This type of differentiation is not the same thing as meeting special education requirements, although the two may overlap. Meeting special education requirements is a legal obligation, unique to each student with an IEP, or Individualized Education Program.
One finding from education research is that within-class ability grouping often has negative effects for low-ability students, or, at the least, benefits them much less than it benefits high-ability students. As the authors of one meta-analysis put it, “just grouping students and putting them together physically does not ensure differentiated teaching.”
According to that same meta-analysis, sorting children into different classrooms based on ability showed no overall difference when compared with equivalent classrooms with children of mixed ability groups. Sometimes this sorting practice is great for gifted students, but it often has a “significant negative effort for low-ability students.” The pattern is repeated for teacher-created groupings within a given classroom.
According to the meta-analysis, successful differentiation works in two ways.
- First, differentiation is successful when it involves computer-adaptive teaching, in which a computer program offers suggestions for individual student instruction based on student performance as assessed by the software, or computer adaptive instruction in which instruction differs by student scores on performance-based assessments. Computer-adaptive instruction works well in the online classroom.
- The second way differentiation has a positive impact is in the context of a broad reform program or school reform. That impact is out of my lane, but I suspect that the divergent effect of the general US curriculum on student achievement contributes to the positive effects for high-ability students and the negative effects for low-ability students.
Professionally, I use MathXLforSchool software in the online classroom, which offers supplemental per problem instruction based on student performance. I have good things to say about this software, and I would agree that it is preferable to “normal” classroom mathematics instruction—even if I went back to face-to-face instruction, I would continue to use this software. Given my experience with these computer-adaptive teaching systems, I am not surprised to learn that they “positively affect student performance (d = +.290; 95% CI [0.206, 0.373])”