Differentiated Instruction

I have had the chance now to attend two Accountability and Accreditation Committee meetings since being elected to the school board.  I have seen firsthand the efforts of teachers and principals to implement differentiated learning strategies.

These efforts begin with tracking data and creating tools to monitor the progress and needs of individual students.  Some of the tools I’ve seen are powerful.  For instance, a reading chart that lists students by name, where they are in relationship to grade level standards and the progress they’ve made the first four months of school.  Quickly, students aren’t data points but people who need to learn and grow.

The efforts I’ve seen being made in our schools are good.  It’s clear that many teachers and principals are busting their butts to better serve our children.  We need to do more.

Here’s the rub.  Most performance incentives – driven by state accountability reports and federal AYP requirements – are to elevate aggregate test scores.  There is a temptation to focus on a handful of children who are the cusp of crossing from partially proficient to proficient (or on the cusp of falling) as a strategy to elevate aggregate scores.  I’ve seen evidence of this happening in our schools, too.

These aggregate scores are statistically bogus numbers.  They compare this year’s third graders to last year’s third graders.  By the fluke of who walks in the classroom door a teacher may appear to have her or his worst year when they’ve actually had their best year as an instructor – and vice versa.

We will not make the progress we need to shift toward emphasizing differentiated instruction unless and until we align data and accountability incentives with individual student growth.

The good news is that efforts are being made at the state level to collect and organize data to track the year to year growth of individual students.  This will help schools that are doing a good job helping students advance – even if there aggregate scores are lower than other schools.  This will push schools dominated by naturally high performing students; they won’t be able to hide behind a High  accountability rating if individual student growth is inadequate.

Individual growth data will be important for parents, too.  If most children in a school are advancing by a year a more, except your child, then you know that you need to focus on your child.  If most children in a school are not advancing by a year or more, including your child, then you know you need to look for a new school.

The efforts beginning at the state level are good ones but we don’t need to wait on the state.  We can make changes in our own district, too.  Each year the board sets goals for the superintendent.   Historically, these goals include elevating the aggregate performance of district students.  I would like to see the superintendent’s goals include more emphasis on individual growth of individual students.  Parents, after all, can’t worry too much about aggregate students – they only exist in data.

I would love to hear from educators about their views on this topic and what types of incentives and support would be helpful to accelerate efforts to emphasize differentiated instruction.

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One Response to “Differentiated Instruction”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    What you say about individual growth here is important. So why does the district not do it? Other than students that transfer in from other districts, we should be able to track growth of nearly every student.
    The district has all of the necessary data; anybody with intermediate knowledge of Microsoft Excel should be able to knock out the analysis in short order.
    For those who do transfer from another district, the data from the previous year might have to be entered manually. That would take what, two minutes per student?

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