Why Teaching to Diverse Learners Is a Smart Equation
Often we hear the concern voiced in our day school community, “If we become too inclusive, and have too many students with learning needs, will we develop a reputation as a ‘special needs school’ and lose other students?” or “Are we diverting too many funds to a minority of the school’s population?” We also know that some parents believe that their intellectually gifted children will get the best possible education only if they go to school with other equally gifted students.
In our collective experience (as educators, a school psychologist and members of Hidden Sparks, an organization that supports teachers working with diverse learners), and spanning a wide range of schools and based on data we have seen, we believe that just the opposite is true. Teachers and schools that sharpen their abilities to work with diverse learners raise the bar for all students, and academic and social-emotional success for even the top-performing students is increased. The following example illustrates the steps that one school took to be responsive to diverse learners, which resulted in enhanced differentiated instruction and transformed the classroom community for the other classmates.
Sam (all student names are changed) was a second grader at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens (SSSQ) who was admired by his peers for his sense of humor and athletic prowess and by his teachers for his polite and respectful manner. His math and reading skills were more than two grades below level. He had difficulty attending and was notorious among the faculty for his constant “water breaks.” One day, the administrator and director of student learning stayed in the hall and counted Sam leaving the room seven times in a two-hour span. Sam’s teachers had become exasperated by his inability to stay on task and believed that his behavior explained why he was performing below grade level.
The school’s Hidden Sparks coaches and Sam’s teachers identified him for observation. They found that his class was composed of students both significantly above and significantly below grade level. It became clear that Sam and others required a differentiated classroom environment that addressed their varied learning, attentional and emotional needs while tapping into the students’ strengths, such as, in Sam’s case, strong social skills. After visiting other schools with blended programs, providing teachers with both external professional development and embedded support, the school’s administration decided to pilot a blended learning classroom.
Upon the students’ return from vacation, the second graders arrived to find a classroom with kidney-shaped tables in place of desks. Instead of 20 students being instructed by one teacher from the head of the room, students were broken into groups of no larger than four. Instead of one curriculum for the entire grade, each of these groups was taught at its own academic level. Further, these small groups allowed the teacher to be more in tune with individual students’ emotional needs.
As the weeks unfolded, the administration observed and assisted in the classroom. While the class seemed to be running smoothly, the true measure of progress would be in the results. Would Sam and others function more effectively and perform better? The results significantly exceeded expectations and validated the school’s faith in the pedagogical change. By the end of the year, 100% of the class demonstrated gains at least 20% above expected progress. Forty percent advanced 1.75 years in one year, and 20% of the class advanced 2.75 years in one year. At the beginning of the year, 46% of students in the class were at or above grade level; by the end, 93% of students were at or above grade level.
A few weeks after the implementation of the program, the school psychologist received a knock on his door from Sam’s mother. She appeared to be crying, and the principal was concerned. Sam’s mother quickly composed herself and exclaimed, “Sam got an 82 on a math test!” The school psychologist could not tell whether she was excited or upset. Noticing his confusion, she laughed and explained that it was the highest score Sam had ever received and that Sam was so proud of himself. Over the next few weeks, Sam’s confidence began to soar, his “water breaks” decreased, and his academic performance improved dramatically. Today, a year and a half later, Sam is performing on grade level and is a confident young man.
Among many variables that played a role in Sam’s growth, the key that shifted the school’s strategy was changing the lens through which Sam was viewed: moving from identifying what he could not do to addressing his strengths and what he was capable of accomplishing. This shift in mindset predisposed the administrators and teachers at SSSQ to change the way the school approached teaching Sam and his classmates. Once the teachers and Hidden Sparks coach explored Sam’s learning profile and the learning profiles of other students in the class, they understood how aspects of the children’s personality and strengths could be addressed with more success through differentiated instruction. According to one administrator, “The blended, small group model enabled us to be more aligned with the learning needs of 100% of the students.”
A similarly striking success is the Integrated Collaborative Co-Teaching (ICT) model at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB). In an effort to be more inclusive of students whose parents might otherwise opt to place their children in public schools or specialized programs because they felt HALB couldn’t meet their children’s needs, and faced with a 2%–3% drop each year between kindergarten and first grade, HALB decided to pilot the ICT inclusion program in their first grade. They brought in an additional teacher with a special education background to co-teach in each of those classes, and they created heterogeneous groupings of six to seven students among which the teachers rotated.
The teachers engaged in collaborative lesson planning weekly and drew up individualized weekly goals for each student, based on the skill or subject matter the student was working on. They also introduced a weekly rating of goals that they used to track each student’s progress. This data was not only helpful to the teachers in addressing lagging skills but also useful for providing specific, measurable feedback to parents. According to the lower school principal, “The entire room is getting an enhanced level of instruction, including the best kids. You’re learning in smaller grouping ratios. You have much more focus on the individual needs.”
Results based on a test administered three times a year were striking. Seventy-nine percent of all students in regular classrooms surpassed their target in math by 162%. In comparison, 100% of all students in the ICT classroom exceeded their expected growth in math by 170%. In addition, while 83% of high achievers in the regular classrooms met or exceeded their expected goals for math, fully 100% of high achievers in the ICT class did. In reading, 71% of all students in the ICT classroom increased their expected growth by 126%, while 60% of non-ICT students increased their expected growth by 139%. Meanwhile, 100% of high-achieving students in both the ICT class and regular classes reached their target. The top quarter of students in both the ICT classroom and regular classrooms nearly doubled their targets in math, from a 6.7-point boost to a 12.4-point boost (185%), and more than doubled their targets in reading, from a 7.5-point growth to a 17-point growth (226%). According to the principal, once parents heard about the class, there was a waiting list to get in.
Neither the blended and ICT models nor additional staffing may be the solution for all students or all schools. However, they are some of the ways to give teachers an opportunity to provide small-group targeted instruction, which is not possible in a class that is primarily workbook or lecture-based. What is common to both the blended model and the ICT program is the introduction of smaller heterogeneous groupings and a differentiated, more individualized approach and sensitivity.
These are both examples of how schools adopted wide-scale change in order to serve diverse learners more effectively. Yet we have also seen many examples of shifts in individual classrooms, where teachers adapted their teaching approach to address diverse learning needs, creating benefits for the entire class and boosting the teacher’s confidence. Here’s one example from a participating Hidden Sparks school in Florida, Katz Yeshiva High School, that is reflective of the kinds of gains we see across our broad range of participating schools.
Doni is a bright tenth grader who was engaged in many of his classes, but sat with his head down in Gemara and did not participate. Through an observation and inquiry guided by the Hidden Sparks coach, the coach and teacher realized that Doni’s Hebrew decoding skills were weak and that he didn’t have enough opportunities to successfully demonstrate his understanding of the content. They also observed that he exhibited real strengths in higher-order cognition. As a result of these observations, the coach and teacher explored alternative teaching approaches. Doni’s teacher introduced a more creative, critical thinking approach, teaching Gemara through having students participate in debates, develop related articles for the school newspaper, and create Instagram posts to represent different parts of the Gemara discussion. These changes enabled Doni to showcase his skills and to excel in Gemara and immediately boosted the engagement of Doni and many of the other students.
Once he gained a deeper understanding of how Doni learned and how to tap into Doni’s strengths to address his struggles, Doni’s teacher was able to differentiate his instructional approach to teaching the Gemara content more effectively to the other students.
This example supports the research of Carol Ann Tomlinson, a leading researcher and author on differentiation: “The teachers’ goal is to maximize the capacity of each learner by teaching in ways that help all learners bridge gaps in understanding and skill and help each learner grow as much and as quickly as he or she can” (Differentiation in Practice). Tomlinson notes that “questions and tasks that are interesting to students are more likely to lead to enhanced student engagement with the task, the student’s sense that the work involved is rewarding, greater evidence of student creativity, increased student productivity, a higher degree of student autonomy, and a higher level of intrinsic motivation.”
National research has consistently supported the efficacy of differentiating instruction. For example, researchers at a Midwestern suburban elementary school and middle school found that the second-, third- and seventh-grade students improved their achievement dramatically in reading after only a semester of differentiated instruction. After the school began having students work in flexible groups or workshops three to five times per week, engage in 60 minutes or more of self-selected reading per week, and visit the school library, the percentage of second-, third- and seventh-grade students who read at or above grade level increased from 64% to 88%, from 48% to 89%, and from 16% to 64%, respectively. Tests conducted before and after the program also showed that as a result of differentiation, these students demonstrated a more positive disposition toward reading and greater confidence in themselves as readers.
The experience of some Jewish day schools makes a compelling case for the counterintuitive conclusion that the achievement level of gifted students actually increases when they are in heterogeneous classrooms, and that classrooms that are designed to support diverse learners benefit all students.
Too often in our Jewish day schools, students are “counseled out” if they don’t meet behavioral or academic expectations. Too often such children must forgo a Jewish education and enroll in their local public school. While the models may be different, the experience of Solomon Schechter School of Queens, the Hebrew Academy of Long Island and Katz Yeshiva High School, supported by research in the field, makes a compelling case that classrooms that are attuned to individual students and designed to support diverse learners not only boost academic achievement for struggling learners, but consistently improve learning outcomes for all students, including those performing above grade level. Teaching to diverse learners is not merely a values-driven approach; it is a smart equation that yields net gains for all.