Differentiation’s Dirty Little Secret

by Guest Blogger
December 14th, 2015

I’ve been visiting a lot of elementary schools lately, and I’ve noticed a dangerous pattern: instruction that’s called “differentiated” but looks an awful lot like tracking. To varying degrees, I’ve seen it in high- and low-scoring schools, some using Core Knowledge, some not.

Here’s a typical scenario (abstracted from my admittedly limited experience). The whole class is studying a topic such as the circulatory system. As an introduction, everyone gets to hear the teacher read aloud a short text about circulation, watch a video, and participate in a brief discussion. Then the differentiation begins. The class is broken into three (or more) groups, and different groups are given different projects to complete. The highest group may be given a set of texts and websites to use as reference material, a very detailed diagram of the human circulatory system that they have to fill in as a group, and then a writing prompt that each student has to respond to individually explaining how blood is pumped through the body. The lowest group may be given just one relatively easy text, a greatly simplified diagram to fill in as a group, and a group fill-in-the-blank worksheet on how blood is pumped through the body.

So while the highest group has to learn aorta, femoral artery, cephalic vein, superior vena cava, etc. and then actually explain how all those things work together, the lowest group just has to learn heart, artery, and vein and then use those same words to fill in the blanks. That’s not differentiation. It’s tracking—and it’s dimming the futures of all but our highest-group kids.

But it’s not the teachers’ fault. It’s a systemic problem, and the system has tied teachers’ hands.

Differentiation is supposed to provide different learning paths to attain the same goal. In every classroom, some children are better prepared and able to attain that goal more quickly. The rest of the class is just as capable of meeting the goal—but they don’t have as much background knowledge. They have more to learn, and so they need more time. The catch is that the vast majority of schools aren’t able to vary learning time. The students who need more time don’t get it. They just learn what they can in the amount of time provided. So one group masters the basilar artery, and the other has a vague understanding of their heartbeat.

We put a man on the moon. Are we seriously not able to fix this?


Multiple paths, one goal (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

I wasn’t sure about airing these thoughts, but sadly, I just found confirmation that what I’ve seen is not an anomaly. Toward the end of Too Many Children Left Behind: The U.S. Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective (hat tip to Susan Neuman for recommending it), Bruce Bradbury and his coauthors write:

There is … a good deal of research under way on using ability grouping … more effectively…. A key factor seems to be the role of aspirations and expectations. If the goal of ability grouping or other remedial programming is to help ensure that all children learn the age-appropriate material, then such programming can be very effective in reducing achievement gaps. This model is in contrast to one in which children in different groups are taught different material, which merely serves to reinforce or widen gaps; with this latter model, those who are lagging never catch up, and indeed, they often fall further behind.

In short, to close gaps, schools have to commit to teaching everyone the full curriculum, and they have to find ways to provide the additional instruction and time that some children need.

As Bradbury et al. point out, Finland is doing just that. It starts with family and early childhood policies that minimize the differences in children’s readiness for school. Then, once in school, “another key ingredient in the Finnish story is the fact that students are held to a uniformly high standard. All students are taught the same curriculum, even students who may require extra help to learn the material. (In fact, nearly half of Finnish students do receive extra help at some point during their school years.)”

A few months ago, I admitted that I’m afraid of personalized learning. Now I fear differentiation too. Without a specific, coherent, cumulative curriculum that all students must master, differentiation and personalization seem likely to increase achievement gaps. But with such a curriculum—and with extended day, week, and year options for students who need more time—differentiation and personalization could be our path to excellence and equity.


  1. We put a man on the moon with people who were taught in tracked schools.

    It doesn’t sound as if the lower level activity was demeaning. It was simply challenging enough for low-skilled kids.

    Differentiation is ineffective, inefficient tracking and often impossible to achieve well. But it beats a lot of alternatives.

    The “additional time” suggestion has been tried thousands of times. For example, we put kids in Algebra and then “Algebra Support”, giving kids who hate math twice as much math. Then we do the same thing with English. This eliminates any possibility of electives–which, of course, is why you want kids to have an extended school day.

    But KIPP has been providing extended school days, and the result is slightly improved scores that don’t persist in high school.

    Algebra Support and Language Support didn’t do too well, either.

    So your suggestion is to take low-skilled kids, put them in longer and longer school days, restricting their curriculum until the–entirely mythical–day when they “catch up”. Then, when it never happens, you blame the curriculum for not being “knowledge based” enough.

    We could just acknowledge that different kids have different ability levels, separate kids based on abilities, and teach them a rich curriculum based on their ability to absorb it.

    But since we’re not allowed to do that, we’ll try the same thing with them all in the same classroom.

    Comment by education realist — December 14, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  2. We are never shy to admit that there are differences in ability in athletics, but when it comes to academics, everyone must have the same ability? That makes no sense. By the way, not only were those who accomplished the Apollo project tracked in school, but they were almost all white male nerds with plastic pencil protectors who sat in rows in school all the way through MIT and Caltech. Not that you can say that these days….

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — December 14, 2015 @ 11:25 am

  3. I’m a little late to the party; but, congratulations to those schools and to Lisa, Get your head out of the sand.

    There is nothing more frustrating to that low group than having the full challenge of the highest operators being handed to them and … what? Give them more time? Start early and stay late? Saturday? Shorter breaks? What? What, other than a reason to hate school, hate the learning/non-learning process, and develop a system for ignoring even the things they should be able to do.

    What always DID work for my “slow group” was to be given some project that the others didn’t get. Once completed, they could show what they did and explain it and get some peer appreciation.

    Oh, and don’t forget to have Blue Ribbons for everyone.

    Comment by ewadoh — December 14, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

  4. This is the most ridiculous piece of writing I have read on this blog.

    Comment by Dennise O'Grady — December 14, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

  5. I remember the pocket protectors! And the slide rules in the back pockets!

    I’m on the same train as the other commenters. Like athletic or artistic ability, cognitive ability matters – regardless of how much the politicians and the edworld refuses to acknowledge it. Not all kids can learn the same material and forcing struggling kids into longer days, weeks or months could be seen as torture for kids who aren’t academically inclined.

    I’d also like to drop the Finland comparisons. First, there are fewer people in Finland than in NYC and second, they’re all Finns.

    Comment by momof4 — December 14, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

  6. Well, Finns are human beings, and our American situation is not caused by ethnic diversity or large numbers of children. These situations do, admittedly, add to difficulties. And we do spend a lot of money for inadequate results.

    Traditionally, the goal of school was seen as the transmission of information, the knowledge accumulated throughout human history, taught directly by teachers. That explains the study of history, language, math, literature, the sciences, and so on.

    However, this goal was attacked and eliminated by the “reformers” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for multiple reasons. One of these reasons was probably that content was badly taught, often true. Another conclusion was that since children had different skills and interests it would be unfair to teach a common content curriculum. Another reason was the belief that education should begin with the knowledge and experience that children bring to school. There were, and are, other reasons, mostly ideological.

    Consequently, a situation was created in which some children “bring” more knowledge and experience and others less. The establishment approach assumes that this discrepancy accurately describes the potential of children, and claims also that education does not consist of instructing those children in what they do not know. The previous comments suggest agreement with the establishment approach.

    As long as our view is that school should address the child in his or her feelings and interests and should manipulate information and facts to suit each child we will have these issues. The education of children does not present problems that can be solved. Rather it presents difficulties that must, and can, be managed. One of those difficulties is indeed the fact that some children do learn more easily than others. But this does not justify deciding that they are incapable of learning, giving them watered-down information about the world in which they live, and allowing them to believe that they are educated.

    Comment by Susan Toth — December 14, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

  7. Susan, you would be applauded if learning history and work/life skills were no different than performing in the arts or athletics. There is no greater pain than being placed in competition with someone of much greater skill.

    This is why there are divisions in sports and music. I’m forever amazed that the jocks “get it” when the “educators” seem not to.

    Comment by ewadoh — December 14, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

  8. ewadoh, I must think about your comments. I do have a first reaction, but it just might not express all of my thinking. I believe that all human beings need to have a better knowledge of the world than I do, having had a progressivist education. And I believe that a history class, or any other subject class, should avoid competition. It is not a matter of learning more, but a matter of learning enough. At any rate, there is just about no situation in life in which there is not someone who does things better than I do, and even those who do not do as well as I do. Actually, I have no musical background at all, and it is a pain I live with. It does not spoil all my pleasures in life!
    Having said this,my second reaction is that your perspective does not justify the refusal to give children information about the world. And a third reaction. Children in the “lower” groups know very well that they are “not as smart” as the others. Perhaps this is the only valid response.

    Comment by Susan Toth — December 14, 2015 @ 8:17 pm

  9. I’d like to offer just a few clarifications:

    1) I’m talking about elementary school, and I’ve never seen any evidence that–with the time and support they need–there’s more than a tiny percentage of kids who are not capable of mastering elementary-school academics.

    2) I certainly support helping students exceed the curriculum. But I don’t support vague instructional guidance (be it a content-light district curriculum or state assessments that aren’t tied to what was taught) resulting in some children learning far less than they are capable of learning. If all schools had specific, coherent, cumulative curricula, then we’d have a platform for differentiation and personalization that could increase everyone’s achievement.

    3) Knowledge increases IQ (see http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Nisbett.pdf), so perhaps a lot of those “slow” students are actually just ignorant–a condition we can cure.

    4) I’m not so sure about the athletics analogy. Perhaps tracking in athletics is fine because sports are not as important to the future of our nation as academics are. Perhaps athletic tracking is actually producing the same results as academic tracking. Our children now have an obesity epidemic. Sure, the youth who are really interested and have motivated parents (or other support structures) are excelling as athletes–but what is that system doing for most kids?

    5) I will concede that not everyone can be an astrophysicist. But I’d bet that, well taught, 90% of high school students can learn algebra and can write a decent history research paper. The kids who can do more should have ample opportunities to do more. But right now, there are students across this country who don’t find out where they are and what the adult world expects until they are placed in remedial courses in higher education (including on CTE paths).

    I hope folks will keep commenting. This is a difficult but important issue, and I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts.


    Comment by Lisa Hansel — December 14, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

  10. Thanks again, Lisa. I do think you are right and have a few additional comments. I taught mostly high school and always saw that most of the students in my classes under-achieved. Sometimes it was deliberate; they would work only up to the grade they decided on, more often a C. It seemed to me that they did not dare try harder, for fear of failing.
    Everything else you said is so right. It needs to be heard! I think the damage that the rejection of a content curriculum: ” specific, coherent, cumulative,” does has not begun to be realized.

    Comment by Susan Toth — December 14, 2015 @ 10:47 pm

  11. I think this is from the Paideia Principle by Mortimer Adler – it has stuck with me since I read it decades ago as a way of thinking about teaching children with different abilities: some children may have a cup, others a pint or a quart – but all should be filled with cream, instead of giving those with the most cream, and those with the least skim milk.

    Comment by Mia Munn — December 15, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  12. I believe from experience, as an early years teacher, that young children are natural learners and philosophers. Why, what, who, where, define much of their conversations. Remarkable too is the silent and awestruck response to a foreign language or their entrancement during story-time. But didn’t Michael Oakeshott alert us to the imperative of the young to learn, when he reminded us that we are thrown into this world —– that there is no proto-typical human being hidden in the womb of time for us to emulate. That everyone must learn to become human for himself. There is nothing else to do but to learn to become human. And we do this by looking at ourselves in the mirror of our inheritance. By which he meant the pages of the Liberal Arts – our history, our literature and our Philosophy. (The Voice of Liberal Learning, 1989) For this we need teachers, not practitioners, technicians or partners! De-contextualised skills, what ever they are, will never do this for us. De-contextualised, they are like the dried bones of Eliot’s Wasteland!

    Comment by agnes mcevilly — December 15, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

  13. Why not turn this around and let the kids who are ahead attend school less? I know that would result in child supervision difficulties, but wasting time at school is frustrating and alienating for kids. Or let them learn something else – band, art, another language. That raises equity issues, but getting out of class to go do something else at least frees up the teacher to concentrate on a smaller group of kids.

    Comment by kcab — December 15, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

  14. In the scenario you provided, it does seem rather simple that the lowest students did very little to attain the information needed for the circulatory system. However, you mentioned that time is typically the problem for many teachers as lower students need much more time to acquire the information needed to appropriately learn the material.

    Differentiation is the ability to provide students with different avenues, while expecting them to meet the goals of the lesson. Students at lower reading levels, should be given texts at their instructional reading levels that are of the same content. There are many programs that allow for differentiation using the exact same articles that the rest of the class uses. Teachers should allow students to complete performance assessments at times, or those who struggle to write could use a computer to type. Students should be provided with manipulatives in math, exclusively teach vocabulary, or use visuals in the classroom.

    While it sounds good to use these different instructional materials that should provide students with different avenues to meet the same goals and expectations, I do agree that time is of the essence. Some schools have built in interventions into their daily schedule which could be very beneficial. But this isn’t reality for many. Tracking seems to be a problem in many schools, even though teachers know the definition of differentiation. We as teachers have to find other ways to differentiate and provide instruction to all students so they can all access the material while meeting the expectations of their grade level.

    Comment by Nicole Houghton — January 16, 2016 @ 4:33 pm

  15. Has anyone ever come away from their computer frustrated, having googled subject matter one knows little or nothing about? This experience, I think,is the best example I know,to demonstrate the futility of wholesale reliance on child-led/child centered learning? Aistear (Irish for journey, the guidelines for education of the 0-6 year olds in Ireland, advocates a child centered, child ‘leading’ approach to learning, thus discouraging any kind of formal teaching. But how is a 3-5 year old to ‘discover’ what the letter a or the number 2 mean, for example? If you cannot tell or show them? Trying to introduce or build phonic or numeracy knowledge in the context of free-play, as Aistear recommends, is at best impracticable and a worst intrusive. Timing, atmosphere and mood are all essential ingredients for effectie learning. From my experience, children love real learning. Once introduced to the letters of their name for example, some will forego art rather than miss out on this opportunity! Others can later be observed writing these letters/numbers freely as they engage with paper and mark-making equipment. The exponents of child-centered learning, encourage the availability of mark making equipment but not the correct formation of anything? There is a direct correlation between the circular marks 3-5 year olds naturally make and the letter C for example? Is it not a moral imperative to tell young children that they are actually writing the letter C, which may even be in their name! Wow; how exciting for a young child! And to add to the excitement, they can be shown that when they can write C, the letters a,o,d,g and q are not a million strokes away! Not that one teaches them all at once! It’s a question of how the teaching is done, nothing that the expertise of professional teachers cannnot cope with. Incremental formal learning, balanced with a good dose of free play, both inside and out, is, in my long experience of the early years, the ideal approach. School implies instruction in its multiplicity of forms. Pre-School lays the foundations for the full benifits of school.

    Comment by agnes mcevilly — January 18, 2016 @ 3:01 pm

  16. Agnes M., thank you for what you wrote, especially that “children love real learning.” Professor Hirsch wrote (in The Schools We Need I think) something to the effect (I can’t quote exactly) that one much work hard to discourage the desire to learn in children. My experience teaching in high school makes me think that our progressivist schools have succeeded very well in discouraging the desire to learn!

    Comment by Susan Toth — January 18, 2016 @ 5:55 pm

  17. I think differentiation has it’s place. I grew up in a school that utilized “tracking” I was on the highest track and received enrichment opportunities and a well-rounded education from my school. I differentiated in my classroom and allow my students to teach others that need help as well as participate in project based enrichment. I agree that watering down the content does not help the lower tracked students and they do need more time. But how can you give students more time without sacrificing time from other subjects? I offer tutoring before school, but the students that would be in the bottom track and need the tutoring do not attend. I think if the school required tutoring for struggling students instead of tracking them it would be beneficial.

    Comment by Whitney — January 19, 2016 @ 1:53 am

  18. I have never heard of differentiation as tracking. Unfortunately, I have seen this in many classrooms and at times even my own. In my classroom, I have some math concepts that students need an entire lesson on prerequisite skills on top of the new concepts. Others, need little to no instruction other than one example completed on the board. But I struggle when trying to get those two varying groups of students the same instructional goals with similar depth of knowledge understanding.

    Comment by Ashley Custodio — January 21, 2016 @ 12:41 am

  19. In some ways I agree that we are watering down our content to meet the needs of our students, instead of helping students learn the same content but in different ways. If we are “tracking” our students instead of differentiating the material, can we say our kids are meting all the standards. In the example given the low students didn’t learn all the parts of the heart and are now going to miss this information when they take test or standardized test. If we start to leave out certain content to make it differentiated then we need to have differentiated standardized test. However, standardized test are all created to see what content students can master. We are only setting our low students up for failure if don’t teach them all the content. I don’t think longer days are the answer. I really don’t know what the answer may be, but I agree that we can’t leave out content just to make it easier. Maybe offer more resources to complete these challenging assignments or work on the material in small group with the teacher. I know this has opened my eyes to see what I can fix in my classroom when I differentiate my content.

    Comment by Erin — January 21, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

  20. Part of me understands how some people could confuse differentiation and tracking but I feel like those people do not fully understand differentiation. I don’t think you have to leave content out to differentiate. I do believe you may have to adjust the content so that it is more understandable for the various levels of the students in the classroom. I do not like the phrase “watering down.” We are meeting the students where they are and taking them to the next levels. I don’t want to believe I have watered it down. Rather, I’m bringing it to them so that I can have a foundation to build from.

    Comment by Sarah — January 21, 2016 @ 11:34 pm

  21. Differentiation is very useful, and can be very effective, but the students also have to be responsible for their own learning. We have a program in our school called AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination). In our case, we have students who might not be at the same level as other students, but are willing to work hard and use strategies to reach their goals. I see this as placing the responsibility on the students, and they are aware of it. When placing these students in Pre-AP courses, differentiation is useful. We know they do not have the same ability as others, but they are expected to know the same material and they are willing to put the time and effort. Watering down the material is not an option, but looking for different and more appropriate strategies for them is.

    Comment by Ayde — January 22, 2016 @ 12:21 am

  22. Differentiation is a tricky subject. It is possible, and it can be done in the wrong way and the right way. I do agree that we are tracking some students when we differentiate. However, I also find that splitting classes into different groups is sometimes necessary for the class to run smoothly, and for everyone to maximize their personal learning. Students should all be held to the same high standard and taught with the same curriculum. Some students just may require some additional help with learning the curriculum. The trouble is resources and time. It would be extremely helpful if every teacher had paraeducators or some other form of support in the classroom for every lesson and for every student that needed it. Unfortunately, this is not currently possible. People are a resource, resources cost money, and money for resources is a tough thing to get in education today. I think it boils down to best judgment and knowing your students, “what will work best for him or her to learn today”.

    Comment by Travis — January 22, 2016 @ 1:33 am

  23. You stated, “In short, to close gaps, schools have to commit to teaching everyone the full curriculum, and they have to find ways to provide the additional instruction and time that some children need.”

    Is this not what differentiation is? Finding a way to teach students the full curriculum? During my studies of differentiation I have never read anything about dumbing down or removing curriculum, I feel differentiation means keeping the work rigorous but finding a different way to help students learn the information needed.

    Comment by Edbacca — January 22, 2016 @ 2:24 pm

  24. I think differentiation has it’s place. I grew up in a school that utilized “tracking” I was on the highest track and received enrichment opportunities and a well-rounded education from my school. I differentiated in my classroom and allow my students to teach others that need help as well as participate in project based enrichment. I agree that watering down the content does not help the lower tracked students and they do need more time. But how can you give students more time without sacrificing time from other subjects? I offer tutoring before school, but the students that would be in the bottom track and need the tutoring do not attend. I think if the school required tutoring for struggling students instead of tracking them it would be beneficial.

    Comment by Bennett W. — January 23, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

  25. I have an activity I do at the beginning of the each school year called the Door Activity. I have all of my students line up at the door. Then I announce that all students will be given 3 steps to walk out the door. They must start where they are at that moment while standing in line. Some students need to take only one step to pass through the door while others will never make it with only three steps. The point of this activity is to let students know that in my room we will all eventually walk through the door, some of us will just need a little more help than others. This activity is a great visual for students and when I hear students ask “why is that person allowed this or that” or “why do you help that person more” I refer them back to the door activity. Nearly every time they respond, “oh, that person needs a few more steps to get there.” This is differentiation at its finest.

    Comment by Sarah — January 23, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

  26. I definitely see the concern of differentiated instruction leading to unjust classifications of students. I also see how the term’s definition has adjusted. Language changes every day, and in time, many words as we know them may shift their definitions based on our actions. For example, most people use the word “jealous” to explain their envy or something, and have swapped the definitions of these two terms. This occurs regionally and world-wide.
    The term “differentiated instruction” originally identified processes where teachers modified their teaching tactics, curriculum, assessments, and policies to support the needs of different types of learners. Today, we are debating this term’s value and withstanding purpose. My curiosity in this shift of interpretation, is whether this term for teaching methodology has modified the way schools are run, students are taught, and curriculum is designed, OR, whether the issues in schools and curriculum are being turned to target this type of instruction. In other words, are the consequences, including tracking, due to differentiated instruction or is the imbalance in learning standards derived from other teaching issues.
    I stand by the importance of adjusting teaching to meet the needs of learners. I do see how doing so may have lead to other issues and partook in causing some unbalance in learning standards and expectations, however, I don’t think that a term as well-known by the education world, should be re-defined in a negative light. Rather, we should rectify the true concerning errors in our instruction to better resolve the growing conflicts.

    Comment by Madison — January 24, 2016 @ 12:07 pm

  27. Since I love working with curriculum maps I think it would be a great idea to add a variety of ideas in the map that would be great to use with your below level and even your above level students to help them achieve the standard being addressed.

    Comment by Meg — January 24, 2016 @ 6:59 pm

  28. I love the door activity that you spoke about Sarah! I think it’s great for students to understand that everyone is different in their own way and we need to be respectful and work together as a team!

    Comment by Meg — January 24, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

  29. I think that differentiation has watered down much of our curriculum, especially at my high school. Years ago students were tracked and many of those that were in the lower track went on to become successful individuals but not necessarily college graduates. What I am seeing today is an exponential increase in the numbers of students on IEP’s and because of differentiation more and more of them are being placed in upper level classes. The demands of the IEP’s require me to not only provide differentiated instruction, but to also give them extended time on tests and homework, eliminates the number of choices on multiple choice tests, allow them to use their notes on tests, reduce the number of test questions, take the tests in small groups with a special services teacher, etc. The policy pretty much dictates that allowing them to fail is not an option. So many of them receive inflated grades, yet we are not allowed to indicate on a report card that the grade is a modified score. So in my opinion, many of these students get pushed along with glowing report cards, yet they have not really learned the material. I think we can still differentiate the instruction by placing them in lower (tracked) level classes with high expectations so they can actually learn the material. I also do not have a problem with letting students fail. Yes, it can be discouraging, but it is often through failure that we learn.

    Comment by Carolyn — March 5, 2016 @ 8:40 am

  30. I think that differentiation has watered down much of our curriculum, especially at my high school. Years ago students were tracked and many of those that were in the lower track went on to become successful individuals but not necessarily college graduates. What I am seeing today is an exponential increase in the numbers of students on IEP’s and because of differentiation more and more of them are being placed in upper level classes. The demands of the IEP’s require me to not only provide differentiated instruction, but to also give them extended time on tests and homework, eliminates the number of choices on multiple choice tests, allow them to use their notes on tests, reduce the number of test questions, take the tests in small groups with a special services teacher, etc. The policy pretty much dictates that allowing them to fail is not an option. So many of them receive inflated grades, yet we are not allowed to indicate on a report card that the grade is a modified score. So in my opinion, many of these students get pushed along with glowing report cards, yet they have not really learned the material. I think we can still differentiate the instruction by placing them in lower (tracked) level classes with high expectations so they can actually learn the material. I also do not have a problem with letting students fail. Yes, it can be discouraging, but it is often through failure that we learn.

    Comment by Carolyn — March 8, 2016 @ 7:32 am

  31. Ayde, could you give me more information about your AVID program? What types of strategies are used with the students in that program to help them be successful? I totally agree that curriculum should not be watered down as a means of differentiating instruction.

    Comment by Carolyn — March 11, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

  32. I would argue that it is the teachers’ fault. We as teachers are expected to develop a relationship with a student in which we gain knowledge of their experiences, interests, and abilities. We then must use this knowledge to deliver instruction that is unique to their learning style, while still maintaining high expectations for them. Teachers also must seek professional development that helps to address the needs of their current students. Gaps are a recurring issue in our education system, but we must resist the urge to simply shift the blame. We must be advocates for our students if we truly wish for them to succeed.

    Comment by George P — March 16, 2016 @ 11:33 pm

  33. I too, would be interested in the AVID program. As a special educator, one area of greatest concern presently is self-determination.

    In reading through the posts, one area of concern that I have noted is that there is a general understanding that all students come to proverbial kindergarten table with the same aptitude. Having worked with students ranging from gifted to profound, I find it unsettling that anyone would make such a generalization.

    While we can discuss the very definition of differentiation until the next legislative change in education, the fact remains that very assessments with which we measure the outcomes are not differentiated. If we continue to rely on a single tool at the end of a semester or block to determine student success, in which we have only allow basic accommodations which do not equal the methods we have utilized to differentiate the curriculum, then we have set our students up for failure.

    Take the child with Traumatic Brain Injury. The student often has processing and working memory deficits which do not lend to the environment in which they are being taught, especially in the secondary education arena.

    It is of utmost importance to aggressively attempt to narrow the gap at the elementary level if the student has any chance of success in the secondary level. However, even in the most ideal situations, this gap may naturally continue to widen as standards shift from rote memorization to applications. Also, other variables become more important. If indeed one can only succeed to genetic aptitude, then the TBI student has an even greater obstacle to over come. For instance, if genetic aptitude is average intelligence, how then is a child with a portion of the language center which does not function properly from lack of oxygen at birth ever going to meet their genetic aptitude? Knowledge may equal IQ, but knowledge does not equal understanding.

    We systemically, in our pursuit of the perfect cookie-cutter test score, have lost the understanding that the dishwasher is as valuable as the doctor, the sales clerk is as valuable as the scientist and the farmer is as valuable as the philosopher and the human being is more valuable than the test score.

    Not every student will go to college (and that should be okay) but every student can be a productive citizen given the correct tools. Perhaps, tracking may not have been such a bad idea.

    Comment by Shannon — March 17, 2016 @ 12:10 am

  34. Through the lens of a high school teacher at an alternative school, I concur with Hansel that Differentiated Instruction (DI) is different venues to common learning goals and essential understandings, not diluting material or student understanding. However, while this blog thread seems to focus upon extended time, differentiating for readiness (and thus extending time as a solution for readiness discrepancies) includes moving beyond background knowledge or lack thereof, to differentiating for learning profiles and multiple intelligences. This is a basic premise of DI (Tomlinson, 1999).
    While Toth declares that some students learn more easily than others, I would push that idea further to assert that many learn just as quickly as others, though their intelligences are not the same. Thus, it may appear that they are the “slow” learners when using traditional intelligences to instruct. However, if teachers provide comprehensible input through the use of DI and multiple intelligences, such as kinesthetic, visual, and interpersonal, students readily close the learning gap. Indeed, research reports increased engagement and achievement in Latino and African-American males through the use of hands-on, interpersonal, and kinesthetic learning (Jones & Jones, 2007).
    Moreover, as Sarah and Erin assert, DI is not omission of content, time extensions, or tracking. Rather, it is utilizing strategies such as tiered lessons, flexible grouping, independent studies, cooperative learning strategies, learning contracts, stations, problem-based learning, group investigation, etc. (Tomlinson, 1999). Moreover, recent research suggests that effective use of DI moves beyond the traditional preplanning to utilize a teacher’s declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge (Parsons, Dodman, & Burrowbridge, 2013). This involves incorporating purposeful adaptation of DI through the “use of ongoing informal assessments” to guide instruction (Parsons et al., 2013, p. 41). Thus, I applaud Edbacca’s declaration that authentic DI is discovering different ways to help the students learn, thereby closing the achievement gap.
    Finally, true DI involves implementing the aforementioned strategies and ongoing adaptations and formative assessments in conjunction with guaranteeing the instruction mirrors the assessment to ensure validity and accuracy of the instructional and assessment process (Gottlieb, 2006). Ultimately, this provides the learner with comprehensible input and comprehensible output through the efficacious use of DI (Gottlieb, 2006; Tomlinson, 1999). Anything less is not DI, but a misunderstanding of it.

    Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessment and the English language learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
    Jones, V., & Jones, L. (2007). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems (Laureate Education, Inc., custom ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
    Parsons, S., Dodman, S., & Burrowbridge, S. (2013). Broadening the view of differentiated instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(1), 38-42.
    Tomlinson, C. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 17, 2016 @ 1:33 am

  35. “We as teachers are expected to develop a relationship with a student in which we gain knowledge of their experiences, interests, and abilities.”

    Aristotle was able to do this, but he only had one student:
    Alexander of Macedon. Most teachers do not have the kind of time that psychoanalysts do to get to know each individual student at depth.

    Will Fitzhugh, fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — March 17, 2016 @ 8:25 am

  36. Mr. Fitzhugh,

    Have you considered using interest and ability surveys to expedite the process of developing academic and personal knowledge of your students? I use a Likert Scale Diagnostic assessment to get to know my students. As you said, without such tools, it difficult to find the time o effectively know each student.

    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 17, 2016 @ 11:10 am

  37. In order for differentiation to be effective, there has to be a certain amount of tracking involved. When you break apart a classroom into groups, you are inherently setting them up for individualized instruction. In my experience, I will even have subgroups with in those groups of students that will need even more attention and guidance. There are many limited English language students at the high school where I teach. Some of these students are first year immigrants with a very limited knowledge of the language. This is the type of students that benefits the most from differentiation of instruction. Even though differentiation does not mean individualized instruction, it often becomes necessary to do so because of the learning gaps that most students possess. I have 130 students this year and I am finding it challenging to accommodate each student’s as an individual learner, I modify my lessons but do not feel that I am reaching every single student need. I still find myself modifying lessons so that the majority of my students succeed.

    Comment by Al Hernandez — March 18, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

  38. Mr. Hernandez,

    I completely agree with you that DI with ELL students is crucial! A question, how are you utilizing formative assessments to drive your differentiation and modification of lessons? Thank you for your insight and feedback.


    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 18, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

  39. I believe differentiated instruction is a helpful way to address all of our students’ learning needs. It’s through the use of various strategies that our students are given more support as they are presented with the content in ways they learn best. Providing multiple opportunities also raises their chances of understanding the content when differentiation is done correctly. I’ve been teaching for twelve years now and have noticed a change in my classroom make up over the years. For instance, I have more students today with an IEP; therefore, it is mandated that I differentiate my instruction and provide the required accommodations as stated. I can provide my students with all of the assisted support, modifications, and differentiated instruction as I possibly can; however, I feel for some of these students it’s only making them rely on provided information in-turn making them lazy. It was interesting to see some people post about the AVID program being practiced at their site. This year, my district decided to pilot it with a few teachers at my site. I don’t know too much about it since I’m not an AVID teacher, but have heard some good things coming out of it. Going back to my students’ needs, I tend to run my lessons providing them all with the same modifications as stated on IEPs. From my experience, this seems to help the majority and reduce number of students questioning why selected students have “special treatment.”

    Comment by Cynthia — March 19, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

  40. HI Cynthia,

    I appreciated how you connected the use of DI as a response to meeting the needs of an ever-increasingly diverse classroom. Earlier posts emphasized extended time as DI. Like Sarah and Erin posted, I concur that DI is not simply giving more time, thus running into issues of extended days or having students fall even further behind. What specific DI modifications do you use to successfully close the learning gap?

    Thank you for your feedback!

    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 19, 2016 @ 6:55 pm

  41. I think it’s great how you mentioned that even the lowest group should be learning the same content. If they are given something simple and is not meeting the skill that they are required, they won’t gain the knowledge in a meaningful way. I think if they were given the same words but not all at once, and were able to start by fully understanding those and then moving on to more on another day would help scaffold the learning while still differentiating the content.

    Comment by Casey O'Hara — March 20, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

  42. Hi Lisa,
    I use the formative assessments as a means of determining at what level of proficiency the ELL students are at. Often times they may be better at listening and not so advanced at writing. By understanding their limitations, I am able to tailor my lessons to their levels. I also find that some students understand the math concepts but when taking an exam, they will have trouble reading the questions. This lies at the heart of many scoring issues with the our state exams, they can do the math, but may not be able to read the questions being asked.

    Comment by Al Hernandez — March 20, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

  43. I agree Casey about your comments on the vocabulary. Also,there are many strategies to teach vocabulary through cooperative learning strategies like Jigsaw, Total Physical Response, Quiz, quiz, trade, and working with realia that meet the needs of diverse learners through DI.

    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 20, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

  44. Differentiation is key to meet each child at the point of needs.I observed that it is easier to achieve for a sizeable class unlike a big class size. I have had experience of both and I struggle to ensure that I help each child achieve and close each child’s readiness to stated objectives.

    Comment by Omotolani — March 20, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

  45. HI Mr. Hernandez,
    Thank you for your reply. Your response regarding ELL students hits at the heart of a conversation I’ve been having with my colleagues: creating valid instructions and assessments that meet the needs of all learners through providing comprehensible input and output. Are you familiar with Gottlieb’s book “Assessment and the English Language Learner” (it won’t italicize). From your post it seems like you would really appreciate it, as you already think along those lines. It might provide some insightful applications for you.
    Thanks again for your feedback.

    Comment by Lisa Yutzy — March 20, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

  46. Thank you for sharing. I often hear about this type of tracking used as differentiation in the classroom. I teach in a high school and most of my classes have a variety of ability ranges. I agree that all students need to be learning the grade level content. In my classroom I like to mix student groups with various learning abilities, so that all students are able to participate and engage as well as learn from each other. I do however often give different groups of students different resources. Mostly I use the same information just find resources at different reading levels, so that all students are able to read and comprehend the materials given to them. I feel that differentiation in the classroom is an area where all teachers need guidance and ideas on how to effectively reach all students.

    Comment by Eric Zahler — July 13, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

  47. Teachers who use instructional strategies add novelty, choice, and individuality to the learning. These strategies allow diverse learners to find a size that fits and suits and to engage in practice and rehearsal to deepen understanding through as many learning styles and multiple intelligences as they can. I chose these instructional strategies/methods in order to provide students with various ways to grasp the knowledge of the subject. These instructional strategies will assist me in differentiating instruction by reaching the student at whatever level they are performing at, they will be able to engage in learning opportunities.

    Comment by Vanita Wilson — July 13, 2016 @ 5:34 pm

  48. Differentiation…a term I’ve heard for years as an educator. Lead teachers even have different views on “how” teachers use differentiation in their classroom. At one point, teachers were having the lower group work fewer problems and the “higher” groups would also get the challenge question listed at the end of the text book. (By the way, I hate the labels “low group” and “high group”.) The top group would have to write a paragraph with spelling words, and the low group would either draw a picture that illustrates the meaning of the word or write a sentence using each word.
    Whatever is done, the ultimate goal is to make sure students grasp the standard the way they can grasp it.

    Comment by Patricia Tate — July 14, 2016 @ 3:00 pm

  49. In my opinion and observations, differentiation has worked with the students I teach and the classroom environment that I teach in. Identifying ways and activities to have all students meet the same standard requires differentiation, as students are not all at the same level of learning. By differentiating my small group lessons and/or students individual work I am able to supply every student with the supports or accelerations that they need. All students are still working at the same high standard. The route they take to get there and the tasks used to grow their learning vary. In order to build background knowledge in those who need support and provide higher order thinking to those that need acceleration, differentiation has been a key strategy. I think it is a dis-service to students when they are all required to complete the same activity and they do not have the resources or supports to show what they know. Students learn and share their learning in a variety of ways. It is important that the lessons and tasks maintain the integrity of the standard but also provide all students with the opportunity to reach the goal.

    Comment by Lindsey S. — September 13, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

  50. I am new to this blog, but as I read the comments, I reflected back on the 19 years I taught in schools that used an individualized curriculum. Students took diagnostic tests in the core subjects when they first enrolled. Those tests determined where their learning gaps were, and then we set up an academic projection for each of them. They set daily measurable goals in each subject. The system had built-in rewards to help keep students motivated. Time was the variable and learning was the constant. Students completed the same work only at different speeds. I know now that this individualized approach was not differentiation, because assessments were not varied enough, and students did not have a lot of choice in what they studied. Group collaboration was minimal since everyone was working at their diagnosed levels and at their own speeds.

    Three years ago my school switched to a conventionally taught curriculum. I miss some of the built-in aspects of the individualized curriculum we used, but we do have more room for variety and flexibility. One of the challenges is the tendency for a teacher to feel overwhelmed with the diverse needs of students and pressure to get through the material. Along with that challenge is the perceived lack of time to do everything adequately. I remind myself that I’m not expected to do everything.

    At the high school level students are getting ready for college and need to do well on college entrance exams. Sometimes regardless of interest level a student needs to master material. Just because I am intrigued by the difference in how the Puritan writers differed from American Romanticists doesn’t mean that every student will find that topic interesting. My goal should be to inspire lifelong learning in every student. Each of them has something they will be intrigued about enough to be motivated to learn what they can about it. Hopefully students will be intrinsically motivated enough to learn things they need to know even if they’re not totally interested in that subject.
    Differentiation should give students choices based on their interests, and learning profiles not just on their ability levels. Used correctly, differentiation should liberate students to learn, not put them in tracks that increase learning inequities.

    Comment by Linda Shetler — September 14, 2016 @ 12:26 am

  51. “Differentiation is supposed to provide different learning paths to attain the same goal.” This quote is so imperative to learning and academic achievement! As educators, it is not our job to dictate what we THINK a student can or is ready to learn. We are to provide equal and equitable learning opportunities in authentic learning environments. This means that all students should be given equal access and exposure to content standards and objectives; however, the pathway that is taken should differ per individual. Students are not made from cookie cutters. They are all learning and developing at different levels and through various learning styles and intelligences. We should be tailoring our curriculum, instruction, and assessment to provide equitable means for learning and achievement across the board; not just tracking.

    Comment by ANDREA HART — September 14, 2016 @ 8:06 pm

  52. As educators, we all hear the word “differentiation” over and over, and many would say that they differentiate their instructions for the students. However, I think the problem is that teachers are not effectively differentiating instructions for students, therefore, are not getting the benefits from it. Differentiate curriculum, instruction and assessment is not a simple thing and requires deep knowledge of how to do it. To differentiate instruction effectively, teachers have to really take the time to get to know the students and learn about their lives, their home and family environment in addition to their readiness, interest and learning profile. Teachers will often tell you they differentiate instructions yet may not be able to tell you the name of the students in their classroom or where the students are from, what they like or don’t like. When instructions are created taking into consideration the needs of students, students benefit. However, if teachers fail to consider those factors that impact students’ learning then it will be impossible to effectively differentiate.

    Comment by GUERNA EUGENE VINCENT — September 15, 2016 @ 11:17 pm

  53. Hi Guerna,
    I think what you are saying is that we don’t really understand what differentiation is. Teachers think they are differentiating when they’re not. I agree with you that teachers need to get to know their students in order to benefit them. A key is relationships with students and learning about what interests them and how they learn.

    Comment by Linda Shetler — September 17, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

  54. Cynthia,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on differentiated instruction. I agree with the ideas and rationales you presented. Before working in the public schools, I was fortunate to also work in a Montessori classroom and see how students can learn independently and at their own pace. The concept of meeting a student at their level of learning needs was a focus. This has since then translated into the public school classroom I currently teach. Williams, et al. (2014) shared that differentiation not only includes instruction, but how students go about obtaining instruction, and the learning supports needed for those students to be successful. The work I did in the Montessori classroom can compare with the differentiated work I now do in the public schools. With the help of professional development sessions, I have been supported in my growth as a teacher learner to identify and create differentiated lessons for my students.

    Williams, R. T., Swanlund, A., Miller, S., Konstantopoulos, S., Eno, J., van der Ploeg, A., & Meyers, C. (2014). Measuring Instructional Differentiation in a Large-Scale Experiment. Educational & Psychological Measurement, 74(2), 263-279. doi:10.1177/0013164413507724

    Comment by Lindsey S. — September 17, 2016 @ 7:50 pm

  55. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you spoke of what would be needed to make sure that tings like differentiated learning work. Many times these great new or not so new concepts are introduced to the teachers with limited training and development on what that means for the classroom and and what it looks like to actually revise lesson plans etc to ensure these elements are included. Not only should they be included, but they have to lead to one common outcome for all students regarding of learning style or level.

    Comment by Ebony King — September 19, 2016 @ 12:56 am

  56. There seems to be confusion between the meaning of tracking and differentiation. I would like to ask other teacher professionals how they move at a pace that appropriately challenges each student without leveling activities. I am a sixth-grade mathematics teacher, but I question if each student should have the same sixth-grade level goals. I understand that I am responsible for teaching the sixth-grade curriculum to all sixth grade students, but I also have students who have specific IEP goals for prerequisite skills. The issue of time is a daunting one to tackle. For example, I teach 55 minute math classes. For 15 minutes, my IEP students are required to work on an online math intervention program during my class. They are not completing all of the grade-level work, but I adjust my goals and expectations for those students because they are working on personal goals. Any advice for my situation?

    Thank you.


    Comment by S. Hagen — September 19, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

  57. This was an interesting post to read as a second grade teacher. I am always trying to differentiate based on what my students need through monitoring, however it is necessary to make sure that all students are working towards the same target. One way that I have been working on this is by making sure that all students know what the learning target is and what is expected of them to reach the target. Students may work with a peer, independently or with the teacher to complete the task. I think that setting high expectations for all students is also important. Some students may be able to write the responses to the questions that are posed, while other students can draw or verbalize the answer. As I continue to work on differentiation in my classroom setting, I am going to continue to think about what you stated above and try to make sure that I am not just giving the students who have showed proficiency more work and those who need a little extra help, less work.

    Comment by Jennifer — November 9, 2016 @ 9:24 pm

  58. This was a very interesting blog to read and it makes me think of my own school and how we differentiate our instruction. For starters, I’m not so sure that I think the lower group was being demeaned with their task at hand. First of all as teacher one of the most important aspects is to understand how all of our students learn. For the lower group, if that activity is providing them with high level thinking (for those students)then I don’t see anything wrong with the way the teacher handled the assignment. I actually think that the teacher did a pretty good job making sure that the material was challenging for all students involved in the activity. But I also understand where the author is coming from. When watching the lesson I’m sure it felt as if only the high level students were receiving an education that is considered high level. In my school we have been working closely with our Special Education teachers to work on differentiating assignments for our lower level students. I have seen many modified assignments come across my desk from our sped teachers that look a lot like the assignment discussed above. I really do believe that all students can learn at a high level but that high level is going to be different for each and every student. I understand that differentiated instruction is providing different paths of learning for students to reach the same outcome. This is why I continue to work with my department and the SPED department to develop instructional strategies that meet the needs of all our students. Like I said before, it is important for teachers to understand their students and how they learn. When we have that understanding we need to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of all our students. It is important to put our students in the best possible situation for them to succeed.

    Comment by Casey Sorensen — November 13, 2016 @ 1:35 am

  59. Jennifer,

    I would agree with you about making sure that students are all trying to meet the same goal. And this is done through differentiation. I really like what you have to say about making your learning outcomes known for all your students. But do you think the differentiation shown in the original post is doing a disservice to the lower level students she was talking about? Please let me know.


    Comment by Casey Sorensen — November 13, 2016 @ 2:25 am

  60. I remembered when I used to go to school, there was no such thing as differentiation. The teachers would mainly lecture to the students and then give the students assignments and projects which were most of the time individually. Looking back, I could think of times that I may have needed some extra help or more practice in a particular subject, but class instruction was only imparted as a whole group and either you got it or not. In my classroom, I make sure that all my students are working to learn the same learning target, and what I do is give them the same material but different format. For example, I may print out the same facts and information on a given topic and give the students with a higher Lexile the longer version of the passage, while the students that struggle with reading will have the same facts, but in a shorter passage based on their reading abilities.

    Comment by Lissette — November 13, 2016 @ 8:28 pm

  61. The light was shed on how some teachers impart different instruction to low performing students. This is very common in the classroom. I will give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that she/he understands the ability of their students and the time was a factor. It can be difficult for teachers to spread themselves among the high and low students in the classroom. I do believe that every teacher needs an assistant because of this.

    Comment by Monica Adams — November 13, 2016 @ 11:12 pm

  62. I enjoyed reading this post as I am a fifth grade teacher. You stated “differentiation is supposed to provide different learning paths to attain the same goal.” This quote is so important as it explains the meaning and purpose for differentiation.
    Personally, I have not seen any teachers use tracking instead of differentiation. However, I have seen teachers differentiate incorrectly and in a way that does not benefit the students.
    As educators we need to make sure that our students are learning all that they can. We must make sure that we have the same end target for each of of our students.

    Comment by Christina — November 14, 2016 @ 2:28 am

  63. Thank you for sharing your insights on differentiation. I do agree with your closing statement, “differentiation and personalization could be our path to excellence and equity”. It is our job as educators to get all of our students to meet the same standards regardless of their starting point. Differentiated curriculum has a huge impact on my daily lesson planning. I have to plan for my English language learners, students approaching grade level, students on level, students above level, and students with individual education plans. An example of this is when I plan for my daily math lessons. I pretest the students for each unit to know what their individual needs are. I generally create three groups that the students will be a part of during that unit. I teach a whole group lesson on the unit concept with a few examples. I then set the students up with their work depending on their group. My ELL and IEP students usually have extra math manipulatives to use. My above level students only have a few practice problems for whatever the topic is and then they are given enrichment work at their level on their iPads. Their math levels are all previously assessed through a diagnostic test. I work with small groups of students who are approaching grade level and may need more instruction and examples than the other students.
    I feel as though differentiation can be simply giving each student what they need to be successful in meeting the standards.

    Comment by Allison — January 23, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

  64. I am one for applying differentiated instruction inside my classroom. My students work on the same content, but the groups go about getting the results in a different manner. I hold high expectations for each group in order for each group member to see that I do not think of anyone in my class incapable of reaching the goals set. I lead the activity that I know will challenge all of my groups the most. While I am working with a specific group, other groups are completing the activity that is required for that particular day. Again, all groups work on the same activity, but go about it a different way. This builds confidence, courage, and assist my students in taking ownership of their own learning.

    Comment by Nicole W. — January 24, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

  65. I love how Christina shares that we need to have the same end target for each student. Sometimes as educators we tend to change the lower level students activities altogether because we feel as if they will not be able to master the concept as the other students would. Instead of changing the activities, we can go about it in a different way, yet the expectations and goals will remain the same. Students can tell if they are being labeled based on the teacher’s reaction to them. It is us to the teacher to set the tone within his/her classroom in order for students to succeed.

    Comment by Nicole W. — January 28, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

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