Thursday, May 01, 2014

Is differentiated instruction a hollow promise?

Chester E. Finn
Chester Finn's (Fordham Foundation)  political views seem to get in the way of his understanding of classroom realities (as I have lived them over the past 40+ years), and accordingly, the piece suffers from political spin in the middle, but it's also very good in several places and asks good questions.

The short answer is that differentiated instruction is a well-intentioned but widely misunderstood instructional theory proposed as a solution to teachers' considerable challenges. Michelle Rhee was pushing it as a solution in Washington D. C. one will recall. We teach it in Kentucky. It is widely taught as though a student's own learning style should dictate how that learner is taught. Impossible. And Finn is correct to point out that the research suggests the theory is wrong. While it may be true that people have preferred ways of learning, we all can, and do, and must, learn in all kinds of ways.

Despite my own severe affinity for oral instruction, I still was able to memorize the shape of the state of Kentucky. I'm pretty sure I did that visually. See Willingham.

If reduced to the simple idea that classroom learning is probably more engaging when the teacher mixes presentation and assessment styles - and is therefore more likely to be successful for students - it's a good idea. But beyond that, claims fail.

This from Chester Finn at Flypaper:
It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness.

Images from Insane Mathematician
How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.

I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.

As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.

But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children 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.”

A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet their needs, or is it ultimately a politically acceptable excuse for not doing anything special for high-ability children?

The concept of differentiated instruction seems to arise from five roots:
  1. “Brain research” that has (not always with the finest of scientific rigor) claimed to identify diverse “learning styles” and forms of “intelligence,” thereby challenging teachers to individualize their classroom practice to accommodate such student variability.
  2. The desire of many in the special-ed world—parents and experts alike—to “mainstream” disabled children in regular classrooms to the greatest extent possible, thereby challenging teachers to accommodate and adapt their instruction to meet the needs of these youngsters, too.
  3. The push for uniform statewide (and now multi-state) academic standards that, it is claimed, will cause every child to become “proficient” (in NCLB lingo) or “college and career ready” (in today’s preferred terminology).
  4. An array of ideological and budgetary considerations that reject tracking, ability grouping, “pull-out” programs, and other forms of educational separation (often including both acceleration and grade repetition) on grounds that such practices are morally wrong, socially and educationally undesirable, politically imprudent, and just plain unaffordable.
  5. Growing interest in “blended learning” and other classroom uses of technology, which help teachers customize and individualize learning by letting some students move at their own pace online while teaching other kids in smaller, perhaps more homogeneous groups.
In response, “regular” teachers are tasked with customizing, tailoring, and individualizing their instruction so that administrators and policy types can declare with straight faces that their classrooms are diverse and inclusive and that every child’s singular education needs are being satisfactorily met.

To equip teachers with such remarkable pedagogical prowess, all manner of courses, books, in-service programs, itinerant experts, and summer workshops are available. (Google “differentiated instruction” and “professional development” together and you will get half a million hits.) Organizations such as the ASCD devote much energy to promoting this approach to education.

In short, it’s quite a big deal.

Unless, it appears, you are actually the teacher of a heterogeneous class that contains children with many different needs, different levels of prior achievement, and different “learning speeds,” at least in whatever subjects you are responsible for teaching them. That teacher, it appears to me, is being given an all-but-impossible assignment, akin to presenting a general-practitioner physician with twenty-three patients who manifest different symptoms, differing degrees of illness, and, upon examination, very different ailments.
Some might benefit more from an oncologist, an orthopedist, a cardiologist, or perhaps a dietitian, personal trainer, or podiatrist. It’s unlikely that any given doc will do an outstanding job with all of them. Indeed, the most valuable thing he could do for many would be to refer them to the appropriate specialists.

Much the same can be said about attorneys. The guy who drafts your will is probably not best suited to get you a divorce or defend you in a larceny trial.

But teachers are expected to be all things to (almost) all youngsters. And most of those I talk to about this mandate acknowledge that, while technology and small classes surely help, they do not feel like they’re differentiating all that well.

Some, of course, manage better than others, and some “inclusive” classrooms aren’t so very diverse. The tendency of many, however—this is evident when I observe classes—is to respond to the mandate in either (or possibly both) of two ways: 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. But when policy intervenes to reshape the teacher’s priorities, it is invariably on behalf of the laggards, for they are the beneficiaries of major governmental efforts—such as NCLB and IDEA—to advance the education of youngsters who face difficulties and to reward schools and teachers that accomplish this.

By contrast, in my experience, pretty much the only pressure on teachers to attend to the learning of their quicker, higher-achieving pupils comes from parents—and the pressure-exerting parents are almost always ensconced securely in the middle class.

Worse, high-ability children from disadvantaged circumstances typically attend schools with many other disadvantaged youngsters. The real pressures on such schools and their staffs are to meet student needs that are often ubiquitous and acute in such communities (e.g., health, nutrition, remediation, attendance, language, discipline) rather than to maximize the learning of their high achievers. And, indeed, there’s research evidence that a school’s priorities do tend to align with its most pressing and widespread student needs.

Plenty of teachers strive to do right by all their pupils. But I’ve sat in classrooms and watched as “smart” kids twiddled their thumbs (or acted out) in boredom and frustration while the instructor toiled to get basic concepts into the heads of those who, for whatever reason, were finding it much harder to learn. And when speaking to audiences of teachers, I’ve noted that any suggestion that “differentiated instruction” works better in theory than in reality usually elicits applause or, at minimum, a knowing and somewhat cynical chuckle.

Veteran “gifted educators” whom I respect say things like this: “Many gifted children’s needs can be met in the regular classroom, if grouped with academic peers for part of the day and if under the reign of a very gifted teacher. The likelihood of getting a very gifted teacher is, however, too small.” And, “Talent development happens through an acceleration of a curriculum. Differentiation doesn't typically address the needs of very highly able children.”

Perhaps it can—and there are schools and classrooms that try hard. Yet when a colleague of mine visited one Maryland school that puts meticulous differentiation high among its priorities, he reported back that these arrangements look awfully “rickety, held with lots of duct tape and chewing gum, and subject to collapse without just the right staff and parent support.” (And that’s at the elementary level; all of this grows vastly harder in the upper grades.)

Can this reliance on individual teachers to meet all pupils’ needs possibly be robust enough to bear the enormous policy and professorial weight that’s being placed on it today, particularly for high-ability pupils? Does anybody really know? The research literature appears distressingly thin. So let me invite proponents of differentiated instruction to supply evidence that this strategy is effective, particularly for educating children of high ability, versus approaches that entail separation, augmentation, or acceleration. And, while they’re at it, please also offer data, research, and evaluation evidence that speak to the sorts of questions I posed at the outset: How well is differentiated instruction carried out and by how many teachers? How well does it actually work and for which kids under what circumstances? I’d really like to know, and so, I am sure, would many others.

The Finn Spin Zone

A few things:

Finn: "The push for uniform statewide (and now multi-state) academic standards that, it is claimed, will cause every child to become “proficient” (in NCLB lingo) or “college and career ready” (in today’s preferred terminology)."
"College- and career ready" is a new concept, not simply a new slogan. In the past a high school diploma meant that a student may, or may not be, ready to pass a credit-bearing college course. Connecting the K-12 curriculum with Math & Eng 101 (holding to a college-level skill set) is an effort worth making. Formerly, states defined themselves. Any state willing to lower standards was rewarded with good numbers - as Finn correctly infers - straight out of NCLB.

Standards will not cause learning. Only teachers and students can do that. They are minimum performance targets. Period.

Proficiency" is an arbitrary, but defined, "cut score" on a test or other measure, which a state accepts as evidence that students know or can do things." It's helpful if every state is on the same page - if for no other reason than it benefits students whose families change residences. The goal is each and every child - 100%.
Finn: "An array of ideological and budgetary considerations that reject tracking, ability grouping, “pull-out” programs, and other forms of educational separation (often including both acceleration and grade repetition) on grounds that such practices are morally wrong, socially and educationally undesirable, politically imprudent, and just plain unaffordable."

He forgot smaller class sizes.

Finn identifies the motivation for differentiated instruction as "ideological," which views the issue as political. But then, Finn's work is political.

It has been my experience that teachers generally view differentiated instruction as a curriculum theory that is more "socially" conscious, focusing on the learning needs of each individual student - a view that is both appropriate and necessary for survival under high-stakes testing, which was made federal under NCLB.


Anonymous said...

Differentiation is an idealize expectation which operationaly can't be achieved. Not much beyond our predecessors red birds, blue birds and black birds reading groups has ever been achieved. The idea that one teacher would be able to juggle 25elementary students' individual learning at one time is simply an unrealistic and impractical expectation, even when supported with a teaching assistant. (God knows it isn't possible for a high school teacher often overseeing in excess of 100 students for a hour each day.) Would we expect a physican, even with a nurse assisting, to be able to provide medical care to 25 patients with various health conditions all at the same time?

We have most recently sold ourselves on the idea that technology will provide this differentiated learning and teachers will move from content knowledge delivery to facilitators, may not even require specific content area certification in the future.

I keep hearing that "kids learn differently now" as though in the last decade a combination of technology and evolution have altered brain activity and student motivation. To be honest, I really dont know that that means other than some folks telling educators that their skills are outdated and they need to be retooled to be either super teachers of this new science of learning or else the equivalent of computer lab monitors.

It just scares me that professional experience has somehow taken a back seat to pseudo science of learning, tech gymics and vendor program promises. Just seems to me that a good teacher who has worked with students for a number of years probably knows the most about how to teach. Instead we seem to devalue that resource and even denigrate it if it happens to run counter to the current trend that "leaders" are selling out to in hopes of getting a higher score on some annual assessment.

Anonymous said...

I have had a few jobs in my lifetime. I am fortunate to have one now, as I read and hear that employment is increasingly becoming more competative. That being said, I don't ever recall an employer ever differentiating my tasks based upon my preferred working style.

Not to sound like a hard heart, but "if" we were able to manipulate learning (work) conditions in the school in hopes of garnering an acceptable college and career readiness score on some sort of academic assessment, are we in truth making them ready when the environment in which they will be transitioning could care less about their prefer learning style?