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.

  • ChocolateSebastian

    I agree with the article. DI will be pushed even harder as the district pushes ALL students to be enrolled in classes that meet A – G Cal entry requirements, regardless of whether they have the pre-requisite skills, and even when test data indicates the student has not mastered elementary standards.

    Differentiated instruction sounds great and that is all this Cabinet needs.

  • Hot r

    There is no choice. The law requires teachers to differentiate instruction for differently abled students. We know this works. Why wouldn’t it work for everyone? The truth is we all have unique learning modalities, but good teachers do what Steven did- offer the lesson in a variety of different ways knowing that students will be hit in one of their learning modalities. Inexperienced or “bad” teachers teach it one way ( or the way they learn, to be more accurate) and then wonder why the kids don’t get it. That is why teaching is an art.

  • Catherine

    Steven: I agree with you. I have designed Tomlinson-like lesson plans. I have an average range of reading levels in my 6th grade classes of six levels of reading and about 9 grade levels of writing in each class.

    I scaffold the snot out of my lessons, so much so that the students at the lower levels produce good work and the students on the upper level no longer have to think. I am not serving any student working at or above grade level in the class at all. Differentiating the homework, and even projects, but almost never in the classwork. This is with two hours of planning for each different course I teach.

    If I had a gifted or highly motivated child in my class, I would be in the principal’s office demanding that he or she be moved to a more advanced class.

  • Rose

    A related fad that the district has been pushing is Kagan Cooperative Learning. The KCL techniques are supposed to be the way teachers can more easily differentiate. Cooperative learning is a large area in education encompassing many approaches, but it could be generally defined small group interactive instruction that offers both academic and social learning experiences. Some of the approaches are more well researched than others. The one promoted by the district as a panacea for all instruction problems, KCL,is a private for-profit company that has few studies behind it other than those done by Kagan himself and others related to the company.

    I am not against cooperative learning. But it shouldn’t be promoted as the answer to all instructional problems, and the district shouldn’t be paying a private company to train teachers to use its copyrighted techniques and materials.

    This issue also touches on the general low quality of research in education. As a medical provider, I have been appalled by the research I have found when I try to get more information about solutions to problems in my child’s school. There are a lot of really poor quality studies out there. I don’t think teachers or administrators receive enough education on how to evaluate studies or use data, so bad research and data often gets cited as evidence for decisions. If medical research was at the same level as education research we’d still believe getting cold gives you the flu. (Not that medical research is perfect, but that’s a different blog…)

  • Public School Teacher


    I agree. It is very difficult to address all levels within one classroom. I usually find that if you have more than 5 students in the class, significantly below grade level, they tend to slow the class down. I’ve been told to give other students “more work” but they tend to resent this after a while. They want to move forward. So, what is the answer? Lesson plan for 2-3 levels of students in each class. Exhausting!

  • Ed U. Kation

    Grouping students by ability is the most efficient and effective manner in which to teach students. The article is right on the button.

    Agreed…differentiated instruction is just 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

  • aly

    thank you for sharing this, steven. it is really interesting because as a relative newcomer (4 years in the classroom), DI has been the expectation and gold standard for me. it never occurred to me to question WHY we were differentiating or what the data on it was, and it is unsettling and thought provoking to see that the data out there questions the efficacy of DI.

    i agree that it often feels like a panacea for classes with a huge range of skill levels and in the math class i am currently teaching, it manifests itself as students choosing leveled worksheets based on self-assessment. each piece of work measures the same SKILL but with more or less complicated numerical calculations. we mix up the activities we do based on the needs of students to manipulate, calculate and think about the work, but we definitely don’t analyze as frequently as i wish we could. there is pressure to push through material for testing purposes and to stay on pace, and in pushing through i feel like we lose the ability to dig deep, analyze and think about WHY the process is the way it is versus just being able to get at the right answer.

    the thought expressed in the edweek article that i most identified with was the calling to return to educational foundations. since i started teaching i’ve been wondering why we are constantly bombarded with new, “better” ways to teach, as if the education our parents (and we) received was somehow incomplete. it seemed to have served generations quite well. this doesn’t mean i’m not interested in pursuing change or improving systems where improvement is necessary, but i do find myself confounded by the whirling changes that seem to be ever-present in our institutions.

  • Gordon Danning

    I’m skeptical of differentiated instruction, because:

    1. It is hard enough to develop one lesson that works reasonably well — and to continually improve it — let alone to develop several.

    2. If we are focusing on teaching skills, rather than content, which we should be doing (especially, but not exclusively, in history and English), then I’m not sure that differentiated instruction even applies; are there different ways to teach inference, for example? Supplying a variety of resources, yes, but a variety of strategies? Perhaps not.

    3. We run the risk of not challenging many of our “lower skilled” students, who in my experience will often rise to challenges, or at least will derive more from such lessons than from lessons that are ostensibly more “appropriate” to their level.

    4. Re: learning styles, we live in a text-based world, and we will live in such a world probably until humans evolve into a different species. Does it really inure the benefit of an “auditory learner” to cater to his particular learning style and give him an auditory assignment on which he earns an A, or is it better for him to get a C- on a text-based assignment. Which will better prepare him for success as an adult? I’m thinking the latter.

    5. Steve’s method of having a variety of whole-class exercises is the only practical avenue for D. I., but is it any more equitable than the traditional approach? If Jane learns best from text, and John from kinesthenics, doesnt teaching 50/50 text and kinesthetics shortchange both of them? Might not 12 years of that land Jane at UC Davis, rather than Harvard? Why is that so equitable? And, doesnt Jane’s failure to reach her potential shortchange society, as well?

  • Ms. McLaughlin

    If we’re going to continue down this path to hell, we must move the whole notion of “preferred learning styles” into the 21st century with maximum authenticity.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that many Oakland students are Levi-textian Learners. Now our only challenge is to find a way of unzipping their little heads and pouring in the education without disturbing them as they sit in class sending IM’s to all their friends.

    Thank you for sharing this article, Mr. Weinberg (and I’m always happy to see Daniel Willingham referenced anywhere.) From what I’ve seen, differentiated instruction can be a self-perpetuating hindrance to real education. We’ve been so busy struggling to meet the kids where they are that, somehow, actually getting them where they need to be has been lost in all the fluff and unconscionable condescension.

    When I give high school essay assignments, here are some of the standard student responses: “Can’t I do a poster instead? What if I write a poem about it? Our middle school teacher let us turn in rap songs for grades instead of essays. How about I just tell you what I feel about the book instead of writing it down? OUTLINE? I’m not wasting my time doing no damn outline.”

    And “what I feel” plays such a prominent role in some of their essays that if they don’t feel like reading the book they’re supposed to be writing about, that’s supposed to be OK too. One essay on the novel Fallen Angels, for instance, was all about a student’s personal experiences in East Oakland gang wars, complete with how funny he thought it was to participate in a police car chase, “just like Peewee.” Another student began his essay with, “Well, I didn’t read this book past the first page, because if a book doesn’t hook me from the gate, I can’t get into it, and I feel that Mark Twain is a racist, so I was insulted by his foolish book.”

    Somehow, too, many of them are in the habit of beginning their essays with odd questions to some mysterious second person: “Have you ever felt out of place and lonely? Well, in The Life of Frederick Douglass…”

    Other students will download an entire essay (including weblinks AND advertisements) from StealThisAssignment.com or wherever, design an extravagant cover sheet with colored pencils, and then blow up when I use the P word because “I did my work!” And some of them really mean it. After all, they researched the assignment on theIinternet, they printed out and assembled pieces of paper, they did some coloring, and that’s the kind of “project” they’ve gotten A’s for in prior grades, so what kind of hateful teacher am I?

    Then there’s the abominable spelling, the indecipherable grammar, and the crowded, dayglo pink handwriting when I’ve repeated and repeated the instructions to type the paper, doublespaced. Now, it’s difficult to get upset with the children over all this. And I don’t mind the process of backtracking, and backtracking again, to teach them the kinds of basic skills they should have mastered in seventh, fourth, or second grade.

    But differentiated instruction is not the answer here; it’s the problem! Most of these students are bright, capable children who should not, by any means, be “low-level” anything. The problem is, the bar has been kept so low for so long that some of them know only to panic or get angry when they’re expected to read critically, listen to instructions, revise their writing, and think about anything besides getting the work “done” and turning it in.

    So I can only hope that the next education “revolution” will involve an unprecedented emphasis on REAL research and devising practical strategies for truly educating these children at every grade level. They can do their kinesthetic learning in gym class, but for the rest of the school day they need to be learning to read, write, use math, and think logically.

    What’s most frustrating is that none of this is news, or it shouldn’t be. Project Follow Through was completed, and the results promptly shuffled to the ashbin, when I was still in school. The most expensive, comprehensive study ever done of education in the United States, but too many influential people disliked the researchers’ conclusions. So instead, American children wound up with decades of games, billions of crayons, and all manner of TRULY disrespectful “feel good” activities that wasted years of their time and brushed aside their innate ability to learn.

    Some further, related reading for those interested:



  • David Rosen

    I think a central problem is that a great deal of effort in education reform over time has been devoted to pursuit of whatever may be the latest fashion. There are many examples of this and limited cumulative progress to show for it. The problem, in my view, lies in the interpersonal and institutional politics that underlies the rise of each fad. I believe that the antidote is the growth of a collaborative educational culture rooted at the local level. I observed for many years, in many settings, a virtual absence of meaningful and effective collaboration. Conversely, I’ve seen a few extraordinarily effective examples of cooperative work on the part of teachers that produced substantial improvement in instruction. The question is not whether differentiated instruction, cooperative learning and standardized testing, etc., etc. are useful or not. The question is how elements of each of these and others can be woven together into a vital, constantly evolving and effective educational process in each individual school at each grade level or discipline. To make progress in this direction, it would be helpful to focus discussion on highly specific examples of effective strategies that have been developed by teachers rather than on a more general examination of the pluses and minuses of differentiated instruction or any other particular approach. In this connection, teacher education courses taught by teams of master teachers, each of whom can can offer particular and detailed strategies, rather than university instructors far removed from the K-12 classroom, would greatly contribute to the development and dissemination of effective instructional methods. Very best of luck to all of you in the successful pursuit of this important work!

  • Hills Parent

    If you are the parent of a child who is bored in class because they already know the work, then you wish for differentiated instruction to keep your child busy, challenged and moving ahead.

    My first wasn’t quite in this boat a few years ago when he started K, but there were kids who began K who could read chapter books. There were other kids who didn’t even know their letters yet. How awful for the readers to spend a whole year on letters when they were leaps and bounds ahead.

    My second is noticeable more academically advance than his peers. It’s been frustrating for him. Fortunately he’s often allowed to work a grade level or so ahead and it’s helped.

    I’m all for differentiated instruction and wish they would makeup the classes where children would be placed with kids of similar abilities. That way all the instruction would meet them at their level and move them up, no matter where they started!

  • Nextset

    It’s amusing to me that we speak of how the teachers are expected to operate a classroom with mixed-cognitive students.

    Why do you think the (brighter) families of the brighter students would permit their smart kids to sit in a classroom of dummies?

    They will take their bright kids and enroll them in a good/better school that doesn’t mix dummies and smart kids, not only in the same class but in the same campus.

    You go to Piedmont or you go to the Charters. The operative word is you “go”.

    Seek your level. It’s not exactly a new concept.

    Brave New World.

  • Hills Parent

    And on that note, Nextset, we are planning to move our children to another school in the next year or so. From then on, they will be surrounded by peers that are more able and willing to learn at a higher level and who, on the whole, will be much better behaved.

    Some of the people who know of our intentions make it seem like we’re part of the problem, abandoning public schools in Oakland. To me it’s very simple. I would like my child to be in a diverse environment such as Oakland, but I value learning in a safe, focused, non-disruptive environment even more. That’s two more kids who will be leaving Oakland before middle school…

  • Nextset

    Hills Parent: Better do it quick. I keep harping on the “Brave New World” – and I think even I hope all this can’t be true – We are seeing the destruction of the middle class (downward mobility of their children) at an unprecedented pace.

  • Tony

    It seems to me that the alternative to differentiated instruction is teacher specialization based on student abilities, or tracking – but many teachers seem to have large moral issues with this strategy as well.

    What’s the right answer?

  • Hills Parent

    The wheels are in motion for our move. Many of my friends are planning on a move as well. Sadly as our kids get older, Oakland public schools won’t cut it.

    As a side note, I know there are some very good or excellent academic programs, such as the Academies at Oakland Tech. I’m worried about the years in between elementary and tenth grade when the Academies start, as well as the social enviroment at all middle and high schools.

  • Catherine

    I just finished my day and before I begin correcting homework and writing assignments I wanted to say that I polled all of my co-workers with children and asked how many of them either have had their own children in the school in which they teach or would send their children to the school in which we teach.

    The answer ZERO. The vast majority discussed discipline and wasted class time. Several others said that the work our students are demonstrating in middle school was done by their own children in second and third grade. Several used the excuse they wouldn’t because they don’t live in Oakland.

    Bottom line – none of the teachers would want their own children to have to deal with bad behavior, cursing, underpants showing, breasts exposed, cell-phone nonsense, low level requirements of the work, rats, mice, roaches and the myriad of other things we as teachers must confront, discipline and work to make students conform to standard school expectations – none.

    I asked them what about the differentiation. Each one said unless their own children were in classes with similarly DISCIPLINED students, they would say no. Nearly all believed that all of the students COULD learn at the higher levels – it is the school cultural distractions that makes the difference.

  • Steven Weinberg

    At both the Oakland middle school where I worked, Claremont and Frick, there were teachers who chose those schools for their own children, and they felt their children received excellent educations there. They went on to succeed in high school and college.

  • Tim Underwood

    I don’t think the problem is differentiated instruction, per se. Rather, it is having a spectrum of ability levels that is much too broad. By the time OUSD students hit the 9th grade, the range of ability may be from grade 2 to 12 in the same room. It is completely unrealistic to expect even a gifted teacher to be able to successfully cope with such a broad range.

    If the student skill set were a bit more focused, then the range of learning modalities would become an asset. Each could help bring problem solving approaches into focus. It would help make available to all students the important work environment lessons in collaboration. But once the spread increases to widely, it becomes an anchor dragging the entire group down.

    OUSD has embraced differentiated instruction without properly defining the boundaries in which its application is useful. The result is frustrated teachers, bored over-achievers, and ironically, bored under-achievers.

    Boredom is trouble waiting for an opportunity.

  • Hot r

    Kids rise to challenges. The key to differentiated instruction is to teach each student at their highest level not some level that bores them to tears. The research shows that all students have multiple learning modalities. Therefore teaching lessons which access all of them. Kids need to be pushed. And discipline problems disappear when kids are engaged in a classroom. I am also tired of hearing that diversity in the classroom means dumbed down instruction. It does not.

  • Katy Murphy

    I’d be interested to hear about a school or a teacher that has done differentiated instruction well. How did they do it? How could you tell that it was working?

  • Catherine

    @Hot R:

    You tell me how to teach 32 students who are in 6th grade with the lowest three being at second grade-sixth month reading level to my highest one at above 12th grade reading level and the two just below that at high school junior level – the other 27 are somewhere in between.

    Hot R – Please tell me. I’m waiting and listening.

  • Hills Parent

    Hot R, as echoed by others, all kids can learn, but not all kids or families choose the emphasize education. Sadly, I find that it is often the African Americans that are the least prepared for the classroom. These same children are often the discipline cases as well.

    I’m delighted when I come across African American families at school who I consider to be peers – responsible families who really care about the learning and foster an environment where academics and good behavior are important. I wish there were more people like this (of all races).

    I know that most kids, if they had support at home, would do well in school. It’s unfortunate that too often minority children don’t have this support. So, in Oakland, often times diversity does lower academic standards and increased discipline problems. I blame the parents and the sub-cultures and poverty for not creating an environment that is better for learning.

    The new schools we are considering for our kids will not have these same types of problems. This does not mean that they will be perfect or that we won’t encounter new problems, but I will be relieved to know that my kids will be in safe environment where bad behavior won’t be tolerated. The academics will be tougher and the kids will be challenged. What I’m looking for just isn’t available within the Oakland public middle schools.

    Catherine, thank you for sharing about your colleagues. I have a friend who teaches at Montera and she tells me stories that only reinforce my fears about that school (and that’s one of the better options in Oakland). Yikes, I’m happy that we’ve got alternatives!

  • Gordon Danning

    Hot R:

    I dunno, see pages 195-196 here, stating that research shows that differentiating instruction re: learning styles does not work: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=LMj96HLK0I8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&ots=bDyDcUyBxm&sig=O1EmVBtZVj7-V3rDMUdfynpIUJ0#v=onepage&q=stahl&f=false

  • AC Mom

    Hills Parent:

    My family is in the midst of some long-term planning as well…I am curious are you leaving Oakland or just OUSD?

  • Curious

    Can you tell the readers, then, why you chose to send your own child to Head Royce as opposed to OUSD, Mr. Weinberg?

  • Nextset

    Something just crossed my desk – unpleasant. My writing on this blog has mainly been from a Black perspective. I forgot about the Hispanic/Mexican perspective because I always thought Oakland doesn’t yet have Norteno/Suereno daily shootings and beatings. The Mexican Gangs generally have superior discipline. They will not hesitate to beat or kill anyone who crosses them and they don’t tolerate rule-breaking by members or associates. They also don’t take attempts to leave well if at all.

    Now imagine trying to raise a Hispanic child when the local public schools are completely infiltrated and dominated by Nortenos and the school insists there are no problems? We think the black folks have problems..

    Yet the public schools have no policy about detecting and eliminating gang infiltration – they don’t want one.

    Perhaps this issue fits the bullying thread better. Think of the bullying concept. The Gangs are using violence on an hourly basis in the teen societies. They will kill you, no doubt about it, if you do certain things to disrespect them or break their rules once you’ve allowed yourself to become an associate or member. They own you body and soul, which the tattoo is there to remind you. You will obey orders and rules or else.

    Since our public schools think it’s ok to have these people enrolled in “normal” schools, what are the teachers supposed to do to “protect” (that’s a laugh) a student in trouble with the local gangs? And that (being “in trouble”) can mean just being there – a Norteno will attack a Suereno on sight. And the girls who start talking to them become Associates too.

    Are our public teachers being paid, trained and insured to manage all this? Or is Oakland just not experiencing it yet.

    Does differentiated instruction cover this also?

  • Hills Parent

    AC Mom, we have been considering our options and are learning toward moving to another community with excellent public schools. We hope to move this summer in time for the next school year.

    After doing the math of staying put and paying for private vs moving and sending our kids to public school, we felt the latter was the best decision for us. What I like about public schools is that you can go to school with your local friends and neighbors. To me this means less commuting and more community-building. I like that!

    If we go private, we’ll be part of a new school community with families from all over which would make organizing and playdates harder. There would be much more time in the car or on the bus.

    For our family, paying a higher mortgage and property taxes was preferable to paying for private middle and high school. Plus we’ll be in a nicer, safer community. Fingers crossed! Good luck with your decision!

    Nextset, yikes, that is very scary about the Mexican gangs and OUSD’s lack of response.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Curious, because I believe strongly in the advantages of smaller class sizes (1 to 15 vs. 1 to 32). I wish public schools were funded at the level to allow those class sizes.

  • AC Mom

    Hills Parent:

    Thank you for responding. Those are the same questions that we will soon have to answer for ourselves.

  • Catherine


    I have friends with students in fourth and fifth grades at Head Royce – both classes have 20 students. I have friends who teach in flatland schools (Title 1) and each of those schools also has 20 students (in some cases 18 or 19 students in a class. Why not choose one of those schools? The student body count is the same or similar.

    I am not passing judgment, because I, too, would want my children in classes where 95% of the time is spent on instruction (direct and indirect) with a 5% transition time. It is not about class size that is different it is the level at which we are able to teach in our classrooms. Neither the flatlands, nor Head Royce is differentiating (our topic here), but because Head Royce is closer to the state standards across the curriculum and the spectrum of abilities is narrower (2 – 3 grade levels rather than 7 – 9 grade levels – in middle school) more teaching to student levels and more learning at higher levels is happening.

    And, Mr. Weinberg, if were were all honest, would you really, really send your children to flatlands schools even if the classroom levels were identical? I would not.

  • Nextset

    Hills Parent: I don’t know if OUSD has the same problem with the murderous Hispanic Gangs (although some of their members and associates are white) as the Central valley Schools so. Urban Public Schools typically allow infiltration and look the other way at gang discipline, sending messages to just do it off property. Based on what is going on in LA and around the state I’d expect Oakland Unified to keep the welcome mat out for the Mexican Gangs.

    My thinking is that if you are raising a Hispanic Child, male or female, and you want the kid to be university capable, you move to Piedmont or you move somewhere else where the gangs are not dominant and send the kid to a school without a gang infiltration. That is not easy to do depending on what your family occupation is. Your remaining options may be to leave CA and move to a whiter state (at the moment) such as the Pacific Northwest or some other region where this is not yet the issue.

    My point being that the different ethnics have different serious problems, black gang activity is more concentrated in black ghetto schools with different dynamics and easier to avoid. Hispanics have problems also – trying to protect a hispanic kid from downward mobility is really tough because the societial attraction and discipline of the Mexican Gangs is stronger and more organized than the blacks (ie statewide hierarchy and control).

    And exactly how is a public school teacher and principal supposed to deal with this?? Intervene?

  • oakie

    Oh, that was an interesting turn of conversation with that one Point of Information, and the response (OUSD teachers placing their own kids elsewhere, and the responding reason/rationale).

    Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t care if the OUSD class size were 10—I’d be out. And it’s clearly true from the enrollment statistics over the last 30 years that I am not alone (in a city with a virtually static population over the same time), and I suspect the population of public school teachers have a significantly higher incidence of abandoning ship than the general population of Oakland.

    This whole differentiation meme is a symptom of the dysfunction. I can’t believe how much hand wringing and elocution over this conception occupies the attention that fundamental and meaningful reform cannot seem to rise to the same level of general interest in this city. Actually, I can believe it. I think I understand what it must have felt like being on the deck of the Titanic.

    Enjoy the ride. And the rationale as to why you wouldn’t put your own kids into this dystopia.

  • Gordon Danning

    Re: Head Royce:

    Years ago when I was a substitute teacher, I subbed at Head Royce (high school) for a day. The experience that students have there is very different from that at other schools. They are very selective, and it shows. It would be very silly to decline to send your child there, should he or she be admitted. It’s like a UC Davis professor sending their kid to Harvard; doing so is hardly an indictment of Davis.

    More broadly, I might be stupid, but I don’t see the relevance of where Steve Weinberg sends his kid — it doesn’t shed light on whether schools should differentiate instruction or not.

  • Teri Gruenwald

    I teach in New Haven Unified in Union City and I send my own two sons to OUSD schools (Glenview and Brewer). Although I am not ecstatic with Brewer, my son has benefited from being with his neighborhood friends, walking to school every day, the fabulous band and PE program, and in general, he feels he has learned a lot. Because they have a recurring problem of teacher retention and a constant cohort of brand new teachers, many of whom are Teach for America teachers, I believe that he could have had a more challenging academic experience in the middle school where I teach. But we make decisions for all sorts of reasons, and in this case, I thought Brewer was good enough not to disrupt his life.

    As for differentiation–I have yet to be trained in it. We are constantly told to differentiate, but in a 50 minute period with 36 students (New Haven is known to have the largest class sizes in Alameda County) in an 8th grade History or Language Arts class, I’m not sure I know what it looks like when I do direct instruction. I find that I can differentiate by creating open-ended assignments, giving students opportunities to choose what they want to accomplish on a certain type of project with my higher skilled students knowing what my expectations are for them not to choose easier activities. And I try to give my lower skilled students as much direct help as possible. I also group students, depending on the activity, either heterogeneously or homogeneously. When I have done Literature Circles, I have felt like it has worked best. Still, do I feel successful or accomplished at it? Absolutely not. Have I ever seen it in action on a regular basis or even once, for that matter? Nope. Do we all talk about how we have to do it? Yep. I was recently thinking of asking my principal to come in and demonstrate a differentiated lesson in my classroom, but I don’t think he’d be able to. He was a PE teacher for less than 5 years when he went into administration and I don’t think differentiation happens at all in PE.

    This is my 23rd year of teaching, so I have been around long enough to see many educational programs, strategies, “best practices” come and go. But I also remember when I was in elementary school and my mother, who was a teacher, bemoaned New Math which she had to teach and which destroyed, for me, any understanding of math. I think teachers have been subjected to the latest greatest fad in teaching for a long time. Differentiation is no different. But I don’t know that homogeneous grouping or tracking is effective either. My first couple of years of teaching, we tracked students and I do remember how hard it was to teach a class of lower-skilled students–especially because there were more behavior problems, no strong academic students to model for them, and high absenteeism among the population. I was grateful when we went to heterogeneous classrooms, and in the end, I do think there are more opportunities for students to learn from each other in a heterogeneous classroom than in a tracked classroom.

    Having said that, I do think that lower-skilled students need specialized intervention that is targeted and meaningful and I do think that the kids on the opposite end of the spectrum also need opportunities that pose challenges to them so that they grow. One concern I have for both my kids who excel in school is that they aren’t challenged enough in school. We have provided many opportunities for them to be challenged outside of school, but I would like to see more of that within their school day.

  • Public School Teacher

    Curious, you should refrain from disclosing private information about people’s children on a public blog. It is the business of that person where they decide to send their child to school, not yours. This is a crazy world we live in and your comment is a risk to everyone’s privacy. Let’s stick to the issues.

  • Hills Parent

    Public School Teacher, I see your point and I think people need to be careful around privacy information. However, if you are going to advocate for public schools and comment that people can get an excellent education by attending such a school (post #18), then I think it’s interesting that that the poster himself opted for private. However, this is moving away from the topic of this thread: differentiation.

    Katy, maybe you should do a story on what schools teachers choose for their own children, especially at the middle and high school levels. That would be telling…

  • JR

    Hills parent,

    There was a Fordham study done in 2004, read this:


    Its very interesting when you consider that teachers do not get paid very well(so they say).

  • Cranky Teacher

    JR, your snark is stale.

    Let’s be blunt:

    I am a 40something single father who makes 40K a year working in OUSD as a career-changer teacher. With this salary, I need to provide a home for myself and my child in the wildly expensive Bay Area.

    In the Spring, I pulled my child out of his East Bay public school in the same district where I went K-12 because:

    a) In the previous grade, his fourth year at the school, his teacher had actually been mentally unstable and continually abusive and was only pushed out of the classroom after months of concerted effort by parents. It was her fifth school in the district in less than ten years!

    b) Last year, the teacher was nice, but had zero ability to manage the class. Repeated visits to the class were a voyage into bedlam, with my son looking catatonic in the center of the maelstrom.

    c) Troubled children, some of them in foster care and others whose fathers were in prison, began picking on my child with the the classic relentlessness of the true bully. My child began having nightmares, anxiety attacks and psychosomatic illnesses.

    d) My child was diagnosed with dyslexia/learning disabilities, affecting basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Yet interventions were vague and/or nonexistent. Simply put, the teacher and school were overwhelmed with students with far greater behavior and academic problems.

    e) I asked for a switch in classrooms, which was granted. Parents in that class were shocked I would want in, since they were having the same chaos problems. And the bullying didn’t stop — it was primarily from an older group of kids outside of class, anyway.

    f) We asked to switch schools mid-year within the district and the principal even supported our request. It was denied.

    g) With my child exhibiting signs of depression, I yanked him. Went to his grandparents and asked them to pay for a switch to a private school where my kid had a friend whose parents were raving about the school/teacher. Yes, teachers don’t get paid that much, JR, but we did all graduate from college which indicates that most of come from middle-class and up background, and our aging parents are often the ones who do for our children what we can’t do for them — including pay for college.

    h) My first encounter with a private school EVER was shocking — the adult-student ratio is about 11-1! Zero kids were shouting “mother******” or running out of the classroom and into the street.

    i) The private school gave us a 50% scholarship discount based on my tax returns — they apparently don’t believe my salary is that impressive.

    j) To help pay for the school, we moved out of our modest apartment in a bad neighborhood and into a room at my parents’ house.

    k) Now, when I’m working a 60-hour week at my OUSD school, I at least don’t have to worry that my child is sitting in a school cafeteria while a group of deeply troubled and uncared for children are throwing food at their back — the scene I arrived to on his last day.

    The bottom line is that I am willing to work with those kinds of kids and, as an adult, can even love and respect them as they struggle with the terrible hand they were dealt in life. My children can make that kind of decision when they are adults, but for now they are children, not guinea pigs, and it is my job to try and give them a happy childhood and good education, by any means necessary.

  • JR

    Underpaid?Then there shouldn’t be anyone more peeved than you when you see incompetence, and highly paid to boot(translation: you might make more if your union didn’t insist that every teacher were the same quality and paid accordingly, and also that years served be “the” criteria for pay raises,irregardless of ability and that same incompetence not being a factor in compensation, and or termination). As for real world struggles, welcome to my world. My child is autistic, and I know what struggle is, fortunately there are mostly good teachers this year, so it’s not as hard as it could be. These kids in your class are the result of a failed welfare society, who’s largest cost is the multitude of youths with no guidance or direction. What do you expect to get when you just hand people money, you really don’t expect them to do their best do you? When you hand people money they sit back and wait for more, that’s human nature.

  • OUSD teacher whose kid goes to private school

    Thank you Ms. McLaughlin for those links. It was nice to see that other people believe those practices I was taught in Ed School are worthless fads – ie. jigsaw, allowing students to produce a poster instead of an essay because of so-called multiple intelligences which apparently are not based on any verified research.
    We are supposed to believe whatever our ed professors tell us is the best way to teach without asking them why we should believe this. Where is the actual research? Jigsaw is one of the worst way to learn – it leaves huge gaps in the students’ knowledge. The problem is that there are administrators who will judge teachers on the amount of time they spend having students do projects and using these faddish techniques. If a teacher doesn’t do this, they run the risk of losing their jobs or getting bad reviews. I have rarely observed groups where more learning is going on than if there were teacher-directed instruction. Most of the time the kids are fooling around and one kid is working cutting out pictures and gluing. I know a teacher who spends an inordinate amount of time on projects but can his students write a well-constructed essay using critical thinking? Of course not!
    As for differentiating a whole classroom full of 30-35 students – there just isn’t enough time in the day to make three sets of lesson plans. If you then separate the kids into groups based on these plans, are you then tracking, which you aren’t supposed to do? What’s wrong about teaching the standards and expecting everyone to master them? If the standard says “analyze”, a poster isn’t the same. Let’s stop dumbing down school – If a kid can’t do the work because they don’t care, never do homework and text all day in class that is their problem. Teachers aren’t social workers neither are their parents.

  • Ms. J.

    On the subject of teachers who don’t or wouldn’t send their own children to the school where they teach…

    As I have posted here before, I do think that a huge difference can be made in a school by the families whose children attend. I don’t think money is the only difference; the attitudes of the families can change a school very much for the better. The families which contribute money to their children’s schools no doubt help them, but when they contribute time and effort to helping their children learn and to teaching their children how to behave and treat others, that is invaluable. Therefore, when possible, I urge my friends and colleagues to send their children to the neighborhood school and thus commit to making a difference there.

    However, I agree with Cranky–your own children are your responsibility in a way that the children you teach are not. I believe that if you choose to be a parent then your first loyalty must be to your own children. (If all the families who have the ability to support their own children at school would do so, far far fewer schools would be in the situation they are.) If you do not think that the school where you teach is a safe environment, or if you do not believe it would challenge or nurture or meet your own child’s needs, I think it is not only okay but RIGHT for you to send your child to a different school.

    By doing so, teachers are not saying that it is okay for the school where they teach to be as unsafe/unchallenging/lacking-in-whatever way as it is. They are at that school, struggling to make it better–committing much more than the armchair bloggers who ceaselessly attack them.

    In order to be consistent, do you think the dedicated teachers who love and support their students but won’t send their kids to school with them because of so many other factors should quit teaching? Would that solve anything?

    There is so much hatred and judgment on this blog and on this topic, but this particular strand of criticism of teachers is among the most offensive.

    Teachers should be honored for the hard and wonderful work we do. If we are also parents, that is our own business.

    Or maybe in the new society created by Gates/Walton/Broad and any other billionaires who choose to give money to distort public education, it won’t be. Maybe we’ll all be ideal teaching martyrs who spend 80 hours a week at work and therefore have no time to have our own kids (until we quit after doing our two years in order to go into something more lucrative). Or maybe the evaluation, in addition to standardized test scores (which were never intended to measure teacher effectiveness), will include a judgment of a teacher’s family values.


  • Cranky Teacher

    JR, we agree on the problems to a large extent — we just don’t agree on the causes or the solutions.

    Nobody ever answers these questions I always post:

    a) When is ratio of supervisors to “reports” in K-12 education going to be lowered to where evaluation could be meaningful? (In my school the ratio is over 35:1!)

    b) What are teachers going to get in exchange for giving up the scraps the system has thrown them (job security, pensions)?

    c) What are you going to offer competent teachers to recruit and retain them to the most needy schools, so you don’t just get rookies and “survivors”?

    The answers are a) Never. b) Nothing. C) Not even close to enough.

    Thoughtful article:

  • Hills Parent

    I don’t have a problem with teachers who send their children to private school or to another public school. Teachers need to make those decisions for their own children and are free to do whatever.

    Cranky, I can see why you are cranky! I would be in your situation! And you absolutely did the right thing for your child. Also, I appreciate your honest assessment of your own school. I happen to think that the reason a lot of schools are failing has little to do with the teachers themselves. It has everything to do with the home environment of the child and the culture/values of the parents and community. It’s sad that great teachers can’t make the difference alone. It takes a village and that village too often fails the students.

  • Ramona

    Speaking of how terrible it is to judge teachers who send their kids to private schools- why are charters hated so much? Do parents with little or nor resources, or kids with nothing at all not deserving of an option?

    By your actions you have said that the district schools do not work, yet you blast charter schools so easily. Hypocrites.

    If its not about your kids, screw others right? All kids, espoecially those whose parents do not have degress desrve more.

    So many

  • Ex-Oakland staff

    Differentiation is just a tool with which public school administrators give teachers the false impression that large class sizes with a 4 year spread of reading levels can actually be successful for all students.
    The main concept I took away from my days of professional development regarding differentiation was triage – the message was: figure out who needs your help and focus on them, have the students who don’t need your help do work on their own. That is not differentiation, that is just cheating some of your students so that others can get more of the teacher’s attention.
    Differentiation is necessary in any class, in any school – no two students are alike, but in our public school classrooms the range of learning readiness and ability is extreme, coupled with large class sizes, effective differentiation is extremely challenging. The smaller the class size, the more meaningful the differentiation.

  • oakie

    Cranky Teacher Says:
    October 28th, 2010 at 5:14 pm
    “Nobody ever answers these questions I always post:”

    I will offer to respond. But I can tell you why you never get an answer. You are inside a Skinner Box. You are looking for answers but you insist they must be inside that box.

    “a) When is ratio of supervisors to “reports” in K-12 education going to be lowered to where evaluation could be meaningful? (In my school the ratio is over 35:1!)”

    You are looking for a solution where the supervisor has virtually no control over who are the reports. What kind of system is that? A guaranteed dysfunctional system. The ratio is not the issue. The lack of selection of reports is the issue.

    And, worst of all, all those reports know the supervisor has no control. And the compensation received is entirely devoid of performance evaluation.

    Can you imagine how effective any supervisor would be if he could do what Michelle Rhee did and fire a good chunk of the dead wood based on her evaluation of their performance?

    “b) What are teachers going to get in exchange for giving up the scraps the system has thrown them (job security, pensions)?”

    Why must we, as taxpayers footing the entire bill for this dysfunctional system offer you something for nothing. OUSD offers nothing to either the taxpayers or the kids in their care. It has high schools with single digit competency levels in math. It has a dropout rate of 60% of AA males and this is by definition a dropout factory. This is not up for dispute. It is definitional.

    It is a failure and the fact of the matter is that I feel I owe you nothing because the system is a failure. The only people I owe anything to are the kids. Period. As far as I am concerned, every adult sucking at the teat of that system is subject to dismissal if the reporting supervisor believes that is in the best interest of the student.

    “c) What are you going to offer competent teachers to recruit and retain them to the most needy schools, so you don’t just get rookies and “survivors”? ”

    As things exist, nothing is currently offered for competency. Compensation is defined by YOS. As a matter of fact, the California teacher’s union lobbied and received legislation making it impossible to compensate based on competency. And that speaks volumes for the union, their real values and why OUSD is such a mess.

    If the students are the sole concern, competency should be well compensated. Rookie teachers and veterans alike. YOS should mean nothing in terms of compensation because it means nothing in terms of what matters–the kids.

  • Ms. J.

    There are several parts of your comment which I don’t understand.
    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “if it’s not about your kids, screw others right.” In my post earlier I tried to point out that teachers who send their kids to schools other than the ones where they teach are in fact trying to do something good at those schools (and therefore, I hope and assume, not “screwing” those other kids). Do you really think that teachers don’t have the right to do what they think is best for their own children, or that if they do send their kids to other schools they are trying to sabotage the kids at the schools where they teach?? Seriously?
    2. Although I think that many have pointed this out, I’ll do so again: charter schools (the small percentage which get good results) work for the children whose families are involved enough to sign them up for those schools. The reason I, along with many of my colleagues, am against charter schools is that they will further undermine the public school system. Of course I believe that parents should have the ability to support their kids, and options in choosing their schooling. But charter schools are *not* an option for kids who, as you put it, ‘have nothing at all.’ These are the kids who will be left behind in the public schools which are left, even as the charter schools siphon away money and families from the public school system.
    3. “By your actions you say that public schools do not work.” By what actions? Who says that? I am a public school teacher and I think public schools do work. If some of my colleagues send their kids to private schools while teaching in public ones, that does not mean they do not think public schools work. I don’t think they would continue to do the jobs they do if they felt that way.

    I have to say again that I think the tone of so many of these posts is downright offensive. It is disturbing to me how personal people get, and how very judgmental many of the posters are.

  • JR

    I’m not judging, I just think everyone should have the freedom to put their kids where they choose, The unions have always been an obstruction to that end(they have the politicians and dues money that enable them). The union wants a captive unchanging source of funding(children), and GOD help anyone that gets in the way of the flow of money.


  • JR

    Schools were slipping decades before anyone even thought of charter schools. The fact remains that the US taxpayers pay to fund education very well(in the top 5 among countries, and yet our results are not top 20), and yet other countries have poverty too. The only things that are truly offensive are the blatant entitlement, and the fact that taxpayers let this charade go on for so long.