What’s the Objective

What steps are involved in meeting the challenge of differentiated learning? This case explores an assistant superintendent with a district wide hiring decision, a principal integrating test score and skills goals, and elementary teachers addressing competing efforts to raise student test scores.

The assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Star Creek City Schools has hired a gifted education specialist to support a district-wide commitment to differentiation for gifted learners.

Star Creek City Schools is a relatively small school district with approximately 2,750 students in grades K-12. There are four elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. More than three-quarters of the graduates of the high school are college-bound each year. The community has high expectations for the schools. Parents play an active role in school fund raising and activities but seldom attend school board meetings. Business leaders have paid close attention to the schools’ student performance on state proficiency tests. The tests have become a standard for measuring student, school, and faculty success. Recently, city scores have been compared to area and state scores.

Although the central office is staffed predominantly by men, a vivacious and talented woman is at the helm of curriculum studies. One year ago, the district hired Dr. Madison Henry as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. As a principal, she had a reputation for improving overall student performance while also challenging the most able learners. She worked with the gifted education teacher to develop a school-wide program for differentiation. The gifted education specialist worked with classroom teachers to differentiate curricula and instruction for high ability learners. Classroom teachers worked to provide meaningful lessons to below and average learners. Dr. Henry watched an effective means for gifted differentiation unfold before her eyes.

When she was put in charge of curriculum and instruction in Star Creek, she wanted to duplicate the gifted education model she had helped to develop. In order to insure her success, Dr. Henry hired the gifted education specialist from her former school and placed her at Elk School.

Agnes Henderson, a 17 year veteran educator, is looking forward to her new challenge. Like Dr. Henry, she is convinced that she can work alongside teachers to differentiate core academic learning experiences for gifted learners. After many years in gifted education, Mrs. Henderson is aware of the challenge and engagement with same-ability peers needed to realize advanced students’ talents. She is confident that learning experiences that extend and adapt the regular curriculum are better suited to the academic and intellectual needs of advanced learners. Given that gifted learners spend most of their time in the regular classroom, Mrs. Henderson is committed to modifying the standard curriculum to meet their needs.

Mrs. Henderson arrives at Elk Elementary confident and committed to the challenges that lay ahead. She spends the first two days getting to know the school and the faculty. She finds the staff inviting, warm, and dedicated. Many of her new colleagues have worked in the same school, even the same classroom, for a dozen years. The administration is supportive of the faculty and creates a friendly working environment.

See a description of Elk Elementary School below:

See the gifted education program description below:

The principal of Elk Elementary talks to his staff about state test scores and reminds the faculty of the school’s commitment to improving math and language arts scores this year.

George Carson, the principal of Elk Elementary, welcomes the staff prior to the opening of the school. After introducing the new faculty and making a few announcements, Mr. Carson moves to the first item on the agenda.

“Staff, I would like to talk to you this morning about for a few moments about about Elk’s test scores from last year,” says Mr. Carson.

See Elk’s student performance test scores below:

He places a transparency with the test scores for third and fifth grade English, writing, and math on the overhead projector. Throughout the state, students are required to take state curriculum tests in third, fifth, eighth, and the eleventh grades. Teachers look at the scores with great interest; however, third and fifth grade teachers look worried.

Students complete the state tests.

“There are two trends that concern me. Does anyone see them?” Mr. Carson asks.

The literacy teacher, Jane McCrae, speaks up. “The most obvious and disturbing trend is the drop in test scores from third to fifth grades across the division.”

“Yes, that’s one trend. Any others?”

“Our scores are low compared to the other schools,” notes Joan Carter, a third grade teacher. She seems upset.

“Mr. Carson,” interjects one veteran fifth grade teacher, “What’s the point of doing this? We all know that our population is fraught with learning problems, challenges at home, and ethnic diversity. These student differences present a challenge to us when teaching. The test scores don’t adequately address their growth.”

Mr. Carson continues, “You’re right; this is one measure of student success. It’s really not a simple problem nor is there a simple solution…On this measure of our students’ performance, our scores are low in comparison to other schools within the division. They also dramatically decrease in the two years following third grade. This does not suggest that all performance in third grade and prior is adequate, nor does it portray a dismal situation. I believe we have room to improve scores for all students, including our most able. We must all look closely at what we are teaching, how we teach, and what it is that ALL students need to be successful.”

“I can help address the needs of our high ability students,” offers Mrs. Henderson. “My list of identified gifted learners shows 19 percent of students here are eligible for differentiated services.”

Mr. Carson continues. “Great! I not only believe that we can do this, but I am willing to provide additional resources. I will work with each grade level to determine specific plans for improving student learning in math, English, and writing. I have worked on a schedule that provides 1½ hours of collaborative grade-level planning weekly for all of you. This should provide you the time and pooled expertise to begin to enhance student learning.”

Mr. Carson moves to the next agenda item. Although the division administrators have not been obsessed about test scores, there is increasing emphasis on them each year. Even the parents and other community members have become more interested in them.

Anne Kelly, the art teacher, sits remembering several parents talking to a newer teacher at the July 4th picnic. The teacher was trapped on a blanket between two moms who were concerned with the writing scores published in the newspaper. “Why haven’t the scores come up?…What are you and other teachers doing about preparing these students for the writing test?…Perhaps we should get some of the students tutors or create after-school clubs for writing…”

The poor teacher had looked guilty, overwhelmed, and detached. It seems that mood was catching.

The elementary teachers talk about differentiation initiatives and competing efforts to raise student test scores. They worry that differentiation will take away from scant time and resources. The gifted education specialist meets with the fifth-grade team to plan for differentiation using the state performance standards as a foundation. She figures if she can’t beat them, she’ll join ’em!

After the first week of school Mrs. Henderson begins to approach faculty members about developing differentiated curricula for their gifted learners. Although teachers are not rude, they certainly have many excuses as to why they are not ready to begin. It is clear that this reluctance has little to do with the opening of the school year. Mrs. Henderson begins to investigate.

Everywhere that Mrs. Henderson visits in the school, faculty seem to be discussing test scores, test scores, test scores. Young teachers are intimidated by the administrations’ throwing down the gauntlet about improving performance. Veteran teachers are jaded by an administration that seems more worried about scores than meaningful teaching and learning. Many teachers seem genuinely afraid of not performing well. To Mrs. Henderson, most people seem appalled at the emphasis on scores as a measure of student OR teacher performance.

Mr. Howard works in the computer lab.

However, one refreshing interchange takes place. Mrs Henderson runs into John Howard, one of the fifth-grade teachers, in the computer lab.

“Good afternoon, how are you John?”

“Oh, just fine, and you? How are you adjusting to your new surroundings?”

“Very well, thanks.”

John looks at Mrs. Henderson and queries, “When will you be visiting us to talk about gifted education curriculum? I have more than a few students who are very capable of more advanced learning than I am providing through the regular curriculum. I’d like to talk to you about math and reading in particular.”

“I’m coming to your collaborative planning session tomorrow, John. I’m really looking forward to it. I just hope the rest of the fifth grade team is as anxious to meet as you are.”

“I wouldn’t let their lack of enthusiasm concern you. The team is young and very concerned about the test scores from last year and the challenge to improve them. It’s my opinion that they are focusing on the wrong issue.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I think that improved test scores—or ‘raising the bar’ as Mr. Carson put it—means adjusting the challenge of learning for all levels of learners, like the students I was just mentioning to you. The rest of the team means well, but they can’t see the forest for trees—or test scores. Something like that,” jokes John. “Take care and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Goodbye, John,” mutters Mrs. Henderson, hanging on his last words.

The next day Mrs. Henderson arrives prepared. She pulls out her tried-and-true “Gifted Learner Differentiated Standards” handout. She will focus on the three components of curriculum—content, process, and product—as a means for differentiateing for gifted learners. She knows that when a core standard is adjusted by applying one or more principles of differentiated curriculum for the gifted, a differentiated standard evolves.

See a copy of the workshop handout below:

Mrs. Henderson enters the fifth grade teacher planning session. John welcomes her, and the other teachers give her a smile. She has high hopes and wonders if the standards might become a link between general and gifted education. She figures if she can’t persuade them to differentiate the curriculum without their focus on standards and test scores, then she’ll join them.

How will this approach work? How can a differentiated curriculum based on core standards evolve? Will it be sufficient? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?