Thursday, May 1, 2014

So True About Differentiated Instructions By Maureen Downey

Differentiated instruction as a reform model: Magic bullet or magical thinking? 

Do you believe in the magic of differentiated instruction? (AJC File)


Differentiated instruction is the coconut oil of education: It can reduce cholesterol, moisturize your skin and meet the needs of all students, no matter where they fall in the performance panorama. (And make a tasty pie crust, too.)

During a chat in Atlanta today, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn raised the issue of differentiated instruction and its perceived medicinal value for whatever ails the classroom. A former professor of education at Vanderbilt and a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Finn has advised presidents and governors and worked at the  Brookings Institution and the Manhattan Institute.

I will write later about our discussion including Finn’s concerns over Georgia’s plan to go it alone and on the cheap with its new Common Core-aligned tests.
I wanted to share an excerpt of a blog Finn wrote this week on differentiated instruction.
I’ve noted on the AJC Get Schooled blog that differentiated instruction is the go-to reform in Georgia. Ask about the children in the class who are struggling, and the solution is differentiated instruction. Ask about the ones who are bounding ahead and differential instruction is touted as their springboard.

Yes, it’s harder now with 33 students in the class, but I am told it can still be done effectively.
I have my doubts. So does Finn as his blog shows. This is an excerpt. Please read the full piece before commenting:
It looks to me as if one of the most acclaimed reforms of today’s education profession—not just in the U.S. but also all over the planet—is one of the least examined in terms of actual implementation and effectiveness. How often and how well do instructors, whose administrators and gurus revere the concept of differentiated instruction, actually carry it out? How well does it work and for which kids under what circumstances? So far as I can tell, nobody really knows.
I’ve been roaming the globe in search of effective strategies for educating high-ability youngsters, particularly kids from disadvantaged circumstances who rarely have parents with the knowledge and means to steer them through the education maze and obtain the kind of schooling (and/or supplementation or acceleration) that will make the most of their above-average capacity to learn.
As expected, I’ve found a wide array of programs and policies intended for “gifted education,” “talent development,” and so forth, each with pluses and minuses.
But almost everywhere, I’ve also encountered some version of this assertion: “We don’t really need to provide special programs, classrooms, or schools for gifted children because we expect every school and teacher to differentiate their instruction so as to meet the unique educational needs of all children within an inclusive, heterogeneous classroom.”
A thoroughly laudable goal, say I, but how realistic is it? How well is it being done? And does it really meet their needs, or is it ultimately a politically acceptable excuse for not doing anything special for high-ability children?
An array of ideological and budgetary considerations that reject tracking, ability grouping, “pull-out” programs, and other forms of educational separation (often including both acceleration and grade repetition) on grounds that such practices are morally wrong, socially and educationally undesirable, politically imprudent, and just plain unaffordable.
In response, “regular” teachers are tasked with customizing, tailoring, and individualizing their instruction so that administrators and policy types can declare with straight faces that their classrooms are diverse and inclusive and that every child’s singular education needs are being satisfactorily met.
To equip teachers with such remarkable pedagogical prowess, all manner of courses, books, in-service programs, itinerant experts, and summer workshops are available. (Google “differentiated instruction” and “professional development” together and you will get half a million hits.) Organizations such as the ASCD devote much energy to promoting this approach to education. In short, it’s quite a big deal.
Unless, it appears, you are actually the teacher of a heterogeneous class that contains children with many different needs, different levels of prior achievement, and different “learning speeds,” at least in whatever subjects you are responsible for teaching them. That teacher, it appears to me, is being given an all-but-impossible assignment, akin to presenting a general-practitioner physician with twenty-three patients who manifest different symptoms, differing degrees of illness, and, upon examination, very different ailments. Some might benefit more from an oncologist, an orthopedist, a cardiologist, or perhaps a dietitian, personal trainer, or podiatrist. It’s unlikely that any given doc will do an outstanding job with all of them. Indeed, the most valuable thing he could do for many would be to refer them to the appropriate specialists.
But teachers are expected to be all things to (almost) all youngsters. And most of those I talk to about this mandate acknowledge that, while technology and small classes surely help, they do not feel like they’re differentiating all that well.

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