From left to right, second-graders Sade Joyner, Axel Zelaya, Daymond Davis… (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON…)
In Elise Carter’s second-grade class, some students still write their numbers backward or look at their fingers to add. Others race through multiplication tables or search the Web to teach themselves about negative numbers.
She does her best to challenge all of them, dividing her class at Galway Elementary School in Silver Spring into thirds and customizing a series of rotating lessons for the students. Each group takes a turn at the teacher’s table at the sound of a little brass bell.
Experts call it differentiated instruction — in essence, adapting lessons for kids of different abilities within a classroom. Teachers have always had to juggle disparate student needs. But pressure is rising to do it more often and with better results.
The practice of “tracking” students — isolating the high, average or low performers in different classrooms — is falling out of favor. Inclusion is in. Schools are expected to push all students to graduate ready for college. At the same time, new teacher evaluations being developed in many states and ever-higher testing goals make it even more critical to meet the needs of every student — those who speak limited English, those with special needs, those way behind and those far advanced.
“Each year, it seems like the expectations and the demands get a little bit higher,” Carter said.
The 27-year-old teacher arrives at school each day two hours early. Before the opening bell, she prepares three math lessons and five reading lessons for her 19 students. Some of her readers are still sounding out basic words while others are analyzing themes in chapter books. Eleven are learning English as a second language.
Last year, Carter sent her more-advanced students down the hall to learn third-grade math. This year, in a switch that reflects a new Montgomery curriculum, all of her students stay together.
The shift in math instruction in Maryland’s largest school system is the latest example of a move toward more mixed-ability classes that is mirrored in Fairfax and Arlington counties and across the country, with greater inclusion of special education students, more open enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and the elimination of some honors-level courses.
It’s all part of an effort to lift the performance of all students and overturn a legacy of sorting children into perceived ability tracks that often divided along racial lines. But some parents wonder if it is really possible to meet everyone’s needs in one room, or if their kids will get lost in the shuffle.
“With a single teacher dividing her time, I don’t know how it’s benefiting the kids who are struggling or the ones who are ready to move along,” said Alice Caponiti, who is concerned that her child, a second-grader at Sequoyah Elementary School in Derwood, is not being challenged.
Montgomery’s curriculum, which reflects new national academic standards and is being taught this year in kindergarten and first and second grades, represents an about-face for a school system that in 2010 accelerated nearly half its fifth-graders into above-grade-level math classes.
The school system’s new approach aims to teach for depth, not speed, while keeping students on grade level.
Like most teaching, differentiating is a mix of art and science.
When it works, “it’s like a jazz rhythm,” said Carol Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on differentiation. Ideally, students come together around ideas and then break apart to go deeper or get extra support.
To be successful, the practice requires a lot of planning, teachers collaboration, monitoring of student progress, assessing, grouping and regrouping students. The goal is to provide material that’s challenging enough, but not too challenging, to keep each child interested.
Carter started her 90-minute math session one morning this month with a lesson on three-digit subtraction. Then she divided her students, based on their performance on a brief quiz the day before.
The first group to approach her half-moon table sat down with small whiteboards and markers. The five students drew pictures to help them think through the subtraction problem in front of them. Using squares, lines and dots to represent hundreds, tens and ones, they solved the problem by crossing out the symbols that corresponded to the number.
Rather than teaching formulas, the curriculum emphasizes lessons on place value and number sense so students can learn why formulas work. Students often use blocks, number lines and charts to solve problems and talk through the answers.
The second group, a little more advanced, practiced a different strategy. They broke each number into hundreds, tens and ones and solved it in three steps.
The third group moved on to practicing multiplication tables. Carter also squeezed in a short lesson from the third-grade curriculum on how to round numbers up or down.