Differentiation: How well is it done?

Differentiated instruction — individualizing teaching for students at multiple levels in the same classroom — is much revered, writes Checker Finn. But “how well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances?”

He’s concerned about educating high-ability children from disadvantaged families. He keeps hearing that special programs for gifted kids aren’t necessary because “we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”

Is that really happening? Is it possible without genius teachers?

“Teachers are expected to be all things to (almost) all youngsters,” Finn writes.

They may engage in some form of “ability grouping” within the classroom—which may well be what teachers “hear” when someone says “differentiate,” though it’s surely not what the gurus of the field intend. Or, if they stick with full-class instruction, they pitch much of their instruction to kids in the middle 60 percent or so of the achievement/ability/motivation distribution, doing less for pupils who are either lagging far behind or surging ahead.

Middle-class parents may pressure teachers to focus on the needs of high achievers, writes Finn. In schools with lots of disadvantaged children, there’s little or no pressure to focus on the “smart kids” and lots of high-need students demanding the teacher’s time and attention.

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  1. momof4 says:

    In the real world, I’m betting that “differentiated instruction” is essentially impossible, in any scalable sense. Following back the links to an Ed Next article, the “differentiated instruction” being praised is really ability grouping for reading (within class) and math (separate classes). That was necessary because of competition from a nearby gifted magnet school – and most schools don’t have that competition.

    In addition, a teacher relative is familiar with the work of the originator of diff instruction (can’t remember name), who lived and wrote in the era where the kids with significant cognitive/behavioral disabilities never entered school, when official segregation was in force and when the flow of illegal immigrants was much less; hence a less-heterogeneous school population. Even so, his model required removal of the kids at both top and bottom ends of the spectrum and their placement in separate situations – so diff instr was really only done within the middle range of kids – unlike the many classrooms which span 6-10 grade levels. One commenter on that article also had a good point; that the kids’ self-control and ability to work independently was a big factor in success of any kind of heterogeneous grouping – and we all know that some school populations have a serious lack of both.

    • palisadesk says:

      “In addition, a teacher relative is familiar with the work of the originator of diff instruction (can’t remember name), who lived and wrote in the era where the kids with significant cognitive/behavioral disabilities never entered school …”

      I don’t know who your relative may have had in mind, but the originator of the current “differentiation” movement is Carol Ann Tomlinson of UVa, whose field was, initially at least, gifted education.

      She is not from the era of 50’s style exclusion of kids with cognitive disabilities nor the mostly imaginary days of willing, disciplined and eager pupils populating elementary schools.

      Her website is here:

      IMO, she has a weak grasp of what instruction works for children with cognitive disabilities, reading disorders, and other specific exceptionalities, and empirically validated research does not support her approach to teaching such children.

      However, “differentiated” reading groups have been a staple in elementary schools for many, many decades. No longer the Bluebirds and Robins from Dick-and-Jane days, we now have “Guided Reading” groups a la Fountas&Pinnell in a majority of schools, both public and charter (KIPP and Harlem Success Academy both use Fountas and Pinnell) and these are not ability groups, but groups based on “leveled” reading assessments such as the DRA. You can and do get gifted and cognitively challenged children in the same “group.” Because the approach is holistic rather than targeted to specific instructional variables, its effectiveness is equally “differentiated.”

      It is impossible for most teachers, even extremely gifted ones, to meet the “unique needs” of a range of learners including the mentally ill, the severely cognitively disabled, the dyslexic, the slow average, the gifted, the bright, the behavior-disordered, the ones with significant medical problems, etc. all in one classroom with (usually) no assistance and no extra funds for appropriate resources.

      Some I have seen do remarkably well, but they can’t keep it up year after year.

      • palisadesk, I’m sorry if my question puts you on the spot or embarrasses you, but do you blog anywhere? I always enjoy and take away something useful from your comments.

  2. Florida resident says:

    It is unclear what is the author’a definition of
    “high-ability children from disadvantaged families”.
    My suspicion is that actually author meant children with
    modest abilities, but even those being rare in the families
    in disadvantaged conditions.
    In other words, what is the percentage (out of all children) are the ones fitting author’s definition of
    “high-ability children from disadvantaged families”?
    I suspect it is about 0.01%, i.e 10^(-4).
    With deep respect of the noble work by Ms. Jacobs,
    your F.r.

    • palisadesk says:

      “My suspicion is that actually author meant children with modest abilities, but even those being rare in the families in disadvantaged conditions. In other words, what is the percentage (out of all children) are the ones fitting author’s definition of “high-ability children from disadvantaged families”? I suspect it is about 0.01%, i.e 10^(-4).”

      What rubbish. If you want to argue on the basis of the bell curve (as you do) you can’t have it both ways. If 1% of children are going to be in the 99th percentile for intellectual ability, that distribution will be unequal across the population, and higher among the middle and upper classes, but to suggest that only 1 in *ten thousand* children in a disadvantaged population has even *modest* intelligence is beyond ridiculous.

      I have been in nearly a dozen “disadvantaged” schools in recent years. In the last several we began screening, systematically, for gifted students — ones in the top 1% on either the WISC or Stanford-Binet. These are individually administered, so to ensure those tested are likely candidates we use other measures to screen including such group-administered IQ measures as the CogAt.

      And guess what! The bell curve holds. We find about 1-2% in the top category, and many others in the “very bright” category (over the 80th percentile). If the .01% figure were accurate, I would have to teach for 100 years to have the opportunity to work with even a “modestly” bright student. Instead, I meet them every year, and have identified at least 2 every year for gifted classification. The few I have put forward who have not met criteria have been “dummies” with IQ’s only in the 95th percentile or so.

      However, one thing is sure: if you expect students to be stupid, most will be happy to oblige. If you aren’t looking for intelligence (or don’t know how to recognize it, as it manifests itself in rather unusual ways), you’ll never find it.

      Checker Finn is right, there is a serious lack of appropriate enrichment/advancement for able kids in disadvantaged communities. Although we have magnet schools that cater to bright and able students (not necessarily gifted), often the less privileged are not in a position to take advantage of them. The student may need to work in the family business, take care of siblings or older relatives, or may not be able to afford transportation to a distant program.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Also, the less advantaged students start out going to crummier schools. So even if they have native ability, by the time the entrance exam for the magnet high school rolls around, they’ve essentially stagnated for 8 years in an environment where they’ve never had to work hard and where ‘slightly below average’ is considered great work.

        IQ alone won’t help if you have no one to TEACH you. In middle class homes, there are books, library trips, museums, camps, piano lessons… etc. If your family doesn’t have a culture of self-improvement, how will you know how to improve yourself?

      • Second that point. In the very low income, mostly minority school that I taught at, a continuous development system was used. That is, children moved through ten levels between ages 5 and 9. They mostly moved as a cohort, but each year many moved classrooms half way through the year because they had advanced themselves enough to be accelerated.

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear palisadesk, Deirdre Mundy, EB:
        Thank you for your comments.
        To the best of my calculations, top 1 percentile corresponds (in the standard Bell curve) to the level 2.3 of one standard deviation above the median; top 2 percentile corresponds to the level 2.05 of one standard deviation above the median. Taking STD=15 and median 100, they correspond to the levels 134.5 of IQ score and of 131, respectively. Those are good, but not “high”.
        However, if the median is 85, then we are talking about 119.5 and 116, respectively.
        In my (very unexperienced) opinion, level 145 deserves term “high”.
        Meanwhile fraction 10^(-4) corresponds to 3.7 of standard deviation above median, which is exactly 140.5 for median 85.
        Let me be candid. I have not done any actual calculations before giving the guesstimate 10^(-4); neither had I formulated the number 140 for myself as “high” prior to reading your comments.
        Thank you all for doing your noble and important work of K-12 teaching.
        Your F.r.

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear palisadesk:
        Let me repeat the questions that I have already asked in my original comment:
        What is the author’a definition of
        “high-ability children”?
        What is the author’a definition of
        “disadvantaged families”?
        May be for you, with your experience in teaching, the terminology seems well-established. Is it so ?
        It is not evident terminology for me.
        I am ready to start learning the established terms.
        Your F.r

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    There are a few exceptional teachers who can “differentiate” over a wide range of abilities and preparation and motivation. But most can’t. However, wishing and hoping that ordinary teachers can do it allows everyone to avoid facing some very, very, very unpleasant truths.

    Though people disagree on the reasons, everyone knows that separating children on the basis of how quickly they are learning will result in faster groups with an “over-representation” of whites and Asians, and slower groups with an “over-representation” of blacks and hispanics. No one wants that, and a simple way to keep it from happening is to put everyone together regardless of preparation, aptitude, and motivation.

    Of course, there is a lot of de facto grouping by geography as people who care more about school settle in areas with “better” schools. But since that isn’t an official policy, no one need feel guilty.

    I think there may be something even deeper going on. Just about everyone in education wants to believe that schools are the great elevator for minorities and the poor, the gateway to the American dream. But grouping would make obvious that children from disadvantages families do worse in school. School may actually serve to keep these people from advancing. If educators believe that it is fair for people who do better in school to do better in life, and people from poor and minority households do poorly in school, then, well, it may be too horrible to contemplate.

  4. gahrie says:

    You say that like it is a bad thing….There will indeed come a time when a significant number of kids will go to online school. Probably not too far into the future. Many of these kids will be traditional homeschoolers. As the online resources become easily available, the number of home schoolers will grow.