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Reconsidering Resources and

Incentives in Differentiation   



A principal working to strategically plan for differentiation of instruction across her elementary school posed an important question: “How do I support my teachers?” Her inquiry related to one of the areas for strategic planning for any initiative — resources and incentives.

With most school districts trying desperately to do better work with fewer resources, it might seem like a moot point. The truth is that if top administrators cannot identify the most critical resources and incentives, their work with differentiation may fall far short of the goal of high-quality instruction for all students.

Begin by exploring this key question: “What resources and incentives exist within our school district now?” Let’s conduct an honest assessment of the programs and practices that we spend money on to determine the degree to which they truly support the philosophy of differentiation. Professional development is a good example. To what extent do the conferences that staff members attend or the outside experts we bring in help move teachers and administrators toward the vision of responsive classrooms?

Then, district leaders can begin to modify or eliminate inhibitors to the work. At a minimum, leaders can choose resources and incentives more carefully. A principal in our district seeking ways to support her teachers cancelled two annual subscriptions in favor of purchasing books focused on differentiation and assessment. She spent the same amount of money but with a clearer focus on what her teachers needed to support their differentiated instruction needs.

In any worthy endeavor, new tools have to be developed. While this can be time-consuming, the tools are not necessarily expensive. When Virginia Beach began to implement differentiation, district leaders in curriculum and instruction worked with schools to develop learning-walk checklists, classroom-observation instruments, protocols for providing teacher feedback as well as book talks and video study plans for professional development. In addition, existing instruments for classroom observations and teacher evaluation were examined and refined to align them with the district’s philosophy on differentiation.

Motivational Ideas
The area of incentives is an interesting source of discussion because most people tend to associate it with monetary gain. As teachers work to make teaching and learning more effective and responsive, it is amazing how powerful some incentives that cost little to nothing can be.

In Virginia Beach, administrators have used the following methods that have translated into incentives for their teachers:

  • Observing lessons and providing specific, descriptive feedback on the differentiation of instruction;
  • Using substitutes to provide teachers time to work together to develop differentiated learning plans;
  • Organizing book talks and video studies in lieu of informational faculty meetings;
  • Incorporating examples from classrooms in school and division publications to honor teachers’ efforts in the area of differentiation;
  • Inviting central-office staff to conduct learning walks and classroom observations to highlight teacher accomplishments;
  • Writing personalized notes of congratulation to honor teacher risk taking and growth; and
  • Taking the time to engage with teachers in conversations about instructional and assessment practices focused on building their confidence and expertise in the work.

These seem obvious, but it is amazing how easy it is to forget that most teachers are honored when an administrator takes the time to acknowledge their efforts, challenges and accomplishments. The fact of the matter is that high-quality instruction is not easy, especially in the diverse classrooms of today. Perhaps simple and personalized are the way to go. 


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