Thursday, October 7, 2010

Repost: Race to the Bottom (March 16, 2009)

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:

"differentiate 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, let alone demonstrated in a single class period (or portion thereof). 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 demented gargoyle who was principal there in 2002-03. When it came to pedagogy, and particularly his ill-considered "Humanities" idea, this thing was an ideologue, not a pragmatist. It wanted two things: (1) "student-centered" instruction; and (2) exclusive focus on 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 it wanted. Yet nothing I did seemed to satisfy it; whatever I did was not sufficiently "student-centered" or did not sufficiently invoke or involve 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 commercial regulation, in that where the federal government does not regulate a particular industry 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" dilute the student's incentive to learn and improve, it actually gives the student an incentive to become, and remain, as incapable as possible. 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 work, the 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 nigh impossible in most circumstances. The only practical way to accommodate Special Ed students in a regular class is to lower the entire class's 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.

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