Analysis: Who Should AIM Serve?

gate-2As I speak to more and more people in and around the community about the current AIM program, one of the biggest questions which underlies issues such as AIM identification is who should AIM serve. The research that I have done has suggested that AIM or GATE programs seem to serve two distinct populations – we can simplify it to children who are classic high achievers and those who are underachievers.

Maybe I am wrong about this, but reading some of the articles and listening to the comments, there seems to be some agreement that AIM should serve the latter group – those underachievers whose needs are not met in the regular classroom.

I recently talked to one mother who told me about her son. He struggled in the mainstream classroom. He hated it. He was always getting into trouble. He hated school from the time he was in first grade. The school couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.

He eventually took the testing and he qualified for GATE/AIM through the TONI (Test of Nonverbal Intelligence). He had a high IQ but he seemed to have some learning disabilities. But moving from the regular classroom to GATE/AIM seemed to turn the light bulb on for him. It transformed him and it turned him from an underachieving socially awkward student into a student who found his place.

Again, as I read an op-ed recently by Louise Angermann, there seems to be consensus that these students should be served by the AIM.

She writes, “I am writing in support of recent decisions made by the Davis school board to eliminate private testing to gain entry to the AIM program, and to limit the students entering the program to those who cannot be served in a traditional classroom utilizing differentiated instruction.”

She continues, “Contrary to what the critics of these decisions claim, these changes are not equivalent to dismantling the AIM program. Rather, they are implementing the program as it originally was intended and always should have been: to serve those identified children who could not be served in a traditional classroom. This should be a very small number since, like other special-needs children, the aim (pun intended) for gifted children should be to mainstream them whenever possible.”

There are two points here that seem interesting. First, is that Ms. Angermann believes that the purpose for GATE is to serve “those who cannot be served in a traditional classroom utilizing differentiated instruction.”

Second, she believes that the decision by the school board has already been made to limit the students entering the program. That certainly goes against the argument made by the school district that the only decision that has been made has been to eliminate private testing, and that all the board voted to do on June 4 was to ask the Superintendent to come back with some options.

As Superintendent Winfred Roberson put it, “Staff anticipates bringing recommendations to the Board for consideration at the September 17 regular meeting of the Board. In the meantime, we have a team of talented and qualified staff members working with various researchers, looking carefully and deeply at AIM identification and differentiation best practices across the nation. Our findings and preliminary recommendations will be vetted with some of our DJUSD teachers and school principals prior to bringing specific recommendations back to the Board for consideration.”

Ms. Angermann’s view is similar to that expressed by David Miller this week, who suggested that “everyone take a deep breath and step back from the edge of hysteria.” (Which, by the way, as we have discussed many times is not a good approach to actually calming people down).

For the purposes of this discussion, Mr. Miller writes, “I have heard no one advocate against true GATE programs. These are designed to take the 1 or 2 percent of very bright students who, for various reasons, cannot function in a regular classroom.”

He adds, “When a program is identifying 30 percent of district students as needing GATE, it is logical to believe that it might have a serious case of ‘mission creep’ that has led it far beyond its intended scope.”

Once again, the line seems to be drawn that GATE is supposed to serve that small percentage of bright students who cannot function in a regular classroom.

Of course, one of the points that Don Shor made this week was, “The focus on size is totally misplaced. Like other communities near UC campuses, Davis has a high percentage of students who identify via testing for GATE.”

He cited Goleta (near UC Santa Barbara) at 30 percent, Irvine at 25 percent, Berkeley at “more than one-third of sixth graders” and La Jolla, which hosts UC San Diego at 51-54 percent.

He writes, “There is no ideal size or number of students for AIM. I believe there can be logistical issues with filling classrooms with sufficient numbers, maintaining good teacher:student ratios, having a sufficient number of GATE teachers. I think those are largely administrative issues.”

But this gets back to what GATE is supposed to be. And again, there seems to be consensus that one group of students benefits from self-contained programs – the classic underachievers.

In a recent meeting with another parent, I asked the question – and really all I’m doing here is asking questions – what would be wrong with having an AP program starting in the third or fourth grade for those students who could be helped?

The answer I got was interesting and that is that there is a huge debate in this community over acceleration. Should students be allowed to accelerate to take on more advanced coursework than their peers? And at what point?

After having this discussion, I realized that this was a far bigger issue than just GATE. This was really a core issue and perhaps it has cultural components as well.

But if my read on this debate is correct, there appears to be consensus on one group involved in GATE – but widespread debate over how best to serve the needs of high achievers. There are those who believe that kids should be challenged in school. There are those who are concerned that kids should be allowed to be kids and not be pushed by parents to accelerate. There are also those kids who would accelerate on their own if allowed to.

My perspective remains: we need to figure out how best to serve the needs of all kids in the school district and whatever decisions we make should have a solid foundation of both research and philosophical underpinnings.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Don Shor

    If Davis adopted the San Diego schools model of seminar (self-contained) and cluster (multi-level) GATE programs, what impact would it have on the numbers for DJUSD in each category?

    Apparently SDUSD uses RAVEN test at 99% for seminar, 98% for cluster.

    According to figures from the DJUSD website, in 2013 Davis had 1919 students that were GATE-identified, which is 22% of the population of 8550. (Note that is lower than other school districts that are adjacent to UC campuses.)

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    The schools closest to UCSD are in University City and La Jolla. Those schools have 6 to 13% of their students in seminar (self-contained) respectively. Those percentages applied to Davis would yield a self-contained GATE enrollment of about 500 – 1100 students. The remaining 800 to 1400 students would be in multi-level instruction clusters in regular classrooms.

    Should students be allowed to accelerate to take on more advanced coursework than their peers?

    I find it hard to believe anybody is seriously asking that question.

    I’m not sure where the oft-cited 30% Davis GATE figure is coming from. The data I used is from the DJUSD website, 2013 figures; for example, this:
    1919/8550 = 22.44% GATE-identified in the 2012-13 school year.

        1. MrsW

          DJUSD’s website has a link to a State database with demographic information.  The link is too long to copy here, but you can follow the district’s path from here   The State shows that DJUSD has a total of 8599 students.  Maybe the numerator does include students identified via private testing before 3rd grade, but I suspect that it doesn’t.

        2. MrsW

          So these numbers are likely literally true.  Out of all students, K-12, 22% have been identified.  However, students in K-3 or K-2 have not yet been tested and new-to-the-district upperclassmen who don’t request testing, would not be counted in the numerator, either.

          What I remember about 30% was a general level of surprise, when universal 3rd grade IQ testing was adopted.

      1. wdf1

        Problem with determining percentages from district to district and state to state is that GATE identification can take place at earlier or later grade levels.  In this database, GATE identification seems to mean being in a class that is specifically identified as GATE, ie., actually participating in GATE.

  2. Don Shor

    Mr. Miller writes, “I have heard no one advocate against true GATE programs. These are designed to take the 1 or 2 percent of very bright students who, for various reasons, cannot function in a regular classroom.”

    Well, I actually have heard people advocate against true GATE programs: people who think all kids should be together in classrooms regardless, for a variety of reasons. But from those who seem to be supporting the board’s actions, we keep hearing this kind of number for self-contained GATE. I would like to know the basis for the “1 or 2 percent” figure. ‘davis forever’ referred to self-contained GATE for “the few underperforming kids who really need it.” I would be curious what she/he considers that number (‘few’) to be. It seems that people are:

    — overstating the percentage of Davis kids that are actually identified for GATE; it seems to be 22.4%, not 30%+

    — unaware of the percentage of kids in similar school districts that are GATE-identified, suggesting that they think Davis is uniquely over-identifying for GATE;

    — understating the number of kids who would actually need or benefit from self-contained GATE.


  3. Anon

    Why not ability group students?  Students who are bright need to be challenged, and not have to sit in a classroom doing work far below their capabilities that they already know.  On the other hand, slower students need smaller class sizes, with more individualized instruction.  And those students with learning disabilities need special classes to cope with their particular learning issue.

    And by the way, eliminating the possibility of private testing will almost certainly result in fewer students getting into the AIM program.

  4. Frankly

    Should students be allowed to accelerate to take on more advanced coursework than their peers?

    I think this is one of the primary background considerations that make a lot of people uneasy with GATE.  It feels a bit Orwellian.

    I view a excellent education system as one that helps move a child to higher and higher rungs on several development ladders.  We should be able to identify milestone rungs as core requirements.   In other words, we should approach the primary function of the education system to move all kids to the milestone rungs.

    I think everyone supports the system addressing the unique needs of students to get them to the milestones.  The self-contained vs. defferentiated debate is just one of how to get it done.

    But the second part of the debate over GATE is the fairness of using the limited resources of the education system to advance some students to higher rungs above and beyond the core milestone goals.  The problem is that we are not adequately moving all kids to these milestone rung goals.  Maybe if we were doing better moving all of our kids to attain core development goals we would read more support of this interest to “polish our diamonds “.

    However, I think the system is inflexible in that it lacks a variable time factor.   Ideally if we can advance some children to meet the core milestone development goals in less that 12 years of public school, we should do this.  And then best way to do this is to embrace differentiation.


    1. MrsW

      [acceleration] ….was really a core issue and perhaps it has cultural components as well.

      I agree that this is a core issue and that there are cultural components.  It could be both fun and informative to have discussions about culture and formal education, teach our children about all of the different approaches, and start coaching our kids that it’s a good idea to incorporate the best ideas and habits of every culture into our general culture.

      I object to acceleration when its used in lieu of enrichment.  We don’t expect a 3 year old to be able to do what a 6 year old can do.  Why do we expect an 11 year old to be able to do what a 15 year old can do?  Or a 15 year old do what an 18 year old can do? I find it so sad when I hear a student say that s/he “isn’t a science and math person” because s/he failed AP chemistry sophomore year or never received more than a B in math.  I wonder–what if you had waited until it was age-appropriate to take the courses? Maybe you would have loved math and science.

  5. wdf1

    Study: Structural brain differences due to childhood poverty may account for 20% of the academic achievement gap

    “Grow­ing up poor has long been linked to lower aca­d­e­mic test scores. And there’s now mount­ing evi­dence that it’s partly because kids can suf­fer real phys­i­cal con­se­quences from low fam­ily incomes, includ­ing brains that are less equipped to learn.
    An analy­sis of hun­dreds of mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI) brain scans found that chil­dren from poor house­holds had smaller amounts of gray mat­ter in areas of the brain respon­si­ble for func­tions needed for learn­ing, accord­ing to a new study pub­lished on Mon­day in JAMA Pedi­atrics. The anatom­i­cal dif­fer­ence could explain as much as 20 per­cent of the gap in test scores between kids grow­ing up in poverty and their more afflu­ent peers, accord­ing to the research…

    Also from yesterday’s print edition of the Enterprise:
    Study: Structural brain differences due to childhood poverty may account for 20% of the academic achievement gap

    As a Latina, this issue is one I feel very strongly about. I believe our school system should be about helping all children reach their potential. I was born in Mexico and came from very humble beginnings; I lived in migrant camps and I’m a product of bilingual education. I was the first one in my family to go to college. I recall a family member discouraging me from attending college because they were afraid it was too hard and I would fail. I would not be here if it were not for those who saw my potential and believed in me, thus giving me the courage to succeed.
    I see AIM as a wonderful opportunity to find and help those underrepresented and possibly underachieving but high-potential children who otherwise would not be identified and supported. This might be their only chance for themselves and their family to break out. Such opportunities are what make me grateful to be in America and be part of our public school system.
    Wealthy families can turn to private school or enrichment for their children. However, for lower-income Latinos, public school is their only option. It is our obligation to find these children and help them reach their potential. I would like to see all children, including Latinos, succeed to their highest potential.
    District data show that Latino students are identified for AIM services at nearly the same rate as their representation in the school district, but that fewer Latinos than are identified actually enroll in the program as compared to other ethnic and racial groups. This finding may be due to the option of Spanish Immersion, and I think there are additional factors.
    It saddened me when I heard that an AIM-identified Latina child was discouraged from enrolling in AIM by her teacher. I have heard of similar issues at other schools. I personally know of a very humble Latino family who did not enroll their AIM-identified child because of lack of understanding of the program and difficulty navigating the system.
    I think these cultural and societal issues are also important to look at. We need to provide more parental education and support with regard to the AIM program to Latino families.

    written by Alicia Silva.
    I can really appreciate much of what she writes.  I think it would take someone like her to assist in connecting with Latino families to explain what the GATE/AIM program is.  I also think that a differentiated instruction option will allow for overall more flexibility in helping the GATE/AIM program become more accessible.

    1. MrsW

      I think culture and peer-pressure have a huge influence on the classroom and school experience.  Our oldest attended Valley Oak’s GATE program, which at the time had a Latino majority population–the vast majority not in GATE.  There was one male Latino student in my child’s class.  Either in 4th or 5th grade, he transferred back to his neighborhood school. I ran into his dad at soccer or somewhere and he said his son transferred  because his son was so uncomfortable socially.  He was uncomfortable in class because of the competitive academic atmosphere (what score did you get?) and on the playground because he wasn’t comfortable approaching the non-GATE Latinos and wasn’t invited over by them, either.

  6. sos

    I’ve talked with a number of parents and teachers of minority students who were AIM identified by district retesting, but not subsequently enrolled in AIM. The feeling was that the children were good students, but neither “gifted” or advanced learners. The students all tested well below 80%, some less than 50% on the district OLSAT. The parents (and teachers) felt the high achiever classroom of AIM would be an improper placement and not in the best interests of the student, so they didn’t enroll their child.  Unfortunately, many of the retesting parameters used by Ms Quinn give the perception of improperly retesting students to tick off boxes.

    1. DavisAnon

      “The parents (and teachers) felt the high achiever classroom of AIM would be an improper placement and not in the best interests of the student, so they didn’t enroll their child.”

      It is unfortunate that many parents and neighborhood teachers don’t fully understand AIM and assume it is a high achieving program, which it is not. That teacher may have done that family and student a disservice if that’s what they assumed the program to be.

      There are many low and underachieving students whose needs have been well-served in AIM. My child’s teachers and principal tried to talk me out of putting my child in AIM saying it was unnecessary and would not be a good fit. How wrong they were. Seeing that spark of the love for learning that had increasingly dimmed for my child between K and 3rd grade be reignited and become self-sustaining has been life changing. Having those few years in a self-contained program can be a game changer that allows the child to get on track while learning how to interact in a world of people who just don’t ‘get’ you. It’s not about segregation because the child is somehow better than others but giving the child a chance in the environment they need in order to learn and be a productive (and hopefully happy) member of a society where you’re often viewed as the odd man out.

      Davis is certainly not a representation of the world-at-large. One could easily argue that we are segregating kids from the “real world” just by raising them in our town. We should be giving every child the best educational start from which to start their lives that we can. Differentiation should absolutely be part of that but not the only option unless and until the district can prove it is the best choice for each of those students. I’ve heard differentiation touted here for more than 20 years but have seen no success. They promised to put it in place for 4-6th grade math a year ago and what has happened since? Nothing.

      1. wdf1

        DA:   I’ve heard differentiation touted here for more than 20 years but have seen no success.

        That statement raises a flag for me.  I’ve been around for 15+ years.  Where has there been any differentiated instruction in the district to tout?  I haven’t found it to begin with.

          1. Don Shor

            It didn’t work at all for us. That’s when we bailed and went to DSIS. But I don’t know what DavisAnon meant.

        1. sos

          North Davis Elementary under principal Judy Davis…late 1990’s until she retired about 2007…probably started earlier, but I wasn’t involved with the school before that.

        2. DavisAnon

          The idea of differentiation is not new here and some have implemented it to varying degrees over the years. I think it’s a good concept but very difficult to implement well with our class sizes and student population. I have yet to see evidence that it is the way to serve all students’ needs best and in a cost-effective manner.   North Davis under principal Judy Davis focused on differentiation with a strong group of teachers. There was less demand for GATE there at that time, but by no means did it eliminate the need for self-contained GATE either. Class sizes were 20 students, and the number of students with EL, low SES, and other learning issues was far lower.

          I think the concept of differentiation is a good goal to aim for in  classrooms but that its implementation and effectiveness is likely to vary widely. I think it can certainly meet the needs of some AIM students, and if parents see that, I think fewer may choose self-contained, but the parents should be making that choice based on the educational approach of the program and their child’s needs, not having it decided by the school board. It is not an equal or better (or cheaper) option for some students than the self-contained AIM program, however, and should not be viewed as such.

          I’d like to see the district use differentiation to better serve all students in neighborhood classrooms and let parents choose the best fit for their child from the variety of educational programs (language immersion, problem-based, independent study, etc.) in the district as appropriate. Given their poor track record, however with implementing differentiation to meet math needs at the grades 4-6 level in the past year, I’m not all that optimistic they’re up to the task. The current AIM program is cheap – far less than the cost of half a superintendent’s salary, and it’s serving a large number of students well.

  7. sos

    The first and foremost issue with AIM is the admission process…fix it and the rest will fall into place. Testing must be consistent, parameters must be clear, deviations must be defensible. We currently have a program in which approximately two thirds of the students fail to qualify…that’s a non-starter for any program.

    1. DavisAnon

      I think the admission testing is complicated and difficult to understand but not necessarily broken. Could we do a better job using more thorough testing? Absolutely, but it will likely come at a significant financial cost (school psychologist, one one one testing). I don’t think that means we shouldn’t look at ways to improve it however.

      It is widely accepted that the OLSAT underidentifies children of color (except Asians) relative to white kids. The OLSAT is not an appropriate test for a significant number of kids, which is why they would be expected to score lower on it. That is why a ‘search and serve’ process is used to look at who may be under recognized by OLSAT testing. That process has led to increasing numbers of students are AIM-qualified with lower OLSAT scores – that was the goal of the process. We could make the testing process easy to understand and go back to just using the OLSAT, but that will favor white/Asian students at the expense if underrepresented minorities and those with learning disabilities. I’m really not ok with that at all. We could go back to teacher nominations, but our community’s statistics have shown that, too, would disadvantage minorities and kids at risk.

      It is a complex issue and I can certainly understand the confusion and concern, but I’m not convinced that alone makes our system broken. Our identification process was singled out by the state for its excellence, so we should be careful to understand the ramifications of potential changes before just assuming that simpler and easier to explain is better. One size does not necessarily fit all. We should continue to ask these hard questions and make judicious, cost-cautious improvements  to the process where possible, but we need to remain vigilant to ensure that kids at risk of under-identification do not get lost because of our need to make things simpler.

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