Notes: Listening Meeting on Differentiation #1

On February 12, 2018, 14 parents gathered with School Committee members Dan Futrell and Paula O'Sullivan to discuss differentiation across the district. Below are notes from that meeting.


Parents are experiencing a lack of adequate differentiation for their kids, primarily in math, and are concerned that this is causing their child to lose a love of learning and to miss out on further growth. Parents want to see leadership at the district level (School Committee, Superintendent & cabinet) that expresses an explicit priority for differentiation and seeks to build a culture that prioritizes individual differentiation over meeting grade level standards. Parents want to know what teachers need to do this difficult job well, and what district resources would support this. Lastly, parents want to see the district develop some way to measure and communicate progress on differentiation.

14 parents attended representing Argenziano, Brown, West, Healey, the High School as well as prospective SPS parents. An additional 11 people expressed interest in attending but couldn’t due to scheduling. School Committee members Dan Futrell (Ward 2) and Paula O'Sullivan (Ward 6) also attended.

Differentiation as a concern

  • We discussed the issue of differentiation as it affects all kids across the socioeconomic spectrum and across the needs spectrum. This is neither a middle class white parent problem nor is it a problem that affects only the typically developing student population. 
    • Those families who are unable to advocate for their kids, either due to language barriers or socioeconomic hurdles, are likely impacted even more greatly by differentiation not being as strong as it can be because those kids don’t have supplemental, outside of classroom supports that other families might be able to leverage.
    • Differentiation has been a focus for the special education community for many years, and progress made here positively affects the entire student population. There is potential for synergistic work around differentiation between groups like SEPAC and groups of parents of typically developing kids.
  • We discussed differentiation as the subsequent problem that’s arisen after school districts moved away from ‘tracking’ in the early 90s due to its inherent inequities, and the challenge of supporting a classroom of kids with a variety of strengths and growth areas without bringing back those things that caused schools to end tracking.
  • Across content areas, the high majority of parents expressed concern around differentiation of math instruction, with a few expressing concern around science, ELA, and social studies.

Shared experiences

  • Parents expressed concern about differentiation at the classroom/teacher level as well as at the district level, and many had personal experiences to share of how the district wasn’t differentiating as well as we’d like to. For example…
    • One parent shared that her child is given math worksheets and when she’s completed that worksheet ahead of her peers, she’s instructed that she needs to teach the material to others in her group. When the parent asked the teacher about this, the parent was told that the child would be given more advanced material when she’d proven she could instruct others as well. The parent felt that learning how to teach the material wasn’t the point of the class - her child couldn’t process why other kids didn’t understand, didn’t know how to walk a peer through the problem, and wasn’t there to learn how to teach but rather to understand the material. The parent felt that this was an unreasonable condition for offering her child more advanced material. The parent further expressed concern that this dynamic caused her child to exhibit less enthusiasm for math.
    • One parent shared an experience where 20-ish high performing math students were separated out from the rest of the class once/week to do more advanced work. This child was excited to be a part of something that felt special, and that pushed her in this content area. This program had 2 volunteers to support it but there wasn’t a curriculum that guided the work. Additionally, while this was generally a positive experience for the child academically, it was problematic socially (being separated from her peers, grouped with older kids).
    • Many parents expressed how tied good differentiation is to particular teachers, and that there was inconsistency across teachers on how they viewed differentiation as well as how they implemented it in the classroom. Class size was one factor, but was expressed as secondary to a teacher’s ‘buy in’ on the importance of differentiation. One concern was around a specific example of a teacher who seemed unwilling to adjust their established lesson plans to differentiate for a more advanced student. One parent expressed that she had had great conversations with one teacher on differentiation in way that felt like a real partnership, but when her child advanced the following year, all of those same conversations had to happen again.
    • Another parent shared that her child is consistently given a book to read once she’s completed her math work, and that there are limited books in the classroom that result in the child reading the same book over and over, or just sitting without doing anything academic. There were concern about how this affected the child’s perspective on both math instruction as well as reading as a time filler instead of being inherently valuable.

Standards as a driver

  • Parents expressed concern that the district is primarily driven by ‘standards’, either MCAS or otherwise, that incentivize a focus on those below the standard more than those above the standard. One example that supported this was a parent-teacher conference document filled out by the teacher that included a checkbox indicating that, if the child was meeting grade level standards, a meeting with the teacher was unnecessary. The message to the parent was that parental involvement in education was less important for kids who are doing well. 

Differentiation as a priority

  • Parents want to see differentiation prioritized at the district level, and offered ideas on ways to accomplish this that include a School Committee resolution (that included a commitment to action) that recognizes the problem and supports a solution, a formal SPS policy on differentiation, resources for differentiation staff who work with kids or teachers directly, and an increased effort to leverage volunteer support in a more guided manner. Parents speculated that there was a culture issue that needed to be addressed at the leadership level (School Committee, Superintendent + cabinet, Principals) in order for it to permeate consistently across every classroom.
    • Several parents wanted to hear what teachers have to say about differentiation, and what kinds of resources could be provided to them to assist in what is otherwise a difficult challenge due to the diversity and breadth of needs in a classroom of 18-23 kids. 
    • Parents asked for both a near term solution - suggesting technological approaches like Kahn Academy - while the district works through a more holistic and long term solution.
    • Parents also asked for some way to measure and communicate how well we’re doing on differentiation for each kid.
    • Parents shared that there are different approaches in Brookline or Cambridge, and that there may be some models out there that we can borrow from to push our district forward.
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Showing 3 reactions

commented 2018-03-14 12:09:56 -0400 · Flag
As the sole stakeholder at this discussion representing special education, and the perspective of those requiring differentiation to provide access, verses enrichment, I suggest we include Christine Trevisone, Director of Special Education to discuss her perspective on this issue. She is certainly one of the district’s educators with demonstrable expertise in the application of differentiation and I’m certain she has thoughts on ways forward. I encourage this dialogue across populations before looking to outside participants.

Kimberly Rego
commented 2018-02-13 14:48:30 -0500 · Flag
Abbe, thanks for this addition. Really appreciate your input last night.
commented 2018-02-13 13:19:21 -0500 · Flag
I was at the meeting and had a comment about inconsistent approaches that I don’t think was captured in these notes – not just that there is inconsistency in different classrooms, but also inconsistency in different schools, where different principals have different approaches for things such as making accomodations that support different grade level math instruction, inconsistency in what sort of accelerated or supplemental curriculum material is offered (is it acceleration, is it more depth, is it side-branch subject matter, etc), and inconsitency in how these approaches are implemented – the teacher, the principal, the math coaches, the curriculum superintendent, the family/student are all stakeholders adn I don’t think all students get the same answers and the same offerings or suggestions from principals and district level staff.