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# The Trouble With Differentiating Differentiation

Posted: 05/17/2012 10:41 am

It's that time of year again, those two weeks in May during which high school students around the nation are sitting their Advanced Placement exams. And this year we mark the 30th anniversary of the most celebrated AP class of all time: in 1982 a triumphant 14 of Jaime Escalante's 15 calculus students passed the end-of-year test, their achievement immortalized in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver.

But for the 2 million students who will take 3.7 million exams, the results will not be as glorious. Of the entire graduating class of 2011, only 18.1% of students passed at least one AP exam before receiving their diplomas. Meanwhile, according to the College Board, the non-profit that administers the AP program, a stunning 37.6% of first and second year undergraduates were enrolled in remedial courses (2008 figures). Furthermore, 60% of community college students must complete at least one remedial (often euphemized as "developmental") course before even starting their degree programs and 70% of those students whose "developmental" coursework requires mathematics will find their post-secondary educations dead on arrival.

All of this begs the question: why are America's high school student so dramatically and devastatingly unprepared to succeed at the highest levels of scholastic achievement? The answer is simple: differentiation.

No, I'm not referring to that fundamental concept of the calculus, the mathematical method for finding the derivative (the slope of a curve at a single point) that Jaime Escalante's students so brilliantly mastered. I'm protesting that perilous pedagogical practice also known as differentiation.

The idea behind differentiation is noble enough: every kid is different, therefore every kid learns differently, therefore every kid should be taught differently. Ideally, differentiation offers us a route -- or rather multiple routes -- to democratize the process of education. In reality, it is a lie. It is a lie because we have failed to understand a key distinction in the implementation of differentiation, the difference between differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment. Differentiated instruction is a best practice for teachers who want to give their students different ways of accessing the same materials. Differentiated assessment is a way for teachers to give students easy A's by letting them write songs instead of solving equations.

Differentiated assessment has laid the groundwork for a road paved with low expectations, a highway that will lead our children right off of a cliff. Differentiated assessment is the reason that though a 2003 OECD study found that the American students ranked 24th in their in mathematics, they ranked first in their positive response to the statement, "I get good marks in mathematics." You don't have to be an expert in geometry to recognize that those two facts are incongruent.

Here's some logic that makes sense: if you don't do well in math, then you shouldn't get good grades in math. If you can't write an essay, then you shouldn't pass English. If you can't explain the causes of the fall of Rome, then you should flunk history. If you can't calculate the distance a ball should fly, then you should fail physics. Truth be told, given my performance in gym, I should still be in 1st grade.

But we have created a system in which, in the words of Syndrome, the villain in Pixar's The Incredibles, "Everyone can be super!" If you can't multiply, then super, write a song about it. If you can't write an essay, then super, draw a picture book. If you can't explain the causes of the fall of Rome or calculate the distance a ball should fly, then super, you don't need to know history or science anyways. This is exactly Syndrome's scheme: "And when everyone's super...[evil laughter]...no one will be."

As a society, we privilege certain skills. Though an exceptional few can make a living out of their vocal, artistic, or athletic talents, most people end up in careers that require them to be able to read, write, perform calculations, solve problems, and think critically. These skills aren't necessarily simple or enjoyable to learn, but they are necessary. And every time we allow a child an easy out and a good grade for singing a song or drawing a picture, we do that child a profound disservice, for as much as anything, school is about learning that you aren't going to be good at everything, that sometimes you're going to have to work hard, and that both of those things are okay.

Let me be clear: I'm not arguing against equality or opportunity. I'm arguing for honesty. As portrayed in the movie, Jaime Escalante differentiated a "developmental" lesson on fractions by dressing up as a chef and cutting apples into halves and quarters, an excellent strategy for engaging multiple learning styles. He was honest with his students: they were in high school, they didn't understand fractions, and he wasn't going to let that slide. But at the end of the day, he didn't differentiate differentiation. He expected his students to be able to execute the mathematics he taught them at the highest level. He demanded that they stand in the face of the toughest challenges he could put before them -- and they delivered.

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10:53 AM on 05/20/2012
I see the differentiation in learning as a function of student interest and willingness to work. Our school district supports instruction at a number of different levels - Running Start (the students go to community college in 11th and 12th grade and get both college and high school credit), IB/AP/Honors courses, normal college prep courses, and lower level courses. The more focused students are in the more demanding classes. The majority of students in my daughter's IB classes are the children of highly educated immigrants - and the educational quality is exceptionally high. She rarely has less than 40 hours of homework and studying a week, and frequently over 60. Those students are world class.

Expectations for students in less demanding classes are less - as you would expect.

The tracking removes the best academic examples from the other classes. This probably hurts the students in those classes some. But it also reduces the harassment of the academically oriented students by those who are less so.
been2there
Facts have a liberal bias.
06:27 PM on 05/17/2012
Differentiated instruction is, like most things, good and bad. It becomes bad when it locks students into a spiral of low expectations; it is good when it gives kids the time they need to master a subject. It took my daughter six weeks to understand decimals--but when she got it, she got it forever. By then, I was home schooling.
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04:56 AM on 05/19/2012
I agree with being good and bad. Bad, especially if the teacher is stupid enough to set the students in groups and try to help them or meet their needs where they are. It was more planning, more grading, more stress and Jesus the students accused me of evil doing ( we are not Sp ed students mrs. you are singling us out and they walked out of my classroom, raised their voice, and such for just trying to help them.

This are the same students who fail the test every time. I was baffled. I waited until I finished that chapter and said the heck with that. They didn't appreciated, the parents were calling, and the students wanted a free a for being on the desk every day. I restled with the fact, the kids talk over you, interrrupt evry secnd and tell you they are not interested with the subject you're teaching and go head and pretend you are teaching us, give us our well deserve A. If you have kids that have chosen this path in your class, there isn' amount of differentiation that will help them. They already know, they don't want to learn it or waste their time, they just want to fulfill the requierement. They have no quams to tell you either and jump out of their desks, kick their backpacks, raise their voices, tell your opinion and your subject is bullcrap, question every decision and statement you make in the classroom.
mlaiuppa
Pres. Sarcasm Society. Like we need your approval.
01:36 PM on 05/17/2012
In that case, you should not be evaluating teachers with value added scores since it is not a teachers fault if a kid is just not a math whiz. As you say, everyone is good at different things. And even the best teacher can't make an A student out of one that just isn't grasping higher math concepts despite the best instruction and diligent work.

I stopped at Trig. I was getting As and Bs until Calculus. I dropped the calculus class before I flunked it. I just didn't get it. I couldn't get my head around it. Not the teacher's fault. But that teacher shouldn't have their salary lowered because *I* just couldn't grasp calculus. The same could be said for students that don't do well in English or History, Science or P.E. or any other class you want to use for assessment. Everyone is different and you can't blame and punish the teacher for a kid that just doesn't get it, no matter what.

And while you're at it, get rid of those useless standardized tests that prove nothing. You can drop NCLB too since you can't require every kid to be "above average" by 2014. Not unless they live in Lake Woebegone.

There is nothing wrong with differentiated instruction. There is plenty wrong with standardized tests.
12:29 PM on 05/17/2012
I recently wrote some thoughts on this, and I think we teachers/teacher education is partly to blame. No one tells us how to grade effectively or even assess correctly. And I blame the systems emphasis on grades so that students do whatever is necessary to get the grade they are okay with rather than learn. http://www.thegiveway.com/2012/05/grading-my-mind-altering-journey/
mlaiuppa
Pres. Sarcasm Society. Like we need your approval.
01:39 PM on 05/17/2012
Grades are pretty useless. They have nothing to do with the real world. They are only good for getting in to college. If you don't plan to go to college, who cares if you get an A or a C. As long as you pass, you're fine. Especially if your parents don't care.

As for GPA? I'm not sure how many employers care what your GPA was as long as you got your degree. They use your work on the job to decide if you really know your stuff. It's called a probationary period. If you flunk that, you lose your job.
10:10 PM on 05/17/2012
I totally agree. It was the "secret" I told my eighth graders. Along with, "C's get degrees." :)