By James R. Delisle, Education Week, 1/7/15
[Michael’s Note: For a rebuttal to this commentary, see “Differentiation Does, in Fact, Work.”]
Differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.
Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s…accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for … the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes….
But wait! The solution has arrived, and it’s been around long enough to prove its worth. What is this magical elixir? Differentiation!
Starting with the gifted-education community in the late 1960s, differentiation didn’t get its mojo going until regular educators jumped onto the bandwagon in the 1980s…. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) has released more than 600 publications on differentiation, and countless publishers have followed suit with manuals and software that will turn every classroom into a differentiated one.
There’s only one problem: Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students….
Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.
In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli wrote about a University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: “Teachers were provided with extensive professional development 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 … because no one was actually differentiating,’ ” the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli.
And, Ms. Hertberg-Davis herself wrote in a 2009 article in Gifted Child Quarterly: “We are not yet at a place where differentiation within the regular classroom is a particularly effective method of challenging our most able learners.”
Mike Schmoker, in a 2010 Education Week commentary titled “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities,” relates that his experiences of observing educators trying to differentiate caused him to draw this conclusion: “In every case, differentiated instruction seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials, … and it dumbed down instruction.”
As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83% of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement.
When it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.
The biggest reason differentiation doesn’t work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation’s classrooms. 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….
Do we expect an oncologist to be able to treat glaucoma? Do we expect a criminal prosecutor to be able to decipher patent law? Do we expect a concert pianist to be able to play the clarinet equally well? No, no, no. However, when the education of our nation’s young people is at stake, we toss together into one classroom every possible learning strength and disability and expect a single teacher to be able to work academic miracles with every kid … as long as said teacher is willing to differentiate, of course.
The sad truth is this: By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student. In the same Fordham Institute report cited earlier, 71% of teachers reported that they would like to see…homogeneous grouping of advanced students, while a resounding 77% of teachers said that, when advanced students are paired with lower-achieving students for group assignments, it’s the smart kids who do the bulk of the work.
A second reason that differentiation has been a failure is that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both?… Teachers need clear guidance on what it is they are supposed to do to reach differentiated Nirvana, yet the messages they receive from the “experts” are [inconsistent]. No wonder confusion reigns and teachers feel defeated in trying to implement the grand goals of differentiation.
Differentiation might have a chance to work if…students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers—yet one more panacea that did not pan out.
James R. Delisle is an educational consultant and president of Growing Good Kids Inc., which works with gifted youths. He’s the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds. A former Distinguished Professor of Education at Kent State, he now teaches part time at Scholars Academy HS in Conway, SC.