Can differentiation work?

With the demise of tracking, teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction,” tailoring instruction to advanced, average and struggling students in the same class.  It’s not easy, writes Mike Petrilli in Ed Next.

The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level.

Holly Hertberg-Davis, also at UVA worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction which included teacher training and ongoing coaching. 

 Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

Petrilli visits Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park, Maryland, a  high-achieving school with a very diverse student body.  How does differentiation work?

First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!)  . . .

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school’s 3rd-grade math classes, for example, is tackling the district’s 5th-grade math curriculum. . . .

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

. . . All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

The school also offers the “highly gifted” curriculum for very bright students in the same class with students who are working at grade level. Completely integrating the gifted class didn’t work. The performance spread was too wide.

What Piney Branch calls “differentiated instruction” looks a lot to me like fluid ability grouping for academic subjects.  Teachers, how does differentiation work in your school?  

Differentiated instruction is a fad with no basis in research, argued Mike Schmoker in Education Week.  

When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in  a letter.

But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?

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  1. To answer the title, YES! Differentiation can work, but only under one circumstance … if the entire class is similar.

    In reality, DI is simply an admission that the Guidance Office can’t figure out the scheduling program.

  2. I don’t differentiate in the conventional way because I don’t have the time and I doubt it would really benefit anyone. I have enough difficulty putting together one top-notch lesson plan per class. Three?

    There is a real problem of diversity of preparation in my seventh grade classroom. It seems to me that schools could mitigate this problem by adopting a Core Knowledge-type curriculum, ensuring that all kids get the same rich content from kindergarten onward. If there are still radical differences in academic ability, then track kids. Differentiation as it’s commonly practiced is merely tracking in disguise, since you’re creating mini-tracks within the classroom. It’s messier and more unwieldy than old-fashioned tracking, causes more opportunities for classroom disorder, drains more teacher time and effort, results in lower quality lesson plans as more time and energy go into arranging logistics and multiple lesson plans… Were I forced to differentiate, the quality of my teaching would go way down –it takes me many hours to put together ONE engaging, interactive direct instruction lesson (which usually imparts at least something to the lower level kids). There’s no way I could create three equally well-thought-out lessons; I’d have to fall back on our lame textbooks and worksheets.

    Differentiation makes nearly impossible demands on teachers who, even if they could meet these demands, probably would not see much improvement in student learning. It seems to me yet another bad “solution” concocted by non-teachers more concerned with career advancement and political correctness than workable solutions.

  3. shakhnoza K says:

    I had this problem too. I had very diverse group of kids, and it is true, I could not differentiate my lessons every single day but I came up with solution; I would dedicate one week each month for differentiated instruction. The rest of the times, I would make sure to use different modalities while teaching. And it was possible without putting lots of hours of prep. And yes differentiation really helped, all of my students were above or at least on level by the end of the school year. I agree with you on the part that it is mandated and help is not given. Most of the time teachers even do not know how to differentiate.

  4. Peace Corps says:

    Can’t say I differentiate in the classroom. I differentiate after school, by going over the lessons 2 or 3 more times in 2 or 3 different ways with students that struggle with the pace of regular lessons. If my 2 above average students showed any interest in going beyond the lessons I would work on that for them, but they haven’t, so I haven’t.

  5. It’s possible to juggle.

    I’ve seen it done of TV.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in a letter. But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?


    (I suppose the alternative answer is, “Yes, if you pay me and my people to do enough workshops on differentiation, and require your teachers to attend. …. And then fire anyone who won’t put in the extra time to make it work”)

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Picture the accumulated learning of 12 years of formal education as a 120-mile long race.

    The difficulty in “standardizing” instruction in any way (and standardizing instruction is the very lifeblood of the modern education system) is twofold:

    1) Children will be located at different parts of the course: some will start out their eighth of twelve school years at mile 70, others at mile 75, others at 78, others at 50, and others at 42 or 87. Now it is difficult for a teacher to teach in two different “locations” at once — so we first divide by age (grades) to try to get rough groupings of accomplishments, and then have some incentive to do some grouping by actual positions (the bluebirds and redbirds, or the gold silver and brown groups, or whatever). Now each class is only covering a 7-10 mile stretch of the road: here’s how you do what happens here, the teacher says.

    2) But the problem isn’t just spatial: it’s dynamic. Some children move much faster than others even if their starting points are the same. So there’s incentive to group by speed: this group will be moving at 12 miles per year, this group at 8, and this group here at 6 (which doesn’t bode well for finishing 120 miles in 12 years). Thus we get a justification for “ability” tracking: so that classes can move together at a decent space. (I’m not saying that this differentiation in speeds was the original impetus for ability tracking, only that it is now a very real incentive.)

    Now, there’s clearly an optimal mathematical solution: we can have teachers monitor a small stretch of road, and be responsible for each student’s covering that small distance. We leave it to the students to determine their pace, and they move from teacher to teacher as needed, when needed.

    But there are two major logistical problems to such a solution:

    1) We have, perhaps properly, modeled education on the medieval lectio: the teacher stands up and recites the knowledge needed to traverse the ground before the students. Unfortunately, this means that everyone in the teacher’s stretch of ground moves at the teacher’s pace. A teacher can’t actually move at two different paces at once, so what the teacher is forced to do is sprint back and forth at top speed between kids, moving with each at their own pace for a little while. To the extent that teachers are actually necessary for conveying information, this means that each student will be limited in his or her progress by the availability of the instructor.

    2) We have very good practical reasons not to want 10-year old girls in the same classroom as 15 year-old boys. Allowing different ages to mix in an institutional setting where supervision is necessarily sparse can be a very bad idea. It’s one thing to have 10 children of different ages in a one-room school house. It’s quite another to have 90 children of different ages switching back and forth between three different classrooms under the eyes of three different instructors. This is particularly true in schools where behavioral problems are systemic: where the community “code of conduct” is weak, non-existent, or twisted beyond recognition as a moral system.

    The solutions to these logistical problems seems straightforward, too: reduce emphasis on the teacher (i.e., online learning through well-conceived content-delivery programs and automatic evaluations in fields where such things are possible), shrink class sizes to allow for greater customization and supervision, and shrink school sizes.

    But we also have reasons not to do those things: we want big, vibrant schools with lots of sports teams and activities. You don’t get a “chess club” or a decent varsity football squad in a 20-student school. We want (perhaps misguidedly) students to be exposed to “diversity”, so we want our schools to cover more than just a few blocks of generally homogeneous housing tracts. Teachers unions don’t want to be replaced with computers (and, frankly, online programs aren’t always good enough to replace the sort of interpersonal intuitions of a really good teacher). Small schools and small classes are more expensive, because we lose economies of scale. And we also want kids to learn calculus: if we required every teacher to be able to teach chemistry and calculus and English literature and ancient history, we’d have a pool of people qualified to teach that would be about 2% of the current pool of teachers.

    So we allow for specialization, and that means bringing the specialists together into one place, which means larger schools, less supervision, etc.

    There’s no clean solution. All we can do is balance the incentives.

  8. How about I’ll differentiate my lessons when my school pays me for the work I do now?

    Differentiated instruction by separating students into homogeneous groups is nothing more than a single teaching teaching two or three classes at once.

  9. Michael: “The solutions to these logistical problems seems straightforward, too: reduce emphasis on the teacher (i.e., online learning through well-conceived content-delivery programs and automatic evaluations in fields where such things are possible), shrink class sizes to allow for greater customization and supervision, and shrink school sizes.”

    It seems to me that the first solution has small or potentially negative cost, while the second and third are expensive.

    It makes me wonder what rural one-room schoolhouses were really like in the 1920’s and 30’s. I imagine that class sizes were fairly small, but there must have also been less reliance on lectures as the primary means of transmitting information. Most lectures must have been targeted at a small portion of the classroom (as they are now, although we pretend they aren’t). The remainder of the class must have been doing something else. Since media choices were fairly limited, that would seem to leave textbooks and other reference books.

  10. Mike Curtis says:

    I guess 5th, 6th, 7th grade, etc. course work combined with ABCDF performance categories aren’t enough for the academaniacs who want every child to rise to their own level of average. You want differentiated instruction?? about do-it-yourself. All you’ll need to do is give all of your life long lovers of learning a computer and a public library card, show them the light and let them find their way at their own pace.

    What level of madness allows the student to direct their own pace and level of assessment? This is what differentiated instruction advocates are asking teachers to do…empower the kids to go their own way. The teacher becomes the facilitator of the child’s whim and assumes total responsibility when the child chooses apathy and failure.

  11. Mike Curtis: “This is what differentiated instruction advocates are asking teachers to do…empower the kids to go their own way. The teacher becomes the facilitator of the child’s whim and assumes total responsibility when the child chooses apathy and failure.”

    I don’t think so. Assuming there is an actual predetermined curriculum and an expected pace, then why not empower the kids to follow that curriculum so long as they make more than nominal progress? Not all kids would benefit from this option, and it may not work for all subject, but why not use it where applicable?

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Bart — I follow and probably agree with your reasoning. But I think that you have to agree that there is a certain tension in any situation where we say “You are free to do anything you want, so long as you do X, Y, or Z.”

    At some point, we might think that the hammer has to come down and say “No more Nintendo. Thou must read.” Of course, once the hammer does come down, the child is no longer directing their own studies. They are being told what to do.

    It’s a painful dilemma.

  13. Michael, good, thoughtful writing. Thanks.

    I think a lot of us veterans already differentiate instruction to a degree without making conscious effort to do so.

    The only time Snoopy fell off his doghouse was when somebody pointed out what he was doing.

  14. Michael, who is advocating complete freedom? I didn’t think this was implicit in differentiated instruction. I suppose I could be wrong about that, but what I was suggesting was more along the lines of self-paced learning (following a known curriculum), rather than self-directed studies. The latter strikes me as a red herring in the context of this discussion. It would be a straw man argument to claim that everyone who wants differentiation is really in favor of allowing children to follow their own whims.

  15. Differentiation is not “self-paced” — it may ask different students to move at different paces, but they’re determined by the teacher — and should be the top pace the kid is capable of. Ability grouping is part of it, but interest, etc. can also be used to mix them up.

    Yes, differentiation works. Yes, it is a lot of work — though after a few years no more work than any other good teaching. There’s a lot of misinformation about it out there, however, as this thread demonstrates quite well. Nothing about differentiation that says you can do direct instruction when the lesson calls for it. Typically, I use it as the middle step a lot. Direct instruction to introduce, something differentiated for student mastery, individual summative assessment. YMMV. I get good results with classes that range from borderline MI to gifted.

  16. Oops. Nothing that says you *can’t* use direct instruction. Oh, I find the range of students matters much less than overall class size.

  17. Sign me on for everything Ben says–in fact, I just said as much over at the other thread.

  18. Let’s see. Last year, Resource Math class. 5th grade to 8th grade. Ability levels all the way from “can’t regroup or grasp place value in addition or subtraction” to introductory algebra. Thirteen kids. 6 or 7 different levels. Me and an aide.

    Yeah, it was differentiated all right. The upper level kids did better than the lower level kids, which was a good thing as the aide and I ended up spending most of our time with the lower levels.

    Would I do it again? Absolutely not! At least not unless it was like the situation I was in, where it was the only option possible for some of those students to have half a chance at succeeding.

  19. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Bart saith:

    “I suppose I could be wrong about that, but what I was suggesting was more along the lines of self-paced learning (following a known curriculum), rather than self-directed studies.”

    First, I apologize if I represented your remarks without the spirit in which they were intended. But the tension between freedom and servitude is still present even if the scope of the freedom is reduced to questions of speed: the student has freedom to work “at their own pace” but only if that pace falls within acceptable boundaries. If it doesn’t, the hammer comes down and it is no longer the student’s pace, but a pace imposed from without.

    And then we start having all the Rousseau/Dewey/Holt/Goodman/Freire problems of external incentives and even the students who ARE working at a good pace end up just trying to avoid the hammer.

    Of course, the counter-incentive is that when we’re dealing with a biologically developing mind, we’ve got a window where certain things have to happen if they are to be developed into fluent, natural talents. If we allow a child to waste two years of his or her education by NOT bringing down the hammer, then it’s not feasible to just make it up with two years tacked on to the end, because those years are qualitatively different.

    Hence our painful dilemma.

  20. Teacher With a Capital T says:

    I differentiate about 20% of the time.

    I do not differentiate how I deliver the curriculum. For the most part, what I teach and how I teach are the same for each of my content classes. I do, however, use a wide variety of modalities and lots of visual input.

    I do differentiate in the kinds of assessments I give. Students who are on the gifted track will receive a more challenging handout, project, or activity than students who are not in the gifted cluster in my class. (My class contains both gifted and regular students.) Additionally, students who want to move ahead at a faster pace have the option of testing out – that is, taking the final exam (and passing it) ahead of time – in order to design a two-week indidivual project related to the topic.

    It is by no means a seamless or smooth process. And because it sets up two curricular tiers in a class, and because managing those tiers is time-consuming and adds to an already-demanding teaching load, I know very few teachers who differentiate.

  21. Teacher With a Capital T says:

    The previous post should read: “I do not differentiate in terms of how I deliver the curriculum.”

  22. Teacher and Lightly Seasoned ,
    How do students respond to your different assignments and assessments? Gifted students don’t complain because their assignments and tests are more complex than other students, all for the same grade. And the other students don’t notice that less is expected of them?

  23. I was less concerned about the tension between freedom and servitude than I was about wasted time and potential. If a kid is forced to sit twiddling his thumbs because he already knows the subject, or to spend his energy on make-work “enrichment” assignments that don’t allow him to move through the system any more quickly, then it seems pointless to worry about the more far-reaching freedoms.

    Anyway, the thread was about differentiation, and it appears that I was already stretching the meaning of the term (although I thought I was well within the dictionary definition).

  24. IMO, the worst thing we ever did in our schools is to get rid of the ‘tracking’ system (studies have shown that everyone does not learn at the same pace), and when tracking was in use (we had it in the high school I attended), students would take courses based on the basis of what they scored on assessments (called stanines) which had a weight of 1 to 9.

    If you scored 1-3 you were placed into the low end classes, if you scored 4-6 (and most of us did) you were placed into the medium end classes, and if you scored 7-9 you were placed into the high end classes.

    The result, students with the same range of scores all were able to learn the material presented (assuming they actually wanted to) without regard to class placement (I was placed into a low level government course in high school by accident, but I liked the instructor so I stayed in the class), needless to say, it was populated by students who were behind the curve and tailored his coursework accordingly.

  25. Teacher with a Capital T: what subject do you teach? what grade level? how are below-grade level students taught?

  26. I do more differentiation than Teacher, and I don’t call the kids “gifted”, but just “advanced”. I teach algebra.

    Gifted students don’t complain because their assignments and tests are more complex than other students, all for the same grade. And the other students don’t notice that less is expected of them?

    No. It’s understood that if I gave them the same work as everyone else, they’d have an A. So I give them harder tests and harder work, but it’s understood that they will still get an A.

    They do it because, as I tell them, math won’t always be easy. Eventually, they won’t be in classes where half the kids can’t add or do fractions, and they’ll have to know what it’s like to work hard and struggle with problems. In my weakest class, the students don’t work well independently, so I’ve slowed them down a bit. In one class, a strong student has simply refused to do the advanced work, so I moved him back to an average table. I’m not going to insist.

    The other kids don’t think that “less” is expected of them, but that I am teaching every kid to the level that causes them to struggle, think, and improve.

  27. It’s amazing that a student in elementary school doesn’t know how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, or do the same with fractions (but then again, there are students in high school who cannot do this either).

    I wonder what this nation will look like in 20 years (assuming it actually survives that long).

  28. Teacher With a Capital "T" says:

    Let’s be clear. Tracking isn’t differentiation. Tracking is tracking, meaning students are grouped by similar ability level.

    Differentiation is predicated upon the assumption that students with different ability levels will be placed in the same classroom. Differentiation takes many forms, most of which involve tailoring academic tasks to the ability levels of individual students.

    As for responding to my tiered (or leveled) assignments, students are quite understanding. At the beginning of the year, I explain that all students may attempt the more challenging assignments, but that some students are required to do them. (I color code the more challenging ones and mark them on the handouts, and students with certain colors must do the matching assignments. This is parenthetical in this paragraph, but it is no means a small or easy task. It takes lots of prep and care when handing them out, too.) The fact that I offer the test out and more challenging assignments to all seems to take away the hints of inequity some students might feel. Very few non-gifted students attempt them anyway.

    As for below-grade level students, I’m thankful that my administration has the foresight to try to put high-functioning regular-ed students in my classes, along with the gifted students. If a student was reading far below grade level, I would adapt his/her reading materials accordingly and advocate for reading/math intervention classes.

  29. kj: no, I don’t get complaints. They get it.

  30. Mike Curtis says:

    Capital “T”

    “Let’s be clear. Tracking isn’t differentiation. Tracking is tracking, meaning students are grouped by similar ability level.”

    Let’s be clear. Differentiation isn’t tracking. Differentiation is differentiation, meaning students are taught and assessed by similar ability levels.

    Pure doublespeak. If you have 20+ students in a lesson, and you assess them at more than one standard level, then you’re “tracking.” Changing the language of what you are doing is not changing what you are doing.

  31. Teacher With a Capital "T" says:


    Tracking is a systemic, school- or district-wide policy.

    Differentiation applies to individual classes and students.

    That’s the difference.

  32. Differentiation is starting to sound like “enrichment.”

  33. Mike, I don’t think you really understand how differentiation works judging by some of the things you are posting. Students are grouped *sometimes* by their level of mastery of a concept — little geniuses are sometimes in the group that needs the most scaffolding — NOT ability. And most of the time the groups are put together with other criteria — interest and choice of task is probably more common. Also, for the most part, they’re all assessed to the same standard — the assessments might look a little different sometimes (unless, of course, IEP accommodations are in place) — but get to the same place. Diff (unlike tracking, which I’m not that opposed to), is goal oriented. Once you determine the KUD, you design lessons to get everyone to the same place, even if the lessons vary by student.

  34. Lightly Seasoned is describing the propaganda version of differentiation. Any teacher who is doing what she describes is either lying, or has a class of students who are at proficiency or higher.

  35. At one child’s former school, “differentiation” meant “the advanced kids teach the others.”

    Many really bright kids aren’t thrilled at doing more of the same. They also aren’t thrilled at teachers getting mad at them for their inability to keep the rowdy kids in line. (Of course, the teachers can’t keep the rowdy kids in line. Anyone who thinks the class geeks can control the class bullies has watched too many feel-good Hollywood movies.)

    It’s possible to differentiate if the class is based upon writing assignments, and the teacher has the time to give detailed feedback and one-on-one conferences with each student.

  36. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It seems to me that if we take Lightly Seasoned’s definition of differentiation at face value, that kids can theoretically “finish” their work in a class a few months early and then have nothing to do for the rest of the school year, because they’ve completed their goals. They’ve “arrived” at the place that the others will get to in the fullness of time.

    Then what? They sit on their thumbs?

    If you give them extra work to do, then either you’re penalizing them with makework or they’re not really going to the same place as the other students.

    And what of the students who NEVER get to “the place”? Do they just repeat the grade level? Do they get held back until they reach the place and then move on to the next grade, only to start behind?

  37. Well, since retention isn’t politically correct (never mind that the student hasn’t learned the material they need to know to give them a chance at the next grade level), we’ll just social promote them instead.

    That’s the sad but true impact of our schools, and once the student gets old enough they either age out or drop out of public school. The school district I live in changed the way it assigned class level (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) to students (it was based on years of school attended) and went to number of credited needed to graduate earned (when they did that, we had a lot of 17 and 18 year old freshmen and sophomores).


  38. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I have a request.

    We can give things name all day long. Perhaps tracking used to be about the physical and academic separation of the beautiful people from the ugly Morlocks of the lower socioeconomic castes. And perhaps those sorts of academic caste systems are exactly what some people mean when they use the word “tracking”.

    But tracking could also sensibly be much less about physical separation of students in different classrooms and more about the “place” (as LS calls it) that students end up; in other words, the “tracks” in question would no longer sub-communities, but rather curricular tracks. Instead of having AP students who all take AP classes, we have AP classes which take students able to do the work. Some students take a lot of AP classes, some take few or none. Some students are on the “calculus” track, other on the geometry track.

    I think we should all be free to define your own terms for the purposes of your posts. I’m not going to tell you that you’re WRONG about how you use tracking or differentiation — if I do, then I’m being an asshat and I apologize. When other people post, as long as they make it clear what they are talking about, I don’t really care if they call it tracking or differentiation or pink applesauce.

    Let us resolve to be clear about our definitions and say what we want to say about the actual qualities of various programs. Let other people worry about their own definitions. It has been my experience that people generally only get into fights about definitions when their concerns are political, rather than substantive. Control of a discourse is a type of power, after all. But that shouldn’t be what we’re concerned with here.

    (I should note that my previous post was NOT a criticism of LS’s definition; LS can have whatever definitions she wants. My post was a criticism of the sort of lunacy that inspires people to think that the programs she describes are a good idea.)

  39. One thing that I have never understood about differentiation (as it is described, not as I have seen it practiced). The kids do different work according to their skill/ability level in the same classroom. What class are the kids actually passing? In a fifth grade classroom, one kid is working on second grade level reading, another is working on fifth grade level reading and a third is working on high school level reading, which kid is actually in fifth grade? As opposed to being in a fifth grade classroom?

    If kids are at all different levels in a math classroom and everyone passed, what class have they passed?

  40. In my case, I would answer that the class they all pass is a basic algebra class. The top kids are taking a form of honors, in which they are guaranteed an A but aren’t getting credit on their transcript.

  41. Differentiation is very difficult and I don’t waste a lot of time trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

    But I sometimes make an effort and here’s how.

    1. I have index cards with story starters. Some are of the level, “Say what you had for breakfast.” Others are at the level that ask for examples of transcendentalism in modern media. Students pick their cards. Those who need to be challenged usually choose to be challenged.

    2. I’ll retell the story of The Cask of Amontillado and will then hand out a set of questions. Students may choose to then refer to Poe’s complete story or an old Scope Magazine copy watered down to 5th grade level.

    3. Questions that I have students respond to in writing are a mixture of “find and repeat,” “put two and two together,” “give Kant a run for his money.” Those who can answer the higher level questions, do. Those who can’t, don’t seem to be very discouraged because I seldom return corrected papers.

    Even a child of 7 can listen to and repeat back Plato’s analogy of The Cave.

    I think part of the trick is to push, but then accept the responses you get, all the while trying to be sure, somehow, that students are putting forth their best effort.

    The trick is to praise the higher level responses and not to punish the lower level ones. Only a lack of effort is punished.

    For decades, I’ve had English classes with students who range from 2 grade level to college level. You just muddle through the best you can, try not to beat yourself up for a problem you didn’t create, place a good amount of trust into intuition, and call in sick on in-service days so that well dressed educational consultants don’t clutter your brain with terminology invented within the last five years.

  42. With a differentiated classroom, how does a parent, student or employer know what class an individual has taken or passed? Cal says that some of her students are taking algebra, some are taking honors algebra. How do parents or employers find out what class the child has taken?

    Once a child has passed algebra, can they move on to the next class in the sequence or do they have to wait until the following year?

    Once a school has determined that a child is of high, medium or low ability, are the parents informed? What if a child is misclassified?

    How is determining that a child is of high, medium, or low abilty and then teaching them according not tracking?

  43. Huh. I wasn’t aware I was lying. Or using an idiosyncratic definition — I’m using Tomlinson’s/ASCD’s.

    English is more flexible than, perhaps, algebra. You’re never finished getting better at reading and writing. Minimally, they’ve passed 10th grade English. There’s nothing in diff that precludes failing if they don’t make that target. The top kids are writing better than most college freshmen. They don’t get “credit” for it — who cares? They’re being challenged and stretched. Isn’t that what school should be?

    But no, it isn’t something that can be implemented widely. It’s hard. You have to have classroom management skills that are razor sharp (and most teachers don’t). I think teachers should use what works for them and their students — the question is CAN it be done. Yes, it can. Should everybody do it? Duh. Of course not.

    You can call me a lunatic all you want. My students are learning and excelling (and no, I don’t get all on-level kids by any stretch of the imagination).

  44. Jane,

    None of that happens, of course. In a few cases, I have boys (most are Hispanic) who goof around and refuse to work independently. I tell them that if they don’t straighten up, I will call a meeting with their parents and tell them that their son is in an advanced course which is going to make him a stronger math student but he is goofing off and not working independently, but because he’s refusing to do the work, I’ll have to move him back. Is this okay with the parents? This gets the boys back on track because they know full well what their parents would say.

    But it’s all unofficial. I don’t have a mandate to do this–and last year, many teachers at the school actively opposed what I did.

  45. “Differentiation is starting to sound like “enrichment.””

    Not really, in my case. I run two different classes. But yes, as some describe it, that’s what it sounds like.

  46. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Cal —

    I’d like to chat with you more about your “unofficial” in-class tracking… it sounds like an idea that I had once but that I dismissed because I figured I’d never get away with it. If you could drop me a line at the email address below, I’d appreciate it.


  47. Roger Sweeny says:

    Lightly Seasoned,

    It sounds like I would have liked being in your class. It also sounds like most teachers can’t do what you have done. So they shouldn’t be told to do it. We should stop pretending that most teachers can successfully “differentially instruct” a group of kids who range widely in acquired skills.

    I’d love to see major laning done. But the absolute worst thing you could do would be to call the group that is in the highest lane today “gifted” or “highest ability.” Lanes represent achievement, and achievement depends on work as much or more than innate ability.

    Student 1: How come Joe is in Lane B? I thought he was smart.
    Student 2: Yeah, but he’s lazy.