Thursday, August 25, 2011

Guest post: The importance of differentiated learning

Let's say you're a parent with reasonably intelligent kids who you expect will do well to very well in school. Let's say you've read to them and discussed with them and explained things to them and exposed them to myriad educational opportunities as toddlers.

Let's also say that they speak English fairly well, whether or not that's the language you speak at home.

Let's not think about what color you are, what color they are, or how much money you make or don't make.

Say this child of yours is now four-years-old and will be old enough to enter Kindergarten next year. Which means you, dear San Francisco parent, are beginning the Great Kindergarten Hunt.
You will have heard harrowing stories about this Hunt, stories that make you quail in fear, along with some great stories of how Everything Worked Out Just Fine.

All those stories are true.

Here, then, is one suggestion for a way to look at possible schools in San Francisco. It should fit for both public and private though I'm writing it with public schools in mind.

The issue for you, a parent with a child who you have good reason to expect will perform well in school, is to find a school that will meet your child's educational needs. It doesn't have to be a school where all or even some of the children look like your child, or live near your child, or have or don't have the things your child has. For this thought experiment, you're just looking for a school that's going to meet your child's educational needs.

I'm going to make the case that the most important thing you need to look at in the schools you consider is not test scores, nor socio-economics nor race nor location (beyond what you can reasonably get your child to morning after morning after morning.)

The most important thing to consider in your child's school is how well the teachers differentiate learning and how much the school's administration supports them in doing so.

Why? Because in every class there exists a range of student abilities. Your child will fall somewhere within that range. The key for you it to find a school where the teachers know how to and do address the learning needs of all the children, rather than using a one-size-fits-all curriculum that may or may not fit your child's needs.

The one caveat to this is if you find a school that runs with a one-size-fits-all curriculum but it happens to be exactly where your child is. If you do, well done and sign up immediately.

If you don't, your job is to find a school where whatever the classroom make up of students, your child will get teaching that is at their level and allows them to stay engaged and learning.

Here's why this is a useful question to ask: The San Francisco Unified School District is committed to two things (well, it's committed to lots of things, but these are two biggies):

- Bringing up the achievement of the lowest performing students
- Integrating schools socioeconomically, academically and racially

The issue for parents with kids coming in at an already fairly high level of achievement (for whatever reason) is that they'll get assigned to a school where none of the other kids are at their child's level, and the entire focus of the school is on bringing the struggling kids up, thus putting their child in a situation where what's being taught is stuff they already know.

As one mom put it, "What do I do about a school assignment where Kindergarten is all about Alpha Buddies (learning the alphabet) and my son can already read?"

But rather than getting caught up in the perennial San Francisco arguments about whether it's racist or classist or evil or just fine to want your kid to be in a school where a goodly proportion of the kids in their class will come from that same background, you can change the equation.

You do that by ignoring test scores at that school for anyone but kids who have had the same kinds of opportunities your child has had. You do that by ignoring people who tell you your kid can't learn in a class with whiat kids or poor kids or Spanish speaking kids or Black kids or Chinese kids.

You embrace diversity and you're thrilled your child will get to have friends of every sort.
What you care about, and what you focus should be on in the school tours you'll soon be embarking on, is asking about how the school administration and the teachers makes sure to meet the needs of all children, not just the struggling ones (whether they're white, black, Chinese, Latino or some happy blend.)

What won't work for you is hearing "Oh, your child will do fine anywhere," or "We support all our students." You want actual evidence of how they do it, and a strong, expressed, commitment to the concept.

The good news is that there are a lot of San Francisco schools, both public and private, that do this and do it pretty well. Which opens up your list of schools wider than it might not have been.

The bad news is that there are also some schools that don't do this well. Some are so busy working to bring up struggling kids (an important and laudable goal) that they simply haven't had time to think about other kids and don't really pay much attention to them when they arrive. At some other the administration or some of the teachers are ideologically opposed to the notion that kids who are working at a higher academic level also deserve to have a strong and challenging educational experience.

Your job as a parent looking for a Kindergarten, is to find out which schools are which. When you do, you'll hopefully have a larger list of possible schools to apply to than you might have previously.

Or at least you'll have a strong sense of what you need to lobby the Board of Education about next time they're up for reelection.

So parents with kids in school already, what schools out there do both of these things well:

- Support struggling students
- Differentiate so that students working at or above grade level also have a strong educational program?


  1. This operates on the false premise that all claases/teachers in a given school do or do not implement differentiated learning.

    I think what you will find on your hypothetical quest is that most schools will have some teachers (some more than others) who use differentiated learning.

    What happens if you talk with two of three K teachers at a given school; both use differentiation; you apply to that school, and your kid gets the third K teacher who does not use differentiated learning?

  2. I can tell you Sunnyside struggles mightily with this, with alot of reassurances that "your daughter will be prepared for middle school." Prepared? I suppose, but bored out of her mind in the meanwhile.

  3. So where is the list of schools that do this well? Let's get specific here because otherwise, I gotta throw in the towel and move. I am in the horrified category.

  4. Repost from August 1 Notification - Phone or Letter?

    Call her so she can report how bad EPC is.

    AmyCrawford 2 hours and 46 minutes ago
    I'm a reporter at the SF Examiner, and I'm looking into the delayed placements. If your son or daughter is still out of school because you are awaiting lottery results, please call me today at 415-359-2741.

  5. So even if you find this school, who says you can get into it. It's a big waste of time. Pick some schools near your house, turn your paper in and go have a drink. Way to much energy is devoted to this process.

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  7. It is pretty much impossible to know who's doing it and who isn't without spending time in the classroom with every teacher and, realistically, it is more about who's good at it. The idea that you could shop around for schools and/or teachers that differentiate doesn't happen. Even after being at the school for years, most parents don't bother to request teachers, though some do.

    All principals and teachers claim they teach to the individual student not the class. No one would say to the contrary. Some teachers are just much more effective than others at doing so. That's a lot of what being a good teacher is all about.

    Teachers at some schools have larger challenges in the classroom, but every teacher knows that all kids are different and that they ought to be giving students the opportunity to learn in different ways.

    By insisting on creating academic diversity as policy we have created a problem that could be partially solved through differentiated classroom placement. If a contingent of students have similar reading needs at the elementary level what is so wrong with putting them together to help focus the efforts at remediation for part of the day? We should have more classrom rotations in elementary school as a way to meet divergent student needs.

    Teachers aren't magicians. They need help. The central office has created the problem by not changing age old ways of teaching elementary school. The district hype about 21st Century learning is just more nonsense from the morons downtown who don't know muchabout teaching. Every administrator should spend several weeks in the classroom. On second thought maybe that's not such a good idea.

  8. Yes, this is a big issue, and I've seen it played out as my two kids have gone through a total of 10 years of public schooling here. I've got one who excels and one who has major learning issues. I've seen teachers that run the gamut, but I have to say we have never had a teacher where our advanced child felt bored. By contrast, we HAVE had teachers who ignored our learning-challenged student or grew frustrated with him. So I really find this to be a red-herring. If your kid is truly bored in a public school class, and I honestly find that hard to believe, maybe they are not pushing THEMSELVES hard enough. Part of working with an advanced student is to teach them how they have to learn how to push themselves.

  9. I would agree with 11:09. My advanced child never felt bored in elementary school, and she was in a class with a wide range of academic abilities.

    The only time she felt bored was in middle school when she was in a super low-performing math class. The teacher had to spend too much time working with the remedial students, and they moved through the curriculum at a snail's pace. It was truly painful.

    I do think leveled math classes are an absolute requirement in middle school, unless you have an exceptionally well trained math teacher. That would be hard for the average parent to assess on a school tour.

  10. 11:09,

    You said:

    "we have never had a teacher where our advanced child felt bored. By contrast, we HAVE had teachers who ignored our learning-challenged student or grew frustrated with him. So I really find this to be a red-herring."

    You have made the opposite case that it (differentiation) is NOT a red-herring. Do you suggest that it is OK for teachers to ignore the needs of learning challeged students - that they should just work harder? I don't get it.

  11. 11:09 am again -- I guess I inartfully worded it. I was responding to the constant refrain/worry I hear from elementary school parents (most of whom are in private school by the way) that their kids would be "bored" in a public elementary school classroom because teachers are spending too much time helping the learning-challenged kids. That I really think is a red-herring. I don't really have experience at the middle or high school level, and I can see that advanced kids do need more support at those levels. But at the elementary school level, my advanced kid has never been bored --either the teacher offers advanced kids more work or my kid pushes himself to do more in class. (And that's because I make it clear more is expected of him.) I think any good parent can teach their kids to push themselves at the elementary school level.

  12. I agree this a red herring. I think the reasons behind the topic are that parents who want to keep living in the city, but who can't afford private schools, worry that they are shortchanging their bright kids. This worry is based on the perception (or misconception) that public schools are not challenging and are simply lesser than private schools. I understand the concern and probably even had the same worry. But I can now tell you that after 4 years in the public school system, my very bright child has never been bored. Some years she's had extremely engaging teachers that make every assignment exciting and some years she's had teachers who were less so. But she's never been bored.

  13. 9:15 - nice post. I would also add that there is some guilt surrounding not moving to the burbs... that we are shortchanging our kids for not moving to the burbs where there might be more gifted programs and bigger spaces for sports..

  14. 9:15,

    I'm sure your child is very bright as you said. Some of the kids with learning difficulties are the brightest kids in the room. I'll bet you didn't know that.

  15. Newsflash: San Francisco offers nothing in special education services compared to Davis, because all of our discretionary spending is tied up with getting marginal students tipped over from not proficient to proficient.

  16. My daughter was bored to TEARS in 5th grade. Repeated conversations with the teacher received a surprised look and "really? because she pays attention and behaves well!" Um... yeah, she's polite, but bored. Conversations also included "oh, don't worry, she'll be well prepared for middle school." Getting her to read t he books assigned to her "advanced" reading group was like pulling teeth, but when she (my daughter) was allowed to pick a book more at her reading level, she blew through it.

    The principal said the school was committed to differentiated learning. Her teacher's approach was "when she finishes all the work the other kids do (many many many worksheets on the same topic) I can give her more advanced work. I suggested things like "if you have a worksheet of 100 problems which get harder as you go along, could you just have her start at #50 and go from there?" Nope. What about instead of writing all 25 spelling words 5x, can we pre-test her and she'll write the 2 or 3 she gets wrong, not that others she can already spell? Nope.

    Teachers and schools vary. As a parent, I'll look for a school with a sizable group of kids performing at my child's level, rather than hoping the teachers she gets will get her and know how to differentiate.

    I also like bigger elementary schools for this reason. We had only 1 5th grade class at my daughter's school, so there was no real teaching collaboration, and the "behavior problems" couldn't be separated so as not to set off the whole class.

  17. @Charlie -- Yes! This is the biggest problem with NCLB -- it incentivizes schools to focus most of their attention on the kids who are *just* under proficient. If the school can get their scores up a few points, it looks much better on paper than all the work that could (should!) be done with the rest of the class as well.

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  19. The discretionary spending that Charlie is referring to has nothing to do with NCLB. Only schools in Title One, Part A and in particular those in School Improvement are impacted by NCLB.

    Your concern about teaching to the underperformers is a concern, but it has no significant relation to NCLB unless you are in a PI school. And those schools almost always have large majorities of underperforming students. That can be a big problem for higher performing students at those schools.

  20. Reading prior to kinder is not even developmentally appropriate or helpful. Let kids be kids!

  21. Newsflash: It is not just special education funding that is suffering in SF as we concentrate our discretionary spending on marginal students. For example, we recently cut out lots of transportation services, with more cuts to come. To save money. To save money to spend in low performing areas. To encourage you to agree to go to school in the low performing areas.

    The stick: underfunding in the school you might want to go to.

    The carrot: lots of funding for the school that the district wants you to go to.

  22. The differentiated learning issue hits home in SF with MS algebra honors. Some MS principals will not allow a separate honors class in algebra.

  23. @Charlie -- some MS refuse to have ANY honors classes at all. Of the schools I toured, this included Lick and Denman. Not sure about Everett, because I crossed it off my list pretty quickly after my tour.

    It's at the principal's discretion, and not a district wide policy. Even the MSs that have differentiated placement do it differently. Hoover has 2-3 honors classes/grade, based on test scores -- kids generally have to score in the 95th percentile to qualify. Aptos has "GATE" and "Non-Gate" classes. I'm not sure how AP Giannini classifies kids, but they don't have differentiated placement in 6th grade.

    And in elementary school? Even classifying kids as GATE is optional....

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  25. No MS honors courses. Is the issue there to diminish on campus resegregation? to spread out the distribution of disciplinary problem students? to have all teachers get an equal share of the low and high achievers?

  26. 8:57, that's an interesting story. It dovetails with my own experience of being bored to tears in many classrooms. The ones where I thrived had teachers who did exactly the things you suggested to your child's teacher, OR, more importantly, had inquiry-based, project-driven curricula in which kids at all levels could work together in meaningful ways.

    I don't blame teachers for not being able to differentiate well (giving a kid MORE work on top of what other kids do is not differentiated instruction, BTW -- who wants to be punished for being quick?). I blame crowded classrooms and, especially, testing culture; neither are good for kids at any level of academic preparation or "brightness."

    When I visited SFUSD schools, the K classrooms were learning colors and letters: finding brown things and making big letter Ts with their arms. Or they were coloring xeroxed pictures, or maybe listening to stories or learning the days of the week. When I visited one private school, the K kids were attempting to solve a mystery that involved them sounding out clues, figuring out mathematical problems, working in teams, gathering and categorizing objects, and so on. In another they were working together on scrambled stories to figure out how narrative works. Another one had older children in teams, each of which invented a culture with a government, a language, arts/crafts, and so on; then each culture buried artifacts and every team had to "discover" another culture through its artifacts and infer language, government, etc. from them.

    Which experience would you rather your learning-challenged, gifted, or profoundly ordinary child have? And are there SFUSD schools out there where kids are having them?

  27. No MS honors courses. Is the issue that tracking just leads to stereotyping of the class as poor students? If yes, differentiated learning is a multisyllable way of saying: no more smart class/dumb class.

  28. You sure are putting kids into a neat box, 7:24. I actually have a kid that is advance in math and far below basic in reading. Which box would you put him in?

    Charlie, this is an old topic that has been discussed over and over -tracking versus academic diversity. To me it all comes down to whether the students fit within a certain range of ability. If they fall too far behind they will only continue to do so if they are not placed into classes that address their specific academic needs. It's really tough to teach a history course to a kid that can barely read and it confounds and compounds the difficulties of teaching to larger classrooms, a reality we have to deal with (some so-called underserved schools excepted).

    True, tracking can lead to characterizing as smart and dumb classes, but what can we do? The fact is some kids ARE far behind for various reasons. The time to deal with it is the early elementary grades. They should start tracking these kids on a part time basis with classroom rotations. That way they can have the experience of being in class with mixed abilities and also have specific learning needs addressed.

    If you get rid of honors and AP you will lose tons of kids to private and the burbs.

  29. @Charlie -- I was told by one principal that it was for "reasons of social justice."

  30. It is up to the principal as to whether they offer honors in MS, as was mentioned. It is true that some principals do believe that it is unjust and won't offer honors. These sort of issues shouldn't be decided at the whim of any given principal. The result of this lack of consistent policy from school to school leads to honors availability for some and not others depending on your feeder school. This certainly isn't fair and is one big bone of contention that many have with the new MS policy. No laws require honors where they do require other classes, so the district is not compelled to offer them.

    555 has not shown any strong support for honors and AP. There is a politically motivated (social justice) bias against it in the current administration. Principals that show disfavor for it align themselves philosophically with the Central Office and use this to curry favor and promotion.

    In my opinion course all middle schools should be equalized to the extent possible including honors offerings. The caveat is that there are some schools without a critical mass of advanced students making the economics of honors a problem.

  31. This thread is about elementary schools, not middle schools. I think we can agree that best practices for differentiated learning may be different at the middle school level. But that's not the topic of this thread.

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  33. Don, no, I was not putting kids in neat boxes at all. My point is precisely that the kind of projects I saw at private schools accommodated kids at all levels: a kid who is weaker at math but a stellar reader can get something out of--and give something to--the "cultures" project; so can a kid who is dyslexic but an amazing artist, and so on. Meanwhile, the kids help, inspire, and support one another as each encounters his or her own challenges/weakness. And the kids are NOT differentiated. There are no pull-outs or tracks.

    What I am also saying is that the "extra work" model that the commenter's teacher presented is what puts kids into boxes: the "smart" kids get more work, which any fool knows is not a reward -- bright kids know they can get an A by doing the bare minimum so why do more? In 10 years of teaching at the college level I have NEVER had a student voluntarily take on more than the course requires. A different version of the same assignment, yes -- but not extra work.

    Project-based, collaborative work uses everyone's strengths, but challenges everyone to their maximum too. I see very little of it in the public schools, and what I see *called* project-based work simply isn't. This is not the fault of teachers -- it's the test-based, achievement-oriented, top-down curriculum, which is mind-numbing.

    So I ask again, a different way: which experiences would you rather your child--who is unevenly developed, as all children are--have? Making Ts with their arms, hearing stories, and naming brown things, or solving a mystery together, reordering scrambled stories, and creating model cultures?

  34. Tours are a snapshot moment, 9:18. As the parent of a bright now 2nd grader in a non-trophy public school, I am so glad we made the decision to go to public school. She didn't get extra work as the reward for knowing much of the first grade curriculum last year. She got much of the second grade curriculum instead. She also got to work on projects on her own and in small groups. They ranged from just learning as much factual information as possible about something (like the human skeletal system) to coming up with novel and creative stories and poems that were shared with the class to attempting (as best a first grader can) to create novel solutions to things like lunch waste and the impacts of climate change on sea turtles. This year, it looks like we'll have another year of exploration and a good chunk of the third grade curriculum.

    Her writing skills have blossomed, her confidence has bloomed (thanks to all those group presentations), her reading skills are way way above grade level, and her math skills are about one grade ahead. She's still viciously curious. She loves going to school and I've never heard her say that she's bored at school. She has friends who are just as curious and passionate about learning as she is. She's in an astoundingly diverse environment and I can save for college instead of bankrupting our family for an elementary school education. So she might not have created a culture at school, but I'd be hard pressed to say that she's missing anything.

    Anyway - having been that "gifted" and utterly bored kid through much of my K-8 education, differentiated learning is a gift. I haven't heard of many elementary schools in SFUSD that are failing in this task, and we've got friends at schools all over the city.

  35. 11:37, do you mind saying what school your child is at? It sounds great. I might have gone public if I'd seen ANY evidence of that kind of thing, or heard about it from a principal. I toured over a dozen schools and did not.

    It isn't even that I think my kid is "gifted," different or better than other kids. It's just kinds of pedagogy that resonate with me, and kinds that don't. I saw a lot of what doesn't in public schools, and a lot of what does in private. I'm a teacher myself, so I pay close attention, and as I said I don't blame teachers for the testing mania. And I didn't think we'd go private, either -- I teach in public higher ed. We may go public at some point, if NCLB goes away.

  36. As the poster who first turned this discussion to middle school -- I wanted to clarify that I wasn't trying to derail the conversation... I think the approach in middle school is indicative of the district's commitment (or lackthereof) to appropriate differentiation. It is really left to teacher discretion what "differentiation" looks like.

    Having just finished the middle school lottery/assignment system, I'm gearing up for the elementary school one. At this point, I'm just hoping I can tell the difference between schools which give lip service to differentiation and schools with teachers who know how/want to do it.

  37. You referred to students as challenged, gifted or profoundly ordinary. Many of the gifted students are challenged and vice-versa and many of whom you pejoratively term "profoudly ordinary" aren't. Maybe they are just bored. All kids are profoundly unique. I find this stereotyping into neat little ability groups counter to the very humanistic approach you espouse.

    I entirely agree with your assessment of testing culture and the negative effect it has on creativity and critical thinking skills. But NCLB and testing culture are not one and the same. NCLB is focused on the underperforming schools,creating an unrealistic series of academic growth requirements while offering only some disproven reforms to get there and little money in the process. The law is really silly, but ESEA (what it is now called) under Obama is Bush's NCLB on steroids. The last poster, a teacher to boot, said she was waiting for NCLB to end. She shouldn't hold her breath. Unfortunately, Federal education policy has made too many inroads what really belongs to the states.

    How can parents get a snapshot of a school's academic culture? It is easy to look at an API number, but not so informative. Public education does not operate under a single pedagogical model. There is a wide range of teaching styles. The best a parent can do is to seek out the teacher that best fits the child for each grade level. Schools don't like requests, but do it anyway. If you don't advocate for your child's best interests no one will.

  38. Omigod, Don, get a sense of humor. "Profoundly ordinary" was ironic, a total joke, a play on "profoundly gifted." As my posts ought to make obvious--putting "gifted" in scare quotes every time--I do not believe in those categories, OK? I think of my own child as "profoundly ordinary" precisely because all kids are both profound/deep/brilliant AND ordinary/everyday/not special/just like other kids. Kids are both unique *and* alike in many ways.

    The projects I described honor that. NCLB, whatever it is called under whichever president, does not, in any way shape or form -- nor does the more general emphasis on achievement testing. Every teacher I know who is hamstrung by NCLB/testing culture hates it. Precisely BECAUSE I am a teacher, don't intend to send my kid to public school till it's over. If it's private all the way, so be it. That is not holding my breath.


    Lordy. I have to lie down with the smelling salts. California's irony deficit is really wearing me down.

  39. It's no big deal, but if you are being ironic there has to be some irony. I just thought your comment was kind of crude. I didn't realize you were joking. Excuse me. That happens sometimes in written communication. Maybe your comment needed to be differentiated for my learning style.

  40. Have you looked into Creative Arts Charter School, home of project based, arts integrated learning? Differentiated learning at its finest.

  41. That fact that you would resort to insults indicates to me that you don't have much patience for misunderstanding. If I was a little dense or just failed to pick up on your subtle roundabout references, why not show the kind of thought process that you as a teacher claim to show for your students who may not always understand everything that is said in the way you go about saying it. I hope you will pick yourself up off the floor now. Save your smelling salts for the next time someone fails to grasp your irony.

  42. 5:24, thanks for this and all you have written. I certainly don't disagree with your assessment of NCLB. Not to mention its corollary, attacks on teachers and hyper-focus on the teachers' testing "performance." I can understand the reasons why you, as an educator in the public realm, would choose private for your kid(s), assuming you can reasonably afford it.

    I would only offer a word of caution or reflection that the choice is not quite as stark as you portray. There are public school teachers, mostly those with either sufficient seniority or potentially other career options, who are blatantly not teaching to the test but are using some of the very strategies you mention.

    I can remember one of my kids working in a group to design a fictional culture/country as the class moved into studying the (required) California history. They used this process to talk about the various cultural layers in CA and the process of colonization. There were various other creative assignments for social studies too--they were fun, cool, and the kids got into the concepts, which they then could apply to the actual history of CA.

    My kids' third grade teacher was amazing too, especially in teaching math. They learned cool things about Pascal's triangle as well as learning their times tables, which can be boring but really should be done, but he had a cool games for learning those too.

    I was in awe of the first grade teacher who somehow kept an entire class of differentiated readers humming along .... she had various work stations just buzzing while she worked with each reading group. I don't know how she did it, but the kids were engaged and got what they needed.

    And the 4/5 teacher did incredible field trips both years. Overnights in various places around CA, creative but cheap trips in the city to supplement social studies and science, trips on the Bay for science. Everything was hands-on--circuit board design for electricity, ant farms, etc. A great poetry workshop with a poet she brought in, and some of the "lowest" readers were some of the most amazing poets. And she certainly encouraged the "highest" readers to read books several grades levels up; she would actually suggest books and lend them out from her personal library or from the school library.

    One thing that helped was having a critical mass of about 4-5 equally high level readers in each of these classes. The mix worked in that class cohort.

    This was public school. To be sure, the class sizes, which were 20-24 back then, were larger than at many privates (though not Catholic schools). And differentiating is both an art and something that takes experience in terms of classroom management. Just to say that I have seen it done well. My kids were happy in most of their classrooms. And they got what you can't get in most (non-Catholic) private schools, which is race and class diversity, which is its own education imo.

    After elementary they went into differentiated public programs---middle school honors classes, Lowell, etc. That's worked out fine. I'm sure I would drool over the offerings at private schools, particularly the class sizes. But we can't afford it, frankly, nor can most (obviously--even with fin aid, there is only so much to go around). And I would definitely miss the diversity (yes, even the diversity at Lowell, compared to private).

    That is NOT a slam on your choice, I promise, just to say that there is a mix of issues to consider including affordability, diversity, approach to academics as well as social and emotional development, and on all of these points there is more diversity within public and private than simply "public = NCLB" and private is all "creative, project-based learning" would indicate.

    In any case, good luck to your family, thank you for being a teacher, and lord have mercy on all our educators and students in this time of de-funding and NCLB. May this too pass.

  43. 1:03

    I have pasted a link from an article in 2000 from ED Week before NCLB was law.

    Read up on contemporary thoughts on standardized testing before NCLB.

    You are propagating a myth that NCLB is the problem and that if it would just go away our problem would be solved. The testing mania started long before NCLB.

    I too am very much opposed to this model of education reform and I agree that we are losing track of what is really important in teaching when high test stakes results are used to drive so many aspects of education.

    In more recent times Federal education policy under Obama is responsible for hyping the testing culture even more by linking all sorts of money to scores. Without the USDE's intrusion we would be better off. Blame Bush and Obama even more for his steroid version of NCLB, but these issues were set in motion long before they came on the seen.

  44. Big points to Don for "Maybe your comment needed to be differentiated for my learning style." There is hope after all.

    So, for the poster who described all that in public, that's great. We are not committed to private till the end of time, at all (though we have good financial aid, there's no guarantee that it will keep up with my own furloughs and salary cuts, nor that we'll be thrilled at every moment, or convinced that what we're getting is better). We'll take it year by year.

    You should name the schools, though: are they even accessible anymore? We certainly tried for Alvarado, for instance, but no dice. Nor could we do the trophy schools without bus service. And the very sweet but under-resourced schools we could get our kid to were all hamstrung by STAR, NCLB, whatever you want to call it (I don't think testing culture *began* with these initiatives, but I think it is now, as Don says, on steroids).

    I just wish I had seen a shred of project-based, inquiry-led instruction in action, or heard teachers or principals describe it in concrete, convincing terms. I didn't, even at Creative Arts, which I visited. I saw things I liked at every public I visited, but honestly, not what I personally value as an educator, and what do I have to work with beyond tours, parent guides, and principal/teacher descriptions? I'll continue to support our neighborhood school in addition to paying my taxes, and I don't think parents who go public are making some grave mistake, either. I just had to go for what I thought is important. And I think it is fair to say that the current climate of public education, on the level of policy, could not be worse, and that no fabulous teacher you happen to be lucky enough to get can make up for it.

    As to diversity, I'm not completely worried. We are involved in some other, very class-diverse communities which will keep our kid's feet on the ground.

    A too-long exchange, no doubt, in response to one poster's description of the pathetic version of differentiated learning she was offered (more work). Signing off now.

  45. 3:25, I appreciate your response, as well as your continued support for public schools despite your kid not going there. And it sounds like you will work to keep your kid's feet on the ground in the city.

    You are right that we got in on the ground floor of a school that is now difficult to get into. I have hope for some of those sweet schools that are now up-and-coming, such as Jose Ortega. But it is difficult to know, going in, what you can get. And ultimately, you have to weigh all the factors and make your own choice. I certainly do not fault yours. I'm only point out that public school in SF can be a fine option for many, depending on the mix of factors. So many assume that there is only teach-to-the-test. But we have many independent-minded teachers here who are definitely not NCLB clones, and schools that work to provide art, music, drama, field trips, PE, language.

    Not always easy to balance one's criticisms of overall trends, support for our local schools, assessments of our own kids' needs and strengths, and then the reality of what one is actually able to get or take advantage of (whether public or private).

    As it happened, we applied to private long ago but were accepted at only one school, with minimal financial aid. But we got the sweet, up-and-coming public school (that is now much more popular). Worked out for us. I hope your choice works out for you as well.

    Will be a great day when the schools have all they need....

  46. A dose of reality, people. NCLB/ESEA is not going away anytime soon. It is only getting stronger like an epidemic in a kindergarten class. It's one of very few issues that has bipartisan support and that doesn't speak very well for either party. But it truly sums up what happens when policy is set by people in the seats of power far from the classroom and with little understanding of the needs. That is why federal instrusion is almost always a bad idea. They took what was only 700M in the RTTT grant and parlayed that into stronger testing and measurement laws in California, then we lost the grant anyway. 700M divided by 6,000 students is a pittance. So don't hold your breath.

  47. As an educator in the district, I know that an "Honors" course, particularly at the middle school level, does not always looks that different from any other course. It's not as if Mr. Smith's remedial class is learning about phonemic awareness while his honors class is deconstructing Macbeth. The variation is in the kids, their collective mix and contribution, and less in the design and implemention of instruction. Teachers get one prep period a day. Teachers don't have enough time to sufficiently and creatively plan for all of their classes. You have to ask yourself why you are drinking the honors koolaid. Don't fool yourself into thinking that the average middle school honors class is this highly intentional and designed academic experience. Teachers are part of teams. 6th grade Math teachers comprise a team. They plan together as do their counterparts at other grades. Sure, there is some variation, but they generally plan together and, in the interest of efficiency, this means that the classes that they teach tend to share very similar lesson plans.
    There are amazing teachers who have time to plan for such variation. Maybe the class novel in one class is Holes while the novel in another class is 1984. I don't know. If the teacher has a life outside of school (e.g. kids) this becomes difficult.

  48. Another teacher that doesn't want to teach honors without extra pay.

  49. Since we are back on the subject of honors, I was not selling touting honors as something akin to the most expensive private school programs.

    Honors, at SF middle schools, separates (segregates by self-selection) the higher achievers from the lower achievers. It is tracking.

    Differentiated learning looks at a very diverse student body and says, we can handle this. Different strokes for different folks. Some are fast learners and some are slow learners. Each student learns better with one style or another. Honors is not antagoistic to differentated learning. But honors will allow the class to not be so widely divergent in academic past performance.

  50. About "drinking the honors Kool-Aid"
    I don't necessarily think my "honors" kid will learn different material than the kids in the "non-honors" track. BUT I do think she'll spend less time being lectured about "adding fractions with different denominators" (something like 10 days in 5th grade) and more time moving on to the next thing, adding fractions with more complicated different denominators, etc.

    She was bored beyond bored in 5th grade. Her teacher wasn't able to manage different levels in the same class, and taught to the lowest common denominator (no pun intended on the LCD for fractions... really!)

    For *us* a middle school with an honors track guarantees my daughter a class with a cohort of kids who learn quickly. I don't necessarily think it meanss she's smarter than the other kids -- just she learns in this way, as do the other kids in her class.

    Because of the various reasons described in this thread, not all "differentiation" is the same, and my goal right now is to get my child what SHE needs.

  51. 11:06 I agree with you that honors/not honors doesn't really matter in middle school with one exception, and that is math, where it absolutely makes a difference. How can anyone but the most exceptional teacher, in a small class, teach kids the same curriculum to those who score Advanced on the CST with those who score Below Basic and Far Below Basic? Those are, what, about 3 to 4 years difference in achievement level? It's not fair to the teacher, and it's certainly not fair to kids at any level of achievement.

    Perhaps you are that exceptional teacher who could bridge the gap and keep everyone engaged and learning. But, both the 7th and 8th grade math teachers my kid had complained about the impossibility of teaching such a wide spread. And for the record I thought they were both excellent teachers. But the district leaves it up to the principal to decide, regardless of the difficulties the teachers are having.

  52. There's no way I'm drinking the Kool-Aid that says honors doesn't matter. I know parents and kids in both programs at Presidio where may older child attends and there is a BIG difference between the two.

    Your explanation that math honors is necessary but ELA honors isn't presented no specific rationale for one over the other. If a child can hardly read that seems to be just as much a problem if not more than lagging behind in math. Can you explain why math honors is necessary but ELA isn't in your opinion?

  53. Don,
    1. The problem of the student who cannot read should be addressed by the issue of repeating a grade, not by the issue of honors or not.

    2. Honors for MS math classes only if that is the compromise that can be reached.

    3. Kids hate math more than any other subject. Give the teacher a break by tracking a little bit.

  54. Yes, I can see how the mathematical understanding gap creates an impossible problem for even the staunchest proponents of heterogenous grouping. It's tough stuff.

    The reason that this gap is most difficult in math is that LARTS offers more opportunities for all learners to access material. stories are read aloud, acted out, discussed orally, etc.

    literature is ultimately about people. discussing literature is not unlike discussing real life and therefore all kids have an ability to engage, critique, comment on the subject. its doesn't mean that a possible severe need for reading remediation is being met; it just means that opportunities to engage are present. heterogenous grouping for LARTS at the middle school level makes the most sense when the lowest readers have a separate support class to address their reading needs.

    on one level, i agree with the need for tracking. i haven't done the research, but i'd bet that the historical arguments against tracking didn't involve situations wherein a group of kids could be reading at the 2nd grade level and another group could be reading at the 8th grade level. the gaps are so wide today.

    i just think it's amusing when parents insist on an honors course. i have worked at high-performing middle schools in the part of town that you speak of (presidio area) and honors did not equate into thought-provoking content taught in an engaging and inspiring manner. it was teacher-centered lecture. this will help acclimate youth toward the university, but don't kid yourself into believing that honors always implies a fantastic learning environment/experience.

  55. I don't know about others but I'm not assuming that honors equates into a fantastic learning environment. It has to do with efficiencies. As a former teacher the primary difference between a class of all honors and a general ed class is the time spent having to deal with discipline and management. A heterogeneous group of motivated students will allow for more learning to transpire with the time confines of a period.

  56. Differentiated teaching is a luxury when teaching to the test is the necessity.

    We judge schools by test scores. We will get teaching to the test, not differentiated learning, because if test scores are what we want, test scores are what we will get.

    That is entirely appropriate when trying to determine the minimum that a teacher might be asked to do, but in no way measures the best that a teacher should be doing. Differentiated teaching is that best.

    We need to protect it by weaning ourselves off teaching to the test. We need Vermont type essay exams. Paul Revere was not a failed school. It did not need its principal and staff replaced.
    If our educational system could not see that, the fault lied, not in the staff, but in the system.

  57. Is there a contradiction between defending Paul Revere as not a failed school and supporting teaching to the test as a mimimum standard for teaching? The scores at Revere were low--that's the bottom line.

    I'm saying flunk individual teachers for not teaching to the test, do not flunk the whole school.

  58. Charlie,

    I'm a little confused over what point you are making.

    BTW, Revere replaced some staff because SFUSD applied for the SI grant which required it. They got a tremendous amount of money, about 5 million over 3 years.

  59. A failed school is the wrong idea. You can make a school look improved by just getting better students through the SAS and through lopsided discretionary spending--both of which we are now doing in SF.

    The failure of an individual teacher to teach to the test and get some minimum level of success from students on multiple choice exams is a legitimate measure of teaching ability. When asked who are the bottom 10% of teachers, I am not stuck for an answer, and I am not offended by the question.

  60. Charlie,

    Everytime time I read your posts I find myself trying to decode what it is you are trying to say. Can you just state it directly? Are you for or against this testing culture? What's your point?

  61. 1. The good part of the testing culture is at the lowest end. This is where teaching to the test represents the minimum that we would expect a teacher to do. If asked to identify the teachers who are not cutting it, a very big consideration would be this skill.

    2. The ability to teach to the test does not make one a master teacher. Teaching requires more than that, such as the skill to teach a classroom of students with mixed learning styles and speeds. (This is where we get back to the topic of differentiated learning.)

    3. The problem of the testing culture is addressed in The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Radvitch. I'm going along with what she says, except at the bottom end, where I support the usefulness of standardized exams.

    Very low scores point to students having problems and point to teachers having problems teaching to the test. Middle and high test scores are not that useful.

    You are right that I do get confusing when I then turn to value added studies, which do use all those unreliable test scores. In my defense, those standardized scores are all we have right now. I do plead for Vermont type essay exams to get us away from multiple choice exams.

    Maybe I should say that when I rely on value added studies I can be completely wrong because the standardized scores themselves are not reliable. Garbage in of unreliabe test scores will mean garbage out of value added studies.

    We are all guessing. We need to monitor if we guessed right, and move on to another guess if the first guess was wrong.

    To bring us back to differentiated learning, we use to do a lot of tracking. At the MS level, that meant honors courses. Some principals see social injustice in honors courses. They have taken a guess of no honors as better for their MS (and their careers.) (You Don, have indicated that Central Office is against honors classes.)

  62. The problem is that if asked, those principals have trouble articulating a vision for their school without honors. They just parrot "differentiated learning within the classroom setting" without saying how that happens. And the reason they can't say how it happens is because it really doesn't happen. Or at least it didn't for my kid.

  63. 1. I overstated when I said that middle and high scores were not that useful. They are good for a rough division of students into low, middle, and high achieving groups. As the SAT people themselves say, do not overuse the scores. It is not that exact.

    2. Which teachers are good at differentiated learning? We have to rely on the principals at that school to observe and evaluate. Once the teacher has tenure, what is to encourage the teachers to keep on going the extra mile to find out what works for the different students?

    Any teachers out there with an answer?

  64. My experience as a parent is that teachers really want to do a good job with differentiated learning, but are set up to fail in many cases. Assigning a teacher too many students with too wide of a span in achievement makes it really difficult. I think to make "differentiated learning within heterogenous groups" (read -- "we don't have an honors program") work, you either need very small class sizes, or a teacher well-trained in providing simultaneous instruction to students of varying abilities.

    It would be interesting to compare test scores of similar ethnic/economic status in schools with and without honors programs (a blunt instrument, of course) and 8th grade algebra proficiency to see how various groups are faring in schools with and without honors. Even the honors programs vary though, so this would only provide very rough data. My guess it that schools with loosely structured honors programs (open access -- students encouraged to challenge themselves) would perform better than school with either rigid tracking or no tracking.

  65. Differentiated learning at the MS level:

    1. Smaller class sizes? Not going to happen. ES gets priority for smaller class sizes.

    2. Training in differentiated learning? What training goes on now? Is it throw you into the water to sink or swim?

    3. MS honors for math classes. That is the compromise I'd like to see.

  66. @Charlie -- I agree! No honors math was the deal breaker for me at a number of Middle Schools.

    In the absence of true differentiated teaching, a school where there is a cohort of kids like yours educationally/learning-style wise is the key. A teacher/principal can easily ignore 1 child who is being left out/behind/etc, but not 10 or 15.