Can a school make differentiation work?

This is a philosophy, not a fad, for some schools


Monica Ginsburg


Lisa Warner teaches according to the “Goldilocks principle.” She wants to make sure nothing is too hard or too easy for a child. Every lesson needs to be just right.

Warner, a third-grade teacher at Tarkington Elementary School in Wheeling, has used differentiation—the teaching process that aims to ensure the lesson is “just right” for each child—for much of her 16-year career.

Differentiation, the current buzz of the education world, is one of those ideas that works well in theory, but can be difficult to achieve in reality. Unlike traditional teaching methods that use a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, differentiation requires teachers to customize their lesson plans so that a gifted child is challenged just as much as a struggling child. The result is a classroom broken into groups of children, formed by assessing a child’s current skill level in a subject area.

Interest in the teaching method is driven in part by larger and more diverse classrooms, shrinking funds for gifted and other special needs programs, and the mandated No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to measure and report the progress of each segment of its school population.

But finding the “just right” point for different types of learners isn’t always easy. Many schools lack money for ongoing teacher training, additional curriculum materials and extra classroom support to oversee different groups or learning centers. 

Without adequate resources, the trend to integrate gifted students into regular classrooms is foundering at best, says Sally Walker, executive director of the Illinois Association of Gifted Children in Palatine.  

“Teachers need time and training to develop materials,” says Walker. “If students have already mastered half of what you’re going to teach, what are you going to do to differentiate their classroom experience?”

To fit in or to adapt to lower classroom expectations, gifted kids may “dumb down” what they know, or they may become behavioral problems because they have already learned the material and are bored. Walker also is concerned that gifted students may take a back seat to children who are struggling, because the more advanced students often can be kept busy grading papers or tutoring other kids.

“If a child is struggling, most teachers will work with them to make sure they meet state standards. That’s a reality,” Walker says. “Gifted kids can be kept busy as unpaid teacher helpers. My question is, what are they learning? It puts a limit on what we expect when these kids are capable of so much more.”

With all that in mind, here are a few places where teachers and school districts have been able to make differentiation work.

Teaching at a higher level Some school districts are making differentiated instruction work by creating and sharing learning tools, encouraging discussion among peers and hiring or reassigning teachers to provide floating classroom support. Success is measured through standardized testing and through pre-assessment and post-assessment tests administered throughout the curriculum.

Teachers at Tarkington Elementary and the eight other elementary schools in Wheeling School District 21 have tools in place at every grade level to offer students extra challenges in mathematics. Students who show a proficiency in the material through pre-testing are introduced to more complicated problem-solving concepts with advanced materials created by teachers over the last three to four years. Mid- and lower-level learners get additional support as needed from a teacher or instructional specialist, who helps coordinate groups of kids working at different levels.

“This school year has been really encouraging,” says instructional specialist Julie Luck-Jensen, who sees more teachers embracing differentiation by using advanced math materials and other layered learning tools. “Plenty of kids are ready to move on and our time is much better spent helping them advance if they’re ready.”

Luck-Jensen believes test scores don’t tell the whole story. Instead, teachers practice observing kids in the classroom to monitor potential, and address and nurture needs.

“Good teachers have been doing this forever,” she says. “It’s not an option, it’s not a fad. It’s almost like a philosophy.”

Warner, the third-grade teacher at Tarkington, has a cluster of eight students who were identified last year as working at levels even beyond her extended math curriculum. To accelerate their first math unit on graphing, Warner assigned the group a three-week project that involved researching and graphing some of the qualities of a United States president, then comparing that data to the 2004 presidential candidates.

Warner worked with the group after the regular classroom lessons to help them apply what they learned to a larger body of data. Students selected the criteria to research from a list they brainstormed as a group. The rest of the class worked independently on in-class assignments or extended assignments. 

“I’ll let the kids self-select, but you want them to make good choices so you’re teaching kids about themselves, too,” says Warner, who also wrote the fifth-grade extensions for the district. “That goes way beyond the books. It’s another level of teaching.”

 While she expected her students to like the math, she was surprised at how much they enjoyed the history behind the assignment. “It was not an option to develop this project,” she says. “If I didn’t do it, I’d have eight of my 21 math kids bored or unengaged for a significant chunk of the day.” 

A pre-assessment of the fifth-graders at Courtenay Language Arts Center in Chicago showed reading levels spanning the third to nearly seventh grade.

Last year, in a unit covering Ben Franklin, students were broken into three groups to accommodate the wide range of readiness. The first group received the most direct teaching instruction and lessons were primarily based on the classroom text.

The second group quickly picked up the basic information and was encouraged by the teacher to take off in different areas, with some students choosing to research Ben Franklin’s many inventions while others studied the culture in the 17th century.

The third group took it a step further by tracing Franklin’s life through a timeline of his numerous inventions or creating a time capsule that reflected his life and times.

During a study period, the teacher was available to answer questions and help students find additional resources. At the end of the unit, projects from the third group were presented to the class so students could learn from one another, too.  Teaching more than math “We’re not only teaching social studies, science or math; we’re also emphasizing organizational skills, how to think, how to organize materials and find resources. It’s a very integrated approach,” says Courtenay principal Patricia Zemba. “It makes learning interesting so our children like coming to school. You’ve got to grab them now so they’re ready for high school and college.” 

In the past, a teacher taught the curriculum and the youngster either got it or not. “Today, we’re fitting the curriculum to the child. That takes lots of staff development. The teacher has to make a real investment not only in the child but in his or herself to become the best teacher possible,” Zemba says.  

Reading teachers at Benson Primary School and Franzen Intermediate School, both in Itasca, have long used flexible skills grouping, a hallmark of differentiated instruction, to organize their classrooms.

Three years ago, Benson, which schools nearly 300 kindergarten, first- and second-graders, formalized its differentiated approach to reading by adopting a series of books spanning more than 40 reading levels. 

Now, in addition to daily reading and language arts lessons, students work in small groups on leveled reading assignments that incorporate both independent study and teacher instruction.

As students gain in ability, they move to books that offer more challenging vocabulary and sentence structure coupled with increasingly complex assignments.

There have been as many as nine reading groups in a classroom, depending on how quickly students move through the material.

Throughout the year, students also may be clustered according to interest or learning preferences including visual, kinesthetic or hands-on learning and auditory, which may include a read-aloud book or books on tape. Because of the success of the program at the primary level, last year Franzen, with nearly 300 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, also adopted a series of books in the classroom.

“The skill of the teacher is to know the level of their students and how they learn best,” says Marcia Tornatore, assistant superintendent of the Itasca School District.

“If you’re clear about the objective and clear about what the outcome should be, guess what? Children will learn.” 

Monica Ginsburg is a Chicago-based writer and frequent contributor to Chicago Parent. She is the parent of two girls.

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