The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

by Robert Pondiscio
May 7th, 2012

“As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students,” writes Scott Joftus in Education Next. “As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.”

“Over more than 20 years in the field of education—including two with Teach For America—I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father.”

Joftus’s wonk side believes “student learning flourishes in classrooms that include students with a wide range of abilities and backgrounds.”  However, as a Dad, he admits to getting angry when a troubled kindergartener disrupts his daughter’s class and forces the “talented, but inexperienced” teacher to spend more than half of her time trying to keep this boy on task.

“I feel for children like him; my company works with schools and districts to improve outcomes for these kids. But I was angry. The other children were clearly uncomfortable. His disruptions reduced learning time for my daughter, and seemed to steal some of her innocence and excitement about school.”

Commenters on the Ed Next blog offer both praise and criticism for Joftus.  “Teachers have been fighting policy wonks who have been destroying the happy learning environment for decades,” writes one.  “But you don’t listen, it is only when it becomes personal that you reconsider your opinions and admit the possibility that teachers have been right all along.”  “Had you guys listened twenty years ago, and respected our wisdom on safe and orderly schools, this educational civil war would not have had to happen,” observes veteran teacher and ed blogger John Thompson.

Rocketship schools CEO John Danner admits to similar cognitive dissonance when sending his kids to school.  “However, I would challenge you as your kids grow to think more about how those skills jibe with rigor,” he writes. “Rigor is actually a form of compassion. A teacher who expects a lot of their students prevents them from feeling the frustration your children feel now, but much later in their school career.  The real problem you are seeing is that your child’s teacher has high expectations but doesn’t understand how to differentiate.

Loftus’ tale serves to illustrate how regrettably wide the gulf can be between policy ideals and classroom realities.  The policies Loftus has worked to support–standards, improved teacher quality, enhanced learning time for strugglers, et al. –  are laudable, but risk melting into insignificance in the face of teachers overwhelmed with a critical mass of disruptive children in her room.  I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect that far fewer parents than wonks tend to lay the problem of learning time lost to disruption at the feet of teachers.  It is easy to say, as Danner does “differentiate.”  It is difficult, and always will be, to expect every teacher in every classroom to have the training, expertise and experience to handle every challenge offered up by 25 free agents in their classrooms every day.

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.


  1. Thanks for printing this. Far too great a percentage of the ed-policy discourse comes from people who can buy their way into the educational setting (and classmates) they want for their children. And sometimes, you can’t even do that.

    I would point out that learning to “differentiate” is an incredibly complex skill, one you wouldn’t expect of a novice teacher, no matter how deep their content knowledge, what gold-plated university they attended, or how many classmates they beat out to be placed in a prestigious program. You can’t short-cut pedagogical experience. You learn to handle difficult kids through the only means possible: practice, practice, practice. And after that–you deserve to be paid well for those skills.

    I would also point out that the numbers of difficult kids (and the range of problem manifestations) are increasing (I say this with thirty years of classroom experience)– and would ask CKB readers why they believe this is so. I think figuring that out is a huge part of the solution.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — May 7, 2012 @ 1:24 pm

  2. Many great points, including Danner’s profound “Rigor is a form of compassion” and Nancy’s observation about the increasing numbers of “difficult” situations. To address Nancy’s question about why: I wonder if it correlates with the increasing emphasis on extrinsic motivators — things that kids can’t control (and which therefore are disproportionately stressful).

    Standardized testing is part of this, but I also think that (perhaps for a different set of kids) the increased difficulty of getting into a given college, the pressure for having many extracurriculars (although, as Willy Loman’s son pointed out in “Death of a Salesman”, not everyone was meant to be a leader of men), and the pre-professionalization of athletics. This all seems to lead to more stress, and teachers often compensate by reducing the level of expectation for kids.

    Danner’s contrasting idea of compassion may be counterintuitive, but I think he is exactly on target.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — May 7, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Parent frustration with disruptive classroom behavior, and its effects on academic achievement, is the major reason for the growth of charter schools – by far. This is especially true for inner-city charter schools.

    Where I live, the nearby Minneapolis public schools have lost many thousands of kids to charters; the vast majority of those kids are racial minorities, primarily African-Americans. Not all kids in charters have flourished, but there are some great success stories, and wait lists for elementary age children are long. Motivated, low-income black parents are desperate for better chances for their kids.

    The “better behavior” appeal of charters is even true for the two CK suburban charters my kids have attended. During the three years I served on a charter school board, I talked to hundreds of prospective parents at open houses and in personal meetings. I was the parent board member who had read all the Hirsch books and was the most informed parent about the CK approach, so I was drafted into marketing the school.

    I thought most parents desired to send their kids away from their neighborhood schools for the same reason I was – the great CK liberal arts curriculum. I learned quickly, though, that most parents give only a cursory thought to curriculum specifics. They were much more concerned about class sizes, character education, school uniforms – and student behavior. Even in the suburbs, parents were uneasy about negative school cultures, even in elementary schools, let alone middle and high schools.

    If traditional public schools don’t want parents shopping for other options, they have to get control of the behavior situation. Otherwise, non-affluent parents will do what rich parents have always done: leave the neighborhood schools.

    Comment by John Webster — May 7, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

  4. @John Webster Thank you for that eye-opening comment. We can not be reminded too often that the imperatives of education consumers are not always in sync with those of the providers.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 7, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

  5. There is no amount of “differentiation” that would have me flying an F-16 in one year with only 10 hours flight experience in a Cessna 152. If you cannot dunk on a 10ft rim, nor hit a 15 ft jump shot, no one is lowering or widening the rim for you in a game when you have the ball. 13 year olds who comprehend on a 5th grade level and can’t multiply past their 6′s will not learn Algebra 1 in one year. Indeed you can tailor instruction and expectations to meet individual needs, but as long as we have defined content students are expected to learn those with weak PRIOR KNOWLEDGE/SKILLS will not be as successful.

    Any wonk who tells me to “differentiate” I will ask them, “Have you done this, and how well did it work? How many 13 year olds who cannot multiply have gotten “A’s” and “B’s” in your class?

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 7, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  6. John,

    Your post about behavior of disruptive students rings true, and is no secret. Many parents want their kids removed from the such classrooms to maximize their child’s opportunity to learn AND to secure a safe environment for their day.


    “…learning to “differentiate” is an incredibly complex skill, one you wouldn’t expect of a novice teacher, no matter how deep their content knowledge, what gold-plated university they attended, or how many classmates they beat out to be placed in a prestigious program.”

    Learning this skill is challenging but it is also something that should be taught in teacher prep programs nationwide and demanded of in their student teaching. One does not have to be an experienced teacher to differentiate/individualize/customize instruction for their class. The most important variable – the teacher has to believe it’s the best approach and willing to put in a little extra time to get it up an running.


    Joftus (or Loftus?) talks about “these kids” like they’re unique or have just sprung up in his daughter’s kindergarten class and stole her innocence and excitement for learning. And he’s angry about it? Talk about a disconnect.

    John’s spot on comment nails the wonk for his apparent insularity, and rightfully so.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 7, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

  7. Not being in one of the super-zip codes in DC and living across from a school that decided not have a library, art or music meant that I decided to go the out of boundary process in DC. We ended up at a location that had art, music, library, Chinese and was attempting to get IB certification. I assumed it did not matter if the test scores were not that great and we had a high percentage of ELL and FARM. It was a disaster. Everything became teaching the “skills” rather than content around 3rd grade because these kids would loose 2-3 reading levels every summer. Their parents really wanted more but did not have a clue how to provide it. The choice in DC to increase teacher pay has meant that other support staff such as counselors and parent out-reach are reduced or eliminated. We started out with about 30 parents with some means trying to pool our resources for providing additional supports to the school (grant writing, our own money) we were all gone within 3 years, too many issues behavioral, content teaching too weak, it was just too hard. Kids who have a hard start in life bring a lot more issues than any of us were prepared to have our kids exposed too drugs, home violence, very early exposure to sexual experiences of older siblings, parents ides of supporting their kids reading was a sponge bob book. You think you are open minded until you face a situation you don’t want your kids exposed to and you realize, you don’t want to be open minded any more.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 8, 2012 @ 4:15 am

  8. Peter,

    “13 year olds who comprehend on a 5th grade level and can’t multiply past their 6’s will not learn Algebra 1 in one year.” Exactly. That’s why teachers must individualize the pace of instruction for each student.

    The 13 year old you describe her might well need a year and a half or even two years to master Algebra I. So? She/He should have whatever time is necessary and should not be maligned for their purported deficiency.

    In the same class, that’s right, the same class, there could be a student, or several students, who could master Algebra I by the end of January. Again, this is why teachers need to individualize the pace of instruction for each student.

    With today’s technology, it should be even easier for teachers to do just that.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 8, 2012 @ 10:11 am

  9. Having been both a student and a teacher (prior to my career as an attorney), I don’t understand the advantage of “differentiating” within a classroom, instead of tracking students by their ability.

    While it may be possible, in theory, for a skilled teacher to effectively teach students with a very wide range of skills in the same classroom, why do it when you can simply put kids in classes with students who are roughly on their level?

    For one thing, tracking reduces the need for extremely experienced teachers in every single classroom, which is a practical impossibility. Another point is that I would think that kids would alternately be bored and/or overwhelmed if they are in classes with students of very different ability levels. If, in fact, good differentiating means that the kids are all working independently on different things, then you lose out on the chance for lecture and group work and other effective instructional techniques.

    Am I missing something??

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 8, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  10. @AttorneyDC You had to go and get Paul Hoss all riled up, didn’t you?

    I tend to agree with you. Some level of differentiation will always be necessary and inevitable in elementary school classrooms. But I tend to think it’s a highly overrated virtue. I’m hard-pressed to think of another skill that makes teaching more daunting for inexperienced teachers (read: most teachers) and ineffective for kids. In short, any pedagogical technique that requires a master teacher to do effectively is not going to work out very well for our most vulnerable kids and lowest performing schools

    (Don’t hurt me, Hoss)

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 8, 2012 @ 10:53 am

  11. Behavior. We are what we eat. Schools are forced to teach evolution yet draw the line when it comes to ancestral health. The food being ingested by an enormous majority of children (and adults) is a major contributing factor to behavior deficits and lack of focus in the classroom. The U.S. government through its decades-long espousal of a “low fat” diet, is killing the brains of students, teachers, and parents. I could give a laundry list of book titles on Paleolithic nutrition and fitness, well respected authors and researchers, web sites, and blogs, but powerful lobbies are at work in our schools, WIC program, and every agency that deals with food. In the event you are interested, begin with Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, then move on to Dr. Loren Cordain’s ” The Paleo Diet”, followed by Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution”, and Nora Gedgaudas’ “Primal Body, Primal Mind: Paleo Diet for Total Health and a Longer Life”. The list is endless, the proof is positive, the human body is meant to burn fat, not sugar, and we are currently a sugar-burning, obese, unhealthy society in free fall.

    Comment by Cindy — May 8, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

  12. Some excellent articles here for quick reading. I especially liked the one called “Will Cross Fit Make American Kids Smarter?” The study was done by a teacher in her low SES school in the Logan Heights area of San Diego.

    Comment by Cindy — May 8, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

  13. Attorney DC,

    Tracking went out not long after Brown v Board of Education, 1954. Tracking is discriminatory. Children are essentially clustered into “low” groups as early as five and six years old, and sadly, these are labels from which few rarely escape. There is really nothing sadder than to witness a six or seven year old LABELED inferior at such an age. “You’re in the ‘Bluebirds’ reading group, you know, the slow kids’ group.” Imagine what that can do to their egos? Still worse, this is sanctioned by adults and especially their teachers.

    Most school districts today employ an “inclusive” philosophy/model. It more accurately reflects our general society, people of all different persuasions, etc., included as part of the general population. This partly resulted from Brown but it was corroborated by IDEA in 1975 which ruled against discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

    Sure, tracking would be the easiest and most convenient method for teachers but (are you ready for the $64K question): SHOULD OUR SCHOOLS EXIST FOR THE EASE AND CONVENIENCE OF TEACHERS OR SHOULD THEY BE THERE TO MEET THE NEEDS OF THE STUDENTS?

    Tracking will not be down for breakfast tomorrow or anytime in the near future. And that, boys and girls, is a GOOD thing.


    I’ll deal with you later, young fella.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 8, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  14. Differentiation is not only an overrated practice; it’s bad policy. The best teachers are invariably specialists at teaching certain kinds of content to certain kinds of kids. But the art of specialty is rarely encouraged in teacher-preparation programs, which are too busy urging new teachers to be thirty different people to thirty different children. Might this be the real prime mover behind not only the proliferation of charters, but also the 50-percent turnover rate among neophyte teachers?

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — May 8, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

  15. Robert: I’m glad to see you agree with my point of view on the tracking vs. differentiation debate — Of course, I come at it as a former high school and middle school teacher, so don’t have the elementary school perspective, but at the high school level, I found it much easier to teach (and learn) when students were grouped at a generally similar level of skill/prior knowledge.

    Paul: I suspected that your opinion was based on a socio-political inclusion philosphy (rather than dealing with the practical issues facing today’s classrooms). I have to say that I applaud your committment to inclusion and helping those less fortunate, BUT I disagree that this philosophy should replace common sense when it comes to structuring our schools today.

    In addition, at least at the high school level, I didn’t witness tracking as you describe it as an all or nothing game — Kids weren’t tracked once and forever based on performance in first grade. Instead, in the schools I worked in, to the extent we used “tracks” at all, they were based on either current test results or the previous year’s academic peformance of the individual student. Of course, there was often trends from year to year (e.g., a student who read below grade level in 5th grade was more likely to read below grade level in 6th grade), but the actual placements were based on current (or recent) performance, not labels from early childhood.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 8, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

  16. Paul: I’d also like to respond to your idea that schools should be structured for the needs of STUDENTS rather than those of teachers TEACHERS. In my opinion, that’s a false dichotomy — Often, practices and reforms that help teachers help students (and visa versa), such as smaller class sizes or higher quality school supplies.

    With respect to tracking, specifically, I really think that tracking helps students AND teachers for two reasons:

    (1)It’s easier and more comfortable for students to learn when they’re in the company of other students of similar ability; and

    (2) Making a teacher’s job harder by avoiding grouping students by ability will hurt the students, if that teacher has to spend a good chunk of his or her limited time and resources on creating differentiated lessons, instead of devoting that time to the many other tasks performed by our teachers, including grading papers, creating high quality lesson plans, incorporating technology and audiovisual resources, contacting parents, complying with IEPs, attending IEP meetings, or providing afterschool tutoring, to name just a few. This will particularly hurt the students of new teachers (as Robert noted) who are still learning the ropes of the school and the subject they teach.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 8, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

  17. Sorry about the couple of typos in my responses above — I was typing fast ;)

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 8, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

  18. Because tracking is such a dirty word — it connotes holding students (historically low-income and minority students) to lower expectations and keeping them there — it’s probably more instructive to talk about ability grouping, which needn’t be permanent and inflexible.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 8, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

  19. Robert: Duly noted. Of course, it’s basically the same thing, but on a more individualized, flexible standard.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 8, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

  20. @James,

    Not following your rationale behind differentiation being bad policy.

    Bad policy is having a teacher, preK-20 attempt to present one lesson to the whole class, knowing full well going in, all the differences that exist in ability, readiness, and motivation of their students. Again, one lesson might be great for the teacher but can you honestly believe it’s what’s best for his/her students?

    How about the kids who already know the material about to be presented, or the ones who never mastered the teacher’s lesson(s) from weeks or months prior? It’s quite challenging for a youngster to learn long division if they still don’t know their times tables, and are also not up to snuff on their addition and subtraction facts.

    This reality exists in every classroom where learning is sequential, again K-20. It’s not simply applicable to elementary school material. How can a teacher expect students to do well in calculus or trig if they were deficient in Algebra I or II? How can a student be expected to the raciness of translating Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin to English without first mastering the vocabulary presented in Latin I and II, and probably even Latin III, not to mention all the verb declensions, conjugations, etc., etc? These are very general examples, but I hope you get where I’m coming from.

    As for the 50% turnover with new teachers after the first 3-5 years? Sure, in urban schools this is common, but you rarely see anything close to that in the burbs. And the real reason for the turnovers in urban schools? Go ahead. You can say it. We all know the answer(s).

    The real reason for the proliferation of charters has NOTHING to do with teachers not differentiating in the traditional public schools. John Webster pointed out earlier in this thread why parents opt for charter schools; to get their kids away from the felons in the neighborhood schools so they’d have a safe place to spend their school day AND to put them in an environment where hopefully education will be more valued.

    @Attorney DC

    “…at the high school level, I found it much easier to teach (and learn) when students were grouped at a generally similar level of skill/prior knowledge.” Again, with the ease and convenience for the teacher and leaving the clientele essentially fending for themselves? Until the teaching profession wakes up to the reality that schools are supposed to be there to meet the needs of the students and do not exist for the convenience and ease of the teachers, then our schools will continue to wallow in mediocrity and TEACHERS will continue to be bashed from pillar to post for their civil servant mentalities – yes, even on National Teacher Appreciation Day. You just read it, from a teacher, no less.

    “It’s easier and more comfortable for students to learn when they’re in the company of other students of similar ability.” I’ve reviewed the literature on this contention and came up empty. Homogenous classrooms exist at the secondary level because supposedly kids in a class such as Algebra I are all on the same level. No, they’re not. There are kids in that class who could breeze through the curriculum because their math background is solid. There are other kids in the same class who simply don’t belong there. They’re in no way way ready for what’s coming. This doesn’t even factor in motivation. Some kids in that class want to learn, others could care less. And again, what does the teacher do? One lesson for the whole class.

    Differentiating (not a quality method because it’s based on faux learning “styles” which have been debunked by the likes of reputable people Robert can provide)/Individualizing for new teachers, if they’ve been properly schooled in the mechanics of the craft is no big deal. I taught myself the skill between March of my first year in the classroom and the following September. Why? Because I thought it would be the BEST method for my students. I also remembered much of my time in school being bored while the teacher tried to catch everyone up to the lesson of the day or week. Golden Rule: I didn’t want to subject the kids in my classes to the same nonsense.


    “…ability grouping, which needn’t be permanent and inflexible.” Come on, big fella. How many kids from lower “ability” groups ever really escape, the label or the group? We didn’t just disembark over at Ellis Island here.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 8, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  21. Didn’t think so. No one, especially teachers wants to hear about or discuss this issue because it’s all about keeping their workload to a minimum. The students be damned.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2012 @ 6:27 am

  22. Paul: I appreciate your feedback, and I do think that schools need to be careful of keeping kids in a lower-level class who might be able to move forward to a higher-level class. However, I still believe that ON A PRACTICAL LEVEL it is much more efficient for everyone (students and teachers alike) if the class is generally on the same level.

    To give an example (from a student’s perspective): I studied Spanish over the years in school. In 8th grade, I was in a Spanish class with low-level learners who knew little Spanish. The class was too easy for me and I was frequently bored, and also embarassed by the attention from the teacher, who constantly called on me because I knew the answers. In fact, I started skipping class and walking around the halls during Spanish.

    Alternately, years later in graduate school, I enrolled in a refresher Spanish class in the evenings. This time, the tables were turned and I was by far the worst Spanish speaker in the class; Basically, all the other students were fluent Spanish speakers, while I was pretty rusty from the years that had passed since I’d last taken a Spanish course in high school. I was in over my head, and had no idea what anyone was saying. I didn’t learn much of anything, because the course was paced very far above my ability level.

    My point is that, from a practical standpoint, placing kids in classes with other students roughly on their skill level is usually going to be the most efficient and painless way to teach a class.

    While of course there will be some variation in every class, there’s no need to put students who have vastly different levels of subject knowledge in the same class, if there are enough students to arrange ability grouping by general skill level.

    Isn’t that the point of scaffolding? You take students from where they are and build to the next level of understanding — which will be much easier when the students are generally at the same base level when they begin the course.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 9, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  23. Paul Hoss, please give us some idea of how you managed to differentiate instruction in all subjects for your students. Can you provide a link to a detailed description of how this worked?

    Comment by EB — May 9, 2012 @ 8:48 am

  24. @Attorney DC,

    While you make some reasonable arguments, they simply do not pass muster in most K-12 education situations. These classes are already grouped, essentially by chronological age into “grades.” Hence your contentions fall flat for me.

    “I didn’t learn much of anything, because the course was paced very far above my ability level.” This substantiates my notion from above regarding K-12.


    Common Sense: The Missing Link in Education Reform, 2011, written by a teacher, chapter five – “Class Model”, available on Amazon and Kindle.

    If you’re a teacher, you’re probably not going to be thrilled with its seeming complexity. However, it’s really NOT that challenging, especially if you believe schools and teachers exist to meet the needs of their students.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2012 @ 10:05 am

  25. <<< If you’re a teacher, you’re probably not going to be thrilled with its seeming complexity. However, it’s really NOT that challenging, especially if you believe schools and teachers exist to meet the needs of their students.

    We've covered this ground many, many times, so I won't belabor it here and I'm content to give you the last word (this will be mine). But in the end, I view your laudable ideas as largely aspirational. It simply is not enough to "believe" in the purpose of our schools. We must be effective in delivering upon our beliefs. That, in my opinion, requires pedagogical practices that are practical and which can be mastered--not played with or improved upon--in relatively short order by an overwhelming majority of the teachers we have, not the teachers we wish we had. Given the rapid turnover in teachers, anything less exacts a price. And that price is paid by kids, not adults.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  26. Paul: You and I must have attended or taught in very different types of schools.

    In my experience with schools at the middle and high school level, students are usually grouped by grade but are then further sub-divided by ability level (especially in math and English courses).

    Of course, I’ve generally worked in relatively large schools, where there may be 400+ students in a given grade. But whether we’re talking about district-wide programs (like gifted and talented programs) or school-based class divisions (like honors, regular, and remedial English), there were usually divisions based on ability level within each grade level.

    This is what I mean by “ability grouping” and the type of course structuring that I generally support.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 9, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  27. Robert: I agree that we should probably put this topic to bed at this point, but wanted to note that I agree with your last comment, in which you noted that there is a difference between “aspirational” goals and the reality on the ground. I think that you and I fall on the reality side of that line, in that we want to adopt practices that, in the real world, will work, rather than promoting practices that would be appealing in theory.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 9, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  28. @Robert,

    “We must be effective in delivering upon our beliefs. That, in my opinion, requires pedagogical practices that are practical and which can be mastered–not played with or improved upon–in relatively short order by an overwhelming majority of the teachers we have, not the teachers we wish we had.”

    One does not need to be the second coming of Jaime Alfonso Escalante to individualize the pace of instruction for their students. However, if they don’t believe this approach is what’s best for their students their efforts and their results will never succeed.

    And sure, Attorney DC, we should put this topic to bed, and with it the needs of our students will continue to be back-burnered. This, all for the ease and convenience of operation for the teacher. Adult-centered schools are a major problem, if not THE problem with public education. Again, what about the clientele, our students?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  29. Aaaargh. Paul, I have long applauded your commitment and approach, and I mean that in earnest. But it simply won’t do to frame this in terms of “belief.” My “belief” in an approach is truly irrelevant. Forgive me my crankiness, but I do not agree that “adult centered schools are THE problem with public education.” I would sooner argue that BELIEF is a higher hurdle.

    Back in the day I worked with an editor at TIME who used to chide reporters. “Don’t tell me what you think,” he said. “Tell me what you found out.” (How gloriously anachronistic that now sounds). Well I’m tired, frankly, of the doctrinaire lecturing about our need for “belief.” Don’t tell me what you believe, or more to the point what I should believe. Tell me what you can accomplish. If “belief” is a prerequisite, it’s a nonstarter. We don’t ask the doctor to believe in xrays, or the cable installer to believe in coaxial cable. Teaching needs to wean itself off its dependence on philosophy and belief and focus a little more on what is achievable, not cherished ideals.

    I broke my pick against the rocks of differentiated instruction for years and never felt I came close to its imagined ideal. You can argue I was a lousy teacher, and I won’t put up a fight, but I doubt I was atypical. I walked into class a relatively sentient being, committed to doing the best I could for my kids. If it was effective, I was interested. But I needed — no, my STUDENTS needed — an effective teacher immediately. Not eventually. We need teacher training, pedagogical practices, materials and tools that work for those people. Today.

    OK, now I am really done. Unless of course you insist on talking about “beliefs” some more.



    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  30. Paul: I think we’re talking at cross-purposes. I strongly believe that ability-grouping is an effective strategy for both students and their teachers, because it is the easiest way for the lesson to be paced at the appropriate level. It almost seems like you’re arguing that teaching should be made harder for teachers, just for the hell of it.

    Of course we could try to eat soup with a fork, but we eat it with a spoon because it’s easier. Is that bad?

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 9, 2012 @ 11:54 am

  31. Now, now, no need to become flustered, Robert.

    No one, is going to walk in off the street, fresh from college or graduate school and be totally effective on day one in front of their class. Clark Kent and Lois Lane are booked solid for the next century, at least that’s what Jimmy Olsen tells the public.

    I’m convinced that “belief” in a teaching philosophy/approach is paramount to its success. If I didn’t believe in Donny’s Core Knowledge philosophy I never would have used it and sent all my kids on to their Ivy League schools. Heck, if folks her didn’t “believe” in CK you’d have no followers here and you’d be back at TIME magazine worried about when they were going to under.

    My orthodoxy can work for anyone who believes in it and is willing to put in the time and effort. Again, being Jaime Escalante is not a pre-requisite.

    Right back at ya with the aaaarghs and harrumphs, respectfully, of course.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  32. “I believe I can fly!” R. Kelly.
    “Lock the windows.” R. Pondiscio

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

  33. @Attorney DC,

    Agreed, ability-grouping is an effective strategy for teachers, because it is the easiest way for the lesson to be presented. For students, with all the differences we know about, no way.

    I am not contending that teaching should be made harder for teachers for the halibut either. I am contending that learning should be made easier and more customized for students, the purported focus of schools.

    Sure, it’s easier to eat soup with a spoon but we’re not talking about eating soup. We’re talking about the best way to educate children. Schools should be about advancing the best, most effective ways students learn. If this poses as an inconvenience for teachers, I’m not concerned. Trix and schools are for kids, not teachers.


    Flying v teaching. Here’s another analogy new to me not unlike Attorney’s eating soup with a fork. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to fly but I do believe in what I, or anyone, can do in a classroom, IF they believe in it.

    “Learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.” Tom Petty with accompaniment by Paul Hoss

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 9, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

  34. Wow.
    If I were not required to teach specific content per grade, indeed I could tailor much better instruction to meet student needs. when you have 28-30 students in 5 periods with varying levels of ability, backgound knowledge and work ethic, differentiation may improve access but I have yet to see it guarantee eqwual outcomes.
    Yes, you may need a year and a half to master Algebra 1, but you won’t get a passing grade in my class that year. You may know more math than when you started, but you may not meet the objectives of that class then. We can argue the validity of that approach, but that is the reality of instruction, standards, content and assessment today.

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 9, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

  35. “equal”

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 9, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  36. Paul Hoss, I cannot buy a book in order to satisfy my curiosity about your method. Please provide a link to an on-line, detailed description of how it works.

    Comment by EB — May 9, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  37. Try this, EB:

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 9, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

  38. Finland does not have tracking. But they do have intensive tutoring for those who seem to have difficulty in mastering the material.

    Comment by Harold — May 9, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

  39. Thanks, Robert. Mr. Hoss is very convinced, and apparently this worked for him for many years. For me to be convinced that this can work other than as an outlier, even for the top 10% of teachers, I guess I’d need video of an entire day in his classroom, and samples of the work the students are doing that moves them along. There is just something counterintuitive about the claim that 3 or 4 minutes of instruction in each major topic could be enough for students to master the material. And him comments about middle school, high school, and college are just downright off the wall.

    Comment by EB — May 10, 2012 @ 8:39 am

  40. @Peter,

    “…you may need a year and a half to master Algebra 1, but you won’t get a passing grade in my class that year.” Therein, lies the rub on how our classrooms operate. They are not run to meet the (different) needs of our students, even though the students are supposed to be the focal point of our schools. Aren’t they?

    I’m convinced, you’ve been in classes before where the instructor was going too fast or too slow for your liking. You were either bored or overwhelmed by their pace. Well, that’s how many kids feel in schools today because they’re not the focal point of operation. The teacher and the teacher’s pace of instruction are driving the bloody bus, AND IT’S WRONG.

    I’ve individualized the pace of instruction for 32 kids in an elementary classroom in math, ELA, social studies, and science. Please don’t tell me it can’t be done. The kicker – in this heterogeneous/inclusive classroom many of these kids were above and below grade level, some two to three years either way. I’m supposed to ignore this fact and teach one lesson in each discipline to the whole class? Again, that’s the easiest and most convenient approach for the teacher but it ain’t gettin ‘er done for the students.

    As for guaranteeing equal outcomes, that’s impossible. The student differences entering the class precludes any possibility thereof. What this model does guarantee as coined by Anthony Carnivale of Georgetown is the “Goldilocks” model of education; where the pace of instruction is not too fast or too slow, simply “just right” for each youngster.


    The CK blog entry Robert refers to does not explain the mechanics of how these ad hoc “skill” groups work. Not trying to peddle my book – honestly. Buy the book and send me the bill or send me your address and I’ll mail you a complimentary copy.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 10, 2012 @ 8:45 am

  41. That’s a generous offer, Paul. (And you are one of the most civil bloggers I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with). I do not have Outlook, so can’t send you my address. I’ll try to get a copy of the book when it’s out).

    Comment by EB — May 10, 2012 @ 9:34 am

  42. Paul: Two comments —

    Point #1: I agree with you that students get bored or frustrated when material is paced well above or below their level. Your solution seems to be that students should all stay in the same classroom, and that the teacher should individualize instruction. My solution is that the students should be sorted into different classes based on their level, such that in any given class, the students are as much on the same page as possible. In the real world, there will probably need to be a little of both. But if we can eliminate the largest variations between students in a single classroom, that will help the teacher and the students.

    Point #2: It seems that you think that making lesson planning easier on the teachers HAS NO EFFECT on the students and is simply a perk to be enjoyed by the teachers, who presumably would use this extra time to fritter away on themselves. However, I firmly believe that making lesson planning easier on teachers will HELP the students because the teachers will be able to use this extra time to improve/polish each lesson for the whole class AND have extra time to devote to grading, individual tutoring, parent meetings, IEP’s and other important tasks.

    In addition, I’ve taught in classes where kids are all working individually on their own assignments (similar to a study hall format) and I think that they have definite drawbacks — no group projects, no whole-class instruction, no debate among the students, no learning from other students, no lectures or note-taking by the students (an important skill for high school). Not to say that individualized learning is useless, but it’s not the same as an energized class with student interaction.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 10, 2012 @ 9:53 am

  43. Paul: I re-read my comment, above, and I noticed that my point #2 might sound a little snarky (about teachers ‘frittering away’ time on themselves) — I’d like to apologize for my tone there. I guess I just get irritated with all the insinuations about “lazy” teachers in the media. In my experience, most teachers are trying pretty damn hard in a difficult job, and free time, if any, is used for improving lesson plans or other classroom tasks or possibly for well-needed sleep. None of these things hurt the students, and most help them.

    I know I taught better (more energized, better prepared) when my course assignments were “easier” (fewer preps, more planning time) than when they were “harder” (many preps, less planning time) and I’d presume most other teachers are the same way.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 10, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  44. I noticed in Hoss’s description of differentiated instruction he says “each group only needed on average five minutes of my time per day.” This works if you are teaching balanced literacy strategies, but how does this work if you are teaching beginning phonics to 4th graders who can barely read? This has been my problem with differentiation. In practice, it means less direct instruction–the very thing that has proven effective in helping kids who read below grade level. It means more “independent reading” time, which is not effective for beginning readers. Beginning readers need not just more practice reading but “perfect practice.” Perfect practice requires a teacher to make sure that students are not developing bad reading habits (ie, guessing, looking a pictures) that will be hard to break.

    Comment by alamo — May 10, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

  45. Good points, Alamo. I can’t speak to elementary reading education myself (as a former middle/high school teacher), but I agree with your observation that differentiated instruction results in reduced direct instruction by the teacher. I alluded to this generally in my previous comment, where I noted that whole-class instruction and other useful teaching strategies are missing in differentiated classrooms.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 10, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  46. @EB

    The book is currently available on Amazon or Kindle. Your reaction to my comments regarding secondary and college instruction are typical. For some reason most of these/you folks seem to believe you’d be exempt from presenting in this manner; not in my opinion, not for a minute.

    As for civil, if someone is civil to me, that’s my nature to return the civility. It’s quite different on some other sites. Some of the bloggers get quite obnoxious and are more interested in confrontation than the free exchange of idea. Robert’s blog is almost always very cordial. It’s a good place to visit and chime in.


    Each group genuinely did need only a very short time per day for instruction if the sequences are broken down appropriately. Individualizing, done correctly, is simply that efficient where kids don’t need much in review time from the previous skill. They’re learning something new and that’s their focus. You meet with them daily and they’re off and running.

    @Attorney DC,

    Yes, most teachers are trying hard and doing their best. My only complaint – they haven’t been trained to do what’s best for their students.

    Your point 1 from above suggests tracking and as discussed earlier here, not good and not going to happen.

    As for point 2, lesson plans for an individualized classroom are really no more complicated than a traditional class. If you have a lesson plan for multiplying fractions you don’t need a new one when the next set of kids comes to that concept. The kids progress through the sequence at their pace. The lessons don’t really need to change significantly. As Robert will point out when he returns from being patted down on the train back and forth to Boston (justifiably) the whole notion of learning styles has been debunked so the lessons themselves can be relatively constant. Also, in an individualized classroom kids are helping each other and working with each other regularly. It’s the rule, not the exception. It’s part of the hidden structure discussed in the book.

    And I detected nothing resembling snarky.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 10, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

  47. Paul, I think the reason I (and others) are willing to consider your method for K-6, but not for higher levels, is that by that time you want the kids to be able to learn from short lectures, from whole-class discussion, and from labs. You not only want it, you are pretty much obligated to teach in a way that demands that students stretch themselves. The individualization comes from their choice of classes, and their choice of research topics for essays and papers. By college, they are adults and do not have to be catered to. Or, rather, they have to learn to cater to themselves by seeking tutoring, or by choosing harder classes.

    Comment by EB — May 10, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  48. @ Paul

    “Each group genuinely did need only a very short time per day for instruction if the sequences are broken down appropriately. Individualizing, done correctly, is simply that efficient where kids don’t need much in review time from the previous skill.”

    You’re not saying that you can teach any subject to any student with only 5 minutes of direct instruction are you?

    Also, there are certain skills–ie, learning to read, learning a foreign language, driving a car–that require review in order to develop automaticity.

    So no, I don’t think that differentiation is always the best approach. In fact, I think that the desire for differentiation is what has led to the preponderance of “strategy” instruction in place of phonics & content instruction in reading. With strategy instruction, you spend 5 minutes teaching a group about cause & effect. Then they spend (waste) most of the rest of the reading block filling out graphic organizers for whatever book they choose to read on their Fountas & Pinnell reading level while the teacher spends time with other groups.

    Conversely, if you are teaching phonics, 5 minutes is not enough time to reach mastery in decoding fluently, as beginning readers need lots of practice and immediate error correction.

    And if you are teaching content, going deeply into a text is obviously going to take more than 5 minutes with the teacher.

    Comment by alamo — May 10, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  49. @EB,

    Remembering my college freshman writing class there were about twenty students in the class. These twenty kids were from twenty different high schools, with more than half from out of state, while two were from different countries (Kenya and India). The instructor presented one lesson, twice a week for the entire semester and these twenty freshman benefited optimally from this class? They did not.

    I still remember trying to help the two foreign exchange students every week. As for the other kids in the class, some were proficient enough to be on their own while some really struggled with the writing process. This is not an unusual scenario for a number of college courses. One lesson for the whole class, again, is convenient for the instructor but the class gets short changed – big time.


    Yes, learning to read or learning a foreign language take time and practice, but they do NOT require a great deal of hand-holding instruction.

    If the concept or unit for the week is long “a” the teacher can easily get this notion across in a short period of time via examples. From there the student can be expected to get to the story(s) exposing them to the long “a” and see this concept in context. From there, the more reading they’re able to do on their own reinforces what they learned in the direct lesson from the teacher.

    In fact, once a youngster learns to decode they can be left more increasingly on their own, reading and developing their real “reading” ability (to comprehend) by building up their warehouse of core knowledge. I told my kids regularly, reading is like many things in life; playing a sport or a musical instrument, anything. If you want to get better at anything, you must “practice,” as much as you can; and that reading was the same. Everyone reads quite a bit every day in school. If you want to catch up to the better readers in the class you need to plan on spending extra time outside of school – reading your brains out. I also emphasized the necessity of non-fiction, over and over again.

    Some kids might need a reinforcement lesson or two on different units and that’s okay because we have recognized, all kids are different.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 11, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  50. @paul:

    “they do NOT require a great deal of hand-holding instruction.”

    What you call “hand holding” I call “immediate error correction.” Yes, it would be nice and egalitarian and democratic if teachers were just the “guide on the side,” piping up only every few minutes while students spent the majority of the time constructing their own knowledge. But now, after years of accumulated research, we can look at schools that use this method (whole language aka balanced literacy) and see that it does not work, at least for most poor, Black and Latino kids illiterate. These are the kids I work with, kids who need direct, explict instruction. And, just as a student driver needs a driver’s ed teacher in the passenger’s seat, my students need me by their side as they practice their newly learned skills.

    These students DO need me to be there to correct errors as they occur, to break bad habits and encourage good ones. And since I am there the whole time, I know when they have had enough practice and are ready to move on.

    “If the concept or unit for the week is long “a” the teacher can easily get this notion across in a short period of time via examples.”

    Actually, research shows that the best way to teach phonics is through synthetic phonics. And this approach does *not* lend itself to the 5 minutes teaching/30 minutes independent practice model. The way I teach (using Abecedarian) it’s alternating between 3-5 minutes teaching, 3-5 minutes practicing in a reading block of 45 min-1 hour. But the time it takes to actually teach and practice is determined by the students. If they need more or less time, I give it to them. I don’t have to worry about running off to another group, so we can take extra time to teach and practice, when necessary.

    Then there’s programs like Jolly Phonics, which have a lot of songs and games and necessarily require a teacher to be present to lead the songs and games.

    Comment by alamo — May 11, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

  51. @Mr. Hoss:
    As I’ve said before: in California, the end-of-year California Standards Tests (CST), for better or worse, are how schools and students are judged. Until you change that assessment, I am responsible for students mastering Algebra 1 at the end of their 8th grade year as defined by our standards and frameworks. Yes, I could create a detailed, tailored portfolio of what students have or have not accomplished, but my students must take that test at the end of the year.
    A separate but significant issue is why I have students who are not prepared for Algebra 1 in my class in the first place, or students who have mastered that content already. If the parents/taxpayers of my community are happy with me tailoring instruction so an 8th grader who can’t multiply can now multiply, but still not know any Algebra 1 leaving 8th grade, I can do that. If they don’t mind no improvement in our API, or a ‘flat-lining’ of my value-added evaluation, I’m okay with that, too.
    What type of historical, statistical success have you accomplished tailoring instruction to student needs? Do you have the same type of NCLB reporting/assessment at your school?

    Comment by Peter Ford — May 12, 2012 @ 7:51 am

  52. @Peter,

    Here in Massachusetts we’re lucky to have the best public schools in the country. Our grade level tests, MCAS, is second to none in terms of rigor and validity. Most of my kids always scored proficient or advanced on these tests. Occasionally, someone would stumble, but they were clearly a special education youngster with multiple issues.

    One of the by-products of the classroom model I’ve described is the advanced pace at which most kids were able to learn. They realized soon in the year they were not allowed to move forward in the sequence without first mastering what they were on. This gave most infinite confidence in their standing and their ability/necessity to move forward in the curricula.

    Once in awhile someone would say, “Mr. Hoss, I don’t think I can do this,” whereupon I’d reply, “But you’ve passed everything leading up to it. Of course you can handle this unit/skill.” Fortunately, that was usually enough to get them over the hump. TLC; it’s a good thing when used appropriately.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 12, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  53. If it only takes 5 minutes of instruction per student, there would be a way to coordinate things such that one teacher could handle a entire grade of several classrooms, or perhaps even an entire school, with only classroom monitors around the rest of the time. That is, you could put all the students who need 5 minutes on a particular level together, and then just have the teacher teach one classroom of 30 kids at that level for 5 minutes, then go to the next classroom at a different level for another 5 minutes, and so on throughout the day. Kids would be getting the exact same thing that Paul Hoss has recommended: 5 minutes.

    Here’s the thing, though: why would that one-teacher-per-school-with-5-minutes-per-kid system be better than dividing up the classrooms in the same way and giving each of them a teacher who teachers for, say, 10 minutes per subject? Say even 20 minutes per subject? If the teacher can add value for 20 whole minutes, as certainly seems possible, why wouldn’t 20 minutes of instruction be better than 5?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 13, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  54. @Stuart,

    Remember, how long did it take you to grasp a concept such as nouns, regrouping (borrowing), the weather cycle, the Louisiana Purchase?

    My model calls for five minutes (or so) per day for about a week. Could you master any of these units in that period of time? Many kids not only did, they flourished under such instruction/reinforcement. Again, if the pre-requisites in the sequence are MASTERED, learning the new skill or concept is that much easier. It worked – great. Sure, some kids needed longer or a second run through of the concept, that’s understandable and permissible. It’s simply a fact. Some kids need longer to learn a skill or concept while others do not. That’s the premise of this whole model – kids are different.

    At least this model acknowledges this fact and attempts to address it. That is not the case with one lesson for the whole class.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 13, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

  55. <<< At least this model acknowledges this fact and attempts to address it.

    So does ability grouping.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 13, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

  56. Right, Paul — one lesson for the whole class (if the students are at drastically different levels) doesn’t make any sense. I’m just asking why the answer is to divide up the teacher’s attention such that, by your own account, everyone gets about just a tiny fraction of the instructional time that would be possible if kids were grouped together more appropriately?

    Put into somewhat hypothetical terms, imagine that kids’ math ability can be ranked from 1 to 100, and that out of 30 kids, you have a classroom with individual kids at every possible rank — 1, 4, 7, 10, 13, and so on all the way up. So you divide up your time by 30 and give each child a tiny piece of instruction at their level. Suppose that there are 30 other classrooms in which teachers are also giving each child a miniscule bit of instruction every once in a while.

    OK, so maybe that makes more sense than giving a lecture that is right at the level of only one kid in the class. But that’s not the issue. The issue is why it wouldn’t be better to put all the “1″ kids in the same class, all the 30 “4″ kids in the same class, and so on. Then the teacher who now has all the 1′s can lecture for 30 minutes or for two hours, if she needs to, giving all the 1′s many times as much instruction as they’re getting under your system.

    Why is that a bad idea in instructional terms? Do you think having more time and attention from a teacher is inherently harmful?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 13, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  57. @Stuart,

    In a thirty six week school year, if the units are each a week long (they could be longer/shorter), then as the year progresses most of the class will also, regularly; some more regularly (every week) than others. By, say, the third week of December, there could be three kids on unit 15, four on unit 14, two on 13, and so on; till you get to the last one or two on unit 8 of the same week. This could easily equate to eight to nine “groups” progressing at THEIR pace dependent on demonstration of mastery in the respective unit. Five minutes (or so) per “group” and they’re good to go – REALLY.

    That’s an example of one discipline (math?). Multiply that across the four main disciplines and it works out to three and a half to four hours of instruction needed each day. It was also not uncommon to run science and social studies units on alternate weeks, giving more time for ELA components (reading, grammar, writing, spelling, phonics, etc.).

    Demanding? You betcha, but great for keeping kids on their respective instructional levels in all subjects. Shouldn’t all teachers be optimally focusing on each student’s PACE, the speed at which each can progress through the curricula, rather than a speed that is convenient for the teacher?


    Last I heard, you were still being patted down at Penn Station as some kind of person of interest.

    Ability groups? Should we plug your child into Robins, Bluejays, or Sparrows?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 13, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  58. Bluebirds, please. I got more individual attention in my Penn Station pat down than my daughter would get in your ideal classroom. And kids don’t need aviary-themed groups to know who the high-fliers are vs. the ground dwellers. The idea that you can fool them is for the birds.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 13, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  59. Kids indeed know the high flyers because they’re essentially locked into their bird houses via the iron gates of bureaucracy.

    Under my model, kids can do well on a series of units/concepts, stumble a bit on one ore two, then breeze along again. Under the traditional “group” model, kids go at the pace of the others in the group or the one dictated by the teacher. Not the best conveyor of learning for individuals.

    And Katy would get more individual attention in one of these five minute ad hoc groups than in an entire day from ability groups. It would also be more meaningful and relevant to her because it would all be at HER instructional level, not the level the “group” happens to be working on at the time, or the pace the teacher believes best for the kids.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 14, 2012 @ 6:17 am

  60. Stuart Buck: I agree with you that, if possible, it makes the most sense to place students with other students on a similar level in that subject.

    Of course, it may not always be possible, but if it’s possible, then such placement gives the teacher maximum flexibility with regard to the types of lessons and teaching instruction used with the class (group projects, lecturing, peer review, individual work). Why tie a teacher’s hands and limit the students to one teaching strategy (individual work) if it’s not necessary?

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 14, 2012 @ 11:04 am

  61. Paul how long did it take you to get to the point where you were comfortable enough with the material and the expectations of that grade to be able to do this system? My 5th grader has a new teacher and finding any type of balance in differentiation, let alone content has been a very frustrating experience for a parent. I have seen teacher do this but all of them had 6 plus years of experience and several at that grade level. Maybe the real issue is that we walk people into classrooms and say teach.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 14, 2012 @ 7:55 pm

  62. The epiphany hit me in March of my first year in the classroom. I thought back to all the times in school I had been bored. I spent the rest of my first year and that summer preparing for the change. The following September I was off and running in math and ELA. By the end of that year I had everything individualized.

    The “Golden Rule” jumped up and bit me. I didn’t want my students to be subject to the same teacher-centered classroom I experienced for my time in school. It just didn’t seem right. It seemed as though I HAD to do this for my kids if this was going to be my lifelong profession.

    Having exposure to two Ivy League graduate programs with their comprehensive readings also privileged me to realize this different approach, one in which the students are the focus of school, not the teacher.

    MANY teachers do an outstanding job in traditional classrooms. I wish they had the same learning opportunities and exposures to different approaches I had.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 15, 2012 @ 5:48 am

  63. Paul continues to be (rightly) concerned with the problem of students being bored in a class that is too easy for them or being frustrated in a class that is too hard for them. I agree with his concern. I just still don’t understand why Paul thinks the best solution is to place kids of widely different abilities in the same class and then attempt to differentiate instruction — Rather than simply sorting kids by ability level and grouping like with like for a given subject.

    Maybe this is a difference between elementary education and middle/high school instruction (where I worked for most of my time in the classroom), but at least at the middle and high school level, it’s not that difficult to group kids by general ability level, particularly in math and English classes.

    In my experience, having taken mostly honors or gifted courses in my K-12 years, I rarely felt bored or frustrated in class — there were a few exceptions, but, generally, when I was placed with other honors kids in honors classes, I felt pretty comfortable with the pace of the class, and so did most of my classmates. I didn’t need differentiated instruction — I just needed to be placed with other similarly-skilled students.

    What am I missing here?

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 15, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  64. In secondary classes kids are essentially ability grouped.

    First, this is still tracking and tracking is WRONG.

    Second, if you examine closely any of these classes there will ALWAYS be a handful of kids at the top who could go much faster and kids at the other end who simply need more time to master the material. It would be a very rare class indeed where you might find all 20-25 kids able to progress at the same pace. Again, great for the teacher but the kids at the top and bottom of the bell curve are not appropriately served.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 15, 2012 @ 11:47 am

  65. Paul: I guess I can see that in any class of 25-35 kids (even ability-grouped classes) there will be some kids at the top and some kids at the bottom.

    But in my experience at the secondary level, I don’t think it’s worth the downsides to try to create separate lesson plans for individual students within a class, unless the kids are really far off the mean. The problem with doing separate lesson plans is: (1) It takes a lot of the teacher’s time, that could more profitably be spent on other tasks, including perfecting one lesson plan for the whole class; (2) It significantly reduces the amount of time the teacher spends interacting with each student; and (3) It severely limits the type of instruction or activities available to the classroom, including making things like lecture, group work, movie clips, outside speakers and other activities difficult if not impossible.

    In my opinion, for a class where the kids are pretty much on the same page, trying to “differentiate” just isn’t worth it.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 15, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  66. “Tracking is WRONG”

    Any reasons for this exclamation? It’s certainly not a self-evident truth.

    For example, imagine a sequence of Calculus I, Calculus II, and Calculus III, meant for engineering majors. It’s “WRONG” to put the students who are new to Calculus together in Calculus I, the students who have had Calculus I already into Calculus II, and so forth? Instead, we should make all three classes a random mix of students, and then expect the teacher to go around the room spending 5 minutes at a time teaching one student a Calculus I concept, another student a Calculus II concept, and another student a Calculus III concept?

    Are there any universities who have ever tried this method of instruction? Why not? Why don’t they share the quasi-religious belief that “tracking” kids by prerequisites (meaning, by prior knowledge) is “WRONG”?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 15, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  67. Good points, Mr. Buck. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I didn’t have time to address all of Paul’s points in my last response, but you really hit the nail on the head.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 15, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  68. Thanks! Maybe I’ve seen someone make this point before, but it just struck me how weird it is that our universities consist of pretty much nothing but “tracking” but that K-12 is so different.

    In universities, prerequisites are what matter most, not age. If you’re 14 but have mastered Calculus II, you can go right into Calculus III, no questions asked. If you’re a returning student at 50 but have never taken algebra, forget about going into Calculus III; you’re going to have to do the prerequisites first or test out of them.

    Skill and knowledge are preeminent, not chronological age. And everyone agrees, without it ever even being questioned, that it would be ridiculous to toss a bunch of people with completely different backgrounds and prerequisites into the same calculus class just because they were all 19 that year.

    Why are our K-12 schools so completely opposite?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 15, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  69. Stuart makes some interesting observations but I believe we have a different view of tracking v. placement. And from an egalitarian standpoint, tracking is still WRONG.

    Of course no one is going to be placed in a calculus or trigonometry class unless they have first had Alg I & II. That’s a placement issue and it stands to reason.

    Tracking, on the other hand, is assigning a student (yes, usually K-12) to a class/group, usually from a very early age. What’s wrong with tracking is it unfortunately locks (the lower) kids into groups from this early age, groups from which many rarely escape. It also is a ball buster on the self esteem front. If you trace back through this thread this issue was addressed earlier.

    It might also be worth mentioning my distaste for traditional whole group instruction practically sets kids up for mediocrity, as in ANAR’s “rising tide of mediocrity.” If kids are progressing through school in lockstep it’s tantamount to an assembly line, only schools progress essentially by age where an assembly line progresses by parts added to the final product. Talk about treating kids like widgets.

    While I realize the secondary level branches kids out into college v terminal tracks, each of these tracks progress in lockstep with their classmates from the same grouping. Not terribly conducive to allowing kids to soar in certain fields.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 15, 2012 @ 7:10 pm

  70. <<< Everyone agrees, without it ever even being questioned, that it would be ridiculous to toss a bunch of people with completely different backgrounds and prerequisites into the same class....why are our K-12 schools so completely opposite?

    Why? It's doesn't matter what deficits a child comes to class with. A good teacher is the the key to ensuring that EVERY child succeeds. Everyone knows THAT!

    (It is is!!!)

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 15, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  71. The move to full inclusion of all skill levels in the lower grade (K-6) classrooms has been entrenched now for several decades. It has come to the point now that students who have been forced through circumstances into non-gifted/talented or honors tracks are judged to not be able to handle the “traditional mode” of education. The traditional mode of education is held by many in the educational establishment to have failed many students and is reserved for those who can handle it–the brighter kids. The ones who don’t qualify for the gifted and talented programs are thus “protected” from traditional methods and enjoy the so-called benefits of working in groups, and inquiry-based, student-centered projects. In being protected from learning these students are therefore not presented with the choice to work hard—and many happily comply in a system that caters to it. Despite its public disdain for tracking, the education establishment has created an inherent and insidious tracking system that leaves many students behind. They have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement.
    Students who have been put on the protection-from-learning track fulfill the low expectations that have been conferred upon them. The education establishment’s view of this situation is a shrug, and—despite their justifications for the inquiry-based and student-centered approach that brings out all children’s’ “innate” knowledge of math—respond with “Maybe your child just isn’t good in math”. The admonition carries to subjects beyond math and is extended to “Maybe your child isn’t college material.” And while it is true that a “college for all” goal is unrealistic, the view that so many students somehow are lacking in cognitive ability raises serious questions. Simply put, you no longer have to be a minority to be told you may not have cognitive ability.

    Comment by Barry GArelick — May 15, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

  72. What’s wrong with tracking is it unfortunately locks (the lower) kids into groups from this early age, groups from which many rarely escape.

    That may be true, but it only serves to highlight another way in which K-12 very weirdly departs from the norms at university. At university, if you start out in remedial math, no one is going to lock you into remedial classes for the rest of your college career. If you do great in remedial math, you are perfectly free to go on to regular college algebra, calculus, or anything else for which you are ready.

    So again, what’s wrong with K-12 that schools act as if it’s intrinsically impossible to do what universities do all the time?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 15, 2012 @ 9:26 pm

  73. Hope you were being facetious with this post.

    “…another way in which K-12 very weirdly departs from the norms at university.” Stuart, there are differences in approaches for an 8-9 year old v a 20-21 year old for some obvious reasons; independence, maturity, background knowledge, wherewithal, etc.

    At university, if you start out in remedial math? There’s an oxymoron in there somewhere, isn’t there? While I realize you were stating an obvious reality here, it never ceases to amaze me the now ubiquitous acceptance of this insanity – primarily for the fiscal well being of many of these institutions of “higher”(?) education.

    Personally, I’d prefer to see colleges/universities do what K-12 does all the time. I believe it to be a good thing that K-12 departs from the norms at university. Maybe then, professors would do something more meaningful than stand in front of their classes and drone on and on in lecture format for the hour while students either struggle to keep good notes or nod off into Never-Neverland. That’s teaching? No that’s absurd. It’s a joke and an embarrassment to the profession that teaching has not progressed beyond the practice Socrates employed centuries ago. It does NOTHING for students, except put them and/or their parents in debt up to their eyeballs.

    Again, that tide keeps coming in with mediocrity spilling all over the shoreline from this approach.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 16, 2012 @ 6:15 am

  74. “What’s wrong with tracking is it unfortunately locks (the lower) kids into groups from this early age, groups from which many rarely escape.”

    It doesn’t have to be this way. You could have a flexible grouping system, in which students are assessed every few months and groups are reconfigured based on those assessments.

    “If kids are progressing through school in lockstep it’s tantamount to an assembly line.”

    So are universities like assembly lines? Or Ted Talks? I just don’t get how address a group of people is automatically dehumanizing.

    Do you work at a Core Knowledge school? I am curious if differentiation is practiced at CK schools and if so, how do they manage to delve deeply into a text and build relevant background knowledge when teachers are limited to 5 minutes with each group?

    Comment by alamo — May 16, 2012 @ 6:31 am

  75. alamo,

    Never worked in a CK school but used the material regularly.

    Robert assured me a year or so ago the CK school fifteen minutes from my house uses differentiation of instruction. Knowing the Headmistress of this school I’d be interested in seeing their model but haven’t done so, neglectfully.

    Don’t believe I ever said addressing a group was dehumanizing, it’s simply not optimal for the individuals.

    All kids are on their appropriate instructional level regardless of which ad hoc group they wind up in from week to week. And you are able to delve deeply into subject matter in such a short time because of the level of mastery necessary to advance through the curriculum.

    Flexible grouping is better than ability groups but there’s still not strict enough adherence to the notion of kids learning at different rates. What happens to someone who is advancing through the material and all of a sudden hits a snag, and stumbles for a week or two. Their flexible group won’t be waiting for them to master that unit, they’ll be moving on at the teacher’s pace for the group. Not good for that kiddo.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 16, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  76. Paul seems to be focused on the elementary school age instruction (I think he taught at that level?) while Stuart Buck and I are coming it from an upper-level instructional standpoint.

    I can’t speak to early elementary ed (b/c I never taught at that level), but I think that Paul’s ideas about individualized instruction break down as you progress through junior high, high school and college level coursework.

    Especially at the high school and college level, students can select courses based on their general ability and pre-knowledge level. Students who take Spanish I in 8th grade can take Spanish II in 9th grade. This allows for classes where the kids are pretty much at the same level at the same time. Of course, there will be minor variations in each class, but not enough of a difference to require individual lesson plans for each kid — especially when such individualized instruction would make it impossible for lecture, note-taking, group work, lab work and many other important teaching tools.

    Frankly, I don’t see how you could learn Art History without lecture/slides/museum trips or how you could learn a foreign language well without verbal interaction and speaking with the teacher or other students. While I can’t speak as an expert with regard to early elementary school instruction, I strongly believe that individual, differentiated instruction is NOT the best way to teach the majority of subjects at the high school and college levels.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 16, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  77. Once again — as usual — I’m going to invoke “Pondiscio’s First Law of Education, which states there is no good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment in hardens into orthodoxy.

    Differentiation is a good idea. It is a vital teaching tool. It is not the True and Only road to success.

    Ability grouping makes good practical sense. It is not malpractice, and it need not be tantamount to a student’s educational destiny, either at the high or low end.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 16, 2012 @ 10:39 am

  78. Robert: That’s a good point about education concepts being overused and overapplied.

    I remember one particular example from my days teaching in California, where we were required to use the Reader/Writer Workshop method of teaching English, which was developed in New England, I believe, for elementary school students. The problem was that I was teaching 8th grade in a low-income minority school, where my students were teenagers. We were required to sit in a circle for certain parts of the lesson, which is probably fine in 3rd grade, but was much less appropriate for a class of 14 and 15 year olds — particularly because many of the girls wore short skirts, which made sitting on the floor especially awkward. But the principal insisted on using this method with no deviation (although eventually we were permitted to use chairs) because this was the way it was originally designed.

    Again, an example of what was probably a good idea (I believe R/W Workshop worked well for the middle-class, elementary school kids in the first groups) that became a less good idea when it was forcibly overapplied.

    Comment by Attorney DC — May 16, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  79. Oh, you guys are no fun.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 16, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  80. Fun exists for the convenience of teachers, Paul. We’re about the children here.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 16, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

  81. Robert,

    Thank you for tolerating this week long (plus) dialogue. It seemed to remain positive, for the most part. Just wish some of the contributors had a chance to see this model up and running. Then we’d show ‘em, wouldn’t we.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 16, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  82. Washington Post just did this profile on a class in a less affluent section of Montgomery County implementing this small group/differentiation theory–in-one-class/2012/05/15/gIQAv1lUSU_story.html

    What jumps out to me is the question of ESL kids, I wonder if we can really address the needs of these kids in these settings?

    Comment by DC Parent — May 16, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

  83. That’s an interesting article, DC Parent.

    But all this talk about different levels of instruction in a single grade classroom reminds me: If we did a good job of teaching our kids what they need to know at each grade level–starting in kinder–we wouldn’t have 2nd grade kids performing at 3 or 4 different grade levels in one class. We wouldn’t have a 2nd grade class where students barely know how to add and write numbers, because they would have mastered that in kinder. But instead of ensuring that kids master grade-level material each year, starting at kinder, the kids just keep getting passed on to the next grade level.

    Comment by alamo — May 16, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

  84. Inclusion of academic and behavior diversity in classrooms has become a huge debate among educators, parents, and professionals in the field of education. Although I am able to sympathize with parents who want their child to excel academically and be afforded educational experiences void of violent outbursts and temper tantrums, diversity is the reality of our world. Our children need to equip themselves with skills that enable them to succeed in all situations life brings their way as well as become accepting of differences that exist among others. Children must learn to persevere in all environments. However, as an educator it is our responsibility to ensure all students are able to learn by providing differentiated instruction, enabling all students to learn at optimal levels. Differentiation entails learning who you teach before you decide what to teach. Getting to know our learners will help teacher engage students by developing strategies and experiences that incorporate all modes of learning, such as kinesthetic, visual, and auditory.

    Comment by Amber VanKirk — May 17, 2012 @ 12:56 am

  85. Amber,

    Your comment is on target until the end where you contradict research findings that debunk “learning styles.” I believed (informally) in learning styles but was able to address them clandestinely in my individualized classroom; not making them the center of the universe. It bordered on an afterthought rather than the focus of student learning.


    “If we did a good job of teaching our kids what they need to know at each grade level…” And here I thought we were having an intelligent and informed discussion of this topic. ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT. I started reading to my son every night, the first day home from the hospital. He was reading at three and a half. Other kids are non-readers after three years in a formal school setting. There’s innate ability, readiness, motivation, home environment, etc., that determine what kids will learn or not during their time in school. All of these variables are enormous determiners in a child’s learning.

    DC Parent,

    Thank you for referencing this WaPo article. Ms Carter does better than most teachers in attempting to individualize instruction for her students but falls short of what I did for 33 of 34 years in my Massachusetts classroom. Good Lord, if word of this approach ever got out, I’m convinced, parents would demand every teacher operate in this manner.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 17, 2012 @ 6:37 am

  86. Amber, I disagree that it’s the job of school to expose every child to every type of person (except thosee who are not the same age) during every minute of the school day. School is a specialized experience aimed at academic learning; it’s no more important than the other learning environments that children experience — home, neighborhood, relatives, recreational experiences, church, etc. Of course, there is plenty of non-academic learning that goes on in a classroom or a school as well, but the school doesn’t and shouldn’t bear the entire responsibility for getting kids to adulthood.

    And on the same theme, you are mistaken in your belief that children with severe behavioral or cognitive disabilities need to be in each classroom so that it can mirror the real world (for the benefit both of those children and their typical peers). There are, in the adult world, many environments that are divided up by role and by ability to cope with standardized expectations, workplaces being the main one.

    In the family environment, or the social environment (which are both more flexible than workplaces), children and adults with significant behavioral or cognitive disabilities must be included, so there must be mixing of children in school to some extent. But not necessarily for 6 hours a day.

    Comment by EB — May 17, 2012 @ 8:56 am

  87. we did a good job of teaching our kids what they need to know at each grade level…” And here I thought we were having an intelligent and informed discussion of this topic. ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT.

    Ah, but sometimes “All kids are different” is an excuse for “I keep teaching balanced literacy and the kids still can’t read in 2nd grade.”

    Comment by alamo — May 17, 2012 @ 9:44 am

  88. “Other kids are non-readers after three years in a formal school setting.”

    If you have a whole lot of students in a school who can’t read after 3 years then yes, then the school is doing something wrong.

    Of course, it is easier to to scream “This 2nd grader can’t read after 3 years because ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT” than to find out the reason that a 2nd grader can’t read.

    And how’s this for “adding to an intelligent and informed” discussion: Look up “synthetic phonics” and the research done by Dianne McGuinness. You will discover that, with proper instruction, all students should be able to read text in about 2 years–including kids from disadvantages backgrounds. Read “Why Our Children Can’t Read (And What We Can Do About It” and you won’t be able to use the “kids are just different and that’s why they can’t read on grade level” excuse anymore.

    Comment by alamo — May 17, 2012 @ 9:56 am

  89. Paul – I’m absolutely sure I would love you being my kids’ teacher! I suspect that you have a great command over your class and that the students respect you. As a parent volunteer, I’ve been in Montgomery County, MD K-3 classrooms where differentiation takes place the way described in the Wash Post article. In some classrooms the kids that were not sitting with the teacher were actually completing assignments as instructed; in others the rest of the kids were mostly goofing off because the teacher ignored them or she would yell out meaningless threats every few minutes that they ignored.

    On another note, I am nearly finished my first year as the (only) middle school science teacher in a Catholic school. While I like your ideas very much, I keep running into the same wall with the application of it in terms of grading. Like it or not, I have specific standards I have to teach for each grade and everyone in the system expects that grades are refecting the mastery of this material. I do have students who are C students because the material is too advanced for them; however, I am not allowed to expose them to only part of the standards. Also, in the system in which I am teaching, how can I say that Mary’s A in 8th grade science is equivelent to Sally’s A in the same class, but Sally only mastered half of the curriculum? In addition, I’m not allowed to give students different tests unless they have “accomodations” that require it – in this case it is only accomodations for making things easier; we do not have accomodations for more advanced students.

    So Paul – I can fully imagine how your differentiated instruction can run in elementary schools, I’m just not seeing how I could go as far as you do within the real constraints I have in what I am allowed to do by this school.

    Another reality with middle school science is that I do not have the space (nor time – and Paul I’m not lazy; I’m working 60-80 hours a week to do my best for 156 kids) to have lab materials ready to go for groups doing completely different labs. Although I did just have a possible epiphany that I could group strong students together and let them be more autonomous with labs while I provide direct instruction to the kids who need a lot of guidance. Maybe I just had a Paul moment? Anyway, I appreciate the thought provoking and very civil discourse on this blog.

    Comment by Jena — May 19, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

  90. When are the rights of the majority going to outweigh the rights of the minority? Too often the disruptive kid holds the class hostage while the others twiddle their thumbs waiting for the teacher to deal with this kid and get back to the lesson. The same 10% act out over and over again. Alternative eduaction, we are told, is too expensive. How about checking to see how expensive the lost class time is? This is a serious problem that needs an answer if we are to keep American students in the race with other countries. We never hear about their discipline problems. Why? Because education is a privilege is most other countries. Although our system guarantees all the right to a free public education, does it also mean that the disciplary problems are interfereing with that right for students who are well-behaved? we have to advocate for them, too.

    Comment by Tracie Wiley — May 20, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

  91. @Jena,

    Congratulations on your efforts in the absolute best direction for students/children. You are to be highly commended. God WILL love you for this great effort, especially right under His nose in one of His schools.

    Grading was as challenging an issue to settle as any in this type of classroom. If the year was divided into four marking periods, each quarter had nine weeks and nine curricula cycles. For me, the most egalitarian method turned out to be the number on units/concepts mastered in a nine week period. The more mastered, the higher the grade. and yes, some kids mastered nine units every quarter and were appropriately rewarded while other kids were only capable of “mastering” three to four units per quarter. The surprise – there were preconceived “slower” kids who all of a sudden caught fire, understood the system and started passing seven, eight, even nine units per quarter. While this was clearly the exception, when it did happen I made sure news traveled fast and repeatedly to the rest of the class that Johnny, while not usually thought of as a “student” all of a sudden performed above and beyond. Well, if this didn’t catch the attention of everyone in the class, to the point where others in Johnny’s world started to realize, hey maybe I can do the same.

    Middle school science, with labs, would indeed be challenging, not impossible, just a tidge past the above and beyond stage. It would take too long here to describe but it is possible. if interested in some potential paths.


    Disruptive kids along with those forced into the world of transients by their parents’ instabilities are the two leading causes of the achievement gap – in my humble opinion. When and if someone can devise a pragmatic solution to either/or, our schools and the life chances of these two cohorts could be substantially improved.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 21, 2012 @ 6:20 am

  92. Jeanne Chall’s take on differentiation:

    “With so much differentiated instruction going on in large classes, it should not be difficult to calculate that each child will receive only a few minutes of individualized instruction each day. Why have we tended to put relatively less effort into finding the methods and procedures that are most effective in reducing the number of students who fail? . . . It is of interest that Asian schools, which are not as concerned as we are with individual differences, tend to do better with low-achieving students than we do. They tend to have all children in a class work together, as we did in the US prior to the 1920s. Methods that worked best with most students were used along with extra help given by the teacher to those who needed it.” (from The Academic Achievement Challenge, p. 130)

    It is interesting to note that Chall contrasts a differentiated instruction approach to a classical, standards and content-based approach. The latter approach sets standards and content that *all* students should master in a year.

    So if differentiation is done at CK schools, how is it done? Would they promote kids who haven’t mastered most of “What Your 2nd Grader Needs to Know?” If so, does the 2nd grade teacher need to teach both the 2nd and 3rd grade content (as well as the Kinder & 1st grade content, for those who never mastered that content in Kinder & 1st grade)?

    Comment by alamo — May 22, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  93. alamo,

    It should not be just CK schools that need to address this issue. It’s my (humble) opinion all teachers in all schools need to deal with student differences and not pretend they don’t exist because it’s the most convenient approach for them.

    Some (chronological) “second” graders might need to spend the bulk of their year reinforcing/learning/mastering first grade, even kindergarten material and hopefully get into the second grade curricula before the end of the year. All kids ARE different. It’s about time this reality is finally being acknowledged. That’s what this approach recognizes and addresses. It’s a given, not all second graders will “master” most of “What Your Second Grader Needs to Know.” As well, some youngsters in second grade could master a great deal of the third grade curriculum and even some of the fourth. So? Address them where they are. Are teachers professional educators or time markers as to how long a student has been in school?

    BTW, it’s my belief many of these differences would be self-remedied by students themselves. It was my experience everyone in the class knew exactly where everyone else was in all the discipline sequences. The LAST thing any one of these kids wanted was to be determined at the bottom of the class. All kids, deep down, want to succeed in school. Most worked their little behinds off to get themselves along in the sequences. As the teacher you too, worked extra hard to get them along as did their classmates. It was community spirit at its best as part of the hidden structure I discussed in the book. Heart-warming.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 22, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

  94. “It’s my (humble) opinion all teachers in all schools need to deal with student differences”

    You’re railing against a straw man. Differentiation and social promotion is the status quo now. You’d be hard pressed to find a school doesn’t use it.

    And you’re still not answering my question. Why? Why is it that we have so many students who are not achieving at grade level? It can’t be just environment or socioeconomic level, because Hirsch has shown that poor, minority students in France achieve academic success with appropriate instruction. Same with poor kids in China. What’s the difference? Again, I wish you would look into the work of Dianne McGuiness and Jeanne Chall. Their research shows that, with proper instruction starting in Kinder, virtually every 2nd grader should be able to read.

    “it’s my belief many of these differences would be self-remedied by students themselves.”

    I have several 3rd-5th graders that demonstrate this is not true. Sure, they want to read. They work hard. But they don’t understand the English code. How can they teach it to themselves when neither they nor their teachers even know what it is? After 3-4 years in school they weren’t able to “self-remedy” their reading problems. They got worse, as the maladaptive reading strategies they were taught became entrenched habits. Yes, I meet them where they are, which in this case means that I teach them Kinder and 1st grade decoding skills. And they are making progress. Still I ask, why were they allowed to get to the point where they can’t read in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade? We can’t keep sweeping this question under the rug. It is an injustice to these kids. But it is easier to claim that these kids are “just different” then to confront the fact that we teacher are to blame for these “differences” emerging in the first place.

    Comment by alamo — May 23, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  95. Many successful readers are started at home, by parents. It’s difficult to expect a kid to show up at age five and start from scratch, not even knowing the alphabet or its sounds; and these kids are in the same class with kids who show up already reading. And yes, it can be environment and SES. Would you be able to concentrate on an early reading lesson if your family was homeless and living in a car or your mother got beat up every night by her boyfriend?

    Differentiation is not as common as you believe. So many kids are conveniently grouped so the teacher has less prep, less work, but the differences in these “groups” can still be enormous.

    I had the privilege of hearing Jeanne Chall speak a couple of times at Harvard. Her overriding message: Some kids learn to read best phonetically while some do better in a sight program. There are some who need some kind of combination of the two. Their differences need to be diagnosed early so they can then be placed in the appropriate program. A teacher cannot teach a phonetic program to the whole class and expect them all to flourish. The same with a sight program. The district must be willing to purchase both kinds of programs or some kids will simply be short changed.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 24, 2012 @ 7:48 am

  96. You’re asking new questions without answering mine. But okay, sure, I’ll bite. Of course, SES, home environment, etc affect learning. That’s a truism. But how do you explain the fact that poor students in CK schools achieve more than poor students in Balanced Literacy schools? Poor students instructed with synthentic phonics in Scotland & England do better than poor students taught with other methods? And when I say “better” I mean over 90% of Kinder and 1st graders read on grade level, and there are only a handful of students labeled as “special ed.”

    You claim that Chall said, “Some kids learn to read best phonetically while some do better in a sight program.”
    You seriously misrepresent Chall when you make this claim.
    Here’s a brief summary of one of her most popular books. This summary was written by Diane Ravitch:

    “In 1961, as the debate about how to teach reading continued, the Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned Jeanne Chall, who was well established as a careful reading researcher, to review the controversy. Chall spent three years visiting hundreds of classrooms, analyzing research studies, and examining textbooks; she interviewed textbook authors, reading specialists, and teachers.

    “Chall found that studies of beginning readers over the decades clearly supported decoding. Early decoding, she found, not only produced better word recognition and spelling, but also made it easier for the child eventually to read with understanding. The code emphasis method, she wrote, was especially effective for children of lower socioeconomic status, who were not likely to live in homes surrounded with books or with adults who could help them learn to read. For a beginning reader, she found, knowledge of letters and sounds had more influence on reading achievement than the child’s tested mental ability or IQ.”

    Comment by alamo — May 24, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  97. Here’s a blurb about Chall’s last book:

    “Systematically analyzing a vast body of qualitative and quantitative research, Chall compares achievement rates that result from traditional, teacher-centered approaches with those resulting from progressive, student-centered methods. Her findings are striking and clear: that teacher-centered approaches result in higher achievement overall, with particular benefits for children of lower socioeconomic status and those with learning difficulties.”

    Comment by alamo — May 24, 2012 @ 9:50 am

  98. I’m only reporting what she said and what I practiced for three and a half decades. Some kids simply do better in sight programs than phonics. It’s simply the way their brains are wired. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

    Chall recognized that holistic approaches help learners recognize irregular words which do not sound as they are spelled, and give children a jump-start in the early years. For this reason, Chall recognized the need to combine the two methods. Because phonics nurtures logic, and whole-language is based on memory, children can benefit from both. Having said that, if forced to choose, Chall’s preferences are clear. She argued that if children are to become independent self-educating readers, they need a good grounding in phonics.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 24, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

  99. There’s an article in the current issue of The Atlantic by Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down, et al.) on being put in the “dumb kids class” in Catholic school, and relishing the experience. This passage in particular jumped out:

    “Children are exquisitely attuned to the way adults size them up, so there was never any mystery about where anyone stood. Those of us in the dumb kids’ class took it as a badge of honor. Smart kids were pampered kiss-asses, overly concerned with pleasing teachers and parents. Dumb kids took no s—.”

    Bowden concludes: “It’s well and good to enjoy the world’s esteem, I learned, but better still to be underestimated. ”

    It’s an entertaining piece:

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 24, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  100. Again, I think you are seriously misrepresenting not only Chall’s position but also the process of learning the English code.

    “Chall recognized the need to combine the two methods.”

    Where? I’ve read two of her books and don’t recall her saying anything like this. Reference please?

    Comment by alamo — May 24, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  101. Robert,

    That was an entertaining piece.


    As most of this thread suggested, ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT. If you’re a teacher, how are you going to deal with it? Will they ALL flourish in a phonics program? Go for it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 24, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  102. So I guess you couldn’t find that reference, eh?

    Comment by alamo — May 30, 2012 @ 6:51 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.