Differentiating instruction in today’s mixed-proficiency classrooms is tough on teachers, and it’s certainly not always best for students.
Perhaps there is a student who is just learning English in your class. And perhaps that student sits next to another who wants to have an in-depth discussion about Shakespeare. Should these two students prove difficult to teach at once, a normal person might consider what the root problem is — that they shouldn’t be in the same class. But the wise education bureaucrat knows that any problem here must be the teacher’s — he must not have differentiated his instruction enough.
Separating students according to ability is traditionally known as “tracking,” and it is frowned upon by the educational establishment. Having students of varying ability in the same class is known as “inclusion,” and it is smiled upon. While I was earning my MAT, I quickly realized that advocating tracking was simply not a valid position to put forth in education world, or “thought world” as E.D. Hirsch described it. Tracking is unfair, and undemocratic. It perpetuates the pattern of hegemony and domination present in the larger culture.
A local school administrator told parents that tracking students before 8th grade would permanently scar them. Consequently, in our local district almost all classrooms up to 9th grade are mixed proficiency. The elementary math program requires that the teacher spend the first part of class on a lesson geared towards all her students, with the expectation that everyone will learn something from it. In reality, some struggling students still don’t comprehend it and some advanced students are bored. After this whole group introduction, then the teacher is supposed to differentiate instruction for all proficiency levels. Problems are “adapted for multiple ability levels”
These problems are sometimes referred to as “low threshold, high ceiling” problems because all students can understand the problem and solve some part of it (low threshold), but even the highest-ability students in the class will not easily complete it (high ceiling).
So teachers present adapted versions of the same problem, tailoring them to personal proficiency levels. In theory it sounds nice, but in practice it must be much more challenging than teaching to a homogeneous group of students. I always think of how inefficient it is, especially when reformers call out for longer school days.
It is now unacceptable to simply teach a lesson to a class, and assess the students according to how well he demonstrates his knowledge of the content. Different students should have different lessons with different assessments. Needless to say, this is completely unworkable in practice. It is doubtful, really, that any teacher actually does this. If one did, it would likely be a chaotic disaster in which learning is incidental or nonexistent.
In this differentiated instruction environment, all students can be “successful”. But parents should be aware that it may be at a “low threshold” of success.
* The percentage was off by 1 point before I corrected it.
Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs