OP-ED: Differentiated Instruction: Easier in Theory than in Practice

Differentiated Instruction is not the same as honors classes or acceleration.

Since the beginning of the deleveling debate, whenever a parent expressed worry regarding how teachers would manage to teach students of enormous skill difference in one class the Administration has had an answer: “Differentiated Instruction.”  Whenever a parent has questioned the effectiveness of one-sized-fits-all the Administration has had an answer: “Differentiated Instruction.”  Whenever someone has worried about a child falling behind their classmates or waiting for them to catch up the Administration has employed the mantra: “Differentiated Instruction.”

It’s often said that “Differentiated Instruction” is a new term for an old idea.  Teachers in the one-room schoolhouses of yore - where six-year olds and sixteen-year olds learned together – surely had to differentiate their instruction.  Now, in the past twenty-five years as we have become more sensitive to the unique individual needs in a student population of unprecedented diversity, attempting to differentiate instruction within classes - even leveled ones - has become a nationally used educational method.

Why?  The idea behind Differentiated Instruction is beautiful: instead of teachers teaching to the mean of the whole class, teachers “meet children where they are,” and teach all children based on their individual pre-existing skills or learning styles.  It’s a theory that holds promise for low-achievers who need more structure and basics and for high-achievers, who need that push and enrichment to reach deeper conceptual knowledge.  The concept itself is so attractive that it’s hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with it.  In fact, despite the criticisms of Differentiated Instruction that are about to come, I still support it as one of the many tools schools should use to reach students.  In elementary schools where leveling is philosophically unpalatable, I think Differentiated Instruction is more than good, it is absolutely necessary as the best method we have of educating students of varying readiness. 

My critique is that Differentiated Instruction is no substitute for upward-pushing leveled classes.  Even in the writings of Differentiated Instruction main theorists it is not supposed to be a stand-in for in-class leveling.  In practice Differentiated Instruction is so time consuming for teachers that they often are unable to do it.  My belief is that there is no either/or between differentiation and leveling and using the two in combination is ideal for that ideal “thorough and efficient” education.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

While recognizing the need for professional development in Differentiated Instruction, Brian Osborne has given the practice almost unequivocal praise.  In the May 2010 Equity & Equity Recommendations, Dr. Osborne described Differentiated Instruction in these glowing terms:

“Differentiated Instruction is an approach to more effectively address the needs of a wide range of learners by providing ‘multiple pathways’ in the teaching and learning process. It is a comprehensive and flexible process that includes the planning, preparation, and implementation of instruction utilizing ongoing assessment designed to address each individual student’s learning needs. Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.  At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom.  Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.”  (See reference 1)

Yet, what Brian Osborne has told the South Orange-Maplewood community about Differentiated Instruction is not the whole picture.  Even DI's own theorists qualify their support for Differentiated Instruction with statements frankly admitting that it is not always effective.  Teachers have many reservations about Differentiated Instruction because of the burden of extra work it imposes on them and concerns about its effectiveness.  Some of the country's most outstanding teachers and teacher trainers have nothing to say about the group-based Differentiated Instruction and prefer other approaches.  The Administration's claim that Differentiated Instruction is a sure-fire method to teaching classes that have a large range of academic skills is contradicted by a great amount of evidence and testimony.

The National Debate

Differentiated Instruction's theorists do not give it the unconditional praise the Brian Osborne gives it.  Differentiated Instruction’s chief architect is Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia.  Tomlinson, who taught elementary school for two decades and won Virginia's Teacher of the Year before becoming a professor, gives to lengths to be intellectually honest in discussing her theory.  Tomlinson often prefaces her comments on Differentiated Instruction with hedging statements that school administrators here typically neglect.  For instance, in an October discussion of Differentiated Instruction in the New York Times, Tomlinson began, “Done Well, Differentiation Works,”  but readily conceded that Differentiated Instruction is not always appropriate or appropriately used, “Like all tools, it can be applied elegantly or poorly. When used well, it benefits a very broad range of learners. When used less well, it is less effective.”  (See reference 2)

Indeed.  Surveys of teachers show ambivalence about Differentiated Instruction.  Although many teachers use Differentiated Instruction enthusiastically, a greater number have issues with it.  A 2008 nationwide survey of 900 teachers by the Fordham Institute, over 80% said Differentiated Instruction was “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to implement.   A very high 76% of teachers would like to see the nation “relying more on homogeneous classes for advanced students so that they learn faster and in greater depth.”  Teachers, by 46% to 36%, even believe that leveling benefits low-achievers.  (See reference 3)

Non-supporters include some of the nation's best teachers and teacher trainers.  Ron Clark, American Teacher of the Year, and an influential author on excellent teaching, has nothing to say about Differentiated Instruction.  In Clark's The Essential 55, The Excellent 11, and The End of Molasses Classes, Clark discusses scores of ways to motivate kids and master classroom management, but never includes creating multiple assignments for the same class period as one of them.  Clark does believe in different learning styles - so he makes a common sense call for teachers to vary the types of activities they do - but never suggests that kids should expect or need to be taught in whatever that learning style is.  (See reference 4)

Doug Lemov, who has observed thousands of hours of teaching and is the Managing Director of Uncommon Schools charter network, is not a fan.  In his top-selling book Teach Like a Champion, Lemov barely mentions any kind of group work at all.   One of his few references to group-based Differentiated Instruction is critical, "We’re socialized to think we have to break students up into different instructional groups to differentiate, giving them different activities and simultaneously forcing ourselves to manage an overwhelming amount of complexity.  Students are rewarded with a degree of freedom that’s as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content."  (See reference 5)
This isn't to say that that all teachers of the caliber of Ron Clark and Doug Lemov are indifferent to or critical of Differentiated Instruction - Carol Ann Tomlinson was of their caliber - but a consensus among experts on practical teaching that Differentiated Instruction is highly effective does not exist.

“Fine, but what about research?” you say?  Like many things in education, the research is inconclusive.  Judgments like “Differentiation is recognized to be a compilation of many theories and practices. Based on this review of the literature of differentiated instruction, the ‘package’ itself is lacking empirical validation. There is an acknowledged and decided gap in the literature in this area and future research is warranted” are not rare. (See reference 6)

The Drawbacks

So, why are so many people doubtful about Differentiated Instruction if it is as “successful an approach” as Brian Osborne says it is?
One reason is because preparing the multiple activities and supplemental materials for a single class as called for by Differentiated Instruction is very time consuming for teachers.  A teacher who has 120 students, two, three, or four distinct classes to prepare for, extra-curricular, school-related administrative duties, and still needs to grade papers, homework and tests is unlikely to be able to create multi-tiered or learning style-customized activities that Differentiated Instruction calls for.  Some teachers of reading and writing-heavy classes - especially new teachers - have a difficult time keeping up with the standard three distinct classes, so tripling or quadrupling their planning and material-gathering time and expecting teachers to thrive is not realistic.  As a teacher I liked Differentiated Instruction in one of my classes, but using it on a frequent, thorough basis would have been impossible. 

The larger amount of work Differentiated Instruction requires of teachers is a problem for teachers and students alike.  Socially, we want teachers to be able to date, see their friends, enjoy hobbies, interact with their children etc, so adding demands that impair teachers' ability to do so is not advisable if we want our good teachers to stay in the profession.  Also, the time demands of Differentiated Instruction can subtract from other educationally worthy activities teachers should do.  Would you rather your child’s Language Arts teacher have the time to write constructive comments on papers or prepare 8-12 lessons for the next day?  Would you rather your child’s Social Studies teacher read articles about the revolutions in the Arab World and Europe’s unraveling fiscal situation or create the multiple lesson plans?  Would you rather your child’s teacher make one really creative activity or try to make numerous activities that might not be as good?  Differentiation has tradeoffs.

Another issue with Differentiated Instruction are its allowance of different assignments and encouragement of group work.  The major reason for having heterogeneous classes was to raise the achievement of lower-performing students - “[LevelUp] will enable more students to have access to curriculum and expectations currently present in the level four courses” - then the modifications that Differentiated Instruction allows for in the "Products" are a point of concern.  Differentiating Products - "culminating projects that ask the student to rehearse, apply, and extend what he or she has learned in a unit" - contradicts the point of heterogeneous classes.  The academic skills that are the most important in college and even high school are research, writing, reading, and math, so allowing students to do assignments that deemphasize those skills - like making posters, comics, making “aliens” out of Play-Doh - hurts their academic development. 

The differentiation of products is also a problem for the academic growth of advanced students.  Teachers give extra credit incentives to get students to do harder work, but it is unclear if there would be a penalty for an advanced student if he or she did something that was intended to be accessible to a weaker student.  It is also unclear if assignments that used to be standard Level 4 assignments are now extra credit assignments.  In any case, multiple middle schoolers have reported that having an average above 100% is not a difficult or rare accomplishment.  The proliferation of extra credit is a likely cause of the grade inflation that we saw in Language Arts and Science.

Differentiated Instruction is billed as “different pathways” to the same place but it is not self-evident to me that those different pathways do that.  If one student chooses to do writing-intense “Products” and another student chooses to do more arts & crafts-type assignments, the two students have not really gone in the same direction.  One has learned more content and honed his writing skills more than the other.  Since most college majors (and admissions) demand writing, one student has moved farther than the other towards college readiness.  

Finally, group work has its own problems.  77% of teachers say that in group work high-achieving students do the bulk of the work.  According to a response in the Fordham study, “When you do pairing and grouping, one thing that I’ve found personally is that my higher-achieving students, regardless of whether they’ve been labeled . . . carry the weight. They do all the work. My other ones are all playing.”  (See reference 7)

So, with advanced students doing easier assignments and weaker students tending to let their group-mates do most of the work, Differentiation Instruction is not the academic plus that it is heralded as.

Not Equivalent to Honors Classes or Acceleration

A misunderstanding about Differentiated Instruction is that it is ersatz leveling, where the leveling is within classes, rather than between them.  In theory differentiation could take this form - and often does, especially on the elementary school level - but that is not the rule or the intention of the District.  In the Equity & Excellence Recommendations Brian Osborne calls for "Flexible Grouping."  Flexible Grouping, in Carol Ann Tomlinson's words, can entail grouping based on "similar readiness (needs based on a specific goal--not ability-based groups)" but Tomlinson adds "[teachers] should also use mixed readiness groups, interest-based groups of both similar and varied interests, similar and mixed learning profile groups, random groups, student choice groups, and whole class groups."  The balance between "readiness grouping" and other forms of grouping would probably depend on the teacher.  (See reference 8)

It is unlikely that even many teachers who have the willingness and time for Differentiated Instruction can optimally challenge all the students in a middle school or high school class if the range of readiness is extremely wide.  By 4th grade, students at the 90th percentile and 10th percentile in reading ability are six grade levels apart (equivalent to the difference between average 7th graders and 1st graders).  Even 4th graders at the 75th percentile and 25th percentile are three grade levels apart.  With reading differences that large, you can imagine the difficulty a middle school Language Arts teacher could have doing a single book with his or her class.  If some children are ready for (hypothetically) 1984 and other children are ready for The Hunger Games, then even the most dedicated user of Differentiated Instruction cannot teach two books simultaneously.  If many kids are in danger of scoring Partially Proficient on the NJASK but other kids could easily score Advanced Proficient without effort, again, there is an inherent tension between meeting both groups’ needs. (See reference 9)

So which group is more likely to receive the teacher’s attention and differentiation?  Research shows that it is less likely to be advanced students.  Multiple studies, including ones by Carol Ann Tomlinson herself, have shown that when teachers differentiate they often differentiate to students at the lower-end, whom they perceive as most in need of the differentiation.  The following passage is written by Holly Hertberg-Davis, a proponent of Differentiated Instruction and a colleague of Carol Ann Tomlinson’s at UVA: 

the reality is that the way we ‘do school’ does not make it easy for classrooms to be places where individual student needs, rather than pressure to pass a standardized test, ultimately shape the curriculum. . . .

Unfortunately, research indicates that teachers in heterogeneous classrooms tend not to include gifted students in the group of students they believe most need differentiation. Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, and Salvin (1993) found that little differentiation in the instructional and curricular practices of teachers was provided for high-ability learners in regular classrooms, an issue confirmed by Westberg and Daoust (2004). When teachers do differentiate, they tend to focus their efforts on the more struggling learners in the classroom, believing that gifted students do not ‘need’ differentiation (Brighton, Hertberg, Callahan, Tomlinson, & Moon, 2005). 

Note, Hertberg is still in favor Differentiated Instruction (as am I), but she knows that its application in real life isn’t always as it is in theory.  She favors more collaboration between G&T, special education, and general education teachers. She concludes that article by saying Differentiated Instruction should be just one component in a “spectrum of services for high-ability learners.”  (See reference 10)

Success Depends on Teachers

Like many other things in education, the success of Differentiated Instruction in a heterogeneous class depends on the teacher. According to a 2010 survey of 1,000 teachers by the MetLife Foundation, 61% of teachers said they could differentiate “a great deal,” but 39% said they could not, a I consider to be a very large minority.  A middle school Language Arts teacher (from a different district) I talked to praised it as an educational tool that he found useful in his classes and as a philosophy, because it made teachers more mindful of the differences that exist among their students. (See reference 11)

As a former teacher I have mixed feelings about how Differentiated Instruction worked in worked in my classroom.  I taught leveled 9th and 10th grade core classes and upperclassmen electives which were technically deleveled, but where all students were college-bound.  My school did not push for or support Differentiated Instruction but I used it from time to time in college prep 9th grade World History classes.  I found that using interest-based Differentiated Instruction was something that most students enjoyed, but it would not be appropriate on a frequent basis and not all students had interests that could easily be harnessed for grouping.  I found that readiness-based Differentiated Instruction was problematic for students placed in the lower groups because they would realize immediately why they were grouped together.  Philosophically I did not like this because I strove to have high standards for all my students and that kind of Differentiated Instruction contradicted that.  I did not use learning style-based Differentiated Instruction because ascertaining students’ learning styles is imprecise and my district did not request it, although I would be open-minded regarding my children’s teachers using it. 

In assignments I would typically differentiate by including harder essays that would take no more time to write than easier essays but would require more analysis.  Specifically, I would offer a one-sided assertion about a topic in history and ask students to write a persuasive essay agreeing or disagreeing.  My disappointment was that very few students chose the harder prompts.

In general I liked Differentiated Instruction, but as an absolutely overwhelmed new teacher whose priorities were creating assignments, constructive grading, and classroom management, I was glad that my students were basically similar in skills and knowledge and that if I did not differentiate the class would still be successful. 

Stronger Agents are Available to Close the Achievement Gap than Deleveling

Along with high-quality preschools, the most powerful agent for closing the achievement gap is “Supplemental Instruction,” not “Differentiated Instruction.”  Highly successful charter schools do this with their extended school days and extended hours.  South Orange-Maplewood cannot have all kids go to school from 7:30 to 5:00 and have a 200 day school year, but we can expand Twilight Tigers (after school support) and Rising Stars (half-day July support) for kids who would benefit from them and work to integrate better kids’ activities there with what they are learning during the regular school day and year.
Another powerful agent to close the achievement gap is more effective teaching.  The District invested a large amount of teacher time (necessitating substitutes) in professional development for Differentiated Instruction.  We might get a better payoff by investing that money and time in professional development on ways teachers can better motivate students, manage classrooms, and be clearer in instruction.  Not all South Orange-Maplewood teachers would need it, but the kind of teacher training that Doug Lemov and Ron Clark offer could be more helpful to many teachers, especially new ones.  Also, the District could invest in specialized professional development to help students meet the needs of advanced students.  (Note, I don’t endorse everything Lemov and Clark say.)

In summary, deleveling should not be seen as strong agents to improve school performance.  Based on the lower NJASK scores, any positive effects of deleveling are undetectable.  Based on the surge in A’s for final grades but no movement on final exams, deleveling and Differentiated Instruction have caused a loss of rigor that negatively affects advanced students.  Differentiated Instruction can, in theory, challenge high-achievers, but concerns about implementation are justified.

LevelUp relies on Differentiated Instruction as the solution to the inherent problems of middle school deleveling.  Differentiated Instruction is supposed to support high-, middle-, and low-achievers but it is a weak solution because many teachers do not apply it or do not apply it to all students, often high-achievers.  Even if applied, some aspects of it like Differentiation of Products, are problematic because they let students evade types of work that are necessary for their later academic lives. 

Differentiated Instruction is not new to South Orange-Maplewood.  At the July 2010 Board of Education meeting when a parent of a high-achiever said her 4th grader was “miserable” in an under-challenging class, Rosetta Wilson said the problem was that teachers were not trained to differentiate.  Lynne Crawford, a supporter of deleveling, shot back, “"For nine years we've been told they are taught to differentiate lessons, why now are we being told they can't? Why aren't the gifted and talented teachers helping?"  If teaching training on Differentiated Instruction has been ineffective in the past, one is justified in questioning if it will be successful in the future.  (See reference 12)

Differentiated Instruction is no panacea. The paean that Superintendent Osborne wrote about Differentiated Instruction in the Equity & Excellence Recommendations does not represent the feelings of all teachers or even Carol Ann Tomlinson.  Differentiated Instruction is attractive in theory and potential, but in practice Differentiated Instruction can fail and in practice it is often ignored.  

A large majority of teachers say that Differentiated Instruction is difficult though a smaller majority say they can do it effectively.  Yet, perhaps an opinion like this, expressed in Fordham’s national teacher survey, has merit:

“Honestly, if I could ability group and have a whole group of kids, like in math, which was at this particular level, I guarantee you I could do so much more with those kids than just differentiating.”

Morrisa da Silva December 08, 2011 at 10:20 PM
Jeff thanks for this cogent analysis of DI. The difficulties of the practice of DI are something that many parents in the district understand through anecdote but your excellent article gives us laymen an understanding of the educational philosophies underpinning DI and makes it quite clear what DI can and cannot do. Surely our Superintendent is aware of DI's shortcomings but this does not stop him from relying on DI for most of the heavy lifting in Level Up program as well as our districts answer to G & T education. DI's vaunted place in our report on Equity and Excellence makes it more akin to a magical tool in a video game then an educational practice that even it's supporters and creators admit is not always effective.
MusicalMe December 09, 2011 at 03:01 AM
When I first heard of deleveling and differentiated instruction, my first thought was:: "teachers have 25+ kids in each class and they're going to know each of them well enough to give them DI? That's an impossible task. They've decided to delevel at all costs and they're setting up the teachers to be the scapegoats when it fails. What's really going to happen is teachers will figure the smart kids will do fine, I need to concentrate on the needy kids. I'm not evaluated on how well I challenge my advanced kids, I'm evaluated on test scores, so I need to try to bring up the low ones.". If you've got a kid who can do more, head for the hills!
Andrew Bailey December 09, 2011 at 02:42 PM
I am so distracted by the misspellings, incorrect auto-corrections and grammatical mistakes in this essay that the message is lost. This entire publication suffers from a serious lack of prepublication editing. This is supposed to be a scholarly endeavor...Please fix this! Your content is excellent!
Karen Caine December 12, 2011 at 07:10 PM
First off, the opposite of leveling classes is NOT leveling classes -- not differentiated instruction. Second, all classes, leveled or not, begin with a strong teacher, with a teacher who knows how to target teaching to that specific student, in effect to differentiate instruction. Third, leveling students does not necessarily mean that students are getting better instruction. Can we reframe the question and ask: "How can we make sure that the students in Ridgewood and Glen Rock get the best education we can provide for them and what are the ways that can happen? Where is the system working and where is it breaking down. I have my own thoughts on the subject, but none of them have to do with who in the class scored 99% on the NJ ASK and who did not. I am more concerned with teachers getting good quality staff development and with the district level administrators becoming better supervisors and supporters of curriculum and of teachers.
John Wilson March 12, 2012 at 03:29 AM
After reading thru all of the information on "Differentiated Instruction" , and as a long resident of the Community and Columbia Alumni, I am very concerned about the direction which Osborne and the School Board is planning to take the School District where the vast majority of Voters are completely unaware of what is actually happening in our Schools besides the "7 percent" of the voters who typically show up on School Brd elections in April every year. We need to get the Wider Feedback of ALL the Parents, Teachers, and Residents in the Community in a Referendum on the Ballot in "November". Why has the School Board failed to get a Survey Poll of the Voting Public based on their Wider Feedback.? We need more Transparency in How Differentiated and DeLeveling will be fully implemented and How it will be measured against actual Academic Performance without the "Spin"


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