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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Who Wants to Differentiate Instruction? We Did . . .

When staff members decided to detrack their high school, they learned some valuable lessons about the promise of differentiated instruction and the problems of change.

As a first-year principal of a high school in Virginia with three distinct tracks of classes, a limited staff size, and high-stakes tests, I recognized our need to differentiate instruction. Schools across the United States face these instructional challenges each year, and there are no easy answers. Often, necessary changes fractionalize faculties and communities. Even so, my colleagues and I wanted the jackpot: a school that delivered curriculum with equity and excellence.
Our journey two years ago to accomplish this goal provided an invaluable experience. We learned that differentiated instruction is an important option for schools that strive to deliver instruction to satisfy tough state standards and to meet the needs of diverse populations. We also learned the difficulty of making and sustaining educational change.


Our high school, located in a rural setting with a history of inadequate funding, had a diverse student population. In small schools like ours, budget constraints and staff size often force tough decisions regarding class size, scheduling, and equity. Our block schedule allowed for numerous extracurricular activities, including a superb music program and an honor unit Naval Junior Reserve Office Training Cadet program, which represented almost 40 percent of the school. But we needed to improve our academics. The school's recent standardized test scores were well below the state average, and the state had initiated new standardized end-of-course tests in the four core academic areas. Instructional personnel expended much effort to align the curriculum to the tests and to pace instructional delivery.
The three-tracked levels of curriculum delivery required immediate attention. No matter how we disguised or labeled these tracks, the instructional program was not fair to all students. The basic classes—called tech-prep—essentially kept remedial students remedial. Students looked around at their classmates, recognized the track arrangement, and responded accordingly. Discipline problems proliferated in these classes because of an absence of motivation and positive role models.
The next level—the academic—prepared students for college, the armed forces, and work. These classes offered a rigorous state curriculum. The students were motivated to succeed, came from homes with educational support, and exhibited high expectations.
The final level—the upper-level honors courses—offered classes in English, government, and world geography. These classes, designed to challenge talented and gifted students, added extra weight to a student's GPA. Dual-enrollment community college classes, another differentiation option, were available to juniors and seniors who wanted to earn college credit.
Different class sizes affected the quality of instruction. The honors classes were often as small as 8 to 15 students. The tech-prep classes were as large as 30 students, and the academic ranged from 20 to 28. Many teachers knew that the quality of instruction was at stake in the tracking system. All teachers knew that change was necessary. As Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999) states:Schools must belong to all of these children. Educators often speak of equity as an issue with children of the former group (children without experience or support) and excellence as an issue for the latter (children with experience and support). In truth, equity and excellence must be at the top of the agenda for all children. (p. 21)
We endeavored to change our school's agenda to improve equity and excellence through a more differentiated instructional program.


To eliminate three levels of classes, the staff met and discussed the issues. I recommended to the superintendent and the school board a plan for two levels of instruction with differentiation within the classes. They approved it. After the local newspaper reported the plan, a group of concerned parents of honors students met with the superintendent to discuss it. To involve parents in the process, we formed a parent advisory committee, we examined and debated our options, and, eventually, we developed a final plan and submitted it to the board. The superintendent, at first concerned that parents were not fully supportive of the plan, was pleased that parents were finally involved in and talking about teaching and learning.
  • We would drop tech-prep classes.
  • We would offer remedial English and reading classes for elective credit as precursors to English 9 for those who needed the extra skills.
  • The academic courses were renamed advanced.
  • We would develop honors learning contracts for students who wanted the additional academic challenge and GPA weight.
  • We would offer honors learning contracts in the advanced classes of English, government, world geography, world history, U.S. history, and earth science.
  • We formed two-semester algebra classes to replace the tech-prep algebra classes.
In the past, we had offered honors classes only once during the semester or year, depending on the number of interested students. In the new plan, students could take advantage of honors opportunities in numerous classes. As a result, they had more options for differentiation and fewer scheduling conflicts.
Our learning contracts consisted of a variety of assignments, readings, projects, and learning extensions for students. Students selected activities that suited their interests and signed the contract in an agreement between teacher and learner. The learning contracts provided students an opportunity to work on what Tomlinson (1999) refers to as a "negotiated agreement" (p. 87). These agreements allowed for student choice in their areas of interest and in the kind of products they produced.
In his work on learning contracts, Malcolm Knowles (1986, p. 43) states: "There is no one right way. In fact, one of the chief virtues of contract learning is its almost infinite flexibility." In our school, many teachers were beginning the metamorphosis from "didactic transmitter of content and controller of learners to that of facilitator of self-directed learning" (Knowles, p. 43).


During our year of change, the process was not easy, but school climate improved. Some teachers struggled to develop learning contracts. Tomlinson (1999) reminds us that substantial change is a slow process and that schools should start small, avoid overload, and prepare for the long haul. We started small but needed help for the long haul.
Concerns from parents surfaced regarding the contracts. They felt that these contractual agreements were "just more busywork for their children." As principal, I reviewed contracts with teachers, discussed the overall effort, and met with parents to discuss the courses and instruction. The communication process was important for all of us. We talked about learning, student needs, standards, instructional delivery, honors classes, course weight, and the state's high-stakes testing program.
Concurrently, we talked about what differentiated classrooms looked like. We talked about challenging students with talents and assisting those who have not mastered skills necessary for the state's tests. The discussion included the role of learning contracts in extending learning for students. We explained that contracts were authentic assignments and assessments for students who aspire to the challenge of an honors program.
In our effort to differentiate, we hoped to assist all students in mastering the state standards and to enrich, excite, and challenge students who had the ability to go beyond the typical class structure and content. Differentiation inspired practical, useful products that demonstrated learning and served as models for other students. Students produced research papers on specific topics; posters depicting specific events in history; models to demonstrate a scientific principle; papers contrasting required literary readings with literature beyond the scope of the syllabus; reports on extended readings on a topic of the student's choice related to the course; fictionalized plays or stories related to real-life events in history; artistic drawings or paintings of historical, literary, or scientific events or phenomena; and oral presentations that elaborated on a historical, literary, or scientific event.
Teachers reported that the advanced and honors mix worked for the entire class: The format did not hurt the instruction for the honors students. The class discussions were rich, and some of the contracts required honors students to prepare lessons, projects, and presentations that went beyond the scope of the syllabus to provide details that enriched the entire class. Teachers used the honors students' work to supplement other classes. Within the contract structure, students had choices and creative options. These contracts provided the impetus for a more differentiated learning environment.
With instructional models for differentiating, students were able to go beyond the typical classroom setting and materials and explore areas of interest. In many instances, the Internet became a tool for gathering, consolidating, and reporting new information. Student presentations of contract projects reinforced knowledge and skills and enabled students to see their peers as knowledgeable instructors and collaborators in the learning process. Honors students were encouraged to elaborate on their extended learning during class discussions, teacher-directed instruction, and other presentations.
As with any change, parental concerns quietly lingered. Parents communicated to me that they felt that these contracts were "punishing" their children by giving them extra work. Parents also stated that they did not want their children to teach others. This was "the teacher's job." It was difficult for parents to understand what Topping and Ehly (1998) found in their research: "A major advantage [to peer-assisted learning] is that students often can better identify with the skills and learning strategies of peers than with the demonstrated competence of an adult learner" (p. 194).
As the year continued, we negotiated the issues. As a staff, we felt that our effort was worthwhile and, as with any new skill, that we would continue to develop and improve. It was not easy for the teachers to develop, monitor, and assess the contracts, but this staff was willing to work hard and grow in the process. During the planning for the second year, we felt that we could make improvements through refining and assessing the process. But as we discussed these improvements, another issue surfaced.


Early in the summer, the superintendent of schools took a new job, and the district appointed an acting superintendent. Several weeks before school started, some disgruntled parents challenged the program and wanted to terminate the learning contracts. They met with the new superintendent and expressed their dissatisfaction. Their action surprised me because for the past four months, I had not heard a word about their dissatisfaction. The superintendent, determined to settle the issue without ruffling parental feathers, directed that the tracking system be reinstated. We leap into the past. As before, we offered honors classes only in English, U.S. government, and world geography.
Many residual issues developed. Lower-level classes were overcrowded, and students were limited in their ability to take certain honors courses because of scheduling conflicts. Discipline issues resurfaced, too. But the politics necessitating these changes were stronger than the fortitude to maintain the equity. In retrospect, perhaps we were ahead of our time for the community. It is not unusual for a small group of vocal parents to halt progress.
  • Move slowly during change. We tried to move too quickly.
  • Include all stakeholders. Certain key parents felt left out.
  • Provide mutual information throughout the process. Parents received information from the school but they excluded staff from their meetings.
  • Provide training throughout the process. The staff could have used more assistance in developing the contracts and learning about differentiation.
  • Change is messy. Some enjoyed the chaos, but we had a mission to accomplish.
  • People generally do not embrace the unfamiliar. New ideas caused tension for some parents and teachers.
  • Change is a journey. We made strides in the effort.
In many respects, we were only a few unanswered questions away from that education jackpot that we had envisioned. Although we had to revert to the old instructional delivery and the three-tracked system, the staff grew and developed through the process. We asked questions that had not surfaced in the past. Parents got more involved in the school and in the process of learning.
Our quest to provide differentiated instruction was not in vain. Our staff had the guts to stand up and work to change a system. In the process, there was tension, and through the tension, there was growth. Taking on the challenge of differentiating high school courses is not easy. It is an experience that teaches. As educators, we should welcome these experiences. We wanted to. We did.

Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Topping, K. & Ehly, S. (1998). Peer assisted learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

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