Differentiated Instruction Works – Well! – Despite Ed Week Article

By Ed Moscovitch


Differentiated, small-group instruction is at the heart of how the Bay State Reading Institute has moved our partner schools forward. James Delisle, writing in Ed Week, has it all wrong when he argues that differentiated instruction doesn’t work.

He goes so far as to argue that the only teachers who say it’s successful are those that haven’t implemented it. To see how wrong he is, check out this short video  – 3 of our BSRI partner teachers and 2 principals talk about how successful it is in their classrooms.

And the data backs them up. At the Lincoln School in Revere, Mass (with a 69% poverty rate), Stefanie West, one of the teachers in the video, had 47% of her students Advanced last year on the Massachusetts state tests, and 94% proficient or advanced. Stefanie explains here how differentiated instruction works in her classroom.  Before she used differentiated instruction Kristen Reidy (Salemwood School, Malden 77% low-income), had only 40% of her 1st grade students proficient in reading fluency at the end of the year; now she’s disappointed with 96% because she wants every child proficient! At the Galligan School in Taunton (79% low income) over ¾ of kindergarten students meet national benchmarks in reading by the end of kindergarten.

I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms in our 43 partner schools and seen for myself how effective this instruction is. Over and over, teachers tell me that they know their students much better than before, that they can meet individual student needs, that students are performing at previously unimagined levels, and that disruptive behavior in the classroom has all but disappeared.

Here’s what you’d see if you visited one of these schools: The teacher would be working with 4 or 5 students at the teaching table. They’re homogeneously grouped for instruction, so she’s able to challenge each student at his or her own level (the groupings change frequently during the year to reflect student progress).  During the course of the reading block, every student has a turn with the teacher. When they are not with the teacher, the students are reading to each other, writing, asking each other questions, and looking for evidence. The expectations for each student are adjusted to match his or her progress. This collaborative work can be quite rigorous – we have kindergartners who can write their own sentences by Christmas vacation; first graders who can determine the difference between fact and opinion; 2nd graders who can read a text together, ask each other questions and answer them, and pick out the main ideas; and fifth graders who can debate whether genetically modified foods are (or are not) the answer to world hunger. And all this happens while the teacher is instructing other students in the class!

It’s no mystery why this is so effective.   In whole group instruction, necessarily pitched to the middle, the brighter kids are bored because they already know the material, and the kids who can’t keep up are frustrated. In both cases, this leads to disruptive behavior. With differentiated, small-group instruction, there’s no place to hide – every child has to be on their toes because they may be called on at any moment or because they are actively engaged with their classmates. Because students are talking with each other, asking questions, and engaged with ideas, they develop poise and self-confidence.

When asked their views about BSRI by our federal program officer, the teachers at the Lincoln School told her that BSRI (that is, differentiated, small-group instruction) is “how we teach”. It works; they use it in reading, in math, and across the curriculum. They use it in the summer and after school. And, they made clear, they’d never go back.