Differentiation is a failure

Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students,” writes James R. Delisle in Education Week. A consultant on gifted students and a part-time teacher, Delisle is the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back).

Differentiation sounds great, but “is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back,” he writes.

Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster . . .

. . . the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

Dismantling special classes for gifted kids, struggling learners and disruptive students has “sacrificed the learning of virtually every student,” argues Delisle. 

I volunteered in my daughter’s classrooms when she was in elementary school in Palo Alto. Nearly all the students were being raised by highly educated white or Asian-American parents. Yet, in what may have been the least diverse school in California, there was enormous variation in children’s abilities to sit still, pay attention, follow directions, write letters, read fluently, etc.

I predict “blended learning” — using technology to personalize instruction — will expand rapidly as a way to help teachers manage classrooms in which students have a wide range of skills. But it has its limits.

Here’s another hit on the myth of learning styles.

Who wants schools run like businesses?

“Today’s education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy,” wrote David Kirp in a New York Times op-ed.

Don’t beat up the strawman, responds Andrew Rotherham on Eduwonk. The only people who think schools should run like businesses are business people. It would be more accurate to say that “reformers believe there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, including business, the non-profit sector, the military, medicine, and other professions.”

Kirp also writes, “High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line.”

Who says this? asks Eduwonk. It’s not reformers.

To varying degrees reformers believe that accountability systems can’t capture everything that matters about schools and the best way to capture those other elements is by giving parents choice.

. . . the only people essentially arguing that test scores or similar metrics alone are the only way to judge schools are those (who) . . . believe that more centralized systems, like those often found in Europe, provide more coherence and that choice is a distraction.

You won’t find those people in the reform world, he writes.

“Structural reform” is “a way to increase the quality of relationships that educators have with each other – and with their students,” writes Neerav Kingland, who also urges mercy for strawmen.

What works for small high schools

Personalization, high expectations and dedicated, flexible teachers are essential to the success of New York City’s most effective small high schools, report NYU’s Research Alliance.

“Small schools of choice” (SSCs) have improved graduation rates, according to previous research.

School themes, such as law, the environment or sports careers, didn’t play a factor in success, the study concluded. Some students were attracted to the theme, but “it can be a turnoff to others who wind up in the school because of the whims of the high school placement process,” notes SchoolBook.

Many of the success strategies can be used in schools of any size, researchers said.

No child left untableted

Will technology transform teaching? asks Carlo Rotella in the New York Times Magazine.

Sally Hurd Smith, a veteran teacher, held up her brand-new tablet computer and shook it as she said, “I don’t want this thing to take over my classroom.” It was late June, a month before the first day of school. In a sixth-grade classroom in Greensboro, N.C., a dozen middle-school social-studies teachers were getting their second of three days of training on tablets that had been presented to them as a transformative educational tool. Every student and teacher in 18 of Guilford County’s 24 middle schools would receive one, 15,450 in all, to be used for class work, homework, educational games — just about everything, eventually.

The $199 tablets come from Amplify, the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It’s run by Joel Klein, the former chancellor New York City’s public schools. Guilford County is the company’s first paying customer.

The success of Amplify’s tablet depends on how teachers use it, Klein tells Rotello. “If it’s not transformative, it’s not worth it.”

Robin Britt, a Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator (PLEF) lead an all-day training session for North Carolina teachers. The Amplify tablet personalizes instruction, said Britt, a former middle school and Montessori teacher.

It provides immediate feedback to the student and to the teacher, who can then make timely decisions about working with individuals and groups. Entire units of curriculum can be loaded on the tablet in advance or sent out as an instant update, accommodating students working at drastically different paces. An expanded set of tools for research, discussion, practice and demonstration of mastery allow students to come at their studies from various angles and let the teacher move into the role of a mentor who “meets each student where she is.”

“Individualizing instruction does lead to better outcomes — if teachers can manage the environment to make that happen,” says Jonathan Supovitz, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Teachers “used to have too little data from students,” Supovitz says, “and now they’re going to get too much, and they need to be ready.”

To get the most out of educational technology, teachers must combine traditional classroom skills with new ones, Britt told the Guilford County middle school teachers.

This fall, mastery might mean giving a quick quiz, then breaking up the students on the fly into groups based on their answers and sending each group a different exercise from the teacher’s tablet. In not too many years, it might mean using sophisticated pattern-recognizing algorithms to analyze data from homework, games, leisure reading, social media and biometric indicators to determine that one student should be guided to an interactive simulation of coral-reef ecology, another to an essay exercise built around a customized set of coral-reef-related vocabulary words and concepts, and others to something else.

“It’s the teacher, not the technology,” Britt reminded the trainees.

From cohorts to competency

Technology makes it much easier to personalize education through show what you know” promotion, concludes The Shift From Cohorts to Competency, a Digital Learning Network Smart Series paper.

The cohort model — children are grouped by age — moves on students who aren’t ready and holds back students who could excel, the authors write. “A competency-based system frees up students to learn at their own pace and according to their own needs,” said Carri Schneider, one of the authors. “Competency education is the ultimate path to personalization.”

Which technology? Used how?

Does technology improve schools? That’s asking the wrong question, writes Jonathan Schorr of NewSchools Venture Fund in response to last week’s New York Times story, In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. What kind of technology? Used how?

. . . as a nation, we have spent billions of dollars on technology that has reinforced, rather than transforming, traditional models of schooling. But taking the average of thousands of computer labs where kids learn to type their essays in Microsoft Word is very different from declaring the “classroom of the future” a failed experiment. It tells us as little as the average Yelp score of all the restaurants in town.

As a guide to the future, the better question is, are there models that make innovative use of technology and offer transformative potential? The answer is an emphatic yes . . .

“Bolting technology solutions on today’s existing education system is a bad strategy for improving student learning,” writes Michael Horn on Education Next.

The United States has wasted well over $60 billion “cramming” technology in schools in this way to little effect over the past couple decades—and predictably so, according to our research. That some schools continue to do this is unfortunate—particularly in tough budget times—and is worth reporting.

. . . Technology has the potential to transform the education system—not by using technology for technology’s sake through PowerPoint or multimedia at the expense of math and reading or something like that—but instead as a vehicle to individualize learning for students working to master such things as math and reading, thereby creating a student-centric system as opposed to today’s lockstep and monolithic one.

Upgrading technology first and asking questions later about how it will help students learn is foolish, adds Horn. And common.

Online learning can make a huge difference, argues Tom Vander Ark, who’s a big fan of blended learning and personlized online learning.

The pitfalls of personalization

Mass personalization is a big concept with a subtle sting. It involves gathering data on individuals and groups in order to tailor products and services to them. It surrounds them with stuff that supposedly reflects their likes and needs; it can be quite hard to get through this customized swarm.

For instance, Google Instant predicts your search strings as you type, stores your responses to its suggestions, and uses the data to improve its predictions. Facebook gathers information on what you and your friends “like” and then displays advertisements based on your “likes.” Amazon recommends books on the basis of your purchase patterns and the patterns of those who have purchased similar books. The general idea is to figure out what you’re likely to buy and then get you to buy it–that is, to make the probable actual.

In education, mass personalization is supposed to deliver individualized instruction for all. The hope is that all students will make progress if the instruction is matched to them. In its National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education describes the ASSISTment system, used by more than 4,000 public schools in Worcester, Massachusetts. This system collects data on students’ performance and problem-solving behavior (such as their help-seeking patterns), and offers students personalized hints and tutoring.

Along similar lines, Wireless Generation sells software that, according to GothamSchools, allows teachers to record their observations of students with a mobile device. The software then sorts and analyzes the data. The New York City Department of Education plans to renew its contract with Wireless Generation; this will allow the company to sell its mobile devices and software to New York City schools.

Several existing Wireless Generation products may be involved. The mClass® assessment and analysis tools consist of mobile device and data-analyzing software. The mobile device gives the teacher a question to ask the student (in reading or mathematics). The device then records the student’s answer and enters it into a database. Having gathered data, the software generates reports and individualized learning plans. It makes suggestions for groupings of students, homework activities, and more.

There is something unsettling about this contract, beyond the possible conflict of interest (former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein is now executive vice president at News Corporation, which purchased Wireless Generation shortly after he accepted the position). [Read more…]