We have primarily focused our reporting on the process issues related to how the Davis Joint Unified School District’s Board of Education made critical changes to the GATE/AIM program, first in the June 4 vote that ended private testing and asked the Superintendent and his staff to come back with recommendations on how to implement differentiated instruction. Secondly, the June 18 vote rejected the staff-recommended variable services agreement (VSA) renewal for Deanne Quinn.
However, increasingly, the discussion will focus on policy issues – these are tough questions ranging from whether the district has over-identified GATE students, the proper testing protocol for identification, whether GATE represents a de facto honors class, whether it provided a program that meets the needs of students who are not otherwise receiving it, and whether the program is simply elitist and separates kids unnecessarily.
On one side of the aisle, one parent writes in a letter to the local paper, saying, “Our community is exceptional for its commitment to its young minds. It offers a diversity of educational programs found hardly anywhere else, in a state where education is chronically underfunded and underperforming.”
The district “offers a program for GATE-identified kids that actually addresses their needs, with research and appropriate training — it recognizes the fact that they are a special-needs population.” GATE kids “are no less deserving of an instructional model that fits their needs than other kids, and it’s well-established that their success is no less dependent on it.”
He argues, “GATE students are not ‘better’ than other kids. They just think differently, not only faster, but deeper. They quickly make connections that most of us miss. They have different interests than other kids, and they pursue them with unmatched passion and rigor.”
As such, he writes, “They need to be engaged in a whole different way in order to develop emotionally and intellectually. They can be startlingly mature, and moments later, reveal the gaps in that maturity, their deep insecurity and their fragile self-esteem. It’s for these reasons that there’s specialized training for teaching them, though most teachers don’t get that training.”
“Many people are surprised to learn that the diversity *within* a dedicated GATE classroom can be as great as the differences between the GATE population and the rest of the students. Differentiation to meet the needs of GATE students is challenging enough in a dedicated GATE classroom. It’s virtually *impossible* in a mixed classroom,” he maintains.
“GATE students languish in classes that, by design, don’t fit them,” he continues. “They frequently underachieve throughout life because they’re hardly ever challenged during their formative years. They suffer disproportionately from depression and social isolation. All of this is well established by research that it would be wise not to disregard.”
In this community, “we give GATE kids what they need, and what we already provide to our other kids: an instructional model designed to serve their needs. I urge the board to examine the facts, and not to make radical changes to the AIM program unless and until a research-based better alternative can be formulated.”
On the other side of the fence, Jill Van Zanten in an op-ed applauds the decision by the board to eliminate private testing and “shift resources toward ensuring rigor and differentiation in all classrooms across the district.”
“Some writers to this paper have implied that our neighborhood school teachers are not up to the task of educating our town’s ‘gifted’ children — and are even threatening to vote down the next school parcel tax if the district in any way reduces or reconfigures its very large, separate AIM/GATE program,” she writes. “I hope many parents will join me in publicly honoring and recognizing the tremendous job our neighborhood school teachers are already doing, day in and day out, in engaging the full spectrum of students in their classes, including many AIM-identified students.”
She notes, in particular, “Maybe I am missing something, but I have yet to hear of a single teacher not a part of AIM express enthusiasm for the program in its current form, or express any hesitation about teaching the AIM-identified students in their classrooms.”
She writes, “It is worth remembering that while 30 percent of Davis children qualify for the AIM gifted program, one-third of those children choose to stay at their neighborhood school or chosen magnet program. ‘Regular’ classroom teachers, Montessori teachers and Spanish immersion teachers from at least five of our elementary school sites are already teaching significant numbers of AIM-identified students.”
Meanwhile, recent data show just how wide the range of students enrolled in our AIM program is. “The majority of Davis students identified as ‘gifted’ — 75 percent — did not pass the OLSAT [Otis-Lennon School Ability Test], our district’s universal testing instrument, with a benchmark 96th percentile score or higher, but instead qualified after seeking private testing, or after being re-evaluated using a different testing instrument by the district.”
“Although the majority of retested AIM-qualified students in our district scored well above the 50th percentile on the OLSAT, the group’s test scores were spread across every decile, with some students scoring as low as the 10th percentile. If the entire school population were to be retested using the same alternative instruments, an enormous number of additional students likely would qualify for AIM — perhaps a majority of Davis students.”
She adds, “When four out of five of our school board trustees concluded that our district has been ‘over-identifying’ children needing separate gifted classes, they were making an understatement.”
Then again, perhaps the divide is not so wide. GATE supporters may well acknowledge the need to end private testing and examine methods for identification.
Last Thursday, retired teacher Marla Cook laid out a way to implement change. She said, “If what you wanted to do was change the program, I’d like to suggest a better way to approach it than a late night vote on an item somewhat on the agenda and one not listed on the agenda.” She suggested the district take the entire next year to hold public meetings on the subject of AIM and differentiated instruction. These meetings, she said, should include those happy with the program and those ‘happy to have it gone.’ She said, “Lead a productive dialog, listen to them all.”
Ms. Cook stated that for years the district has heard primarily from two groups – those who love the program and those who hate it. She said, “But what are the real concerns and how can they be resolved through grown up dialogue?” She suggested looking for ways to resolve these issues, “rather than by choosing a side – provide solutions that will work for all.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting