Susan Allan

Susan Allan is the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction of Grosse Pointe (MI) Public Schools.

Dr. Susan Allan

On the Administrator’s Role in Differentiation

It’s really frustrating for a teacher, if they’re trying to implement differentiation and particularly if there’s some accountability, and the administrator themselves is unfamiliar with the concept or is unfamiliar with the principles. So I would say that the minimum for the school administrator is that they themselves should have developed a basic understanding of what differentiation should look like in the classroom.

In terms of what they need to be able to do is, in essence, they need to be able to support differentiation and they need to be able to support their teachers’ efforts toward differentiation. And that means that they also have to have learned some administrative techniques, some administrative tactics that might actually make it more likely to happen within the building. Almost all of the research about grouping would support flexible grouping, and particularly differentiation. One of the problems that’s existed in education is that there is a real misunderstanding of the research on tracking. The research on tracking makes it clear that most groups of students, the exception being gifted students, but most groups of students, don’t benefit from tracking. That is very different from research on targeted grouping. The research, when students are grouped by the actual area of academic need — in other words, a student who is advanced in language arts is grouped for language arts, not necessarily for everything, shows very very positive results. And so part of the problem has been, I think, a real misunderstanding, and some of the popular educational literature has unfortunately contributed to that. They use the words grouping and tracking as if they were interchangeable and they are not interchangeable.

Grouping and Differentiation

I also think, though, that we do want to make extensive use of heterogeneity in a great many classes. And the point of differentiation is that is shows you how you can do that effectively. If you’ve developed a heterogeneous classroom and then proceed to teach it as if it is a homogeneous classroom, that’s the point at which some of the middle school instruction goes off the track. And so, I think that the acknowledgement that if we are going to have heterogeneous classrooms in many content areas, and I, incidentally, think a mix is very reasonable, I think having advanced and accelerated classes in math or, potentially, in language arts, are very well supported by the research. But if there’s going to be heterogeneity in some of them, then indeed you have to plan for , and that planning is the really key piece. We have a new teacher orientation and a new teacher academy for our new teachers, and one of the things I tell them is, there aren’t very many things I can promise you are going to remain stable in education. The financing is certainly changing, the testing is changing, and the accountability is changing, the politics about it are changing, and the curriculum is changing. The one thing I can promise you every year, is that there is going to be a range of learner needs in your classroom. And that, I can promise you, is going to be the same every year. The irony, is that, in education, every year, we act like that’s a surprise. It’s the one constant, and yet we act surprised by it.

Selling Differentiation

I find most parents are delighted when you say, “I’m going to try to modify instruction or modify curriculum in order to most appropriately meet your child’s needs.” The only two areas where I see parent concern: one has to do with, if they feel that the groupings are arbitrary. I think we always have to be prepared in terms of pre-assessment with parents and being ready to show them, “here’s how I assess your child’s needs right now, but I’m ready to change that on a dime if your child’s needs change.” And that’s the flexible part of the grouping. So, I think that, as long as we can explain to the parent, “here’s the need, and here’s the connection in how I’m doing your child’s instruction,” that works very smoothly.

Instructional Leadership

I think sometimes as administrators, we need to understand how important our recognition of the teacher is, how important our encouragement is. Some of the teachers, even when they first learn about differentiation, are very nervous about losing control in the classroom, and the administrator making it clear that they feel supportive of that going on, that they’re not going to be upset if sometimes something doesn’t work because sometimes something won’t. Everything we do isn’t a success. I think it’s very important to make it clear that they feel tolerant of that, and more than tolerant, that they’re really encouraging the teacher to take that risk. Most of the teachers in my district know what my philosophy is, and yet I know sometimes when I’ve shown up at their door, and they have multiple things going on, they’ll start to say, “Dr. Allan, this is really OK. That one’s working on that, and this one’s working on this�” And I say, “I’m fine with it. That’s great. I don’t expect to walk into your room and seem them all in their little desks, facing front.” And they’ll say, “Oh, well I know that.” But they still need that kind of encouragement, to know that it’s OK to have multiple things going on in their room. It’s OK for the teacher not to be the center of attention. It’s more than OK for students to be working on different things that are suitable. And as administrators, we have to try and remember to take the time in order to provide the ed. leadership and to support them in it.

And I think we also sometimes forget to take the time for our own learning. You get very absorbed in other people’s. And yet again, it’s really, really important that the administrator understands the fundamental concepts and goals of differentiation. Otherwise it won’t be possible to give appropriate feedback, because you won’t know what’s quality and what isn’t.