By Bob Poppenga
Irrespective of how one views the AIM program, the process followed last Thursday should be concerning for everyone. If left unchallenged, it might be the MO for future decisions on controversial issues like junior high/high school reconfiguration or later start times for students or for how decisions are made for the District’s other special programs.
Keep in mind that the previous School Board charged the administration with evaluating all of the “special” programs. If the action on Thursday didn’t violate the letter of the law, it certainly violated the spirit of the law. I find it hard to believe that the motion introduced on Thursday was a spontaneous response to the AIM Report presentation that same evening.
I fear that there has been considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering to achieve a certain outcome on this issue.
What so often gets lost when discussing the issue of AIM is that there is a subset of children who are intellectually “gifted” and whose educational and social/emotional needs are too often unmet in a “neighborhood” classroom.
Admittedly, many children in this subset are well adjusted and get good grades, but many others have difficulties. Even the children who do well as measured by traditional achievement tests run the real risk of not living up to their full academic potential and often quietly suffer from social/emotional difficulties.
In my view, too many people don’t understand or ignore the scientific basis behind the needs of these students. I wonder how many community members have taken the time to read the position papers of the California Association for the Gifted (CAG), an evidence-based advocacy group for “gifted and talented” students.
In my opinion, there has been a lack of district leadership in dealing with the AIM issue in an open and transparent manner. This has exacerbated community polarization. I vividly recall two years ago talking to a now retired Junior High School principal who believed that the proper role of “gifted” students was to help teach “less gifted” students.
I don’t necessarily believe that this is an isolated opinion. While I believe that “gifted” students can (and should) interact in many positive ways with the full spectrum of students, putting them in the role of teacher is not, in any way, meeting their needs; teachers should be the ones teaching students irrespective of the student’s set of skills.
In my view, here is (or maybe was) a way to make (have made) progress on this issue:
First, recognize the unique educational and social/emotional needs of “gifted” students as defined by the best available evidence. If we can’t agree on this, then we can’t develop fair and effective programs. For anyone who doesn’t believe this, then don’t read any further because you won’t give a fair shake to the following comments.
Second, use the best methods available to identify “gifted” students and use those methods to evaluate ALL students. This might mean a multifaceted approach to identification that includes testing and evaluations that identify “giftedness” across the full spectrum of student experiences (i.e., children who have been given all of the advantages that supportive parents typically provide to those who have legitimate risk factors that hinder their performance on many standardized tests).
Because of limited resources, our District has not used the most appropriate measures for giftedness. There is no perfect assessment tool, but many school districts do a better job than we do. I have no problem severely restricting or eliminating private testing.
Third, use the best available evidence to set a threshold that identifies truly gifted students. Again, this is not a precise science, but groups like CAG could help set a threshold. Unfortunately, school districts vary considerably as to where they set the threshold, but it is likely that truly “gifted” students fall within the 98th to 99th percentiles. Using such a threshold would help to address the frequently expressed concern that the program is too big. It would be important to adjust the threshold as new evidence emerges.
Fourth, provide open and unrestricted opportunities for all students to participate in programs that challenge them academically. If the challenge is too great for a student, then they could/should be placed in a more appropriate classroom. The education research that I have read clearly indicates that many students improve academically when given a rigorous curriculum in a sufficiently supportive environment. I believe that many parents are concerned about a “watering down” of the curriculum in classrooms with a full range of academic abilities.
Fifth, use appropriate assessment tools to measure the effectiveness of the program. The AIM Report presented last Thursday has flaws. The outcome measure, the math and ELA California State Test, is likely to be a poor assessment choice. Additionally, the report measured effects that apply only to students just above and just below (96% vs. 95%) our AIM qualifying threshold, not to students in the 98th to 99th percentile (I hear the criticism now: what’s the difference between the 96th percentile and those in the 99% percentile.
In talking to AIM teachers and looking at the empirical evidence, there is a substantial difference). The report authors failed to state this during their presentation last Thursday. Finally, there is the prospect that the authors did not really test for differences between students in self-contained classrooms vs. those not in self-contained classrooms. The authors need to verify their data in this regard.
There has been inadequate time for interested community members to raise legitimate questions about the conclusions of the report and to hear how the report authors respond. This is critical especially if any Trustees based their decision primarily on the report findings.
Lastly, differentiated instruction should be utilized in every classroom (self-contained AIM or otherwise). I’m willing to give it a shot, but manageable class sizes, well-trained teachers, and constant monitoring for effectiveness will be required for it to succeed. I don’t believe that the District has shown that it can meet those requirements. Why not set up a pilot program with appropriate outcome measures to prove that differentiation can work for all students in our District?
As mentioned above, the previous School Board charged the District with assessing the effectiveness of all of the Districts’ special programs. AIM was the first program undergoing assessment. Now let’s see if the Board follows up with other programs. I wonder what would happen if the da Vinci High School program was shown to be no different than DHS in terms student academic achievement using the same outcome measure; or Montessori; or Spanish Immersion?
I wish we had a term other than “gifted and talented” to describe this subset of students. Unfortunately, these are the terms in common use. Every child has their own unique gifts and talents and every child deserves a public education that meets their unique needs.