Rhee Wants School to Serve as 'Differentiated Learning' Lab

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to establish an experimental program that would offer customized lessons for disabled, regular and gifted students in the same classroom, a key component of her strategy to reduce exorbitant special education costs.

Rhee's proposal would launch a "differentiated learning" laboratory at West Elementary School in Northwest Washington, then replicate it citywide. Under the proposal, which is being met with skepticism from some West teachers and parents, the system would hire a private special-education school to run the program.

The proposal is among several actions Rhee is taking to overhaul special education, which for years has lacked high-quality programs for learning-disabled and physically disabled students. The system spends about $137 million on private school tuition annually for about 2,400 children (out of more than 9,400 disabled students) whom it cannot serve in the public schools.

Since 2006, the D.C. public schools have been under a federal court order to eliminate a backlog of more than 1,000 decisions from hearing officers regarding placement of students in special education programs. The order stemmed from a consent decree that settled a class-action suit filed by parents protesting the system's long delay in providing services for the students.

Federal law requires schools to practice "inclusion" -- putting special education students in regular classrooms whenever possible -- a mandate the system has ignored in countless cases, advocates say. Under differentiated learning or differentiated instruction, an approach that has been used in schools in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and across the nation over the past decade, students are grouped in the same classroom according to their ability levels and learning styles. They get the same lesson but are given different assignments and tasks based on their abilities.

For instance, a third-grade class in St. Louis recently was assigned to report on Martin Luther King Jr., with some students writing a timeline, others illustrating pages and others comparing the era of the slain civil rights leader to today.

Rhee is proposing to go a step further than most other districts using the concept. She wants to treat all students in the differentiated instruction classrooms much like special education students, with each getting an education plan outlining how teachers would address the child's specific strengths, weaknesses and learning style.

Special education "is about individualization of instruction -- that is going to be the overarching theme of these schools. Every kid -- gifted kids -- need really good individualization," Rhee said in an interview. "All kids will benefit when we're operating in that manner."

Education experts across the country who have worked with the learning strategy say that it generally can work for all groups of students but that they have not seen it practiced the way Rhee wants to use it.

"Our reading scores, language arts scores and math scores were higher with differentiation than before differentiation," said Lane Narvaez, principal of Conway Elementary School in St. Louis, which has been using the strategy for eight years. "The scores are higher because we're taking kids from where they are and moving them forward. . . . Students are challenged at their level."

Kim Y. Jones, executive director of D.C.-based Advocates for Justice and Education, which negotiates on behalf of parents to help them get better school services for their disabled children, said she supports the concept of integrating special and regular education students.

But she expressed strong concern that Rhee's proposal could limit the parents' right to retain their child in a special education classroom if they deemed that a better option.

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