***Please read the disclaimer to the right. The following is the latest in several installments by former teacher and school board member for the Highland Community School District, Nick Smith. They are lessons to a future student, Cal-Em (Lesson 1 , Lesson #2 , Lesson #3, Part I, Lesson #3, Part II , LESSON 4 , Lesson 5: [part 1], Lesson 5[part 2], LESSON 5 [part 3], LESSON 6, LESSON SEVEN, Part I, Lesson 7, part II, LESSON 8, Lesson 9, Lesson 10 , Lesson #11 , Lesson #12, Lesson #13 , Lesson #14 Lesson #15 , Lesson #16 , Lesson #17 Lesson #18)
LETTERS TO CAL-EM A PERSONAL HISTORY OF HIGHLAND By Nick Smith
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (Dr. Seuss)
The trend to individualization (IEPS FOR EVERYONE)
Differentiated instruction and assessment (known as ‘differentiated learning’ or, in educationese, simply, ‘differentiation’) is a philosophy for education that provides different students with different pathways to learning (generally, in the same classroom) through different acquisition of content; processing, constructing and making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and evaluation measurements so all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of their differences in ability. The teacher setting different expectations for task completion for each student based upon their individual needs accomplishes this procedure.
Differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson (as cited by Ellis, Gable, Greg, & Rock, 2008, p. 32), is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” Teachers can differentiate through four ways: 1) content, 2) process, 3) product, and 4) learning environment based on the individual learner. Differentiation stems from beliefs about differences among learners–how they learn, learning preferences and individual interests (Anderson, 2007). Therefore, differentiation is an organized, yet flexible way of proactively adjusting teaching and learning methods to accommodate each child’s learning needs and preferences in order to achieve his or her maximum growth as a learner. In order to understand how our students learn and what they know, pre-assessment and ongoing assessments are essential. This provides feedback for both the teacher and the student with the ultimate goal of improving student learning. Delivery of instruction in the past often followed a “one size fits all” approach. In contrast, differentiation is individually student centered, with a focus on utilizing appropriate instructional and assessment tools that are fair, flexible, challenging, and engage students in the curriculum in meaningful ways.
I don’t know what the greatest thing was before sliced bread, but I know that differentiated instruction was the best thing since sliced bread. This method of instruction takes a tremendous amount of time in planning, preparing and assessing by the teacher, but it pays off handsomely for the students. The method is not for every class and probably wouldn’t work for some courses at all because logistically, it is simply not possible due to the number of students. This method, however, is perfect for literature and writing courses that tend to lend themselves to individual instruction and assessment anyway. I normally differentiated through process, product and environment, doing content only when there was a severe difference in ability levels in the classroom.
The program at Highland integrated the concept of guided practice and independent practice from the Madeline Hunter initiative, finding that these added another dimension to the assessment process that led to more sophisticated differentiation among the students. We actually discussed the idea of providing each student with an individual education plan (IEP) tied to a career plan later for guidance in course selection and college/career readiness. Differentiation worked well in my instructional areas, and because I had taught so many writing and literature type classes, the switch was easy and smooth; in fact, I’d already been differentiating all the time; I just didn’t know it. I still believe that individualization through differentiation is an excellent teaching method because it allows students the opportunity to stretch their individual strengths to new levels. You ask me, how do I know this? I lived it. I saw it work. Differentiation will not work, in my opinion, with a core curriculum because lock step is the key to core in order to measure standards of acceptance, but not for allowing students to progress according to their own talents and potential.
The whole idea didn’t last long at Highland anyway. Like every other initiative for school improvement, it gave way to some other quick fix, one-size-fits-all, for profit business moneymaking, government politico movement. I hated it. There were so many new reforms tossed on us by unknown powers that most teachers simply started to ignore all the hype and dug in their heels for the methods they were using because they wanted the students to learn, and students did learn, despite the continual changes and political harassment heaped upon us.
I haven’t gotten into the large reform programs yet, but doesn’t it seem sad that after untold billions of dollars and lofty reform programs and thousands of start-ups, all most nothing has changed and very little has been accomplished in the area of public school reform in over thirty years. Why? Let me try to recap for you a little Cal-Em. You see, in the shadow of the Nation at Risk report, the first steps toward change came from local schools, then from business groups thrown together by governors, and then by state governors themselves. Business held the schools responsible for a faltering economy in the face of more international competition (which I find humorous because competition was considered by most business groups to be the solution to the problem in the first place) and demanded something be done about it. The governors of each state were held responsible by both the business communities and the general public. Their careers were uncertain. Education reform became the politically smart thing to do locally through national politicians.
What to do, what to do? Since governors, business groups, education summits, and think-tank committees were not experts themselves, they turned to what they knew best—throwing more money at the problem, raising employee salaries, toughening the output, strengthening the input, promoting a promising idea and, above all, pushing quick-fix reforms that did not change the basic structure of the educational system at the schools whether they made sense or not. As a result, a merry-go-round of reforms swept in and out of our schools (Highland included) each unable to grasp the brass ring, fading around to the back of the carrousel as the next wacko idea moved into its place.
As a result, the individual horses of reform moving up and down and round and round on the carrousel did almost nothing to change education. The idea spread that what was really needed was a full-blown overhaul of the entire system and not the incremental changes that were failing. This shift in thinking led to two major movements, both of which are still with us today, grinding against each other like two gigantic tectonic plates. The first is what I call the “choice” movement and the second is what everyone calls the “accountability” movement. This new-found drive for restructuring the system has in reality served little more, in my opinion, than to spread itself as the colorful awning above the galloping wooden horses under which yet another hodgepodge of plastic horse ideas—from decentralization, quadrant D, rigor and relevance, standards based, core curriculum, professional development to higher order thinking skills—would be brightly painted to dazzle the senses as new and exciting, break-the-mold, now we’ve got it reforms to the system. They are not. There is no real vision as to how this several hundred year old educational system should be reformed, no ideas whatsoever as to what it might actually mean to restructure the system and certainly no real desire to take the chance of a totally new system failing. But a new, totally different system is exactly what we need if we are to truly reform the educational system of the United States. We need to, in my opinion, either take the chance to change the entire antiquated system, or shut the heck up and stop screwing around with the little fringy things and let the juggernaut continue on unmolested.
This whole thirty plus year tradition of school reform-as-tinkering maintained to the present day is absurdly ludicrous. So why does the government invest so much money into reforms that hold so little promise? The answer is that even though there is very little progress, education reform is still a political winner. Reform is popular with the people, bogus claims are made periodically concerning the success of one process over another, statistics are selected that “prove” some progress, business communities buy into the false rhetoric and teachers either support the insignificant or find the hype so ridiculous they simply ignore it. Politically, education reform is a huge plus with no minuses. The politicians get to have a popular punching bag to hit in education, governors get to recycle old failed ideas, claim they are new and take huge political credit for spending taxpayer money on failed reform attempts.
It seems that everyone is happy with the current situation, but I am not happy Cal-Em. A new system is needed, and I assure you that the politicians, the business community and the teacher unions are not going to bring the goods to truly reform education in a way that makes it truly beneficial for our children and for our country. No, true reform must come from the teachers. Yes, it must come from the ones who have remained silent for so long.
You, my future student, must muster the strength and the courage to do what is right by this nation and by its children. You, Cal-Em, must create the new framework for the future, not as a special interest group, but as a professional education group dedicated to learning for all children within a system that responds to their needs, makes the process fair for all and produces lasting results.