Teaching

Schoolwide Differentiation

By Anthony Rebora — September 10, 2008 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s writing has long helped teachers apply the principles of differentiated instruction in their classrooms. But in her latest book, The Differentiated School: Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning (ASCD), she broadens her scope. With the help of co-authors Kay Brimijoin and Lane Narvaez, she explores how whole schools can transition to differentiated instruction—an imperative, she believes, for broad educational improvement.

In particular, Tomlinson and her co-authors examine the paths of two very different schools—one a moderately high-achieving elementary school in St. Louis, the other a Vermont high school with a recent history of academic struggle—that have made the shift to schoolwide differentiation and seen impressive gains as a result. Along the way, to provide intellectual context, the authors highlight relevant findings from the best-practices research on school change.

So, how did these schools do it? How did they transform themselves from (for the most part) traditional, routine-mired institutions to places where classrooms reportedly brim with creative learning activities and a shared sense of purpose?

See Also

Return to the main story,

Making a Difference

A big part of it, Tomlinson says, was that they were blessed with exceptional leaders—leaders who didn’t just lay down mandates or try out a few new things but who were “propelled by values, vision, and passion.” Principals Lane Narvaez (at Conway Elementary) and Joyce Stone (at Colchester High) came into their jobs with a deep-seated commitment to educational equity and excellence, and they developed coherent, meaningful strategies to employ differentiation toward that end. They also understood that school-change initiatives can often look very different from the classroom. From the start, they made teachers active participants in their plans, providing opportunities for feedback and questioning. And they ensured that educators had the resources and support they needed to meet new expectations.

Indeed, both Narvaez and Stone launched an array of staff-development opportunities to help teachers conceptualize and apply the various components of differentiated instruction in their classrooms. That was a second key to their success. Training activities ranged from whole-school conferences, coaching sessions, and grade-level planning teams (at Conway) to summer institutes, learning circles, and teacher mentoring (at Colchester). At both schools, the various staff-development offerings—aided by on-site facilitators and teacher leaders—evolved into a kind of interlocking and sustained support network built around practical instructional knowledge, feedback and monitoring, and collaborative inquiry. These activities became integral parts of the schools’ culture.

Finally, the leadership teams at both schools closely monitored their schools’ progress as the shift to differentiated instruction took hold. As Tomlinson makes clear, this didn’t just mean reviewing standardized test scores, though that was an important component. It meant using a range of evaluation instruments and data sources, including formative assessments, student and parent surveys, teacher feedback forms and observations, student well-being indicators, and outside analyses. By closely monitoring results, the schools’ leaders were not only able to make adjustments and direct additional support where needed (just as any good differentiated instructor would do in the classroom), they could also share examples of improvement and shifts in perspective, in effect reshaping their school’s story.

For Tomlinson and her co-authors, this kind of internal public relations is key. “As a culture’s narrative becomes commonly shared,” they write, “people act accordingly.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as schoolwide differentiation

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Professional Development Online Summit What's Next for Professional Development: An Overview for Principals
Join fellow educators and administrators in this discussion on professional development for principals and administrators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion Teach Like a Runner: 3 Ways to Get Started With Project-Based Learning
Take the equivalent of a five-minute jog to build authenticity in the classroom, because small changes can make a big difference.
Zachary Herrmann, Pam Grossman & Sarah Schneider Kavanagh
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
Teaching Opinion These Small Moves Can Make Outsized Differences in Class
"Scaffolded conversations" is one idea educators share for small and effective changes teachers can make in classrooms.
10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion 6 Small Instructional Changes Teachers Can Make for Big Results
Increasing "wait time," offering students more choice, and differentiating instruction in simple ways are a few manageable changes.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion How to Break the Juvenile Detention Cycle: New Research Shows a Way
Building a relationship of mutual respect between teachers and students can make a difference.
Greg Walton, Jason Okonofua & Katie Remington Cunningham
3 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty