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The Trouble With Differentiating Differentiation

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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.