Differentiated Instruction

lorence USD’s unique program of differentiated instruction, began as the “TRIAGE” program for at risk students in Apache Junction, Arizona. The district decided that the TRIAGE program must:

  • Do things differently. The instruction these students received in the past was not working. They needed to be taken back to foundational instruction, but have it provided in a skill-appropriate, engaging manner.
  • Students must be taught what they did not know. Through the use of diagnostic assessment, the district must define the exact skills these students are missing and focus instructional time on those areas.
  • Teach each student at his/her instructional level and provide differentiated learning
  • Provide more time for math and reading/writing instruction
  • Achievement = Improved Self-esteem
  • Staff the program with master elementary teachers who come equipped with the strategies and methods effective for students at lower skill levels

Teachers were provided with professional development to learn to group students effectively, as well as teaching techniques that can be used to teach multiple student groups distinctly different objectives at the same time. This allows each student to be taught in his or her zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1986); thus keeping all students challenged without the risks of boredom or frustration for some. What the district observed is that, when good data is available on students, and teachers know how to group effectively, all students can learn well.

Using appropriate assessment, the faculty grouped students based on skill level and diagnosed individual skill gaps. Using this diagnosis, specific instruction was prescribed using the tools in the toolbox. The daily activities for instruction included: block activities for reading, such as guided reading groups, self-selected reading, working with words, writing, curricular software instruction, and appropriate assessment with regrouping (if necessary).  In addition, for those students who were struggling in the area of math, the teachers focused on block activities for math, such as, small group instruction, individual practice, hands on activities with manipulatives, curricular software instruction, and appropriate assessment with regrouping (if necessary).


Using educational technology to help them multi-task, TRIAGE instructors were able to teach five different small groups consisting of four to six students.  Each group was taught distinctly different standards, depending on their need. In this way, each student was taught in his or her “zone of proximal development” at all times, in an attempt to fill the gaps in the student’s learning. A glance into a classroom revealed one group working with the teacher, one group working with an aide, two groups on the computers, and one group at their desks in silent study – and all of them on task! There was instruction, cyclical review, practice, and assessment daily.


Results from the spring 2005 AIMS continued to show a significant difference between advances made in the TRIAGE classrooms as compared to those made in the standard classrooms (Table 1). 


Table 1. AJHS Spring 2005 AIMS Results for Grade 11 Students- TRIAGE vs. 
Regular Students


(N) = Sample size

Student Performance Levels Against Designated
SpringAcademic Standards
2005Falls FarApproachesMeetsExceeds

Apache Junction USD received the COX Technology in Education Award in response to their innovative approach, the TRIAGE program, towards secondary reform. The TRIAGE program has also been listed by the Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as one of the Arizona Models of Effective Strategies Application.

Florence Unified School District

Based on the tremendous success of the TRIAGE Program in AJUSD, Florence Unified School District (FUSD) adopted and modified the program in 2007-2008. The program was implemented at the start of the school year with at-risk students in grades three through eight and grades eleven and twelve who had not met the Arizona State Standards in English and Math on the previous year's Arizona state assessment (AIMS). Typically these students were two to seven years behind their peers. In addition, the TRIAGE model was also adopted and implemented in English Language Development classes at every school site, for English Language Learners (ELL).

In the summer prior to the 2007-2008 school year, highly qualified and experienced teachers were identified and trained to learn the same differentiated methodology used in the Apache Junction program. Elementary school administration identified the lowest performing third through eighth grade students based on Spring 2007 AIMS/Terra Nova scores. Each school had one Language Arts and one Math TRIAGE teacher. Each TRIAGE teacher taught three blocks (two hours each) of reading/language arts or math during the regular school day. Beginning with the fourth grade, students who are two or more years behind their peers need at least the two hours for intervention per day through differentiated instruction gain the skill and knowledge to achieve grade level success (Stanovich, 1986).  Each TRIAGE class consisted of eighteen students who were grouped by ability level, not grade level, in order to better differentiate instruction. Twelve computers and curricular software, such as PLATO, Fast ForWord, and Galileo Instructional Dialogues, are utilized by students in each of the TRIAGE classrooms.

FUSD slightly modified the Apache Junction TRIAGE model. The teachers still taught in rotating small groups, however, due to budget constraints, the aide was removed. So a peek into the classroom might show one group working with the teacher, one group working on Fast ForWord, one group reviewing skills on PLATO or with Galileo Instructional Dialogues, and one group at their desks for individual practice.

There is instruction, cyclical review, practice, and assessment daily. All instruction is based on the needs of each student. As the groups rotate through the teacher, he/she is not teaching the same lesson four times, but instead is teaching a different objective to each small group based on what the data shows is their need. The instruction that TRIAGE students receive replaces the instruction that they would normally receive in the regular classroom setting for the specified content area(s).

At the high school level, all juniors and seniors who have not passed the AIMS exams are given priority of enrollment in the TRIAGE Program. Each TRIAGE class is limited to eighteen students. If there is availability after all juniors and seniors have been serviced, sophomores who have low TerraNova scores are placed in the TRIAGE program. It is important to note that students do not necessarily remain in the TRIAGE classes year round.  Benchmark assessments are given quarterly and if a student scores 80% or better on the grade level exam, they are exited from the program back to the regular classroom. The Galileo benchmark exams are a blueprint of the AIMS assessment. The vacant spot is then filled with an at-risk student from a waiting list.


Results from the Spring 2009 AIMS support the effectiveness of the FUSD TRIAGE model. Although the model had been modified from the original AJUSD model, the results reveal a significant difference between advances made in the TRIAGE classrooms as compared to those made in the standard classrooms (Table 2). The sample group used consists of all high school students who did not meet the state standards on the Spring 2008 AIMS for each content area. Students were placed into the TRIAGE program during the 2008-2009 academic year based on highest need (seniors) and enrollment availability.  In the areas of reading and writing, none of the students who participated in the TRIAGE program received a label of "Falls Far Below" (FFB). In mathematics, 51% of the students in TRIAGE met the state standards while only 30% of the students in the regular classroom achieved this status (Table 2).


Table 2. FUSD Spring 2009 AIMS Results for Grade 11 and 12 TRIAGE vs. 
Regular Students

Student Performance Levels Against Designated
SpringAcademic Standards
2009Falls FarApproachesMeetsExceeds

Technology in the 21st century classroom provides the tools that allows teachers to diagnose in real time what students know and do not know and utilize that information to instruct them at a level that is challenging to each one of them.