Thursday, March 19, 2009

One Step Up and Two Steps Back

Another thing that occurred to me recently about "differentiated instruction" (which I've decided to refer to from now on as "discriminatory instruction" until someone can explain to me why it isn't) is that it, like so many other fads that have drifted in and out of the high schools in recent years, is just another way of making high school more like elementary school and less like college.

I don't know exactly when this happened, but some years ago the thinking, at least here in New York, with respect to the high schools was that the best way to improve performance and achievement in high school was to use elementary-school methods in high school classes. Kids complain that school is "boring" and "dull" and "not fun" and they don't like reading or writing or listening to a teacher speak or taking notes or anything like that, so we in turn have to try to make school "fun" by turning academic subject matter into games and physical activities and entertainment, cover the walls with posters and colored paper and fancy borders and cutesy slogans and all manner of colorful eye candy, and of course student work with little gold stars and happy faces on it ... you know, "fun" stuff. Add that to the reflexive blaming of teachers for failing to "make it interesting" or "make it fun" and presto! we turn high school into Romper Room.

(For those of you too young to remember, here's Wikipedia's page on Romper Room. Wonderama is another good one from the same era.)

Using elementary school methods in high school has its occasional utility, obviously. But when the concept of "making learning fun" in this fashion becomes doctrinal or ideological, to the degree that we actively try to make high school as much like elementary school as possible, we approach the point where we defeat the ultimate purpose of upper secondary education. Private high schools are typically called "prep schools;" "prep" as in "preparatory." Public high schools are generally not referred to as prep schools, but their underlying essential purpose is the same: to prepare students for either (a.) higher education, or (b.) employment/entrepreneurship in the real world; or both.

It is just possible that making high school more like elementary school and less like college is a tacit acknowledgment that certain public high school students are not expected to go to college so they don't need to be prepared for it. The implications of this are obvious, and of course no one will ever publicly admit to such a mindset. But even if that's true, for those high school students who do not go to college, high school is the last stop on the educational train before they have to go out into the real world and try to make a life for themselves. I can think of nothing less like the real world than elementary school.

I've always believed that high school should be as much like college as possible, particularly in the upper grades. The intellectual and personal-responsibility skills that one needs in college (not to mention the workplace) do not magically appear out of nowhere on one's 18th birthday or the day he shows up on campus; they need to be in place when he gets there. Or do we really want to send kids to college or out into the world thinking they can abstain from doing required work because a professor (or employer) "didn't make it fun?"

What happened to the idea that students come to school to study? That high school should be a place for serious intellectual inquiry and academic rigor? These are supposed to be institutions of learning, are they not? Are there no serious academics left among secondary-level educrats?

Those who believe that we should make high school more like elementary school and less like college are not serious people. They cannot truly be concerned with creating anything like a serious learning environment, let alone the long-term prospects of these kids. If our job is to prepare them for what lies ahead, then no purpose can be served by looking backward.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Differentiation vs. Discrimination

One thing I would like to ask the Grand High Inquisitors when they come here for the Quality Review later this term is: What is the difference, as you see it, between "differentiation" and discrimination? Assuming there is a difference, at what point does the former become the latter? And if there is no difference, then isn't it illegal?

"Differentiation" still strikes me as essentially meaning: Teaching different kids different things different ways, to get them the same grade in the same class for the same credit. If we think of the grade and the academic credit as a "government benefit," i.e., something of value which the child receives from the state in exchange for meeting certain criteria, then having different criteria for different people to receive the same government benefit is illegal; that's textbook discrimination. It is manifestly unfair for me to require one thing of one student, and something entirely different of another, if they are both to receive the same thing in return.

This is true whether the grading standards are objective or subjective. Under an objective standard, the grade each student receives has the same relative value as any other student's grade, in that all grades are based on a comparison between the same objective standard and the work the individual student actually produced. Even if Johnny gets an 85 and Susie gets a 65, if they were evaluated qualitatively relative to a single objective standard (and by extension, relative to each other), then they each received the same value in return for what they produced. If the standards are subjective, i.e., if we 'handicap' the students based on ability, then Johnny and Susie both get an 85 even though Johnny's work is of objectively higher quality. That just makes it more unfair if what Johnny had to do to get that 85 is different from, let alone more difficult than, what Susie had to to to get the same 85.

My job, as I see it, is to differentiate without discriminating. I don't actually plan to ask the Inquisitors the question of if, when, how and why "differentiation" is not discrimination. I'm going to play it close to the vest as I don't want to say or do anything that will hurt the school on this Quality Review or moving forward. I hope the topic doesn't come up. But at the same time, I won't teach or evaluate my students, nor claim that I am doing so or will do so, in a way that is plainly illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Race to the Bottom

Here's the official meme from the Grand High Inquisitors with respect to the tragicomedy they call "differentiated instruction." The following is quoted directly from a memo we received last week about the upcoming Quality Review:


Reviewers understand differentiation as:
"...modified instruction that helps students with diverse needs and learning styles master the same challenging academic content...through the use of varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments.
Additionally, Reviewers will observe that teachers are demonstrating the skill of differentiation when they:
erentiate the method of instruction by utilizing: flexible, skill-based groupings, cooperative groups, etc., group investigations, learning stations/centers, learning contracts and independent studies, modeling/demonstrating, think alouds and meta-cognition... visuals, varied questions and strategies to promote thinking such as: compare/contrast, categorize by characteristics, hypothesize & experiment, predict, evaluate using criteria, etc."
"differentiate the content by: providing supplemental or levelled materials at varying degrees of difficulty, offering multi-option assignments, allowing student to select..., creating simplified and/or extension activities, etc."

"differentiate the products by varying, modifying, and/or offering student choice..."
(emphasis in original)

Allright...does any of this make sense? The first paragraph, the supposed "definition" of "differentiation," seems to be somewhat innocuous. It does not suggest, however, that the use of "varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments" has to be carried out simultaneously, at the same time. It is perfectly reasonable to interpret that "differentiation" implies that these various materials, activities and assessments will be presented to students at different times throughout the course of a school year. How this definition necessitates any of what follows is beyond me.

The second paragraph, concerning "method of instruction," is naught but gobbledygook, a litany of buzzwords and euphemisms that bear no meaningful conceptual relationship to one another, are not presented in any sort of coherent sequence, and don't really add up to a larger point. Each of the ideas presented is, by itself, worthy of consideration, but unless a "Reviewer" observes a teacher for a long and continuous period of time, he cannot assess whether or not a teacher has "differentiated his method of instruction." That is, unless the Reviewer expects to see several of these things being practiced simultaneously.

The third paragraph, "differentiate the content," introduces the idea of letting students select what materials they want to learn and what assignments they want to do. I think there could be some value in this and have actually done it before, giving kids two or three options to choose from when producing a writing project. I can't really do it anymore, since all of my writing projects are now Regents-based. I've done independent readings too, in the past, where kids select the book they want to read, although when I do that I always have several students pick nothing at all. But during literature studies, all the kids read the same book. I cannot and will not teach multiple titles simultaneously.

The last paragraph, with respect to differentiated "products" provides nothing of use or value; it only repeats the vague concepts of "varying, modifying" and "student choice." If we think carefully, though, about what "differentiated products" means, it is probably the closest to what I do. The "product" that the student produces in my class is the individual response to the reading. Each student writes his own response, can choose which of the provided Guiding Questions to answer, and there's really no "right" or "wrong" response. In other words, every product which my students produce is unique to the student who produced it; no two notebooks or essays can ever be alike (unless they're copying from one another, but that's a separate topic). However, they're all graded on the same Volume-Comprehension-Response rubric.

Ultimately, I don't see much to this "differentiated instruction" business; the material provided here suggests that the Reviewers don't really understand it either, let alone have a clear or workable idea for how it might be practiced. The key will be whether the Reviewers approach this from a pragmatic or an ideological standpoint. A pragmatist will look at my classroom and find students writing their own responses to readings and their own essays, and find me basing my writing lessons on their previous work, and conclude that my instruction is adequately "differentiated." An ideologue will look at the same class and find that the students are writing responses to the same reading, or doing the same Regents essay writing assignment, and being graded on the same rubrics, and that will not be satisfactory.

This was the problem I had at the phony, corrupt Queens "Arts" high school, and the psychotic demented gargoyle who was principal there in 2002-03. When it came to pedagogy, and particularly his ill-considered "Humanities" idea, he was an ideologue, not a pragmatist. He wanted two things: (1) "student-centered" instruction; and (2) that the English curriculum consist entirely of Social Studies content. Rather than go on a lengthy dissertation about this arduous and ultimately heartbreaking experience, suffice it to say that everything I did fit reasonably within the definitions this creature had given us for what he wanted. Yet nothing I did seemed to satisfy him; whatever it was, it was not sufficiently "student-centered" or did not sufficiently involve the Social Studies content.

My sense right now at my current school is that the administration has taken a pragmatic approach to "differentiated instruction," not an ideological one. That is good. Who knows, it might even work if it is approached pragmatically rather than ideologically. Whether the Reviewers will do so remains to be seen.
The problem with "differentiated instruction," as either an ideology or a pragmatic concern, is that it will encourage what economists and legal scholars call a "race to the bottom." The term is usually used in the context of federal regulations, in that where the federal government does not regulate a particular business, the states will then compete to have the fewest rules and the lowest, most lenient regulatory standards, in order to encourage businesses to go there. In the school context, not only does "differentiated instruction" remove the student's incentive to learn and improve, it actually gives the student an incentive to become, and remain, as unintelligent, uninformed and incapable as possible. It punishes the smart and industrious in order to reward the dumb and lazy. Instead of competing with one another for high grades under the same high standards, as they should be doing, students will instead be competing with one another to get the easiest, least challenging assignments and the lowest, most accommodating standards.

As it stands today, Special Ed students each have something called an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. These may include, among other things, testing modifications such as extended time, physical accommodations like reading aloud or scribing, and specific enumerated learning goals. The expectation is, however, that if a Special Ed student with an IEP is in a regular academic class, that the teacher has to accommodate that student by giving him separate materials and teaching him on a different level from the rest of the class. This, of course, is impossible in most circumstances. The only practical way to accommodate Special Ed students in a regular class is to lower the entire class' content and standard to the Special Ed student's grade level.

This is the point I'm trying to make. "Differentiated Instruction," as it's been described to me, essentially seeks to give every student in the system an IEP. I'm starting to believe that this is where we are truly headed. Within five years, every student in the New York City schools, and beyond, will have an IEP. The whole idea of an academic "course" on the secondary level will completely disappear, as every student will be allowed to choose his own materials and set his own standards in every academic class. Ultimately, the lowest standards and least-challenging content will become the norm. Hence the "race to the bottom," for students, teachers, and schools. Students will compete for the easiest work and the easiest path to an "A", teachers and schools will compete for the highest number of passing and high-average students and hence will have to pursue the lowest possible standards.

I don't see any other alternative. "Differentiated Instruction" is just another way to make high school more like elementary school and less like college. It's another avenue to the subjectivization of content and standards that I've criticized and lamented so often on this blog, an attempt to codify and mandate this "race to the bottom." The objective standards I've been advocating are going to disappear completely from our educational lexicon. When that happens, it's over. Thankfully, I won't be around to see it.

Education is dead. Long live "differentiated instruction."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

It's Official: Education Is Dead

I've been reporting here on the slow, gradual, painful death of American secondary education for almost two years now. Its demise has been largely self-inflicted, the product of a severely misguided effort to cater to the self-esteem of students and parents at the expense of objectivity, pragmatism, accountability, efficiency and common sense, not to mention actual learning.

The death of education was confirmed to me last week in a department meeting, as we reviewed the various practices which the Grand High Inquisitors (or whatever they're called) will be looking for when they come to our school later this spring for our annual Performance Review. The culprit: A new euphemism I recently heard for the first time, something called "Differentiated Instruction."

I'll try to explain as briefly as I can what this latest disaster entails. It starts with the reasonable concept, which I don't dispute, that all students have different intellectual capacities and learning abilities, and they need to be "met where they are" when they come to school. However, the concept of "differentiated instruction" takes this simple premise and does the exact wrong thing with it. What "differentiated instruction" essentially means is that my teaching, my lesson planning, and my standards, need to take this into account by actually teaching a different lesson, with different materials, and assessing performance under a different standard, for each individual student.

In other words, when the Grand High Inquisitors come into my classroom, they don't expect me to be teaching one lesson to the entire class. They expect me to be teaching multiple lessons simultaneously. They expect me to have the students seated in groups according to their different individual ability levels and different learning styles, and teach a different lesson, with different materials, using different grading standards, for each group. If they catch me teaching one lesson to the whole class, and using a uniform objective grading standard for all students, the school will be in danger of receiving a poor rating.

I wish I was making this up, and I wish I could contain myself in discussing the MONUMENTAL STUPIDITY of this idea. It's as if these people read Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" and thought that setting might be a good blueprint for education, even though the point of the story is the complete opposite. Let me briefly touch on some of the many, many things that are wrong with this:

- First of all, logistically speaking, it can't work. I am only one person and cannot split myself into seven pieces to teach seven lessons to seven groups of kids in the same classroom at the same time. Do these people seriously expect me to give out seven different literature titles and teach all seven of them in the same classroom at the same time? If I have two preps, am I supposed to teach 14 different titles simultaneously? Do I need to keep seven separate Excel spreadsheets for each class, since I'll be using seven different sets of standards and seven different grading formulae?

How complicated do they really want to make it? I cannot think of a more inefficient way to run a classroom, even if it were logistically possible. What do these people have against order and efficiency?

- Second, as I've described repeatedly on this blog, the only way learning can occur is if there is one single objective standard for all students. Last year's performance review for my school indicated as a criticism that "the same standards apply to all students," or something to that effect, as if that's a bad thing. HELLO??!!?!! That is the whole point of having grades in the first place, to determine how students do with the same material, based on the same standards and expectations. The Regents exams, particularly the English Regents, do not have "differentiated" standards. And do I really need to reiterate that if we lower the standards for kids with lesser abilities, they will have no incentive to improve and therefore WILL NOT LEARN?

All this is just another variation on what I've discussed several times on this blog, which is subjective assessment. There is no intellectual or experiential rationale for this; its only purpose is to preserve the self-esteem of those children who are less intelligent and less capable. If I had any doubt that education officials are out to destroy objective standards, that doubt has been dispelled.

- Third, like most really stupid ideas of this nature, it mistakenly gives kids the benefit of the doubt that they will essentially do what they are supposed to do most of the time. No classroom, "differentiated" or otherwise, can function if the teacher cannot control it, and if students are not inclined to behave properly and do what they are told to do, which most of them are not, a contrived scheme like this will never work.

Nothing makes me happier as a teacher than to design a really interesting and useful activity which requires kids to work on their own and/or together, and watch them actually do it. It's very gratifying to see kids who want to learn actually take steps toward learning. But the reality, as most teachers know, is that if kids see an opportunity to use class time to socialize or do whatever else it is they want to do besides learn, they will. It is always a mistake to assume that kids will automatically do the right thing.

- Finally, the more I think about it, the more I believe that "differentiated instruction" is, in fact, UNCONSTITUTIONAL. It violates the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; i.e., it's a form of discrimination. Teaching different kids different things under different standards, to get the same grade in the same class for the same credit, is manifestly unfair and discriminatory. If Johnny is smarter than Susie, he should get better grades. But let's say we lower the standard for Susie; we give her a less-challenging book to read, a less-intensive writing assignment to complete, and a lesser standard of performance (say, the ELA Regents' 4 standard) to get an A. So Susie is assigned to read Island of the Blue Dolphins while Johnny gets Lord of the Flies; Susie only has to write a simple book report, while Johnny has to write a detailed critical analysis, and Johnny has to meet the 6 standard to get an A.

Now, let's say Susie's book report scores a 3 on the ELA Regents scale, which for her would be a B, and Johnny's critical analysis scores a 5, which for him would also be a B. They both get the same grade in the same class for the same academic credit; the 85 looks the same on Susie's transcript as it does on Johnny's. But what Johnny had to do to get that 85 was substantially different, not to mention more difficult, than what Susie had to do to get the same 85. "Differentiated instruction" therefore discriminates against smarter, more industrious students by making them work harder to get the same grade.


And I'd still like someone to explain to me how I'm supposed to teach Island of the Blue Dolphins to one group of students while simultaneously teaching Lord of the Flies to another, The Call of the Wild to another, Ulysses to another.....

I'd also like someone to explain to me what possible academic benefits (i.e., besides self-esteem boosting) can anyone derive from teaching different kids different things in the same class at the same time.

I find it exhausting to even continue thinking about this. I've been over this ground so many times on this blog I don't know how else I can say it. If this is really where we are headed, if educrats really expect teachers to prepare and deliver multiple lessons simultaneously in the same classroom at the same time, and establish 150 separate courses and 150 separate standards every semester and every year, if the teacher's job is really to 'handicap' students in this fashion instead of challenging and expecting all students to meet the same high standards, if educational decisionmakers really believe that it's a good idea to abolish objective standards altogether, then there is no hope for American education.

"Differentiated instruction" is just the latest in a long line of ideas and policies whose goal is not to generate actual learning. Its goal is not to educate, if we take that word to mean impart new knowledge and improved skills; its goal is to validate what the child already knows and can already do. Further, it constitutes yet another misguided yet concerted effort to shift the burden of learning entirely away from the learner. If we are to adjust standards and curriculum on an individual basis, not a grade-wide basis, and make the work or standards easier for some students instead of challenging them to improve, what exactly does the learner have to do to ensure that learning occurs? "Differentiated instruction" places the burden of learning not on the learner but on the thing being learned, and on the means of its delivery; the learner himself bears no burden at all.

It's really very simple: "differentiated instruction" is NOT EDUCATION. Any school or school system that employs it cannot seriously call itself an institution of learning.