Flipped for Differentiation

Flipped for Differentiation is an article I've prepared that examines the results I've obtained using a "semi-flipped" classroom model to totally differentiate my classroom for the 2012-2013 school year.

I am a full-time 8th grade math teacher at a middle class public school in the west suburbs of Chicago.  I've been teacher in this role for 10 years.  When I first began teaching, the middle school I teach at offered an "AE" (academic excellence) section of students.  Typically this was a single class of students that were identified as early as intermediate school based on standardized test scores and other criteria.  Thus, by the time they arrived at the middle school, we teachers knew who was in the AE group.  I loved teaching math to the AE group of students.  The pace was faster and more engaging.  The students were more tuned in and competitive but also very encouraging of each other.  Many of these experiences were real-world experiences that these students had the benefit of gaining while still in middle school.

For several reasons, my school district abolished the AE program in 2010.  The school district's alternative to the AE program (at least for math) was the adoption of an "Algebra for All" program.  I fully support the exposure of all students to algebra.  However, I was and still am concerned about the readiness of ALL students in such programs and what to do for the students who do not master the pre-requisite skills to successfully face algebra.  My district had no such concerns.  On paper all 6th grade students would master pre-algebra and then go on to take the first half of algebra in 7th grade and complete the algebra curriculum in 8th grade.

Algebra is the first and arguably the most important math class students will ever take.  Algebra is the first abstract math class that students are exposed to.  In order to successfully leap from concrete math (2 + 3 = 5) to abstract math (2x ─ 6 = 12),  students need to have a solid understanding of math facts, integer math, basic geometry, and other topics taught in pre-algebra.  Students who have not mastered pre-algebra should not be allowed to take algebra, let alone be forced into taking it.  Failure in algebra leads to failure in follow-on math courses.  This is true because nearly all the follow on math courses rely on student's proficiency in solving basic algebra problems.

All these considerations weighted heavily on me as the 2012-2013 school year began.  I knew what my incoming 8th grade class was suppose to know i.e., having finished through chapter 5 in the algebra text.  But what they really knew was a mystery.  So I pretested every 8th grader.  The results were not surprising.  About a quarter of the students were nowhere near proficient in pre-algebra, another quarter were proficient in pre-algebra but had little knowledge of algebra, another 40% were proficient in various areas of algebra from chapter one to chapter five.  And the final 10% of students tested were proficient through the midpoint of the the book.  Interestingly, the percentage of students that became proficient according to the idealized plan was about the same as the number that used to be selected by standardized tests and teacher recommendations.  In other words, the grand plan had not change the relative distribution of students performance.