Monday, September 17, 2007

The Disaster of Differentiated Classrooms

In the differentiated classroom, students of (sometimes drastically) different skill levels* are expected to learn identical material under the guise of several well-meaning premises, among them:

1. Equality. That each student should have a chance to learn exactly what their peers are learning, without being socially sequestered from their peers.

2. That education, up to now, has worked well enough that all students should theoretically be at the same level.

That second one is the stinker because it ends up requiring a lot of if/thens. If the student’s education has not been adequate, then the material must be modified so that the student can remain in the same classroom, and learn the same material, but at their own pace and with assignments which are scaled down to their ability - therefore, not the same as their peers’.

This is especially troubling in the high school English classroom. These differentiated classrooms, and the accommodations necessitated by them, end up being more about grading some students on what they have always done up to now, not what they can learn to do from here, because the modifications are often so heavily skewed the student need go nowhere in their learning.

For instance, I have a student whose accommodations state that he is not to be graded on spelling or punctuation. This one is new to me - though I’ve seen accommodations before which decreed the student would not be graded on spelling and punctuation on rough drafts and in-class work, this student is not to be graded on them all...not even on final drafts. Therefore, this student’s progress is completely hampered by the restrictions placed on his own learning. Could I find a way to help this student progress in spite of his own accommodations? Certainly, if I had the time to work with him individually. But with class sizes topping 30-33 this year, and he unable to come for morning or after-school tutoring because he rides the bus, that isn’t going to happen. This is a case of a student being left behind by a system purporting to serve his best interests. It is so much more important he be in a particular classroom than that he be able to spell and write coherently punctuated sentences.

What ends up happening is a perpetual game of catch-up. As a teacher, I plan for the middle, and juggle the students on either side of the equation as best I can. The ones who can’t keep up copy and cheat when they fall behind, those who can move ahead are left with large holes in their daily instruction they must fill while those behind are helped (interrupting the flow of their learning). Those who have the mental acuity to keep up, but who require heavy modifications due to their technical skills are just as much at a disadvantage. They may be able to verbalize answers and thoughts, but then must labor along at the writing tasks, still trying to keep up. In-class silent reading is a nightmare, especially if they must read something in class in order to complete an activity on it in class - there is as much as a 15-30 minute disparity between reading speeds, sometimes more. Again, juggling those who finish early with those who finish later. It’s much easier to succumb to reading out loud or listening to recordings, just to keep on track - which doesn’t serve any of them well in the end.

No matter the tricks and techniques I use (and I’ve got a bag full of them by now), my students and I are left with differing degrees of frustration. How is this fair to any of them? I teach 6 classes of English III. The solution would be to fill the classes according to ability, and allow me to differentiate grades fairly among them, according to the class. Different assignments for different needs, but not an assortment of them within a single class, where the (parent viewable) gradebook allows for no leeway. Some would argue that this is returning to the old system and the “short bus” mentality, I suppose. All I can say’s not only the teachers who are frustrated with this. Students target one another just as acutely in these situations, resenting the slower students responsible for their impatience, resenting the quicker students responsible for the overwhelming pace of the class.

The juggling required denies me the opportunity to help any of them get ahead - it simply assures that most will stay where they are.

*My neighbor, a 10th grade teacher, currently has one class which is designated inclusion and has 4 inclusion students with various modifications. She also has 4 Asperger's students, a deaf student who requires 3 translators, and 3 students with BIP's (Behavior Improvement Plans) so severe they require an additional teacher at all times. The class is at 31 students. One of her Asperger's students wanted to take pre-AP, but the school did not want to designate a pre-AP class inclusion for his sake, so they asked her to teach him the pre-AP curriculum in the same class at the same time. Since she has not had adequate pre-AP training, and the two curriculums are drastically different at our school, she refused. The AP teachers then got involved, because the student's modifications decree he is not to be given reading homework, and pre-AP is reading intensive. (This could be worked around, if he were placed in a class where he is the only, or one of few, special needs students, but not this class.) Admin then proposed that her inclusion teacher could teach him the pre-AP material, thereby removing the inclusion support from the 4 inclusion students. She refused this as well, rightly citing how illegal it would be. They then proposed that the inclusion teacher (a first-year teacher period) could teach the regular students while she taught the pre-AP curriculum, again depriving the inclusion students of inclusion support. She refused this as well, but they began divvying her students up in the gradebook at the end of last week as if they may insist on it. We are waiting to hear the final word.

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