As people are being trained to be teachers in our schools of education they are taught that justice and fairness require that they teach all students together in a classroom with their peers. Furthermore, they are taught that all the students should be taught the same material that is appropriate for their grade level. When they go out into schools, the administration of most district schools promotes the same philosophy—that all students should be taught the “core curriculum” that is appropriate for their grade level. The Common Core now specifies what should be taught at each level and school districts monitor closely to see that teachers are teaching exactly what is supposed to be taught at each grade level—without regard for the skill level of the students.

The student pictured is counting on her fingers to do math when she should be well beyond that problem. So what about the problem of students who are lacking skills that were presumed to be taught in prior grades? What are teachers supposed to do with students who have difficulty spelling, or decoding, or doing simple math? How about students who can’t write with reasonable grammar and punctuation or who fail to add or multiply correctly when they try? As anyone who has spent time in public school classrooms, this is a huge and glaring problem. What is the expected solution?

The current buzz-word that is supposed to solve this problem is called **differentiation**. Anyone who wants to sell materials to schools now includes information about how to “differentiate” lessons so as to accommodate the wide variety of skills levels in every classroom. The theory is that lessons can be presented about a concept or idea and then students will be allowed to respond or complete assignments about the lesson at a variety of skill levels. So some students who cannot write are allowed to draw pictures to express their answers, while others will write with invented spelling, and still others will complete essays with correct spelling and punctuation. A differentiated assignment in math might include students who use calculators, others who do computation, and still others who write a long-hand explanation of how to find the answer—without having to do it.

Unfortunately, as in much of educational rhetoric these days, the emperor has no clothes. Differentiation is a method of coping with the problem of missing skills. Differentiation does not provide the instruction needed by students who are missing those skills. When students don’t know basic skills, they failed to benefit from (or receive) instruction on those skills. The fact that the student didn’t learn it the “first time” tells you something about how difficult it will be for this student to learn that skill. Not learning it the “first time” means these students will need more intensive, focused and effective instruction than is typically provided at the grade level where that skill is normally taught. The student will need more explanation, more examples, and more practice to master the skill than was even in the textbook the first time the skill was taught. Because it didn’t take the first time, more is needed.

But here’s the rub. Now that the student has moved past the grade level where this skill is supposed to be taught, there is no time allotted for instruction on this skill. Don’t learn how to decode in first grade? Well once you’re in second grade, good luck getting that really basic instruction you missed in first grade. The teacher has to be teaching the skills of second grade and really has no time to teach those prior skills. This is a problem in second grade. Imagine how crazy it is in the typical sixth grade, where students are missing skills from the past six years!

A previous buzz-word was “mini-lessons.” Teachers were supposed to teach missing skills on an ad-hoc basis, when they came up, in little mini-lessons that only took a couple of minutes. Not surprisingly, mini-lessons don’t work, because students who hadn’t learned those skills in prior years needed longer, more carefully designed lessons, with more examples and more practice in order to learn the skills that have eluded them for years.

The only solution to the problem of missing skills is to explicitly address them. Identify students who need to learn the skills regardless of grade level, get them together with a teacher, design strong lessons with clear rules, lots of examples, and plenty of practice. It can be done. It is the job of teachers and schools. But in this era of Common Core dictated curriculum there’s no time and no freedom in the schools to do the job. We need educators in the trenches to have both the freedom and the responsibility to devise solutions to this basic and fundamental problem. Parents need the ability to hold schools accountable for solving this problem, by having the ability to move their child to a school that knows how to solve this problem. *(I know it is a soluble problem because I have worked in charter schools that have solved it.)* Right now parents have no choice. They are forced to patronize schools that fail to education their children. Until we change this, all the hoopla in the world isn’t going to improve outcomes in our schools.

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