kitchen table math, the sequel: differentiated instruction : Fordham report

Friday, March 19, 2010

differentiated instruction : Fordham report


The study is based upon survey findings from a randomly selected, nationally representative sample of 900 public school teachers in grades 3 to 12, plus qualitative data from five focus groups, conducted in winter-spring 2008.



Heterogeneous grouping of students in a classroom implies that teachers will respond flexibly to the different learning levels among the students in their classroom. But teachers evince serious doubts about how well they are carrying out differentiated instruction in their own lessons.

More than eight in ten (84%) teachers say that, in practice, differentiated instruction is difficult to implement.


Differentiated instruction-the strategy whereby teachers adjust their material and presentation to the diverse array of academic abilities within a given classroom-is tricky to implement, according to teachers. Education experts and policymakers who believe that this is the optimal alternative to tracking should recognize that, from the perspective of teachers, it is easier said than done.

In your judgment, how easy or difficult a mission is it to Implement differentiated instruction on a daily basis in the classroom?

Somewhat difficult: 48%
Very difficult: 35%
Somewhat easy: 12%
Very easy: 4%
Not sure: 1%

The following description of what it took for one teacher to try to make differentiated instruction work sounds like an engineering exercise requiring the most delicate and complex analysis and judgment. It also reveals substantial self-doubt about the execution:

"Language arts, we've really been struggling because we do have so many different levels of kids. They're always in the same classes all mixed together, so I do a lot of differentiated instruction with tiered lessons and flexible grouping. Where kids are really, really strong in writing they're with a particular group of students for writing activities. Then they might be in a different group altogether for reading, just depending on where their levels are. [Moderator: How do you identify that/] Some is teacher observation; some is testing and assessment scores. At the beginning of the year, a lot of it's based on the state standards test scores that they showed the previous year. Sometimes there's teacher observation that follows them [here] as well."

High-Achieving Students in the Era of NCLB
Tom Loveless, Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
page 65

As far as I can tell, virtually every school district in the country has committed to differentiated instruction as its core principle of instruction and instructional grouping.

Evidence-based decision making is not a hallmark of public schools.


Allison said...

But again, Catherine, differentiated instruction solves the school's problem: it allows them to promote full inclusion. Full inclusion is politically correct, cheaper in terms of staffing, rooming, and other logistics, and takes the onus off of the school (while placing the burden on the teachers, parents and students.)

The evidence based analysis is not about the schools' problems, it's about the student performance. But student peformance ISN'T the schools' problem (what happens to a school with low performance?), nor administrators' problem (even if a school closes, what happens to the administrators in a district?)

The way that teachers are made to sign on to differentiated instruction despite the teaching difficulties is by reiterating the talking point that it allows everyone to feel good about their performance in the classroom, by meeting everyone on their level, and that no one has their failures causing hurt feelings in such a classroom.

Catherine Johnson said...

differentiated instruction solves the school's problem: it allows them to promote full inclusion


The one thing I disagree with is the idea that schools are motivated to avoid hurt feelings.

I don't see that in my district at all, though it's possible we are an outlier.

Nevertheless, public education hasn't had anything to say about self esteem in quite some time. The meme for at least a decade has been character education. Which tends to be punitive, not warm & fuzzy.

A parent here told me (did I post this already?) that when she raised the issue of chronic failure in math hurting her child's self esteem, the building principal said, "Oh, please. Everyone has low self-esteem."

If heterogeneous grouping and differentiated instruction is intended to prevent hurt feelings, the feelings being protected are those of the grownups, not the children.

Crimson Wife said...

If I find it challenging to adapt curriculum in a 1-on-1 homeschool setting, I can't imagine how difficult it would be for a classroom teacher with 20-30+ kids.

Catherine Johnson said...

what worries me is that my school now has computer software with tiered homework problems (easy, medium, hard I presume)

A teacher can easily print out easy problems for the slow kids, medium problems for the medium kids, and hard problems for the hard kids.

Meanwhile, do the slow/medium kids ever progress to being able to do any of the harder problems?

That's probably left to the teacher.

I see many, many, many ways in which differentiated instruction is going to be hidden tracking.

How will parents even know that their kids are getting only the easy problems for homework unless they're on the ball enough to be comparing homework assignments with their neighbor? (Or they know a lot more than I did about what the homework should be.)

Catherine Johnson said...

We need transparent curricula - scope and sequence - in our schools.

End of story.

SteveH said...

"A teacher can easily print out easy problems for the slow kids, medium problems for the medium kids, and hard problems for the hard kids."

I mentioned before that our schools do not have tiered homework. Parents would find out and (rightfully) go ballistic. They do it using a nonlinear rubric between 1-5. Anyone can do the extra work and try to get a 5. The nonlinear aspect allows many lower ability kids to get 3's, but it drives the more able kids crazy when they try to get a 5. The grading is differentiated, not the assignment. All the teachers have to do is vary their judgment slightly when they grade the work.

Spiraling works perfectly with this idea. They present the same material to all kids. If you don't get it this time, you will see it again. The teaching is not differentiated. If you don't understand something, then (by definition) it's your problem. With full inclusion, this means that the student is either slow or just not ready for the material yet. They might be sincere about teaching the best they can, but they have no way of knowing one way or the other.

SteveH said...

Full inclusion is the goal, and differentiated instruction is the cover. Actually, a number of years ago, they used the term "differentiated learning". I'll have to see if I can find that. At least that would be more honest.

At our schools, the goal is social for K-6; warm and fuzzy. Starting in 7th grade, they put the screws to the kids, but it's made very clear that any issues belong to the student. They have to work hard and take responsibility for their own learning. The school sets them up in K-6, then whacks them on the head when they get to 7th. And the kids really believe that it's their own fault.

Cranberry said...

How reliable is the grading in the differentiated classroom? I can't imagine that they'd give all the fast kids As, the middle kids B-s, and the slow kids Ds. Is the grading generally adjusted to the teacher's perception of each student's ability?

That would make grades useless as an indicator of accomplishment to those outside the system. Our local public school practices inclusion, and I wonder if this affects admissions to neighboring private schools. If you're an admissions officer, can you trust that the A kid can keep up with your curriculum? Would the kid with high test scores, but Bs, not be seen as a slacker?

Katharine Beals said...

"I can't imagine that they'd give all the fast kids As, the middle kids B-s, and the slow kids Ds."
Along these lines, I've wondered how teachers go about grading the big projects, where certain kids get tremendous help from parents, while those whose parents lack the time and resources get very little help. If the teachers graded projects purely on the final product, this would result in low SES kids averaging significantly lower grades than their higher SES counterparts. Do teachers countenance this, or do they make adjustments, and if so, what do they base these adjustments on?

Allison said...

---The one thing I disagree with is the idea that schools are motivated to avoid hurt feelings.

I didn't say this. I said the way it's sold to teachers is claiming that it does this.

That is precisely what I heard at the prof development talk on differentiated instruction: all the kids will be able to get a right answer. No kid will feel like a failure in math. All of the elementary teachers in the room nodded. They sympathized, and maybe empathized with feeling a failure at math. The prof dev coach talked of how "in her day" she secretly counted on her fingers to get through the kill-n-drill tests. The teachers nodded in agreement again.

In that talk, they spoke of all the ways to make it so the fast kids could get As and the slow kids could get As too.

Allison said...

The example of differentiated instruction grading given in the talk I saw was stuff like "draw the floorplan for a house" with points for decorating, which equaled the same number of points you could get by calculating the area of the rooms.

In another example, you gave a sheet of 15 problems, assigning a variety of points to each, and told them "do enough problems to get 20 points." There were, say, 10 1 point problems, 4 2 points, 3 5 points, 2 10s, 1 20.

SteveH said...

"Is the grading generally adjusted to the teacher's perception of each student's ability?"

It's done in two ways. The first is that the 1-5 rubric grading is non-linear. I was able to calibrate this in math with my son two years ago. A '5' required a numerical grade of 95 or higher, a '4' required about 87-94, A '3' was from the high 70's to 86, and I didn't have enough grades to define the rest. This was math, so it was easier to correlate the percent correct scores to the rubric scores. I even remember one teacher (not math) saying that a '5' was more difficult to get than an A+.

The second way (not so much for math, because it's subjective), was mostly at the lower end so that few kids got 2's or 1's. A few years ago, they added the '5' because too many kids were stuck in the '3' group and wouldn't put in the huge amount of work required to get a '4'.

This can also be handled using the rubric. The tasks for the lower numbers are really simple to do - based more on following directions and effort. The higher rubric numbers require critical thinking and other intangible goals. The subjectiveness is built in. It's definitely not possible to "dial in" the rubric score you want and crank out the result. This may sound good, but for some kids, it makes them feel like nothing is ever good enough. The school uses it as a differentiated incentive that drives the best students crazy.

Of course, this is meaningless to private schools. I assume the school sends the rubric grades and an explanation of what they mean, but I'll wager that the private schools rely mostly on SSAT scores.

Anonymous said...

The experiences of my kids and their friends showed that not only academics were graded according to the teachers' opinion of their ability, but it was also true of PE. Far more was expected of the top kids, in both performance and effort. Lower-ability kids were given lots of extra points for "effort" (even if it didn't show) while the top kids were given lower grades for top-level work because "they could have done more" etc. I know one all-state athlete who almost failed PE because the kid "wasn't really trying"; he had almost broken a school record and the teacher thought he should have done it. BTW, my kid said that kid could easily have done it, but was saving his energy for a state-championship game that evening.

palisadesk said...

We "differentiate" somewhat differently. We are not allowed to grade for "effort" or to include homework grades for the report card grades. Homework is supposed to be for practice and skill building but may not be used for grades.

However, although assignments and classwork are graded on a rubric basis, not all students have the same rubric. The lower-achieving students could have a rubric with fewer or simpler expectations.

We are supposed to make use of "exemplars" in grading students' work and in showing students what they need to do to get a "3" or "4." Grade teams are also supposed to do common assessments and marking so that they are on the same page. For the report card grades, marks are not supposed to be averaged, but rather a level is given that is deemd to represent the student's most consistent level of performance.

Needless to say this is all much less than an exact science, and one school's "3" is another schools's "1." We don't have a level 0 -- if you do anything at all, you get at least a 1, more often a 2. The idea of this differentiation is that every student will be working at a level where s/he can succeed, so should be getting at least a 2 and preferably a 3. Parent often do not understand that their child's grade reflects achievement at a lower grade level.

Catherine Johnson said...

I said the way it's sold to teachers is claiming that it does this.

oh --- yes, that I've seen