Feature                                                       Pages 26-30


Differentiation: A Strategic

Response to Student Needs    

How the Virginia Beach schools have embraced a new instructional philosophy, in part by adding it to teacher evaluation


It was about 20 minutes into a one-hour professional development session on flexible grouping when a middle school teacher raised his hand and asked, “Let me get this straight. You want me to let them get up and walk around?” 

It was an honest question from a good teacher struggling to make sense of differentiation in the context of his classroom. He worked in a comfortable sandbox where things were quite traditional — desks in rows, whole-group instruction and everyone on the same page — but he was successful just the same. His students’ test scores were good, parents requested his class, and he had been named teacher of the year at his school twice in his 25-year career in the Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Kelly Hedrick (standing)

The teacher now faced a new hurdle: The school district had decided to embrace differentiation as its philosophy of instruction. In this workshop, he was getting the distinct impression his sandbox wasn’t going to stay intact.

A Non-Negotiable
Differentiation was added to the teacher evaluation rubric, and by 2003 Virginia Beach launched full force into a divisionwide focus on Carol Ann Tomlinson’s model for differentiation. (Tomlinson is the author of several books on the subject.) The angst felt by the teacher struggling with flexible grouping was not uncommon in the early phases of the work. The terminology, numerous instructional strategies, nontraditional approaches to assessment and general shift from conventional methods for teaching and learning were overwhelming for many teachers and administrators.

The fact that differentiation is included in the teacher evaluation system makes it non-negotiable. The heart of guiding everyone in the district from novice to expert in the work focuses on four essential questions.

Question 1: Are we clear about what matters in curricula?
Like many school divisions, Virginia Beach was immersed in a standardized-testing environment where the pressure of good test scores could easily mask clarity on worthy content. When the division began its work on differentiation, teachers struggled to use assessment data to create responsive lessons because they believed they had to cover every minute detail in the state standards. Even for students who had already mastered the content and skills, lack of clarity on what mattered in curricula could easily lead teachers to march through low-level, test-driven lessons.

Most school divisions that begin the work with differentiation face the same inevitable query from teachers, “What about the stand-ards?” It is a straightforward question that necessitates the development of a clear vision and rationale for the work.

Our district addressed this issue by communicating a vision for responsive classrooms. Leaders in the department of curriculum and instruction developed a position paper that articulated the division’s commitment to differentiation as the philosophy of instruction. They also developed a definition of differentiation based on Tomlinson’s work that captured the relationship between standards and curricula.

These tools stemmed from the belief that without a well-defined vision, there is no reason to expect folks to invest in the challenge of changing practices that are comfortable and convenient. The definition and position paper make a simple point: Differentiation of instruction enables rigorous, engaging and authentic curricula for all students because we modify instruction to respond to students’ readiness, interests and learning profile features. The state standards are the foundation for this work, not the goal.

Question 2: Is the curriculum rich — conceptually based, meaningful to the learner and built upon complex ideas?
Early in the work on differentiation, Virginia Beach teachers typically fell into two distinct categories — those who struggled reasonably with the philosophy and practices and those who quickly reached frustration level. All things being equal, it became apparent the differences were related in great part to the quality of the curriculum. If teachers try to differentiate from a weak curriculum, they simply get multiple versions of that same weak curriculum.

In those curriculum areas where the foundation was strong, teachers were more likely to engage in the work of differentiation and to see students benefit from their incremental successes. In curriculum areas not as strong, the teachers were often easily discouraged. Seeing the relationship between the quality of the curriculum and the level of differentiation emerge across schools and academic levels, the district’s department of curriculum and instruction worked to refine all curricula using a consistent framework. The goal was simple: Build a strong curriculum foundation to enable teachers to focus their efforts and talents on creating responsive instruction.


Resources and incentives in differentiation

The Understanding by Design structure developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe provided the curriculum framework and the focus for the second phase of work on differentiation directed at refining the curriculum. It would have been preferable to refine the curriculum before launching into differentiation, but Virginia Beach is not unlike many school districts that start work on differentiation and then realize the curriculum needs refinement. In the end, the curriculum and instruction work is reciprocal and ongoing.

Where you begin is not as much of an issue as having a focus on the connections among curriculum, instruction and assessment. It is important to note that our district chose two sophisticated models for curriculum (Understanding by Design) and instruction (Tomlinson’s work on differentiation). The power of these models in conjunction with one another is great, but labor intensive. In all situations where differentiation is the goal, district leaders have to commit to strong models for curriculum and instruction and invest in the work. Otherwise, teachers will search the Internet and find much easier, yet less robust, models.

Question 3: Do teachers have a variety of instructional models and strategies to use in developing, refining and differentiating the curriculum?
Along the continuum from novice to expert in differentiation, everyone struggles at some point. For many elementary teachers, the challenge is that they were trained as generalists and it is difficult to differentiate for student readiness if you do not understand the content. For many secondary teachers, the challenge is in things like flexible grouping, providing guided choices to students and the general shift from teacher-centered to student-centered teaching.

All teachers need to have a diversified instructional toolbox filled with various models and strategies for organizing instruction. It is important for division leaders to recognize that teachers who differentiate well are knowledgeable and skilled in a range of instructional strategies. They know the strategy and they know when to use it to maximize student success. This is a significant hurdle in school districts that do not have an effective professional development program focused on high-quality instruction.

One structure our district had in place at the time the work on differentiation began was a successful professional development program at all levels. The department of curriculum and instruction worked with teachers citywide and schoolwide to increase the instructional toolbox. This made a tremendous difference. A few whole-group sessions defined differentiation, but the most powerful work was done in small groups where teachers used assessment data to develop differentiated lesson plans.

Having differentiation on the teacher evaluation rubric provided the heat, and the staff development program provided the light.

Question 4: Is there a clear distinction between assessment and evaluation?
Once administrators and teachers began talking about differentiation, it became apparent there was not clarity across the district or even within many schools on the differences between assessment and evaluation. This was problematic because differentiation necessitates an inseparable connection between assessment and instruction. Teachers wanted clarity.

“Do we grade pre-assessments and exit tickets?” “How will we motivate students if we don’t put a grade on everything?” “How am I supposed to avoid grading everything when my building administrator requires weekly grades?” These were all valid questions sparked by the school district’s use of differentiation. In many places, discourse on weighty topics associated with grading and assessment would have ended the work, but not in Virginia Beach. The struggles and discussions helped frame a deeper focus on assessment within the context of the curriculum.

Resolution and common ground on assessment came through the work on Understanding by Design. This curriculum framework calls for a balanced assessment system where teachers determine the tools they will use for formative and summative assessments. In collaboration with colleagues, they determine the appropriate points to gather formative assessment data and when it is most appropriate to evaluate a student’s work.

The focus on collaboration in pursuit of high-quality curriculum, instruction and assessment is at the heart of the strategic plan in Virginia Beach. Using collaborative learning cultures, teachers work to develop common formative and summative assessments, analyze the student work that results and make refinements to unit and lesson plans. In this context, differentiation is embedded in the curriculum and driven by the assessments.

Scaffolding Options
Over the years since the district committed to differentiation, several powerful opportunities have emerged, most of them resulting from pitfalls. Each of the 85 schools in Virginia Beach has expert teachers who serve as models for differentiation. The goal remains high-quality instruction in every classroom for every child, but the truth is that achieving that goal requires ongoing commitment from district and site administrators. It entails ongoing refinement to the curriculum and assessment practices. Gone is the need for a professional development session that focuses solely on what differentiation is and what it is not. In its stead is a strategic plan focused on responsiveness to student needs, a balanced assessment system, technology integration and mastery of 21st-century skills. Differentiation has become the instructional powerhouse that helps move all students toward worthy outcomes.

At the end of that session for staff on flexible grouping, the teacher raised his hand with an observation for the presenter. “You know, this all makes more sense if I think about coaching. I’ve been the football coach for 18 years, and in all that time I’ve done everything you’ve talked about, from small-group instruction to partner work on skill development. I assess my players constantly to decide who needs what.

“We only meet as a whole group at the beginning of practice and at the end. The rest of the time, they are in flex groups. I guess I just need to think of my science classroom in the same way. Wow, who knew?”

This is an important reminder for leaders. Like the students they teach, educators will need multiple avenues and scaffolds in their journey to developing expertise in differentiation. ¦

Kelly Hedrick is director of gifted education and curriculum development in Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Va. E-mail: KellyA.Hedrick@vbschools.com



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