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Reprinted in part from
Education Week.
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Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for universal excellence. Sadly, though, the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes has remained, well, elusive.

But wait! The solution has arrived, and it’s been around long enough to prove its worth. What is this magical elixir? Differentiation!

Starting with the gifted-education community in the late 1960s, differentiation didn't get its mojo going until regular educators jumped onto the badwagon in the 1980s.  By my count, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (now known simply as ASCD) has released more than 600 publications on differentiation, and countless publishers have followed suit with manuals and software that will turn every classroom into a differentiated one.

There's only one problem:  Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.

In theory, differentiation sounds great, as it take several important factors of student learning into account:

  • It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.

  • It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.

  • It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learing/teaching process.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?  The problem is this:  Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.

The biggest reason differentiation doesn't work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation's classrooms.

Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them.  That is a recipe for academic disaster if ever I saw one.  Such an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one.

It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried it themselves:  university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.  It's the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality:

Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.

The sad truth is this:  By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student. In the same Forham Institute report cited earlier, 71 percent of teachers reported that they would like to see our nation rely more heavily on homogeneous grouping of advanced students, while a resounding 77 percent of teachers said that, when advanced students are paired with lower-achieving students for group assignments, it's the smart kids who do the bulk of the work.

Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.  Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become:

A losing proposition for both students and teachrs,

and yet one more panacea that did not pan out.

This is a truncated version of Dr. Delisle's op-ed.  To read the entire article, visit Education Week's website:

You can read more about Dr. Deslisle and see more of his publications at ASCD.org

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