A Response to “Differentiation Doesn’t Work”

In the January 7, 2015 Commentary in Education Week, James R. Delisle opined that “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” Given that I co-authored a book with “differentiated” in the title (Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, ASCD 2005), I felt compelled to reply. However, given that my colleague, Grant Wiggins, offers such a penetratingly effective critique of Delisle’s piece in a recent blog post (both the original article and Grant’s rejoinder are included below), I decided to veer down a satirical path for my reply. However, before launching into parody, I’ll make a few serious points.

It may come as a surprise to Mr. Delisle to know that we agree on the following:

• More than 1/3 of my 44 years as a professional educator was spent directly working in support of programs for “gifted” students. I worked as a G/T resource teacher, a program administrator (coordinating programs in 83 schools, K-12), director of a statewide, summer residential enrichment program, and state G/T specialist at the DOE in Maryland. Accordingly, I share Mr. Delisle’s advocacy for the importance of providing appropriately challenging experiences for highly able learners in “least restrictive” environments. Contrary to the opinions of some, I do not believe that precocious learners will simply “make it on their own.” They need and deserve proper programming to realize their enormous potential.

• I have witnessed the dissolution or reduction of programs for “special needs” students (both the gifted and the learning challenged) justified under the umbrella of “differentiation.” Over the years, some schools and districts have offered (often superficial) training in differentiated instruction only to declare that every teacher now has the tools to address the needs of all learners within their classrooms. Thus, they contend, there is no longer a need to employ specialists or offer special programming. While mindful of the reality of tight educational budgets, I do not condone the use of differentiation as a rationalization for such cost-saving measures.

• While I believe that effective teachers always differentiate to some extent (as do effective athletic coaches, extra-curricular sponsors and parents), I agree with Delisle that it is unrealistic to expect an individual teacher to be able to fully address the wide variety of backgrounds, skill levels, interests, talents, personalities and learning preferences of the large numbers students found in many of today’s classrooms. The growing percentage of students of poverty, from non-English speaking homes, and/or on medications exacerbates the teacher’s burden. Sadly, I have witnessed some extraordinarily conscientious educators harbor guilt feelings and “burn out” from the demands of trying to be all things to all students.

• Finally, I agree with his observation that differentiation is hard. Of course, trying to address the needs of individuals is more demanding than “one size, fits all” teaching. As a former swimming coach, my job would have been decidedly easier if all of the swimmers who joined the team came with the same skill level and swam the same event. Unfortunately, I had league record-holders sharing the lanes with first-time competitive swimmers. Annoyingly, I had to plan differentiated workouts for the sprinters and the distance swimmers, not to mention that I was coaching four competitive strokes, each requiring different techniques. Differentiation is just what the coaching of most sports requires!

Despite these points of agreement, I cannot abide Delise’s laughably simplistic assertion that “differentiation doesn’t work.” Should the fact that something is challenging mean that is isn’t effective? (By that logic, we should conclude that piano playing, dieting and parenting don’t work!) Should the fact that differentiation is hard disqualify it as an important part of a teacher’s instructional repertoire?
Should the fact the teachers may be given insufficient professional development and support around a demanding practice like differentiation invalidate that practice?
I think not.

Like some members of Congress, Delise is quick to criticize, but fails to effectively support his argument. (See Grant’s critique on this point.) Moreover, his only solution seems to be homogenous grouping, a simplistic solution to complex and systemic challenges. (Again, see Grant’s essential questions on the challenges.)

Now it’s time for my “commentary” on his Commentary, guided stylistically by the noted educational authority, Dave Barry.

Exercise Doesn’t Work
by Dr. L.A. Zee

At the dawn of this new year, I set a resolution to lose weight by starting an exercise program. In theory, exercise sounds great – it promises to help one trim excess poundage, enhance physical health, reduce stress and gain mental clarity. However, after a dis-spiriting, 5-minute, mid-morning workout, it became obvious to me that exercise doesn’t work. Here’s my experience: I began my training regimen on January 2 at my local Silver’s Gym. Not being intimidated by the hard bodies preening before the full-wall mirrors, nor seduced by the pulsating electro beats emanating from the Bose boxes positioned around the perimeter of the torture chamber, I launched into a killer set of 10 sit ups. Whew – exercise is hard, I realized. Feeling light headed and sensing my heart racing, I did the prudent thing and immediately dispatched my aching bod to the closest watering hole to throw down a few “carbohydrate infusions” and ingest some needed comfort food – nachos and melted cheddar with bacon bits, to be precise. The next day, although my stomach ached from my exercise exertion, I had not lost a single gram. In fact, my scale notched upwards of three kilos. Then it hit me like an obsessive shopper zeroing in on a sought-after black-Friday sale item: exercise doesn’t work!

Given my eye-opening experience with the sweaty arts, I decided to direct my considerable research acumen to investigate and expose the farce that the exercise/health care industrial complex has perpetrated on a gullible public.
I began by Googling “exercise” and “does not work” and found a few rambling blog rants that reinforced my experience. Then, I surfed my way to a local on-line Craig’s List to search the classifieds under “exercise” and “gym membership.” You won’t believe what I found: more than two columns of ads posted by despondent flabbys desperate to dump their shiny new dumbbells and unused Planet Fitness memberships for which they had signed an 8-year commitment in a spasm of New Year’s resolve in 2009. What more evidence does one need to conclude that exercise doesn’t work?

Not being averse to serious scholarship (as long as I can Google it in my naugahyde barcalounger while slurping fine hops), I searched and found literally thousands of books, articles, doctoral dissertations and related research studies on the benefits of exercise. Given this extraordinary volume of published material, only staffers at a rural DMV office, Wall Mart greeters and regular viewers of MSNBC could miss the obvious: If exercise really worked, why on earth would we need all of this information?

Any serious practitioner of intellectual inquiry seeks verification and I pursued just that by initiating a conversation with my neighbor, Smoker Pike (behind his back, we call him “Smoky”). Between puffs on his oversized Cuban, I asked my friend whether he thinks exercise works. He told me that he never exercises – and he is in fact rather thin, given the years of battling Type 2 diabetes and incessant hacking. So, there you have it.

But inspired by the evidence I was finding, I could not rest in my quest to prove my point. Indeed, any researcher worth his sodium intake aspires to the gold standard. So rather than accept the findings of others, and at considerable sacrifice to my sitcom regimen, I launched my own original study to definitively answer the question: Does exercise work? With one arm tied behind my back, I trudged to my local Friendly’s restaurant to randomly sample the first 16 people who made eye contact and posed to them an open-ended question about exercise (“Don’t you hate it?”). A resounding 83 percent agreed that exercise was hard. Moreover, a shocking 77 percent of those that tried it confessed they didn’t always stick with it. So, don’t just take it from me – these numbers ain’t lying.

In sum, the inescapable conclusion of my selfless inquiry is unambiguous: Exercise doesn’t work. Why then, despite this overwhelming evidence, would anyone even consider this unnatural and ineffective practice known as exercise? Here’s my theory: The medical establishment has conspired with their sleazy cousins, the exercise equipment manufacturers and the health club industry, to systematically pull a damp and sweat-stained hoodie over the eyes of a gullible throng of corpulent sad sacks and hard-body wannabees. Indeed, with the cunning of a desert fox and through the guileless manipulation techniques of a Madison Avenue ad agency, they have perpetuated a farce and played a cruel, yet calculating, joke on the soft underbelly of our nation’s citizenry by suggesting that exercise has merit. What a sad commentary on the intellectual flaccidness of the population that they are so easily duped. Shameful, I say.

Here is the original Commentary.

Published Online: January 6, 2015
Published in Print: January 7, 2015, as Differentiation Doesn’t Work
COMMENTARY
Differentiation Doesn’t Work
By James R. Delisle

Let’s review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch’s excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America’s teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for universal excellence. Sadly, though, the elusive panacea that will solve all of education’s woes has remained, well, elusive.
But wait! The solution has arrived, and it’s been around long enough to prove its worth. What is this magical elixir? Differentiation!
Starting with the gifted-education community in the late 1960s, differentiation didn’t get its mojo going until regular educators jumped onto the bandwagon in the 1980s. By my count, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (now known simply as ASCD) has released more than 600 publications on differentiation, and countless publishers have followed suit with manuals and software that will turn every classroom into a differentiated one.
There’s only one problem: Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.
“By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer kids on the edges of learning, … we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student.”
In theory, differentiation sounds great, as it takes several important factors of student learning into account:
• It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.
• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.
• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The problem is this: Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.
Case in point: In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli wrote about a University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: “Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. ‘We couldn’t answer the question … because no one was actually differentiating,’ ” the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli.
And, Ms. Hertberg-Davis herself wrote in a 2009 article in Gifted Child Quarterly: “It does not seem that we are yet at a place where differentiation within the regular classroom is a particularly effective method of challenging our most able learners.”
Too, Mike Schmoker, in a 2010 Commentary for Education Week titled “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities,” relates that his experiences of observing educators trying to differentiate caused him to draw this conclusion: “In every case, differentiated instruction seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials, … and it dumbed down instruction.”
As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83 percent of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement.
It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.
The biggest reason differentiation doesn’t work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation’s classrooms. Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster if ever I saw one. Such an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one.
It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It’s the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.
Do we expect an oncologist to be able to treat glaucoma? Do we expect a criminal prosecutor to be able to decipher patent law? Do we expect a concert pianist to be able to play the clarinet equally well? No, no, no. However, when the education of our nation’s young people is at stake, we toss together into one classroom every possible learning strength and disability and expect a single teacher to be able to work academic miracles with every kid … as long as said teacher is willing to differentiate, of course.
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.

A second reason that differentiation has been a failure is that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both? The terms “differentiated instruction” and “differentiated curriculum” are used interchangeably, yet they are not synonyms. Teachers want and need clear guidance on what it is they are supposed to do to reach differentiated Nirvana, yet the messages they receive from the “experts” are far from consistent. No wonder confusion reigns and teachers feel defeated in trying to implement the grand goals of differentiation.
Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers, and yet one more panacea that did not pan out.

James R. Delisle is an educational consultant and the president of Growing Good Kids Inc., which works with gifted youths and has its headquarters in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Washington. He is the author of Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back) (Prufrock Press, 2014). A former university professor, he now teaches part time at Scholars Academy High School in Conway, S.C.
Vol. 34, Issue 15, Pages 28, 36

Read Grant Wiggins’ blog post rebuttal below:

On differentiation: a reply to a rant and a posing of questions
Posted by Grant Wiggins at https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/on-differentiation-a-reply-to-a-rant-and-a-posing-of-questions/
James DeLisle recently wrote a Commentary in Education Week in which he trashed differentiation of learning. In this post, I respond to his utterly invalid arguments. In the next post I speak to the larger issue of teacher vs. school obligation in dealing with heterogeneous classes, and what heterogeneity should and should not demand of teachers. Ed Week has not responded to my submission, so I am publishing this on my own.
To the Editor:
Why in the world did you publish James DeLisle’s one-sided self-serving rant on differentiated instruction (“Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” by James R. Delisle, Education Week)?
First of all, he covers exactly the same ground in the back and forth in Education Week a few years ago between Mike Schmoker (Ed Week Commentary, September 20, 2010) and Carol Ann Tomlinson (Letter November 12, 2010) – and does so far less coherently and persuasively than Schmoker originally did. Secondly – and more egregiously – he provides an utterly cherry-picked referencing of the (few) sources he cites. Additionally, he conflates DI with individualized instruction and learning styles.
DeLisle rants about DI as a fad, and the lack of evidence to support DI. However, what evidence does he cite? Some “observations” by Mike Schmoker (from the aforementioned Ed Week Commentary), and survey data on teacher views about implementing DI from which DeLisle illogically concludes:
As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83 percent of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement.
And this is a summary of the first half of his piece (before he talks about the need for homogeneous grouping):
In theory, differentiation sounds great, as it takes several important factors of student learning into account:
It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.
It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.
It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The problem is this: Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back…
It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.
Huh?? How is the difficulty of implementing a practice indicative of its ineffectiveness when implemented?? By that argument, problem-based learning, socratic seminar, science labs, the use of learning stations and other difficult pedagogies are all “boondoggles.” Also: the bullets he identifies apply just as much to techniques such as formative assessment and authentic assessment, not just differentiation – yet he doesn’t say formative and authentic assessment are boondoggles.
Reference to the teacher surveys is also very ironic: The data comes from a thoughtful and even-handed piece on differentiation by Mike Petrilli of the same Fordham Institute that did the survey. (What DeLisle also conveniently fails to mention is that Fordham is often critical of practices that might threaten the needs of the most able students.) However, to his credit, Mike Petrilli actually visits his local school to find out how DI is doing. His conclusion? It works:
Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.
And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.
What’s his secret? Was he grouping students “homogeneously,” so all the high-achieving kids learned together, and the slower kids got extra help?
“There’s no such thing as a homogenous group,” Mr. G. shot back. “One kid is a homogeneous group. As soon as you bring another student in, you have differences. The question is: how do you capitalize on the differences?”
Well, that sounds OK in theory. But come on, Mr. G., how are you going to make sure my kid doesn’t get slowed down? “My job as a principal is to let my parents know that your child will get the services they need,” he answered patiently. “We are going to make sure that every child is getting pushed to a maximum level. That’s my commitment.”
And that’s when I was introduced to the incredibly nuanced and elaborate efforts that Piney Branch makes to differentiate instruction, challenge every child, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms … It sounds like some sort of elaborate Kabuki dance to me, but it appears to succeed on several counts. All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

He concludes his piece by saying:
So with a well-trained and dedicated staff, and lots of support, “differentiated instruction” can be brought to life…
Piney Branch and Ms. M. might be able to pull it off. But how many Piney Branches and Ms. M.’s are there?
Technology may someday alleviate the need for such com- promises. With the advent of powerful online learning tools, such as those on display in New York City’s School of One, students might be able to receive instruction that’s truly individualized to their own needs—differentiation on steroids.
Perhaps. But until that time, our schools will have to wrestle with the age-old tension between “excellence” and “equity.” And that tension will be resolved one homogeneous or heterogeneous classroom at a time.
(I’ll return to this excellence vs. equity challenge in my follow-up post. It’s code for “maintaining high standards and challenging our most able and motivated students” vs. “dumbing down everything.”)

Here, by contrast, is DeLisle’s only reference to Petrilli’s article:
Case in point: In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli wrote about a University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: “Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. ‘We couldn’t answer the question … because no one was actually differentiating,’ ” the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli….
In fact, DeLisle conveniently fails to use the paragraph right before the above one where Petrilli says:
I asked Holly Hertberg-Davis, who studied under Tomlinson and is now her colleague at UVA, if differentiated instruction was too good to be true. Can teachers actually pull it off? “My belief is that some teachers can but not all teachers can,” she answered.

His selective use of quotes thus misrepresents the article and its point; the claim that DI is a “boondoggle” has no warrant whatsoever from the data DeLisle provides. Nor does his nasty sweeping conclusion: “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.”
Yes, DI is difficult – even Carol Tomlinson admits that. Excellent teaching leading to significant learning of all students is very challenging. So is calculus, but I suspect Mr. DeLisle is not prepared to say that calculus teaching is a boondoggle and farce because it is often done poorly or not at all in some high schools. To conclude that DI is a cruel hoax is both shoddy reasoning and disingenuous in light of his own explicit commitment to working on behalf of gifted learners (as found in his credentials and writings.)

I encourage readers to check out the following sources to determine for themselves if Mr. DeLisle’s view (and the argument upon which it is based) has merit:
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/29/05schmoker.h30.html – the original post 5 years ago by Mike Schmoker.
Tomlinson’s response: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/11/17/12letter-b1.h30.html
http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/is-differentiated-instruction-a-hollow-promise – the Petrilli article
http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb10/vol67/num05/Differentiated-Learning.aspx – a summary of DI
https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/differentiating-instruction – a teaching Channel video look at DI
http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_3/helarticle/differentiated-instruction-reexamined_499 – A Harvard Newsletter article on DI and learning styles research
http://www.diffcentral.com/model.html – Carol Tomlinson’s resources on DI on the UVA site
http://schoolleader.typepad.com/school-leader/2012/02/schmokers-blind-spot.html – a commentary on the Schmoker-Tomlinson exchange in Education Week
http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/is-differentiated-instruction-a-useless-fad – Jeff Bryant weighs in on the Schmoker-Tomlinson exchange
http://www.caroltomlinson.com/handouts/NELMS%20Keynote.pdf – A handout from a recent Tomlinson workshop that nicely summarizes DI and the research, including a helpful quote from John Hattie.
http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html – Dan Willingham responds to criticism of his view that learning styles do not exist. Note the last paragraph which DeLisle conveniently does not mention:
So you think all kids should be treated the same way?
Not at all. Teachers use their experience to differentiate instruction: for example, knowing that saying “good job” will motivate one child, but embarrass another. One way that science might be useful to teachers is to provide them with categories of kids. I could give them a short survey, for example, and then tell you whether a kid is introverted, extroverted, or in between. I might tell you “lots of data shows that introverts are likely to be embarrassed when praised in front of others.” I’m fabricating the details, obviously, but you get the idea. I’m claiming that there are three types or categories of kids, I’m claiming that these categories are meaningful for the classroom, and I’m claiming that I can successfully categorize kids based on this short survey.
The styles theories are that sort of idea: they really seek to categorize kids. Once you know that some people are visualizers and some are verbalizers, you can use that information to inform instruction, in addition to using your experience and judgment. My point is that scientists can’t help teachers in this way. We haven’t developed categories that have proven meaningful.
You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids, to hold an egalitarian attitude in the midst of such differences, and to try to foster such attitudes in students.
Looking ahead to the next post;
While I felt a tart response was necessary to DeLisle’s one-sided and poorly researched piece, readers should not conclude that criticism of DI is unwarranted or that it is necessarily the best solution to the challenge of great diversity in our classrooms and schools.
We can all surely appreciate that the issue is complex, that differentiation arose as the need to reach all learners became a universal obligation for teachers in the late 20th century. It is not unfair, in fact, to say that differentiation places the greatest burden concerning student diversity on individual teachers, while the larger system questions related to staffing, curriculum, and supervision are downplayed in most schools – whether doing DI or not. (Carol Tomlinson addresses them succinctly here.)
DeLisle sees only one solution, however – homogeneous grouping:
Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers, and yet one more panacea that did not pan out.
But that response is knee-jerk. A far more complex inquiry and discussion is called for, without jumping to “the” solution. A full diagnosis of the root causes is surely needed first before we jump to a simplistic prescription.
Let’s start with some essential questions, to help us dig deeper and without prejudice into the key issues:
• Does it still make sense to make the default option of classes the grouping of students by their birth year?
• How mixed does a class need to become before it is impossible to teach it effectively?
• Is homogeneous grouping perhaps acceptable now in a post-tracking world where all students must meet the same standards and where educators are accountable for the performance of all?
• What are the benefits and harms of homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping, and are there other solutions to the challenge of student diversity?
• Are any sub-groups of student more helped or more harmed than others when classrooms are highly heterogeneous or highly homogeneous?
• What is the optimal staffing of individual classrooms? Should co-teaching be more of the norm, for example?
• What aspects of differentiation are the teachers’ problem? What aspects are structural and leadership-related?
I will pursue some of these questions in my follow-up post; I encourage readers to provide their answers (and any other questions that you think should be here).

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