Question #4: Have you been involved in the GATE/AIM Committee Meetings? If so, what has been your involvement? How do you view the current state of the GATE/AIM program, and what would be your interest in a future direction? Finally, how will you be able to balance the needs of the great majority of students that are not in the GATE/AIM program with that for GATE/AIM students?
Tom Adams: I have not been involved in the GATE/AIM Committee meeting. The needs of GATE/AIM-identified students can be balanced with the needs of the majority of students by improving program design and through the better use of existing resources. The Davis program should be evaluated for whether it is using current best practices, and the California Association for the Gifted would be the first place to seek information about best practices. More importantly, the AIM program should be an innovative program that is an exemplar. As I stated in the Vanguard’s Forum, my educational philosophy is summed up in the idea of universal design for learning. The district needs to shape its programs to meeting the needs of all students, including GATE/AIM-identified student.
Barbara Archer: I have not been involved in the GATE/AIM district advisory committee meetings. When I was a member of the Willett Site Council, we had a rep who reported back to the group from that meeting, and we discussed school climate issues related to the program.
Being part of a campus with a GATE/AIM track for 10 years allowed me to hear about the many perspectives on GATE/AIM from parents, teachers and students. I have also talked with many community members during the campaign – people with kids in the program, people with kids not in the program, people whose kids were in the program 20 years ago and middle-aged Davisites who were in the precursor to GATE/AIM – Mentally Gifted Minors.
Some parents believe that self-contained classes of AIM-identified students are the best way to educate their students. Some parents who have kids in the program are not wedded to the idea of the self-contained model. Some parents have AIM-identified kids and choose to do the neighborhood program because they do not agree with the self-contained model. Some parents believe that we must put equal resources toward all needs – GATE/AIM, high achieving, learning disabled, and students who struggle with academics to name a few groups. Some parents believe that the self-contained model is out-moded, and we should look into more current models for serving AIM-identified students.
What I believe is that that we owe it to our students to learn what other districts are doing to serve students working above grade level including examining current best practices and the advantages or disadvantages offered by flexible ability groupings. We must look at educational research and district data and consult with education experts to see if we are serving our students the best way we can. This has been a difficult community conversation, and my hope is that we can bring all parties to the table to discuss the future program direction.
Regarding balancing needs of all our students, I think it would best serve our students to make sure that all children have an enriching education regardless of ability level.
Chuck Rairdan: I have not. I think the current state of the GATE/AIM program is a reflection of the strong interest in Davis toward having effective forms of differentiated instruction in our schools based on the range of learning styles and aptitudes in our student population. Some students are truly in need of an alternative instructional method while the vast majority of students are somewhere along of spectrum of needs and learning styles according to their individual attributes. From a holistic standpoint, it’s about ensuring that appropriate learning opportunities are available to all students to help each reach his or her full potential. One size does not fit all.
It is one thing to talk about differentiated instruction and quite another to implement it in a way that is effective and sustainable. There is a considerable up-front investment in teacher training and materials to establish a working foundation for differentiation and includes smaller classroom sizes. These and other factors must be in place for teachers to successfully manage the diversity of learning styles in the actual practice of differentiated instruction. Some students excel in particular areas, such as math, and programs that nurture these unique aptitudes should be available and accessible to all students. In order to reduce the pressure and desire to have one’s child enrolled in GATE/AIM, the educational options that fully develop individual abilities need to be employed and made more widely available.
The wise use of technology is one of the ways that a menu of educational options can be made available to students regardless of where they are enrolled and provides flexibility in course scheduling. If the community is going to move forward in a constructive manner on this question, I think it is imperative that we move away from the emotionally charged rhetoric that has characterized these discussions in the past, and start viewing GATE/AIM as one of several options that needs to be integrated and balanced within the full range student needs and as one of a whole suite of educational programs in our schools. We must also be willing to do the planning and make the investments that will configure Davis schools in ways that support true differentiated instruction. Doing so, I believe, will help make DJUSD a future leader and innovator in public education.
Mike Nolan: While I have one child who qualified for the Gifted & Talented Program (as identified in the Education Code), I have not been involved in any GATE/AIM Advisory Committees. From the report of the Program Director to the School Board earlier this year, it seems that the GATE/AIM community has seen open conflict between three groups. One group feels that any discussion about the program is an effort to all but eliminate the program; another group thinks that the program should address all qualified students, not only the ones in the current program, and a third group feels that the program is not working as it should and should be thoroughly revised. As it is, the new GATE/AIM Master Plan is pending before the Board.
One issue facing the current program is that the parents or guardians of a student who otherwise qualifies in elementary school has only a “take it or leave it” option. They may seek placement in the differentiated classroom, or they may not. A more elastic program would offer services for those who do not wish the separate program experience, but who deserve some sort of extra attention.
But a more fundamental issue is that by setting aside specific classrooms for the Program, a need is created to fill those classrooms. In order to do this, the number of “qualified” students must always exceed the space for them in the classroom. The danger is that this may lead to instruction that is less focused on the exceptionally gifted or talented students, but on those highly motivated but less exceptional students.
A young Albert Einstein would certainly have qualified for the Program, but would he have benefited from it? Remember that Einstein said that the best job he ever had was that of a humble Patent Office clerk. It paid the rent, put food on the table, and allowed him the freedom to think in a creative way.
Finally, while the Program is a component of our public school system, it is a mistake to think of it, or any other program, as pre-eminent. The California Constitution only authorizes the establishment of “Common Schools”, i.e. “common” in the sense of “community”. The balance of resources must always tilt in favor of the many, and not the few.
Bob Poppenga: I have not been involved in AIM Advisory Committee meetings.
The terms “gifted” and “talented” are embedded in educational legislation that California enacted almost 35 years ago. Personally, I don’t like those terms applied, officially or unofficially, to a particular subset of children. I prefer an alternative term such as AIM because I believe that every child has his or her own unique gifts and talents. I also firmly believe that every effort needs to be made to provide a suitable learning environment for each child. Our District has a long history of program choice (e.g., Da Vinci, Spanish Immersion/Dual Spanish Immersion, Montessori, AIM) and such choices provide options for parents and children to select programs best suited to their needs. Along with choice comes an obligation on the part of the District to make every parent aware of available programs and to help facilitate the participation of all children in those programs. In my own family, I see very disparate needs between one child who is AIM-identified and another child who joined our family as a 10 year-old English language learner and who not only needed to learn a completely new language, but also needed to catch up academically. Every multiple-child household understands that siblings are commonly very different in terms of their aptitudes and educational needs. The challenge is to provide an appropriate learning environment for the full range of those needs. However, public education should not be a zero sum game wherein the needs of one group of children are curtailed due to the legitimate needs of another group of students. Educational opportunities that nurture and challenge every child should be the mantra of our public education system.
It is crucial for intellectually advanced students to interact with their peers for a significant portion of the school day to meet their social and emotional needs and to engage them in a rigorous, active learning process. There is a substantial body of evidence to support this. Some estimates are that 20% or fewer of those children identified as intellectually advanced are adequately challenged in school.
Some thoughts specific to our District’s AIM program:
- State law requires that all students be assessed for high intellectual abilities in Districts providing a GATE (AIM) program. It is critical that the identification strategies used are reliable and valid for the abilities they are expected to measure. Appropriate and rigorous methods of identification are needed to identify underserved student populations (e.g., children living in poverty or those with physical or learning disabilities). Currently, the District devotes significant effort to identifying underserved student populations. However, the District needs to constantly review the suitability of their identification tools and use the best tools available.
- We have a large group of AIM-identified students, but this is not unusual in a highly educated city such as Davis. One area worth discussion and possible fine-tuning is where to set the percentile cut-off for inclusion in the AIM program based upon test scores. Admitting students into AIM who score within the top 2% nationally is appropriate and would eliminate the need for a lottery (as is currently used in the District) to place students.
- True differentiated learning should occur within every classroom. There are many identified students who opt out of AIM and there are other high performing students whose needs can’t ignored. All students deserve an appropriately challenging learning environment. Consideration of an academically rigorous curriculum (e.g., International Baccalaureate program) could be explored in order to provide a challenging curriculum that is open to everyone. The San Diego School District is an example of a district in which 98th to 99th percentile students are placed into self-contained “academies” with true cluster grouping and differentiated instruction occurring in other classrooms.
- The District’s current AIM program does not require or provide significantly different resources compared to non-AIM classrooms.
- There should be opportunities for all students to interact and learn from each other throughout the school day while at the same time permitting AIM-identified students to spend a significant portion of the school day with their peer group.
- There should be opportunities for entry into the program at any time for identified students. Placement into the AIM program should be based on need rather than on a predetermined number of students who can be placed.
- Teachers need to be adequately trained to recognize students with high intellectual capacities and to understand their unique learning needs so that appropriate classroom instruction takes place.
Program decisions should be based upon solid scientific research whenever possible. In the absence of solid evidence, program modification or replacement should be piloted first and evaluated for effectiveness prior to wider implementation. There needs to be an open and transparent process to seek input prior to the implementation of any changes.
Madhavi Sunder: All children should thrive in school, learning to their full potential. I think all children are “gifted” and that all of them are gifts. I do not like the language of “gifted and talented” education, which comes from the state, and support the changed name of our Davis program to AIM (Alternative Instructional Model).
The AIM program is a means that the DJUSD has used since at least the 1980s to serve some of the children who are not being challenged adequately in the regular study. In fact, challenging students at their level is the very essence of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s suggestion that we should promote a growth, not a fixed, mindset. Placing a child in a classroom where the work comes easily relative to one’s peers only confirms the child’s view that his or her success is natural, confirming a fixed mindset. We want each of the children in our schools to be challenged so that they will ultimately grow.
I have participated in the district’s AIM advisory committee meetings. There and in countless conversations with members of the community, I have heard concerns about AIM. There are concerns about the size of the program, stigma placed on children not in the program, the lottery, private testing, and the all-or-nothing option that seems to exist, because our regular-ed programs do not offer consistent or adequate differentiation to meet the needs of AIM learners in their classrooms.
We ought to have more effective ways of meeting the needs of diverse learners in the regular classroom. We need to keep class sizes small and provide professional development to teachers in differentiated instruction. We may consider coordinating schedules so math and/or language arts would be taught at the same time, allowing for clustering within a grade. For some children a self-contained model may still fit best; but offering viable alternatives to kids and families will likely lead to a smaller self-contained program, which in turn may mitigate some issues of stigma. It is also time to reconsider the score cutoffs for the program and the controversial lottery. Private testing must be made available to families on a need basis (contrary to popular conception, under current rules a child can only take one private test, not multiple).
I am open to thoughtful changes to the program that are piloted and well tested.