Is it possible to educate high and low achievers in the same classroom?
Opinions on this have varied over the years, but in an interesting article in Education Next, entitled “All Together Now?”, Michael Petrilli argues that the greatest challenge facing American schools today is “the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.”
In this well-researched piece of writing, Petrilli provides a brief history of solutions to this problem, beginning with the use of ability grouping and tracking “in the old days.” He goes on to discuss the attack on tracking, when it was argued that confining students to low tracks hurt their self-esteem, labeled them unnecessarily, and was often elitist and racist.
Detracking was supposed to help everyone succeed, but by the mid-1990s, it was clear that this was not happening. Under No Child Left Behind, I should add, we have seen the push to get more students over a low performance bar, but an almost complete abandonment of high achievers.
This brings us to differentiated instruction, which is the latest buzz phrase to enter the debate. The idea is simply that every child receives customized instruction, designed specifically to match her or his learning needs.
The remainder of Petrilli’s article focuses on Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, which the author has visited in order to study differentiated instruction in person. But the more I kept reading about the school, the more it sounded just like cluster grouping by ability, and not differentiated instruction at all.
The Piney Branch Model
For reading, “during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level.” “For math, on the other hand, students are split into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third.”
The students are probably getting an excellent education, to judge by the school’s reputation, but this is not differentiated instruction, which would involve teaching heterogenous classes as integrated units.
And so, to return to the central question: Is it in fact possible to educate both high and low achievers in the same classroom by using differentiated instruction?
Huge Classes Pose A Problem
In general, I believe that the answer to that question is “no.” That is, it could work in theory, but what teacher has the time to prepare a different lesson for each student? There are, however, some qualifying factors that could make a difference. Teaching in a large public high school, I often had 38 students in one class, and trying to customize my class for that many students was impossible. With smaller classes, perhaps it could work.
It’s also true that tracking takes various forms. I grew up in England at a time when children took the 11+ exam at the end of grade school; if they passed, they went to the “good” school, and if they failed they went to the “bad” school. And there they stayed for the rest of their high school career.
That kind of tracking is dangerous, but some grouping by ability can be useful.
Maybe With Smaller Classes?
Differentiated instruction is a wonderful thing if the teacher has a small class as well as some assistance in the classroom. On the other hand, I would venture to say that many teachers personalize their teaching every single day, thereby offering a type of differentiated instruction.
Most importantly, unlike the English model I describe, having consistent high expectations for all students is a must, starting in the lowest grades and continuing all the way through their K – 12 years.