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Differentiated Instruction: A Solution to the School Finance Crisis?

I got some bad news this week.  It has to do with one of my grandchildren, who attends public schools in Maryland in a pretty upscale county.  I'll call her Judy. She is 11, a very strong student. When Judy was in elementary school, the gifted and talented coordinator in her school suggested that she skip third grade to be placed in the fourth grade.  Even then, she was put in the advanced math section of the fourth grade class.  Since then, she has been doing math two grade levels above most of the other students her age.  

A couple of days ago, her parents told me that all this special help is coming to an end.  The special programs for gifted and talented students have been eliminated.  Her parents were told that these changes are being made as a result of a new policy. The district will no longer provide a more challenging curriculum for "fast" students, and a less challenging curriculum for average students. These students will all be in the same classrooms and their teachers will be taught how to use differentiated teaching techniques so that they can provide material and instruction appropriate for students of very different abilities within the same classroom (though slow learners and some average learners will still be in a separate stream).

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have long pointed out that many of the top-performing countries organize their classes heterogeneously—at least through lower secondary school—and that many of these same countries are making a big point of teaching differentiated instruction techniques to prospective teachers in their teachers colleges.  You might also remember me saying that the top-performing countries typically do not hold students back or push them ahead, either.  So you would expect me to be thrilled with the news I got about Judy.  I was actually horrified.

Maybe—I hope—my regular readers won't be too surprised to hear this.  Because they will recall that I am a systems freak.  I keep pointing out that it is very dangerous to implement some parts of very effective systems while leaving other, more difficult, parts behind.  This is a classic case.

The countries that are top-performers are countries that have made a decision to implement curricula set to world-class standards for all their students (in this case, that standard would be the math standard that Judy has been working at), and they have also made a decision to do everything that is necessary to make it very probable that any student, chosen at random, will succeed in that curriculum.  These two decisions, taken together, frame every other element of their education policies.

The most important of these policies is the decision to recruit their teachers from among the same pool of high school students who go on to become high status professionals in those countries.  Another is to insist that they take a lot of college-level courses in the subjects they are going to teach.  Another is that they have a least a year of instruction in the craft of teaching, including serious instruction in what is called differentiated instruction in the United States.  Another is that they meet a very high standard of accomplishment as a teacher before they are issued a license to teach.  Another is that they get serious instruction in the methods of education research so that they can evaluate the various resources available to address challenges the students face based on the quality of the research done to validate the claims made for those resources.  Another is that they are paid well enough to attract to teaching the kind of people who will survive the kind of gauntlet that prospective teachers would have run to become teachers under the conditions I just described.  

None of this is now true for classroom teachers in the United States. So what is likely to happen to Judy?  She will simply be put in a math classroom with a heterogeneous mix of students supervised by a teacher who has had a once-over-lightly exposure in a brief professional development workshop to the surface features of differentiated instruction.  

None of the conditions that make differentiated instruction work in the top-performing countries will be present.  

Getting to the point at which the United States can compete head-to-head with the top-performing countries will not be easy.  There is good reason to believe that many of our elementary school teachers do not have a very good command of the mathematics of arithmetic, fractions, proportion, and so on.  The result, of course, is that their students enter middle schools with serious deficiencies in these foundation areas of mathematics.
 This will make it impossible for differentiated instruction to bridge the gap between where most of our students are and the global standard for math instruction.

In these circumstances, it will be impossible, I submit, for most teachers to learn to do something that is, at best, quite difficult for the very best teachers to do, which is to take a group of students in a single classroom whose command of mathematics may span three or four grade levels and bring them all up to a world class standard.  

In Judy's case, the students who were a year ahead of the others will be mixed in with the students who had been on grade level and some who were struggling a bit with the on-grade program.  That means that the teacher cannot teach the class at the level of the more advanced kids because most of the class is a year or more behind that level, and so, inevitably, the more advanced students will be bored and unchallenged.  In the top-performing countries, this would not happen, because the level of the whole class would be much closer to Judy's level, so the differentiated instruction would be used to close much smaller gaps in student performance.

I am sure that the implementation of differentiated instruction schemes are very attractive to school districts these days in no small measure because they see it as a way to save the extra money they are now spending on special measures for "gifted" students and "slow" students.  So we'll just solve the problem by giving our teachers a workshop on differentiated instruction and put them all in the same classroom. If that is what you do, if you leave out all the other measures that the top-performing countries are doing to raise students' performance to top-tier levels, all the Judys are more likely than not to lose their love of math, grow bored in school like so many of their peers, and settle for much less in school than they should.

Differentiated instruction is a very important tool in the tool kit used by the top-performing countries to get to the top and stay there.  But it is not a miracle drug.  Ratcheting up instruction in mathematics so that all students will be able to follow the trajectory of development in mathematics followed by students in the top performing countries will entail fundamental changes in the way we recruit, compensate, educate, train, license and support our teachers.  There is no substitute for these measures.
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