Assessment Opinion

Does Differentiation Work? Is That Even the Right Question?

By Dave Powell — January 20, 2015 6 min read
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So James Delisle touched a nerve. He wrote, as many regular readers of Education Week already know (and probably a few irregular ones know too) a scathing indictment of the approach that we have all come to know as differentiated instruction. This is an article that would make any good contrarian proud—not because Delisle’s argument is especially appealing (it’s the contrarian’s job to poke holes in arguments, not simply agree with them), but because it takes a little contrarianism to write an article like this in the first place. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Delisle.

But what about the claims he made? Does differentiated instruction really not “work”? Well, the first thing I always tell my students when I give them something controversial to read—or, really, when I give them anything to read; it’s the history major buried down deep inside me—is: check the source. You can sometimes learn more about the real meaning or intent of a piece of writing at the bottom of the last page, where the short bio statement or attribution is located, than you can by reading it. In this case, a little sleuthing reveals that Delisle is a pretty strong proponent of gifted education—of the idea that some people are just naturally smarter than others, an idea with deep roots but one that didn’t really take off until the intelligence testing craze at the turn of the 20th century. If you don’t know much about that era or about how intelligence testing has warped our educational thinking, a quick trip to your local library should help with that. Peter Sacks has written a pretty readable and informative book about the misuses of intelligence testing that might interest you. It’s called Standardized Minds.

But I’m not here to plug a book for Peter Sacks. The point is that the whole idea of giftedness is based on two complementary notions. One is that intelligence—and, maybe more importantly, the aptitude for intelligence—can be measured. More than that, so the thinking goes, it can be measured effectively by applying scientific principles. More than that, it can be measured efficiently by giving people standardized intelligence tests. Suffice it to say that critics question these assumptions vehemently. I don’t have any more interest here in hashing out the relative value of IQ tests than I have in shilling a book for Peter Sacks—but I do want to point out that the notion that we can actually measure intelligence with some consistency, and then report it out as a single number, is, well, questionable. The idea that we should then, too, provide a more enriching experience to the kids who score the right number on such a test is even more debatable. Most advocates of gifted education are smart enough to argue that multiple means of assessment should be used to determine giftedness, but often that simply means something like this: give an IQ test, look for evidence of achievement (read: good grades), and rely on a teacher’s recommendation. It’s not hard to see how those factors could be influenced by cultural bias and circular reasoning rather than “objective” scientific analysis.

I leaked the second idea about giftedness in the last paragraph: it is the idea that giftedness is demonstrated by exceptional aptitude or ability in more than one domain. Of course, when we’re talking about school (and while IQ tests have been used in a variety of corporate settings and were originally mass produced for the Army, their most popular application is in schools), that narrows the domains of giftedness considerably, rendering aptitude and ability easily conflatable in ways that are unhelpful, to say the least. In other words: if you have the ability to do something well in school, you probably have the aptitude to continue doing it well. And if you’ve demonstrated aptitude for a particular skill or ability, then, well, the ability has all but been demonstrated hasn’t it? So, then, isn’t giftedness self-evident? To many of the people deciding who’s gifted it seems to be. It’s no secret that white students are over-represented in gifted programs, while black and Hispanic students are under-represented, with the reverse, of course, being true in special education programs. And prisons. Draw your own conclusions from that as you ponder the “scientific” basis of intelligence testing.

So Delisle is a proponent of gifted education. Nothing to see here, right? There are proponents of gifted education all over the place. But what if the assumptions behind gifted education—that aptitude and ability can be accurately measured in the first place, and that students who demonstrate exceptional aptitudes or abilities should receive special educational experiences—are what truly motivated Delisle’s rant about the problem with differentiation, not some sense that the method simply doesn’t work? Let me put that a little differently: it makes sense to argue that differentiation doesn’t work if you’re an advocate for separate education services for those kids identified as “gifted” because differentiation is usually defined as putting kids together in a hetereogeneous classroom and letting a single teacher sort everything out. Delisle wants those kids to all be separated again. As he puts it:

The sad truth is this: By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student. In the same Fordham Institute report cited earlier, 71 percent of teachers reported that they would like to see our nation rely more heavily on homogeneous grouping of advanced students, while a resounding 77 percent of teachers said that, when advanced students are paired with lower-achieving students for group assignments, it's the smart kids who do the bulk of the work.

There is no perfect method for grouping students in school, but I would argue that separating them into entirely different classes on the basis of what we perceive their abilities to be does more harm than good. I’m not saying that there aren’t differences in what we define as “ability” among students in schools; I’m simply suggesting that these differences aren’t as easy to measure as we think they are, and are as likely to change when contexts change as they are to stay the same. The problem with grouping advanced students homogeneously (besides actually determining what makes them “advanced” in the first place) is that it then means almost everybody else is going to be grouped that way too. If we separate kids in school they’re probably going to separated for the rest of their lives, and that’s going to prevent a lot of future adults from experiencing economic and social mobility. We have a tendency sometimes to overplay the effects of education, but this is one impact that is difficult to overstate.

Delisle’s article, and the reaction it has provoked, is not really about the value of differentiation at all. He says he’s against it but, in the end, he’s as for it as anyone is: when we provide special services to certain kids based on the characteristics we ascribe to them, we’re differentiating their experience. We may be categorizing it and “serving” it differently, but we’re still differentiating on the basis of what we believe to be true about the child’s needs and, maybe more importantly, about his or her future. Too often, such assessments are not based on careful educational analysis but on a quick test score, a cultural characteristic, or something else that may not actually enable us to see the student we’re attaching the label to. Worse, differentiated ability groups tend to harden into tracks, serving to “structure” the very inequalities that our public schools are supposed to exist to remedy.

To me, the question we should be asking is: why is all this labeling necessary? And how does it prevent us from actually having public schools that reflect the best of our values—things like equality, inclusivity, solidarity, and, yes, patriotism? Delisle is right that the curriculum is muddled, and he’s right that the lack of clarity provided to teachers makes even contemplating instruction difficult; he’s right, too, to imply that it’s a problem that we’re just too damned cheap to provide the funding we need to provide to make sure every kid has a good school experience. But he’s wrong when he says that differentiation doesn’t “work.” It works all to well. As long as we keep labeling kids and then tailoring their schooling to the labels they’ve been given to keep them in their place, it will keep working.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.