Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

Support and Sabotage: Principals' Influence on Middle School Teachers' Responses to Differentiation

Academic journal article Journal of Secondary Gifted Education

Support and Sabotage: Principals' Influence on Middle School Teachers' Responses to Differentiation

Article excerpt

In order to respond to the growing academic diversity in classrooms, teachers must recognize that their students have different needs and commit to differentiating instruction accordingly; however, the relationship between teachers' willingness and ability to differentiate instruction and principals' attitudes toward differentiation is unknown. In this qualitative study, the principals and faculty at three schools were interviewed and observed over the course of 3 years. The results suggested that principals played a key role in teachers' willingness and ability to differentiate instruction. Principals successful in encouraging teachers to differentiate exhibited the critical support, desire for change, belief that change was possible, and long-term vision of implementation that teachers required in order to effectively differentiate in their classrooms.


Tremendous diversity exists among adolescent learners in middle schools. Within any middle school classroom, there is likely great variability from child to child in terms of appearance, physical and cognitive development, social maturity, and behaviors (George & Alexander, 1993). Consequently, more than at any other school level, teachers in heterogeneous middle school classrooms are faced with a wide range of students' developmental, social, psychological, and cognitive needs, beliefs about school, and expectations for their learning experiences (Eccles & Wigfield, 1997; Fletcher, Bos, & Johnson, 1999).

The unpredictability and irregularity of cognitive, social, and physical growth in young adolescents present educators with the formidable challenge of providing appropriate learning experiences for this highly diverse groups of students. However, in recent years, the detracking movement, the push for inclusion, and the nation's changing demographics have further expanded the range of students learning together in the same classroom (Fletcher et al., 1999). The typical public school classroom contains 27 children whose academic performance levels typically span more than five grade levels (Jenkins et al., 1992; National Center for Education Statistics, 1996).

Review of the Literature

Serving Gifted Students in the Diverse Middle School

Historically, the debate over how to address appropriately the academic diversity in middle schools has centered on methods of grouping students. For much of the contentious history of gifted education and the middle school movement, middle school educators have opposed homogeneous grouping of students as vehemently as gifted educators have advocated for it (Allan, 1991 ; Kulik & Kulik, 1992; Oakes, 1985; Rogers, 1993; Slavin, 1990; Tomlinson, 1995). The recent joint position statement from the National Middle School Association (NMSA) and the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) advocated for a "continuum of services including differentiated instruction, advanced classes, acceleration, short-term seminars, independent studies, mentorships, and other learning opportunities matched to the varied needs of high-potential and high-ability learners" and noted that district and school leaders should "ensure that teachers have meaningful knowledge and understanding of gifted adolescents, including training in differentiated instruction so that the needs of all students--including those with advanced performance or potential--are appropriately addressed" (NMSA/NAGC, 2005, n.p.). Differentiation, according to Tomlinson (2001), is the teacher's curricular, instructional, or assessment responses to students' differing academic readiness, interests about the identified learning goals, and preferred processing modes or conditions. Despite these recommendations for training in differentiated instruction, traditional instructional strategies such as lecture, drill-and-practice, heterogeneous cooperative learning groups, and direct instruction still prevail in middle grade classrooms (McEwin, Dickinson, & Jenkins, 1996; Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003; Moon, Callahan, Tomlinson, & Miller, 2002; Moon, Tomlinson, & Callahan, 1995; Pate, Homestead, & McGinnis, 1997). …

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