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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Can teachers make 'differentiation' work -- and not go crazy?

In my newspaper days, I talked to principals at elementary schools with above-average reading and math scores and a significant percentage of lower-income and Hispanic students. What were they doing? Two principals said teachers grouped students by reading level for reading instruction, and the third school grouped students for reading and math.

Later, I wrote about the growing popularity of Success for All, which grouped students by reading level for a 90-minute literacy session. Students were retested frequently, so they could move up as fast as possible, and given extra help after school if needed.

Grouping students by skill level, also known as tracking or ability grouping, has "fallen out of favor due to equity concerns," writes teacher Daniel Buck. Teachers are expected to differentiate assignments and activities to "individualize instruction" for students who may be years ahead or years behind grade level.

It takes time that teachers otherwise might spend on providing feedback to students, contacting families, grading, scripting discussion questions and so on. And there's little evidence it works. One study found "lackluster results" for differentiation due to the difficulty of implementation, he writes. Researchers found “no consistency in the few teachers who did make earnest attempts” and “the patterns of student achievement, student attitudes, or student self-concepts.”

A comprehensive review of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which emphasizes differentiating tasks and assessments concludes that “the impact on educational outcomes has not been demonstrated,” Buck adds.

Greg Ashman, an Australian teacher and education researcher, plotted the prevalence of individualized instruction against various countries' PISA scores, he writes. "The trend suggests that more individualization actually decreases achievement."

"Differentiation" can mean many things, writes Buck.

Consider a teacher that assigns a chapter of reading to a class about which they must write a structured, two-paragraph response. “Differentiation” in this context could mean extra support like explicit vocabulary instruction and guiding questions, modified tasks such as simplified readings and audio recordings, or altered assessments like allowing the student to record an audio response and providing sentences starters.
. . . Similarly, sometimes differentiation means modifying assessments within a mixed-ability classroom, and other times it means separating students into homogeneous ability groups.

Effective and ineffective strategies are lumped in together under the "differentiation" umbrella, Buck writes.

Technology can personalize learning -- letting students work at their own level -- without burning out teachers, McGraw Hill's Shawn Smith tells Wendy McMahon on EdSurge.

“Not only do we need to meet kids individually where they are, but we also have to ease the burden that teachers face, or we're going to lose so many in this profession,” says Smith. “So many bright educators love teaching and love kids, but they're physically and emotionally exhausted. We have to use technology to relieve some of that exhaustion.”

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