Differentiated instruction: solution or fad?

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and Education Report blogger, questions the effectiveness of a popular approach to teaching.

Steven WeinbergLast month Mike Schmoker, a prominent writer and speaker on educational improvement, wrote an article for Education Week (September 29, 2010, p. 22) denouncing differentiated instruction as a “pedagogic fad” supported by “no solid research or school evidence.” The article is available here.

This caught my eye because differentiated instruction is frequently suggested to Oakland teachers as the way to cope with the increasingly wide spread of student abilities within a single classroom, which has developed as ability-grouped classes have been discontinued and more special education students have been integrated into regular classes.

My experience in the Oakland school district seems to confirm Schmoker’s statement that it has quickly become “one of the most widely adopted instructional orthodoxies of our time.”

The basic idea of differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, who is its foremost proponent, is that “a teacher proactively plans varied approaches to what students need to learn, how they will learn it, and/or how they can express what they have learned in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible.”

Schmoker says, “I had seen this innovation in action. In every case, it seemed to complicate teachers’ work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials. I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious ‘kinesthetic’ activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, ‘creative’ students made things or drew pictures; ‘analytical’ students got to read and write.”

I have shared Schmoker’s article with several teachers, and in every case they said that it confirmed their own feelings about differentiated instruction. One said that she thought it was a convenient answer for district policy-makers when asked how teachers were to deal with the wide-range of student abilities they faced in the classroom, but it was impossible for teachers to carry out successfully.

In my own teaching I sometimes created lesson that would meet Tomlinson’s definition of differentiation, but I did not organize my entire course around it. I usually tried to meet the different needs of my students by having a variety of whole class activities for each unit, aimed at different learning styles and strengths. I found this much easier in History classes where most of the information I was presenting was new to all students, than it was in English where some lessons might be a total waste of time for some students, who already thoroughly knew the skill being discussed, and still too difficult for some others, who did not have the prerequisite skills to do the work.

What do other teachers and parents think about differentiated instruction? Have you used it successfully or seen it work well, or do you agree with Schmoker that it has “corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction?”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: I just read your last post. Words Fail me.

  • Turanga_teach

    Ex-Oakland Staff (46) raises a good point about what happens when “differentiation” becomes the magic word in telling teachers that an unworkable situation can be worked out with, well, more work.

    To me (public school product and tenth year PS teacher), differentiated instruction, like Si Swun math and a number of other Teaching Boogeymen these days, is at its core a valid tool that gets warped beyond recognition when adopted by non-classroom staff as the be-all Policy Solution without adequate support.

    I remember differentiated instruction from my own elementary school–the classic example of a 15 word spelling list with 5 challenge words thrown in and the most remedial students only responsible for 1, 5, and 15. I remember different reading groups, and a classroom reading block structure that allowed everyone else to work productively at their levels while the teacher met with 6 kids at a time. I remember coming to school in a full leg cast, and my teacher giving me something else to do when everyone else ran laps in PE.

    As Ex-Oakland staff says, no two students are alike, and some differentiation is just good teaching practice. In the absence, though, of strong and sufficient resource specialist programs (with do-able caseloads allowing for push-in support) and good Response to Intervention frameworks with support from non-classroom teaching staff to run and monitor the programs, “differentiation” becomes the buzzword when you ask one teacher to do seven jobs for six populations within one ever-growing group of young people.

    I can truly see the allure of sending oneself or one’s kid to a school where lack of the more “remedial” population makes the spread of differentiation narrower. But on a policy level, I think that’s a dangerously small band-aid on a much larger wound.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Ramona, posting 45 asks: “why are charters hated so much? Do parents with little or no resources, or kids with nothing at all not deserving of an option?”

    I oppose charters because they privatize public education. If charters could be prevented from organizing as corporations, I would have less of a problem with charters.

    But, even if the protection of being a corporation and hiding how the public’s money was spent where removed, there would be a need to change charter laws to make testing have to be conducted by a independent third party to reduce the amount of cheating associated with high stakes testing.

    There would be a need to limit charters to enrolling students within the boundaries of the local school district. For example, if Measure L passes parcel tax money for Oakland charter schools from Oakland property taxes will pay for the education of students enrolled in charter schools from Richmond. There are students from Richmond enrolled in the charter school on the former Golden Gate public school campus. Richmond students are legally enrolled because a charter school under current law can enroll students from any city in the state as charter schools are freed from recognizing city or district boundaries. Perhaps the next election will have on the ballot a measure preventing local parcel tax paying for students living out of Oakland.

    And, there would be a website whereby any taxpaying citizen could access on line the record of how each charter school is spending the taxpayers’ money. Oakland School District website shows minutes of its meetings showing each dollar that is spent but citizens have no internet access to how the over 30 charter schools of Oakland spend their money.

    I agree that the poor should have options and opportunity. But, destroying public education for a market driven system that weakens public oversight of how the public’s money is spent will, I believe, provide fewer opportunities not more opportunities for the poor.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Ramona

    I see your point Mr. Mordecai, however charter schools are a public system, first of all, and what about those Oakland taxpayers whose kids go to charters, yet would not recieve a dime of their tax dollars to go to their kids school. Its robbery? And then there is the matter of the nearly 100 million dollars that OUSD owes the state, should oakland residents whose kids go to charters be exempt?

    Are you insinuating that taxpayers should have a say where their tax dollars go? Your union will be destroyed and you know that!

    You mean to tell me, since OUSD is so transparent,that you know where every dollar from the distirct goes or has gone? This is what you are claiming right? So why do former employees still get paid?

    Your argument is union driven, I get that, but you have no idea what it is to be broke and desperate-thats obvious!

    In the meantime I read the Strategic Plan and attended a GO school forum and listend to Mr. Smith give his plan- though its muddled in usual save the community rhetoric from all other public leaders, if you read close enough Mr. Mordecai, I believe it is poised to fight with your group? It will be interesting to see the evolvement.

    Charter schools will face tons of regulations and scrutiny- but parents will still vote with their feet.

  • Ramona

    Ms. J

    If you cant stand the heat , stay out the kitchen right? This is a blog for gods sake!

    YOu choose to go to Private schools- good for you. Poor people should have the right to walk to a local charter school and sign them up as well right?

    If you want to make the schools better, send your kids there and feel the heat and change it. What is right for you is not good for others- this is elitism!

    By the way, charter schools are public schools.

    Was that soft enough for you?

  • Nextset

    Jim Mordecai: I support CA Charters even though I cling to the idea of the 1960 California Public School system and the 1930-1940 Public Schools of the Eastern US States – all of which took immigrants with nothing (of all races) to high office.

    This state is a decadent civilization in collapse. It’s clear that the electorate in CA are not going to chang anything in time to avert catastrophic collapse of the municipalities and law and order. That being said, the families especially the poorer families in CA have the Charters and the church and private schools as their only chance to get their children safely to a middle class life. The urban public schools are no longer here to fill that function. They exist only to provide well paying jobs to union members and to pacify the proletariat & lower middle class so they don’t understand what is being done to them. I specifically address Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified and other bad districts of the same type.

    Those who can’t afford church and private schools only have the Charters to turn to. The Urban School Districts no longer run “schools” they run failure factories, especially for black and Hispanic students and whites acting like them.

    So it doesn’t matter what you think of Charters, they are all the proletariat has left to get their kids out. AIM Charter for example.

    It doesn’t matter why the public schools degenerated, Brown vs Board of Ed, Socialist teachers, bad school boards, state policy – it just doesn’t matter. If I send the typical black child to OUSD he has a poor chance in life. If I send that child to AIM he does better. Simple. I like to play the winning odds.

    All Charters may not be the right fit for every child. There are issues of suitability. But it’s better than OUSD for black kids. And better than LA Unified for Mexican kids (maybe they can find one the gangs don’t use).

    Brave New World!

  • Ms. J.

    I don’t think you actually read my post. I will not send my children to private schools, as you seem to believe. They will go to the local public school as soon as they start kindergarten. I feel very committed to this path and I am fortunate that there are many other families in the school which my kids will attend who feel the same way.

    I have written here many times that I believe the way to make the public schools better is for the families who have resources to be involved in them, and I still believe that. If those families send their kids to charter schools they will be undermining the other public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but the ones which are selective, by lottery or in another way, are not public the way that the school where I teach (or the one where my kids will go) is. These schools must accept and teach any and all kids who enroll. Charter schools do not have that restriction.

    And again I have to say that I don’t think you make your meaning clear. “This is a blog for god’s sake!” Is it the definition of a blog that the posts have to be judgmental and irate? Is it the definition of a blog that posters must make personal comments and condemnations of the other posters? Is it the definition of a blog that posters should write replies to other posts without actually having read (or understood) them?

    It seems to me as if teachers are being held to a different standard than others, and that was what I sought to point out. I will send my children to public school, and I will continue to teach in public schools, but if colleagues of mine make different decisions I don’t think that is my business, and I am still grateful that they are giving of themselves to teach in the public schools.

  • Jim Mordecai


    Vietnam War ended when taxpayers put pressure on Congress to stop funding that war and finally taxpayers did have a say on how their tax money was spent. Perhaps in a future time taxpayers of Oakland will have a say regarding having their property tax pay for charter school students from Richmond. And, yes I am saying that taxpayers should let the governing know how they want their tax dollars spent. I have often spoken out at School Board meetings because not all of the Measure E parcel tax money was spent for the purposes stated in the ballot measure Oakland voters passed.

    You are correct that charter schools are by law a part of the public education system in California. While public schools do not have the advantage of being a corporation–corporations have personhood and 14th amendment protections but public schools, including Oakland Unified have neither personhood nor 14th amendment civil rights.

    Although not likely to happen in the immediate future, charter school law can be amended to increase public transparency.

    The issue of local parcel tax money for charter schools is an issue that the School Board did not want to address. Charter school parents would be able to vote for Measure L and that parcel tax money would go to both public schools and corporate charter schools. Meanwhile, previous parcel tax Measure G is a tax that is collected and only funds Oakland public schools and not Oakland charter schools. Remember Jack O’Connell one year took funding from Oakland Public School Students to send to Oakland charter schools. The School Board could have given Oakland voters the opportunity to vote to send parcel tax money to both school systems but did not. I advocated in giving voters the choice on how their taxes would be used.

    My argument is property owner driven but I believe in and support democratic unions as well as democratic public education system.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Cranky Teacher

    Oakie, thanks for responding to my questions.


    — This is a chicken and egg thing. A principal can have power over their staff, over time, if they have evaluations and enforce the consequences for poor evaluations and then follow-up with another evaluation. This is what happens in all the private corporations I’ve worked at (4 over a period of 15 years before teaching); some were union, most were not — the employers had a deliberate process because they understood they had a sunk investment in the employee and didn’t want them driven out based on personality conflicts, etc.

    Here is why this never happens at bad schools but almost always happens at schools with far fewer daily crises (I have worked at both):

    — in troubled schools and districts, evals rarely happen. Many vets in Oakland have not had even the minimal eval required on a biannual basis in 5, 10 or 15 years!

    — Principals turnover so fast (20% a year nationwide), that they are always just getting to know their staff and trying to meet all the campus stakeholders, kids, etc.

    As to being “owed” anything, that is just a red herring. Of course you don’t owe teachers anything — except their constitutional rights! You want workers who have organized and fought for a 100 years to get the modest recompense they have received to give it up “for the children” based on the flimsy idea that the principal who has been on the job for 6 months knows all. People have the right in this country to associate and organize based on their self-interests. This extends to cops, firemen and, yes, teachers.

    My position:

    1. I think public school teachers are underpaid and undersupported.
    2. I think public school teachers do have too much job security.
    3. As a person who believes that corporations and bureaucracies are not built to give anything up without the organization of the masses or the threat of such, I would like unions to trade (2) to fix (1).
    4. Anybody who suggests unions are the root of all evil in education or anywhere else is naive, ahistorical and/or grinding a libertarian or objectivist axe.
    5. Anybody who suggests unions, which like corporations are a engine to defend a certain group’s interests, should give up privileges for the greater good is then obligated to demand corporations do the same.

  • JR

    You cannot equate the free market driven entities(businesses,corporations)with taxpayers funded institutions(education,civil service etc).

    Businesses are market based “self supporting” profit driven(success = profits & failure = bankruptcy)although common sense was subverted in this economic debacle. Taxpayer funded institutions(Education,prisons,fire,police)try to apply artificial market forces when bargaining for compensation(no real verifiable marketable products here)Prison guards are probably the biggest waste dollar for dollar that there is(just leave the convicts in their cells and forget about paying these morons six figures to babysit. The compensation(esp.retirement benefits are going to destroy this state eventually, because we are spending more than we have year after year, and there is no more money to take from taxpayers

    “Anybody who suggests unions, which like corporations are a engine to defend a certain group’s interests, should give up privileges for the greater good is then obligated to demand corporations do the same”.

    I am suggesting that the (education,prison,police and fire i.e. unions) do it because “the money” belongs to the taxpayers, and what corporations do with their money is their own business because they made the money to begin with(big difference). We need fire and police, and teachers too but we can’t give what we don’t have. If some people weren’t like hogs at a trough, then maybe there would be enough money to pay everyone decent wages.

  • Public School Teacher

    Honestly, the ones to blame for the problems in public school education are lawmakers and school district officials. Loading a class of students with differing abilities, in the mid to high 30s is a recipe for disaster. Teachers have to be Jesus to reach all learning styles when the numbers are that high and the range of learning differences are so vast.

    Teachers send their kids to private and charter schools because they are against NCLB, forced standardized testing, pacing guides and class sizes of 30+. That is what you get in today’s urban classroom.

    We try to make it work within the existing system, but our hands are tied. Put the pressure on lawmakers and school district administrators to limit class sizes and provide remediation to students in the elementary schools who fail to master grade level reading and math skills.

  • Turanga_teach

    For what it’s worth, I teach at a non-hills public school in Oakland and two of my colleagues have happily enrolled and kept their children at my school. This may be an exception to the norm, but it’s not the absolute case that no OUSD teacher trusts their district with their kid.

  • http://www.youtube.com/candytoenails57 Clotee Allochuku

    Differentiated Instruction is the district’s way of coping with “No Child Left Behind”. Teaching the wide range of abilities and dealing with behavior problems in the classroom are 2 reasons why teachers “burn out” quickly. In addition, teachers are blamed for low test scores when there is never enough funds to adequately educate in public schools.

  • Jim Mordecai


    I agree with your goal of providing opportunity for all students. But your reading of history is perhaps based on personal experience as I don’t know what your source is for your thesis that 1930-1940 American education system provided immigrant students with greater opportunity than today. If you look at “high office” 1930-1940 the American education system of that day would not have provided opportunity for son of Nigerian to be President of U.S. nor a woman to be Secretary of State. If you were serious about comparing immigrants in high office of today with yesterday, I would like to read your study as my guess is that there are more immigrants in high office today than in either 30s-40s East Coast or when I graduated from high school in the year 1960.

    I don’t think you meant to use the term high office but you meant that previously the education system provided a greater opportunity for immigrant students to learn because disruptive students were disciplined and dropped out in greater numbers. But, for drop outs there were more and better paying job opportunities for the less educated with WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps. But, it is difficult to compare one generation with another.

    The Catholic schools provided urban education choice. The choice system of charter schools has been destroying Catholic schools that can not compete with the public financing of charter schools. Catholic schools becoming wink, wink, charter schools violates American concept of separation of church and state.

    A difficult thing to do is to predict the future. From your perspective the future is bleak and you call it a “Brave New World” as a cautionary statement of what you experience as miseducated students reflective of modern urban public education changed for the worse and a sense that the modern American economic structure is falling apart.

    I share with you your sense that the economic system is breaking down. And, the future will be a New World but I don’t want to predict whether it will be better than in the past. How do you measure the education system of the Great Depression with the Second worse Depression?

    However, I believe that replacing public schools with charter schools is something that should be evaluated detached from the issue of the American economy in the past, now, and the future. And, my argument is that charter schools are an inferior system for funding public education because they are corporations that inhibit public oversight. That a public school performs better than a charter is not the question when looking at which system to fund. The issue should be which system provides the best use of taxpayers’ dollar. The charter school experiment has failed to show as a system that it performs better than the public schools. Time to stop wasting money on deregulated system that doesn’t peform as promised.

    Jim Mordecai

  • cranky researcher

    The problem identified by Schmokler is not differentiating instruction, which is a basic principle of good teaching – teach material in a variety of ways so that students at different ability levels can access it, and get help for students with basic needs – but the fad of ‘learning styles,’ ‘learning modalities,’ etc. These are utterly unfounded by research, and they do dumb down content. Differentiating is for levels, not for styles. Everyone can get to the same level, more or less, there are no ‘creative learners,’ ‘visual learners,’ etc. that’s all made up junk pedagogy.

  • K.J.

    Thanks, Katy and Steven, for raising questions about differentiated instruction (which I’ll abbreviate as D.I. from here forward). As a longtime OUSD parent (one kid at Bret Harte Middle School, plus one at Oakland Tech), I have been trying to understand D.I. ever since my first kid reached middle school and I realized how wide the range of skill levels could be in a single classroom. I saw accelerated classes disappear under district pressure as administrators told me that teachers would use D.I. to meet the needs of kids at all levels. So I set out to learn more about D.I.

    After attending seminars on D.I., researching it in books and online, and talking about it with various “experts” in the topic, I’ve come to the following three conclusions:

    1) There is no widely-agreed-upon method that constitutes D.I.; it’s more of an umbrella term that covers a grab bag of strategies that various people have come up with to try and meet the goal of effectively teaching students at many different levels in the same class. Some are strategies for providing alternative activities at different levels (or for different types of learners) in the same classroom, while others are strategies for increasing the depth and complexity of what the whole class is doing while keeping the lesson accessible to all learners. Different experts favor different strategies, so one’s description of D.I. may sound nothing like another’s.

    2) Because there is no firm definition of what D.I. looks like, it’s very difficult to make a general statement as to whether it works or not (or whether it’s a “solution,” to get back to the question titling this blog post). In fact, it’s even difficult to say whether particular teachers or schools are implementing D.I. – a confusion that works to the advantage of administrators who want parents to believe that D.I. is happening in their schools or districts. For example, I had both a nexo and a school board member try to convince me that OUSD was providing D.I. through Kagan Cooperative Learning. However, when I read up on Kagan, I discovered that it is generally not considered a form of D.I. In fact, it doesn’t seem to provide much academic benefit to more-advanced learners (who are used to teach less-advanced learners) but its founders claim that giving these students better social skills is more important than academics anyway, because “gifted students will do well academically no matter which approach to instruction we take” (from page 1.12 of Kagan Cooperative Learning, by Spencer and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009).

    3) While many strategies that are considered to fall within the realm of D.I. sound alluring to me as a parent, most also sound like they would be extremely complex and challenging to implement in a middle-school setting where teachers may see 150 or more students in a day with a wide range of skills within each class of students. So, I’m not surprised that I don’t see them actually being implemented widely. When I described 13 D.I. techniques to my kids (the strategies discussed in the teacher training that OUSD’s GATE department provided to 26 middle-school teachers in a pilot program last year, which I’ll list at the end of this post*), my kids recognized only two of the 13 (lit circles and open-ended questions) as being techniques they had actually encountered in their classes.

    The biggest problem with D.I., in my opinion, is not that it’s a vague umbrella term covering a wide variety of strategies with varying degrees of practicality and effectiveness; the biggest problem is the way the existence of this vague and unproven method has been used to justify removing options like more-challenging classes in OUSD and other school districts. To administrators, I think what D.I. means is: “We’re going to expect teachers to meet the needs of advanced learners and below-proficient learners in the same classroom, because we don’t want to be accused of ‘tracking’ – we’ll just tell the teachers to use D.I.!”

    D.I. is a fad because it solves a major political problem for school administrators: how to get two sets of parents off their backs. By shutting down accelerated classes (except at the high-school level, where A.P. is a must for college-entry competitiveness), administrators reassure parents who are worried that their kids will be tracked out of these classes. And by claiming to have implemented D.I., they can tell parents who want accelerated classes that their kids will have their academic needs met without such classes. Never mind that this approach places a huge burden on the backs of the teachers who are now expected to implement this vague and unproven approach with little or no training or support.

    While there’s no question that accelerated classes have led to inequities, shutting them down without having a viable alternative way to meet the needs of students needing higher-level challenges (something specific and proven, unlike D.I. in its current state) is doing these students a great disservice. I’m not just talking about GATE students (though I should point out that the mostly powerless and underfunded OUSD GATE department has expended a lot of effort in recent years to identify a very diverse group of GATE students representing all of the elementary schools in Oakland); I’m talking about all students who are motivated to seek higher-level challenges.

    I would like to see OUSD middle schools offer something they might call “challenge classes”: classes with high academic expectations (and behavioral expectations as well) that are clearly spelled out, open to all students motivated to attempt the challenge. The expectations of these classes would be aligned with those of high-school honors and A.P. courses, to prepare students to succeed in such courses, and tutoring support could be offered to help the less-well-prepared students. No one would be “tracked” into or out of these courses; any student willing to sign a contract agreeing to the expectations would be admitted, and no one doing the work and meeting the behavioral expectations would be asked to leave.

    Right now, the leap between OUSD 8th-grade expectations and the expectations of rigorous high-school classes like those offered at Oakland Tech is a formidable one. My 10th-grader is doing well there with the support of two highly educated, highly involved parents (and a background of being in some accelerated classes at Bret Harte before they were cut), but students with fewer advantages could easily stumble. More-challenging middle school classes could make a real difference for such students.

    That’s my two cents. I’d like to respond at length to the other topics that have dominated the comments in this thread (particularly the need to flee to private and charter schools), because I think the comments paint a distorted and overly scary picture of OUSD schools, but this post is long enough already. Suffice to say that my kids are doing very well (thanks in part to some phenomenal teachers they’ve had), they have a great and diverse group of friends (none of whom are foul-mouthed, indecently dressed gang members), and despite my quarrels with some OUSD policies and decisions, I don’t regret keeping my kids in public schools.

    * D.I. strategies taught in OUSD pilot program: “Five hardest first,” tiered instruction, essential learnings, Taba concept formation, curriculum compacting, independent contracts/study guide extensions, spotlighting D.I. activities from textbook, icons of depth and complexity, open-ended questions, Bloom’s questioning techniques, small group instruction, literature study circles, and I-Search papers.

  • Steven Weinberg

    KJ, thank you for your comments and I think your suggestion of “challenge classes” is something the district should consider. I also appreciate your comment that many posters were presenting “a distorted and overly scary picture of OUSD schools.” That is certainly true based on my observations.

  • Catherine

    I was one of the teachers who attended some of the DI training listed above. I was ill for some of the training. I was given paid time to develop lesson plans. I did so. I built in contingencies. I tried literature circles. I tried having students write a paragraph about each chapter so they could actually participate in literature circles. I have asked students to think deeply, across the disciplines. I have attended USC training on Sandra Kaplan’s icons in the classroom. I have front loaded vocabulary, background knowledge and writing / thinking maps. All of this is to help the top five to six students in each class who are learning next to nothing in my classes because the other 25 students do not do their homework completely, do not take notes, come to school on Mondays sleeping and ready to leave school on Friday so that they cannot stay seated.

    The vast majority of students in my Oakland flatlands middle school are not able to stay on task for 30 minutes. An average of 15% can write an example of one simple sentence, one compound sentence and one complex sentence. The 15% + another 5% of students actually have parents, grandparents, or other adult actually show up for parent conferences. The vast majority say demeaning things or hit students in front of me.

    We need to start in middle school with a basic class on how to read for information, how to capture the main point and how to discuss them in a way that is productive. The ratio for this group needs to be 1 adult to 10 students. Volunteers would be helpful.

    In all of my DI effort (about 3 – 5 hours of planning a week). I am giving something to about 12 students in the entire school. It is not my time, my expertise, additional education, but a place where they can move away from the students who are working several grade levels below them. During this time the top group has an opportunity to write and discuss, have peer editing and think globally. We say we don’t want tracking because it is a one-way track in the opposite direction of college, but we are not putting these students on that track, they are putting themselves on the track. What we are doing is taking away the college track from the students in the flatlands who could have a way out and up if only they were in classes with other students who were willing to work hard.

  • Catherine

    @ Steven Weinberg: I used to also think that my type of thinking was alarmist. Please talk to freshman and sophomores at Cal in the engineering department. Many of our Oakland Tech kids got into Cal. However, every single student that I talked to that came from OUSD said that they have to fill in large gaps of knowledge in architecture, philosophy, critical thinking, writing, history, world religion (mathematical concepts of religious texts such as 19 in the Koran) and many other subjects (to be fair, most say it is not in math that they are needing remediation).

    So, while students from Oakland get into Cal, it would be very, very interesting to see the students who graduate in 5 years with a four year degree and what ethnicities those students are. I would bet that it would not come close to matching – even remotely – the makeup of OUSD students.

  • K.J.

    Catherine, I appreciate that you are incorporating some D.I. training in your teaching and reaching those 12 students who need an opportunity to progress at their own pace. Since they don’t have the opportunity to be in a class with others working at the same level, they are lucky to have a teacher who can offer them some help through D.I. Thanks for describing which strategies work for you and how much planning time these strategies require.

    The situation with your students sounds very discouraging. I have to say that the behavioral situation you describe with your students — with the vast majority speaking demeaningly and hitting each other — does not reflect what my kids have experienced in their OUSD schools, or what I have experienced spending time in these schools as a volunteer every week.

    I’m also surprised by your comments about Oakland Tech kids being unprepared for college. My 10th-grader’s classes, particularly those in the Engineering Academy and the Paideia Program, are extremely rigorous. The amount and quality of the work expected from these kids is definitely higher than what what I had to do in high school — and I emerged as a National Merit scholar who went on to graduate with honors from a highly-ranked college.

    I encourage parents reading these posts to talk to other parents and teachers at the OUSD schools near them before making any assumptions about their quality or lack thereof. Another good resource is the discussions on the Berkeley Parents Network web site — particularly the reviews of Oakland schools and the Public vs. Private discussions. There are posts from parents raving about their kids’ private schools, of course, but also a fair number of posts from parents who switched from private to public and were happier with their situations. A post from a private math tutor says, “it is very clear to me in my 27 years of tutoring that private school students get generally inferior math instruction.” Here’s a link to the BPN schools page: http://parents.berkeley.edu/recommend/schools/

  • Catherine

    I am not suggesting that there will be no prepared students from Tech for Cal. My students have a poverty rate that goes up and down from 78% -92% qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. The vast majority of my students do not have a quiet place to study unless I leave my classroom open, do not have a dictionary in their homes, often do no eat three meals a day on school breaks, have one or fewer parents in their homes regularly and lead lives that many readers on this blog have probably had to lead when working on a project temporarily, but the kind that does not lend itself to building of knowledge.

    My guess is that your child went to a hills school and then Brewer, Montera or Bret Harte. Why? because the students from those schools have active parents who support learning. At parent-teacher conference time, 75% – 90% of parents show up. They may love what they hear from the school, or they may not but they show up. I am very, very lucky to get 50% of the parents and that is if I try to make contact by phone or stand out in front of the school at drop off to try to make contact.

    I am frustrated with Tony Smith. I believe in his vision of equity. However, his vision also includes holding slots for students who have not met the requirements to be at the academies based on the ethnic and socio-economics of the students in middle school WHETHER OR NOT THEY ARE CAPABLE OF DOING THE WORK, but to remediate them.

    Our schools do not teach the breadth of courses offered in other districts. And I am not suggesting that the academies do not have rigorous courses. These courses are quite rigorous; there is not the breadth of coursework offered in other districts and that coursework must be made up at the university. I will not enter the arena of public vs private vs charter because I know many of the well-respected boys schools, girls schools, high-priced schools do not teach nearly all of what is required in math, science, and ELA.

    My fear in Tony Smith is that rather than bringing students up to the academic, study skills and self-discipline the students need in middle school to make them ready for the academies, he will allow students who are not ready for the rigor of the academies in and slow down the progress for all students in the process.

    Very few of my colleagues in this school and other middle schools in Oakland require the kind of writing that is given in the state standards. For example, the vast majority of my students, even at the top end, could take the Iliad, read it, make sense of the broader implications and write a five paragraph essay with correct grammar, punctuation, topic paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph of 500 -700 words. This is a California 6th grade standard. By eighth grade our students in Oakland, California are supposed to be able to write essays comparing the religious texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I do not know a single middle school in OUSD which has students studying, writing and comparing. However, the architecture, numerical sequencing and mathematics in all three religious texts are referred to in Cal’s engineering program. Many, many school districts in California hold their middle school teachers and students to these state standards. In Oakland, we do not. Many of our students are just as capable and for many of our students, perhaps this deeper level of thinking may be what pulls them back in to rigorous academic work – I simply do not know.

    I have given a lot of thought about whether I want to continue to teach in Oakland. I have long thought that I want to be in a school where students are given an opportunity to learn what the state of California, has said they have a right to learn.

    In one of his recent dog and pony shows, Mr. Smith asked Mr. Yee to cover his ears as he told those of us watching and listening that perhaps the parents needed to sue the district to get what they needed. Perhaps that is so, and perhaps not. What I believe is that every student in this district, has the right to be taught at the highest levels of the state standards that they are capable of learning. I do not see that happening at my school. Perhaps your child did learn in middle school the subjects listed above. And if so, I would love to pay a sub and come to observe the classes. My guess is that so few students and parents in our district even know what the state standards are that should be taught, they do not have the knowledge to even request the courses.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Catherine, it does not strengthen you arguments to consistently exaggerate what is called for in the California State Standards (Post 71). You refer to sixth grade students reading the Iliad. That is not called for in the standards. In fact, the California Reading List, does not include the Iliad for any middle school list, although it includes an adaptation for the strongest 6th to 8th grade readers (13+). The Iliad itself is on the high school list. The sixth grade history standard 6.4.4 does suggest “drawing from Greek mythology and epics, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and from Aesop’s Fables.” That standard is a far cry from “take the Iliad, read it, make sense of the broader implications and write a five paragraph essay with correct grammar, punctuation, topic paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph of 500 -700 words.”

    Your description of the writing standards is also exaggerated. They do not say that sixth graders will “write a five paragraph essay with correct grammar [and] punctuation.” The standards say “Students write and speak with a command of standard English conventions appropriate to this grade level” and then give some fairly limited specifics, such as “spell frequently misspelled words correctly (e.g., their, they’re, there).” The standards do call for multi-paragraph essays of 500-700 words, and they do call for an effective organizational pattern, but they do not specify the traditional five paragraph essay that you put forth (although that format would be one of the acceptable patterns).

    The California Standards are quite demanding enough without your adding to them, especially assigning high school level work to sixth graders.

    In your post you say “I have given a lot of thought about whether I want to continue to teach in Oakland. I have long thought that I want to be in a school where students are given an opportunity to learn what the state of California, has said they have a right to learn.” Based on your various postings it is clear that you have very negative feelings about the behavior of students at your school, the attitude of many of the parents, the level of instruction in your school and the district, and district policies, and that these are sapping your enthusiasm for your work.
    In my forty year of working in Oakland middle schools I have met a good number of teachers who felt the same way you did. Many of those people were caring individuals, excellent teachers, and good friends. Some left and went to other districts, and some stayed in Oakland. Most of those who went to teach in other places felt revitalized and believed they were contributing much more to society working in their new locations. Those who stayed in Oakland never seem to feel any better about their work, even when other teachers at their sites saw improvements on a school-wide basis. Everyone needs to find a place where they can contribute most effectively, and everyone deserves the satisfaction that comes when they are doing so. Good luck.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Sorry for the mistyping in my first sentence. It should say “your arguments.” Why is always easier to proof-read after the comment is sent?

  • On The Fence

    I have appreciated the recent comments (on this thread and others) that have offered a slightly more optimistic, or at least variable, view of the state of public education in our city. K.J. and others have countered some of the posts that seem to paint the experience of all OUSD children/families with the same brush. While it is clear that there are groups of children who are doing very poorly, there are other children who emerge from OUSD able to compete with children of privates, charters, and other districts. Bloggers sometimes seem to overstate and overgeneralize their points to suit their own world views, or their own individual experiences and choices. I realize that this is somewhat natural, but I agree with Steven Weinberg that gross exaggeration weakens the poster’s arguments.

  • Catherine

    Steven Weinberg:

    Thank you for pointing out the weaknesses in my argument. I really do appreciate the positive attitude toward students and learning in Oakland. I have had three principals in the last few years and with each principal the focus changes.

    There is a 90-90-90 study that I have read – schools that employ strong writing components in the education with 90% poverty and 90% minority can and do have a 90% proficiency/advanced study body when they spend the majority of time on writing.

    Stephen, in your experience do the high school students you have taught come into high school able to write a solid 500 – 700 word essay (narrative or expository) proficiently?

    This is something my students really, really struggle with.

  • Steven Weinberg


    I first came across the claim that there were 90-90-90 schools about eight years ago when we were still using the SAT9 tests for measuring California schools. I pulled up the list of 90-90-90 middle schools and found that there was only one in the entire state, and it only qualified in Math. The school was so small that there was only one math teacher for the entire school, and there was a huge difference on the scores of the students on the SAT9 (very high) and the CST tests that were being piloted that year (much lower). There were not enough differences between the two tests to allow for the extreme differences in the scores. The SAT9 was used for several years in a row, and unlike the CST, it contained exactly the same questions each year. So the only school that qualified as a 90-90-90 school did so based on very suspicious scores. Most of the states that have 90-90-90 schools have much lower standards than California. Nonetheless, I am convinced by the research that shows that more writing in all subjects increases student understanding.

    I taught primarily eighth graders, and I would say perhaps 25% were writing solid 300 to 500 word essays at the end of eighth grade. (Most of my career, 500 words was considered the maximum for middle school. It wasn’t until the standards were published about 10 years ago that the 500-700 word length was suggested.) Another 25 to 50% were writing at a basic level and the rest below that. This was at Claremont, where there was a significant middle income community. At Frick, which is a more flat-land school, the percentage of students writing well fell to 10 to 15%.

    But not writing proficiently in eighth grade is not the end of the world. I remember my own school life. I recall quite clearly crying in frustration in seventh grade because I could not hold my pen long enough to write an entire page of long-hand (maybe 150 words). I recently found a letter I wrote in the eighth grade that would certainly not qualify as basic by today’s standards.

    Use the state standards and the results of research like the 90-90-90 study to inspire yourself to do your best to help your students, but don’t let the gap between where they are and where you would like them to be eat away at you. If your students leave the eighth grade able to state a clear main idea and put forth reasons to support it, even in a short essay of 300 words, I think most high school teachers would be happy to take it from there.

  • Catherine


    Thank you. As a fairly new teacher (5 years, entering as an intern, just recently fully credentialed) we must pass CBEST, CSET, and RICA. We are constantly being compared against the state standards and so are our students. While I agree with the testing of teachers, particularly the RICA, I find myself expecting that students not only meet the state standards but exceed them. My white, middleclassness shines as bright as the sun.

    Although my own children have attended OUSD schools, I have friends with children in schools outside of Oakland – some on this side of the tunnel, some on the other side of the tunnel. The writing process, projects and sentence analysis is far beyond the level of my students and my own children’s experience at the same grade levels. And while I understand child development and pedagogy, many of my students would be able to complete similar work, but it would require direct instruction.

    I am not far enough along in my teaching to teach to the group is is at basic and have them work for 25 minutes while I teach a small group with direct instruction and our school will not track or ability group an entire class. While I intellectually and emotionally understand the dangers of categorical tracking of students for all subjects because we have historically underserved students of color and lower socio-economic status, I know that many of my top students are both and would benefit from being placed in an English class which would challenge their current ability and also extend their independent working time.

    When I talk about parents, what I am comparing is the power of parents to demand from administration this ability grouping. The parents at Brewer, Bret Harte and Montera go to administration en masse to make sure the needs of their children are being met. Their knowledge of the standards (and often middleclassness) allows for them to be heard in a way that simply expressing desire does not.

    I want my students to have the same opportunities as my children. I want my students to have the same opportunities as those students in other districts who are able to diagram sentences in such a way that writing is clear, direct and powerful without using many adjectives but strong verbs. Vocabulary plays a part, however, understanding and using sentence variety is also very powerful.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Catherine, I understand your concerns, and in many ways they are shared my all good teachers. We have all struggled with our inability to do all that we wish for our students.

    Teaching writing is probably the most difficult task teachers face because, by its nature, writing is personal and no two individuals have exactly the same needs. Reading student writing is time consuming, and it is difficult to spend enough time with each student to help him or her understand how to improve their product.

    The issue of ability grouping is a complex one, just as you explained, with good reasons for it and against it. The truth is that it works well for some students and hurts others, that is why it seems to be a never ending debate in educational circles. We ability grouped in English some of the years I was at Frick, and justified it by limiting the class sizes for the lower groups and assigning experienced teachers to those groups, but it never reduced the spread of abilities in the classes as much as teachers expected and it didn’t seem to make an appreciable difference in test scores or other measures of progress.

    I also feel the state standards for writing do a considerable amount of harm: they require that students at each grade level write in too many different genres, making it impossible to spend enough time on any one type of writing to make much progress. The standards focus on unimportant aspects of writing, such as how many words are in an essay, and ignore completely vital aspects such as a student caring about what they write and seeing some value in writing.

    The good news is that writing is so poorly tested on the CSTs that you can safely ignore some of the requirements without hurting your students’ test scores. The multiple choice questions that claim to test writing skills are basically just reading questions, and the seventh grade writing sample counts for so few points that you can pursue the writing program you think best meets the needs of your students without worrying about it.

    In designing a writing program I found two sources of ideas very valuable. For inspiration there was Nancy Atwell’s book “In the Middle.” Nancy uses a “writer’s workshop” approach in her classes that helps her students develop a desire to write, and I found her procedure for keeping track of what each student was able to do and what she asked them to work on (limited to only two things per writing assignment) was very useful. I must warn you, however, that it is frustrating to see the differences between our classroom situations and Nancy’s. She teaches in Maine with all native standard English students, classes of less than 20, and two periods a day of Language Arts for each student (one class for reading and one for writing).

    For practical methods of helping students who are not standard English speakers, Kate Kinsella was a source of ideas that were easy to implement and very effective. Eight to ten years ago most middle school English teachers attended one of more of Kate’s workshops and I bet someone at your school has a binder with her lessons. It is well worth finding.

    You write about comparing the work that you are able to give to your students and the work that is assigned in other, higher-income neighborhood schools. Don’t let that difference demoralize you. All teachers have to begin where their students are, and you might be surprised by the range of student work you would find in the suburbs. I remember several years ago when a team of suburban administrators came to Frick to review our educational program and look at samples of student work. The area they found the most similarities was in student writing. Just as at their home schools they saw a huge range of skill levels, and many of the mistakes our students made were identical to the flaws in their students’ writing. Another piece of evidence for this same phenomenon is the history of the seventh grade writing test. In the first few years the test was given the distribution of scores on the writing sample was too similar in generally low-scoring areas (such as flatland Oakland) and generally high-scoring areas (like the suburbs). To create the same distribution of scores on the writing samples that occured on the multiple choice items, the state had to modify the rubric used by scorers to increase the penalty assigned for mistakes made by non-standard English speakers and reduce the penalty for those mistakes common to those brought up speaking standard English. (They did so by drawing a distinction between errors that interferred with understanding when the paper was read by a standard English speaker with no experience with other dialects, and errors that did not interfer with understanding. The tests, by the way, are shipped to Iowa to be scored.)

    I know that none of this, expect maybe my suggestions to look at Atwell and Kinsella, will make your job any easier, but I hope it will help you keep your spirits up as you undertake what I believe is the hardest job in education, middle school writing instruction.

  • http://www.spotandfreckleslearn.com Jo-Anne Petire

    For all those who have commented that even the weak students are doing good work, I believe you are mis interpreting the essence of DI. Of course we want our children to be strong learners,and produce good work, but if you truly differentiated your curriculum the advanced learners would certainly still be thinking! Peer learning would be prevalent, and all students regardless of ability level would gain new knowledge and skills.