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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Student Differentiation v. Alignment: Know the Difference and Set Children Free

In a democracy that stresses freedom and individuality, education reformers remade public schools focusing on aligning children to narrow high-stakes standards, even before Common Core State Standards appeared in 2010.

It isn’t easy to differentiate when the end goal is the same narrow standard.

Standards don’t involve differentiating how children learn. Teachers might try individual and small-group remediation, but ultimately, students must achieve the same standards simultaneously.

For example, when all students must pass a reading test by third grade or fail, a practice that started with NCLB, this is alignment, not differentiation.

Carole Ann Tomlinson defines differentiation:

At its most basic level, differentiation consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher differentiates instruction.

Alignment insists children move in lockstep. However, teachers are also told to differentiate student learning needs, even when facing large class sizes, making this a difficult task, not to mention conflicting tasks.

David Lee Finkle’s Dylan Fitz comics are excellent; a recent one captured this dilemma beautifully. David graciously permitted me to post it.


Alignment to the curriculum becomes more important than the teacher’s professional judgment.

School districts purchase programs, sometimes without teacher feedback, that promise to align instruction to the standards. Since they fork out massive funding for canned programs, often with little independent research to indicate their effectiveness, teachers and students can’t escape.

How does a teacher say, my students need something different; this isn’t working for them?

Some curriculum packages make teachers commit to teaching it with fidelity. They must marry the program!

Alignment caters to those who can follow scripts and canned instruction that tells the teacher exactly what to do. Teachers might work to supplement the problematic programming with their own materials. But if the student fails, teachers take the blame, not the program.

Alignment also works against children without learning problems and might hurt their learning progress. How many students show up to school reading and are drilled on sounds they already know?

It’s easy to find kindergarten through third-grade teachers with students lined up at desks or on the floor, where they’re teaching the same letter sounds or rules when some children may be reading fluently, and other children may need more assistance understanding what the teacher means.

Or, students wind up facing screens with curricula that advertise alignment for personalized learning, including online assessments focused on aligning students to standards. They work at their own speed, but they must master the end goals to succeed.

Differentiation is the key to good teaching.

Differentiation, however, is significant, especially for teachers with students who have disabilities, and results in an Individual Educational Plan (IEP). However, IEPs have changed too often, reflecting the program rather than the teacher’s ideas of how the student should progress. See Common Core and IEPs.

Real differentiation looks at students for their strengths to help them with their difficulties but not make them feel like they’ve failed. Differentiation is critical, and the answers to how to do it are complex, demanding well-prepared teachers who are accessible to individual and small group instruction and teach the students they know first-hand in the classroom.

The system requires change to demand fully-prepared university degreed teachers in the area they teach and smaller class sizes. There also needs to be more scrutiny and less reliance on curriculum programs, especially those that are online, with little proof of success, that cost school districts so much.

Differentiation is critical. We don’t find the best in each child with narrow standards. Every child deserves to have their individual educational needs addressed not by a canned curriculum or computer program but by a capable teacher who knows and understands them.


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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...