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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

When Changes for the Gifted Spur Differentiation for All

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A school district launches an effort to meet the needs of gifted students through differentiation but discovers that all students reap the rewards.

Until recently, North Carolina mandated artificial cutoff points in achievement and aptitude scores to identify gifted students. But in the 1990s, old state standards gave way to local plans for identifying and providing services to gifted children. What follows is the story of how our school district reevaluated whom it would serve and how it would provide those services.
Educators often talk about doing something different for those students "who just aren't getting it." But when we asked teachers, through surveys and focus groups, for their perceptions and assessments of those students "who got it the first time and are ready to go further and faster," teachers said they needed help to meet these students' needs. Recognizing the need to change our programs for gifted students, we chose differentiation: of content, of instructional processes, and in products and assessments. Implementing differentiation has led our school district to strategically examine the quality of work that we provide for all students.

Getting Started

Our district serves 9,700 students in eight elementary, three middle, and two high schools. Like many districts, our gifted services had been primarily pullout, enrichment activities for students in the intermediate grades and advanced courses for middle and high school students. As our new gifted program developed, we came to believe that students with the interest, motivation, and capacity for learning at higher academic levels should be challenged in every classroom every day. We needed to support and develop teachers' understandings of gifted education practices so that serving gifted students' needs became every teacher's responsibility. We appealed to teachers by citing the projected benefits for all students in their classrooms.
We offered 40 teachers from our elementary, middle, and high schools release time to attend six introductory differentiation workshops. The first-year teachers from most of the elementary schools and the three middle schools participated. During the workshops, which we now offer every year, the teachers worked cooperatively to prepare lessons, projects, learning contracts, or other varied-ability materials. Participants shared their implementation ideas, concerns, refinements, and questions. Additionally, each participant could arrange to meet with the district's coordinator of gifted programs for help with preparing differentiated units, feedback, or demonstrations of model teaching.
Our next step was to overcome the barriers that teachers face: time, materials, and how-to knowledge. Many teachers already knew what they wanted to teach and had well-tested activities or project assignments that met the needs of one level of students. The teachers needed to develop differentiated levels of the curriculum, so we hired them for a week in the summer to work collaboratively on structured formats for lessons and projects. During the first years that our teachers wrote differentiated curriculum, we limited the focus to the middle school curriculum. Concentrating effort, time, resources, and personnel on a few grade levels gave teachers ownership and purpose. The teachers created authentic materials that would be piloted voluntarily by teachers in each middle school and refined during the school year. In addition, the school district could target support, evaluation, and communication to the middle school teachers.
The teachers produced an overview of a unit that stated clear concepts and statements of understanding for all students. The overview identified core knowledge, skills, attitudes, and thinking habits that students should develop during the unit. Differentiation could occur in the texts and student activities or in the instructional processes and procedures. Although the overview was valuable, we eventually decided to concentrate on differentiating final assessments and student products, which we believed would have the biggest impact on teacher planning and student work.
Although some teachers initially felt uncomfortable collaborating with one another, we realized that the teachers' conversations generated deep understanding of how the curriculum could be differentiated. One teacher remarked, "I'm mentally exhausted at the end of the day. I can't think anymore. But I am eager each morning to come in and wrestle ideas with my colleagues in a way that we never get to do during the school year." As the school year commenced, the teachers' professional collaboration increased morale and communication. The teacher collaboration also improved the quality and usability of the work.

Differentiating a Unit

Teachers usually start differentiating instruction by reviewing the materials, activities, projects, or unit assessments they used in the past to teach a topic or concept. After determining the crucial concepts and skills for the discipline they want to address, our teachers differentiate one major unit that will take the students several days or weeks to complete. The gifted program coordinator urges teachers to begin to differentiate for the gifted students first. This forces the teachers to think about criteria that identify exemplary work and what a professional level of work entails. With this framework in mind, the process of constructing expectations for several layers of above-, on-, and below-grade-level work becomes more clear and consistent.
In one school in our district, teachers spent the summer differentiating a popular social studies project that required students in small groups to create a newspaper for ancient Greeks and Romans. Teachers had usually grouped students heterogeneously and required students to prepare a front page with articles on politics, fashion, and sports. The grading sheet listed point values for different elements of the assignment, such as timeliness, neatness, and number of articles. Teachers had rarely explicitly discussed their expectations for the quality of the articles. Consequently, the students' products varied in the quality of content and design.
As part of their differentiated curriculum writing opportunity, the teachers organized the elements of this assignment into two categories: physical/administrative/mechanics guidelines that all students would have to meet for spelling, punctuation, —s, time lines, font size, and number of articles; and differentiated rubrics that would vary according to students' abilities concerning the expected quality and complexity of the articles.
The differentiated rubrics explicitly describe expectations for content and writing style. These expectations progress from straight factual reporting of an event to more detailed feature stories, point-of-view editorials, and big-picture connections and analysis. These rubrics allow students and teachers to discuss the current level of the student's performance and to outline the next steps that the student should take.
Would we see results of implementing the new and improved version of the newspaper project? At a faculty meeting, teachers brought examples of students' newspapers from previous years and newspapers created after they applied the differentiated content rubric. The differences were marked. Students who used the rubric wrote longer, higher quality articles, included more illustrations and quotations, and created more lively layouts. For all levels of ability, the quality of the students' work was noticeably higher than in preceding years. Surprisingly, we discovered that some gifted students had struggled to reach the expectations of the rubric that they and the teacher had chosen as an appropriate challenge. Some students had found it difficult to accomplish the wit and commentary of the editorial cartoon or to identify and describe trends in ancient Greece.
Some of our other efforts to differentiate curriculum included developing role-and-task cards for literature circles. Using Harvey Daniels's Literature Circles (1994), teachers expanded and enriched student roles, such as character creator, discussion director, and literary luminary. Teachers differentiated the tasks for each role so that a wide range of students could participate at challenging levels. Another example of differentiated curriculum includes a statistics unit during which students gather world population figures from a variety of sources, including the Internet. Remedial math groups receive more structures for completing their research, fewer choices, and simpler steps to take in their calculations. The advanced math groups interpret and evaluate far more of their research and develop algebraic formulas. All students know that teachers value their work, that the work should be completed on time, and that each group's piece contributes to a class project that leads to clear conceptual understandings and incorporates a range of skill ability levels.

Evaluating Our Work

Writing differentiated curriculum takes time to develop, time to implement, and time to communicate and value. In the end, our district spent three years writing curriculum at the middle school level only. By the end of this time, the teachers' success and value of their work had spread. Elementary teachers wanted to be included in the summer writing projects. Students who had experienced differentiation in middle school and had progressed to high school advocated for their high school teachers to meet their needs differently.
Recently, our district implemented two additional differentiation initiatives: a teacher self-assessment of academically rigorous classroom environment and instruction and a survey of student perceptions. On the basis of teacher input, we determined that a model classroom for high-ability students contains six elements: rich and rigorous content, challenging process, open-ended products and assessments, student choices and teacher options, a supportive learning environment, and program development and support. Six to 10 statements give clear descriptions of each of these elements.
Teachers rated their grade-level departments according to how frequently and competently they employed these elements. We conducted the assessment as focus groups, which allowed the teachers to discuss in a controlled environment ideas, techniques, and teaching philosophies. As a result, teachers were able to identify strategic gaps in their own assessment practices and engage in group problem solving and planning. Many teachers' individual growth plans include a word-for-word descriptor from the self-assessment.
We also wanted to know whether students perceived and welcomed the differences in instruction and curriculum. We surveyed all middle school students, posing statements based on the descriptors that the teachers had used. We asked students to rank the frequency of employed strategies, such as materials and support for sophisticated work, application of skills and understanding in a variety of ways, or encouragement to reach challenge levels. Interestingly, the gifted students' perceptions did not differ from the entire student population's perceptions. All students valued and desired instruction that provided appropriate amounts of challenge; met their needs for pace, choice, and interests; and was relevant and authentic.
The student responses and teacher self-assessments informed the subject-area departments in each middle school and the district as a whole about areas of strength and weakness. This knowledge enabled us to respond with curricular materials, instructional strategies, staff development, and resource monies to educate our teachers about differentiation, to serve gifted students, and to establish best practices for instruction for all students.

Looking Ahead

To ensure continued professional growth, the district still offers differentiation workshops annually and hires teachers to write differentiated curriculum in the summer. We also offer academically and intellectually gifted certification courses. Carol Ann Tomlinson consults with us and conducts day-long workshops on such subjects as collaboration, higher-order questioning, and concept-based classrooms. She also works with teachers on-site to create more fully differentiated interdisciplinary studies. Individually, schools have organized full- and part-day workshops to help establish common vision and language. As a district, we hope to offer differentiated professional development to meet the needs of teachers.
Another key factor in serving our gifted students through differentiation is administrative support. From the superintendent to the building administrators to the site-based management teams, everyone knows about and provides input to the gifted program at the school site and in the district. In their three-year improvement plans, all schools must include a plan for academically and intellectually gifted students, including what and when actions will be taken, who will be responsible, with what resources, and how their efforts will be evaluated. Many schools include action items on how the school will support and monitor differentiation. In some schools, principals have required that teachers list at least one differentiation goal in their individual growth plans. The school board and the central office support services for gifted students by increasing the number of resource teachers for gifted students. Resource teachers advocate and prepare direct instruction for gifted students and serve as collaborators, staff developers, and curriculum supporters to facilitate teachers' differentiation efforts.

Lessons Learned

  • Start by offering staff development to a small, interested group of teachers.
  • Begin with what these teachers already do with curriculum and instruction.
  • Devote resources to a defined target group to develop strong, fully implemented curriculum changes.
  • Prepare and support collaboration with teachers and students.
  • Share successes to encourage interest and growth throughout the district.
  • Assess teachers, students, and student work to communicate the value of differentiation.
  • Make sure that differentiation is reflected in both personal and building-level goals and planning.
  • Provide ongoing, differentiated staff development.
  • Provide administrative support.
  • Measure the frequency and quality of services for gifted students that is provided by differentiation within the classroom.
Our new gifted program plan asks classroom teachers to share the responsibility for serving gifted students' needs. High-ability students now have more frequent opportunities for challenge and enrichment, without leaving the classroom. In general, the gifted services and enrichment programs correspond to curricular studies of the entire class, and differentiation allows us to recognize talents and celebrate the contributions of every student.
For us, implementing differentiation has meant that teachers reflect on pedagogy, on the key skills and overarching concepts of the disciplines they teach, and on the qualities and challenges presented by the work given to students. By promoting differentiation, our district has increased awareness of the differences in students' and teachers' abilities and understandings and has moved away from an "us versus them" attitude toward gifted education. This awareness has resulted in a commonly adopted philosophy about differentiation and in programming to support individuals' and schools' growth in achieving differentiation. As we employ principles of differentiation, we firmly believe that we are nurturing the talents and abilities of all learners, including the gifted, by enhancing the quality of the work that we ask students to do.
End Notes

1 Daniels, H. (1994). Literature circles: Voice and choice in the student-centered classroom. York, ME: Sternhouse Publishers.

With experience as a classroom teacher, teacher leader, and district administrator, Sandra Page provides support to schools and districts on instruction and curriculum improvement. Using administrative and monitoring tools, along with coaching and professional learning opportunities, she helps individuals and groups implement strong instructional techniques that increase students' engagement, thinking skills, and achievement.

Page has presented at conferences on topics including questioning and discussion strategies, formative assessment, developing differentiated rubrics, focused walk-throughs, instructional best practices, and writing with diverse learners in mind. In schools and districts, Page offers interactive workshops, as well as "overview of differentiation" presentations. She has coached individual teachers, providing support in their professional growth and improvement. Districts have collaborated and consulted with Page as they launch multiyear professional development plans and seek appropriate resources.


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