Differentiation gone ditsy

Differentiation — tailoring instruction to each student’s needs — is the education professoriate’s new buzzword, writes Malcolm Unwell on The American Thinker.

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.

Unwell blames the left for imposing groupthink on educators: Any discussing of tracking students by abilities is impossible, he writes.

Whoever you want to blame, I think he’s right about the folly of placing impossible demands on teachers.

About Joanne


  1. Many of the same people who say (loudly) that teacher quality is very important also say that differentiation is an effective and desirable instructional method. If teacher quality is so important, then why is 10 minutes of her time (in a heterogeneous class) as good as 50 minutes of her time (in a homogeneous class)? I’ve never heard a convincing response to that question.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think some of the problem is that we basically graduate kids for “seat time”, not “skills and knowledge.” So, one kid gets 4 years of “English” and a diploma even though he can’t write a coherent sentence, and another kid is ready to write 20 page research papers and analyze poems, but gets the same diploma. When the rewards are meaningless, can we expect the classes to be much better?

    I’d like to see either “leveled” diplomas OR a test that could be taken whenever the student wanted—at 10 or 40, whenever he was ready…..

  3. Actually, I’d say the average kid gets about 2 minutes of my time every day (class size doesn’t matter, remember). But, if they’re doing the work, not me — which is how it should be — it works out. I just have to design the lessons well and be hell on wheels with classroom management.

    Differentiation was never meant to allow for such huge disparities in one classroom. It is being used as a cost-cutting measure. A separate classroom for that handful of ELLs means another teacher, physical space, etc.

  4. supersub says:

    Any teacher who can’t differentiate properly shouldn’t be in the classroom…it’s east for someone who truly cares about the students.
    Ok, time to go reheat leftovers for lunch with my laser vision.

  5. Actually, differentiation is another fad which has been put in place since we got rid of tracking and grouping students by ability (can’t hurt Johnny or Jane’s self-esteem, can we?).

    Deirdre, I’m in full agreement that seat time does not equal actual education, since persons learn at different speeds. A student who spent four years taking English (which in my day was usually English I/II, literature, and composition) and cannot write a coherent sentence should be denied a diploma, but a student who can do all of this in 3 years or less and can communicate effectively (orally and written) should be given a diploma.

    It’s the same way with exit exams…when students find them too hard, their parents whine and the exam (cut) score gets lowered. What does that tell the student who passed the exam at the higher score, that your effort was wasted because they lowered the passing score.

    Thus a student who doesn’t try and one who works their tail off get exactly the same diploma. Hardly fair in my (or anyone’s) book.


  6. Don’t worry — this phenomenon will disappear in the next 3-5 years. As soon as the grant money runs out.

  7. I remember a recent comment comparing differentiated instruction to the old one-room schools. My mother and her siblings went to a one-room school until HS, as did most of their relatives. They were really small, strict discipline was enforced and acceleration was common. As soon as kids learned something, they were moved to a group doing what came next. There were no formal grade groupings; it was all by level. That’s not what is happening now. It seems the whole purpose of heterogeneous grouping is to mask real differences in knowledge and skills; for PC purposes.

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    I agree with Deirdre and Bill…

  9. Tracking is often harmful. That’s not just P.C.

    But to have mixed ability grouping makes a teacher’s job very difficult. The teacher usually cuts his losses and teaches to the middle– to the disadvantage of the high and low ends.

    There are some tricks of the trade to reach different levels on occasion and good, experienced teachers implement them.

    But contrary to the educational consultant that flies in on the wings of a fad to in-service you, it’s delusional to believe that “differentiation” is possible all the time and that it corrects all the problems of mixed-ability grouping.

    The problems of mixed-ability can’t be overcome. However, mixed-ability does less harm than tracking.

    “Differentiation,” for the most part, is an unrealistic expectation that an administrator can throw at you to make you perspire.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:

    Robert Wright,

    Putting students into tracks that they can’t get out of and starting in first grade would be pretty bad. But I just don’t see the harm in moving students between classes depending on their performance in previous classes.

  11. @Robert Wright

    Mixed ability classrooms are EXTREMELY harmful to the high level kids who spend years in classrooms doing nothing. Bored kids cause problems, and in mixed ability classroom, there are a significant number of kids who are bored to death because a) the material is way too difficult or b) the material was mastered years prior.

    What, exactly, is the harm done to kids who are in a classroom where the material is sufficiently challenging and unknown that they have to spend most of the classtime paying attention and learning?

  12. Jane, I would agree. A student who is a high achiever is going to resent the fact that he or she is confined to a classroom where they learn nothing due to the fact they’ve already mastered the material in question, but in many cases is forced to help students with less ability with learning something.

    That’s cheating the high achiever out of an education, which is why you’re seeing a large group of parents finding alternative settings for their high achievers, so that they won’t get bored and continue to learn.

  13. “Mixed ability does less harm than tracking.” Depends on at what grade level, how wide the ability spectrum is, the skills of the teacher (though I agree that even the best can only differentiate at the margins) and what resources there are for remediating those who are behind outside of class time. Also depends on what you mean by “ttracking.” There is no high school I’m aware of that puts kids in Algebra 2 if they haven’t passed Algebra 1. That could be considered tracking. On the other hand, taking 6 year-olds and consigning them to a track (in the sense of a series of future steps that can’t be altered) is not just harmful, it doesn’t even accomplish the goal that it aims to achieve.

  14. It’s probably impossible to convince anybody in a short space here that tracking can be harmful. Most teachers I know believe that to be so based on their experience. That’s how I know it. Not from reading much research.

    One problem is the fact of multiple intelligences. A student might test to be bright in one area but not another.

    Roger, your logic is sound. Reassess children every year and place them accordingly. It sounds good. In actual practice, it doesn’t work very well.

    Jane and Bill, you’re perfectly reasonable. It’s harmful when bright students aren’t challenged.

    But I also think it’s harmful for low-achieving students to be surrounded by nothing but other low achieving students. They’ll never hear higher level discussions in class and the teacher will tend to lower expectations. Low achieving students tend to be unmotivated and low achieving class are often the dullest classes on campus. The bright kids get to have the bloody fun of acting out Julius Caesar. They perform experiments, discuss current events, participate in simulations, use their imagination. The low achieving class has a lot of worksheets and the curriculum is restricted to base-line knowledge.

    There are serious problems with both kinds of groupings. The only solution would be mixed ability grouping with differentiation. That’s why there’s the push for differentiation in the first place. The only problem is, differentiation only works in theory, not in the real world.

  15. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Robert– except multiple intelligences is sort of BS in an academic setting. Because in an academic setting what matters is ACADEMIC intelligence.

    By analogy, not tracking is like not having tryouts for varsity sports and making all varsity sports mandatory for all students. Anyone can play on any team! Will Mr. “Possibly NFL material” quarterback still reach the same heights when his wide receivers have the hand-eye coordination of six year olds? And are his wide recievers really that well served by being around someone who “plays at a higher level” when they still need help with the basics of standing still and catching a ball tossed from 6 feet away?

    Yes, someone may have a high “emotional intelligence’ and be a disaster at school. But that’s why they volunteer at the soup kitchen after school. It doesn’t mean they should be in a math class with kids who are ready for much more at much higher speeds.

  16. Roger Sweeny says:

    Robert Wright,

    I agree with much of what you said. I hope you don’t think I’m playing with words when I criticize the following:

    “But I also think it’s harmful for low-achieving students to be surrounded by nothing but other low achieving students. They’ll never hear higher level discussions in class …”

    Low-achieving students often don’t hear higher level discussions even when those discussions are going on around them. They hear the sounds but they don’t follow the words and sentences and ideas. Then, because they aren’t following, they let their attention wander. If the higher level discussion was about something important to them, they might force themselves to pay attention and try to follow but, unlike the people who make educational policy, academic subjects just aren’t that important to many of them. We may hope that by being in a class with high achievers, the high achievers’ interest will rub off on them. That may happen a bit, but some of the low achieving attitude may also rub off on the high achievers. The result will be middling.

    I would love to see lower achieving kids in classes that are more aligned with their interests. Don’t analyze Shakespeare’s language so much. Put on a play. Do the slapstick. Do the violence. Burn something. Make something move.

  17. Deirdre, the theory of multiple intelligence doesn’t have simply two categories.

    Just as in football there are different skills, so it is with academics. You’re won’t want to cut a quarterback from the team based on his ball catching skill.

    Roger, your example is probably true in some cases.

    As for analogies, let’s take a look at chess.

    Ask a chess player how he gets better at his game. He’s not going to say it’s by always playing against an opponent who’s evenly matched. Quite the contrary.

  18. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Robert– the key is to play against people who are SLIGHTLY better. If you play against someone who blows you out of the water every time, you won’t catch up, you’ll probably give up from frustration, AND the person playing you will get marginally worse from playing an opponent who is too easy.

    And schools that track ALREADY track MathScience/CS separately from English/History, and languages apart from both of those. Art/Emotional/Physical/etc. don’t matter so much from a HS point of view, and, of course, by the advanced level they’re all tracked too– you can’t get into art school unless you’ve got a top-notch portfolio.

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    Actually, we do a crude form of tracking in most areas based on family income. The 8th grade classes in the local rich areas will tend to be further along than the 8th grade math classes in the poor areas. This is far from ideal, but it is what we have.