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.
IN NO UNIVERSE IS THIS SENSIBLE OR REASONABLE.
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.