Differentiated instruction

Joanne Jacobs recently posted a link to a news story about how much California teachers make. The comment thread drew predictable responses from teachers who don’t make that much, or who think it’s only reasonable for how hard they work, or — well, I bet you can recite that litany yourself.

I’ve excepted below my comments (not about pay) and the context that prompted them.

Joanne:

See how well your school district pays its teachers, writes  the Sacramento Bee. California’s average teacher earned $65,808 last year, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2007, but pay varies.  High school districts pay the most, unified (K-12) districts are in the middle and elementary districts usually have the lowest pay.

I noticed pay averages $93,283 at my local high school district, with a starting salary of $59,692 and top pay of $112,796. That’s the highest, especially the starting pay, in our high-cost county.

From comments:
# 30 linda seebach Jan 12th, 2009 at 7:52 am

McSwain, above (# 9 McSwain Jan 11th, 2009 at 1:06 pm), says, “With NCLB and mainstreaming, I have special ed students, gifted students, and English Learners in my classroom of 30+ kids, and I have to differentiate instruction for ALL of them. The planning time for that is astronomical, and there is zero down time in the classroom.”

Deliberately mixing academically dissimilar students in a single classroom not only requires astronomical planning time, it guarantees an unsatisfactory outcome for nearly all the students. All in pursuit of an illusory goal of “inclusion.” Wouldn’t it work better to group similar students together, so they could progress at similar rates?

Of course it would, but that’s one of the things that Cannot Be Said. Let alone done.

The system does make teachers’ jobs harder than they need to be. On the other hand, a lot of the people filling those jobs would have a hard time making the same kind of money (considering security and benefits. especially retirement benefits, as well) in other careers. They certainly wouldn’t in journalism.

# 31 Margo/Mom Jan 12th, 2009 at 8:04 am

linda–it can be said, and frequently is said–particularly by those who advocate for advantaged students. the problem is that while it appears to be “logical,” based on our post-industrial experiences, to group students by “ability” and achieve better outcomes for all, the evidence doesn’t point in that direction. Most research that I have seen on the topic shows that, particularly at an early age, ability grouping reinforces, rather than compensates for differences. Furthermore, mixed groupings typically produce better outcomes for those on the bottom with no harm to those on top.

# 36 Tracy W Jan 13th, 2009 at 1:30 am

Margo/Mum, one of the programmes shown to be most effective at teaching students is Direct Instruction, which uses grouping by ability. See http://www.projectpro.com/ICR/Research/DI/Summary.htm and http://www.aasa.org/issues_and_insights/district_organization/Reform/overview.htm

This programme focuses on grouping children by two factors – how much they already know and how much they learn. So a kid with an IQ of 120 who starts school not knowing their alphabet would be placed earlier in the lesson sequence than a kid with an IQ of 80 who starts school knowing their alphabet. Kids can and often are placed in different places in the maths and reading sequences based on their results. Replacements are frequently reviewed. And if a kid misses a chunk of school, say due to illness, they’re placed back where they left the sequence, rather than being expected to have magically learnt everything their class learnt while they were missed. There are a lot of other things that Direct Instruction does, including providing scripted lessons to teachers and providing school backup for teachers dealing with difficult students. But this brief description of how placement by ability is done in Direct Instruction indicates how difficult it is to make general statements about grouping by ability – the Direct Instruction system is very different to, say, giving kids an IQ test and then using the results of that test to assign them to one stream for all their academic lessons.

# 37 Margo/Mom Jan 13th, 2009 at 6:19 am

[To] Tracy W.
I am no intuitive fan of Direct Instruction–but I do pay attention to research and what it says, and I am aware of the research re DI and what it says and doesn’t say. The grouping used in DI is flexible ability grouping. This means that children are assessed frequently and placed in groups accordingly. These groups are used for reading instruction. This is a very different thing from ability streaming or tracking–which is what I understood to be advocated. These systems typically lack flexibility, apply across the board–so that students are abundantly clear regarding who are the smart kids and who are not, and the earlier that this tracking takes place, the less likely kids are ever to move from one group to another (particularly upward).

. . .
Early studies with school integration, in which minority students who performed less well were integrated with better performing majority students. The minority students tended to do better with no detriment to the majority students. Studies of inclusion of students with disabilities have tended towards similar results.

# 39 linda seebach Jan 13th, 2009 at 10:01 am

Margo/Mom above said, “Most research that I have seen on the topic shows that, particularly at an early age, ability grouping reinforces, rather than compensates for differences. Furthermore, mixed groupings typically produce better outcomes for those on the bottom with no harm to those on top.”

It is almost certainly correct that ability grouping reinforces differences. But that’s not a bug, as she seems to think; it’s a feature. The difference between a child with -2 S.D. IQ and +2 S.D. cannot be “compensated for;” the only thing mixed grouping can guarantee is that time does not widen it as much as should happen if every child is achieving his or personal best.

(See Malcolm Gladwell’s example of the Canadian hockey rules that inadvertently privilege young players who happen to be born early in a calendar year.)

If one child makes (or can make) two years’ progress in a school year, and her sister can make only a half-year’s progress in one year, it is immoral to hold the brighter child back so the gap between them does not grow.

And as public policy, it’s insane. If you’re worried about America’s global competitiveness, worry about the competition at the top for the best-trained brains, not the competition for slightly better performance in entry-level jobs, however important the latter is to the life chances of people who will never get much past entry-level jobs.

James Coleman explained why minority children who previously attended segregated schools did better when they began attending schools with white children; they had more effective teachers. His research was too explosive to publish at the time, he said in a lecture I heard him give much much later. So even if they did, that does not provide evidence in favor of the proposition that it was smarter *classmates* who made the difference.

Racial issues aside, I doubt that the experience of feeling that just about everybody in your class is smarter than you are confers any academic benefit. Especially if you’re right.

For that matter, neither does thinking you’re smarter than just about everybody in your class. Even if you’re right.

The research that purports to show that high-achieving children are not harmed by heterogeneous grouping is methodologically suspect. (see, e.g., the work of Deborah Ruf at wwww.educationaloptions.com/ ). She explains that most of the instruments available to researchers have rather low ceilings, so they don’t show that children above the ceilings are making slower than normal progress (for them). That’s harm, in my book.

Margo/Mom goes on to quote some boilerplate balderdash from the National Association of School Psychologists in defense of her support for “heterogeneous classrooms with instruction differentiated to meet the needs of all students.”

Trouble is, in the real world most teachers can’t provide that.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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One Response to Differentiated instruction

  1. Mike McKeown says:

    Margo/Mom [#37] wrote “These systems typically lack flexibility, apply across the board–so that students are abundantly clear regarding who are the smart kids and who are not.”

    I’m pretty sure that kids figure out who the smart ones are and who are not. They don’t need tracking to tell them, they the can see it with their own eyes.

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