We have focused much of our attention in the last several weeks on process-oriented issues. However, while reasonable people may disagree on how we got to this point, what is clear now is that at the last two school board meetings, there was over three hours of public input on what has happened.
The motion passed on June 4 now directs the Superintendent to come back with a plan going forward that figures to be presented sometime in September.
This is clearly an issue that has polarized some in the community. There are those who wish to protect the current program and those who appear, to varying degrees, to want to change the program – just how drastically will be up to the current school board and upcoming discussions.
And yet, for those of us who, like myself, really have little skin in the game other than wishing to see good and open discussion, there are some very basic questions that appear to need to be more thoroughly discussed.
At its most basic level the question is: what is the GATE/AIM program? What is its purpose? Whom does it seek to serve. To reframe that question: is GATE really a high achievers program? Is GATE for students who are technically “gifted” but underachievers, due to social issues or lack of interest in the mainstream classroom? And finally, which really is something that I gleaned from the Carrell study – is GATE something that will only benefit a small subsection of the student population or can we expect it to benefit much broader swaths?
I think more to the point: is the program working and for whom?
Part of the problem here is that GATE, and now AIM, seeks to do too much. I found a definition of GATE from the San Diego Unified website: “The Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program supports unique opportunities for high-achieving and underachieving pupils who are identified as gifted and talented.”
They then pull from the State Department of Education, stating, “Gifted students are pupils who possess a capacity for excellence far beyond that of their chronological peers. This capacity includes many and varied characteristics that require modifications of curriculum and instruction.”
So it seems, at least on a more global level, that the GATE program is actually attempting to fit very distinct populations under its umbrella. There is one group of students (perhaps that is too broad a characterization) that would be the classic overachievers – who perform well in the classroom and on standardized tests. But there is another group of students, who have perhaps high intelligence or the capability, but are actually underperforming in class (and perhaps also on tests).
Naturally this duel purpose creates a tension, both in the type of material and teaching methods, as well as for tracking and classification purposes.
Is an OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Abiity Test) test going to adequately tap into the second group of students? We have already discussed a little bit the purpose of using non-verbal tests, not just for kids with learning disabilities but for low SES (socioeconomic status) students who may not have the language skills to perform well on verbal tests like the OLSAT.
These difficulties with identifying students and defining the program probably lay at the core of some of the disputes about whether and how the program should change.
It also makes it difficult to know how well the program is working, beyond individual anecdotes and testimonials. The study that the district commissioned by UC Davis Researcher Scott Carrell suffers in part from a difficulty in measuring outcomes and adequately controlling for effects.
They attempt to use a regression discontinuity research design, hoping to study the effects of the program on those who just quality versus those who just miss the cut.
The problem with that approach is that opens Pandora’s box, so to speak ,by assuming that GATE would benefit those who just qualify and those who just miss the cut.
In the ideal world, where you are identifying kids who are good fits for the GATE/AIM program, they should be helped by that program. On the other hand, kids who are not GATE/AIM program qualifiers should fit better in their traditional classes.
If that is not happening, if GATE simply is a better program that would benefit all students, then we need to incorporate the program for all students.
This gets us to a much more fundamental question than just who qualifies for GATE – would the mainstream program benefit from incorporating elements of GATE?
After all, if you believe that the Carrell study was properly conducted, one implicit assumption is that the cutoff point was essentially random and arbitrary and that far more kids would benefit from GATE than get into the program.
It seems to me that we need to address these points as part of the broader discussion. Some of the complaints I heard at the last two public comment sessions by those people favoring change in the program is that the program is seen as elitist. It has been seen as a badge of honor. Students competitively wanted to get into the program.
Those students that got into the program put down those students who did not get into the program. I have seen the expressed belief that every child is gifted in their own way.
If that is true, then perhaps, instead of making GATE more exclusive – some have suggested a 3-5 percent program rather than the current 30-50 percent – we should simply make it more inclusive. Figure out who will benefit from what programs and incorporate those programs into the mainstream curriculum.
Along those lines, it seems that the concept of “giftedness” and “gifted education” are evolving concepts. The district, on the AIM page, points to a publication from 2011 published by the Association for Psychological Science, “Rethinking Giftedness and Gifted Education.”
Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell propose a definition of giftedness, “Giftedness is the manifestation of performance that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to other high-functioning individuals in that domain. Further, giftedness can be viewed as developmental in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted.”
That definition would seem to capture the comprehensiveness that they propose and also capture the duality that we might seek to capture – giftedness as both a potential and an achievement.
The questions I think we need to start seeking to answer are (1) Whether the current system meets the needs of those who are high-achieving gifted students, low-achieving gifted students, and those in the mainstream classroom; (2) Whether the needs of those three groups (and perhaps more) can be better met in a new system; (3) Whether the concepts and techniques of GATE can help everyone; and (4) What the structure of differentiation should be. Does the latter mean putting all levels of students in the same classroom? Does that mean continuing some form of self-contained GATE/AIM? Does that mean continuing the current program with some minor tweaks?
We need to recognize that, come September, we may not have all the answers to these questions and we may be trying to hit a moving and evolving target.
But for me the question comes down to this: is there a community consensus on this issue? Can we gain some form of consensus?
That was my reason for posing the issue in the last campaign. Because if there is not consensus, then the issue of GATE will simply be a political football. While the last election did not focus on that as a core issue, it might have been just beneath the surface. Does the next election become a referendum on GATE and, if so, does that mean the program will shift back and forth depending on who gains the majority?
While the community is trying to sort out these issues and where it stands on them, it should be noted that rapid vacillations in policy and curriculum would be harmful to the students. Rather than drastic change, it may be preferable to have small but sustainable adjustments that evolve along lines of community consensus.
—David M. Greenwald reporting