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?

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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.