Saturday, October 01, 2011

Differentiation - It Isn't Enough for HG+ Kids

Yes, I know differentiation is the acceptable mantra for educators these days.  I know I am supposed to tout the virtues of differentiating for every kid in the classroom.  I know that, if potential principals see this, I will not be considered for full time jobs.  But, I also know that, as a sub, I see very little of it.

For anyone who actually reads this, but who doesn't know my background, I will briefly say that I have taught in four states: Massachusetts (private schools), Illinois (public and private schools), Alaska (public and charter schools), and Colorado (public and charter schools).  I have taught, either full time or subbing, in at least a dozen school districts, dozens of schools, and hundreds of different classrooms.  I have gone through extensive training on differentiation and gifted, differentiation and special education, and differentiation in general. 

I have seen very little differentiation in action.  Some teachers will differentiate spelling lists.  Some teachers will have different levels of book groups.  Some teachers will pair up with other teachers and group the students for math classes.  But, if we are talking about meeting the needs of kids outside of the middle of the bell curve, there is very little for those outlier kids.  It can be done - I have seen 3 or 4 teachers who could do it.  I laud them.  But, in general, it isn't happening.

And, I think it is time that educators who are interested in meeting the needs of HG+ gifted students admit that differentiation, as it is practiced (or not practiced) just isn't enough.  It isn't consistent enough, it isn't broad-based enough, and it isn't at the correct level.  The further the gifted student is from the class average, the less appropriate any differentiated accommodations are.

Differentiation is a great thing to train teachers to do.  It is effective to have the things that I mentioned above: leveled math, book groups, leveled spelling, different expectations for writing, etc.  It just isn't enough to meet the needs of the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students.  And I think it is time to stop pretending that regular classroom teachers can teach all students.

We know that inclusion has worked for a lot of kids with learning disabilities, but we also know that their special teachers, special classes, and supporting aides still have their jobs.  In fact, there are loads of jobs advertised for special education aides.  We know that differentiation isn't enough for these kids.  The simple fact is that they need more support than this.  Why don't we acknowledge the same for the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students.  The regular classroom teachers just can't meet their needs.

Again:  The regular classroom teachers just can't meet the needs of the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students. This was true before the great school budget problems; it is even more true now, with class sizes creeping up to ever higher numbers.  It is unfair to classroom teachers to continually demand more and more of them.  They already have more responsibilities and less time than they need in order to be maximally effective.

This rant is targeted mainly at elementary schools, but also somewhat at middle schools / junior highs.  By the time the kids get to high school, we mostly stop pretending that a single teacher can teach all levels of ability in a single class.  AP Calc AB is not differentiated and no one expects that AP Calc teacher to prepare lessons for students who might want to take the class, but who haven't yet mastered algebra.  Nor is the algebra teacher expected to teach calculus to the one kid in the class who is ready for AP Calc AB.  It just doesn't make sense.

For those of us who are interested in the HG+ kids, I think it is time to stop saying that differentiation can solve all of their educational needs.  It isn't happening.


  1. It's not just the HG kids. Up at UConn a few years back, they researched classroom differentiation for gifted kids. They studied teachers who had learned about differentiation through their (UConn) program, and looked at how much the teacher thought vs. how much the observer saw the teacher was differentiating. Turned out that the teachers didn't think they were differentiating enough (true), but they thought they were differentiating far more than the observer noted.

    So trained teachers, who think they're not doing enough, are successfully doing even less.

    But (IMHO) it's not the teachers' fault! In the average elementary class there are 3-4-5 grade levels of ability. Throw in an HG+ kid, and you're adding another 2-3-4+ grade levels on top of the already unmanageable. Can you imagine a conductor being asked to conduct 5-6-7 songs simultaneously?

    Even in the supposedly HG classrooms seen in rare and wonderful schools, most of the kids are only 2 grade levels above the curriculum. The HG+ child in this environment is still as out of place as the rest of her classmates were back in the regular classroom. And don't get me started on schools required to teach grade-level curriculum to these HG+ children because of high-stakes state testing.

    Though your rant ends at high school, I would rant further. Here in my middle class Lake Woebegon, we learned that it indeed IS expected that the AP Calc AB teacher differentiate her instruction to help the kids who are ill-prepared for her class to "catch up." Parents want AP Calc on their child's transcript, so the district lets the kids take the class, prepared or not. And the HG+ child in the class, along with all the kids who truly need AP Calc AB, get to sit and wait while the rest of the kids get up to their level, and then hopefully can keep up with the rest of the class. Suffice it to say that our kids' AP scores are not phenomenal, especially since they rush to finish the curriculum before the May test date.

  2. Hi, Laura W,

    I have taught in only two states (Michigan and Illinois), but my range of students and settings includes college classrooms, adults in corporate classrooms, in a private school whose entire population was identified as gifted.

    I have had conversations and workshops with teachers in inner city, suburban, and rural settings, in public and private schools.

    With that understood as my background: Yes, yes, and yes.

    I'll add in another 2¢. Even when you sort "all gifted" into one classroom, you still have the potential (and the reality) for a wide range of abilities and styles. Which is to say, the same reasons differentiation doesn't address the outliers in the macrocosm of a general classroom affect how differentiation (doesn't) address the needs of an outlier in a classroom where all have the gifted label.

    I have seen one or two teachers able to pull it off, in a limited setting, at no small personal sacrifice. It does a disservice to all involved to pretend you can fully, or even adequately, serve the highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted on a full time basis in a traditional classroom.

    Funny how it's a dirty little secret that we're supposed to keep under our hats.


  3. THANK YOU! As the parent of an EG/PG child whose needs have never been met in a classroom - "gifted" or not - thank you for having the courage to speak the truth that we are living. The more we have come to learn about our child's intellectual needs, the more convinced we are that no amount of classroom differentiation could be enough to tend to his widely-diverse abilities.

  4. This is why we just pulled my gifted 3rd grade son from school to homeschool him. Both of my children had 30 plus kids in their classrooms. Even with the very good teacher he had I just did not feel she would be able to meet the needs of a very complicated kid! This school groups kids by ability, but I have been telling them since my daughter was a 1st grader that I did not feel they had a good way to know where my children maxed out in their math ability. I have consistently gotten the run around when trying to get my kids needs met. I finally decided that I could do a better job and 1 week later I have no regrets in pulling him. Thank you for speaking the truth!

  5. Thank you, all of you, for your responses. I was so afraid that this post would attract vilification, rather than support. I am heartened to find that I am not the only one seeing this.

  6. Help. I teach in an elementary school for gifted and 2E kids. In my classroom, I have students gifted in lots of areas in lots of different ways who struggle with some serious "E" stuff. If one is gifted in math, he might not be able to read and write. If he can read, perhaps he's so far below grade level in math that he can't fathom how to do even the simplest of calculations. I have fifth graders unable to comprehend third grade math, first graders reading at a 5th grade level fluently, but yet have absolutely no comprehension without pictures, and everything in between... And with all of that add the 2E piece--ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, Asperger's, Autism, OCD, and a host of other things.

    How does a teacher differentiate for that when they are all in the same room? Even within the "third grade level" math class I teach, I have 23 students and 5 to 10 different levels depending on the concept. I *want* to meet the needs of my kids, but define what that looks like please. What else do I need to do as a teacher? I compact, accelerate, give menus, project choices to go deeper, use technology, and a whole mess of other strategies to meet their needs, yet...I still feel as though I am not. How do I structure our class time? What other strategies do I need to use?

  7. Laura,

    As the mom of an 8 y/o boy in Anchorage, AK, who has tested into the separate HG school, I would LOVE to pick your brain on your experience with regard to school choices and options here. Would you email me? I can't seem to find a way to contact you through your blog.

    Thank you!

  8. Teresa-You are doing fine. You simply can't do it all. That is a fact that no one seems able to say out loud. Get specialized help for some of the disabilities - those at least are supported by most school systems - and don't burn yourself out trying to be all things to all of your students. Pick and choose the things that your students seem to need the most and let some of the other things just be average. IMNSHO. [in my not so humble opinion].