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Arizona Stories from School: Deference to Differentiation

Many of my blog posts rely upon the work of others.  To a large extent this is because I value the work of my colleagues.  This is also one of the key tenets of academic writing – using existing literature to extend arguments and concepts.  I also see the ability to share and build upon ideas as an essential part of great teaching, and something we should model for students.  Not surprisingly, these skills are embedded throughout the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in teaching students argumentation skills.  However, as each of us deals with the implementation of the CCSS it is important that we not get caught up in the reform and lose sight of larger issues within our educational system.

Recently, Paul Reville authored commentary in an Education Week article (4-23-14) entitled “Stop the Tinkering: We Need a New K-12 Engine”.   His argument:  Stop worrying about school reform issues such as the CCSS, focusing instead on assisting children in overcoming the disadvantages of poverty.  Reville addresses three challenges that need to be considered in any future solution: differentiation, close gaps and increase out-of-school learning opportunities.   In considering Reville’s argument the challenge of differentiation seemed to speak most loudly as a call to teacher leaders.

Responding to the different needs of students is arguably one of the most important goals for teachers.  Reville describes this as “prescribing the quantity and quality of educational opportunities”.  When talking with colleagues, the discussion of differentiation typically focuses on short-term curriculum interventions aimed at assisting a student in mastering some specific learning objective.  Some discuss this in terms of a medical model – giving students a “dose” of some curriculum elixir.  Regardless of how it is framed, my experience has often led to concerns about the process of differentiation in terms of impacts on a student’s perception of school.   For this reason, I suggest that teachers “step back” and consider two important points as a part of any student differentiation discussions.

Resist Intervention without Reflection

An outcome of constant educational reform has been the decrease of planning and reflection time – especially when considering student performance and differentiation needs.  Developing intervention strategies or group-based instruction requires significant reflection.  Consideration needs to be given to the perceptions associated with student groups.  Even with the best planned curriculum intervention, I often hear students comment about what group they are in:  “Oh, I am in the low group.”  If we hope to overcome inequalities in schools, intervention must respect students and value their input.  Processes that incorporate student and parent reflection should be considered prior to any intervention efforts.  Reflection should not be replaced with reaction in the hopes that three weeks of intervention will lead to increased test scores.   This will be especially important in terms of the broadly defined CCSS.

Avoid Deficit Thinking

One of the most significant dangers associated with differentiation is that it often times involves the discussion of student deficits.   Much of this dialogue is fueled by processes aimed at identification of possible learning disabilities.  One way to overcome deficit discourse is to address what a student CAN do before any evaluation of assessment or performance data.  Part of this process should include the evaluation of student work – not simply a test score.  Often times, the process of looking at student work can reveal instructional gaps calling for re-teaching rather than intervention.

If our goal is to ensure that every student receives a quality education then meeting individual student needs is a requirement.  In this case, differentiation needs to be considered in our regular planning processes.  This also means that careful attention in terms of planning and implementation is equally important.  Rushing into some intervention program in the hopes of remediating some small skill may do little in helping us complete what Reville describes as “our journey to equity and excellence”.

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Greg Broberg

Greg Broberg has worked in the Kyrene School District in Arizona as an elementary school teacher. He is a PhD student at Arizona State University. ...