Back in the spring of 2016 when I was an elementary principal, I attended a district professional development session on a new teacher appraisal system. The two-day training session was conducted by district administrative staff. During the second day of the training, a video clip was shown and the attending principals rated various aspects of the teacher’s instruction. With a roomful of veteran administrators, the comments were on-point and constructive. The video debriefing concluded with one of the presenter’s comment that surprised me.
The presenter questioned the principals’ oversight in evaluating the teacher’s instruction. She indicated to the principal attendees, “Not one principal mentioned in their feedback that the teacher made no attempt to incorporate instructional differentiation in the video lesson.”
Again, I was interested and intrigued by her comment. The video footage and accompanying academic data was a snippet of a fourth grade elementary classroom in a high socioeconomic elementary school. The classroom was stocked with children all hailing from affluent homes, and most importantly, the mass of children were academically on-grade level.
In the fall of 2016, I visited an urban school district on a consulting engagement. During a curriculum implementation meeting with senior district officials near Houston, similar confusing comments were uttered with regard to instructional differentiation. I wondered if instructional differentiation was well understood. Simply put, do educators understand from a situational perspective when teachers are obligated to differentiate instruction in their classrooms and when they are not?
Students attending Title 1 elementary schools possess academic skill gaps in comparison to their more affluent peers attending high socioeconomic schools. In fact, it is common knowledge by the mass of Title 1 educators as well as both documented and supported by research, that children of poverty arrive to school in prekindergarten and kindergarten with significant language and word gaps. The academic skill gaps – the basis for infamous achievement gap – frequently widen as students progress from grade level to grade level. The obvious result is a classroom of elementary students that are not at grade level with differing academic skill needs – a combination of limited background knowledge and prerequisite grade level skills.
Eliminating and Reducing Differentiated Instruction for General Education Students
The subheading represents the ultimate goal of a Title 1 educator – eliminate the need for differentiation for general education students! If so, general education students are on grade level – prepared to engage in grade level curricular rigor. There is no need for a classroom teacher to differentiate instruction – except for children receiving special education services and students classified as gifted and talented.
If the mass of students are not on grade level, the teacher must differentiate instruction to engage all children, including general education students. Of course, a classroom teacher is confronted with a difficult pedagogical task. They must be cognizant of the academic levels of every child in the classroom and constantly dissect current grade level skills to their rudiments – attempting to establish a foundation of the grade level skill. While this challenging learning environment is unfolding each school day, the teacher must simultaneously maintain effective classroom student management structures and routines. As expected, it is an equally arduous situation for a principal to hire and retain teachers that possess the skill sets to efficiently and effectively accomplish this level of differentiation on a daily basis.
Is it Possible to Eliminate Differentiated Instruction with General Education Students?
Differentiated Instruction can be greatly reduced and eliminated for many to all students as they are accelerated to grade level academic ability. The key in the process is the use of Stop-Gap Resources for both literacy and numeracy. With concerted and focused effort, math skill gaps can be closed in one school year. However, closing reading skill gaps require more energy and time. The implementation of Literacy Stop-Gap Programs (e.g. fluency and non-negotiable word programs) must be accompanied by a structured phonics/phonemic awareness program and small group balanced literacy work in the primary grades. In the intermediate grades, whole class guided novel studies that stress comprehension and vocabulary development should be implemented. Finally, a highly accountable independent reading program is essential. With concerted and consistent efforts, the stop-gap intervention work pays dividends after one to two years – children of poverty are capable to read on grade level. Thus, public school academic equity can be achieved, but ONLY by educators implementing what works!