Blog: The Educated Reporter

Looking closely at differentiation.

What is differentiation?

A. The way to avoid pullout interventions for struggling students.
B. The way to enrich gifted students when they are not in special programs.
C. The way, in the 21st century, to make sure each student is taught at his or her level and to his or her greatest potential.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.

The answer is D, except when it’s E. How often have you seen differentiation done really well in a classroom? More often than not, the classrooms I visit are led by teachers who know they are supposed to be teaching each child where they’re at, but also know they are not. Sometimes it is a lack of time and resources. Often it is a lack of training. It might be the strictures of a scripted curriculum. Sometimes people don’t do it well because they have never been taught how, and sometimes it’s just because it is hard.

This is a topic that is immensely important and potentially engaging to readers. If a principal tells you, don’t worry, your special child will get exactly what she needs because her teacher individualizes classroom instruction for each student, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what that looks like? How a good idea on paper plays out in reality?

Any school system official would probably tell you their teachers are differentiating. In reality the differentiation is often ad hoc and ineffective. This is particularly important insofar as differentiation is presented as an alternative to tracking, which has fallen out of favor among many. For parents whose children are on the lower end, this often is appealing: keeping students with peers who may teach and motivate them, and out of classrooms where their opportunities may be given a ceiling. Parents of high-performing students are often more skeptical; does the value of being able to motivate and help their peers, they wonder, exceed the risk of being “held back” by lower students?

These are questions that can be answered only by seeing what actually happens day to day in classrooms. As the school year starts, I urge you to spend some time looking at how teachers individualize instruction, how they don’t, and why.