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Is It Possible to 'Differentiate' Instruction?

There's been a big swirl of conversation recently about whether our schools do right by the most highly skilled students. It was fueled in part by a couple of things (both discussed in my blog post from a couple weeks ago).

One was a recent article in National Affairs by American Enterprise Institute wonk (and EdWeek blogger) Rick Hess, arguing that while focusing on underachieving students is important, that focus has had a cost for "gifted" students.

The other was a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that found that the highest achieving students lose altitude over time.

Now Hess and a few other folks are arguing various points of view on this topic in The New York Times' Room For Debate.

The University of Virginia's Carol Ann Tomlinson suggests that it's not just differentiation in the classroom that educators need to think about, but differentiation across a school, to respond to the full range of students' needs. Kansas teacher Cassandra Davis describes the perverse incentives, created by state-mandated proficiency targets, to ignore the most advanced students.

C. Kent McGuire, who until recently headed up Temple University's College of Education, contends that tracking is too often substituted for differentiation because teachers lack the support they need to differentiate well. The Fordham Institute's Mike Petrilli argues that as tracking has disappeared, "gifted" students haven't gotten the challenging instruction they need. Harvard's Paul Peterson outlines a role for technology in gearing instruction to each student's optimal "learning point."

Interesting points of view, each with some disputed assumptions. For instance: There is hardly universal agreement that tracking has disappeared.

And none of the discussants here addresses the beliefs that color the conversation, revealed by the lingering and widespread use of the word "gifted" to describe the most advanced students. The way we think about what makes high-flyers reach their altitude will have a whole lot to do with how we teach them. Likewise, our beliefs about what underlies the struggles of lower-achieving students have everything to do with how we support them.

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