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Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water: Differentiation Works, for Those Who are Willing (1/24/15)

The current era of accountability in education has placed increased demands on every level of the public school hierarchy in the United States. As a result of the focus on the measured performance of all students, pressure at the classroom level to ensure that all students are making progress and learning has increased. In response to this effect, differentiated instruction has emerged as an approach, or methodology, that allows teachers to reach all students in their classes. Also, differentiation is not new, for indeed it’s what good teachers have been doing for many years, without the one common defining term to identify it. However, differentiation, like any movement in education, is not without its detractors.

In a 1/6/15 Education Week article titled Differentiation Doesn’t Work, educator James Delisle lets differentiation have it, with both barrels. In his article Delisle notes that while differentiation is well intended it is a “failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.” Delisle asserts that it is easier to juggle with “one arm tied behind your back” than to differentiate instruction in a classroom of heterogeneous [ability level] students. Delisle goes on to state:

It seems to me the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are
those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors,
curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s in-the-trenches educators
who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school
districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to
his or her fullest potential.

Delisle further asserts that the two main reasons that differentiation will not work are: the inability to implement it effectively in a classroom of heterogeneous [ability level] students, and a lack of clarity on what should be differentiated, curriculum, instructional methods, or both.

I am baffled by the commentary in Delisle’s article. I believe his perspectives show a lack of insight and experience with good teaching. In addition, I view his attacks on school administrators as evidence of a lack of belief in the sincerity of their efforts to improve student achievement. It is my view that Delisle’s stance on differentiation, regardless of the minor statistics that he cites, is completely out of touch with best practices. To this end, I will briefly address his two arguments about differentiation.

First, Delisle argues that teachers can’t differentiate in heterogeneous classrooms. I believe Delisle’s claim in this matter is unequivocally false. While it is true one teacher cannot differentiate every lesson, every day, for every student that is not the intent or purpose of the practice anyway. To be effective in a heterogeneous classroom, the teacher must teach to the level of proficiency on the content standard when new information is introduced. After formatively assessing students to find out what they grasped, the next lesson in the same strand of instruction is then differentiated for students who are on, above, and below proficiency.

Further, schools are staffed with teachers to assist with adjustments/modifications for students with exceptionalities. Also the teacher can make minor adjustments to the three major differentiation levels to address learning styles as needed. The point of all of this is that the teacher has to provide the best opportunity for all students in the class to access the content at the level defined in the curriculum standards. Once this has been achieved, a teacher may continue with instruction at the level of proficiency on the standards with points for differentiation along the way as new concepts are introduced or opportunities for enrichment that go beyond the standard arise. In this way students who are below or on level receive instruction that allows them to at least achieve the requirements of the standard and students who are above level or perform above level on various concepts receive the enrichment that keeps them moving forward as well. This is a fluid method, with students moving between the three proficiency levels at any point in time based on formative assessment of the content that is being studied. It takes practice to implement. However, it is not impossible and it works.

Second, Delisle argues that differentiation fails because teachers don’t know what to differentiate, instruction or the curriculum. The confusion that Delisle cites may be true, especially if teachers have not received the appropriate professional development on differentiation. However, for clarity, we differentiate instruction in three ways, content, process, or product. Content should be differentiated based on student readiness. You still deliver what is described in the standard but at different levels of complexity. Processes should be differentiated based on how students learn best; all students do not have to engage in the same activity to learn the same content. Differentiated processes address the core needs of students with exceptionalities and students with multiple learning styles. Finally, products of learning should be differentiated based on the learning processes that were used and students’ proficiency levels on any given content. No matter which methods are selected, the goal is that all students will demonstrate proficiency on the standards.

To close, differentiation is like any other initiative in education, it requires appropriate training and fidelity in its delivery. These measures determine its effectiveness. Also, because differentiation allows all students to access the curriculum, it has significant implications for increased student learning and achievement. For these reasons we cannot “throw the baby [differentiation] out with the bathwater [confusion and/or discontent].” We must make a commitment to serve our students with our best efforts in the best ways that we know how. The future of our nation depends on it.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO

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