Differentiation: An Essential Variable in the Education Equation

One of the essential variables that is missing from the education equation in America is differentiation.

When they begin school, we do not treat each five- or six-year-old boy and girl as unique little people with respect to their characteristics, challenges, and potential. Neither do we adapt the academic standards to which we teach nor the individual lesson plans with which teachers must work to serve each child. Instead, the education process often impedes the ability of teachers to attend to children, individually.

Teachers go to great lengths to help their students negotiate the challenging academic pathway along which all of them are directed but there is only so much they can do, particularly if they teach in schools that are attended by disadvantaged children.

In addition to a host of disparities that exist, their personality impacts the ability of children to form nurturing and enduring relationships with their teachers and the likelihood that they will find their place within the community of students in their classrooms. What kind of social skills do they possess? Is there anything about them that stands out and attracts either the positive or negative attention of their classmates? Are they among that population of children who are the most difficult to love but who need it the most? Children who are different in some obvious way need the help of their teacher to negotiate not only the complex academic pathways but also the social minefields that exist in even Kindergarten classrooms.

Having a sense of belonging can change the course of a child’s entire life. Teachers who are overwhelmed by challenging classrooms will find it difficult if not impossible to attend to the needs of these vulnerable boys and girls. And no, it is not enough that teachers bond with a few of their students.

It is one of the great ironies of the human condition that children think learning is fun until they begin their formal education. It is the first few years of school that will determine how many of these young lives will be lost to society. Make no mistake, the unmotivated and disruptive students we meet in middle school and high school lost their way during their first few years of school, if not their first few months. These are the children with whom teachers were unable to form enduring relationships in Kindergarten and first grade. These are the children who were the hardest to love but who needed it the most.

Somehow, we must shake education leaders and policy makers of education in America with enough force that they see the folly of the learning environments they create for their students and teachers. For every child that we lose in their first few months of school there will be consequences, both for the children and society. There is also an incalculable opportunity cost associated with each child who falls off the conveyor belt that is education in America. The boys and girls who will someday end up in prison, on drugs, or who will suffer early, violent deaths might have had the potential to achieve greatness had we created an education model and learning environment crafted to meet their unique requirements.

How many more young lives can we afford to squander and how long are we willing to let this tragedy to continue? How many teachers are we willing let flee the profession because they are unable to give kids what they need?

When children arrive for their very first day of school, they are at one of the most vulnerable points of their lives. They need to feel safe, loved, and important. These are the things that allow the development of a healthy self-esteem. It is insufficient that teachers strive to identify and respond to the unique needs of each of their students—and indeed they do—the education process and the way teachers, students, and classrooms are organized must be crafted to support that essential variable of a child’s education: differentiation. We are not just teaching children to pass annual competency examinations, we are preparing them to be responsible citizens of a participatory democracy.

What we teach and how we teach it must, also, differentiate with respect to the reality that our children do not all learn the same way and are not all preparing for the same futures. Some will be going on to college, some to vocational schools, others to the military or directly into the work force. In some cases, they are preparing for careers and endeavors that do not exist, today, and that we cannot envision. Our job, as education leaders and teachers is to help them acquire an academic foundation that, as their unique talents and abilities are revealed, will allow them to choose their own destinations; to strike out in any direction.

If we are helping them learn the things they will need to develop their unique potential; to discover their special talents and abilities; to formulate and begin to pursue their dreams for the future; to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy; and to be able to control most of the outcomes in their lives, a healthy self-esteem will prove to be more important than what they know. With a solid academic foundation, a healthy self-esteem, and active imaginations they will be able to learn whatever they need to know.

This tragedy need not continue. We can go back to the drawing board and reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we seek. This is what I have striven to accomplish in the development of my education model and I urge you to take time to read it, not seeking reasons why it won’t work rather striving to imagine what it would be like to teach in such an environment. My model is available for your review at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

What If We Change the Way We Keep Score for Both Teachers and Students?

In this last segment of our series of articles in examination of the performance gap we will shift our focus to taking action.

A year or so ago, actor Michael J. Fox put out a poster that challenged educators. It said:

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

We do not like to think of our classrooms as hostile environments, as envisioned by legal scholar Randall Robinson (see Part 1 of this series). Teachers work hard to make their classrooms as welcoming and interesting as possible.

The hostility Robinson describes is a function of a competitive environment in which we expect children, who arrive with any number of disadvantages, to compete on equal terms with children who have been primed for academic competition. We start all students off from the same point of departure even though the level of readiness of the students can only be described as cavernous.

That this disparity has a significant impact on the ability of some students to keep pace with others is a fact that we all know, intuitively, but are programmed to ignore.

Recall “5 Things Well-Meaning White Educators Should Consider If They Really Want to Close the Achievement Gap,” by Jamie Utt, published at his website at www.changefromwithin.org (see part 1).

The fifth thing Utt suggested that must be done, which we have modified, is:

“Envision and Create Schools Where People of Color are Centered (And Whiteness Is Not) and Where All Children Are Centered for Who They Are As Unique Individuals, Irrespective of Color, Language of Birth, Religious Tradition, Relative Affluence, or Sexual Orientation.”

This is far and away the most vital of the “5 Things” because this is one that is well within our power to control whether we are a school superintendent, school principal, or even a single teacher in a classroom.

One of the easiest ways this can be accomplished is by changing our expectations of teachers and the things for which they are held accountable. Rather than evaluate teachers on the percentage of children who achieve passing scores on annual standardized competency examinations, what if we were to evaluate them on the percentage of students who score 85 percent or better on short mastery quizzes following individual lesson plans?

The goal is that 100 percent of each teacher’s students achieve 85% or better on mastery quizzes following every individual lesson plan they are given. It does not matter whether every student earned 85% or better the first time they took a quiz or even the second or third. What matters is that they achieved mastery, that the student’s accomplishment is celebrated and rewarded, and that the teachers’ efforts are formally acknowledged.

Neither does it matter if some students, within a given grading period or semester, achieved mastery on two, five, ten or more lesson plans. What matters is that a student is not permitted to move on to a new lesson within a given area of subject matter until they have mastered the preceding lesson. Each lesson mastered is a success and each success is tallied and valued equally with every other success.

The single most powerful driver of the number of lessons a student is able to master is the level of confidence they have gained through repeated success, absent even the hint of failure.

Even within the current educational process, where we move everyone along the same path and test them on the same material each year, we have learned that by the time they finish the 12th grade they will all be at different levels of accomplishment. Some are off to college, some leave school illiterate or barely literate and are destined to a life of poverty or crime—probably both—and also a life of virtual disenfranchisement, and the rest fall somewhere in between.

Whatever their destination, what distinguishes graduates from one another is the strength of the foundation upon which their charted destinations are constructed.

What is better? Is it a student who was given 1000 lessons but failed 80 percent of them and is proficient in only 10 percent? Or, is it that they are proficient in each of the lessons they were given whether 100, 200, 500 or a thousand?

Even though we want to downplay the value of standardized testing as much as possible, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Process) definitions bring the matter into brilliant focus. The NAEP defines “proficient level of academic performance” as:

“. . . solid academic performance for each grade assessed. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to subject matter.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The crucial variable is that kids must be able to apply “such knowledge to real world situations. . . .” Ultimately their ability to utilize what they have learned is the only thing that matters. If they cannot use it effectively, they haven’t really learned it.

It is when students are unable to apply the knowledge and skills we strove to teach during 12 years of school that they are doomed to a life separate and apart from mainstream America. We like to blame poverty for this separation but poverty is the inescapable outcome that burdens adults who were unsuccessful in acquiring the skills necessary for life as a productive American citizen.

The fact that most of these kids and the adults they ultimately become are poor, black, or other minorities is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that many of these are folks for whom English is a second language or are illegal immigrants. The educational process is poorly designed to meet the needs of this fastest-growing population of American children.

The glaring and tragic truth is that these young people are set up to fail. It is bad enough that they are victims of a flawed educational process. Worse is the fact that the teachers into the hands of which these kids are entrusted are inadequately prepared, under-resourced, poorly supervised, and are held accountable for outcomes that are counter to the best interests of their students.

This is a reality that must be altered before it is too late. It is already too late for millions of Americans who were the victims of a dysfunctional system and every day we delay, more kids are lost.

All that we need to in order to change this reality for all time is to step back and evaluate the American educational process as an integral whole, re-examine our purpose and assumptions, and make a few structural changes in what we do on a daily basis the most important of which is nothing more than changing the way a game is scored.

As soon as we change the way we score success, players and coaches (teachers and principals) will begin developing strategies and structural designs to support the new objectives. There is nothing magical or mystical about this process. It is simply the way systems function within the context of organizations.

What stands in our way of bringing about such transformational change to education in America, whether public or private? Other than our intransigence, not one damn thing!

The reader is invited to read my book Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, where I offer a blueprint for bringing about the systemic changes we have discussed. The reader is also invited to check out the rest of this blog, Education, Hope, and the American Dream for a full discussion of how we can overcome the challenges of public education in America. I am not suggesting that the reader will find all of the right answers in my book and blog but they will find many of the right questions.

Both the blog and book can be found on my website at www.melhawkinsandassociates.com.