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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Differentiated Disaster

The latest cure-all for education is “Differentiated Instruction”. It means ‘meet the students where they are and teach them to their ability’. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately it’s not - it’s actually very harmful, and this is why:

Imagine you are watching a football game. The running back takes a toss from the quarterback and rushes around end. It’s the defense’s job to stop him, except, in this case, all the defensive players have their hands and feet tied together. There is no way the running back can’t score unless he doesn’t try at all or just fails to show up. This is what the powers-that-be want to turn education into and they want the teachers to do it.

Let me give you another example. Three kids are in a tenth-grade biology class. They finish a unit and a test is given. Kid One is required to answer fifty questions and to write a short essay. Kid Two is required to answer twenty-five questions and write a paragraph and Kid Three is required to answer ten questions and draw a picture. If you don’t think that’s fair you, are not the only one – unfortunately, teachers are being told “what’s fair isn’t always what’s equal.” In this example, the teacher is meeting the kids where they are and teaching them to their ability. In the end, all three can get the exact same grade and earn the exact same credit and they can do so because they are in the exact same class.

People from the district and state say to teachers all the time “differentiate your instruction”, and they say it like it’s as easy as breathing, but it’s not. In high school and middle school teachers often have 125-150 children. Teachers can’t possibly come up with 150 variations of the same lesson each day to teach. However, what is possible is for teachers to group their lessons in a couple of different ways, but all options leave something to be desired.

I would say the most prevalent way for teachers to do this is by teaching to the lowest common denominator - planning their lessons for the kids on the lowest end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, this means the kids at the top end of the spectrum often become bored and go unchallenged. They are getting the material but not much more.

If a teacher taught to the highest group, the lowest group would more than likely fall behind and not get the extra intensive help they might require. If the teacher tried to teach to the middle of the road, then those in the high and low groups still lose out. No matter what teachers do, some kids are not going to get what they need or they will fall through the cracks. This is because in many classes, the school system does not want to break kids up according to their ability because they believe it will cause a stigma to be attached to the low ability groups. Unfortunately, this dogged determination to not group kids is going to hurt more than their self-esteem - it’s going to handicap them for life.

When students get to college, do you think their professors are going to change their curriculum to meet them where they are? No, kids are going to sink or swim, and more are going to sink because in public school everything is being modified to fit them. What about when a kid gets a job? Do you think their boss is going to say ‘you stock fifty shelves, but you only have to stock twenty because that plays more to your ability’. If you think for a second that’s going to happen I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Schools are setting up a lot of kids to fail once they get into the real world because schools are no longer teaching them how the real world works.

I am not saying if a kid doesn’t need extra help they shouldn’t receive it, and I am not saying that if a kid has a legitimate disability, accommodations and modifications shouldn’t be provided. What I am saying is there should be a minimum standard for every kid and if, for whatever reason, a kid can’t reach it, well that’s too bad - and if you think that’s cruel of me to say, that’s the exact same thing their professors in college will say, and it’s the exact same thing their bosses at their jobs will say, too. In real life, not everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.

One of the biggest problems we have in education is that the people who make the rules don’t teach the children. They come up with ideas like “Differentiated Instruction” that admittedly sound good but, in practice, are impractical and often create not only more problems, but often also fail to correct the problem they were created for. Grouping kids according to their ability may damage their self-esteem, though kids are resilient and usually bounce back, but it may also provide them with what they need, as well - and that’s tailored instruction and a snapshot of how the real world works.

Fair should be equal and the only place it’s not is at your local public school.

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