentiation in math. One answer is ALEKS! In the interest of fair disclosure, I am a sales consultant for Aleks, which does not influence the truth and efficacy of the program. Aleks allows a teacher to differentiate his/her math instruction in a single classroom to reach the extremes of ability – from underperfroming students, to gifted, to those at grade level, It does it by using a powerful Artificial Intelligence Engine and adaptive online questioning to assess what a student knows, does not know and, most importantly, what he is ready to learn next – and then Aleks provides targeted 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 for success. A powerful side effect is the building of math esteem. Aleks takes the 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 provide small group and one-on-one instruction – at the point of readiness. Aleks is evidence of the power of technology in the classroom, if even a few shared computers: It does require a computer and internet access. The mission of Aleks is to provide powerful, targeted math instruction to differentiated groups who might be in the same classroom and solve the complexity of effectively teaching the redbirds and the bluebirds sitting side-by-side in your heterogeneous classroom. It is an example of how the use of technology in the classroom will prepare students to be better educated and ready for the workplace and global economy.

  • Sue King says:

    “If the school community placed its highest value on pushing all kids to achieve their full potential, including its high-achieving students, it would probably organize its classrooms differently. It would embrace “ability grouping” and homogenous classrooms wholeheartedly, and would skip all the gymnastics required to keep classes academically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse throughout the day.”

    I have no idea how this conclusion was reached, but I find it an outrageous statement to make and evidence that a person’s personal belief system influences how they gather and interpret “research” and evidence. Perhaps if we measured students’ abilities and aptitudes in ways that did not always give advantage to children from the upper levels of the socio-economic status and if we had educators who did view children through their own self-serving lenses, we would not see the “either/or” situation Mr. Petrilli sees. 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 he works. Voices like his do such great harm to our country. Keep building your walls of separation, Mr. Petrilli, between the ‘haves” and ‘have-nots.’ We will see how much our country benefits from attitudes such as yours. I am dismayed, but not surprised.

  • Cap Lee says:

    All kids are different and blossom at different times. Although I saw great success with some ability grouping, most is not necessary. And “Centers” or minimal grouping only works when the issue is not winning but learning, i.e. no grades, ever! My school had tremendous success with our reading clubs.

    Having said that, most everthing can be done in a classroom with differentiated teaching. The most important thing is to understand and accept that kids are different. When this reality strikes, grade levels become mute, letter grades are seen as the lies that they are and a whole bunch of systemic dominoes fall one by one. Let them fall as we designed a system and philosophy of education that truly does respect the intelligence and abilites of ordinary people.

    The plan for systemic change is documnted in th book Saving Students from A Shattered System.

  • Greta K. Nagel says:

    I’d like to recommend the book Effective Grouping for Literacy Instruction. It provides timeless advice for those who are struggling with equity and excellence. Although the copyright is 2001, this book keeps on going (selling). Effective Grouping explores socio-psychological theory behind effective grouping and gives lots of examples from practice. The book was written 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:

    As an elementary school principal for 33 years in Baltimore County I can assure you that Mr G and the Piney Branch staff are going in the right direction. We believe in differentiated instruction for all children. Having homerooms as the reading group we needed to only change classes once and still be able to differentiate in reading and math. All of our classes were diverse in every ay possible.

  • karen slikas barber says:

    An interesting article resonating with the way I’m been learning to teach my multi-level (elementary, pre-int, intermediate, advanced English) Adult Migrant English Program students in Perth. Each day I have been experimenting with purposeful peer learning with more advanced students with less, with grouping, in just two distinct groups doing like tasks, but extending the higher level students. (A 100-word report with less complex sentences vs a 300-word report with sentence variety) And doing two completely 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 there enough ‘high challenge’ for the advanced students and ‘high support’ for the less advanced language learners?

    Karen Barber

  • […] Thoughtful article on differentiated instruction by Michael Petrilli […]

  • Bach says:

    Hi, you make a reference to a study done by Holly Hertberg-Davis and Carol Tomlinson on DI where the researchers determined that “no one was actually differentiating.”

    If you or anyone could provide more information on this study I’d really appreciate it. Was it ever published? If so, what was its title and journal?

  • NJ says:

    Thought some people might appreciate this op-ed. It’s specific to one community in New Jersey, but some of the topics resonate nationwide.

  • […] softened this approach in recent years. For example, Mike Petrilli now writes about differentiation, and can be seen here telling a clearly skeptical, but not oppositional, Checker Finn about the way […]

  • Justin Simms says:

    I am a high school student and honors for all sucks! My school district has extremely bright kids that are being wasted so students like myself can do all the work for lower performing children. I hate that I am stuck helping other kids instead of being challenged

  • Elicia Garza says:

    i want student to student tips/help

  • Joyce says:

    Whatever you would like to call what is going on at Piney Branch Elementary it seems to be working for them. It does take a dedicated staff with many hours of planning to pull this kind of model off. I liked how the author showed how the parents fought for their children and it shows that no matter what this school has that going for them. As a teacher, I would hope that all parents are that passionate about their child’s education. As it stands for literacy, I can see the parents concern about why their children were not as separated as they were for Math, but seeing the results in the end should be proof enough. As this blog was written a few years ago I would like to see what has happened at the school and is the program still in effect. I think that this is the best case scenario when it comes to differentiated instruction. Today, there is more technology and I can see that they would be helpful in the is situation as well.

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