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.