Posts tagged ‘Differentiated instruction’

May 3, 2013

Proficiency grouping makes more sense than differentiated instruction

by Grace

Proficiency grouping, or “tracking” as it was then called, used to be common in American public schools.  But then it begin to fall out of favor in the 1960s because it was considered inconsistent with “equality of opportunity”.

Tracking was replaced by heterogeneous classes with differentiated instruction – “the strategy whereby teachers adjust their material and presentation to the diverse array of academic abilities within a given classroom”.

Differentiated instruction is tough on educators, with 83% of teachers reporting that differentiation is difficult to implement in practice.

Differentiated instruction is inefficient, increasing costs with questionable learning benefits.  Only a small portion of a class session can be used to teach at the appropriate level for any student, especially hurting children at either end of the ability spectrum.  Students end up receiving only the “occasional crumb” from their teacher .

Differentiation is given a lot of lip service, but in practice it amounts to teaching to the middle while throwing the occasional crumb to students who are struggling or who are ahead. This only works as a strategy if the administration is satisfied to be able to say that there was some small element of each lesson that met each student at her/his readiness level, rather than realistically holding out for a system where most students get quite a lot out of each lesson.

This training video shows how teachers may resort to using curious methods to preserve the self esteem of students in their mixed ability classrooms.

… once they’re in their mixed ability groupings I can help the struggling kids feel smarter by asking them easy questions and make the advanced kids feel challenged by asking them hard questions.

Do we think the kids don’t get it?

Differentiated instruction promotes the use of peer teaching, whereby an advanced student tutors a slower learner.  This practice has significant downsides for both parties, which I will write about in an upcoming post.

Flexible proficiency grouping is better than trying to differentiate instruction within a classroom.

Joanne Jacobs wrote about one study.

Sorting students by performance “significantly improves” reading and math scores, concludes a study that analyzed  data linked to a cohort of elementary students in Dallas. Sorting helps both high- and low-performing students, though the high achievers showed larger gains.

Meta-analysis supports proficiency grouping.

The academic benefits are clearest for those in the higher ability groups, but students in the lower groups are not harmed academically by grouping and they gain academic ground in some grouping programs.

The future?
Recent trends and a historical perspective are provided by the Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?  Ability grouping within classrooms* has been growing, but the trend going forward is unclear.

* I found the terminology used in this report a bit confusing because it deviates from most standard definitions I’ve read elsewhere.

Related:  New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction (Cost of College)

September 13, 2012

New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction

by Grace

Everything old is new again.  A Westchester County school district is trying a “new approach” of tracking students for reading instruction.

PORT CHESTER — After cutting a staff of reading specialists from the budget, the schools are starting a new approach for children who need extra help in literacy.

All four elementary schools will dedicate one period a day to specialized literacy instruction, based on students’ needs. That replaces a practice of pulling particular children out of classes for reading assistance.

“It’s pretty creative,” said Carlos Sanchez, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district. Those with the greatest needs will be grouped accordingly, and those performing above grade level will take part in enrichment programs.

Tracking, or separating students into instructional groups based on their proficiency levels, begin to fall out of favor in the 1960s because it was considered inconsistent with “equality of opportunity”.  I remember hearing one local school administrator tell parents that grouping students by ability before 8th grade would permanently scar them.  But since it’s now portrayed as a “creative” method of “specialized literacy instruction”, it may have found new acceptance by the PC police.

The fact is that meta-analysis supports ability grouping.

The academic benefits are clearest for those in the higher ability groups, but students in the lower groups are not harmed academically by grouping and they gain academic ground in some grouping programs.

Today’s proponents of ability grouping stress that it should be based on proficiency levels and should offer flexibility so students can move between groups when appropriate.  Instead of “tracking”, a more descriptive term is “flexible proficiency grouping”.

Pull-outs and differentiated instruction are problematic

To replace grouping, schools have tried pulling students out of class for additional services and offering differentiated instruction within the classroom.  But there are problems with these alternatives.

“In a pullout program, kids miss something to get something,” Sanchez said.

“In this type of set-up, everybody gets what they need. Nobody’s falling behind because they miss a half-hour of curriculum,” Sanchez said.

Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers, with a recent survey finding that 83% of them find differentiation difficult to implement in practice.  No surprise there, with many classrooms including students three or more grades levels apart in academic skills.

Lumping all students together is not the best option, and could be a factor in the growing achievement gap.

This approach stunts later achievement levels for many students of varying ability levels.  But it’s the students on the lower end of the distribution curve who probably suffer the most, with fewer resources to make up for an inadequate educational process.

Cutting costs while improving student achievement
The Port Chester schools turned to proficiency grouping after budget cuts forced staff reductions.  A silver lining to the new era of controlling public education costs may be that more schools begin to try new “creative” approaches.  Over the years, heterogeneous grouping fueled the need for smaller class sizes and bigger staffs, so an unexpected outcome of “new” instructional methods could be improved academic outcomes at lower costs.


July 12, 2012

How do public schools treat below-average students?

by Grace

How do public schools treat average and below-average students who may not be “college material”?  In the era of closing achievement gaps at all costs and “college for all”, are these kids being short-changed?  Are all kids being hurt, just some more than others?

Michelle Kerr, an English teacher covering a unit on Elizabethan theater in her high school class of students with “reading abilities ranging from fifth grade to college-level“, had a miracle moment when she played the audio of the Milton sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espoused saint“.

… such perfection as twenty-some-odd adolescents with no particular interest in literature being touched to the core by a Milton sonnet.

Even Kerr’s students with the poorest literacy skills were able to appreciate great literature, a rare occurrence in a system that promotes equal opportunity for all but does not always deliver it.  The irony is that public schools seemed to have increased achievement gaps with their “college for all” and “everyone is equal” mindset.  This is consistent with Robert Samuelson’s view that high schools have been undermined in the switch a predominantly college-prep mode.

Implicit in the expectations for all students is the belief that truck drivers, manicurists, retail clerks, fire fighters, and all other occupations that aren’t driven by intellect, simply aren’t good enough. They don’t matter. These aren’t lives that might benefit from beauty or poetry, an opinion about the Bill of Rights or, hell, even an understanding of why you should always switch if Monty Hall gives you the option.

Naturally, anyone on the “college for all” bandwagon, reformers and progressives both, would vehemently deny such beliefs. But the logic of their demands is inescapable. Students have no way to step off the college train. … Denying them that choice leaves failure as the only other option. That lack of options betrays the value system at the heart of those who deny education the right to sort by abilities and interest.

Obsessed with ending the achievement gap, our current educational policy pushes everyone down the same college path and then blames the teachers when they don’t get the desired results. Lost in these demands are the millions of students who are doomed to years of boredom and, worse, a sense of inadequacy-lost, that is, until the teachers are blamed, again, for failing to help them achieve more.

This problem starts in the early grades, when public schools force students of vastly different proficiency levels into the same learning groups, thus denying almost all children the type of education most appropriate for them.  At the very least this system breeds boredom, a sense of inadequacy, and cynicism.   Fast learners are denied the chance to accelerate at the pace most comfortable for them, while slower learners are denied the extra practice they need to develop fundamental skills and knowledge.  Teachers are burdened with differentiating instruction, a costly strategy with questionable efficacy.

This approach stunts later achievement levels for many students of varying ability levels.  But it’s the students on the lower end of the distribution curve who probably suffer the most, with fewer resources to make up for an inadequate educational process.

It’s possible that a system intended to close achievement gaps actually widens them.

Education, long praised as the great equalizer, no longer seems to be performing as advertised. A study by Stanford University shows that the gap in standardized-test scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s—now double that between black and white students. A study from the University of Michigan found that the disparity in college-completion rates between rich and poor students has grown by about 50 percent since the 1980s.

HT Joanne Jacobs

Related: Schools will use tracking and more nonfiction reading to improve achievement

March 30, 2012

Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers

by Grace

Differentiating instruction in today’s mixed-proficiency classrooms is tough on teachers, and it’s certainly not always best for students.

83% [CORRECTED*] of teachers surveyed said that in practice, differentiated instruction is difficult to implement.

Malcolm Unwell explains it this way.

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

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