High End Learning in the Diverse Middle School: Investigating the Possibilities

Spring 1999 Masthead

Catherine Brighton
Holly Hertberg

University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia

Educators in American middle schools face a tremendous challenge: meeting the needs of all learners in increasingly diverse classrooms. The middle school movement advocates heterogeneous grouping of students to prevent early stigmatization and “labeling” of students. Further, middle school educators are acutely aware of the huge diversity of backgrounds, readiness levels, interests, learning profiles, and general development of students in the middle grades. Even homogeneously grouped middle school classrooms contain a tremendous diversity of student profiles. However, for a variety of reasons—including a lack of alternative images—teachers often “teach to the middle,” leaving the special needs of students on both the low and high ends of the readiness spectrum unaddressed. Achieving middle school classrooms where all learners find both acceptance and genuine challenge requires a shift in how we conceive the roles of students and teachers. One thing is certain: traditional one-size-fits-all, teacher-centered classrooms, whether heterogeneously or homogeneously grouped, are not likely to be a good fit for academically diverse middle school populations. The challenge, then, for middle school educators teaching academically diverse populations is to ensure that the needs of all learners in their classrooms are equally valued and equitably served.

Overview of the Investigation

Researchers with The National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) at the University of Virginia site are investigating possible responses to this challenge. The NRC/GT is engaged in a study examining the feasibility of providing high level instruction for all students—including gifted, minority, and limited English proficiency students—within diverse classrooms. The 5-year study focuses on the impact of differentiating instruction and implementing authentic assessment strategies on middle school teachers, students, and schools. Researchers from the University of Virginia consistently visit nine schools in three states to help teachers and administrators incorporate differentiated instruction and authentic assessment strategies into their instructional practices and beliefs. Three of the target schools focus on differentiated instruction, three focus on authentic assessment strategies alone, and three serve as control sites that will receive staff development related to differentiation and authentic assessment strategies in the future. The various schools are aware of their status in the study.

The underlying philosophy of differentiated instruction and authentic assessment requires educators to recognize that learners differ and therefore need differing tasks and assessments presented in a variety of ways to maximize their potential. Translating this philosophy into classroom practice takes time, effort, and on-going support. Therefore, researchers assume a coaching role: observing teachers, providing feedback on an individual basis, assisting with instructional planning, providing concrete models of differentiated lessons, tasks, and rubrics, and generally supporting the change process. As much as possible, coaches try to model differentiation in the way they teach teachers to implement these new ideas.

Treatment Group One: Differentiation

In the first treatment group of three middle schools in three different states, the focus is on the implementation of differentiation of curriculum and instruction. That is, helping teachers learn to adjust the complexity of materials and tasks for learner interest, readiness, and mode of learning. For example, one coach recently worked with a seventh grade history teacher to plan a unit on the Industrial Revolution. Using units from previous years, the teacher and coach identified the major concepts underlying the unit and determined what the teacher wanted the students to know and be able to do as a result of studying the unit. The teacher and coach then developed pre-assessment tools to determine what individual students might already know, and began determining activities differentiated according to student interests, readiness levels, learning profiles, and prior knowledge.

From listening to teachers talk about their experiences with differentiation, researchers can understand how teachers try to incorporate principles of differentiation into the realities of their day-to-day practice. Teachers generally agree with the rationale of differentiated instruction, and recognize a need to adjust their teaching strategies to more efficiently meet the needs of diverse learners. However, translating theory into specific classroom practice often presents formidable obstacles for teachers.

The NRC/GT coaches work with each teacher individually or with grade level teams to assist in bridging the gap between theory and application. While coaching sessions vary according to teacher or team needs, the basic purpose of these meetings is to assist teachers in the development of differentiated curriculum readily useful in their classrooms to meet the needs of a wide range of learners. A typical planning session might include some of the following:

  • Reviewing state and local standards to ensure clarity about learning goals.
  • Melding requirements with overarching concepts to provide a framework of meaning for the upcoming unit or lesson.
  • Creating (or assembling) appropriate pre-assessment tools to determine students’ understanding of a unit of study prior to beginning the teaching of the unit.
  • Reviewing student data gathered from pre-assessment tools.
  • Determining objectives for the unit of study, including the specific content objectives and skills to be mastered by various groups based on the students’ learning profiles.
  • Determining appropriate instructional model(s) to be used during the unit.
  • Discussing classroom management strategies that make differentiated instruction possible and efficient.
  • Creating varied sense-making activities using instructional strategies such as tiered assignments, contracts, and independent studies.
  • Creating appropriate assessments that determine what the students know, understand, and are able to do as a result of the completion of the unit.

Notes from coaching sessions provide one part of the data collection at the differentiation sites. Additionally, researchers interview and survey students to understand their perceptions of school, teachers, and learning. Teachers are also formally observed and interviewed about the change process, their feelings about differentiated instruction as a vehicle to meet varied learners’ needs, and the challenges they face. Blending insights from a range of data sources allows researchers to develop an evolving understanding of how teachers learn about and apply principles of differentiated instruction. In turn, these understandings shape plans for coaching and staff development sessions that follow in the process.

Treatment Group Two: Authentic Assessment

In the differentiation sites, the primary emphasis is on a “front door” approach to guiding instruction for the academically diverse learners, as practices of instructional modifications are approached and coached directly. In the second treatment group, focusing on authentic assessment, the emphasis is on guiding teachers to evaluate student understanding using tiered prompts and graduated rubrics. Tiered prompts are a continuum of performance tasks aimed at the different levels of student readiness or learning profiles represented in the classroom. Tasks vary from concrete and structured to abstract and open-ended. The number of tasks created may differ in each classroom, but generally have two or three tiered options. After the tiered prompts are completed, teachers evaluate the tasks using graduated rubrics. Skills and concepts are shown on a continuum from novice to expert, with criteria for each level specifically delineated. Students examine the criteria for mastery prior to beginning the tasks so there are no surprises about expectations for mastery or quality. In this way, teachers are exploring varied student needs through a “back door” approach. That is, they come to understand how students demonstrate knowledge and skill at various levels of complexity and through different modes. The hope is that such teacher awareness may then prompt them to modify the next cycle of instruction in response to learner needs. Coaches from the University of Virginia work collaboratively with teachers at these assessment sites to extend assessment beyond pencil and paper tests and quizzes. This alternative approach to assessment assumes a broader view of how student understanding can be demonstrated, including performances and products. Prior to a coaching session, the teacher determines the unit’s objectives based in part on national, state, and local standards. He or she also selects the appropriate instructional path to accomplish the unit objectives. Depending upon the needs of the individual or team of teachers, some of the following might take place during assessment coaching sessions:

  • Determining the best method of assessing a student’s understanding of the content taught and ability to apply new skills.
  • Creating tiered assessment tasks that reflect “real world” applicability of key skills and understandings.
  • Probing teachers about how the tasks can be differentiated to meet the varied needs of learners in the class.
  • Creating graduated rubrics that reflect the proficiency level of students in each domain. These domains are determined from the unit objectives and should be determined in advance.
  • Analyzing data collected from previous student performances and products to use in guiding future instruction.

Teacher interviews and observations are also conducted at the authentic assessment sites to understand how teachers shift their thinking about assessment as a way to meet the needs of diverse learners. Additionally, researchers examine whether teacher recognition of student differences in assessing students translates into recognizing student differences in planning instruction for them.


Based upon the findings of the NRC/GT study, we can determine which approach—the “front door” or the “back door”—is most effective in leading teachers to create differentiated middle school classrooms. To move toward widespread implementation of differentiated instruction and authentic assessment in our schools, we must examine the most effective methods of training teachers to utilize these strategies. In the process of determining these methods, we come to understand the challenges of change for teachers, and the level of support that an educational community must provide for teachers as they progress on their journeys toward responsive classrooms.

As our conversations with teachers and students continue to provide new information and insight into the process of integrating differentiated instruction and authentic assessment into school beliefs and practices, new questions emerge. Currently, we are pursuing questions such as:

  • What are the stages through which teachers progress in learning to differentiate instruction and use authentic assessment?
  • How do teachers assess student needs and address them within their classrooms?
  • What sort of support—both within the school and outside of it—is most useful in aiding teachers to change their practices?
  • How do teachers merge the beliefs and practices accompanying differentiated instruction and authentic assessment with their existing philosophies of education?

Meeting the needs of diverse learners goes beyond simply providing student choice or giving two versions of the same test or using a particular instructional strategy. It requires a fundamental shift in teachers’ understandings of the roles and responsibilities of teachers and students. Fundamental changes cannot happen overnight and require “buy in” not only from teachers, but from administrators and parents as well. We hope that the NRC/GT study will provide insight into what specifically we can do to develop learning communities that foster and support the maximization of all students’ potential.


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