ALO versus Differentiated Teaching

A thread was requested about ALOs (Advanced Learning Opportunities, the third tier of the Advanced Learning program) and differentiated teaching.   Differentiated teaching is a teacher knowing his/her students' strengths, challenges and readiness and being able to adjust teaching to the different levels in the classroom.  (This doesn't necessarily mean teaching to every single student's level but rather knowing that there are different abilities in the classroom and trying to meet those needs.)

Here's what the Advanced Learning page says about ALOs:
  • that it is for any student that has been identified by either the district or teacher who "demonstrate skills and readiness for participation in an accelerated, rigorous and enriched curriculum"
  • service delivery is usually through an "inclusive" approach with an emphasis on differentiated instruction and flexible grouping"
  • Site-based (meaning any school could have one)
  • "systematic and formalized way to identifying and addressing the learning needs of students who need differentiation and enrichment of the general education curriculum"
  • curriculum is based on Spectrum curricular guidelines
  • students are expect to (a) demonstrate mastery of grade level expectations in all areas and (b) work towards mastery beyond grade level in reading and math (typically one grade level above in reading and math based on Spectrum guidelines)
There are 4 principles:
  1. rigorous curriculum, 
  2. accelerated reading and math curriculum, 
  3. differentiated instruction within heterogeneous inclusive classroom settings
  4. teachers familiar with needs of advanced learners.  
There are 26 elementaries that offer ALOs (including Lowell and Thurgood Marshall, homes to the APP elementary programs).  There is one middle school, Blaine K-8.   There may be more but this is what is currently listed at the Advanced Learning page.   It is likely that other schools do have some sort of advanced learning but it is not formally an ALO.

What Do Each of These Look Like?

Plain and simple, there's no real way of knowing.  The issue with both ALOs and differentiated teaching is that (1) each school does it differently and probably even each teacher as well, and (2) we don't know how many teachers have training in understanding advanced learners, how to differentiate teaching and curriculum and how much training any given teacher may have had.   It's a real problem for parents who want some kind of assurance about what is happening in their child's classroom.

Reading the district's description of ALOs is certainly confusing.  On the one hand, they talk about inclusive and heterogenous classroomes and then they talk about Spectrum and sorting out kids which is the opposite.   They also talk about "mastery at all areas" but then the ALOs are only about reading and math. 

I think one of key issues is that ALL parents would like rigor and enrichment in their child's classroom.  There should be.  But the advanced learning issue is also about readiness and acceleration.   Advanced learning students may be further ahead and ready to go faster and deeper.   I'd have to have a conversation with the head of advanced learning, Bob Vaughn, about whether ALOs are really about acceleration or rigor/enrichment.

Here's what Charlie had to say (elsewhere): 
"Some ALOs have a specific delivery model (pull out, skill level grouping, push in, do the hokey-pokey and turn yourself around, etc.) but most of them are nothing more that a restatement of the intention to differentiate instruction and a few additional worksheets."

From the National Center on accessible Instructional Materials, here's what differentiated teaching may look like:

Teachers may conduct whole-class introductory discussions of content big ideas followed by small group or paired work. Student groups may be coached from within or by the teacher to complete assigned tasks. Grouping of students is not fixed. As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and on-going evaluations.

Assessments may be formal or informal, including interviews, surveys, performance assessments, and more formal evaluation procedures.

I think that phrase "grouping of students is not fixed" is really key.  Every child should be assessed each year with the teacher keeping a watch out for changes.  Some students pick up speed once they gain mastery of foundational knowledge. 

What is exciting about differentiated teaching is that the use of computers makes it easier for teachers to give individual work and students can vary their pace/depth depending on how they are doing with a learning assignment.   

Digital materials, unlike the conventional pedagogical mainstays, speech, printed text, and printed images, have an inherent flexibility. They can be modified in a host of ways, depending on the needs of the student. This flexibility makes it feasible to customize learning materials and methods to each individual.


David said…
As far as I can tell, the ALO label is meaningless. The idea seems to be that, if we change the name of general education, that will somehow make things better. It appears to be vacuous branding, not something that actually yields improvements for kids.
Steve said…
It also makes the process for Spectrum/APP eligibility confusing. Currently, a child who tests in to either of these programs can maintain their eligibility for them by attending a school with an ALO program and maintaining their status as an ALO student. ALO has (or had, as of last year) a separate report card that, I believe, is used to maintain eligibility in the ALO program and APP/Spectrum. Maybe the policies have changed, but...
North Seattle said…
I have also noticed wording along the lines of 'ALO coming Fall 2011' on signs in front of Northgate & Olympic View elementary schools recently but there is no mention of their new programs on the Advanced Learning page.
Anonymous said…
This is a repost from the most recent open thread, but it's relevent to the ALO discussion.

The reference is from a blog about gifted education in Bellevue:

What's interesting is how there is talk about moving away from the PRISM program and instead differentiating instruction within the regular classroom (kind of like ALO...hmmm).

See the post [Bellevue] "District Unveils an Ominous Future for the Gifted Program." It discusses differentiation:

The basic premise of that children learn at different levels and as such they can be taught at different levels within the same classroom by a single teacher. Thus, taken as a concept, this applies to a class room where Gifted Children share a curriculum with all students.

As a personal aside, we have not seen much differentiation within the classroom beyond reading groupings and extra worksheets for those finishing their work early. I frankly don't know how you can expect more in classes of 28-30 kids.

I'd like to hear from teachers and parents that feel they have had successes with differentiation/ALO.

Another anonymous
Lori said…
I have long believed that the current desire to have an ALO at every school (whether the school wants it or not) is ultimately to save money busing kids to Spectrum schools and even APP. With the NSAP, they want all kids to be served at their neighborhood school, but since not all have/had formal ALO programs, the district still needed to allow kids to transfer to other nearby schools to access Spectrum in particular.

I think in another 5 years, all Spectrum-qualified kids will be served in their neighborhood schools. If there is no Spectrum at your school, there will be an ALO, or so will be the story. Whether this extends to APP remains to be seen.

Interestingly, last year at our neighborhood school which did not have an ALO then, the principal told parents at a coffee chat that we should investigate Lowell for our qualified kids, that their needs may not be met locally. Frankly, I really appreciated the honesty. However, I've talked to parents there this year who say that now with the ALO, the principal is encouraging them to stay, that the ALO ensures their needs will be met. All they've done is formally codify the differentiation model they were already using, but in one year's time, the story has changed. Why?
Maureen said…
As one of the foundations of differentiated instruction, grouping and regrouping must be a dynamic process, changing with the content, project, and on-going evaluations.

So, I guess we assume that the groups mentioned are same level groups? I.e., that kids who test as advanced are working together?

I ask because my experience has more often been that teachers tend to put advanced learners in groups with kids who need help and count on them to help explain what is going on. I think that can sometimes be a way of challenging the advanced learners because they have to have and express a deeper understanding of the material. (I know many people won't agree with me here!) It hasn't been a huge problem for my kids-I personally think the best way to learn something is to teach it-but I don't think it has always been in the best interest of the kids who were behind.

So, given Mel's definition, if a teacher sorts groups the way I describe, does that mean they are definitely not differentiating instruction?
No, if the teacher groups, then he/she can differentiate the curriculum for each group.

"I think that can sometimes be a way of challenging the advanced learners because they have to have and express a deeper understanding of the material."

That might be true in a shallow way but my response - with all due respect - is that while all kids have things to learn from each other, my child is not there to help the teacher teach. My child is there to learn.
Anonymous said…

Just look at Lowell student numbers. They can't take anymore.

The problem with ALO as in spectrum is there is little oversight to make each school follows the program guidelines. Don't know if ALO office have the budget and personnel for monitoring and evaluating effectiveness.

So you have some schools that have programs in name only. Other schools may see it in some of the classes if you get a teacher or group of teachers who practice collaboration to make it happen. A few schools do it right.

Two things that I hear frequently from talking to parent friends (some of whom are teachers in this and other districts) that in a large class room with wide range of abilities and needs (ELL, spec ed), you need to have collaboration among fellow teachers to set up the "walk to math and reading". There are also teachers who prefer to keep their kids in their classroom and not sent out for remedial work or more advanced work.

You also have to deal with parents who especially at the K-5 dislike the ability groupings for labelling kids as "smarter, average, and below average". It is a touchy issue and doesn't take much for it to become controversial, emotional, and in the end defeats the attempt to differentiate.

Tough to differentiate
Anonymous said…
The trouble with asking kids "who get it," to explain thing to kids who don't, is that it can be be developmentally inappropriate. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you can explain it . It can require a familiarity with the content that they may not yet have attained.

An example is from my child's class (self-contained advanced learning):

Students were asked to rework missed problems on a recent math test. If you got the problem right, you were to help someone who needed help reworking the problem. Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, my child was working with someone and another student chimed in to offer an explanation. And that student was wrong. My child was then left to re-explain to a very confused classmate. And this is elementary school.

It reminds me of the "Free to Be You and Me" song: Some kind of help is the kind of help that helping's all about and some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without.

It just seems like an inefficient way to learn and really breeds resentment in those delegated to the "helper" role.

A mom
Maureen said…
No, if the teacher groups, then he/she can differentiate the curriculum for each group.

So, you are saying that if a teacher groups kids by some means other than academic level, that doesn't mean they are not differentiating?

It seems like a pretty inefficient way to do it though.

(BTW, I'm not a fan of teachers using kids to help them, I just haven't found it to be a disaster for my kids. I do feel sorry for some of the kids in my daughter's groups-I get the impression she's not really a very good teacher no matter how well she understands the material. My son seems more able to teach and learn from the experience.)
ArchStanton said…
@David: That has been my perception, as well. I suspect that some ALOs may be more ALO than others (like Spectrum).

@NorthSeattle: I've noticed both of those, too. I'm curious how many other schools are promoting coming ALOs.

@Maureen: That can be helpful to the teacher and might be helpful to the gifted child in small doses, but like Melissa says, I want my child to be a student.

Relying on that sort of arrangement sets the gifted kid apart from their classmates and risks them being labeled as nerdy or teacher's pet. It doesn't give them the opportunity to experience not being the best/smartest/quickest at something and it can set them up to feel that everything should come easy to them and be afraid of making mistakes. It's one of the reason's we place such a high value on the cohort/peer group.

Of course, these are general concerns for gifted kids. Being put on a teacher's helper track just magnifies them - and doesn't really meet the child's needs.
Anonymous said…
As a teacher and former gifted student, I understand high/low grouping, and I hate it. However, it's what is most commonly found in "best practice" suggestions. Kids do solidify their understandings when they have to explain things, which is why we make them write about everything. However, I was always put with largely useless peers in school, and they never learned anything. Those that were just slightly below me were great, they wanted to achieve and could. Most groups though I was stuck with the kids who had checked out. Probably I was there because I wouldn't let their goofing off escalate. But it sure as hell didn't help me at all, though I guess technically I was doing "advanced" work since I did group projects entirely by myself.

My groups switch from high/low to same skill depending on the difficulty of the lesson and the makeup of the classes. Some classes I've had were primarily honors with a largeish handful of SPED. Some classes were almost all middle/low, with a couple of kids who barely missed Spectrum.

My honors classes generally had same-skill groups so I could walk the SPED kids through the task, and it also made them engage in ways that they wouldn't (or weren't allowed to) when their Spectrum peers were involved. Activities that were simple but necessary to get to the next step would be mixed level, as no one was hampered by their abilities in those.

My regular classes generally had mixed level groups since the disparity wasn't quite so extreme, and everyone could engage easily at their own level. On rare occasion I would put the higher performers together, but generally when there was an extra activity that wasn't required, but would provide further data. Because they could generally get through the required tasks quickly and easily they did the extra work to share with the class after.

Anonymous said…
Kids do solidify their understandings when they have to explain things.

I tend to agree with the above statement, but I frequently see it given as justification for the high/low groupings. My issue is that it just doesn't seem developmentally appropriate at some times.

Just because you can do something correctly doesn't mean you can explain it correctly. It takes a certain level of familiarity with something to explain it well. And younger kids may not yet have the skills or perspective.

In terms of differentiation, I think it really varies with subject, with math being the hardest to differentiate in a class with a wide range of abilities and one curriculum. It is more sequential and builds on clearly defined skills.

Two cents
seattle citizen said…
Lots of perceptive observations and good ideas here.
I'd be interested in people's bullet point ideas about how to best meet the variety of skill levels around a given subject, strand, and/or target in a building. Or in the district, for that matter.
Can we come up with a list of suggestions that address how Seattle might best meet as many of the learning levels and needs of each student as possible?
This would include all "groups": Advanced, at level, behind, ELL, Special Ed (and its mandates, laws, and goals)...
How do we configure classrooms, schools, and the district so as to best meet student need? If money were no object...
Anonymous said…
I do agree that grouping kids who are struggling with a student who is gifted to promote learning often backfires. Instead of being a parent of a gifted child, I'm a parent of a struggling one. He rarely comes home telling me that a smarter kid was able to help him...instead, he comes home telling me he was confused, the smarter kid was irritated with him for not getting it and he felt abandoned in a difficult situation by the teacher. Doesn't seem to work well for anyone!

Another Seattle Mom
Anonymous said…
Lori, my situation was slightly different than yours. We were also at a neighbothood school that was planning to implement ALO for the 2010-2011 school year. The principal told us, based on our child's scores (which qualified for APP) that the ALO program would be a good fit for Spectrum-eligible students as they leverage a very similar report card and work one grade level ahead in reading and math. We were encouraged to seriously consider APP due to the fact that they taught two years ahead rather than one year ahead in reading and math. We ended up selecting APP for our child for a variety of reasons.

Anonymous said…
It's pretty clear that some things are better candidates for differentiation than others. Specific reading and math skills requiring direct instruction are arguably candidates for ability groupings. But the vast majority of other stuff, like literacy, writing, science, and social studies are great areas for differentiated learning. Writing is always an individual act. Each student can work at his/her own level no matter the instruction without being totally lost, and by focusing on individual goals. And for lots of things the best way to learn, is through hands-on projects. If some kids have fabulous science projects, and others have lesser ones, hasn't everyone benefitted by the experience? The best differentiated peer learning is not as teacher/student, but as all parties giving and receiving feedback. Learning to deal with all sorts of people, smarter or not, with differing perspectives is really one of the most important skills students can gain.

ALO at my school was pullout. That is, it wasn't really differentiated at all. And, it didn't give many students the opportunity for advanced learning. It was only available to APP/spectrum candidates who also had a teacher approval.

Anonymous said…
Personally, I would like:

1. Small class size of less than 20 students of all abilities in K-5 with the expectation that teachers know how to practice differentiation be the rule. By MS and HS, you have wide variety of course offerings available to meet the different abilities and interests.

2. Provide (paid) classroom assistant as necessary for special need groups i.e. ESL.

3. Then do away with ALO altogether. You will have outliers, but even in APP you have them.

Pipe Dreamer
peonypower said…
What would work- smaller class size or more adults in the room. In the 55 minutes I have with my 31 students there is simply not enough time to get to every kid in class. Not with the system we currently have. True teaching to each child's level of development would require a reboot to what we do in school. Having students identify learning targets and then work towards them. Adults in the room to help kids reach their goals, and time and resources for everyone. This is what Findland does, students set the pace of work, and that country has one of if not the highest graduation rates in the world. One the greatest obstacles to differentiated instruction is the requirement that the teacher be on x chapter by x date. If students who are ready could progress faster through a curriculum and students who need more time could have that time then it would really allow for students to learn and not rush through work or finish and be bored. Ah, the classroom of my dreams.
Charlie Mas said…
The fundamental problem with ALOs remains what it has always been: No one checks and confirms.

When ALOs were created the District committed to providing oversight and assurances that the programs were real and effective. There never was any such oversight and there is none now. Consequently, there is no assurance that any of the ALOs are real and there is no assurance that any of them are effective.

District Policy (C42.00, C42.01, C45.00, and B61.00) require annual reports on the effectiveness of District Programs, but there has NEVER been any annual report on the effectiveness of ANY ALO.
Anonymous said…
4. Get rid of pacing

Pipe dreamer
Anonymous said…
I think in our elementary we have very good differentiation -- at least in the Montessori classrooms, which is all I am really familiar with. However, we have no "ALO" so kids who qualify for Spectrum have to retest to keep that qualification for middle school.

I agree with Peony power that larger class size and the differentiation model are inherently opposed. We either need smaller classes or assistant teachers.

Beyond elementary, I've experienced for myself at one middle school and heard through the grapevine at others that differentiation rarely if ever happens. I can see why, with the sheer number of kids going through a classroom daily, but it is a shame. In my kid's 6th grade L.A. class the only differentiation was that kids chose whether to do a book report, a poster or a diorama.
wsnorth said…
The ALO thing seems like a total joke to me. How can any teacher with 30 kids have time to do that?

Does anyone on this blog actually have or know specifically of a child well served by this "program"?
Anonymous said…
It's exactly the other way around. With very large class sizes you have to differentiate more, not less. What it means for teachers is that they have to select teaching styles and methods that are accessible to a wider range of learners. Projects and group projects, where students target their own goals to the best of their abilities is a natural choice where possible, is inherently differentiation. Differentiation does not mean that the teacher should go around doing 1 on 1 instruction every day to 31 or 40 students every day.

TechyMom said…
Lowell's ALO uses a pull-out, which seems to be effective, and reduces the class size for both groups of kids during Math and Reading.

However, I don't like it. Unlike a Spectrum class, it reinforces every day, twice a day, who is in which group. Pardoxically, a model that is supposed to be more inclusive highlights the differences between the groups far more than one where they are in different classes.

Lowell's ALO is all based on district-identified gifted status and requires high scores in both reading and math. There is no fluidity between the groups. IMHO, the primary benefit of an inclusive model (ALO) over self-contained model (Spectrum) is the ability for a kids to move between groups based on their progress during the year, or if they are gifted in only one subject. Lowell's ALO has neither of these features.
Charlie Mas said…
When ALOs were first proposed and approved, they specifically did NOT require any testing. Students were supposed to be able to self-select for participation in the ALOs. In addition, the whole point of the ALO was that it was done in an inclusive setting, not a divided class.

If there is an ALO that is only open to students who are APP- or Spectrum-eligible it is wrong and should be reported and corrected immediately.

If there is an ALO with a non-inclusive delivery model it, too, should be reported and corrected immediately.
Unknown said…
My kids were well served by differentiation in elementary school.

They were in a school that spent a couple of years focused on training and collaborating around differentiation. I felt that it worked better for my kids than moving them into APP. Partly because my kids were not equally gifted across only 2 subject areas. They were 3 or 4 grade levels ahead in math. One was profoundly gifted, especially in areas that are not advanced in APP, and the other also had a learning disability.

Differentiation was the only way for them to learn in any classroom and at that time the APP elementary programs did not differentiate.

So the things that worked.

They were always encouraged to go deeper, further or pursue any interest they showed. Sometimes this would be a ‘go to the library and find out about that for us’ or working with a parent volunteer who could help.

They were rotated in & out of groups. So maybe they did reading circle with kids who liked the same subject one month, but did an independent reading project the next month.

They did their math calculation practice minutes at their own level. Some years there were 4 grade levels of math being done in different groups in their classes with the teacher & volunteers circulating to each group. They were often pulled out for math. Teachers would give the pretest for the unit, any children that did well were given other math to work on. Which children did well, was not always the same. Children who struggled were also working in a small group with extra help.

Other adults in the building, like the librarian or tutors or parents, worked with them in small groups or independently in different subjects.

When some kids were working on writing paragraphs, my one child was often writing submissions for competitions or publications.

One teacher, who was not very good at differentiation, encouraged independent projects that really inspired my child.

Many times my kids were able to learn with the majority of the class. Sometimes they were bored.

All kids were offered opportunities to do independent & small group work and encouraged to pursue their gifts and interests. Many gifts were celebrated in the classroom, so my children were not always the ones at the top.

The keys seemed to be quick assessments before each unit, materials already planned and available at different levels, extra adults, class time for creativity and helping kids learn to take responsibility for their own learning.

All this stopped when they got to middle school. My kids couldn’t understand why the teachers didn’t want them to learn.

I will not identify the elementary school because with teacher turnover, text book alignment & pacing guides I hear that differentiation is the exception there now.

-Parent who saw it work
Thanks for that Parent Who Saw it Work. I believe it could work but unless you know the path the school takes, the training the teachers have and what your child does during the day, then who knows? You were able to observe (?) and/or had it explained to you. I wish it like that everywhere.
Anonymous said…
@diversity: What you describe is almost exactly how it works in the Montessori classrooms my kids have been in in SPS. And actually Montessori works well with larger class size, although a larger classroom along with it would really help.

And "All this stopped when they got to middle school. My kids couldn’t understand why the teachers didn’t want them to learn." That was exactly our experience. So sad. I have another going to middle school next year and I so hope it will be better this time.
Anonymous said…
A strict pullout system isn't differentiation. It's exactly the opposite. So ALO, when implemented as a pullout, and only available selectively, like the descriptin of Lowell and other schools, isn't an inclusive model by any means, and isn't an example of differentiation. When classes get really large, pullout for everything and everyone isn't really feasible. The larger the class, the more levels of student apptitude, the more differentiation is needed, no matter what program the student is in. All students need the opportunity to excel in all areas, when they are ready. If Montessori's can do it, so can everyone else. If schools can have multi-grade classrooms, and many do, they can differentiate.


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