What matters is what we call it

There’s a really great article on differentiated instruction that came out in the Washington Post yesterday.  It’s great in the sense that it tells the truth, even if it doesn’t really mean to.  The reporter pretty clearly approves of differentiated instruction; the article has exactly two sentences out of three pages that are critical of the practice.  The rest is a very informative puff piece.

My favourite part is a short but vivid description of a teacher who breaks her class apart for math instruction:

The first group to approach her half-moon table sat down with small whiteboards and markers. The five students drew pictures to help them think through the subtraction problem in front of them. Using squares, lines and dots to represent hundreds, tens and ones, they solved the problem by crossing out the symbols that corresponded to the number.

Rather than teaching formulas, the curriculum emphasizes lessons on place value and number sense so students can learn why formulas work. Students often use blocks, number lines and charts to solve problems and talk through the answers.

The second group, a little more advanced, practiced a different strategy. They broke each number into hundreds, tens and ones and solved it in three steps.

The third group moved on to practicing multiplication tables. Carter also squeezed in a short lesson from the third-grade curriculum on how to round numbers up or down.

I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is just a less efficient, less effective form of tracking.  Bottom line: it’s still separate classes — they’re just in the same room with the same teacher.  Galway Elementary, where this is taking place, has seven second grade teachers.  So instead of having seven different teachers each teaching a separate math class (imagine seven different levels of differentiated instruction!) and giving those tightly defined groups their full attention, what we apparently have is seven different teachers each teaching just three separate math classes, with each class necessarily getting one third of a teacher’s attention.

In what universe is the latter considered the superior option?

The real issue here (of course) is race, which does indeed get passing mention:

The shift in math instruction in Maryland’s largest school system is the latest example of a move toward more mixed-ability classes that is mirrored in Fairfax and Arlington counties and across the country, with greater inclusion of special education students, more open enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and the elimination of some honors-level courses.

It’s all part of an effort to lift the performance of all students and overturn a legacy of sorting children into perceived ability tracks that often divided along racial lines.

That last sentence is a masterpiece of misleading rhetoric — both halves of it.  Sure, it’s an effort to “lift the performance of all students”, but from where to where are we “lifting” performance?  One might think that student performance will improve without schooling at all, as their brain matures.  It may not improve very much, but it will improve.  So what, exactly, is the goal here?  It doesn’t seem to be maximizing every student’s performance, because if it were you’d split the classes up so that every teacher was giving a group of students their full, undivided attention working through math that falls directly in their ZPD (or which is appropriate to their ability, if you disdain technical jargon).

Maybe what we want is to lift everyone to some level of parity… but as nice as that might sound to some people, it’s simply not going to happen; the variety of human capability is simply too great.  I ask again, to where shall we “lift the performance of all students”?  There’s no real answer, of course, because it’s not a real goal: it’s a political slogan.

It’s also impressive how the reporter sneaked the word “perceived” into there, qualifying the terrible legacy of tracking, as if to imply that in that vague, mistaken past of ours, we were filled with folly and illusion to think that some kids were smarter than others.  Yet I wonder if Michael Alison Chandler (the reporter) thinks that Elise Carter — the heroine of his story — is breaking her class up, if she is “differentiating”,  based on “perceived” mathematical skill, or whether she’s actually latching on to real distinctions between her students.  Bets, anyone?

Of course the teacher is recognizing real ability differences.  No one (except perhaps the most extreme sort of communist conformists) really cares if we track students by ability, at least within subjects.  After all, even the people who seem to be against it seem to be for it, as the article demonstrates; and it’s intuitively the best way to teach a subject.

But people care tremendously what we call it, and what it looks like from a distance.

UPDATE: Rachel Levy says in the comments that my comments above might be unduly harsh.  Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been to harsh, and if Rachel says you’re being inappropriately judgmental, it’s probably a good idea to stop and ask yourself if that’s so.  So I did.  And upon reflection, the only thing I’d backtrack on is the attribution of deliberate intent to mislead from my critique of that the very unfortunate sentence I singled out.  It could very well just be a recitation of other parties’ stated motivations, related from their own point of view.  (Which doesn’t stop it from being misleading, mind you, but does put the author in a better light.)  I think the article is a fine piece.  It’s well-written, well-researched, and informative.  It still seems to me, though, that it’s written with a strong underlying opinion, one that is wrong-headed.  Now, I could be misreading the article, and to a certain extent reporters are probably inclined to write nice things about schools that give them access to the classroom.  It’s thus also conceivable that the approval implicit in the article is not genuinely the reporter’s own, but an artifact of the craft.  But that doesn’t make it any less biased.