A number of New York City public schools recently learned that even though close to 100 percent of their students earned passing grades, less than 10 percent were able to pass the standardized state exams. A common explanation is that teachers are lowering expectations and inflating grades, possibly due to the pressure of the city’s bureaucrats’ desire to achieve equitable racial and socioeconomic outcomes. This has some truth, but it actually misunderstands the problem. The students’ inability to demonstrate their learning stems from the most prominent educational theory by which teachers have been trained over the past fifteen years. In essence, the failure of the students is an internal educational problem.
This major educational theory is called differentiated instruction, and is referred to as differentiation or DI for short. The major thrust of this approach directs teachers to “meet students where they are.” Instead of teaching one lesson to a class, the teacher adjusts the lesson for student readiness, interest, and learning profile. Students get a tailored curriculum. For those who do not have the requisite skills and knowledge to learn the upcoming unit, differentiation tells the teacher to give those students assignments at which they’ll succeed. Having mastered the lessons given to them, the children are able to move on. After twelve years of school, they’ll graduate. Such students, however, continuously performed below grade level. They could even have good grades on their report cards, but their knowledge and skills will be less than those of their more advanced peers.
Here, it is important to realize how this approach differs from what is called grade inflation or lowering standards. When teachers pass students who have not met academic requirements, the teacher knows those children aren’t yet up to par, but for other reasons, like misplaced compassion, teachers allows them to advance to the next grade. With differentiation, however, teachers do not think they’re lowering standards, but conducting proper education by meeting students where they are. They believe the new, lower standard is the right one. This is exactly why one of the mantras of differentiation is that schools teach “students not standards.”
This then leads to the absurd reality where 90 percent of a grade can receive passing grades on their report card, but not pass the state exam. The teachers view the standardized assessments as intrusions on students’ personalized education instead of tools to confirm the knowledge and skills students need.
Were differentiation to lead to better educational outcomes, we could debate the validity of state exams. Yet in a meta-analysis of relevant literature, researcher Matthew James Capp found that differentiation does not lead to greater student knowledge and skill than a traditional educational approach. This highlights a destructive consequence of differentiation: It lies to students. In a traditional educational environment, children who know they lack skills in specific areas need to find ways to adapt. Do they work harder or specialize in different areas? With differentiation, all students think they are fully capable. This explains why, over the past fifteen years, the national high school graduation rate has climbed more than 10 percent and more students are enrolling in college, but less than 60 percent of those enrollees are able to graduate within six years. These students have no idea that they are not proficient until it is too late. Instead, their precious time and money are wasted by an education system that refused to have the difficult conversations with them when they needed it most. The educational system has set them up for future disappointment and failure.
Instead of focusing on graduation rates, schools should emphasize instilling student skill and competency. Student grades, class participation, and standardized test scores are important, but they should not determine whether schools are successful. A competency is an act that can be replicated in a new situation. The fact that 90 percent of the students could not translate their classroom learning to parallel New York exams demonstrates a lack of real learning.
Blame, however, should not mainly be placed on teachers. They receive their curricular marching orders from the government and learn the art of teaching as undergraduate and graduate students. They then do their best to bring those together and teach the actual students in front of them. Responsibility really lies with the many teacher training programs that teach differentiation. They have misdirected our educators as to what their job is. Though differentiation creates specific and artificial learning environments, the students really need the ability to apply their learning in unanticipated ways. Instead of meeting children where they are, schools should prepare them for where they need to go.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.