Thursday, March 31, 2011

Differentiation, Tracking and Challenge

A recent feature story in the Quad City Times discusses a new "integration" program at North Scott High School that did away with honors classes for freshmen. In their place, students at varying levels of preparation take classes together. Teachers are charged with differentiating within the class. As one teacher puts it, her kids can choose "straightforward" or "hilly" or "mountainous" work. You can read the article (worthwhile, by the way) by following this link.

As long-time readers of this blog may guess, the results have been...mixed. Teachers who have done a lot of training in differentiation, and who are teaching subjects where it's more possible (like social studies) do OK with it. Others struggle quite a bit. As the language arts teacher points out, the most obvious way to differentiate would be to have everyone read the same novel then do different projects with it. But she has such varying reading levels within her class that this is hard to pull off. And some students, as she notes, aren't that into class. Dealing with those discipline issues holds everyone back.

What I find fascinating is the rationale for this de-tracking experiment. According to the article, "Administrators are hoping the end result will be more students signing up for Advanced Placement, or AP, classes." In the past, apparently, only the kids in the honors classes would take AP classes. But why is the solution to this to do away with such classes? An equally obvious solution, to me, would have been to offer more rigorous preparation within the other tracks. It doesn't seem clear why the presence of honors students in general classes would suddenly inspire others to sign up for AP classes later on in their high school careers. More, this seems to me like another excuse to get rid of the readiness grouping which many educators dislike anyway. By framing it in terms of increasing enrollment in AP it gives the movement a little push. But I'd be fascinated to see if rates of students scoring above a 4 or 5 on the AP tests they take go up significantly.


Anonymous said...

Wow...the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the very early 1980s, my high school decided that teaching gifted kids was simply a waste of their time, and we could best serve the school by being put in "mega-classes" of 70 - 80 kids. The gifted kids were paired with the sweathogs, and our job was to teach them. At the same time we were responsible for them, we also had our own work, with our own books, that we were responsible for. Naturally the classwork and homework was all taken directly out of the sweathog books, so the gifted kids were at a disadvantage because often the facts we needed to regurgitate was not even in our books. To make it even more challenging, the gifted kids' grades were dependent on how our "buddies" did, so even if somehow, some way we were able to do well on our work (this is before the internet), if our buddies refused to do the work, our grades suffered.

What happened was that any student who could call in a favor went into AP classes (which couldn't be dumbed down) and the rest of us resigned ourselves to abuse.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for differentiation, but it's a lot easier to do in a homogeneous classroom. We went through this experience this year with my HG+ second grader. He was in our local 2nd grade, where he needed tons of differentiation but still was not challenged. It was a lot of work for the teachers. We moved him to a school for HG kids mid-year, where the classroom teacher still does a lot of differentiation for the different levels of GT in the classroom. But it's a much smaller range of differentiation than in the local school, where some kids still were learning to read.

I wonder how many gifted kids will be looking for another school.

brianna said...

I have been identified as a 'gifted' student in the past, yet i fail to see how that has really impacted my learning. Teachers seem to expect more of my work, and in turn I can say that I have worked harder, but at the same time the stress it adds to the daily ritual is monumentous. Every paper has to be excelent, and if I am in a normal prepatory class rather than an AP one and I fail to understand a concept, it is used against me. If i had the choice again, I am not sure that I would go through with the testing required to me identified as 'gifted' because to me, this isn't a gift. This is unneeded stress.
Brianna C.

Anonymous said...

>>Teachers seem to expect more of my work, and in turn I can say that I have worked harder, but at the same time the stress it adds to the daily ritual is monumentous.>>

Too often in differentiated classes, the higher-functioning students are just systematically loaded down with more and more and more monotonous, pointless makework until they can't take the load, and then they're berated for being "lazy"

Davidson Institute Staff said...

In our experience, gifted programs vary widely district to district. When we advocate on behalf of gifted students, we often request more in-depth learning opportunities, rather than additional busy work or more challenging work, both of which can be added to gifted students regular classroom assignments. There are myths that gifted students are supposed to know everything and get 100 percent all of the time, which are not accurate. You may enjoy reading the following articles:
Basic educational options for gifted students in schools as well as Best practices of schools that nurture excellence and this book, Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. Or, look over the list of articles in the Davidson Gifted Database by topic. Thank you for posting your comment and we hope you find this information helpful.

The Davidson Institute Staff