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.”

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My high blood pressure and test scores: The connection is not what you’d think

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and Education Report blogger, thinks public education could use a new prescription.

Steven WeinbergNine years ago my doctor informed me that my blood pressure was too high and put me at higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke and could shorten my life. He put me on a medication which quickly reduced by blood pressure fairly dramatically.

Several years later he changed my prescription to a different medicine. When my blood pressure climbed back about half-way to what it had been originally, I became concerned and asked him why we had switched to a less effective medication. He said that although the first drug was very successful in lowering blood pressure, long-term studies had shown it had no effect at all in reducing fatal heart attacks and strokes, and reducing those was the real goal in prescribing the medication in the first place.

In other words, although the first medication was doing a great job changing the measurements we were tracking—blood pressure—it was having no real effect on the important goal, extending my life. The second drug, although less impressive in changing the blood pressure numbers, had a solid record in improving the things that really mattered.

Recent articles about test scores have caused me to wonder if something similar isn’t happening today in education. Continue Reading


Weinberg: Summer reading for teachers

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and regular Education Report blogger, has a book recommendation for you. -Katy

Steven WeinbergI hope the teachers who read this blog are not off on vacation yet, because I have a book recommendation I think they will enjoy and find useful: “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom” by Daniel T. Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Many of us in education have been to workshops where the speaker has claimed that new breakthroughs in cognitive science (how the brain works) call for a whole new approach to teaching. Willingham is much less prescriptive. Continue Reading


Weinberg: Myths about standardized testing

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and regular Education Report blogger, tells us what standardized tests can’t measure, in his view, and why. -Katy

Steven WeinbergIn my last 10 years working for Oakland Unified School District, I spent considerable time investigating the California Standards Tests and their results to help my school make sense of the data the tests generated. During that time I became aware of a number of myths have been built up about these tests, many propagated by the state or the test makers themselves.

Knowing the facts about these tests is important for drawing reasonable conclusions from their results and for making sound educational decisions for the future.

I know that most readers of this blog are already fairly sophisticated about the nature of standardized testing, but the results of these tests are so often misused, it is worth taking some time to review these misconceptions.

Myth 1: The California Standards Tests (CSTs) measure what teachers are supposed to teach.

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State writing tests and the jet-setter’s edge

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland public schoolteacher, says California’s writing tests — which are likely being taken right this moment — do a poor job of measuring the abilities of disadvantaged students.

Steven WeinbergThis week, fourth and seventh grade students throughout California will be taking the state writing examinations. We can hope that the writing assignments the students are given will allow each student a fair opportunity to show his or her writing skills, but past assignments show that this has not always been the case. Some writing tasks have given large advantages to students from prosperous backgrounds and have made it very difficult for students from disadvantaged families to earn good scores.

The clearest example is the 2007 assignment. The prompt, which has been released by the state department of education, along with examples of student answers, read: “If you were given the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world for one week, where would you go? Think about a place you would love to visit and write a narrative describing the events that happen on your trip.”

This topic obviously favored students who had traveled somewhere exciting, and the examples the state released of high scoring papers confirms that. Continue Reading


A veteran teacher’s thoughts on grading

Our ongoing discussion about grading wouldn’t be complete without the thoughtful perspective of retired teacher Steven Weinberg.

Steven WeinbergFor the past 40 years I have spent a good deal of my time thinking about grading. I think about my experiences as a student, my sons’ experiences (and my experiences as their parent), my experience as a teacher, my wife’s experiences in all those roles, and the experiences of other teachers I have known and worked with. It is not a simple issue.

Looking back at my experiences as a student, it was not always the most demanding teachers that taught me the most. I was not a particularly strong student coming out of elementary school. I was one of the youngest in my classes, and my reading and math skills were not high. My first semester in junior high school I earned all C’s, with the exception of a B in Math. My GPA improved steadily through junior high and high school until I reached a 4.0 (no AP boost in those days).

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Book review: Making the Grades

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland middle school teacher, recommends a book that exposes grading practices on the writing portion of standardized tests — written by an insider.

Steven Weinberg

One of the delights of retirement is that I finally have enough time to read. This week I discovered a new book that ought to be read by everyone involved with standardized tests — and in today’s environment, that means practically everybody.

“Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry” by Todd Farley (2009) gives a detailed description of what actually happens to the writing sample portions of standardized tests when they are sent to testing companies for scoring. Although the book is written in an amusing style (the first 150 pages kept me in stitches, and when I read passages aloud to my wife and we both laughed until we could barely talk), the message is serious: Testing companies care only about making a profit and will cut any corner and ignore their own guidelines to do so.

Farley began his career in the testing industry in 1994, earning $10 an hour as a grader. Continue Reading


No voice for teachers

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland middle school teacher, critiques the lack of teacher participation and other problems in the crafting of “standards,” the content that is taught and tested in schools.

steve weinbergThere are a number of problems with the standards that are now being used to guide K-12 education throughout the United States. As I wrote in November, the standards are too long and detailed, and they make it difficult for teachers to cover material in enough depth to give students the best possible education.

This problem is a natural result of the process used to develop these standards. State (and now federal) standards are designed by large committees drawn from a sizable geographic area. Teachers, whose jobs do not allow them to travel frequently to attend such meetings, are poorly represented on these committees. Continue Reading


Too many standards, too little time

Steven Weinberg, a recently retired Oakland middle school teacher, critiques California’s content standards.

Having written previously about ways education has improved in the 40 years since I began teaching, I would like to address one change that I do not believe has been beneficial: the attempt to make “content standards” the basis for everything in education.

The standards movement, which began about 20 years ago, is an effort to improve K-12 education by creating a list of content standards for each course and grade level, telling teachers exactly what needs to be taught and measuring what students have learned using tests built around those standards. California started generating these standards about 12 years ago, and now has content standards and tests for English, Math, Science, and History. These standards list between 40 and 70 things that need to be taught in each subject, each year. With 180 days in a school year, it is clear that this allows only two to four days per standard.

These standards are based on a misconception of what education is. Continue Reading


Which of your teachers inspired you the most?

How do teachers inspire powerful learning? A new Web site, Rethink Learning Now, is trying to stimulate debate about this question. It is seeking brief descriptions of effective and influential teachers. Here is my submission. I hope some of you will submit your experiences also and copy your statements here on Katy’s site. -Steven

The teacher who influenced me the most was Josiah Sheilds, my eighth grade American History teacher, whose class I entered 50 years ago this month.

It was not his lectures that I remember, nor his homework assignments or tests. No, what fascinated me were the trials of historical figures he conducted in his class.

Each month students charged and tried an important and controversial person of the time period being studied. Students took the roles of the accused, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors. The student lawyers had the largest roles, researching the time period, preparing opening and closing statements, recruiting and prepping witnesses, and cross-examining the opposition witnesses. Continue Reading