Personalized learning — without fairy dust

Like many high-poverty middle schools, Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep is trying to reach students who are all over the map academically. One third are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind — or more. “You can’t teach them by aiming for the middle and providing these little supports,” says Betlach.

“Teachers are told to sprinkle your differentiation fairy dust,” says Betlach. With 32 students in a class, and no aides, “it’s not possible.”

What is possible?

A foundation-funded experiment is testing whether “blended learning” can personalize instruction in eight Oakland schools. I write about how it’s working in Beyond the Factory Model in  Education Next.

About Joanne


  1. Mark Roulo says:

    One third are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind — or more. “You can’t teach them by aiming for the middle and providing these little supports,” says Betlach.

    Elmhurst Community Prep has “375 Latino, African America, and Pacific Islander students in grades six, seven, and eight” … or about 125 students per grade. This allows about four classes per subject per grade.
    Since these kids are all (well … probably mostly) non-Asian minorities, it won’t be racist to group them by skill level. Any chance the school would consider putting the kids reading at grade level in one class, the kids 1-2 years behind in another, etc?

  2. “Differentiation—teaching students at very different levels of achievement in the same class—is “the greatest challenge facing America’s schools today,” writes Michael Petrilli”

    Why is this now an assumption? Why does it typically start to go away in 7th grade with math and then completely in high school? Why don’t they use “blended learning” in high school? Because any sort of single class differentiation model can never be better than one where all students are on the same page and directed by a teacher giving them his/her full attention.

    Our K-8 schools have used full inclusion for years. Instead of sending the lowest ability learners off to other schools, they decided to place social goals above academic ones. Without any shred of evidence, they chose to adopt vague techniques of differentiated instruction. This has been going on for at least 15 years with no evidence of good results. The results are not horrible because many parents take up the slack, and our schools never ask specifically what we parents had to do at home.

    I’ve heard it all about differentiation and none of it makes sense. They increase the range of abilities in the classroom, but claim to do a better job. It doesn’t happen. They “trust the spiral.” It doesn’t work. When the discussion rolls around to issues like acceleration versus enrichment, they get very fuzzy about whether any student can accelerate beyond his/her grade level. They talk about the better students helping the poorer ones as if kids who easily pick up material can possibly explain it well to their struggling peers. They don’t separate students because that might make them feel bad, but then have the better students (badly) teach the slower ones. Right.

    They talk about individuals watching videos on the computer so that they can go at their own pace, but then are vague about the details of how much mixed ability or single ability group work is done. Individual acceleration and mixed ability group work are incompatible. They talk about the evils of direct instruction, but don’t seem to mind it if someone else does it in a video on YouTube, because, well, it’s 21st Century Learning. Forget all about the benefits of learning the skills of becoming a good lecturer and class leader if you can turn the task over to students in a mixed ability group or to a video made by teachers who seem to know nothing about lecturing because that’s never taught in ed schools anymore. Many of the videos I’ve seen are just so stinking bad. Awful, awful, awful, but many love them because flipping and online learning are so, so 21st Century. They don’t let reality get in the way of a predetermined assumption or choice. Their goal is to make differentiation sound like something better by making what it replaces (actually, it’s been, what, 20 years now?) sound bad using pejorative terms like “factory model” and “sage-on-the-stage.” Apparently, it’s OK if it’s sage-on-the-video. Underlying all of this, educators think they can widen the range of abilities in a class and somehow make everyone believe they can provide a better education for all. Then, by high school, this magic thinking disappears. What’s changed? Common sense. High school is closer to the reality of college and the real world, and teachers have content knowledge and skills.

    • Jerry Doctor says:


      You were dead on until the end. The B.S. does not end in High School. We were required to integrate SpEd students into regular classes where they can be treated just like everyone else… but don’t even think about failing them. Math prerequisites were eliminated for science classes because those were “gatekeeper” courses designed to keep minorities out of science. As a result we had Physics students that had never passed Algebra I sitting in the same classes as engineering school candidates.

      After 32 years I escaped this insanity and became a Chemistry instructor at the local university. Based on what I saw there, High School will never approach the reality of college until 40% of the students either fail or are otherwise required to retake classes.

      Let me make clear that up until the end I thought you did an excellent job of describing this stupidity. Your only mistake was assuming it gets better.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      A fantastic retort…I’m bookmarking his post…thanks!

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      “They talk about the better students helping the poorer ones as if kids who easily pick up material can possibly explain it well to their struggling peers.”

      This is what made me a pathetically bad physics tutor in college. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t obvious to the kid I was tutoring.

  3. I love this rant! Thank you.

  4. “You were dead on until the end”

    I understand that many high schools are different. In our high school, it’s all not good, but some things are concentrated in one spot. Ours now has three levels; the honors and AP courses, College Prep, and classes just for those who are at least one grade level behind. Honors and AP classes are now like the College Prep I had when I was growing up. However, now everyone is supposed to go to college. What our high school changed a few years ago was to eliminate the slackers and disaffected from the lowest level so that they can focus on those special needs students. The slackers are now forced into College Prep classes, which has pushed more students towards all honors and AP classes. The biggest problems with ability range issues and silly pedagogy now happen in the College Prep classes.

    Clearly, this separation does not happen in all high schools. I’ve heard about schools where AP classes are forced to take anyone – which makes it harder, if not impossible to maintain standards. It’s a war of educational pedagogy and low versus high standards. Some high schools win and some lose.

    What I’m trying to combat is the assumption that full inclusion can somehow ever be better at any academic age or situation. A K-6 charter school in our area uses what it calls a full inclusion environment, but students are separated by ability in the core subjects. Our high school separates students in academic classes, but some of the most challenged students got the biggest applauses at graduation. What problems, exactly, are schools trying to solve with full academic inclusion? Our high school pushes AP classes for all, but that might mean that someone who could never take AP calc would take AP art or music theory. Many people can be exceptional in some area without trying to level the academic playing field for all classes.

    Age tracking in K-8 schools forces the academic tracking to go on at home and allows other good students to slip through the cracks, but then educators don’t have to deal with the issue. They will just come up with some silly new idea like balanced learning to pretend that it all works out, or worse, that it is even better.

  5. Jerry Doctor says:


    I’m glad to learn there are still some standards left in some high schools. If only that were true in my former district. AP classes are becoming larger and more numerous – but the number of students taking the AP exams continues to drop. (side note: The music department head in my former high school was upset because he wasn’t allowed to offer “AP Marching Band.”)

    As the science department head I lost track of the number of times I was told by administrators that I could not prevent a student from taking a class far above his abilities. “He has the right to fail” was the usual justification. And when the student did just that, the teacher would get called in to “discuss” failure rates.

    “Our high school pushes AP classes for all, but that might mean that someone who could never take AP calc would take AP art or music theory.”

    I spent hours in the principal’s office with disgruntled parents complaining about their child getting A’s in honors History or honors English but C’s in honors science classes. My standard response became that there are very few Leonardo da Vinci’s in this world. Unspoken was the additional statement “… and your kid ain’t one of them!”

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      Actually, with the 5.0 grading system for AP’s, things like band can really affect a kid’s overall GPA and class ranking. Though colleges claim to want well-rounded kids who are involved in things like band, if taking it drops you out of the top 10% of your school, you can run into trouble applying to some selective colleges and even state universities. By filling that hour of the schedule with a 4.0 class, instead of a 5.0 class the kid gets hamstrung.

      We still want our teen to take band, because it is fun, and because we want her to have a well rounded high school experience, but we recognize that it will actually lower her class rank and GPA.

  6. I can understand the desire to allow anyone to take an AP class, but not an administration’s lack of support as you try to get everyone up to a nationally-calibrated result. It’s full-inclusion meeting high national standards. What some teachers do is to barely pass anyone who is even close, but save the flunking for those who have little defense for their grades.

    In K-6 with fuzzy or low CC standards, teachers can just push students along. Our lower schools use 1-5 rubrics that are so numerous and vague that a teacher can find something good to say about the student and just push them along. My son would get a 5-page rubric report card that was virtually worthless.

    This is really a battle between low versus high expectations, content knowledge versus fuzzy thinking, and calibration versus no calibration. I found more realistic education from those teachers who had the most content knowledge. Our state requires all teachers, starting in seventh grade, to be certified in their subjects, and that’s the first grade where I began to see any sort of proper educational sense in my son’s education. Before that it was full inclusion la la land education. Unfortunately, those going into the administration jobs seemed to have the least idea of the value of content knowledge and skills.

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      I take it the idea that an AP class is supposed to be the same a a college class went out the window long ago?

      • It depends on the college, the subject, what your major is, and what your grade is on the AP test. And, even if a college says you can skip a class, you may not want to. Often, it’s best not to skip in your expected major, like math, but use the AP tests to avoid distribution classes or to give you more interesting options. My son is starting college and we are seeing some of these choices. They even allow elimination of credits and not just advanced placement, but I’ve been told that we have to read the fine print.

        He can use his 5 on AP Spanish to eliminate almost all language distribution requirements except for one more semester related to culture. His 5 on AP English will eliminate a humanities requirement. This will give him more flexibility in meeting his expected double major requirements.

        In general, weaker colleges will accept more AP classes, but stronger colleges will take fewer and require higher AP scores. Even though my son got a 5 in AP Calc BC, his college still requires him to take an additional online placement test in math and discuss it with an advisor.