Tuesday, October 4, 2011

room for debate

The New York Times Room for Debate on October 3rd focused on the needs and academic gains of high-ability learners and the concept of 'differentiation' in the regular, mainstream classroom. Studies show that although heterogeneous classrooms appear to support achievement for average and struggling students, high-ability students show relatively little achievement growth in this scenario. In other words, everyone else grows while the top-ability groups stagnate.

The question then becomes, "What do we do about it?" Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia touts differentiation of instruction as an appropriate remedy, and I agree to a point. As she states, differentiation is a wonderful tool when used appropriately and skillfully; unfortunately, we often throw 35 students spanning 6 or 7 grade levels of ability and/or achievement into one room, and then expect the teacher to essentially individualize instruction. This might be possible in certain subjects or in non-traditional settings which do not emphasize high-stakes tests (Montessori is an obvious example), but you can't pound the round peg of differentiation into the square hole of mainstream, traditional classrooms without two things: adequate professional development and support for teachers and massive reevaluation of the goals of public schooling. So far, no dice.

If our goal is to encourage and equip students to pass multiple-choice tests, drill-and-kill is the way to go, regardless of class make-up. Though certainly not foolproof, it seems to be the best way to get students to fill in the right answers and, since high-ability students tend to pass these tests, it's okay to essentially ignore them; after all, they're a safe source of high scores. We tend to aim instruction at the 'fence-sitters' in this scenario: students who are low-average achievers and right on the edge of passing. There's not much of a push for average students to do more, and certainly not for high-ability students to excel; in fact, sometimes we even hear of high-ability students being denigrated by the teacher for 'reading ahead' or behaving as if they're 'smarter than everyone else'.

If our goal, however, is to encourage and equip students to think creatively, find and solve problems, construct understanding and knowledge, and effectively self-assess and self-evaluate, we have to do better. Differentiation in heterogeneous classrooms is a laudable goal, can be beneficial, and should be done as much as possible, but there is also value in allowing high-ability students to spend a portion of their time with their intellectual peers. Not only does it discourage them from doing "just enough to get by", but it also has benefits for average and struggling students.

Regarding Room for Debate, I wish there had been an actual teacher on the panel. Just one. Everyone who submitted a piece is either a researcher or associated with an advocacy or policy group (which tend to be funded by private interests with agendas of their own), with the exception of one school principal. Once again, those whose experience and opinions might better inform debate (TEACHERS!) are left out. Once again, we've missed an opportunity to elevate the discourse and given disproportionate voice to special interests, some of which are for-profit. I'm disappointed, to say the least.


  1. Thanks for the terrific post! I hope you find time to write more posts, I enjoy reading them.

    My children's school system eliminated the gifted program at the same time that they moved to completely heterogeneous class composition. They also chose differentiation as the sole method of meeting the needs of the gifted.

    Unfortunately, the predictable result came true all too quickly. Those teachers that were motivated to differentiate and had some ability to do so effectively were successful some of the time. But for most of the gifted students, their needs were met haphazardly if at all.

  2. LynnG - Thanks for your comment!

    I think this is where you hit the nail on the head: "Those teachers that were motivated to differentiate and had some ability to do so effectively were successful some of the time". Here's what I infer from that sentence:

    "Those teachers that were motivated to differentiate" = not everyone did

    "and had some ability to do so effectively" = not everyone could

    "were successful some of the time" = mostly it didn't work

    Differentiation can be extremely effective (and quite beautiful to watch!) if it's done well and appropriately but, unfortunately, it can also be a huge cop-out for districts tight on cash. They'll cut programs and mandate in-class differentiation instead, but usually will not provide the education, training, and support necessary for their teachers. How sad.



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