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Improving differentiated instruction in the classroom is central to School District 65’s efforts to improve student achievement. It has become increasingly important to do so because the District has implemented programs in the past few years that have increased the range of learners in the classroom.

In the early 2000s, District 65 began to shift from using pull-out programs for struggling readers to using the regular classroom as the primary place to meet the needs of those students. In the last few years, the District has also emphasized the need to educate students with a disability to the maximum extent possible in the general classroom. At the same time, the District plans to challenge advanced students in the general classroom.

“If we look at today’s classrooms, they are academically diverse, said Assistant Superintendent Susan Shultz at a joint meeting of the District 65 and 202 School Boards earlier this year. “You’ll see students with learning difficulties, English language learners, advanced learners, students who chronically underachieve, students with different skills, and students with different interests.”

Last year the School Board adopted the Tomlinson method of differentiation as the primary instructional strategy to meet the needs of all students in the classroom. (See sidebar for a summary of the Tomlinson model). Providing effective differentiated instruction is thus central to District 65’s efforts to improve student achievement. It is “at the center of our District’s efforts to improve teaching and learning,” said Ms. Shultz.

On April 20, administrators laid out a professional development plan to improve teachers’ ability to provide differentiated instruction in the classroom, to deliver more interventions in the classroom, to increase the use of co-teaching, and to effectively employ technology in the classroom. Differentiated instruction will serve as the “umbrella concept for all District professional development initiatives,” says the report.

The most powerful forms of staff development occur in ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving,” says the NSDC Report.

Drawing on the “Standards for Staff Development” prepared by the National Staff Development Council (NSDC), District 65 will continue to use workshops, but will place a greater emphasis on improving teachers’ learning through common planning and collaboration and by increasing the time for professional learning opportunities.

A February 2009 report, “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession,” prepared by NSDC and the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, concludes, “Improving professional learning for educators is a crucial step in transforming schools and improving academic achievement. … As students are expected to learn more complex and analytical skills in preparation for further education and work in the 21st century, teachers must learn to teach in ways that develop higher order thinking and performance. … Efforts to improve student achievement can succeed only by building the capacity of teachers to improve their instructional practice and the capacity of school systems to advance teacher learning.

“The most powerful forms of staff development occur in ongoing teams that meet on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving,” says the NSDC Report. “Many scholars have begun to place greater emphasis on job-embedded and collaborative teacher learning.”

D65 Model for Professional Learning

Ms. Schultz told Board members, “Professional development is most effective where teachers engage actively in instructional inquiry in the context of collaborative professional communities, focused on instructional improvement and student achievement.”

“We consider it to be job-embedded – that means during the course of the work day – collaborative, data-driven, and teacher driven,” she said. “It includes a variety of models: workshops, lesson studies, book studies, active research, coaching, mentoring, team or department collaboration projects, to name a few.”

The District’s model for providing professional development to improve differentiated instruction contains three phases. Under Phase 1, elementary school teachers attend a two-day mini-course, by grade level, conducted by a consultant. Soon after the mini-course, teachers participate in a “lesson study,” where a lesson is planned by a volunteer teacher to provide differentiated instruction, and then the teacher delivers the instruction to a class of students while about 20 other teachers observe the class.

Amy Jacobsen, a first-grade teacher at Dewey School, volunteered for the lesson study. In developing the lesson plan, she met with the District’s consultant and planned the lesson with a differentiation coach and another teacher.

She said, “It’s a little intimidating to have 15 to 20 coworkers descend on your classroom and watch you teach.” She added, “It was highly effective because they were able to see how the kids interacted with the lesson, and when we finished with the lesson, we debriefed. That gave me a chance to have 20 of my teammates talk to me, tell what they thought about the lesson, how they thought the students learned from the activity.

“It was a wonderful experience for me, being able to teach and have my teammates give me feedback. But it was really effective for them also, because they were able to go and try some of those strategies in their classrooms.”

Ms. Jacobsen said preparing the lesson plan was “really challenging” and time consuming. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes, until it becomes something you just do every day.”

Amy Krulee, a first-grade teacher at Lincoln, also volunteered for the lesson study. “The collaboration on how to differentiate was very beneficial,” she said. “I loved the debriefing.”

Ms. Shultz said, “The power [of the lesson study] is in the planning and learning so the teachers can apply this to other lessons. Their colleagues can see this done and they can talk about it, they can ask questions about it, and they can go back and try it in their classrooms. It’s about the collaboration.”

Ms. Shultz told the RoundTable that four teachers per grade level (K-2) had prepared lesson plans so far as part of the lesson studies. She said it is the school principals’ responsibility to monitor other teachers in the development of lesson plans. Teachers may have another teacher, such as a reading specialist, observe their class and provide feedback if that is available within the school building, she said.

By June 1, all classroom teachers in grades K-3 will have participated in both the mini-course on differentiated instruction and the lesson study. The program will continue in the fall to include all teachers in grades 3-5 and new elementary school teachers.

Phase 2 of the District’s professional development model consists of on-going lesson study. Phase 3 will focus on specific aspects of differentiation, such as assessment, flexible grouping, and developing respectful tasks.

The roll out plan for middle school teachers is slightly different, and focuses on how to differentiate instruction in a middle school setting.

Preparing the lesson plan was challenging and time consuming but “the more you do it, the easier it becomes, until it becomes something you just do every day.” — Amy
Jacobsen, District 65 Teacher

Administrators said the professional development has been well received by teachers. Suzanne Farrand, math and gifted coordinator, said teachers are “standing in line” to teach the lesson studies. Ellen Fogelberg, director of literacy, said teachers overwhelmingly gave positive responses in their evaluations of the professional development.

Additional Approaches

The District is using additional methods for professional development:

  • Reading specialists attended a week long course in the summer of 2008 on Response to Intervention (RTI), and have become members of the intervention teams at every elementary school. These teachers play a role in expanding the knowledge of their colleagues through collaboration on specific, data-driven student learning problems, says the District’s report on professional development.
  • The report says co-teaching is being implemented throughout the District, and professional growth occurs as co-teachers examine student data, agree on the specific goals of a lesson, and then design and deliver the instruction.
  • Special education teachers are “routinely included in content area workshops, department meetings and team planning sessions,” according to the report.
  • Teachers are being taught how to use technology in the classroom.


“Professional development should be intensive, ongoing and connected to priorities,” said Ms. Shultz. “By intensive we mean, 50 plus hours over a school year on a topic.”

“The research is clear you need a great deal of time if professional development is going to impact professional practice,” she said. “The culture of the District and the individual schools must create the time and structure to foster collegial work.”

On April 20, the Board approved a calendar in which seven of the first Wednesdays of the month are designated as half-days of attendance for students. Teachers remain in attendance and participate in either site-based or District-wide professional development on those days.

In addition, Ms. Shultz told the RoundTable, elementary school teachers have common planning time during the fine arts period, usually four days a week for 40 minutes. She said teams of teachers usually meet and collaborate two times a week during those periods. She said teachers also meet before and after school.

“We can get to the 50 hours,” she told the RoundTable. “I’m very satisfied with the time we have. We always want to have more time, but we want the teachers in the classroom.”

“We will have significant impact on every teacher by December of next year,” she said.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy told Board members on April 20, “When we finished the [Differentiation/Enrichment] study, we said the study was going to transform the culture of instruction of the District. What you see here being presented tonight is just the first wave of that. By the time we finish with this, I think what you’re going to see is a very different teaching and learning experience in the classroom.”


The Tomlinson Method of Differentiation

In the book “”The Differentiated School, Making Revolutionary Changes in Teaching and Learning”” (2008), Carol Ann Tomlinson and her co-authors list eight “”nonnegotiable”” elements of effective differentiation. The eight elements and some of the descriptors of these elements are:  

  • Respecting Individuals: “”learning and demonstrating an appreciation for each person’s culture and background; …accepting the person ‘as is,’ while helping him or her grow.””
  • Owning Student’s Success: “”When a teacher owns the success of a student, that teacher operates with a ‘whatever it takes to make this work’ approach.””
  • Building Community: “”Teaching students to be respectful of one another; … pointing out legitimate student strengths; … helping students learn how to help one another in productive ways.””
  • Providing High-Quality Curriculum: “”Teaching for understanding (emphasizing the concepts, principles, and essential understandings of a discipline); … Insisting on and supporting consistent growth in high-level thought; … starting with what the most able students need and supporting all students in success with that level of curriculum.””
  • Assessing to Inform Instruction: “”Systematically observing students at work; Using pre-assessments to understand students’ starting points; … Using ongoing assessments to trace student progress and identify trouble spots; … Asking students what’s working for them and what’s not.””
  • Implementing Flexible Classroom Routines: “”Allowing more time for students who need it; … Enabling students to move ahead who are ready to do so; … Using varied seating arrangements to support the work of individuals and small groups; … Systematically planning and using flexible grouping of students based on readiness, interest, learning preference, random assignment, student choice, and teacher choice.””
  • Creating Varied Avenues to Learning: present things in a way that works for students; offer mini-workshops or clinics on key skills; provide small group instruction.
  • Sharing Responsibility for Teaching and Learning: “”understand that students have valuable perspectives on teaching and learning, that a team approach to making the classroom work is more efficient than the teacher having to manage everything, and that students learn to take charge of their own academic success by being taught how to do so.””



Intense Professional Development Impacts Student Achievement

In their Feb. 2009 Report, “”Professional Learning in the Learning Profession,”” the National Staff Development Council and the School Design Network at Stanford University conclude, “”Professional development that is sustained and intense has a greater chance of transforming teaching practices and student learning.”” The report found that five of six studies that offered substantial contact hours of professional development (ranging from 30 to 100 hours in total) spread out over six to 12 months showed “”a positive and significant effect on student achievement gains.””

Conversely, in three studies that involved professional development ranging from 5 to 14 hours in total, there was “”no statistically significant effect on student learning.””

“”Across the nine studies, the levels of professional development offered – an average of 49 hours in a year – boosted student achievement by approximately 21 percentile points,”” according to the report.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...