It’s not even Noon, and nine-year-old Harvey is already back on the floor.

His three tablemates, their efforts at independent reading on hold, watch and wait for Ms. Serber to arrive and restore order. Harvey’s pear-shaped body writhes on the floor, animated by neither malice nor mischief. He chews absent-mindedly on his silver necklace and gazes at the ceiling until she arrives.

“Let’s get up and get back into it,” Ms. Serber implores, her hand gently rubbing his back to coax him up to the table. After a few minutes, Harvey picks his book back up, and Ms. Serber resumes scanning the faces of her other twenty-eight 3rd graders to assess their needs. Mid-morning light cuts across her eighty-year-old classroom from the large windows that line the west wall, casting strips of shadow on the homemade plates to which each child attaches a clothespin to register his or her daily mood: sad, angry, worried, frustrated, frightened, excited, bored, happy. This morning – most mornings – most pins clasp the same plate: sleepy.

Nearby, a reed-thin boy named Elliott keeps working. Pale and quiet, his hair still bearing the shape of last night’s sleep, Elliott is an avid reader; this summer alone, he finished more than twenty books, from The Hobbit to The Trumpet of the Swan. Ms. Serber observes him working quietly, and then transfers her attention to a different table where her presence is more sorely needed.

Elliott’s reading list is among the many things displayed proudly on the back wall of room 121, where each student has identified what he or she hopes to learn about in third grade. Some of the preferences are predictable: Harvey, for example, wants to “lrn abto sharks”; others wish “to learn about weather systems,” or “go to the Baltimore museum and see the dolfin show.”  Taken together, the children’s goals reflect just how varied their levels of engagement and readiness are. One student outlines an admirable goal with nearly unintelligible spelling: “I hope to lun to slpel wrs because a m ging to go te colejig.” Another merely outlines something unintelligible. “Matlattrusala is big. You like Matlatirusla.”

At 12:30pm, Serber and her co-teacher, Ms. Creagh – whose shared first name has led them to be known as “The Two Sarahs” – get their first break in five hours. In that time, they’ve taught the students about reading the date and time; reading content for mood and rhythm; differentiating between fiction and non-fiction; writing reflectively and creatively; sounding out phonics; practicing addition and subtraction; and solving mathematical word problems. As their students head for the lunchroom and descend the school’s weathered marble stairs in a winding line of spasmodic energy, their teachers take their first bathroom break, unpack their homemade lunches, and use the quiet time to fine-tune their afternoon lessons.

A few miles away, at a different school, Cassie Hurst is contemplating her own classroom’s eclectic set of needs. A first-year kindergarten teacher in a first-year charter school, Cassie is tall, slender and kinetic. When she speaks, whether it’s to a five-year-old or an adult, she uses her long limbs expressively – and often – to animate her words. Her intelligent eyes jump out from behind her black Jill Stuart glasses.

The school year is barely a month old, yet Cassie already feels energized professionally – and exhausted personally. “I think we’re doing a really good job of reaching different kids and differentiating our instruction,” she explained on a sunny October afternoon. “At the same time, I’m worn out. I hadn’t expected to feel this strained this early in the year. But I’m with my kids every day from 8:30 to 3:30, without any breaks; that’s a long time to be “on” every day. And the needs of my kids are so varied. For example, a lot of our students came to us from the same play-based preschool; they are the sweetest boys, but they didn’t spend a lot of time on academics so they don’t know their letters at all. Then there are other kids who bring with them such complicated family and emotional issues. We assess everyone every four weeks to make sure we’re keeping track of their progress, and we’re grouping kids by ability in different “learning teams” within each classroom – but even within those groups, the highest-achieving kids have such different strengths and weaknesses, and for so many reasons, and the same is true for the lowest-achieving ones. It’s a lot, and it’s a constant challenge, and I work in a team of three. Thinking about trying to do that work on my own gives me chills at night. I just don’t think it would be possible.”

*  *  *

Is it possible? Can one, two or even three teachers in a classroom of twenty to thirty children not just diagnose the needs of each child, but also meet those needs, consistently and measurably?

In theory, such a goal has always directed America’s efforts to improve its public schools; after all, the first major federal legislation affecting public education was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s equity-oriented “War on Poverty.” But the goal was never explicitly stated – and incentivized – until 2002, when the 107th U.S. Congress rechristened Johnson’s legislation as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and President George W. Bush heralded the dawn of “a new time in public education in our country.  As of this hour,” he said, just before signing the bill at a public high school in Ohio, “America’s schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results.”

Under Bush’s new path, schools receiving federal funding were now required to annually test every child in certain grades in both reading and math. The students’ scores would be broken down and reported by subgroups – both as a way to highlight the progress of historically under-served groups of children, and to ensure that no single group’s performance could be concealed amidst a single, all-encompassing number. “The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America,” said Bush. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract . . . We need to know whether or not children have got the basic education . . . And now it’s up to you, the local citizens of our great land, the compassionate, decent citizens of America, to stand up and demand high standards, and to demand that no child – not one single child in America – is left behind.”

A decade after its passage, President Barack Obama and members of the 112th Congress were aggressively pursuing a re-write of NCLB before the end of the year – and opinions remained split about whether it had been more helpful or hurtful to American schools. On one side, critics decry that the bill’s narrow focus on reading and math scores has had the unintended effects of squeezing other subjects out of the curriculum, and stifling the creative capacity of teachers to engage their kids in different ways. On the other side, advocates celebrate the ways NCLB has forced America to publicly confront just how poorly some students have been served in the past. No Child Left Behind shone a data-drenched light on the actual academic differences between kids, they argue, and sunshine is a powerful disinfectant with the potential to highlight the most necessary reforms.

Across the same general time frame, an equally seismic policy shift had occurred: the virtual disappearance of “tracking” – or the process of assigning students to classes based on categorizations of their perceived academic potential. In its place, today’s teachers are increasingly expected to “differentiate” their lessons – and not merely to each class, but to each child, every day, all year.

By the start of the 2011-2012 school year, this constellation of forces – the dawn of high-stakes testing, the death of tracking, and the desirability of differentiated instruction – had resulted in a perfect storm of reform that had dramatically recast the daily experiences and expectations of teachers like Cassie and the Two Sarahs. And once again, education experts remained split over whether the forces at play were ultimately for the better.

“We are shortchanging America’s brightest students,” argues education scholar Frederick Hess, “and we’re doing it reflexively and furtively. A big part of the problem is our desire to duck hard choices when it comes to kids and schooling. Differentiated instruction — the notion that any teacher can simultaneously instruct children of wildly different levels of ability in a single classroom — is appealing precisely because it seemingly allows us to avoid having to decide where to focus finite time, energy and resources. 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.

“Focusing on the neediest students, even at the expense of their peers, is not unreasonable,” Hess explains. “After all, we can’t do everything. But self-interest and a proper respect for all children demand that we wrestle with such decisions and pay more than lip service to the needs of advanced students.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson, a nationally-known expert on issues of differentiation, defines the core issue differently: “Is the primary goal a separate room for students with particular needs, or should our primary goal be high-quality learning experiences wherever a student is taught? The range of students in schools indicates the need for a range of services. Since most students have always received most of their instruction in general education classrooms, it’s quite important that differentiation in that setting be robust. There are some very bright students whose academic needs are quite well addressed in some “regular” classrooms, some who require extended instruction in a specific subject, some whose need for challenge suggests specialized instruction in all content areas — perhaps even outside the student’s school. Effective differentiation would serve the student in each of those situations.”

*  *  *

Of course, there are theoretical conversations about school reform that take place at 30,000 feet. And then there’s the daily reality teachers must experience and negotiate on the ground.

One afternoon after school, over the din of the few remaining students’ voices still bouncing off the room’s ten-foot-high brick walls, the Two Sarahs pause to reflect on the question, and their work.

Sarah Serber speaks first. Her face is expressive and illustrative – the sort of visage her students rely on to gauge how she feels at any given time. Small and compact, Serber has the gait of a gymnast, more powerful than delicate: one imagines her approaching a pommel horse like the young Mary Lou Retton – focused, confident, fearless. “I don’t think it would be possible for me not to teach in this way,” she says. “Before, in my first and second years of teaching, I did a lot more whole-group lessons, and although they took less time to plan, they ended up taking much more total time because of all the follow-up work I had to do with different kids. So I’ve adjusted my own sense of where my time is best invested. And now we know that those late nights of breaking down not just the different activities, but also the different goals for the different students within each activity, is the only way we can realistically do our job.”

Sarah Creagh agrees. Tall and blonde and in her fifth year of teaching, Creagh has a quieter, softer air about her. She also shares her co-teacher’s passion about both her decision to teach in a public school, and her conviction that it’s possible, even in a class as big as theirs, to identify and meet every child’s needs.  “I feel a social justice calling in this work – or, maybe that’s too corny, but I feel very personally a need to contribute to our larger commitment to equity and equality.”

Creagh’s own conversion occurred one summer, when, after graduating from college with a major in psychology and women’s studies, she followed her parents to DC and haphazardly got a job with a reading research company. Up to that point, Creagh had never seriously considered teaching. “But then I found myself working intensively with children who simply could not read, and watching them make phenomenal progress. It was amazing to see that power – and it occurred to me that the real place this needed to be happening was not in some summer program, but in their full-time, yearlong classroom, day in and day out.”

After their last remaining students exit the school’s red front doors to head home down different leafy streets, past houses and housing projects, the Sarahs spend the last minutes of their work day examining the latest iteration of the DCPS report card to assess which standards they will address before the first quarter comes to a close.

The form reflects the efforts of city administrators to provide greater clarity about what all students are expected to learn. Most of the standards are in the two tested subjects – reading and math – but other categories exist for science, social studies, music, art, health, and work habits. To review their efforts, Creagh and Serber check the standards they have addressed thus far, from “comparing and recognizing that plants and animals have predictable life cycles” to “speaking in complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation.”

Another section of the report card addresses “personal and social development” – fitting, since on most days it’s this sort of attention most 3rd graders most acutely need.  Of the section’s five benchmarks, four place a value on children following the rules; the other is about self-regulating emotions and behavior. It’s ironic, since even a casual visitor to room 121 would quickly see that in order for Serber and Creagh to create the sort of environment that can support the desired intellectual growth of their students, they must first construct a complex web of interpersonal trust, expectations, and empathy.

What would happen if such skills were weighted equally, and identified more specifically? Would teachers’ daily efforts at differentiating their instruction become more or less difficult?

The next morning, Harvey enters the classroom, hangs up his jacket, and sits down at his table to eat the breakfast provided by his city to its schoolchildren – an egg burrito, banana, and milk. He finishes, lumbers up to a visitor stationed near the back wall of the room, and points to his personal goals for the year, which feature a colorful drawing of the sharks he hopes to study. “That’s my name there!” he reports excitedly. Moments later, Ms. Creagh asks the class to help clean up the trash from breakfast. Harvey returns to his seat, and resumes gazing out the large windows in front of him.

It’s a new day.

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