Differentiated Instruction

(As an experiment today, I’m actually cross-posting this, rather than linking it; you can see it directly on Google+, where I suspect the conversation may be more lively!)


The NY Times has an interesting debate going today about whether “differentiated instruction” — i.e., putting all skill levels in a single classroom and relying on the teachers to teach appropriately to all of them — is a good or bad idea. If I can boil down the arguments a great deal, it comes down to:

OT1H: If top students are separated into advanced tracks and resources are allocated to those, that will come at the expense of lower-performing students, especially minorities and the underprivileged.

OTOH: Teachers can’t actually provide this level of differentiation; if all students are lumped together, teachers will teach to the middle, or more often, the bottom; and as a result the best students will suffer, and the overall top-skilled group in America will atrophy.

It’s a difficult tradeoff and one which I remember vividly from high school (yes, even after all these years); our district was perpetually fighting over whether the existence of honors classes was “elitist.” It was ultimately resolved by budget: the state had marked money for students with special needs, including both the extreme top and bottom end, but earmarked more than the total amount (!) for the bottom end. It was a political decision, of course, not an inability to do math. Nowadays, the problem is shaped more by testing requirements; since schools have been ordered to ensure that certain percentages of students are proficient in all subjects, the effort clearly needs to go into making students not yet proficient be proficient, and keeping students at the lower edge of proficiency above it. The mandate is clearly to focus on raising the bottom end.

The logic of this is tied somewhat to our economy; we see jobs at the bottom disappearing rapidly (although nowadays, that “bottom” doesn’t mean unskilled labor, it means something far more complicated) and people who lack the proficiencies needed to get jobs outside of those collapsing areas are going to be permanently un- or underemployed. From a societal perspective, we can’t afford that.

But I personally can’t advocate the sort of aggressive grouping, and emphasis solely on the bottom, as wise policy. It’s true that we want to avoid further social stratification and prevent the formation of a large permanent underclass; but it’s also true that the innovations which keep this country being a world leader, and which create all of those new jobs, are coming from the top performers. When we place them in learning environments which basically tell them “sit down, don’t make noise, let us teach the slower students” (and this is very much what they are told) they tune out. Those students who don’t drop off the high-performance track altogether (and quite a few do that; I remember a lot of very smart junkies when I was in high school, all of whom reported “boredom” as their chief problem) don’t get the enrichment required to turn someone initially promising into a leader.

In fact, when you do this sort of grouping, the only smart students who get this sort of enrichment are…. the children of the wealthy and privileged, who can get them that enrichment elsewhere. So this sort of grouping is actually antiegalitarian in an important way: it guarantees that the next generation of leaders will come even more exclusively from the previous generation. And worse, it makes that generation smaller, and picked from a smaller pool, which makes it weaker.

If we want this country to succeed, we need to change our academic goals away from simply making sure that the bottom doesn’t fall. This could be achieved by some fairly simple tweaks: for example, if testing goals focused not only on percent proficient but percent advanced, incentives for schools would be radically changed in an instant.

There’s a flaw here, and it’s purely a policy flaw. I think we should change it.

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 11:11  Comments Off on Differentiated Instruction  
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