Differentiating: The Key to Meeting All Students’ Needs

A new study reveals that higher-achieving students are not demonstrating as many gains as lower-achieving students, since the advent of No Child Left Behind. The New York Times explains in an article that as teachers are driven to devote more and more attention to helping lower-performing students catch up, the higher-performing students tend to be neglected, creating a “Robin Hood effect.”

No surprises here. A quote from the article pretty much sums it up: “’This is like sports,’ said Chester E. Finn Jr., the institute’s president, who served in the Education Department under President Ronald Reagan. ‘If the only goal of a sports program is to get people over a three-foot hurdle, why would anybody be coached to get over a four-foot hurdle? They wouldn’t. So those who can already sail over a three-foot hurdle have no incentive to do anything except to sleep late.’”

It reiterates one of the major problems with the factory-model, one-size-fits-all approach to education: we try to move all students along the assembly line at the same pace.

It reiterates the idea that differentiation is crucial in the classroom. Children need to work within their zone of proximal development, so they are continuously challenged and they continuously progress.

This past year, I taught in a multi-age Montessori classroom (ages 6-9). Teaching three grades in one room made differentiating the curriculum a non-negotiable. I taught most of my lessons in small groups or one-on-one. As a result, I had third graders in predominantly first-grade reading groups (they also attended after-school tutorials to help them progress more quickly). I had first graders learning how to multiply four digits by four digits.

Regardless of whether schools are Montessori or traditional, they have to figure out how to let students progress through the curriculum at their own pace. I’m not advocating that we let lower-achieving students move slowly. If students are below-level, they need additional time and teacher attention. However, we also need to let higher-achieving students move to the next level as soon as they are ready.

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