The AIM Debate: Many Questions, But Few Answers

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Former School Board Candidate and parent, Bob Poppenga asked critical questions at last week's school board meeting
Former School Board Candidate and parent Bob Poppenga asked critical questions at last week’s school board meeting

by Bob Poppenga

When legitimate questions about proposed public policy or program changes go unanswered by elected officials, should we be concerned that ultimate decisions by those individuals will have failed to consider all available facts or that a significant number of constituents will have lost trust in those refusing to provide answers? What mechanisms should be in place to address serious questions that are posed by the electorate? Isn’t it an obligation of our elected and appointed public leaders to share their reasoning and thought processes so that we can better judge the basis for their actions?

At last Thursday’s School Board meeting, a number of speakers asked Board Trustees and District administrators legitimate questions regarding recent Board actions on the AIM program. It is an interesting experience to ask questions to the Board or others during a 3 minute time limitation knowing that there is no chance to hear an answer. In fact, one wonders if “active listening” is even happening when one looks up from prepared comments and notices some whose attention seems to be elsewhere. Outside of the public comment opportunity, responses to direct questions posed via e-mails or face-to-face meetings suffer from the fact that it is typically only one set of eyes or ears that receive the responses; responses that should be seen or heard by anyone interested in the topic under discussion.

The following were a few of the questions that I posed last Thursday to the School Board and District Administration about AIM. It is important to point out that a similar set of questions could be asked regarding many important topics considered by the Board.

First, why the rush to make changes? Why not take a step back and assure that a fair and transparent process is in place? One typical response has been that “we have been discussing this issue for many years and it’s time we took action”. Is this really an appropriate answer? Perhaps previous School Boards put too little thought into how this issue could be approached. I believe that many members of the community were hoping that a largely new School Board could learn from past mistakes and develop mechanisms designed to improve prospects for acceptable compromises, if not consensus, on a variety of topics. This is what the School Board should have proposed as a first step regarding the AIM program.

With regard to the June 4th motion by Trustee Lovenburg, many people would like to know how each Trustee interprets “the focus of assessment will be to identify students whose needs cannot be met in classrooms which fully implement best practices of differentiated instruction”? What is meant by “needs”? An answer to this would go a long way towards demonstrating that a Trustee understands what the true needs of gifted students are. How are the Trustees going to ensure that “best practices of differentiated instruction” are followed? It seems to me that this is a legitimate question to answer up front to allay fears that changes will be made that, in the end, fail to meet the needs of the full spectrum of students. To my knowledge, the District has no comprehensive teacher evaluation program designed to assess how effectively teachers “teach” and apply knowledge learned through the District’s professional development program.

In light of the failure to rehire Deanne Quinn, which District staff will review and recommend assessment protocols to be implemented in the Fall or other changes to the AIM program? Will experts outside the District be consulted and, if so, who? Why has the AIM Advisory Committee been totally sidelined? These seem to be fundamental questions deserving answers. The loss of Deanne Quinn and the failure of the District to consult with current AIM teachers suggest that no one with the appropriate training will be enlisted to help make sound decisions. If outside experts are consulted, who are they, what are their qualifications, and do they have any potential biases or conflicts-of-interest?

Many assurances have been given that any changes to the AIM program will not affect those currently enrolled in the program.   How can one really say this with confidence? The failure to consider unintended consequences is worrisome. Just one example: if a current AIM teacher decides to take their expertise and go elsewhere, will it be difficult to hire qualified replacements since any applicant knows that the program will soon fundamentally change? Even if there are no answers to such hypotheticals, I would feel better knowing that they were considered and contingency plans made to address problems if they occurred.

How much time have decision-makers spent in self-contained or neighborhood classrooms to truly understand what goes on in those classrooms? How many have had one-on-one meetings with our excellent AIM teachers and actually been in “active listening” mode? How much time have you spent personally investigating other GATE programs regionally or nationally? What evidence beyond the AIM Report have you examined? These are legitimate questions that go to the heart of whether a Trustee truly understands our current program and has spent sufficient time on the issue to be fully informed. I was alarmed after Thursday’s Board meeting when I approached one Trustee to ask if they had spoken to Dr. Barbara Branch, Executive Director of the California Association of the Gifted, who was the first to address the Board members that evening. The Trustee indicated that they had not, but thought that it was a “good idea”. This is the same Trustee who said during last year’s School Board campaign that “the Davis program should be evaluated for whether it is using current best practices, and the California Association for the Gifted would be the first place to seek information about best practices”. It shouldn’t matter what the topic is, a failure to take advantage of expert resources to help inform decisions is not someone I trust to do what is in the best interests of our children. Another Trustee commented last Thursday that (and I’m paraphrasing here) “we (the School Board) have spent several hours on three different occasions discussing this issue.” As though that is enough time to spend regardless of the complexity of the issue or the quality of the discussion.

Regarding the AIM Report, will there be an opportunity for interested members of the community to ask legitimate questions about the methodology and conclusions of the report? There has been absolutely no opportunity to hear answers to relevant questions about the authors’ findings in a public forum. In such a highly educated and engaged community, why is this? As a member of the UCD community, I personally and respectfully reached out to them via e-mail after their June 4th presentation to answer a few specific questions I had. While I received answers to some of my questions, others were ignored and I have received no response to a follow-up e-mail. Since the report was apparently pivotal to the decision to move ahead at warp-speed, an open public session to pose questions to the authors is warranted. This should merely be considered as part of the scientific vetting process, albeit on a local community level.

I believe that a more open process for posing questions and hearing answers would be helpful to the entire deliberative process and be more efficient for Trustees and Administrators since they would not have to answer the same question repeatedly. I also believe that it would help individual Trustees better understand what their colleagues are thinking since the Brown Act, in many ways, makes the deliberative process more challenging.

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28 thoughts on “The AIM Debate: Many Questions, But Few Answers”

  1. Tia Will

    I agree with a number of points raised in this article. I would pose a question about one issue raised.

    As though that is enough time to spend regardless of the complexity of the issue or the quality of the discussion.”

    If you do not feel that six hours of discussion is enough, the implication is that you have a number in mind which would be enough time. I am wondering what amount of time you would consider sufficient. I see several possible scenarios.

    1. Each trustee has done research into a particular aspect of this complex issue and distilled their information into a compact format to present to the group thus maximizing the efficiency of the discussion.

    2. One or more trustees have taken on the role of fact finder to present this information to the group.

    3. Each individual has been free to explore the issue or not as they see fit.

    Obviously the different strategies will result in the need for relatively more or less discussion of the issue. I do not believe that we have seen enough information to judge whether the amount of time spent has been sufficient since we do not know the details of the process that has led to the decision making or how much time each trustee has put into their process for decision making.

    This would of course be irrelevant if a major point of criticism heard repeatedly were not that this decision was made in haste. For this argument to have merit for me, I would need a definition of actual hours felt appropriate to make such a decision and under what circumstances.

    1. Bob Poppenga

      Tia:

      Point well taken.  I don’t think that it is possible a priori to know what an appropriate amout of time would be for discussion on a particular topic.  Obviously, this is a very subjective call as well – one person might think that too much time has been spent while another thinks that too little time has been spent.  I’m trying to remember if I have seen scenario 1 or 2 on display; more often it seems that scenario 3 is the approach.  If scenario 3 is a frequent approach, then I think it is appropraite for the public to have an appreciation for how much effort each Trustee devoted to coming up to speed on a particular issue.

      Specifically, with regard to AIM, legitimate questions about the AIM Report would seem to warrant an additional public meeting and Board discussion in my view.

      1. ryankelly

        Isn’t Madavi Sunder going to be the next President of the Board this coming year?  Perhaps you can ask her to put this on an August agenda before the staff report comes back in September.

    2. Scarlet

      It is not the quantity of the “discussion” that is the problem, it is the quality. My main beef with them is they completely bypassed the AIM advisory committee — a committee of staff experts, and parents and teachers from both AIM and not-AIM classrooms. The committee had a proposal for changes to AIM testing which the school board didn’t actually even listen to. One person from that committee complained that the proposal did not have unanimous approval from the AIM committee, as if that somehow invalidates it. When does the school board have a unanimous decision on things? Instead of debating the AIM advisory and district staff proposal, a trustee made a completely unrelated proposal to be implemented over the summer, when many district staff are out of town and when AIM advisory doesn’t meet. I can’t think of any other program in town that had to make these kinds of changes without their advisory committee.

  2. ryankelly

    I suggest that Poppenga go back and listen to the June 4th meeting again where Sunder posed some of the same questions and Susan and others responded.

    Poppenga will have to wait, just like the rest of us, until September to find out the plan that staff have been directed to develop.   The Board is allowing the staff to do their jobs and the micromanaging that Poppenga seems to demand is demeaning to staff.   Does he really think tha, in developing a plan, that the Administrators won’t involve teachers?  His distrust of the Board appears to spread to a distrust of the School Administration.   In the meantime, maybe he can ask Sunder.  She’s on the Board, was at all of the meetings, should have read all of the material, was on the AIM advisory Board, and should be able to explain it to him.

    1. Davis Progressive

      this is certainly not a helpful post.  you’ve complained about character assassinations and yet dripping through your comments is clear disdain for sunder and by extension poppenga.

      why should any member of the concerned public wait to ask questions or air their concerns?

      1. ryankelly

        He should watch the Board meeting of June 4th to answer many of his questions.  Sunder asked the same question at that Board meeting and received answers.   I suspect that Sunder was the spark that started the flame in spreading the notion that services for GATE identified students is being eliminated in the District and creating mild panic, spreading distrust and I feel that is irresponsible of her.  Or rather, I expect better from her.   Poppenga certainly has through his angry testimony at Board meetings and his repeated opinion pieces on the Vanguard and Letters to the Editor.

        Members of the public have been given opportunity to air their concerns and many have taken advantage of these opportunities.  However, Poppenga is demanding answers to the following:

        – Why the rush to make changes?  (I interpret this as “Why make changes now and not at a later time uncertain?”)

        – Since consensus if unattainable, why not reach a compromise? (With whom the negotiations are with I’m unsure.)

        – Which staff will be working on the development plan? Which experts will be consulted and what are their qualifications and biases?  How much will staff rely on advice from the AIM Advisory Board (if they could manage to reach a consensus)?

        – What are the “needs” of GATE identified students and how will they be met? (He wants the Trustees to answer this and not teachers or administrators.)

        -How will Trustees (personally) oversee the implementation of “best practices of differentiated instruction?”

        -Who will hire future teachers for the self-contained classrooms and how will the District know that they are qualified, without Deanne Quinn?

        -Research and Investigation:  How much time has each Trustee spent sitting in classrooms? Spent time researching other district’s programs? Talked to AIM teachers (he doesn’t specify talking to other teachers)?  What was/is the reading list on this subject for each Trustee?

        – Why hasn’t there been an opportunity for the public to publicly challenge the research done by UC Davis researchers on the Davis assessment process? (He says he emailed and received some answers to his questions, but doesn’t say what he asked them.  I wonder if any researcher would want to defend their research in a public venue full of angry parents.  Not a scenario that I would willingly participate in.)

        Did I get them all?

        1. wdf1

          There was an ongoing conversation about GATE/AIM development taking place well before Poppenga and others came around.  That conversation is represented in the GATE master plan of 2008-2013.  A lot of attention and action was put on hold during the Great Recession because nearly every other school board meeting was an intense focus on the district budget.  There was a recommendation in the plan for implementing differentiated instruction, but that would have required money for professional development that wasn’t available during those years.

          One area of frustration I detect is some want to pick up the conversation on the GATE/AIM program from where it was left off in 2008, and others who are newer (perhaps Sunder and Poppenga) to the district want to review the discussion again from well before 2008.  I see it as somewhat analogous to the conversation about the Grande property.  The Grande property came close to being ready for sale in 2005, but then a new set of board members came in and wanted time to weigh in on the issue.  It then took another 9 years to resolve and find conditions suitable to where the value of the property would at least be about the same as it was in 2005.

          Again, I don’t see anyone on the board with the intention of eliminating self-contained AIM.  I think there is the expectation that it might be smaller because private testing is ended.

  3. Davis Progressive

    “In light of the failure to rehire Deanne Quinn, which District staff will review and recommend assessment protocols to be implemented in the Fall or other changes to the AIM program? Will experts outside the District be consulted and, if so, who? Why has the AIM Advisory Committee been totally sidelined? These seem to be fundamental questions deserving answers. The loss of Deanne Quinn and the failure of the District to consult with current AIM teachers suggest that no one with the appropriate training will be enlisted to help make sound decisions. If outside experts are consulted, who are they, what are their qualifications, and do they have any potential biases or conflicts-of-interest?”

    these are all questions i have.

    to me – the decision not to rehire deanne quinn moved us from the realm of speculation to reality.  the gate program will change – now the question is how and whether it will improve things.

    the experts outside of the district are not experts in this specific field and as the vanguard’s column a few days ago demonstrates, has critical flaws.

    why has the aim advisory committee been sidelined?  why were they completely in the dark?  if that group wasn’t serving the needs of the district – why not a more public discussion?  behind the scenes agreements seems to be the forte of the new board

  4. Anon

    1.  I could care less one way or the other about the AIM program per se.  All my children are grown and out of the public school system, and were never in the AIM program.

    2. I am concerned only that the School Board made a decision to remove Quinn BEFORE public input was permitted in regard to altering the AIM program – giving the appearance the School Board had already made back room decisions about changes to the AIM program outside the public purview.  It may have been perfectly legal to do so, but perfectly legal is not always the smart way to do business.

    3. The School Board’s decision to do business in this way on what they knew to be such a controversial issue in the community is bound to have negative repercussions when it comes time to renewing/increasing school parcel taxes.

    1. Don Shor

      I believe that at least a couple of members of the board went in to those meetings with their minds already made up as to the direction they want to take the AIM program. I don’t think they are listening to the input of all stakeholders, and I don’t think they’ve fully considered the consequences — unintended or otherwise — of their actions. It honestly looks as though they’re blundering through the process to achieve a reduction in the AIM program.

      1. Anon

        Absolutely agree w your assessment.  And that blundering will cost DJUSD, literally, when it comes time to discuss school parcel taxes in the community…

      2. ryankelly

        I believe that the Board members have considered all of the information and testimony given before they took action.  It has been talked to death with no consensus.  People are repeating themselves.  Even the AIM Advisory Committee members and School Administrators, who have met for years to discuss GATE/AIM and advise the Board, have repeatedly stated that they have been unable to reach a consensus on much of anything.   Matt Best listed out a long list of issues that could be addressed by staff, but asked for direction from the Board on what they should focus on now, while at the same time noting that there were problems with the identification and assessment process – advising limits on private testing, resolving problems associated with the sole use of CTONI for retesting and the reduction of and lack of staff resources.   So, the Board has voted to stop the use of private testing and directed staff to focus their attention on identifying GATE students who would best benefit from a self-contained GATE classroom.   AND directed the staff to develop a plan to do this – including use of multiple measures, adequate staff resources and services to GATE students who are in non-GATE classrooms and bring it back in September.  I object to the statement that this is blundering.

        1. Davis Progressive

          the inverse: i agree that it’s only not blundering if you agree with the outcome.  anon has clearly stated he/ she is neutral on the underlying issue.

        2. DavisAnon

          Ryan, you’re way off base with your interpretations of what has gone on in the AIM committee. Have you ever been to a meeting? You should come and see for yourself. The committee was asking the Board’s input so that it could bring explanations and alternatives to the Board in hopes of a building a bridge to a constructive, cooperative relationship. The response  of the board to that outreach was insulting.

        3. ryankelly

          I’m going by commitee member’s and other’s reports of an inability to reach any consensus, but this year being not so dysfunctional and fewer or no blow ups and people stomping angrily out of the meetings, and a need for direction from the Board.

  5. zaqzaq

    I see a lawsuit on the horizon if only certain classes of students are allowed to retest.  The private retesting was allowed to save the district money.  Are they now going to pay for retesting for all children whose parents request it?  I do not see them wanting to do that.  If they base retesting on ethnicity then they will lose a lawsuit.

    1. ryankelly

      I believe the law allows school districts to determine eligibility, program design, etc.  All students are being tested.  Retesting is done if there are certain risk factors, such as English as a 2nd language, physical or learning disabilities, etc.  Students who were being retested privately did not have to say what the risk factor was, if any.  Parent demand is not a risk factor.

      1. zaqzaq

        Ryan,

        I do not see a legal problem if they offer a second test to all students but when you start targeting specific classes of people or groups for retesting you open the door for a lawsuit alleging discrimination.  For example if the vast majority of English as a 2nd language students are Hispanic then are you discriminating against other ethnic groups.  Same for low income.  The risk factors in the AIM program even include asthma.  This is the argument that got the school district into trouble (a lawsuit) resulting in the lottery system.  Since the school district allowed a second test the private testing was a way to save money.  Let the parents pay for the second test.  Now they have gotten rid of the private pay option.  Just wait until some kid is denied a second test and his parents sue the school district alleging discrimination based on ethnicity or some other class.  The safest way is to either give all or none a second test.

        1. wdf1

          zaqzaq:  For example if the vast majority of English as a 2nd language students are Hispanic then are you discriminating against other ethnic groups.

          On the other hand, when you offer the first round test (OLSAT) in English, then you are discriminating against students who know English as a second language.  The second round test is supposed to correct the initial language discrimination.

          This, by the way, is one slippery slope of standardized tests.

          zaqzaq:   Let the parents pay for the second test. 

          Which is an example of “pay to play,” which is supposed to be a no-no in the public schools.

          1. Don Shor

            Yes, I think they’re going to have to replace the option of private testing with some kind of testing conducted by the coordinator, and it will probably be more cumbersome. Added cost to the district, plus the awkward issue of how they will decide which students are allowed to take a second test.

  6. Anon

    ryankelly: “I believe that the Board members have considered all of the information and testimony given before they took action.

    Then why fire Deanne Quinn BEFORE there was an opportunity for the public to voice concerns about changes to the AIM program?  Why not hear the public’s concerns, then make the changes, including letting Quinn go?  By firing Quinn BEFORE any public input on changes to the AIM program, it has all the APPEARANCE the School Board has already decided to make certain changes to the AIM program regardless of what the public thinks.  Was it legal?  Probably.  Was it smart?  I don’t think so.  When it comes time to ask for the renewal/increase of school parcel taxes, the DJUSD may find the community is not as supportive as it once was.

    1. hpierce

      To paraphrase, “Then why fire Rob White BEFORE there was an opportunity for the public to voice concerns about changes to the Economic Development program?  Why not hear the public’s concerns, then make the changes, including letting  White go?  By firing White BEFORE any public input on changes to the Ecomomic Development program, it has all the APPEARANCE the City Council/City Manager has already decided to make certain changes to the Economic Development program regardless of what the public thinks.  Was it legal?  Probably.  Was it smart?  I don’t think so.  When it comes time to ask for the renewal/increase of City parcel taxes, and/or UUT, the City Council/City Manager may find the community is not as supportive as it once was.

      For myself, I have no inherent problem with either ‘personnel’ decision.  Program decisions, I’m waiting to see specific proposals.

      1. Anon

        I am not understanding your point, in diverting the discussion to a totally unrelated topic.  Additionally I have been quite clear that I personally did not agree with letting go former CIO Rob White, altho I do not agree that citizens will necessarily see a nexus between Rob White and the UUT.

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