My elementary school was arranged such that at the beginning of every school year, each student would systematically get placed into a class. You would learn all your lessons with your class, eat with them, go to gym, music, and art classes with them. And then the next year, everyone would be reshuffled into a different class.

3rd grade was the first year that they split us up for certain subjects. Every afternoon, we were told to go to different rooms for math class. Rumor was that the three math classes were divided into “hard,” “medium,” and “easy.” In middle school, they gave us the additional option of taking an advanced science course as well as an advanced math course, and once I got to high school, every subject had “honors,” “regents,” and “AP” level designations. Some of the kids I had grown up with in elementary and middle school I never saw anymore in my classes.

The *NY Times* recently published a discussion about “differentiated instruction” — the idea that teachers can simultaneously instruct children of very different levels of ability in a single classroom – and whether students, specifically top students, are really benefitting or being hurt by this (link here).

*“Truth is, few teachers have the extraordinary skill and stamina to constantly fine-tune instruction to the needs of 20- or 30-odd students, six hours a day, 180 days a year. What happens, instead, is that teachers tend to focus on the middle of the pack. Or, more typically of late, on the least proficient students … low-achieving students benefit when placed in mixed-ability classrooms (faring about five percentage points better than those placed in lower-track classes) but high-achievers fared six percentage points worse in such general classes.”* – Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

I definitely agree with Hess’s statement and found the statistic interesting (the article on the NY Times site links to the study). Differentiated instruction may be applicable in grade school, when most students are learning at the same basic level, but certainly not once you reach high school.

In my senior year of high school, I took a math elective, Fractals and Chaos. The only prerequisite was 9th grade algebra, and as a result, the class had students with a wide variety of math backgrounds. Some students were in the class simply to fulfill their math graduation requirement with an ‘easy’ course, and others like myself had already taken AP Calculus. Therefore, although my teacher promised that he would touch upon the “more interesting but more math-intensive” aspects of the course, most of his time was spent helping the students that were struggling with the basic algebra and geometry concepts. I understood that the teacher was obligated to make sure that everyone understood the basics first, but I spent a decent amount of class time doodling Sierpinski triangles in the corner of my notes.

In high school, I personally pushed myself hard to be a good student and to make the most of my educational opportunities. I took enough honors and AP courses to make most Asian parents proud (of course at the cost of my social life and athletic abilities, but that’s a discussion for another day). But my point is, that I owe much of my success to the fact that I was able to take these advances courses and learn from teachers who were teaching to me at that advanced level.

I understand that struggling students benefit from being in the same environment as successful/accelerated students, but that benefit should not come at the expense of the accelerated students. I don’t think that differentiated teaching will fundamentally fix America’s educational system. It’s much deeper than that. This country’s attitude towards academic success and intellectualism (see September 20th’s blog post here), our standardized testing system, and even our college admissions system (seen as many students’ ultimate educational goal) merit serious reconsideration.

The Mandelbrot set!

My high school divided classes into Honors/AP (they carried the same weight), Level 1 (“Accelerated”), Level 2 (“Regular”), and there was a remedial level for some classes. My courseload was almost all Honors/AP, depending on the class itself. Naturally, with things like PE, everyone just takes the same Level 2 class. What I noticed in some classes (i.e. Honors French of all levels) was that people got placed in them when they simply didn’t belong there. What I saw was a double whammy of students thinking they deserve to be in the highest track of subjects, then making it seem like it’s the teacher’s fault for their own inability to keep up.

At the same time, the “Regular” track was basically designed to get students to pass the state exams and graduate while “Accelerated” was entirely filled with people who actually were planning to go to college upon graduation, thus the reason why it was formerly designated “College Prep” or “CP”.

I guess my own observation is that in high school, and in college to a certain extent, students have this sense of entitlement (be it to take the harder classes to influence their weighted GPAs, getting into top colleges, getting hired by Goldman Sachs, etc.) and then crying fowl as soon as something (like organic chemistry) shakes it out of them.