The discussion of GATE and AIM and what to do about it in our local schools is clearly one that is divisive and polarizing. However, having had some extensive discussions with people all over the map on the key issue – what to do about the program – I perhaps naively believe that a compromise and consensus solution is possible.
Beneath the hardline rhetoric is a lot more room to maneuver than seems possible on the surface. It is going to take a lot of will and leadership to get it done, but I believe we can do it.
However, to get there I think there are three “words” we have to eliminate: gifted, segregation, and differentiated instruction (I know, a phrase is not a word, but stay with me here).
It was back in May of 2013 that the school board voted 4-0 to change the name of the district’s Gifted and Talented Education program to the Alternative Instructional Model program.
As we noted earlier this week, the notion of giftedness is an evolving concept. 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 taps into the duality of the current GATE program – a duality that captures both the high achievers as well as the underachievers who are intelligent but not having their needs met in the current system.
However, the term “gifted” is loaded. Many critics and skeptics see it as an elitist term. Many believe that every child is gifted in their own way. Moreover, at least some of the criticism of the program has been that it has been used as a status symbol that serves to divide children. Worse yet, we have used a lottery system as a means to select some of the students – again putting the program as a prize.
My view is to eliminate this sort of divisive rhetoric – we need to re-cast the system. Clearly, that was the aim of switching the name from GATE to AIM, which eliminates the word gifted and instead inserts the word “alternative.”
I think if we can eliminate the view that this is a program for the “gifted” and instead view the educational system as a whole, as a way of best delivering education, then we are better off.
Second, we need to stop talking about differentiated instruction. First of all, the definition is so broad that it renders it meaningless. And second, it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the alternative to GATE.
However, it appears that differentiated instruction can refer to two separate things. Differentiated instruction within the same classroom could be what opponents of the current self-contained GATE program are pushing for. But it could also mean differentiated instruction through separated classes.
For instance, the Enterprise wrote in May 2013 that district staff was directed to “review existing (program) structures at all sites,” looking for structures that unite or divide students. For instance, Sheila Allen, Board President at this time, was supportive of “the mixing of class at every opportunity.”
However, “The school board also directed staff to start assigning all students to an ‘appropriate math placement’ when the new school year begins in the fall.”
So, at that time, the school board directed staff to offer differentiated instruction just in math for all students. (It is worth noting that two years later, none of this has had happened, but it was supported by the board as district policy).
Adding to the confusion is the California Department of Education’s guidelines on differentiated instruction, which notes that cognitive research results “suggest that a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom teaching is ineffective for most students and even harmful for some.”
The principles that point clearly to the need for differentiated instruction are listed as follows:
- Need for emotional safety. Learning environments must feel emotionally safe to students for the most effective learning to take place.
- Need for appropriate challenges. Students require appropriate levels of challenge. When students are confronted with content and performance standards well beyond their level of readiness, intense stress frequently results… A one-size-fits-all approach to teaching produces lessons pitched at a single-challenge level, virtually ensuring that many students will be overchallenged or underchallenged. Neither group will learn effectively. Research supports the conviction that all students should strive to meet the same content and performance standards, although many will do so at different levels of acceptable proficiency.
- Need for self-constructed meaning. Students need opportunities to develop their own meaning as new knowledge and skills are encountered. They have different learning styles, process ideas and concepts differently, have varied backgrounds and experiences, and express themselves differently. All must be helped to assimilate new knowledge and skills within the framework of prior personal experiences.
Differentiated instruction therefore could mean GATE, it could mean everyone in the same classrooms, it could mean separate math classes, but what it means is not clear and it is now a word that has become the catch-phrase for the alternative to the GATE view and therefore we would be better off not using it.
Finally, last week, we published the column asking whether “GATE (is) a modern day segregation system.” There is a frequent complaint that GATE is in fact “segregation,” not necessarily in a racial sense, but rather in the sense that it separates the “gifted” from the mainstream students.
As we cited in our reference to the Atlantic and also the US Department of Education, there actually is a racial as well as a socio-economic component here at the national level.
On November 18, 2014, The Atlantic published an article, “Modern-Day Segregation in Public Schools.” It notes, “The Department of Education has branded ‘tracking’—designating students for separate educational paths based on their academic performance—as a modern day form of segregation.”
The publication notes, “The education department and advocates have said tracking perpetuates a modern system of segregation that favors white students and keeps students of color, many of them black, from long-term equal achievement. Now the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is trying to change the system, one school district at a time.”
They continue, “Proponents of tracking and of ability-grouping (a milder version that separates students within the same classroom based on ability) say that the practices allow students to learn at their own levels and prevent a difficult situation for teachers: large classes where children with a wide range of different needs and skill levels are mixed together. In many districts, the higher-level instruction in ‘gifted and talented’ or advanced placement classes is what keeps wealthier families from entirely abandoning the public school system.”
On the other hand, opponents argue that “the ill effects for the students in the lower-skilled classes negate the advantages that the students in the advanced classes gain. Many education researchers have argued that tracking perpetuates class inequality and is partially to blame for the stubborn achievement gap in the U.S. educational system—between white and Asian students on one side, and black and Latino students on the other.”
The use of the term segregation is clearly a loaded term, both with implications to the more national debate voices in the Atlantic as well as the historical use of the term. So let us eliminate the use of that word if we wish to reach some sort of community consensus.
In short, I believe if we are to find common ground here on this issue, we must avoid using loaded terms that could be divisive. To reiterate, I submit we stop using the terms “gifted,” “differentiated instruction” and “segregation” in this discussion.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Are there other words we should eliminate as well? Join the discussion.