Based on the work of scholars such as Carol Burris and UVA’s Carol Ann Tomlinson, we know that early exposure to rigorous content is linked to student success in advanced classes.
Historically, “honors” or “advanced” classes were predominantly white, and standard-level classes tended to be taught with a deficit mindset, according to the work of Jeannie Oakes and others.
Heterogeneous grouping–having students of multiple academic levels learning together–helps teachers see students through an asset-based lens rather than a deficit lens: What strengths does each student bring to the learning environment? With appropriate support from school leaders, teachers can leverage students’ strengths to help ALL students achieve at higher levels. This expansion of student achievement is precisely what Albemarle County Public Schools is bringing about by unleveling some classes in middle schools. As former classroom teachers who support this shift, which provides a rigorous curriculum for all students, we want to correct some common misunderstandings about this program.
The term “unleveling” itself is misleading. This implies that all students are being provided with the same level of instruction. Students are in fact learning together in a heterogeneous classroom and receiving instruction that meets them at their different readiness levels. Some who support the status quo have implied that the default level of instruction in an “unleveled” classroom is low to meet the needs of a classroom’s lowest performing students. This is incorrect. In a differentiated classroom, all students have access to a rigorous and highly engaging curriculum that encourages critical thinking with scaffolding for kids who need extra support and enrichment for kids who are ready to move forward.
This differentiation cannot begin in high school, however, and we are glad to see the county continue to embrace a talent development model of gifted instruction in younger grades. Talent development focuses on ensuring that all students get what they need, when they need it. Students learn to articulate their own strengths. Under the old model of gifted identification, a group of students was pulled out of the classroom for “enrichment” that often was not tied to instruction or content. These groups were composed of students who were disproportionately white, from higher-income families, and largely excluded students with disabilities. A differentiated classroom, however, is an integrated classroom.
Research is clear that when children are placed in a “low” performing class, they begin to believe their teachers don’t trust them to succeed in school. This lack of trust becomes internalized over time, and their academic performance and their behavior are negatively impacted. In a differentiated classroom, kids will see the gifts they and others bring to the classroom that are not identified through a standardized test, such as creativity, communication, and collaboration.
We know that parents in our community are eager to undo centuries of discrimination while exposing their children to a rigorous curriculum rooted in critical thinking. Differentiation is the way to accomplish all of these goals. There are several routes you can take to support integrated schooling: Advocate for your child. Have conversations with your child’s teacher to let them know where your student is struggling and excelling and how your child learns best. Teachers want to work with families. Communication is key. Advocate for our teachers. Ask teachers what they need to be successful in implementing a model of instruction that challenges all students. Support our teachers so they are given the tools they need to teach your child and every child in their classrooms.
Sarah K. Harris