Differentiation is good when we negotiate ways for students to learn with students themselves. When we collaborate on ways to learn and demonstrate learning, we build community, generate buy-in, and help students enjoy and take advantage of their natural curiosity and urge to imagine and create.
However, differentiation that involves students requires more of us than offering a choice between teacher-designed pieces of work. Differentiation that involves students requires more of us than diagnosing a student’s weakness and prescribing the appropriate intervention. Differentiation that involves students requires students’ voices and efforts to make meaning of learning – it is not a process of finding the best way for a student to memorize or repeat what we adults consider to be important.
In fact, when we differentiate by ability grouping or academic tracking, we are practicing a limiting, harmful sorting that diminishes our society and its democracy by keeping all of our kids from learning with and from one another. When we differentiate by what we think a kid can do – instead of through what a kid wants to do – we assign that child a role in our schools that is like a 13-year sentence to the kind of work we assign that “kind” of kid.
Essentially, public schools sort kids into 3 groups: the kids who can pass the tests; the kids who we need to make pass the tests with test prep (a.k.a. bubble kids); and the kids who we don’t think can pass the tests, but to whom we assign test prep anyway. Why we – as a teaching professions and community of parents – have let things get this far is a topic of many other debates, movies, posts, speeches, videos, and books.
So it’s vitality important that we look at the ways we sort students (and adults) in school; it’s vitality important that we dismantle the mechanisms we use to separate kids; it’s vitality important we question why and how we group children, and for whose benefit we do it.
To those ends, here are two ways we separate kids and why we should care about them.
Ability grouping, a.k.a. academic tracking
What is it?
We group kids into classes and levels based on how well they perform on print-based math and reading tests that ask them to read and answer dozens of discrete test items.
Why should we care?
The way we group kids in response to math and reading tests – the ones that our government uses to punish struggling schools – drives everything in all of our schools. The number of students in “need” of intervention determines student groupings, class sizes, and how a school schedules its time and staffs its teaching corps. Why are elective programs vanishing? Because the money used to pay elective teachers is being used to pay for teachers to cover extra class sections of reading and math intervention and for the decontextualized, canned curricula, computers, and programs used in such classes. Also, when we place students into leveled math and reading classes, those placements determine what other classes – including electives – are available to them the rest of the day. By dint of test results, some students are always precluded from taking some courses – even those without any kind of criteria related to math or reading.
Moreover, we track kids for life. Ask any kid in any school who is “smart” or “dumb,” and that kid will be able to tell you exactly what he or she has been taught to believe based on the way his or her school separates students by math and reading scores. Kids learn how we judge them much more quickly than they learn how to build community, practice empathy, or collaborate in such a way that takes advantage of several different kinds of people and talents. We teach kids that there scores determine their place in their society (school).
Do we want to continue living in a society that determines our place by numbers? That subscribes to test-based notions of determinism? That excuses a lack of empathy in the presence of high achievement? How else can we group children? What other kinds of community can we build at school around work that all students value and from which they benefit because of their collaboration with others? What happens when kids learn from one another and through their strengths? Is the only way to value print the mastery of it? Is the only way to value a child through a standardized test?
The core classes, a.k.a. academic disciplines
What is it?
We organize staff and student schedules by discrete core subjects such as English, history, math, and science. We run departments – especially in secondary education – and school division-level committees and teams made up of educators from just one subject at a time. We silo electives teachers in their own department.
Why should we care?
We face complex problems in our country and around the world. We hold up and celebrate jobs that require complex skill sets in problem-solving. We care about complex political issues with both human fasces and statistical realities.
In our schools, we teach students that the best way to organize work is to separate people with different talents from one another. In the real world, we need people with diverse talents to work together to finish our projects and navigate our crises. Do we sometimes need specialists? Absolutely, but we don’t inspire students to specialize, and students don’t have the chance to choose a specialization inside school – we tell them where to go when and we divide their days equally (or, for struggling students, disproportionately) between the subjects we value.
Furthermore, by insisting on single-discipline studies, we further limit students’ expectations of themselves. A student who struggles with math who walks into a math class full of math decorations must feel trapped. A student who struggles to read who walks into a room full of books and motivational posters about onomatopoeia must feel similarly cornered.
Why aren’t we building spaces that encourage writers to write across the curricula? That inspire mathematicians to analyze the maths of communication? The enable artists to create non-print products in response to their learning about every subject? Why are we settling for the score reports and transcripts we create instead of expecting students to build portfolios
Our school system won’t dare change its schedules or practices so long as our federal and state governments enforce punitive policies that coerce compliance with yearly testing in each core subject. There is too much money, trust, and self to lose in risking something different – something based in community and an understanding of the ways in which learning across the curricula helps us discover connections and solutions that never occur to us while we’re afraid of failing classes one by one.
It’s not that we shouldn’t assess our kids’ learning. It’s not that schools schools become the land of do as you please.
It is this:
We should find out what our children have to teach us about learning, community, and excellent work of lasting value by seeing how much meaning they can make of the world together and with our help. We should keep track of that work at the local level to make sure our schools are the land of learn and help and solve as you please.
We’re going to need all of our children, all of their understanding, and all their solutions to shape a future better for them than the one we’re achieving for ourselves.
It is not for us to say who can enjoy that better future based on test scores. It is for us to join our children in the messy work of learning how to better live and learn together.
To wit, part of our effort to #occuopyedu should include repeated attempts to start local, state, and national conversations about the way our public school system teaches children to judge themselves and others by way of sorting and separation.