Who gets thrown under the bus?

Paul, a teaching coach in a failing district, writes in Kitchen Table Math about the challenge of teaching a group of students that range from above grade level to five years below. Who does the teacher throw under the bus?

. . . if you follow the rules, and it’s perilous not to, you are by definition throwing 80% of your class under the bus. Teachers adjust the curriculum to try to push as many of the distribution as possible through the eye of the needle. They teach to their median. So by definition 40% of your class is bored and 40% don’t get it.

But I thought today’s teachers could differentiate instruction for every child’s needs. In my day, they couldn’t and there always was a bored group and a lost group. I survived by reading surreptitiously under the desk. I relied on friends to kick my chair if the teacher called on me.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    But…but…wait!

    Joane, I agree with your comment about differentiated teaching. Tell me, quickly, can teachers truly not do this? Trust me I do not think they can or should. I think the middle and high achievers lose out in this type of classroom yet again.

    Our district has stopped tracking/ability grouping.Why? It says our teachers can teach all grade levels in a single class room but they cannot. Been there done that! What makes anyone think they can do it now?

    Please help me and give me evidence differentiated teaching/working really works!

    Thanks

  2. My district if firmly committed to the idea that all elementary classrooms are to be heterogeneous in terms of academic ability. There is plenty of lip-service given to differentiated instruction, but at most it seems to mean extra homework for high ability kids. Actual classroom instruction is taught to the low-middle. There isn’t enough time in the day to prepare appropriate lessons for those 2 years behind, those on grade level and those 3 years ahead. Only the most extraordinary teachers manage differentiation successfully.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    That was not a problem in my day because the schools tracked the kids. I grew up in the Bronx and I went to the typical huge elementary school. I could be wrong about the number but I believe there were as many as 12 classes per grade. If for example you were in 3-1 you were in what would now be called a gifted class. If you were in 3-12 you were in the “dummies” class. Thus teachers didn’t have to worry about teaching to a wide range of abilities and therefore could more effectively teach.

    Unfortunately, when my children went to school tracking was considered to be a four-letter word. The classes contained students with all different ability levels. One of worst concepts was having the smart children become little teachers to help the slower students. How that was supposed to help the smart students was never explained. Of course that wasn’t the idea. The purpose was to make sure that all students ended up at the same level even if it meant dragging down the smart students. Think of it as communism for the kiddies (from each according to his ability to each according to his needs). Okay I will quit my rant now.

  4. My son’s elementary school manages differentiated instruction fairly well, but our district is small (1000 students k-12), and has excellent teachers. YMMV.

  5. School bored me – I don’t believe I ever studied until graduate school. That is certainly one of the reasons I homeschool.

    If my kids are bored, I can’t blame the system! 🙂

  6. Having the smarter kids help the weak students was highly encouraged at a recent meeting I attended. It turns out that when you have them take tests together, the weaker students tend to score exactly as high as the smarter ones.

    Personally, I’d characterize it less as communism and more as plagiarism. But hey, it gets those scores up and helps ensure merit pay for the administrators, and after all, what’s more important than that?

  7. I’d characterize it as taking the path of least resistance.

  8. “Having the smarter kids help the weak students was highly encouraged at a recent meeting I attended.”

    ***

    Yep, it’s encouraged all over the place. And my DS was pretty tired of being the assistant teacher after a few months. One of the reasons he dropped out — of K. 🙂 We have homeschooled for the past 10 years and he’s terrific.

    Nance

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    One of worst concepts was having the smart children become little teachers to help the slower students. How that was supposed to help the smart students was never explained.

    The idea is that you learn things better if you actually have to teach them (sometimes expanded to say, “You have never truly learned something until you are able to teach it.”).

    Some teachers in some situations are able to make it work. But mostly differentiated instruction is like the ads for various weight loss products–“I lost 67 pounds with Metabo-booster”–which to avoid fraud charges include the fine print, “Results not typical.”

    Since school districts and ed school professors can’t be sued for fraud, they just give you the success stories (though to be fair, the possibility of failure is often recognized–and put down to inadequate training, which can be remedied by spending enough money on the right ed school courses and professional development).

  10. “I survived by reading surreptitiously under the desk”

    That is the exact same tactic my nine year old uses. Differentiation doesn’t work, but if the school separates and isolates the bright kids, they don’t have to deal with them or teach them.

    I have never seen/heard and explanation of how differentiation works and why it better for bright and/or slow kids than tracking/ability grouping.

  11. Stargirl7 says:

    >>>>My son’s elementary school manages differentiated instruction fairly well, but our district is small (1000 students k-12), and has excellent teachers. YMMV.

    In some places, small districts lead to economic/class stratification by district, a crude form of tracking.

  12. I thought as a homeschooler of a gifted child I’d never have to hear the “assistant teacher” suggestion, until she got mortally bored of Sunday School and I wanted to advance her to a grade where she could conceivably encounter something she didn’t already know, or take her out (Catholic Sunday School/CCD has to be undergone so the children can receive their sacraments, so you can’t just not go).

    The Director of Religious Education said she would have to stay with her grade, but could help teach the other kids … like the other kids would appreciate that! Do adults remember nothing of childhood social dynamics?

    I asked the DRE if she were really suggesting that a young child act as a catechist, and whether the Diocese really wanted someone who hadn’t received the Ethics & Integrity training (massive hoop laypeople working with Catholic children must jump through so we can pretend the problem wasn’t with *priests* molesting children) teaching CCD. She immediately withdrew the suggestion. I wonder if a similar approach might work in public schools?

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    I have never seen/heard and explanation of how differentiation works and why it better for bright and/or slow kids than tracking/ability grouping.

    The explanation that is usually given is that when faster kids teach slower kids, the faster kids develop a deeper understanding of the material. Meanwhile, the slower kids get more individual attention and learn it better themselves. Sometimes, this is actually true.

    Another reason given is that when they grow up, the fast adults will have to work with slow adults and they will do better if they have experience.

    Sometimes people say that it is just not democratic, or that it is even immoral, to separate people by ability level. You become a better person when you work with everyone and a worse person when you are separated out. I suspect this is one of the major emotional reasons many professional educators love the idea of differentiation.

  14. AndyJoy says:

    Sixth grade was a complete waste of time for me, except that I read lots of new books that year! My homeroom teacher, who also taught math and history, surrendered herself to the fact that she could not differentiate for me. Thus, I sat in the back of the room and was given free reign. She gave me the math assignment before class and I would do it in the first ten minutes of class while she taught the others. Then I would read silently without interruption. Unfortunately history was mostly group projects, but after a few weeks of being saddled with the laziest students as “partners” I had a long talk with her about it. She finally relented and let me always work with my equally-motivated but not gifted best friend. I can tell you I learned a lot more “assistant teaching” my inquisitive A-B friend than I did dragging uninterested D-F students through the material. She actually knew how to ask some questions that would make me think rather than whine, “You get this! We’re partners! Can’t you just do it yourself?”

  15. I’d much rather see flexible ability grouping than the differentiation crap that very rarely works, but I do think that requiring gifted kids to occasionally work on projects with regular or slow kids is probably a great lesson for later in life.

    It certainly shouldn’t make up the most of the school day or even been done more than three or four times a year, but when gifted or bright kids go k-12 or even k-college never having to work with those of average or below average intelligence, we do kind of cripple their understanding.

  16. “I asked the DRE if she were really suggesting that a young child act as a catechist, and whether the Diocese really wanted someone who hadn’t received the Ethics & Integrity training (massive hoop laypeople working with Catholic children must jump through so we can pretend the problem wasn’t with *priests* molesting children) teaching CCD. She immediately withdrew the suggestion. I wonder if a similar approach might work in public schools/”

    When the school suggested that my then 7 year old act an assistant teacher, I asked about payrate, worker’s comp, and child labor laws. They didn’t suggest assistant teaching again.

    I recall being expected to do “assistant teaching” I am not good at it, although I have found that this was a very effective way to alienate the other students. They managed to retaliate at recess.

    I have found that I can learn from and help others who are close to my level of understanding. I couldn’t do much with the C-D students. I was grade skipped and small for my age. The C-D students resented being helped by a younger kid, I resented being made to review with them.

    I think differentiation is necessary, but only after the students have been clustered into skill level groups. I suspect that differentiation can only work within certain limited parameters. Outside those parameters, most kids are thrown under the bus. I think it is simply too difficult to expect teachers to differentiate for 5-10 years different grade levels in one class.

  17. “It certainly shouldn’t make up the most of the school day or even been done more than three or four times a year, but when gifted or bright kids go k-12 or even k-college never having to work with those of average or below average intelligence, we do kind of cripple their understanding.”

    Could you tell me where bright kids go K-12 without having to work with those of average or below average intelligence?

  18. In only the context of PSR or CCD, I think maybe the way to go is to tell the gifted child to focus on accepting instruction and treating others as Christ would have done. Honestly, it’s hard to for me to imagine Christ supporting ability grouping in spiritual instruction. It’s not like he separated out a special gifted class version of the Sermon on the Mount.

    However, I also have wished that the folks who write religious instruction materials would have some awareness of what their audience is actually capable of understanding intellectually. When I was involved with my parish’s Life Teen group, I was continually frustrated by how intellectually low level and repetitive the materials were, particularly because at least 50% of those who attended were in the gifted classes at local schools. And yet, there was no effort made to address how boring it was for them. It could certainly be better, but it’s also possible that the real lesson to be learned in that setting alone is that it’s not all about what you find intellectually engaging. If you find you have a little extra time, maybe you could pray or offerer up your suffering.

  19. There’s no place I presently know of where kids can go k-12 without working with kids of lower ability levels ever. But if we were to go with my ideal plan of flexible ability grouping for everything, it would be a weakness.

    Right now, the greater problem, I agree, it too little ability grouping.

    But I have known some extremely gifted people who didn’t function very well in the work force because they had too little experience working with dumb(er) people. It would seem that one could get plenty of practice interacting with people at the DMV, tax office, or with some teachers at school, but somehow in the cases I’m thinking of, the folks still didn’t get enough, and when they finally got out of school and got jobs, they couldn’t function effectively.

  20. In some places, small districts lead to economic/class stratification by district, a crude form of tracking.

    That’s certainly not the case where I live (rural area with districts coinciding with towns and outlying farms).

  21. NDC,

    Maybe with teens, but that’s pretty harsh advice for the little ones (I say as a 3rd-grade catechist), who act up and act out when they’re at such extremes of boredom. Compounded by having just sat through Mass. Forcing children to shoulder the cross of stupefying boredom isn’t a recipe for learning Christlike patience, it’s a guarantee that the child will associate faith with unbearable dullness and the death of intellectual curiosity.

    As for what Jesus would do, it seems to me that after a few years of being homeschooled by His Blessed Mother, He skipped out on His parents around sixth grade, and found Himself some intellectual peers among the scholars at the Temple. Following that pattern, my daughter was permitted by our pastor (bypassing the DRE) to attend the adult education classes, where’s she’s flourished.

  22. And as for experience working with the less gifted, my sixth-grader is earning $10/hour tutoring math to two public-schooled neighbor teens. Nothing like remuneration to teach a kid how to work effectively with different ability levels.

  23. Homogeneous grouping facilitates/encourages higher achievement at the upper levels, as well as at lower levels, thereby maintaining the “achievement gap”. In fact, I suspect that encouraging the most able to challenge themselves with more/deeper material at a faster pace is likely to widen said gap. That is not a consequence that administrators wish to confront.

  24. O.h.

    I think your renumerative method sounds excellent, and your Christ example is certainly amusing. I’m glad your church found a better method for your daughter.

    I suppose I’m conflating the issues of religious education for the gifted with the suburban self and child-indulgence that I see in my community too much. I don’t want to see anyone’s spiritual growth hampered, but sometimes I see folks who expect everything to be entertaining and engaging when that may not be the point.

    I don’t think Christ was ever motivated by avoiding boredom, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to avoid it when we can.

  25. Tracy W says:

    But I have known some extremely gifted people who didn’t function very well in the work force because they had too little experience working with dumb(er) people.

    Was it pure lack of experience, or was it lack of effective experience?

    What I mean was that it is possible that those gifted people did work a lot with dumb(er) people as kids, but were never taught how to work effectively with dumb(er) people and didn’t figure it out for themselves. Effective teaching is a professional skill, or more precisely set of skills. It’s entirely possible that even a gifted kid would not hit on the right way of doing it.

  26. Tracy W.,

    In the actual cases I had in mind, probably both. The kids had very few opportunities but the few they did have were poorly done.

    And you address something I was thinking about after I posted: even when the rhetoric of schools is about offering something that might be beneficial, schools are rarely actually delivering what they are apparently hoping for. Just because you put kids of different ability levels in a room and expect the teacher to differentiate, it doesn’t mean the kids are actually getting anything out of it that might compensate for the targeted instruction teachers could give in ability grouped classes.

    On a different note, I think one of the big reasons why we don’t implement more ability grouping is that despite having more available in terms of technological help, the folks responsible aren’t up to the task of scheduling the kids into the classes.

  27. Redkudu says:

    What compounds the difficulty for me, as a high school English teacher, is that I’m never given any information of my students’ ability levels going in. At the eleventh grade level I will find that I have students still repeating 9th and 10th grade English as they are taking my class, and some may be in remedial reading classes, though I’m rarely made aware of that unless I get hold of the rosters for those classes. I receive no information and no way of getting information on where their skills are lacking, or at what level.

    This year, with the help of a new and very knowledgable reading specialist on campus, I managed to have all my English III students take a reading test to gauge their reading level. In one of my classes of 27 (the most severe case, but not completely unusual) the reading levels ranged from 3rd grade to advanced college. I found myself wishing we could just narrow that gap a little, so I could at least find a focal point and set effective goals. Give me 3rd-8th grade readers in one class, perhaps, and high school and beyond in another. Just…something manageable.

  28. Roger Sweeny says:

    Honestly, it’s hard to for me to imagine Christ supporting ability grouping in spiritual instruction. It’s not like he separated out a special gifted class version of the Sermon on the Mount.

    Well, he did separate out 12 disciples (assistant teachers?), though as I recall one couldn’t really get with the program.

  29. Roger,

    I suppose Judas would have an IEP.

  30. SuperSub says:

    There is one big lie that the whole “peer teaching” movement holds on to… that the “slower” learners are just that and do want to learn. I have plenty of kids who simply don’t care about education or their own futures, and trying to force one of my top students to teach them would be criminal. If anything, the bad kids would rub off more on the high achiever.

  31. Cardinal Fang says:

    Speaking of throwing kids under a bus, this. (HT: Daily Kos diarist MaccaJ.)

  32. several have touched on how differentiation can work:
    info about the student level
    desire to be there

    it also does take a different classroom structure not simply broadcast mode, but homework, projects even tests that vary by ability.

    it also takes a different schedule structure, but that’s ok since the person who tracks high in English will not always track high in math (but they may!)

    it can widen the achievement gap … but that’s secondary to having the gap be above the proficient level vs. straddling it or being below.

  33. Roger, after explaining yet another justification: “Sometimes, this is actually true.”

    **

    LOL! Understatement is lovely.

    Nance

  34. Redkudu: I receive no information and no way of getting information on where their skills are lacking, or at what level.

    **But, golly, we have all that testing! What does become of those results after the budget meetings.

    Nance

  35. I am curious about the perspective of the parents/teachers of the low kids. What parent is ok with a teacher telling them, “Yes, we know your child is struggling with the material, but don’t worry, we will have a seven year old with no training teach him.”?

  36. //If for example you were in 3-1 you were in what would now be called a gifted class. If you were in 3-12 you were in the “dummies” class. Thus teachers didn’t have to worry about teaching to a wide range of abilities and therefore could more effectively teach.//

    I went to a junior high that went by that system. It might have worked where you were but where I was it devolved into something else. Only kids in the higher numbered classes got Band class. All the native-Canadian kids were shuffled off to the lower numbers as soon as they entered grade 7.

  37. Margo/Mom says:

    Richard:

    “If you were in 3-12 you were in the “dummies” class. Thus teachers didn’t have to worry about teaching to a wide range of abilities and therefore could more effectively teach.”

    More effectively teach what, I wonder, dummy math and dummy reading?

    I recall a PBS piece some years back that looked at differentiation/non-tracking in a California High School. One teacher (formerly the “gifted teacher”) was in opposition–saying that his gifted students didn’t want to be the teacher, they wanted him to be the teacher. Another teacher had embraced the concept. She shared one of the benefits of pairing two particular students (who might be identified as gifted and not gifted–or the “d” word, if you must) to work together on a project. She explained that so-and-so had to be able to explain what he knew without being an obnoxious twit. Valuable lesson.

  38. Another reason given is that when they grow up, the fast adults will have to work with slow adults and they will do better if they have experience.

    I can remember my dad telling me that I would always have to deal with authority figures who were just as bad as my idiot teacher, so I might as well learn to deal with them now.

  39. Mark Roulo says:

    She shared one of the benefits of pairing two particular students (who might be identified as gifted and not gifted–or the ‘d’ word, if you must) to work together on a project. She explained that so-and-so had to be able to explain what he knew without being an obnoxious twit. Valuable lesson.

    The teacher is delusional. Group work tends to turn into “the most motivated student does all the work, then everyone in the group gets the same grade.” There is no need to explain anything, as an obnoxious twit or not, when you expect to do all the work yourself. In fact, explaining things becomes a waste of very valuable time when you expect no help.

    -Mark Roulo

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