E Pluribus Pluribus: Is Differentiated Instruction Possible?

It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.

His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.

“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.

Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.

Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.”  Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.

A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.

The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”

*  *  *

Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?

In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country.  As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”

A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.

Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.

By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.

“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens instead is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students.

“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”

*  *  *

Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.

One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.

Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”

Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs.  “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”

Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”

After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.

The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”

Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need.  Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.

What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?

The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.

It’s a new day.

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

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  1. Posted October 13, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    “few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year…”

    ha, if only we in high school only had 20-30 students! We have 150! Yet, we are expected to differentiate like they do in elementary schools!

    I haven’t heard of a shred of cognitive science that supports the presupposition of differentiation; that it’s most effective for learning to teach to the student mode. What I have read is that the content’s optimal mode is more effective. But, in these strange times of education “reform” evidence takes a back seat.

  2. Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    A very thoughtful and well-written blogpost, thank you.
    The stance of social justice that Sarah Creagh takes is inspiring and not corny as she might have feared. In many ways differentiation is about social justice in that it is bringing each student ahead from wherever they start. However, as a teacher for the last ten years, I feel that differentiation is something that I’ve only had the time to take on effectively in the last couple of years. As you teach more resources are at your disposal and you begin to gather more alternatives to your “main lesson” to help more students. Unfortunately, asking teachers to develop all of these layers at once in their first year or two of teaching leads to burn-out.

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink


    I may have sent this to you via my blog. Not sure. Nonetheless, what you write reminds me of this:

    In the past few years I’ve seen the high end and the low end of education in New York City. I’ve taught in a private school (the kind the media like to refer to as “elite” or “tony” or “prestigious”) and I’ve taught in a New York City public school (the kind media currently hover over to see what the school’s next performance grade will be and if it is in danger of closing).

    When I first arrived at the private school, thirty years ago, I was given a piece of advice by my department head, a long time teacher at the school. “Don’t stick your head up too high, or it will get chopped off.” It was my introduction in how to survive at the institution. It was a kind of shorthand to help understand an unwritten institutional contract. The students at the school were, by and large, the sons and daughters of the rich and successful. Their number was rounded by a few carefully selected, bright, minority children. The clear expectation was that these students would go to the best colleges. The faculty’s job was to get them there. While good teaching was not disallowed, and to a certain extent practiced, far more important was good grading. By good grading I mean certifying with an alphabet that began at A and ended at B that these were top students. A shorthand job description for faculty at this school would be, Enabling the Entitled. Ignore the blemishes. It was easier to ignore a problem than it was to confront it. Cynical perhaps, but with more truth in it than people would like to admit. The easy route for faculty was to place no obstacles on a student’s road to success. Student imperfections, if addressed at all, were often outsourced to expensive SAT prep courses, high priced tutors, private college admissions consultants, learning specialists and mental health professionals (Please keep the latter a secret.). The institutional scale tipped not toward integrity but toward ensuring kids got into good colleges.

    The kids I worked with in the public school were designated Special Ed. As one of their teachers so graciously put it, “ They’ve got an IEP (an Individualized Education Program, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), so that gives them a license to act retarded.” Student problems and problem students were best kept out of sight, out of mind. A shorthand job description for faculty dealing with these kids would be Enabling the Disenfranchised. Assume they are entitled to little or nothing. Prepare them for that position by asking nothing of them. Do nothing to explore their potential. Keep them together in the same room from year to year. Make sure they cause as little trouble as possible. Keep them under control. They’ll be out of school shortly. Rehearse them well to be non-participants in our society. Reward passive compliance. I worked with these kids because they were considered “at risk”. Money was being spent to help keep them out of the criminal justice system. The great irony is they were already incarcerated in a place called school. A place where no one ever really bothered to listen to them.

    What the schools share in common is their steadfast adherence to the status quo.
    Kids at both schools are like the mail. They’ve already been pre-sorted and classed. The teacher’s job, like the mailman’s, is to ensure the mail gets to its proper destination. The First Class/Special Delivery to be sped to destinations in Cambridge, MA, New Haven, CT, or Palo Alto, CA. Kids from the public school are bulk mail, delivered to every doorstep in their neighborhood. Like bulk mail, many were ignored, destined for recycling, attended to only when they created a disturbance that could not be ignored, or when they littered the street.

    Good teaching and good teachers do exist. I’ve seen teachers willing to confront the entitled and to insist upon genuine effort from them. Telling them they didn’t work hard enough to deserve being on a team, insisting on a paper being handed in on time, determined to consult with parents and not let a problem fester. I’ve seen teachers ask special ed students to write and talk about their circumstances, often for the first time; to encourage a student, also perhaps for the first time, to perform their work in front of a group. To give kids who have been ignored a chance to make themselves and their work, public. To be seen and heard.

    Great teaching gets done in places where people make or are given the room to be remarkable. Schools or classrooms that seek not to define who students are and what they should know, but ask who they can be and what they might create. A few teachers risk being the poets who write beautiful letters. The rest, alas, keep their heads safely attached and deliver the mail. Going home promptly at the end of the school day to lock in a deep embrace with mediocrity.

  4. Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Wow, Bill, that’s a really powerful story, and image — that both sets of kids are like the mail, in that they’ve already been sorted by a system with a steadfast adherence to the status quo. That’s why I so admire the teachers I’m following — they are determined to get it right, and to get it right for all of their kids. And that work is so hard, and so rewarding. And there are so many other factors at work — from nutrition to learning styles to social and emotional needs. And yet what choice do we have but to persevere and believe?

  5. Posted October 18, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Yes. It is high time to call it what it is: School is a social sorting device. All the research has pointed to that reality for decades. I wrote about the same thing from the point of view of the language we use: http://rickackerly.com/2011/10/12/management-speak-disguises-a-short-sighted-vision-of-school/
    “Look at the data that data-driven managers keep collecting from the workers. Are we getting those “results?” If one were as rigorous as that word “data” pretends to be, one might hypothesize that our approach is wrong. It is. People don’t learn well this way.”

  6. Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sam
    When Harvey looks out the window I ask what are you seeing, dreaming or thinking about?
    The children I spend most time with, Aboriginal kids in extremely remote communities in the poorest parts of Australia, have an extremely rich, sophisticated and sometimes elusive way of seeing.
    It will take a teacher of great skill and empathy to share or guide Harvey’s discovery.
    So he spots his name written near the sharks. Will he have the chance to find out the number of Great Whites killed in nets around Australia’s coastline? It’s 590 and there are probably no more than 3800 of the species remaining. Perhaps Harvey is the boy who will tell the class that we are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction and their year of learning will be transformed by his single discovery?
    I hear you Sam and Bill is right. The First Class/Special Delivery system misses the greatest joy of teaching and being human.

  7. Posted October 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Rick – thanks for sharing that link. I encourage others to check out what Rick has to say on these issues. And Jeff, it is always such an honor to see your name and know you are reading my stuff; I need a new Aussie adventure so I can come visit and see the core of your work there. I love the way you put it — it is always about finding different ways of seeing, whether it’s school or marriage or friendships or walkabouts. Always.

  8. Posted October 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting premise to consider school organization and the hope for differentiation. The underlying issue you seem to be pointing out is that if a school is expected to serve every child in the same classroom the possibility of success for every child is pretty slim. Ask any teacher if he or she can serve every child equally well (or connects with each one equally) and they will surely say no. But then we throw a pile of kids in one room and expect a teacher to be successful with each one WHILE requiring some common curriculum based on a narrow range of standards. Yes, some kids will do okay, but for many, this is a recipe for mediocrity at best. I am writing about this at http://crazyedy.wordpress.com/.
    The problem is uniformity and trying to impose one size fits all (or all will fit one size)–our kids are each individuals; we can’t fit every peg into the same shape hole. What we need is a system of publicly funded, excellent schools with different foci or styles or curriculum that still serve a wide range of learners who each have equal and free access but are not necessarily a catch all for every possible child in a geographic area. Purpose focused schools can attract a slightly narrower range of learning styles (and recruit more like minded, purpose driven teachers) that make differentiation much more feasible and thereby much more inclusive of the full range of students in each individual school.
    Let’s rethink the simple dichotomy of the catch all “common” school that is expected to take all kids (but not necessarily serve them all well) or the elite, selective private or magnet school. There is a big space in between these two limited extremes for a flourishing of public, independent schools open to all that distinguish themselves by their mission and program to better match student learning style with the educational focus of the school. This is a more likely path to equity, access, and quality.

  9. George Ensinger
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I am impressed with both classroom stories. That the one classroom is co-taught is also intriguing and important. Regardless of how homogenious a clas of students is, each student will be at a different place in their learning journey and different parts of any lesson will connect differently for each student. Having a co-teacher in this enterprise, I believe, is necessary especially for younger students.

    I am just getting back into teaching. I just had my first day subbing for the art teacher in a very well-run elementary school. The children were cooperative and interested. The teacher left clear lesson plans. The lessons were serious and challenging for the students. I taught 5 classes. The teacher would normally have had 6. Keeping up with the students, answering questions, helping with procedures and keeping the classroom clean when messy art media are in use takes noticeable effort. If I did this everyday, I would be a bit more efficient, hopefully. In any case, quality teaching requires great effort. I think much of the public has little appreciation for the work and thoughtfulness of teachers. The charter school teacher you described, not having a co-teacher and having only one break, I cannot help thinking that that situation will eventually impair her teaching.

    I wish there were less conversation about “waste” in education and more commitment to providing OUR CHILDREN with the educational resources they need!

  10. Rachel Fedewa Irmen
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Sam and those who’ve commented –

    Thank you. These stories are so insightful and remind me of my own educational upbringing.

    My parents, disappointed with the quality of education that we were receiving in Oregon in the mid 1980s, picked up and moved our family to Mexico. For the record, we are not Mexican. We had visited Mexico on vacation and somehow that trip inspired my parents. Their thinking was: at least the kids will learn Spanish and a different culture. The plan to stay for a year turned into 12 years.

    My brothers and I studied at a private school founded by Italian priests who’s mission was to provide an academic environment as attractive to the elite as to the truly impoverished and everything in between. “A rising tide lifts all boats” was essentially the premise. My classmates (and best friends) included the daughter of our city’s mayor, the children of a lower middle-class teacher, and the son of an illiterate farmer. The average class size per teacher was 50 (yes, fifty). There was a load of good old fashioned Catholic discipline as well as teaching by rote, but there was also a great deal of love, passion for learning, and a general belief that we all had the potential to move on to “bigger and better.”

    I don’t know how my teachers did it, but I am still amazed by what many of my classmates – particularly those of more humble beginnings – have done with their lives. One of my classmates, who commuted 2 hours each way to school from her home in a remote mountain community that had no electricity or running water, is now a successful pharmacist. The son of the illiterate farmer is today a jet-setting executive who is also openly gay and a gay rights advocate (and we were educated by Catholics in a conservative Catholic country).

    As for me, I learned Spanish, yes. Or should I say “si”? But even more importantly, I learned – among other things – of the tremendous potential that resides in often the most unexpected of places. The stories of Cassie and the two Sarahs and others posted here, along with my own educational experience from way back when, serve as reminders that investing in that potential requires A LOT of energy, perseverance and a big leap of faith. But making that investment can (it really can) reap great rewards.

  11. Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink


    Great article – and I appreciate whatever everyone else has to say as well. I think DI is a “better” alternative to what has been offered in schools – but it still feels limited not only for the teachers, but for the students as well. The truth is, we are still trying to institute better techniques within an overall system of education that is outdated – and whose main purpose is still to manage the masses.

    Thinking of all the wonderful teachers out there – they are not teaching as much as shepherding flocks of children from one stage to the next. Along the way they hope to leave a positive impact as best they can, but the flock is so big – and the main goal remains keeping them moving along – because there is a no flock coming in right behind them.

    We’re outnumbered! The teachers…the resources…the facilities. Until we are able to lift the lid off the box of our current model – and really be willing to turn it upside down and shake out the old remnants – we’ll continue to find ourselves shorthanded and behind.


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