Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Gathering Storm

One more week and it will be over. As my last Christmas/holiday break comes to an end, and I prepare to go into my final week of teaching, I've been thinking more and more about the abyss into which public education in New York City, and perhaps all across the United States, is about to fall, and the precipice upon which teachers are about to hang.

The abyss is called "differentiated instruction," which I've written about at length over the past year and a half. This completely counter-intuitive, anti-educational, ideologically-driven, pragmatically impossible concept, completely unsupported by any research or clinical study, and quite possibly illegal and unconstitutional, is about to become the end-all of every public school. The pleasant-sounding abstraction that "every child learns differently," and the resulting rhetorical dogma that "we need to tailor our instruction to each individual child in order to maximize his individual potential," not only has no practical application in the real world (i.e., cannot actually be done by a single teacher in single classroom with 34 students, 5 times per day, 180 days per year); it has the potential to drive thousands of teachers out of the profession over the next several years.

Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, public schools are required to provide Special Education students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, in order to give each child what the law describes as a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE). A student's IEP may include:

- Specially-designed instruction;
- Program modifications, including "lowered success criteria";
- Classroom accommodations, e.g., preferential seating, extended time for tests, read-aloud of instructions and questions, copies of teachers' lesson notes, etc.

Differentiation essentially takes these elements of Special Education and applies them to general education. In other words, "differentiation" means creating an IEP for every student in the system. It will require every teacher to create and implement an IEP for every student in his/her classes, every day of every school year.

Let's examine the logistics of this for a moment. Teachers in public high schools typically have five classes, with approximately 30 students in each class; sometimes more, sometimes less, but let's place the total at 150 for the typical teacher. 5 classes, 150 students. Now, those five classes will usually consist of two, maybe three, "preps," meaning there will be two or more sections of the same course or grade level, and one or more of a different course or grade level, and perhaps a third in addition to those, meaning the teacher will have to prepare two or three lessons per day for her five classes. Sometimes a teacher will have only one prep. Occasionally he will have four preps, but that is very unusual.

Having one prep is great, for both the teacher and the students. Two preps is fairly typical; much more common, and quite manageable. Three preps, however, can be very difficult, especially for inexperienced teachers. (Or those joining a new school with a radically different philosophy; when I taught on Long Island, lost in the unbearable philosophical and personality clashes I suffered was the fact that I was teaching 3 preps, and was actually the only teacher in the department with more than 2.) Lesson planning can be challenging, tedious and time-consuming; preparing 3 different lessons per day on top of actual instruction, marking, administrative tasks, &c. is about all most high school teachers can handle. Experienced teachers can recycle lessons and units, and find other ways to manage multiple preps, but the point is that preparing multiple lessons on a day-to-day basis can be grueling. The more different preps a teacher has, the more time he needs to spend planning, and the less effort and attention can be devoted to each one.

Now take the typical teacher with 5 classes of 30 students and add "differentiation" to the mix. No matter how many preps the teacher has, she must now multiply that number by a factor of ... well, it's not clear, exactly. How "differentiated" do they want it? Do they want "differentiation" for each individual student, or do they want small groups of multiple students? If it's groups, how many groups? How many students in each group? What are the groupings to be based on? "Learning style," "ability level," or something else? How many "learning styles" are we supposed to identify, and what exactly are they? How do we define and identify each one? How many "ability levels" are we supposed to identify, and what exactly are they? Are we supposed to differentiate instruction by "learning style," by "ability level," or some combination of both? And if it's some combination of both, then what combination, specifically? Only one combination, or several? If several, what exactly are they? Or do they want us to differentiate by "learning style" some of the time, by "ability level" some of the time, and combine them some of the time? How much of each?

[Side note: It has even been suggested to me by administrators that we should differentiate by race, gender and ethnicity, which is even more dangerously close to being illegal discrimination. Doesn't anyone realize this?]

Before I get lost in the sea of unanswerable questions that arise under this vague and ill-defined concept, my point here is that the teacher who had been preparing at most three lessons per day now must prepare a minimum of 5 or 6 lessons per day (that's if she has one prep, dividing each class into groups of five or six students), 10 to 20 lessons per day (2-3 preps, similarly divided), 30 to 90 lessons per day (1-3 preps, differentiated by individual student) and perhaps even as many as 150 lessons per day (fully differentiated, IEP-for-all). Instead of having one curriculum/syllabus and one set of classroom rules, procedures and assessment criteria for each prep, the teacher must now develop up to 150 separate curricula/syllabi, and up to 150 sets of rules, procedures and assessment criteria, each year.

This is not only unreasonable, it's untenable. There are not enough hours in the day for any teacher to be preparing dozens of lessons every single day for an entire school year.

But back to that sea of unanswerable questions, adding to those posed above... If I'm supposed to "differentiate" from day one, how am I to know what the "learning style" of each of my 150 new students is on that first day? How, when, by whom, and how often will these determinations be made? How will they be recorded? How will they be communicated to me at the beginning of a new school year? In the context of high school English, by what objective criteria does one distinguish literature titles by "learning style?" What objective criteria would make any particular title appropriate for one "learning style" and not for another? Are English teachers expected to teach multiple literature titles simultaneously, and if so, how many? By what objective criteria does one distinguish a literary essay assignment given to a student with one "learning style," from a literary essay assignment given to a student with a different "learning style?" How does one mark and correct an essay written by a student who has one "learning style," compared to another?

I could go on and on and on. The pleasant-sounding rhetorical ideology of "differentiation" quickly falls apart when it arrives in the realm of concrete, practical, real-world time and resource considerations. "Tailoring our instruction to meet student's' individual needs" sounds fine when it's floating in the air, but when I actually sit across from you, holding an actual book in each hand (say, The Natural in one and Lord of the Flies in the other) and ask you to explain to me why this book is appropriate for student X, and that one is appropriate for student Y, based on their different "learning styles," you can't. If I ask you to describe exactly what I should do and say, and what should be going on in my classroom, minute-to-minute, over a whole 47-minute period, today, tomorrow, the next day, and the next day, you can't. If I ask you to actually produce an actual curriculum-based writing assignment for student X and a "differentiated" one for student Y, you can't, and neither can you explain the objective differences between the two assignments, nor exactly how, day-by-day or minute-by-minute, I am supposed to work each student through the assignment.

While skiing last week in Massachusetts, I met a school principal from that state on the chairlift and we talked about differentiation. He essentially agreed with me that NO ONE understands or can explain exactly what it's supposed to look like. He told me that his teachers don't understand it, and when his supervisors complain that the teachers don't understand it, the supervisors reveal that they don't understand it either. My post from last March, "Race to the Bottom," shows that even those in the educational establishment who are advocating and imposing this concept on the schools, don't understand it. It's nothing but a lot of vague, abstract, pleasant-sounding rhetoric. No one understands it, no one can explain it, and no one can put it to any real, concrete, practical use, because it makes no sense.

I've had enough experience, thank you very much, with rhetorical, ideologically-driven educational dogma which is completely unsupported by any objective criteria (let alone actual educational research), and I know very well what the dangers are. At the phony, corrupt "Arts" school in Queens, the dogma were "Humanities" (i.e., the exclusive and exclusionary teaching of Social Studies content in English classes) and "student-centered instruction" (i.e., no whole-class instruction or teacher-directed activity of any kind, ever). When dogma like this are unsupported by any practical, real-world, hands-on, day-to-day, minute-to-minute considerations, or any real objective criteria, they become an ideology to which supervisors will cling with an almost religious fervor.

This brings us to the real danger. When supervisors become religiously fixated on dogmatic ideologies like these, they tend to ignore all of the positive things that teachers accomplish and focus instead on the absence of these ideologies, or any "evidence" thereof, in the teacher's classroom. In other words, the dogma become so important to the supervisor that every time he walks into a teacher's classroom, he will try very, very hard NOT to see whatever it is he thinks he's looking for. The fact that there are essentially no objective criteria supporting the ideology makes it very, very easy for a supervisor to characterize a lesson or a classroom environment as "not [insert ideology here]", even where the teacher is actively trying to teach in a way that is consistent with the ideology. In other words, a teacher may design and teach a lesson that she thinks is "differentiated", but her supervisor may observe the same lesson and decide that it is "not differentiated." For everything the teacher can point to that is "differentiated," the supervisor can point to something that isn't. Neither of them can be proven right or wrong, because they may have different ideas about what "differentiation" is, and again, there are essentially no objective defining criteria. And what's more, any positive things the teacher is doing, let alone whether the students are actually learning anything, are ignored and become entirely irrelevant. All that matters is whether the teacher is or is not practicing the named ideology, a determination which is, in the final analysis, completely subjective and arbitrary.

This is how unscrupulous supervisors, like the sick, demented gargoyle of a principal I had at the phony, corrupt "Arts" school, will target teachers in the years to come. All they have to do to drive away a teacher they don't like is to keep raising the bar for "differentiation" by telling that teacher, time and time again, that her lessons are "not differentiated" and that she is not adequately "on board" with the ideology. Eventually there will be nothing the teacher can do to prove to the supervisor that she is differentiating her instruction, and the supervisor will always have a plausible argument that she isn't, no matter how tenuous that argument may be. It's very easy to accuse a teacher of not doing something that, in a practical sense, cannot actually be done. There is nothing more dangerous to a teacher than a supervisor who comes into a class "wanting to see" something that the supervisor himself does not truly understand.

Eventually the powers that be will realize that this can't work, for teachers or for students, but only after thousands of teachers are driven away from the profession and millions more students advance from grade to grade while learning nothing. Whatever "differentiated instruction" is, it is not education. It is designed to drastically increase the burden on teachers while simultaneously drastically decreasing the burden on students. It is designed to promote the patently false notion that every student is an "A" student by default. It is designed to prevent students who are less intelligent and less capable from actually increasing their intelligence and capabilities, which I always thought was supposed to be the goal of education.

One more week and I'm done.


Mark Pennington said...

Differentiated Instruction is certainly not an easily-identified, monolithic movement. Indeed, the movement is multi-faceted. There is no DI uniform. Check out 23 Myths of Differentiated Instruction.

Jay Braiman said...

I take your point, and I agree with most of what you wrote about the "myths." Indeed, I think your article demonstrates the main point of mine.

Most of the "myths" you describe and characterize as "myths" are the very things that I and my colleagues were being told by our supervisors over the past year and a half, and that we were, inter alia, criticized for not doing. The problem is that DI is so difficult to understand because it's not intended to be "easily-identified [or] monolithic." More importantly, it's not intended to create a purely binary conceptual framework by which supervisors can come into a teacher's class and declare that the lesson is "differentiated" or "not differentiated."

The greater problem, which I discussed in my comment, is that when supervisors develop a cult-like devotion to an ill-defined and ill-understood concept like DI, they use it as an excuse to go after teachers they may not like for other reasons. Your article reinforces my basic contention that taking any given lesson in any given class on any given day, the teacher could make a plausible argument that the lesson and the class are "differentiated" while the supervisor could make a plausible argument that it's not.

I've already been run out of one school because I had a supervisor like this (granted, he was a sick, evil, demented sociopath, and he and the school were corrupt to the core), and my last post-observation conference at my immediate former school had some of the same disturbing undertones.

Ultimately, I think the point is that the proponents of differentiation need to read and understand your article more than its opponents do. I opposed it because of the danger we face when supervisors take the "myths" you point out and treat them as gospel.