How do I meet the needs of my students when their skill levels are across the board? Some variation of this question consistently comes up when I coach educators on curriculum implementation such as Project Based Learning or writing strategies. Educators want and need an answer that guides them to taking the first steps towards making a difference for their diverse learners. Lorna Earl explains it best when she wrote:

“Differentiation is making sure that the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time. Once you have a sense of what each student holds as ‘given’ or ‘known’ and what he or she needs in order to learn, differentiation is no longer an option; it is an obvious response.”

Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning, Lorna M. Earl, Corwin Press, Inc. 2003 – pp. 86-87

Every teacher recognizes that some students fall behind and need support, while other students surge forward and need challenge that is respectful to their higher level competencies. Using assessments to find where students are, diagnose the situation, and implement appropriate learning experiences is what we as educators are obligated to do. “[It] is an obvious response” (Lorna M. Earl).

So I saddened to read an article that inaccurately portrayed Differentiated Instruction as a failure, and appeared to be a misinformed attack on teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction (DI)–by someone who, based on his credentials, should know better. Dr. James R. DeLisle wrote the article, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” in Education Week. Dr. DeLisle argued that “Differentiation is a failure.” His basis for this argument is to cite three articles that on the surface appear to support his agenda, yet on closer review places in question his unwarrented attacks.

The first article, Michael J. Petrilli’s article “All Together Now?” is used by Dr. DeLisle to say that because Differentiated Instruction was ineffective because a researcher is quoted in the article saying, “We couldn’t answer the question,” Hertberg-Davis told me, “because no one was actually differentiating.” This comment represents an issue of implementation system, which appears to have been ineffective. That does not translate to DI being a failure. When the rest of the article is read, Mr. Petrilli shares his investigation of his child’s elementary school who uses Differentiated Instruction as a lens for learning. Here’s an excerpt of what he learned from the principal:

‘“We are committed to diversity,” he started. “It’s a lens through which we see everything. We look at test scores. How are students overall? And how are different groups doing? It’s easy to see. Our white students are performing high. What can we do to keep pushing that performance up? For African American and Hispanic students, what can we do to make gains?”

Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.

And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.’

Read the article for yourself. What you’ll find is that Mr. Petrilli, while skeptical, believes there’s a place for Differentiated Instruction. He thinks there should be more homogenous grouping, which is a part of DI. Dr. DeLisle somehow missed this large part of the article.

The second article that Dr. DeLisle references is by Dr. Holly Hertberg-Davis’ article, Myth 7: Differentiation in the Regular Classroom Is Equivalent to Gifted Programs and Is Sufficient–Classroom Teachers Have the Time, the Skill, and the Will to Differentiate Adequately. he used a quote from her without explaining it to support his blanket claim regarding DI. But Dr. Hertberg-Davis was speaking of the challenges for differentiating for Gifted and regular ed due to a push of mandated testing. In fact, Dr. Hertberg-Davis notes in her article:

“Differentiation of instruction both within the regular classroom and within homogeneous settings is critical to addressing the needs of all high-ability learners, including twice-exceptional students, underachievers, students from underserved populations, and highly gifted students. But, like any approach to educating gifted students, it functions best as a critical component within a spectrum of services provided for high-ability learners.”

While concerns are raised, Dr. Hertberg-Davis is not saying that DI is a failure, as Dr. DeLisle seems to want readers to think.

The final article referenced is by Mike Schmoker who wrote an equally misguided article in 2010, “When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities.” In Mr. Schmoker’s article, his solution to eliminating DI undercuts the very argument he wrote:

“Thanks to the British educator Dylan Wiliam and others, we now know that the consistent delivery of lessons that include multiple checks for understanding may be the most powerful, cost-effective action we can take to ensure learning.”

When effective teachers conduct multiple checks for understanding, and uncover that one or more students have not achieved the learning outcomes, they draw from a variety of instructional tools to address the needs. This might be small group mini-lessons, one on one coaching, spiraled instruction, centers, or other options that are practices of Differentiated Instruction.

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Dr. DeLisle, I presume, knows this because of his work in Gifted education both at the university and secondary level, including middle and high school. His extensive work over 30 years includes the insightful approach of spending time teaching in a middle school at least once a week so as to stay in touch with instruction prior to post-secondary classrooms. He’s written many books and articles in the field, including a potent article Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement in Gifted Child Today of January 2012. This article brings forth the voices of Gifted students. Their insights on what they need makes a strong argument of differentiating for their needs. Several student interviews identify qualities of effective teachers: empathetic, engaging, and knowledgeable on how to provide learning experiences that respected students’ intelectual capacity. While Dr. DeLisle’s intent is to promote the needs of Gifted–which is effectively done in the Gifted Child Today article–the students’ words express needs that are shared by all students, and should be considered by all educators.

Yet it brings into question his statement, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students” (Differentiation Doesn’t Work).

Dr. DeLisle makes this over the top statement about DI, yet he also provides consultations to teachers on how to effectively differentiated instruction in the classroom through his relationship with Creative Learning Consultants via Pieces of Learning, an organization that specifically specialize in Differentiated Instruction since 1989. They have an interesting resources page. One has to ask, what is Dr. DeLisle true motive for attempting to discredit Differentiated Instruction given these facts.

Based on his article, Differentiation Doesn’t Work, one has to ask, does Dr. DeLisle either:

  1. lack understanding about the uses of DI?
  2. believes that teachers are incapable of differentiating effectively (which he implies with several references)?
  3. has a hidden agenda for which he’s attempting to bring down DI in order to achieve another aim?

Is there lack of understanding about the uses of DI?

Dr. DeLisle states “that we’re not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both?” By acknowledging his own lack of understanding of Differentiated Instruction he undercuts credibility to oppose it, or he’s failed to transfer his expertise of Gifted Education to that of General Education, or in Special Education, which he’s stated having degrees in. It’s ironic that Differentiated Instruction roots come from the world of GIFTED and Special Education, two areas that Dr. DeLisle has training yet by his own words is “not exatly sure what it is we are differentiating.” Even in Gifted classes there is diversity of understanding, skills, interests, and approaches to learning. Dr. DeLisle should know this.

Are teachers incapable of differentiating effectively?

No is the short answer. Teachers are trained professionals whose job is to provide instruction so that all students achieve. Yes, having students at different levels of skills is challenging. Yes, larger class size makes instruction in general more difficult, but also means differentiation is even more crucial for educators to accomplish their job, in the face of the challenges. Teachers know how to conduct assessments. When the assessments are fog-free, effective teachers analyze the data to determine what students understand and what are their needs–a point made in Dr. DeLisle’s earlier article, Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. So if Dr. DeLisle were to follow this logic regarding using assessment data to it’s conclusion, the supports and enrichments that are provided will be meaningful if based on data analysis. Recall the quote my Lorna Earl at the begining of this article. This would mean that teachers are VERY capable of differentiating effectively.


Is there a hidden agenda?

The real agenda of Dr. DeLisle is to advocate for Gifted Students to be placed in wholly gifted classrooms. He believes that heterogeneous classrooms hurt the growth of gifted students, which he makes some compelling arguments for this issue in Reaching Those We Teach: The 5 Cs of Student Engagement. Personally, I see viable arguments for Dr DeLisle’s advocacy for this, having taught honors classes that were comprised of Gifted students. I also see how in some instances the right teacher can provide for Gifted students who are mixed in with other students. There is value to providing Gifted Students instructional time among their academic level peers, just as is done for other students via Guided Reading. Dr. DeLisle just needs to be honest about his true purpose.

To be clear, it’s important to have people advocating for Gifted Students, just as we need advocates for other populations of students. Critiquing education, even how best to help teachers and students differentiate instruction, is valuable so long as the purpose is to improve conditions, and not, pardon the apt cliche, throw out the baby with the bath water.

Education leaders  have an ethical and moral responsibility to use their position of influence and prestige for communicating with honesty and clarity of intent. Readers of Education Week deserve information that is not misleading.

There are advocates, like myself, for Differentiated Instruction used in effective ways, who are willing to have a constructive dialog about how to do right by all students. Those with genuine intentions can  have a thoughtful conversation. The result may likely be that Dr. DeLisle and others who struggle with DI will find the answers they need to better help students. Perhaps participate in the Twitter chat group #DI4ALL that meets every 1st and 3rd Monday of each month at 8 p.m. EST. All are welcome to contact me @jmccarthyeds, including Dr. DeLisle. I invite everyone to join this dialog, post questions, concerns, ideas and stories for our constructive growth.

The bottom line is that students in a classroom tend to be a different levels of skill. One single instructional approach does not work for all students. Assessments tell us what students know and don’t know. To do nothing would be professional malpractice.

Here are resources on applications for Differentiated Instruction: