Does Revised Proposal Clarify Differentiated Instruction?

Children sitting in chairs raising their hands in front of a blackboard


On June 4, the Davis School Board passed a motion 4-1 that, in part, “(directed) the Superintendent to have staff review and recommend assessment protocols to be implemented in screening students beginning in the 2015-16 school year. The focus of assessment will be to identify students whose needs cannot be met in classrooms which fully implement best practices of differentiated instruction.”

Differentiated instruction is an acknowledgement that one size cannot fit all in education. It is the way in which teachers respond to a variety of student needs in the classroom. To meet these varied needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content, process and product in order to reach more students.

This is clearly happening already. The question really is how this instruction will change, based on changes to the AIM program.

A big question from that June 4 motion is what differentiated instruction would look like. The district in September stated, “DJUSD intends to implement a targeted strategy to ensure that all students receive differentiated instruction. This shall be achieved through a two-step process of formulating a professional growth plan and implementing particular strategies for advanced learners.”

They added, “Differentiation for the advanced learner incorporates information regarding differentiated classroom practices, but may have more emphasis on providing differentiated instructional methods that integrate a democratic learning environment with substantive information across the curriculum in advanced content, process and product. Typically, advanced learners demonstrate interest-based intrinsic motivation with a capacity for understanding abstract concepts and the ability to transfer knowledge from one learning situation to another.”

However, the Superintendent was criticized by many for a lack of clear vision for what differentiated instruction would look like. He told the board that “differentiation is a philosophy, not a program.” Members of the public who spoke, including educators and former board members, worried that differentiated instruction could not work in class sizes of 30. Many argued we needed to cut classes by one-third, down to 20, in order to make it work.

In this week’s staff report, the district notes, “Finally, this presentation will provide concrete examples of what differentiation looks like in classrooms and at school sites.  This presentation will deliver an educational overview of differentiation in DJUSD classrooms from professionals that are progressing in their differentiation practices, and discuss our professional development plan that focuses on offering all students access to appropriate levels of learning.”

We still do not get a clear sense of where this is going, but the district does provide several existing examples.

For instance, approved at the June 19, 2014 Board Meeting was AIM Flexible Grouping in Math.

Staff writes, “To enhance professional development in the area of differentiation, flexible and innovative practices to improve student performance and outcomes in self-contained and non-self-contained classes for students who are GATE identified and/or high achieving in math are critical. The Committee recommends that each site explore the implementation of flexible grouping practices in math that will meet the unique needs of their students.”

This shall include, but is not limited to:

  • Exploring scheduling possibilities for math, such as block scheduling by grade level, including self-contained and non-self-contained classes.
  • Recommending ways teachers within one grade level could provide flexible grouping within a math block whereby students are grouped by ability level.
  • Planning flexible grouping and learning stations within a classroom so that content can be differentiated according to student need; include resources such as the math specialist and teacher aides to provide additional assistance to underperforming students.
  • Rethinking use of math specialists so they are assigned to a single site and can then be used as integral part of math team.
  • Scheduling additional collaboration time to aid in the implementation of differentiation in order to develop horizontal and vertical team planning.
  • Exploring educational options for students who are beyond the grade level curriculum.

The district distributed a survey to elementary principals “to gain a better understanding of what differentiation practices are happening within all classrooms, across all elementary grade levels and across the school site in mathematics. The survey results are based on the observations of each principal and school-wide implementation of differentiation practices in mathematics and with Envision. The survey was distributed through a Google form on September 21, 2015 and results were collected on October 28, 2015.”

According to the staff report, “The results of the differentiation survey provide a picture of the various range of strategies each school site and classroom are using to meet students where they are at and move them forward. Each school is providing instruction that includes differentiated instructional practices for the various readiness levels of our students. The differentiation varies in every classroom and on a daily basis based on each student’s needs.”

They continue, “A visitor that walks into DJUSD classrooms may see: small group instruction, flexible pacing, varied materials, flexible groupings of small group instruction, students researching and creating projects, leveled books in reading, leveled instruction and the use of online Envision.”

Staff writes, “The district will continue [to] provide support for the differentiation work happening in all classrooms and schools by providing specific professional growth on differentiation, collaborating with teachers, support the implementation of Envision through instructional coaching, availability of technology, use of data and using research based best practices in providing first effective instruction, intervention and opportunities to advance. DJUSD commits to sharing results with all principals, continue to share best practices, offer on-going professional growth on differentiation to teachers and principals and continue to monitor differentiation and ensure we continue to move all students forward.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. DavisAnon

    The problem is to what to degree this is actually happening in each classroom, even more so since this was a directive given over a year ago and the administration was clearly unaware of what had/continued to be implemented in the classrooms when last asked about it at a Board meeting. Ms. Gregson, the Director of Curriculum, Assessment and Learning admitted she was completely unaware of the Board’s directive at all despite being on the job for a year already!! What is her job if not to know about this? Parents find it troubling when they are told that “it’s working already” in their child’s classroom when they can clearly see that, for their child at least, it is not.

    To be honest, it’s increasingly difficult to find ways to go forward in good faith with this administration and this Board, and I am a longtime supporter of DJUSD and prior parcel taxes. I hear serious doubts expressed by many community members about supporting another parcel tax given the actions of this Board over the past year since they were elected. It is difficult to trust them with more money when it’s been spent on strategic planning that is all but ignored a year later as well as costly and wasteful investigations, and to what purpose? Are we getting our money’s worth? Right now, I’d have to say we are not.

    The current proposal to phase in changes over 3 years seems to be a tactic to decrease the number of vocally unhappy parents of this year’s third-graders and shift the burden to those a few years younger whose parents are not yet paying attention to these issues. To the best of my knowledge, there has still been no educational benefit suggested by the Board that may come out of cutting the AIM program in half. How will this make anything better? The district should instead start with getting differentiation implemented across the district to see if it even brings anything positive (vs. just being a fancy buzzword that isn’t translating to benefits for most students) before changing AIM in this way.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “To be honest, it’s increasingly difficult to find ways to go forward in good faith with this administration and this Board, and I am a longtime supporter of DJUSD and prior parcel taxes. ”

      completely agree

      1. MrsW

        “To be honest, it’s increasingly difficult to find ways to go forward in good faith with this administration and this Board, and I am a longtime supporter of DJUSD and prior parcel taxes. ”

        I have a different response.  It is only now that we have a flashlight to get a glimpse of the shenanigans administrators and School Boards feel they have to go through to do their jobs.  Before, we were just blissfully ignorant. We are finally getting more of the transparency we’ve asked for and we don’t like what we see! Case in point, when we were all in the dark Tahir Ahad could manipulate the districts financial picture and run his own business out of the District offices.

        “…seems to be a tactic to decrease the number of vocally unhappy parents”

        I think adversity to being yelled at, can explain a lot of the District’s decision making over the last several years.  Agree that I would like to see more decisions have an education-based foundation. Would like to see this group support the Board and Administration have the confidence to be sensible.

    1. hpierce

      What are the metrics for GATE/AIM?  Don’t see how they would be substantially different, except my sense is that GATE/AIM appears to have the metric of “popularity”/passion/vox populi.  Which I don’t consider to be a valid “metric”.

  2. Don Shor

    … approved at the June 19, 2014 Board Meeting was AIM Flexible Grouping in Math.

    Apparently math differentiation “at all sites” was directed in May 2013.

     There seems to be a high degree of variability as to how the differentiated math instruction was implemented from one school to another. What directives and policies were put forth by the administration to make sure that differentiation would be effectively implemented? What followup was done by administration to ensure that it was occurring?

    Given that the state testing was changed significantly just as this was being done (STAR to CAASPP), it is no longer possible to compare year to year data regarding test results by school or districtwide. Since the district knew that testing had changed, what assessment practices did the district put in place to ensure that the policy of differentiated math instruction was working? Have they made that information available to parents and the public?

    Are teachers provided time and pay for training in differentiated math instruction? What rough percentage of teachers have received specialized training? Does any of that training pertain directly to gifted-identified students?

    The district has surveyed schools as to the practices they have put in place. Have they surveyed teachers as to the resources they need?

  3. ryankelly

    Since Math is not a GATE subject, maybe this is a separate topic and should have a separate advisory committee to oversee how Math instruction is delivered in the District.   Students should not have to get into GATE self-contained classes to solve the problem of Math instruction deficiencies.

      1. MrsW

        The story is different for grades 4-6 and grades 7-9 or 10.

        In Junior High, the “AIM Core” track consists of English, social studies, and science, while math is tracked based on knowledge.  An Algebra class, for example, can have 7th, 8th and 9th graders in it, AIM and non-AIM.

        In Elementary School, tracking is by age and not knowledge.  English, social science and math courses are taught in the AIM classroom by the teacher.  [Korematsu, North Davis and Willet have different teachers for science classes, but they are still AIM.]  Common Core has changed this, but until recently the math curriculum was different in AIM classrooms, the highly verbal University of Chicago series–lots of words and light on symbols, i.e. few to no equal signs.

        But here’s the thing.  Historically, a small number of both AIM and non-AIM students (we have never seen how many) are truly ready for Algebra in 7th grade and don’t need to repeat it in 8th grade.  Non-AIM students have been getting there, too, as their non-AIM teachers have enriched the curriculum and/or the student’s own interests have propelled them.   It is possible to do that because of the nature of math knowledge and how it builds on previous knowledge in a systematic way.

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    The answer to the question posed by your headline is “No.” The staff appears to have at best a theoretical awareness of (as opposed to knowledge of or working knowledge of) differentiation.

    As the article quotes, staff has recommended that each site “explore the implementation. . . ,” such exploration to include “Exploring,” “Recommending,” “Planning,” “Rethinking,” “Scheduling,” and “Exploring.”

    This is all well and good, and I have nothing against “exploring,” but until the “exploration” results in “discovery,” and the “discovery” is deemed by qualified observers to be more interesting than grass processed through the digestive tract of a horse, I urge that what is currently working just fine be allowed to continue working just fine.

    1. ryankelly

      nPigIV, You paint such a bleak picture.  I think there is plenty of evidence that our students are progressing through Math curriculum, though maybe not at the pace that some parents are demanding.  Again, Math is not a GATE subject and deserves its own advisory committee and attention and a student shouldn’t need to get into the GATE self-contained class to receive appropriate Math education.

      1. Napoleon Pig IV

        I agree with you, ryankelly. What you are suggesting is augmentation and improvement. My concern about the district’s approach is that it began with restricting and dismantling (lottery, eliminating AIM coordinator, clear signals of intent to shrink the size of the program, restrictions and poorly-planned changes in testing). None of their actions suggest the positive approach you are advocating, although I’m sure somewhere in the inner hallways of the district and board lairs, there are people with good intentions quietly staying out of trouble.

        1. hpierce

          So, you support “the lottery”? Have you read the story?  Just curious on both counts.

          [‘lottery = game’ … as many have “gamed” the current system]

        2. Napoleon Pig IV

          No, I definitely do not support the lottery. I must have written unclearly. I intended to include the lottery in a group of actions, all of which I consider to be poorly thought through and/or carried out in bad faith.

          And yes, I did read the story. David did a good job with the story, but I don’t think the district has a clue about the reality of differentiation, even though some teachers are already doing a decent job of it. But, the word “differentiation” as referred to by the district is used the same way some politicians use “peace” to mean war and “justice” to mean power-grabbing.

        3. Napoleon Pig IV


          Yes, that’s a great short story. Definitely relevant, in case the moderator is watching : -) Another you might like (or probably already read) of a similar nature is “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain.

          Ah, the behavior of sheep and swine when gathered into herds and sounders!

        4. hpierce

          Ah, moderator will definitely make us go off-line, but Samuel Clemens is my favorite essayist/satirist.  I have 3 volumes of his collected works.  Will have to look up your reference.

  5. Davis Progressive

    it really seems like there is a hodge-podge approach in this school district.  there seems to be no clear direction.  there seems to be no clear underlying justification.  am i wrong here?

    1. ryankelly

      I think the teachers at each school are allowed some latitude on how they run their classrooms.  I think the best arrangement in intermediate grades is when teachers team teach in some form – either one teacher taking over Math instruction, one teaching English, etc. or where all of the teachers teach one subject at the same time, but take on different levels.   This is up to the school site and the teachers themselves.  Leadership by the Principal is important in creating this.  I don’t know that it is possible to have the same exact duplication at every school across the District.

    2. hpierce

      Actually, if the metrics are in place, where teachers aren’t “doing their own things” without repercussions, if they aren’t serving their students, I support “hodge-podge”… differentiated instruction, or GATE/AIM instruction (a subset of differentiated instruction, by definition) is critical.  The students are “hodge-podge” in their needs.

      Teacher unions oppose “metrics”.  Competent teachers have little fear in “metrics”.

      1. wdf1

        hpierce:  Teacher unions oppose “metrics”.  Competent teachers have little fear in “metrics”.

        Depends on which metrics are used.  Even competent teachers will also oppose stupid metrics.  Generally standardized testing of recent years is stupid metrics.

  6. Anon

    LOL  I am having a good belly laugh!  Ability grouping – what a new concept – NOT!  It is what we as teachers did way back in the 1970’s.  Teachers then and now use differentiated instruction all the time on a daily basis – THIS IS NOTHING NEW.  To imply that “differentiation” is somehow a “substitute” for the AIM program is nothing but smoke and mirrors.  Personally, I could care less whether they keep the AIM program or not – it is all the obfuscation and tomfoolery as well as outright disingenuousness of the DJUSD/school board that galls me.  If you want to reduce the AIM program by half, then say so, and give the honest reasons why, and be able to justify those reasons.  MAJOR FUMBLE which does not bode well for the renewal of a school parcel tax.

    1. MrsW

      Ability grouping – what a new concept – NOT!  It is what we as teachers did way back in the 1970’s.  Teachers then and now use differentiated instruction all the time on a daily basis – THIS IS NOTHING NEW.

      Thought this warranted highlighting.

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