Ed Trust: Low-income kids hit ‘glass ceiling’

While low achievers are catching up, racial achievement gaps are widening at the advanced level, concludes Education Trust in a new report, Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color.

Over time, the percent of students scoring at the “below basic” level of performance has declined markedly. . . . the declines are biggest for black, Hispanic, and low-income students. Yet, while the percent of white and higher income students scoring at the “advanced” level has increased significantly in recent years, there has been little progress among students of color and low-income students, so gaps at this level have widened. . . . In 2011, for example, roughly 1 in 10 white fourth-graders reached advanced in math, compared to only 1 in 50 Hispanic fourth-graders and 1 in 100 black fourth-graders.

Poverty is not the only issue, Ed Trust reports. In some grades and subjects, higher-income black students are no more likely than low-income whites to test as advanced. For example, 3 percent of each of these groups reached advanced in fourth-grade math in 2011.

Can differentiation work?

With the demise of tracking, teachers are supposed to “differentiate instruction,” tailoring instruction to advanced, average and struggling students in the same class.  It’s not easy, writes Mike Petrilli in Ed Next.

The idea, according to Carol Tomlinson of the University of Virginia (UVA), is to “shake up what goes on in the classroom so that students have multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn.” Ideally, instruction is customized at the individual student level.

Holly Hertberg-Davis, also at UVA worked with Tomlinson on a large study of differentiated instruction which included teacher training and ongoing coaching. 

 Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.”

Petrilli visits Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park, Maryland, a  high-achieving school with a very diverse student body.  How does differentiation work?

First, every homeroom has a mixed group of students: the kids are assigned to make sure that every class represents the diversity of the school in terms of achievement level, race, class, etc. Then, during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level. (Redbirds and bluebirds are back!)  . . .

For math, on the other hand, students are split up into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third. This means shuffling the kids from one room to another (a process that can be quite time-consuming for elementary school kids). But it allows the highest-performing kids to sprint ahead; one of the school’s 3rd-grade math classes, for example, is tackling the district’s 5th-grade math curriculum. . . .

The rest of the time—when kids are learning science or social studies or taking “specials” like art and music—they are back in their heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, however, teachers work to “differentiate instruction,” which often means separating the kids back into homogeneous groups again, and offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

. . . All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

The school also offers the “highly gifted” curriculum for very bright students in the same class with students who are working at grade level. Completely integrating the gifted class didn’t work. The performance spread was too wide.

What Piney Branch calls “differentiated instruction” looks a lot to me like fluid ability grouping for academic subjects.  Teachers, how does differentiation work in your school?  

Differentiated instruction is a fad with no basis in research, argued Mike Schmoker in Education Week.  

When it’s done properly, differentiation helps students learn, responds Tomlinson, in  a letter.

But, again, can it be done properly by the average teacher with a class that includes a wide range of abilities and disabilities?