Leadership for Differentiated Classrooms

The challenge with mixed-ability groups is to satisfy both equity and excellence by CAROL ANN TOMLINSON

Search as hard as you may, but you’ll never find a job in the Lake Wobegon School District, where all students conveniently arrive above average in their academic readiness.


Instead, you're more likely to find yourself in a school system where teachers are confronting classrooms populated by students who struggle mightily to learn, by others who are academically advanced well beyond their years, by still others for whom English is a second language and by youngsters who come to school from oppressive and/or abusive homes.

Anyone who has been in a contemporary classroom for even 15 minutes can plainly see that student needs vary greatly, yet the increasing pressure by state bodies to reach mandated performance standards does not usually account for student variance.

The challenge, then, for school leaders is to address both equity and excellence in today's schools. How can you provide access for struggling learners to high-level, potent and engaging learning opportunities without denying the needs of highly able learners to work at a pace and level of complexity appropriate to their special learning needs?

Mixed Abilities
Differentiated instruction has received increasing attention as an alternative for dealing effectively with these concerns. This approach to teaching emphasizes vigorous attempts on the part of classroom teachers to meet students where they are in the learning process and move them along as quickly and as far as possible in the context of a mixed-ability classroom. Differentiated instruction promotes high-level and powerful curriculum for all students, but varies the level of teacher support, task complexity, pacing and avenues to learning based on student readiness, interest and learning profile.

Differentiation seems a common-sense approach to addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners, promoting equity and excellence and focusing on best-practice instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. This makes more sense in today's schools than the timeworn method of aiming for students in the middle and hoping for the best for those on the upper and lower extremes.

For all its promise, however, effective differentiation is complex to use and thus difficult to promote in schools. School administrators serious about developing more responsive classrooms must understand that moving toward differentiation is a long-term change process. Leaders can prepare for this journey by drawing on insights from research about change as well as the experiences of others who have provided effective differentiated learning for students of varying abilities.

Informed Leadership
The Sheridan Public Schools in Englewood, Colo., began its journey toward differentiation by ensuring that the five-member board of education and central-office administrators and principals first understood the key concepts before moving on to teaching the staff. While it is not necessary that all district-level leaders be bona fide experts on differentiation, it is critical that they not ask teachers to undertake a significant change about which they themselves are vague or ill-prepared.

Several areas of preparation that make good sense:

  • Develop informed district leadership.
    This means that leaders must have a solid rationale for why differentiated learning makes sense for the district. Leaders must understand the key definitions and principles of effective differentiation. They also must appreciate what will be asked of teachers as they move toward more academically responsive classrooms.

    A central-office team that is expert, or becoming expert, in the theory and practices of differentiation can create an environment of focus, support and persistence needed for complex change. Both vision and management are rooted in district leadership that's well informed.

  • Provide committed building-level leadership.
    One can't overstate the significant role of building-level leadership in promoting differentiation. Principals and their assistants are catalysts for ongoing conversations about differentiation. They prompt long-term sharing of successes and problem solving related to failures, insist on transfer of understanding into classroom practice and link teacher practice with assessment of teacher effectiveness.

    Ideally, within each school that plans to differentiate instruction, either the principal or assistant principal should be ready to serve as the on-site source of support.

  • Nurture teacher models and coaches. Just as teachers cannot promote new ideas and practices with the same urgency as principals, principals cannot easily translate the principles of differentiation into curriculum and instruction.

    One efficient approach for starting differentiation is to cultivate and support small cadres of teachers who pioneer differentiation in their classrooms. Providing early and generous training, time, materials, affirmation and collaboration for a few teachers who have the skill and will to differentiate instruction will establish laboratories for progress, classrooms that can later serve as models and teachers who become credible staff developers further down the road.

Model Differentiation
In differentiated classrooms, teachers are leaders who establish learning goals for their learners. Always, however, because they understand their students' individuality and trust their insights, they invite learners to participate in shaping classroom procedures, making choices that work best for them and thinking of ways to make the classroom more effective.

One thing is non-negotiable: Each learner works toward essential understandings and skills. How they do so is often highly negotiable.

In a district that is promoting differentiation in the classroom, leaders have an opportunity to model the practices of differentiation they commend to teachers. That teachers move toward the goal of developing responsive classrooms ought to be non-negotiable. Understanding the individuality of teachers and trusting their insights, however, leaders should work with teachers to develop increasingly effective and varied ways to accomplish the goals of differentiation. It is unwise for educational leaders to ask schools and teachers to be vigorously sensitive to individual student differences while leaders function as though all schools or all teachers are alike.

In Grosse Pointe, Mich., district administrators initially invited each school to adopt a plan for moving toward differentiation based upon a three-tiered proposal generated at the district level. Schools that opted for a tier three (the most comprehensive) commitment to growth in differentiation agreed to more rapid and multifaceted progress than did those who opted for a tier one level of commitment. While it was clear that all schools were expected to apply and hone skills of responsive instruction, faculties could make important decisions about pace and complexity of progress.

Educational leaders have a chance to model differentiation through such means as:

  • Reflecting on the nature and needs of schools and teachers and being responsive to the variance that exists on those levels, just as it does in classrooms;
  • Establishing clear goals, but remaining open to varied ways of achieving those goals;
  • Providing support to teachers based on their particular needs;
  • Crafting staff development to respond to a wide range of levels of teacher comfort with differentiation; and
  • Basing teacher evaluation, at least in large measure, on the degree to which individual teachers set and achieve differentiation goals appropriate for their level of professional development.
Training for Transfer
It is not so difficult for teachers to understand ideas presented through staff development opportunities. It is vastly more difficult for them to translate those understandings into consistent classroom practice. In essence, when we call for transfer we ask teachers to shed comfortable and predictable ways of functioning in their classrooms for less comfortable and less predictable ways of working--and to do so while the world moves around them at a rapid pace.

Moving toward differentiation asks for significant change in ways teachers think about learners, classroom organization, their own roles and curriculum and instruction. Staff development that stops with "telling" teachers what to do will fall drastically short of effective transfer.

In the Amherst County, Va., Public Schools, a local staff developer joins individual principals on visits to classrooms where teachers are involved in early stages of differentiating their instruction.

First, providing teachers with course-length staff development on differentiation helps ensure teachers have sufficient time and guidance to understand basic elements of differentiation. The staff development requires teachers to plan differentiated lessons and provides both coaching and feedback throughout the planning. Teachers notify the staff developer when they are ready to implement a differentiated lesson, and both the trainer and the principal go together to the classroom at teacher invitation.

During the differentiated lesson, the two observers use an observation format designed around key vocabulary and principles from the staff development sessions. The observation is primarily a way to ensure the staff developer and principal understand the ideas behind differentiation in similar ways. Thus the observations are a means by which everyone involved grows in common understanding, not a teacher evaluation.

Creating staff development for transfer would likely include such things as:

  • Providing substantial and ongoing staff development rather than one-shot wonders;
  • Ensuring multiple staff development options linked to teacher readiness, interest and learning profile;
  • Making available time and coaching as teachers develop differentiated curriculum and instruction;
  • Encouraging peer collaboration among teachers for planning, carrying out and assessing the effectiveness of differentiated instruction;
  • Setting expectations for classroom implementation of ideas gained through staff development;
  • Making certain that definitions, terms, principles and practices of differentiation are spoken of in common language in all staff development options as well as observations; and
  • Establishing teacher-administrator understanding and collaboration for mutual growth through observations.
Partnerships for Growth
At Madison Middle School in Roanoke, Va., the principal encouraged his teachers to keep reflective journals on their students in their differentiated classrooms. He kept one as well. He also worked with district administrators to give teachers professional development and recertification credit for this and other efforts toward differentiation.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., the principal of McDougle Middle School secured substitutes so grade-level teams of teachers could have several full days of planning over a two-year period to develop and refine graduated rubrics for their differentiated classrooms. In addition, the principal took part in most of the work sessions.

In the Fauquier County, Va., schools, the history specialist led teachers in a multitext adoption. This approach seemed much better suited to classrooms with a wide range of reading levels than adoption of a single text.

In the Baltimore County, Md., schools, a middle school principal redesigned the school schedule for a year to enable each teacher in the core subject areas to have an additional hour of planning every day for a semester to support their planning and implementation of differentiated instruction.

In Grosse Pointe, Mich., each time curriculum guides are revised, differentiated options are included for content, process and products for all units. And in Ann Arbor, Mich., a district staff development coordinator provided teacher-friendly books on differentiation or supplementary classroom materials for all teachers who participated in staff development on differentiation.

In Hilton, N.Y., staff development initiatives are limited and focused so that teachers don't feel pulled in many directions. In addition, even the limited initiatives are presented in such a way that the interrelatedness among them is evident.

In each of these instances, district- and building-level administrators are sending an important message to teachers. Their actions convey the message, "It is so important to us that you develop the skills of a responsive teacher that the district will continually be your partner in achieving the skills and practices of differentiation."

Developing positive partnerships can occur in many ways, among them:

  • Providing time for teacher planning for differentiation and execution of plans;
  • Providing ample and suitable materials for academically diverse classrooms;
  • Developing and otherwise ensuring teacher access to differentiated curriculum;
  • Providing teacher incentives for growth toward differentiation;
  • Creating an environment that affirms innovation over the status quo and celebrates both successes and efforts at growth;
  • Limiting teacher overload; and
  • Making certain that district procedures and policies support differentiation (such as developing report cards that make sense in a differentiated environment, helping teachers distinguish between standards and standardization and providing long blocks of uninterrupted instructional time).
Generalist/Specialist Teams
Recently in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, differentiation study groups were formed, bringing together classroom teachers, special education teachers and teachers of gifted learners. The study groups were expanded by inviting more representatives of all three groups to participate together in staff development on differentiation. The planners communicated several important messages.

First, students with unique learning needs belong to everyone. They cannot belong to the specialist down the hall who will "fix" them. Second, there is no such thing as a part-time solution to a full-time need. That is, an hour a day or a half-day a week in a specialized program is not powerful enough to make enough difference in the learning of most students. Third, generalists need the refined skills of specialists to be most effective in the regular classroom.

Teaching is typically an isolating activity. It is not easy to forge effective partnerships among generalists and specialists. Partnerships that work best to meet the needs of diverse learners likely meet these conditions:

  • They provide extended periods of time for a single specialist to work with several classroom teachers in a given span (for example, a semester or a year) so that the partners can talk and listen together, get to know the same students well, carve out classroom procedures and succeed and fail together. This appears crucial in turning the vision of differentiation into classroom reality.
  • They avoid ownership of students. That is, while the learning disabilities specialist clearly has important insights to share about differentiating instruction for students with learning disabilities, she is also present to help make learning more effective for high-end learners (who may or may not have learning problems), second-language students and everyone else in the room. In other words, both partners have the common goal of maximizing learning for everyone.
  • They attend to the need for various specialists to learn from one another as well as to learn from classroom teachers. Again, while specialists in gifted education bring specialized knowledge about high-end learning to their work, they need also to learn about working effectively with emotionally volatile students and students who need reading support. In the end, each specialist should work toward becoming a differentiation specialist as well as an expert in his or her own field.
The Long Haul
Differentiated instruction is not a strategy. It is a total way of thinking about learners, teaching and learning. It is, in essence, growth toward professional expertise. There is probably no such thing as an expert teacher who is insensitive to individual need and ineffective in adapting instruction in response to learner need. To develop a growing number of effectively differentiated classrooms is to foster development of a cadre of expert teachers.

If that is the goal of a district, planning for differentiation is forever. It cannot be the focus of a year--or even of five or 10 years. It must be a central, predominant and lasting goal.

Planning for the long haul means district leaders would:

  • Develop board, district and school goals that center on maximizing the learning capacity of each student who comes to school there;
  • Develop steady and consistent long-term goals that are used for funding, staff development, hiring, teacher and administrator assessment and policy making, as well as short- term goals that are revised on a regular basis to reflect growth and support continued attainment of the long-term goals; and
  • Study our best understanding of the change process and plan for the various stages of change in regard to differentiation, including initiation, implementation, institutionalization and renewal phases.
A Worthy Vision
Public education that accepts all comers is a uniquely American vision. Cultivating schools that effectively, vigorously and consistently address that full range of learning needs in the context of heterogeneity is the goal of differentiation. It is ambitious in its scope, likely not fully possible, confounding in its complexity--and yet no more worthwhile goal may exist for school leaders who believe in public education that provides equity of access and growth in individual excellence for all learners.

Leaders who are consistent, insistent and persistent in promoting effective differentiation should find both challenge and reward aplenty.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is an associate professor of educational leadership, foundations and policy at University of Virginia, 179 Ruffner Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail: cat3y@virginia.edu. She is the author of The Differentiated Classroom.