Together but unequal

Some kids are ready to learn algebra, others haven’t figured out fractions and Johnny can’t add 2 + 2 and get 4. Their teacher is supposed to “differentiate instruction” for students at different levels in the same class. Get smart, writes the Math Curmudgeon. Differentiate by grouping students of similar readiness and ability in the same class.

If one-half of the room is “ready” for what you want to do and the other half is not, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap.

If the “simple” start for one group is too complex for the other, no amount of differentiation will cover that gap.

If “what is known” is too different, differentiation is futile. Those who start out ahead are held back and those who start behind are constantly trying to keep up, repeatedly reminded that “Masahiro and his friends” are the smart ones and that there is no point to trying to learn; one can only cling by the fingertips and hope for partial credit.

If the readiness gap is too wide, “algebra” will be two separate, simultaneous classes learning different things — and neither learning as much as possible, concludes the Curmudgeon. Or it might be three classes.

About Joanne


  1. wahoofive says:

    Yeah, but they should all go to college.

  2. Its called tracking and of course it makes sense. But it produces unpleasant demographic realities, so it has been outlawed in most places.

  3. I have hope for the flipped classroom on cumulative subjects such as math. Thresholds are set but each kid progresses at their pace. Beating on a topic till they get it, which often leads to racing ahead on the follow-on topics. Those who are “getting it” are kept from being bored into disillusionment by not being held to the class average comprehension.

    Sal Khan’s observation is on point. We don’t teach how to ride a bike to 70% then rush off to bring in the unicycle.

    And for those not easily adaptable to the cerebral, theoretical method of math instruction, schools can reintroduce the sneaking in of math instruction through useful manual arts, woodworking being an easier one to implement. Try to build something, you quickly have to work with fractions, have a basic understanding of trig and even geometry. There are graphic solvers but a trained teacher could sneak in a bit of instruction.

    I found this on a welding site on the math welder’s need:

  4. Differentiated Instruction is a method of cutting costs and then blaming the teacher for the bad outcome. Instread of hiring more staff and putting kids in the appropriate class, we dump them all together and demand the teacher teach all 45 (yes, I have 45 students in one class and 32+ in the other 5 classes) as if they are individual tutor students.

    I have students dumped in chemistry who cannot multiply and students who should be in AP Chem in the same class. That is insane…but it saves money! And when the kids don’t do as well as The Powers That Be says they should, well then, the teacher was inadequate!

    Very ugly way to do things.

    • I have thought for years that the only reason that K-12 schools nationwide literally have any teachers available at all – and are not desperately short teachers on a permanant basis – is because the economy has been so bad for so many years. If the economy were anywhere near as good as it *should* be, I bet most K-12 teachers would quit and be out of there in a heartbeat…

      • Right. Wouldn’t have anything to do with the hours or the pay here in NY. We know there are other gov’t agencies that pay better, where one can retire sooner at a higher salary.

  5. Oh, tracking was fine when I attended public schools, due to the fact that if the student wasn’t capable of handling fractions, they’d never make it through algebra I in any case, and never mind the student who can’t add 2 + 2 and get 4.


  6. I certainly see the political problem with leveled grouping in suburban districts, like the one my kids attended, but there are plenty of urban schools/districts where that isn’t a real issue; therefore no sufficient reason preventing assigning kids to classes based on academic need. Seriously, does anyone really think that the kids in heterogeneous classes not know which kids know what they’re doing and which don’t?

    • Jerry Doctor says:

      This nonsense has been around seemingly forever. Remember “Schools Without Failure?” The classic example there was teaching kids to high jump. Some could – some could not. The solution was to arrange the bar at an angle. Now ALL the kids can succeed! Of course these idiots failed to see that the kids define success and failure, not them. Simply clearing the bar not longer mattered. It became a question of WHERE did you clear the bar.

  7. There’s an article in the Star-Tribune today about gifted kids from Minneapolis, which has no separate gifted ES-MS programs, transferring to gifted programs in the next-door suburb of Bloomington (which allows out of area transfers on a space-available basis). A member of the Mpls School Board, for over 20 years, was quoted as saying that the most talented kids need to remain in regular (heterogeneous) classes so they can serve as role models for others. I find that morally unacceptable; NO kid should be in an academic placement for the benefit of some other kids.

    • ALL children should be placed by instructional need. School should have meaningful academics for each and every student.