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A report of School District 65’s Differentiation and Enrichment Study Committee contains many recommendations to improve differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching students at different levels in the same classroom. The intent is to maximize each student’s growth by instructing each student at his or her level of development.
“We can look at this as the umbrella, the initiative everything else is going to come together under.” — District 65 Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz
Although the Committee also considered how to improve enrichment opportunities for all students and whether to provide a gifted program, its recommendations in these areas are to “explore” the development of additional enrichment programs and to strengthen differentiated instruction to challenge all students, including advanced learners. The Committee does not recommend a separate program for gifted students.
The report was presented to the School Board on April 7. Superintendent Hardy Murphy said at numerous times throughout the evening that implementing the recommendations would “transform” and “redefine” the way instruction is delivered in the District. “Ultimately it’s about making sure you’re meeting the needs of students across the spectrum of achievement and readiness,” he said. “As we move forward with this differentiation and enrichment piece, we understand that it’s going to drive everything that we’re doing in this District.”
“The most important finding of the study is that differentiation is not an option. It is an effective response to the challenges of today’s classrooms,” said Susan Schultz, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “We can look at this as the umbrella, the initiative everything else is going to come together under,” Ms. Schultz added. “This is the piece that’s going to be the focus for everything we do in bringing all our initiatives together under differentiated instruction.”
The Committee, composed of administrators, principals, teachers and parents, met over a period of five months, reviewed the literature, held focus groups and public forums and consulted with outside experts.
The Changing Classroom
Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable that the Committee’s report should be considered in “an overall educational context.” The report comes at a time when the District is continuing its effort to consolidate as much learning as possible into the general classroom.
e District shifted focus from using pull-out programs for struggling readers to using the regular classroom as the primary place to meet the needs of those students.
Differentiating instruction for all students in a classroom presents a challenge. At a focus group held by the Committee, one first-grade teacher said, “I have kids who do not know their letters yet, and kids who are reading off the charts.” A principal at a middle school said, “We have students at reading levels ranging from third to twelfth grade.”
On a District-wide basis, 17 percent of District 65’s students did not meet standards on the 2007 Illinois Standard Achievement Tests in reading; at the other end of the spectrum, 31 percent of District 65’s students are at or above the 90th percentile rank nationally in reading.
In addition, in the last few years, the District has been implementing an initiative called “Unified Delivery of Instruction,” under which students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) are educated to the maximum extent possible in the general classroom. Dr. Murphy has said this initiative, standing alone, represents a “culture change” for the District. This year 16 percent of District 65 students have an IEP.
The District is also in the process of implementing “Response to Intervention,” a state-mandated initiative, under which teachers must provide a system of early interventions tailored to meet struggling students’ needs and to continually assess the success of the interventions and make adjustments.
“We think these changes have created more challenges in the general education classroom,” Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable. He added, though, that the District has steadily raised the performance level of students and that substantially more students are now meeting or exceeding standards on the ISATs. On the 1999 ISATs, 30 percent of District 65’s students did not meet standards, compared to 17 percent on the 2007 ISATs. “The range of readiness is not as great as 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s a more doable task to get our arms around the range of readiness that’s in the classroom.”
Past Efforts at Differentiation
The District has focused on the need to provide differentiated instruction since at least the 1990s. It was a key element in the Instructional Improvement Initiative implemented in 1999. With the advent of each initiative that consolidated more learning in the general classroom, the District recognized the need to improve differentiated instruction and it has provided teachers additional training and coaching on how to provide it.
The District has also attempted to increase the support for teachers in the classroom by having reading specialists and special education teachers provide “push-in” services in the classroom.
“We recognize that there’s a need for additional support for teachers in the classroom,” Ellen Fogelberg, director of literacy, told the RoundTable. “We will continue to push-in that support.”
Ms. Fogelberg said the District has also made an “aggressive push” to have curriculum materials available in the classroom that can be used with students at different levels of achievement to assist teachers with differentiation. As an example, the new reading textbooks that were recently adopted contain resources to assist teachers to meet the needs of readers at different levels.
At District 65, 17 percent of the students did not meet standards on the 2007 ISATs in reading; at the other end of the spectrum, 31 percent are at or above the 90th percentile rank nationally in reading.
Despite past efforts, District 65 administrators acknowledge the need to improve the delivery of differentiated instruction. Dr. Murphy said, “We acknowledged from the beginning we have inconsistency in the way we deliver this, based upon the particular teachers, the particular building, the particular subject area. What we’re trying to do is close the gaps and create an under girding of a philosophical appraisal that is going to drive the way that we’re going to look at instruction.”
Ms. Fogelberg said she thought teachers in all elementary classrooms were creating small, flexible groups of students to provide differentiated instruction. She acknowledged, though, “One of the things that became evident through the whole committee work is that it [flexible grouping] isn’t everywhere. And if it isn’t everywhere, how do we get it everywhere? And even for teachers who I think are using flexible grouping, I think we can get better at it.”
At one of the focus groups held by the Committee, one principal summarized it this way: “I would say about 20 percent of my teachers are really good at differentiation. The rest are on a continuum from ‘almost’ there to ‘not at all.’ When I do a formal observation, I see what teachers can do. But when I just stop in, I see more whole-group work.”
There appeared to be consensus that there is more differentiated instruction at the elementary schools than the middle schools. Kathy Robeson, principal of Haven School, offered a possible explanation for the difference. She said middle school teachers teach 100 to 150 students during a school day, and have each student 40 minutes a day, compared to the elementary schools where teachers have 20 to 25 kids for five hours a day.
Several parents, who were on the Committee, challenged the successfulness of the District’s current program. Deborah Graham said that 36 percent of the students were in the top 95th-percentile rank nationally in math and 19 percent were in the top 95th-percentile rank nationally in reading. “There’s a real question whether the needs of those students are being effectively addressed,” she said.
Virginia Lazarus told Board members, “I want to make sure you get how much input we got from all our work, and that … an awful lot of people feel that there are large percentages of kids at all grades whose needs are not being met, who are not being challenged, who are meeting or exceeding standards and not being pushed beyond that.”
Dr. Murphy told the RoundTable the recommendations to improve differentiated instruction emerged in large part to meet the needs of high-achieving students.
While doing this the District must contiune to address the needs of students at the other end of the spectrum. On the 2007 ISATs, 31% of black students, 22% of Hispanic students, 51% of students with an IEP and 28% of limited English proficient students did not meet standards.
The Tomlinson Differentiation Model
The Committee recommends that the District adopt the model of differentiated instruction developed by Carla Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, and that the District develop a five-year plan to systematically train teachers and principals in differentiating instruction using that model.
“It’s a relatively new model that’s been refined in the last few years,” Ms. Fogelberg told the RoundTable. “It provides a bigger structure and a better structure on how to differentiate instruction.” She said the District would be able to improve differentiated instruction “when we have a framework on how to do this.”
Some of the key elements of the Tomlinson model are formative assessment of students, flexible grouping of students, and respectful tasks:
The teacher should use “formative assessments” of students (i.e., continually gather information about a student’s knowledge and skills) in order to make targeted adjustments to instructing that student.
The teacher should use flexible grouping as a primary mechanism for differentiating instruction. The grouping should be based on ongoing formative assessments of the students; grouping and regrouping of students should be a dynamic process. Ms. Schultz said flexible grouping should not be based on ability but on readiness to learn, student interest or a student profile.
The teacher should provide optimal challenge for individual students and groups of students through respectful tasks.
The teacher should create a positive learning environment and have a high-quality curriculum.
At the Committee’s request, District 65 hired consultants Dr. Kristina Doubet (James Madison University) and Jessica Hockett and Jane Jarvis (both of University of Virginia), to determine the extent to which the District was currently providing differentiated instruction, as articulated in the Tomlinson model. The consultants observed 54 District 65 classrooms, each lasting about 30-45 minutes, on Feb. 6-8 and 25.
The consultants’ report found that the majority of classrooms were characterized by nurturing environments and that teachers had created interesting, welcoming, print-rich student-centered learning centers. “We saw many examples of strong teachers who love where, what and whom they teach,” the consultants concluded.
The consultants’ report concluded, however, “In general, the level of teacher expertise in differentiating instruction apparent in our observations is commensurate with the professional development support and training District 65 teachers have been provided, and is consistent with the District not having adopted a formal model for differentiation.”
While commending teachers in numerous findings, the consultants concluded there was room for improvement in the following areas:
“Across grade levels, we observed wide variance in how (and how well) teachers utilize structures and programs to differentiate instruction and to otherwise engage students in powerful learning strategies.”
“Nearly all of the enacted curriculum that we observed at all grade levels was focused on the attainment of facts and skills, which hampered the potential for and quality of differentiated tasks in general and resulted in some cases of quantitative instructional adjustments (e.g., giving some students more or less work to do, rather than more appropriate work). Few teachers were observed using curriculum to empower students by granting them access to important ideas.”
“In briefly explaining their curriculum decision-making process to observers, many teachers used District or state tests as a reference point for determining what students needed to know and be able to do. Administrators suggested that the observed emphases on testing may have been influenced by teachers preparing students for the upcoming state assessments in March.”
“Science and social studies appear to be receiving little attention in the elementary grades curriculum relative to math and literacy.”
“… On the whole, very few classrooms at any grade level revealed teacher use of formative assessment to consistently, proactively plan instructional adjustments or facilitate flexible grouping.”
“While most teachers we observed used some form of grouping, their strategies seemed to fall into one or both of two categories [groupings that ‘did not appear to be flexible’ or groupings that were ‘predominantly ‘random’], neither of which is conducive to effective differentiation.”
“At the middle school level, many teachers expressed resistance to grouping students in any way or for any instructional purpose.”
Ms. Schultz emphasized that the consultants’ used the Tomlinson model as a measure which District 65 had not yet adopted and under which teachers had not been trained, and that the observations were limited in scope and not intended to constitute a comprehensive evaluation of the District’s curriculum and instructional program. The Committee report states, “The results provide baseline data for planning, and not for evaluating all differentiation efforts.”
The Committee recommends that the District develop a five-year plan to systematically train teachers, instructional leaders and principals in differentiating instruction based on the Tomlinson model.
Ms. Schultz said, “Professional development is really the key to this whole initiative.” She said, “The District will need to develop a comprehensive staff development plan, which will include using the expertise of outside consultants. This professional development will build on previous content-focused staff development which included differentiation strategies.”
A number of Board members balked at a five-year horizon. Bonnie Lockhart said, “I’m concerned about it taking five years.” She said she wanted to see results on a year-by-year basis.
Mary Rita Luecke said, “I would like to be sure we are doing something next year that is getting into the classroom that is affecting students.”
Dr. Murphy said the District would make progress on a year-by-year basis, but it would take three to five years before highly proficient differentiated instruction was in every classroom.
Ms. Robeson said, “If we had to tell our teachers they had to do this [with a high level of proficiency] in less than five years, I think it would be really overwhelming.”
She suggested the District differentiate its professional development program. “Some of our teachers are doing this a lot and some of our teachers are having a more difficult time with it,” she said. “We have to really differentiate our professional development because we have teachers who are beginners, who were trained to teach in a different way, and others who were trained in this way and are really ready to go that way. We have to have leveled professional development.”
Dr. Beth Flores, principal of Lincolnwood School, said, “It’s really important that the principals as well receive all the training and are part of it, because the teachers will only buy into it if the principals are on board and can spot where differentiation is taking place and where it’s not, and work together as a team to really define it and identify it.”
The Committee did not reach consensus on whether enrichment should be “deeper, more challenging tasks related to the curriculum” or “opportunities to explore content that is not part of the curriculum.” The Committee recommended that the District develop a definition of enrichment and “explore” the development of additional enrichment programs and the feasibility of implementing the Renzulli Schoolwide Enrichment Model, a research-based model, which focuses on enrichment for all students through high levels of engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences.
The Committee did not recommend a separate program for gifted students, but recommended that differentiated instruction be used “to challenge all learners in our classrooms and to ensure that the needs of advanced learners are being met.”
Ms. Luecke said she agreed with the view that there be no special gifted program. She said though, “I do believe that we have to be doing a much better job reaching our high-achieving students through differentiation and enrichment. I think acceleration has worked well in our math program, and we have to think if and how we can use that in other subjects.”
The administration will present an action plan to the Board in late May or early June, with recommendations “on the best ways to proceed,” Dr. Murphy said. “It seems to me the seed of the recommendation at this time is anchored in professional development and technical assistance.” The action plan will likely focus on those areas. Dr. Murphy said the Committee’s recommendations should also be folded in the District’s long-range strategic plan.
The Committee report defines differentiation “”as a teacher reacting responsively to a learner’s needs. Differentiation is attending to the needs of a particular student or a group of students to maximize student growth and success.””
The report also states that the teacher should deliver instruction within the student’s “”zone of proximal development,”” which refers to the zone between a student’s actual developmental level and his or her level of potential development.