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.


  1. Your assertion that separate groups can be equated with separate classes bears closer examination. My understanding is that groupings would be more flexible than classes. If the groupings never change, you might be right, but if they do, then the argument for differentiation looks stronger.

    I also see a problem in your deconstruction of the use of the word “perceived”. Using sarcasm, you make your opponents sound obtuse on the question of differences in student intelligence. In fact, few people have argued that the problem with tracking is its acknowledgement of differences in intelligence. Rather, the very real problem, and the one that you avoid addressing, is that tracking becomes a way of assuming those differences are inherent, fixed, and associated with racial and ethnic identity.

    I highly recommend the book “Detracking for Excellence and Equity” by Burris and Garrity. It describes how they detracked a New York school district and made every course before 11th grade into a preparatory course for International Baccalaureate (IB) honors courses. The result was that they gradually built a stronger IB program in which more students overall participated, a more diverse group of students participated, average scores on IB tests and PSATs went up, and, the top decile of scores also went up (meaning that even the top students were making gains in the new system).

    • Diana Senechal says:

      OK, let’s say that groupings within a single classroom are more flexible than tracks. I’m not sure this is so, but let’s assume it is. That would be one of the advantages of differentiation of this sort, provided it is done well.

      Now, one of the disadvantages is the toll it takes on the lesson itself. The teacher’s attention is divided; she must give lessons to all of the groups and then monitor their separate work. Even if she rotated lessons, working with one group on one day and another group on the next, she wouldn’t be able to avoid interruption and fragmentation. Students from all groups would be asking for help, explanations, etc.

      The solution, then, is to make the material so easy that the students can handle it with minimal help. Some argue that students can advance in that manner. Yes, but advance toward what and with what? It’s difficult to read Shakespeare for the first time on your own. It can be done, but it helps to have a teacher who can explain certain expressions and draw attention to certain passages.

      Now, does the good outweigh the bad? Is the advantage of flexibility greater than the disadvantage of divided attention? Overall, I’d say no. Of course, much depends on what you’re actually teaching. The sad part is that the lesson and grouping structure may determine what you can teach.

      • Diana Senechal says:

        I meant to add to the comment: let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that flexibility is the main advantage of differentiated grouping, and divided attention the main disadvantage. In other words, let’s assume that it makes sense to weigh them against each other.

      • Oh, I SO agree with this – one of the problems is that the range from top to bottom in the regular classes is so broad. From “slow learner” (or whatever they’re calling it now) to just-under-gifted – they’re all lumped in together.

        Pull out the “gifted and talented” (most are NOT – just come from families that took responsibility for teaching the pre-school stuff), and the “honors” groups (honors covers the material we USED to call regular), so the elite parents won’t object.

        Everybody else suffers from the teacher’s divided attention.

        My solution? Track, but allow movement, based on PERFORMANCE – NOT other arbitrary measures.

  2. Franny Wooler says:

    Elise’s groups change EVERY DAY, as do mine. I am a First Grade teacher with Elise at Galway ES. Our groups change based on assessments, observations, and an “exit card” from the previous day’s lesson. Students are not locked into a high or low group at the beginning of the year where they remain for the whole year. This is especially important when we shift from one mathematical strand (let’s say geometry) to another (say addition). Students who were successful in one area, may need more guidance in another.
    Today, one student showed a very deep understanding of fractions even though he consistently struggled with subtraction. He is able to get guided instruction at his own level as his strengths and needs change. It’s great that he can be instructed at advanced levels, or more supportive levels as his needs change.

    Last year, I taught the accelerated class, where 7 First Grade classes sent their highest abled students to two classes, including mine. Even in this setting, we still used differentiated groups! Students were faster or slower to learn as the topics changed and as their understanding developed. Guided Math is needed even in an advanced or homogenous class.

    As an early childhood educator, my opinion of defining groups of students as advanced in early grades is that it’s unnecessary and a little unfair. Allow students the same access to support and challenge in early grades. Keep classes as mixed ability. Promote flexible grouping within a class. I think Galway has it right.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      As an early childhood educator, my opinion of defining groups of students as advanced in early grades is that it’s unnecessary and a little unfair. Allow students the same access to support and challenge in early grades.

      Two questions: You have two students in 2nd grade reading. One is already a good reader and can in fact read at a 4th grade level. The other hardly recognizes words and letters.

      If you give them both 4th grade level books, are you giving them “the same access to support and challenge”?

      If you spend all the time on letter and word recognition, are you giving them “the same access to support and challenge”?

  3. Michael,

    Great to see you here again, but I think you may be being a bit harsh (and I am the Queen of Harsh). I didn’t read that the journalist was enamored with the grouping even if she was impressed with the teacher’s work ethic and dexterity. She did portray that at times the teacher’s attention was divided, and that some of the students-not-currently-in-half-moon-table-group weren’t getting the guidance they needed.

    I can, however, see your point that perhaps all students would get better and more targeted instruction if the teacher didn’t have to work with three different groups within the same math block. But, keep in mind, if she had a group/class of 19 (or even 25 – 30 as ES class sizes seem unfortunately to be growing to in many places) all doing roughly the same thing, the students still wouldn’t get as much attention from the teacher because the ratios would be higher.

    I think they key here is ability grouping but with flexibility, i.e., making the groups fluid. So, yes, as you suggest, the seven teachers would each have one group of 19 or so more or less on the same level but just for math. Base or homeroom classes would be more diverse with students going to other teachers for math if necessary but staying together for PE, art, music, etc. Keeping the grouping fluid would mean students wouldn’t be tied to a specific teacher for math, but go to the teacher that is teaching where they are. Groups or classes that need more intensive instruction would be smaller while those that include students who can work more independently would be larger. I’ve seen this done to a certain extent in my sons’ school with both math and reading (although reading instruction is another matter entirely).

    Not sure I’ve added anything here, but that’s my 2 cents anyway.

    • Peace Corps says:

      This sounds like my fourth grade back in 1969.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:


      I think we’re just reading the piece differently — which isn’t to say that I’m necessarily right. (On the other hand, I think I’m right.)

      You’re certainly right that there is some less-than-flattering description of student behavior later in the article — distraction, boredom, etc. But the sorts of distractions and off-task behavior that was described isn’t really anything endemic to differentiated instruction: it’s the sort of thing many teachers have to deal with anyway when he or she turns her back. And, at least to me, it really seems like it’s just a prelude for the author’s subsequent demonstration of the teacher’s dedication and unflagging commitment.

      Like I said, it’s a great article. It’s well-written, well-structured, well-sourced. It’s only failing (at least as far as I can tell) is that it seems written with a definite agenda in mind, one that strikes me as grievously mistaken.

      Also — just for clarification — keep in mind that I’m a huge fan of teacher autonomy. If three or four of the teachers want to get together and split up their classes for math, and the other four or three want to do differentiated instruction because they’re comfortable with it, I’m totally in favor of that.

      I often tell people who ask that the best thing they can do for their students is just be themselves and teach the way they want to teach.

  4. In our town, the goal is full inclusion, not flexible groupings to target students’ ZPD. Differentiated Instruction is the tool used to try and make mixed ability groupings work. They do talk about some flexible common ability groupings, but that is not the goal. They have also talked about differentiated learning which seems to be some magic technique where the teacher can present a topic and students can progress at their own level, all in one group.

    If you do try flexible common ability groupings, you will notice patterns in the groupings. Not all kids are equal. Not all kids will be ahead in one area and behind in another. A charter school in our area uses what it calls a full inclusion environment, with the core subjects grouped by ability. This seems like a reasonable balance, and they don’t feel the need to put them all in one room. If you are flexibly grouping by ability, kids know who is in the smart groups. You are not fooling them. The downside is that this charter school doesn’t like acceleration.

    Is the goal a more flexible and adaptable tracking system, or is it a way to teach students to work together in mixed ability groups? They are opposing goals. In our K-6 schools, it is more about mixed ability groupings. The differentiated instruction is transformed into differentiated learning, and the more advanced students are mostly offered time to work alone in class or with homework. At DEAR time, they got their own books to read. That’s about it.

    There is also the issue of grouping for enrichment versus grouping for acceleration. Often, acceleration is avoided because that requires long term tracking, thereby making it more difficult for students to switch. However, if you don’t accelerate, then what are you doing? Those not getting the enrichment will be hurt over the long run. They will not have the same depth of understanding. That is tracking. What I found with my son in our full inclusion school were mostly time-wasting enrichment activities. He needed acceleration. When asked what his learning style is, I tell them “fast”. However, in sixth grade he had to draw colored pictures using crayons for science definitions.

    When sombody talks about mixed ability classrooms, one has to ask whether the learning groups are mixed or homogeneous. If they are homogeneous most of the time, then why not put up the walls and quit fooling yourself that it’s mixed. If they are mostly mixed ability learning groups, then don’t talk to me about differentiated instruction or even differentiated learning.

    Then, amazingly, all of these discussions disappear in high school.

  5. When the term “literature circles” first arose in the English classroom, most of us skeptically viewed this as teaching three books at the same time – a proposition that could only be less efficient. In fact, I sat incredulously in the first meeting, not believing what was expected and assumed about the English classroom.

    And, then a few teachers latched on to the idea, and I understood why. They were the same teachers who would put a movie in for three days after finishing a novel and let the kids zone out while the teacher graded or planned. The idea of letting two-thirds of a class read quietly while they had casual and superficial discussion with the other third appealed to these teachers.

    But it wasn’t because differentiated instruction produced better results.

    • CaliforniaTeacher says:

      I think you’re being unnecessarily harsh, Michael. And I’m wondering if we went to the same workshops on literature circles, because my understanding is much different.

      Literature circles – also called book clubs – are based on offering students the choice to self-select high quality literature. (The teacher selects the options beforehand based on student reading levels.) They are given clearly delineated tasks within those book clubs. Those roles must be practiced and explicitly taught (how to ask questions as the discussion director, for example, or how to accurately summarize a passage).

      It takes an additional amount of attentiveness to student dynamics and abilities to set up book clubs well. The discussions themselves must be modeled, the roles must be debriefed; there are book club quizzes and exams, and at the end there are presentations. I don’t know where you got the idea that some lazy video-viewing teacher just half-heartedly talks her way through a discussion while the other half of the class reads quietly. That’s not literature circles; that’s bad teaching. Please don’t conflate the two.

  6. “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?”

    I can answer that question. The latter option is considered superior in this universe. Why? Students cannot simply be divided into low, middle, and high. All students are not necessarily low, middle, or high in, for example, every aspect of mathematics. They might be low in some, middle in others, and again, high in others. Further, many students have their own unique challenges for why they don’t quite perform to standard for certain aspects of a subject. The purpose of differentiated instruction is to identify and address their unique challenges.

    Also, think about the potential inequality to teachers by assigning students to teachers based on whether those students are low, middle, or high performers. Let’s say there are students who perform poorly do so in general. Assume the same of middle and high performers. That means teachers who are only given low performers have generally a heavier load because they have an entire class to bring up to speed. Teachers who are only given high performers have a light load because all their students understand the material no problem. Teachers who are given all the middle performers is given an advantage compared to the teacher with all the low performers and is put at a disadvantage compared to the teacher with all the high performers.

    Ok. Now, pretend that the teacher with the low performers actually has a mix of low performers. I mean, some low performers perform below standard in general and some perform below standard only in certain areas. What’s the outcome? You will still have to sometimes do differentiated instruction. Because in those cases in which there is a student who performs below standard on some aspects but not others, he or she will wait until the teacher has brought the remaining students up to speed.

    Now, pretend that the teacher with high performers actually has a mix of high performers. I mean, there are some high performers who perform below standard in some few aspects. What’s the outcome? The teacher must still provide differentiated instruction for those few students.

    I think you get the idea. Either arranging classes in terms of low, middle, or high performers will lead to an inequity in terms of workload or differentiated instruction will still be required.

    • Peace Corps says:

      You can’t possibly teach math! Certainly not high school math. I have both regular Geometry and Pre-AP Geometry, students request Pre-AP, they are not placed. At the beginning of the school year the students that didn’t belong in Pre-AP quickly figured out that they needed to change to regular Geometry. I had 5 students move out of Pre-AP. I had 2 students in regular Geometry that I tried to convince to move to Pre-AP, but they chose to stay put.

      It is much, much easier to differentiate over a narrow range than it is to differentiate over a wide range.

    • Cranberry says:

      In any group of humans, there will be a variety of skills and talents. It doesn’t matter if the group is deemed low, middle or high. It isn’t possible for a teacher to deliver individualized instruction to every child at the same time during a class period.

      The range matters. No matter what adults would like to assert, the kids do know who struggles, and who does not.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Students differ but so do teachers. Perhaps some teachers are more comfortable with low performers. Perhaps some are more comfortable with high performers.

      Perhaps some teachers DO BETTER with low performers. They should preferentially get the low performers, and be paid a big bonus for doing what so many of us can’t.

  7. The discussion of differentiated instruction, by definition, does not mean high school. Differentiation over a smaller range isn’t called anything special. In high school, you might have a CP versus an honors class. You can predict which class will fit, or you can quickly figure it out and switch. When I used to teach college algebra, I would look at their eyes and at their homework and use that to adjust (differentiate) my teaching.

    The problem in the lower grades is a conflict between social and academic goals. They want full inclusion to teach kids to understand and work well with all kids. I’ve seen some nice benefits of this in our K-8 schools, but you don’t get that for nothing. Talk of flexible differentiation tends to gloss over the issues of acceleration and how much mixed or homogeneous groupings are used. I’ve heard some talk of compacting, but ultimately, that’s not acceleration other than within one year.

    The ultimate differentiated instruction consists of an ILP for each student and learning that is a solo process. Most people don’t like this idea. If you start to group using anything other than a simple model, the complexity goes up dramatically and the benefits go down. Teachers can’t handle it and the students can’t handle being juggled around into low, medium, and high mixed or not mixed ability groups on a topic by topic basis. Many teachers will resist the natural sorting of students by ability, and I’m convinced that some teachers have a hard time seeing or dealing with smart students.

    The charter school I referred to above sorts on a subject by subject basis, but doesn’t allow acceleration. That’s just a hidden form of tracking or a waste of time. Tracking and acceleration are OK in high school, but somehow there is a better academic model in K-8. They can get acceleration without tracking. How come high schools haven’t figured this out?

    • Peace Corps says:

      “The discussion of differentiated instruction, by definition, does not mean high school. ”

      I wish someone would straighten out my state and my administration on this. I have to produce evidence of differentiation for each of my classes (all high school) for all 4 quarters of the school year. yuck!

  8. Cranberry says:

    Why has the poverty rate risen so quickly? Have the assignment policies changed, or are some parents electing to leave the public schools due to the new curriculum?

    • I live in Silver Spring and have never heard of Galway Elementary – but this is a huge and highly populated area so that’s not too surprising. Silver Spring has a very diverse population and many (most?) of the public schools in this area are 50% or more non-caucasion. I don’t know the stats – this is from personal observation as a parent and teacher in this area – a lot of caucasion (and higly educated of all ethnicities) try to enroll their kids in the elementary magnet programs. We also have dozens and dozens of private schools in Silver Spring and surrounding neighborhoods.

  9. sharpratio says:

    This discussion illustrates that adults differ sharply regarding the pattern of instruction that they prefer for children. There is research on this topic that could help settle the debate but even that misses the point.
    Parents who want to sent their children to schools with mixed ability groups should be able to do so. Parents who prefer mixed ability classrooms should be able to choose those schools. The problem is that public schools FORCE a SINGLE choice on all parents (except those who can afford private school). If there was such choice in an area, parents would quickly see the advantages of each form of instruction and be able to put their child in the best instructional situation.
    In any other area of life, Americans demand choice. What if children’s sports were only organized one way – either all teams would have players of mixed ability or all teams would be organized into leagues differentiated by player ability. Parents would never stand for this. In Montgomery County private sports leagues were organized as a reaction to the public recreation leagues that provided a single level of competition. There are private sport leagues that provide competition outside school sports.
    What is curious to me is that all the evidence indicates that the US public schools are doing a remarkably bad job at providing education in mathematics. If you doubt this, just ask a high school graduate what the fundamental theorem of the algebra is. Parents no this and yet they continue to support a system that provides no choice in education when they would never agree to this in athletics. Perhaps the problem is that parents care more about athletics than they do about mathematics?
    Recently some areas have experimented with charter schools that provide some choice. Why is this only an experiment when the need for choice is obvious given the responses to this article?