This weekend, I read a lengthy news report that examined the performance on state assessments for several local schools. The report included all sorts of measurable aspects – teacher salaries, per pupil expenditures, SAT scores and so much more. In each area, the report ranked the schools according to each factor so that readers can easily see which schools were at the top (or bottom) of each category.
Looking across the report, some things stood out. For instance, the schools that had the greatest percentage of ESL (English as a Second Language) and Special Education students had some of the lowest overall scores on state assessments. Not surprisingly, these schools were also some lowest funded schools and had the highest rates of students living in poverty. While I recognize that there are many factors that influence assessment data, the report points out some important incompatible beliefs that most educational leaders hold.
If you would survey school leaders and state officials, most would espouse the importance of differentiation in education. Considering the diversity of students who enter classrooms, they argue, educators can’t teach every student the same way and expect the same results. Students come to schools with a variety of needs and abilities and it’s important for educators to differentiate their instructional techniques to support their students’ learning. Consider this scenario. It’s quite possible that a teacher could be working with a blind student, an ESL student and a student with a learning disability in the same classroom. Obviously, teaching the content in the same way to all three of these students wouldn’t yield similar results. Although it can challenging to vary instructional approaches with the diversity of students present in schools, few would argue with the basic need to differentiate instruction.
Alongside the widespread support for differentiation, there is another fundamental belief that most educational leaders hold – the need for academic standards. Decades ago, local schools adopted their own curricula and course of study. This approach, however, created inconsistency in expectations across schools. Leaders argued that it was difficult to identify which schools were successfully educating their students and which ones were not. Now, states provide detailed standards for almost every content area. These standards outline the academic targets towards which students and teachers should be working. Standards, leaders argue, provide guidance for teachers and help to create consistent and rigorous expectations across schools.
But that’s where the challenge lies. While educational leaders espouse the importance of differentiation and standardization, they don’t see the underlying incompatibility with these beliefs. The incompatibility, however, doesn’t originate in standardization and differentiation philosophically. Instead, the issue stems from standardizing assessment. Clearly, it’s possible to have similar expectations for students as long as educators teach them in different ways. The challenge is that we can’t turn around and then say that every student has to demonstrate what he or she has learned in the same way. Let’s return to the comparative data that was shared in the education report I referenced earlier in this post. In our state, every ESL student must take standardized assessments in English. No matter how much teachers differentiate their instruction to help these students meet the academic standards, if they can’t demonstrate what they’ve learned in English, they will fail. If we widen the lens to include the diversity of students taking standardized tests, the data shared in these educational reports becomes a little clearer. As educators, we need to negotiate these beliefs of standardization and differentiation to make better decisions on behalf the students with whom we work.