James DeLisle recently wrote a Commentary in Education Week in which he trashed differentiation of learning. In this post, I respond to his utterly invalid arguments. In the next post I speak to the larger issue of teacher vs. school obligation in dealing with heterogeneous classes, and what heterogeneity should and should not demand of teachers. Ed Week has not responded to my submission, so I am publishing this on my own.


To the Editor:

Why in the world did you publish James DeLisle’s one-sided self-serving rant on differentiated instruction (“Differentiation Doesn’t Work,” by James R. Delisle, Education Week)?

First of all, he covers exactly the same ground in the back and forth in Education Week a few years ago between Mike Schmoker (Ed Week Commentary, September 20, 2010) and Carol Ann Tomlinson (Letter November 12, 2010) – and does so far less coherently and persuasively than Schmoker originally did. Secondly – and more egregiously – he provides an utterly cherry-picked referencing of the (few) sources he cites. Additionally, he conflates DI with individualized instruction and learning styles.

DeLisle rants about DI as a fad, and the lack of evidence to support DI. However, what evidence does he cite? Some “observations” by Mike Schmoker (from the aforementioned Ed Week Commentary), and survey data on teacher views about implementing DI from which DeLisle illogically concludes:

As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83 percent of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to implement.

And this is a summary of the first half of his piece (before he talks about the need for homogeneous grouping):

In theory, differentiation sounds great, as it takes several important factors of student learning into account:

It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.

It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.

It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.


Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The problem is this: Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back…

It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.


Huh?? How is the difficulty of implementing a practice indicative of its ineffectiveness when implemented?? By that argument, problem-based learning, socratic seminar, science labs, the use of learning stations and other difficult pedagogies are all “boondoggles.” Also: the bullets he identifies apply just as much to techniques such as formative assessment and authentic assessment, not just differentiation – yet he doesn’t say formative and authentic assessment are boondoggles.

Reference to the teacher surveys is also very ironic: The data comes from a thoughtful and even-handed piece on differentiation by Mike Petrilli of the same Fordham Institute that did the survey. (What DeLisle also conveniently fails to mention is that Fordham is often critical of practices that might threaten the needs of the most able students.) However, to his credit, Mike Petrilli actually visits his local school to find out how DI is doing. His conclusion? It works:

Since Mr. G.’s arrival five years ago, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test is way up, from 55 to 91 percent. For Hispanic children, it’s up from 46 to 74 percent. It’s true that scores statewide have also risen, but not nearly to the same degree.

And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time. In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school.

What’s his secret? Was he grouping students “homogeneously,” so all the high-achieving kids learned together, and the slower kids got extra help?

“There’s no such thing as a homogenous group,” Mr. G. shot back. “One kid is a homogeneous group. As soon as you bring another student in, you have differences. The question is: how do you capitalize on the differences?”

Well, that sounds OK in theory. But come on, Mr. G., how are you going to make sure my kid doesn’t get slowed down? “My job as a principal is to let my parents know that your child will get the services they need,” he answered patiently. “We are going to make sure that every child is getting pushed to a maximum level. That’s my commitment.”

And that’s when I was introduced to the incredibly nuanced and elaborate efforts that Piney Branch makes to differentiate instruction, challenge every child, and avoid any appearance of segregated classrooms … It sounds like some sort of elaborate Kabuki dance to me, but it appears to succeed on several counts. All kids spend most of the day getting challenged at their level, and no one ever sits in a classroom that’s entirely segregated by race or class.

He concludes his piece by saying:

So with a well-trained and dedicated staff, and lots of support, “differentiated instruction” can be brought to life…

Piney Branch and Ms. M. might be able to pull it off. But how many Piney Branches and Ms. M.’s are there?

Technology may someday alleviate the need for such com- promises. With the advent of powerful online learning tools, such as those on display in New York City’s School of One, students might be able to receive instruction that’s truly individualized to their own needs—differentiation on steroids.

Perhaps. But until that time, our schools will have to wrestle with the age-old tension between “excellence” and “equity.” And that tension will be resolved one homogeneous or heterogeneous classroom at a time.


(I’ll return to this excellence vs. equity challenge in my follow-up post. It’s code for “maintaining high standards and challenging our most able and motivated students” vs. “dumbing down everything.”)


Here, by contrast, is DeLisle’s only reference to Petrilli’s article:

Case in point: In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli wrote about a University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: “Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. ‘We couldn’t answer the question … because no one was actually differentiating,’ ” the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli….

In fact, DeLisle conveniently fails to use the paragraph right before the above one where Petrilli says:

 I asked Holly Hertberg-Davis, who studied under Tomlinson and is now her colleague at UVA, if differentiated instruction was too good to be true. Can teachers actually pull it off? “My belief is that some teachers can but not all teachers can,” she answered.

His selective use of quotes thus misrepresents the article and its point; the claim that DI is a “boondoggle” has no warrant whatsoever from the data DeLisle provides. Nor does his nasty sweeping conclusion: “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.”

Yes, DI is difficult – even Carol Tomlinson admits that. Excellent teaching leading to significant learning of all students is very challenging. So is calculus, but I suspect Mr. DeLisle is not prepared to say that calculus teaching is a boondoggle and farce because it is often done poorly or not at all in some high schools. To conclude that DI is a cruel hoax is both shoddy reasoning and disingenuous in light of his own explicit commitment to working on behalf of gifted learners (as found in his credentials and writings.)

I encourage readers to check out the following sources to determine for themselves if Mr. DeLisle’s view (and the argument upon which it is based) has merit:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/29/05schmoker.h30.html – the original post 5 years ago by Mike Schmoker.

Tomlinson’s response: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/11/17/12letter-b1.h30.html

http://edexcellence.net/commentary/education-gadfly-daily/flypaper/is-differentiated-instruction-a-hollow-promise – the Petrilli article

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb10/vol67/num05/Differentiated-Learning.aspx – a summary of DI

https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/differentiating-instruction – a teaching Channel video look at DI

http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_3/helarticle/differentiated-instruction-reexamined_499 – A Harvard Newsletter article on DI and learning styles research

http://www.diffcentral.com/model.html – Carol Tomlinson’s resources on DI on the UVA site

http://schoolleader.typepad.com/school-leader/2012/02/schmokers-blind-spot.html – a commentary on the Schmoker-Tomlinson exchange in Education Week

http://edge.ascd.org/blogpost/is-differentiated-instruction-a-useless-fad – Jeff Bryant weighs in on the Schmoker-Tomlinson exchange

http://www.caroltomlinson.com/handouts/NELMS%20Keynote.pdf – A handout from a recent Tomlinson workshop that nicely summarizes DI and the research, including a helpful quote from John Hattie.

http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html – Dan Willingham responds to criticism of his view that learning styles do not exist. Note the last paragraph which DeLisle conveniently does not mention:

So you think all kids should be treated the same way?

Not at all. Teachers use their experience to differentiate instruction: for example, knowing that saying “good job” will motivate one child, but embarrass another. One way that science might be useful to teachers is to provide them with categories of kids. I could give them a short survey, for example, and then tell you whether a kid is introverted, extroverted, or in between. I might tell you “lots of data shows that introverts are likely to be embarrassed when praised in front of others.” I’m fabricating the details, obviously, but you get the idea. I’m claiming that there are three types or categories of kids, I’m claiming that these categories are meaningful for the classroom, and I’m claiming that I can successfully categorize kids based on this short survey.

The styles theories are that sort of idea: they really seek to categorize kids. Once you know that some people are visualizers and some are verbalizers, you can use that information to inform instruction, in addition to using your experience and judgment. My point is that scientists can’t help teachers in this way. We haven’t developed categories that have proven meaningful.

You don’t have to believe in learning styles theories to appreciate differences among kids, to hold an egalitarian attitude in the midst of such differences, and to try to foster such attitudes in students.


Looking ahead to the next post

While I felt a tart response was necessary to DeLisle’s one-sided and poorly researched piece, readers should not conclude that criticism of DI is unwarranted or that it is necessarily the best solution to the challenge of great diversity in our classrooms and schools.

We can all surely appreciate that the issue is complex, that differentiation arose as the need to reach all learners became a universal obligation for teachers in the late 20th century. It is not unfair, in fact, to say that differentiation places the greatest burden concerning student diversity on individual teachers, while the larger system questions related to staffing, curriculum, and supervision are downplayed in most schools – whether doing DI or not. (Carol Tomlinson addresses them succinctly here.)

DeLisle sees only one solution, however – homogeneous grouping:

Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers, and yet one more panacea that did not pan out.

But that response is knee-jerk. A far more complex inquiry and discussion is called for, without jumping to “the” solution. A full diagnosis of the root causes is surely needed first before we jump to a simplistic prescription.

Let’s start with some essential questions, to help us dig deeper and without prejudice into the key issues:

  • Does it still make sense to make the default option of classes the grouping of students by their birth year?
  • How mixed does a class need to become before it is impossible to teach it effectively?
  • Is homogeneous grouping perhaps acceptable now in a post-tracking world where all students must meet the same standards and where educators are accountable for the performance of all?
  • What are the benefits and harms of homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping, and are there other solutions to the challenge of student diversity?
  • Are any sub-groups of student more helped or more harmed than others when classrooms are highly heterogeneous or highly homogeneous?
  • What is the optimal staffing of individual classrooms? Should co-teaching be more of the norm, for example?
  • What aspects of differentiation are the teachers’ problem? What aspects are structural and leadership-related?


I will pursue some of these questions in my follow-up post; I encourage readers to provide their answers (and any other questions that you think should be here).