Differentiate Without Lowering Expectations

RajagopalHeadshotMy experience has been uplifting students from failure to consistent success at an inner-city high school. A key factor that I attribute to the students’ success is the independent exit price—a 15- to 20-minute assignment that asks students to perform the objective with high accuracy before leaving the classroom. You may be asking:

How do you deal with advanced students who need challenge and low-skilled students who are not ready to tackle the exit price?

Here is how I differentiate the exit price:

1. Every day I teach to a base skill or what I call “baby objective” that builds off what the majority of students already know and can actually master in one period. The objective should be rigorous but not overwhelm the majority.

2. My exit price includes a mix of problems: high, middle, and lower level. I put high-level problems so that advanced students feel challenged and the other students know they have something to shoot for. If a student shows mastery at a basic level by doing 70–80 percent of the exit price correctly, then they get an A, and everyone leaves happy. If the student can do all of the problems, including the harder ones, he gets an A+ and 50 extra points. I have high expectations and push kids to do their best.

If the student cannot show mastery at even a basic level, two scenarios usually happen:


1. Kids stay after school or during lunch to demonstrate basic mastery of the objective. Putting mastery off to homework or letting kids fall behind are not options. There must be assessment and intervention on a daily basis so that no child gets left behind. This level of accountability is needed for the population I deal with but may not be necessary with every population.

2. The kid may have a severe learning disability and the “basic” 70–80 percent might be simply too much. Then I have to judge if that kid has worked to her highest potential. For those few cases, I will try to keep the student after school but also grade more on effort.

If the majority of the class cannot reach a basic level on the exit price, then the issue is usually with the teacher:

  1. The objective was too high and, as a result, I “lost” the kids.
  2. The class was not engaged during lecture and I didn’t adequately check for understanding. I would need to reflect on what went wrong and how I could reteach concepts better tomorrow.

In all honesty, even in a difficult, urban classroom, 70–80 percent of my kids will meet the basic standard expected and leave with an A on a daily basis. It will be a handful of students who do not attain a basic grasp of the concept simply because they have severe learning disabilities or are very hard to reach due to super high truancy or lack of motivation or accountability from anyone. But I will not lower my expectations for mastery due to a few kids. I can’t win with every child, but I can win with most—even when they are kids who arrive with a history of Fs.

Post submitted by 2011 California Teacher of the Year and ASCD author (Create Success! Unlocking the Potential of Urban Students) Kadhir Rajagopal. Listen to a chat with Rajagopal here.