Guest Commentary: Self-Contained GATE Is Needed


By Don Shor

The Davis school board is about to consider significant changes to the gifted education program. They have eliminated private testing. They may change the types and qualifying levels of the tests used to identify gifted students. And they may change from a self-contained program to a program of differentiated instruction where clusters of gifted students are taught in regular classes. Teachers will likely require special training in differentiated instruction.

In the 1990’s I had two children in Davis schools. They were at Valley Oak Elementary, a wonderful school with outstanding programs. The district made an egregious mistake in closing Valley Oak.  I fear they are on the verge of another serious mistake as they seek to modify AIM/GATE. They need to move with great care to avoid harming the students who benefit from self-contained GATE.

One of my kids was not tested for GATE, as it would have been unnecessary and inappropriate. Regular classes were great, progress reports were outstanding, and no special services were required. The other kid hit a wall in fourth grade. Very bored in class, with poor progress reports. Tested for GATE, but barely missed the cutoff. This child was identified by a counselor (thank you, Barbara Sells!) as having a specific learning disability which qualified for Special Ed. That prompted retesting (by the school) for GATE, and the child was admitted. At the time, one of only two students in the district in both Special Ed and GATE.

I have always considered Special Ed and GATE comparable in their importance to that child’s learning: for the extra resources, the more challenging curriculum, the teacher attuned to the different learning style. We all sailed through fifth and sixth grades with great results.

The kid hit another wall in seventh grade at Emerson, where GATE was “differentiated.” That was when it became clear that self-contained classes were key. Ultimately we requested a change in placement. This child did grades 8 through 12 at DSIS and graduated with great grades and a great attitude. I have little doubt that regular school, “differentiated” or otherwise, would have been a disaster.

Why am I so concerned about what the district does, with my kids grown and gone from Davis schools? Because I was one of those kids, too. And I know how seminar classes worked for me as a student, and what we went through as parents. It’s frustrating to be told that we are elitist, or harming the district, when we as parents see our child struggling and are doing what we believe all parents should do: seeking the best placement for our child so he or she can flourish and excel.

I don’t know what percentage of students are like me or my child. I just know that some kids simply will not perform well in classrooms of mixed abilities and learning styles, particularly in the elementary grades. 3%? 6%? 12%? Those opposed to self-contained GATE invariably minimize this number. To me, these are the most important students. Very, very good teachers (and we had some) can adapt their teaching to these kids in a differentiated classroom. Most, though, facing a room of kids with special ed and ESL and behavioral and emotional issues, and more, will focus on those. The gifted learners and the regular students get short shrift.

Much of the debate seems to be about how we identify students for the gifted program. I look forward to the administration’s report about a combination of tests and assessments for that purpose. I suggest that the system used in Irvine be considered, as it incorporates testing with team assessment based on a variety of factors. It is likely, though, that would require more administrative resources be devoted to GATE.

Whatever they choose, I am concerned that the focus has been on “the numbers.” What is the cutoff? How many ‘should’ be in GATE? Are we identifying “too many?”

  • The numbers don’t matter. As I’ve shown elsewhere, school districts that contain UC campuses often have a high percentage of their students qualify as gifted, significantly higher than the state average.
  • Irvine: “As a district, our GATE-identification criteria is one of the most stringent in the state, and yet we annually identify approximately 25 percent of our students as gifted.”
  • Goleta: 30%.
  • The two elementary schools closest to UC San Diego (in SDUSD they use “seminar” for those who test at 99% and “cluster” for those who test at 98%, apparently using the RAVEN test):
  • La Jolla Elementary School: 51.1% gifted-identified, 12.8% in seminar.
  • Curie School (University City): 54.1% gifted-identified, 5.9% in seminar.
  • Berkeley Unified School District “… more than one third of sixth graders who took the state tests in the spring (2007) were identified as gifted and talented.”

Many, perhaps most, of those students succeed in differentiated classrooms, grouped in clusters with teachers who have been trained to work with them. Some are best served in self-contained classrooms. It is the latter group that concerns me. If you just make changes with the goal of reducing the numbers overall, you’re probably going to harm the students who need GATE most.

These two quotes from Wikipedia get at the heart of this discussion: “Researchers and practitioners in gifted education contend that, if education were to follow the medical maxim of ‘first, do no harm,’ then no further justification would be required for providing resources for gifted education as they believe gifted children to be at-risk. The notion that gifted children are ‘at-risk’ was publicly declared in the Marland Report in 1972: Gifted and Talented children are, in fact, deprived and can suffer psychological damage and permanent impairment of their abilities to function well which is equal to or greater than the similar deprivation suffered by any other population with special needs served by the Office of Education. Three decades later, a similar statement was made by researchers in the field: National efforts to increase the availability of a variety of appropriate instructional and out-of-school provisions must be a high priority since research indicates that many of the emotional or social difficulties gifted students experience disappear when their educational climates are adapted to their level and pace of learning.”

Opponents of GATE continue to portray this as a “fairness” issue, repeatedly invoking concerns about equitable use of resources and implying that this is special treatment. Appropriate placement is not a matter of fairness or equity. The goal is to find the best learning environment for each child and make the best use of resources to provide that. If there are other groups of children who would benefit from special programs, then let those programs be identified and funded. And if standards of “fairness” and “equity” are to be applied to GATE, then it would seem they should be applied to all of the special programs in the district. For some reason GATE is singled out for approbation.

I urge the board to consider the programs in San Diego. Note that, as in the schools near UCSD, a high percentage of students here may be gifted-identified, and a relatively high percentage may be appropriate for self-contained classes (called seminar in SDUSD). If the Davis district wishes to implement differentiated instruction going forward, they should consider some pilot programs at elementary schools. See how the parents, teachers, and students respond, report back in a couple of years, and expand the differentiated option gradually. The previous experience with differentiated instruction at North Davis Elementary suggests that it would be popular.

Meanwhile, self-contained GATE will be necessary and probably in smaller classes as the cluster programs expand. This would require extra resources for a GATE coordinator or team, extra training for teachers, and a higher teacher-student ratio for the self-contained classes. In other words, this would require more resources and more funding, not less.

If you have a testing system that identifies students who are highly intelligent and who are not performing well in a classroom of mixed abilities, and you have evidence that self-contained classes will be a more appropriate placement for those children, then I believe that you have an obligation to provide that placement.

In that regard, GATE is comparable to Special Ed in principle. In practice, Special Ed is mandated. But giftedness is no different in that it is an innate characteristic that leads to better outcomes when it is identified and when teaching is altered to improve outcomes.

The board hasn’t yet made the case for the changes it seeks. Their actions to date have caused unease because their guiding principles and their commitment to gifted learning have not been clearly enunciated.  If the district’s commitment is to the best placement and the best outcomes for the students, they will proceed carefully on this issue. If they just seek to shrink the numbers, they will harm those who need the program.

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  1. sos

    “Most, though, facing a room of kids with special ed and ESL and behavioral and emotional issues, and more, will focus on those. The gifted learners and the regular students get short shrift.”

    …and now we are at the crux of the current AIM program. Your comment above is absolutely true, and it is an increasing problem. It is also why our AIM program is so large. Our current program is not a program of students who cannot learn in the regular classroom, but a program of students whose parents want a classroom  with less of the “issues”. You can’t really blame them, but it is obviously problematic; how do you decide who gets in? So we end up with student A being admitted because his parents are divorced, and student B doesn’t because his parents are not. I suggest the answer is develop an AIM program specifically for students who truly cannot learn in the regular classroom, and turn our efforts to dealing with the issues that are driving our current version of AIM…lack of differentiation and lack of teacher time.

    1. Don Shor

      I’ve pulled part of your comment from another thread here because it pertains to this comment:

      I have consistently advocated for a program for students who cannot learn in the regular program. This may include autism spectrum students including students with Aspergers, Tourette’s, processing issues, and social and/or sensory anxieties. I would support any program for these students, with a clear, consistent, and reasonable policy for identifying them. This is not what we have.

      Those sound like special ed issues to me, not GATE issues. If those were your strict criteria for a self-contained GATE class, it would reduce the self-contained classes to a very small number. In my opinion, it would also seriously harm many students who need self-contained GATE.

      You can’t really blame them, but it is obviously problematic; how do you decide who gets in?

      If a student tests high for intelligence but performs poorly, that student is a good candidate for consideration for a self-contained program. My guess is it would be 5 to 12% of the student body or so, and that the best way to assess and place such kids would be through a team assessment that considers multiple factors.

  2. ryankelly

    Don, Emerson did not have a GATE program.  It had honors classes for higher achievers.  GATE identified students were placed in these classes regardless of whether they were high achieving or not.  In many cases this was inappropriate and many of these kids ended up at DSIS and did well in that environment without the homework avalanche and busy work of a high achiever class.  This is the problem with assuming GATE students are high achievers and high achievers are equal to GATE.

    1. Don Shor

      Don, Emerson did not have a GATE program. It had honors classes for higher achievers.

      Well, again, they emphatically called it a GATE program, and still do (AIM now, of course). So if that is the district’s version of differentiation, it isn’t likely to work for kids who needed self-contained GATE in elementary school. I haven’t seen proposals for changing that.

      1. Frankly

        I appreciate this piece in the VG, but your entire position is based on this evidence that differentiation will not work and would not work for your kid.  But they it was only a label given by the Emerson staff.  It was clearly not adequate in practice.

        I think you cannot make the absolute claim that these special ed students cannot be adequately engaged and educated in an adequately differentiated classroom model.

        1. Don Shor

          Since the district has not provided an ‘adequately differentiated’ model, and seems to think they have done so, what evidence do you propose I examine?

      2. ryankelly

        I’m going to assume that you were told that advanced English and Social Studies classes at Emerson was a GATE program by Pam Mari, who clearly didn’t understand GATE students and their needs.

        1. Don Shor

          No, it was not Pam. I’ve been trying to remember the name of the long-time administrator. We were inter district transfers, so our files were all handled through the main office. This is a little embarrassing because I interacted with her a fair bit when I was on a curriculum committee. Woman with an Italian sounding last name. Now I’m damaging brain cells trying to think of it. But it was also discussed in detail in the context of IEP meetings regarding placement at the end of 6th Grade.
          The Davis school district believes that they have a GATE program at Emerson. They believed it then, and they firmly believe it now, they say it on their website, they said it in private meetings as we discussed what would be the best placement as our child moved from self-contained GATE at Valley Oak to junior high school. You have made a good point that it isn’t effective for the high test/low achievement students. I can certainly confirm that. None of this gives me any confidence that the district will do a good job providing differentiated instruction to all gifted-identified students.

        2. ryankelly

          There is a big change at Jr. High. Differentiation takes the form of different levels of classes in different subjects.  It is more visible in Math, but 10-20 years ago there were at least 3 levels from remedial to honors level courses. The Jr. Highs had 1000-1200 students, so this was possible. The idea was a student could take accelerated Math, honors English, but regular science, for example.  Or grade level English and social studies, but honors Science and accerated Math.  With the smaller Jr. Highs and the expansion and popularity of GATE as the program for high-achieving students, these different levels and choice have disappeared.  Students have to be all-in with either AIM or grade level programs.  This is the only differentiation at Jr. High currently.

          If GATE education was offered into Jr. High, it would look much different and might be more appropriate for highly intelligent, but not neccesarily high achieving.  High achieving students would be better served in restored honors programs and not have these students force GATE students out of the program intended for them.

  3. Doby Fleeman


    First off, I don’t claim to be either an educator or well-versed in the art or science of educating today’s young people.

    In my view, the fairness issue that you describe only comes into play when one elects to separate the teaching paradigm, teaching content, and, most importantly, expectation of individual student performance and achievement.

    When two programs become distinctly different, it seems there is an obligation of the district to monitor and separately report on “program efficacy” for each program and how well our subpopulations of learners are performing when compared (comparable schools to comparable schools) on statewide achievement standards.

    From an academic achievement standpoint, the Davis GATE program has achieved admirable academic achievement results (when measured by API and SAT results).  There is little debate, I believe, on this point.

    On the other hand, when we look at performance on a schoolwide basis, do we know how well our Davis schools are performing – academically – when compared to other, comparable districts and schools across state-recognized subpopulations of young learners?

    From what I understand, there are any number of models and version at work across the many districts within the state.  And, in many cases, other similar schools in other districts are outperforming Davis by significant margins as measured by API results – particularly for some of the more “at risk” subpopulations.

    If this should be the case, how would you feel about the District taking a closer look at the programs in some of these other high performing districts (API equal or exceeding Davis)?   Would you consider it a possibility that the District might learn a thing or two in the process – thereby either confirming our existing model or discovering new alternatives that might be a fit for Davis?

    1. Don Shor

      how would you feel about the District taking a closer look at the programs in some of these other high performing districts (API equal or exceeding Davis)?

      In my opinion as a non-statistician, the further out you go (school-wide to district-wide), the less meaningful the numbers would be. But looking at programs in districts that are similar to Davis could be useful, as I have done in looking at percentages of gifted-identified and how the testing is implemented.
      Here are three examples of the range of API scores (3-year averages) of elementary schools:
      Davis: 835 (MME) to 935 (Willett)
      Irvine: 861 to 977
      San Diego: 693 (Marshall) to 982 (La Jolla)

      1. Doby Fleeman

        Elementary is clearly important.  I’ll admit, however, I had been more focused on API results at the high school level given the community’s obvious interest in college level academic pursuits.

  4. Anon

    You can go round and round on the issue of what to do with “gifted” students, whatever “gifted” means.  There is not necessarily any one right way to educate students.  I have been an 8th grade public school math and science teacher as well as a junior college math instructor, and a parent of 3 children going through the Davis school system.  One of my children was bored in elementary school.  She attempted to get into GATE and didn’t make it, and was made to feel like a failure – but she got over it.  She is currently attending medical school.  Another of my children had severe dyslexia, and was dumped in classes that included discipline problems in Davis High School, which was a never-ending nightmare for him (and me).  He did not get the help he needed for his dyslexia until he attended Sac City College.  He graduated from UCD with a Math degree.  My other child did very well in public school and graduated from UCD in Physiology.

    1.  I strongly believe in ability grouping children in the core areas of English, Math, Social Studies and Science.  It is an immense help to teachers in managing students who learn at different paces or in different ways; it is of great assistance to students to be grouped with fellow classmates of similar abilities, so they don’t get bored or feel frustrated being left behind.

    2.  It is crucial to identify those students who may be bright but have learning disabilities that keep them from achieving their potential.  The bright students with learning disabilities should not be housed with the discipline problems, as it magnifies the problems of the bright learning disabled students.

    3.  Slower students need smaller class sizes and more individualized attention from teachers.  They often need specialized instruction, because they too may have learning disabilities as well as emotional hurdles or home problems that keep them from learning.

    4.  Some very bright students do well with unstructured and more independent work, whereas other smart students need a very structured format and actually dislike too much freedom and flexibility.  In general, very few students are able to handle independent self-directed study, but there are the rare few who thrive on it.  Give these fertile minds an idea and they will run with it.

  5. Gunrocik

    I now understand why the guest author has had views so out of touch with reality.  His children were in Davis schools a long time ago.  As one who has experienced Davis schools over the last decade, I can tell you that he has no clue about the horrific experience for a true GATE student in the Davis schools of today.  I’ve had kids for over two decades in three other highly educated communities along with Davis.  While we’ve had some top quality teachers in Davis, we’ve also experienced the worst teachers I’ve experienced in two decades of child rearing and two decades prior to that of attending schools and working in classrooms.

    The teachers union runs this District, and won’t do anything about the worst teachers — and many of the worst teachers have managed to gain enough seniority to force their way into GATE classrooms — and destroy many a child’s love for learning.  By the way, some of these teachers are the ones most vociferous in supporting the status quo.  Kudos to the retired teachers who have wrote the Enterprise and the Vanguard and pointed out the failures of the program.

    And the numbers back up my contention that this District is failing its students.  I provided the following data last fall in a post:

    I’m not the biggest proponent of test scores, but when it comes to our schools, they help tell the story better than I can.

    Take a look at our school’s “Similar Schools Rankings” on this chart:,YOLO

    This score is far more telling than our base API score.  When your schools have upward of 70% of parents with a graduate education (which you can see if you click on the demographic characteristics of each school)–we better have test scores well above average.

    But take a close look at our “Similar Schools Rankings.”  This is how we rank against schools with similar demographic characteristics.

    Note that 4 out of our 8 elementary schools are  a “1” out of “10”!  We also two 3’s, a 5, and Montgomery leads the way with a six.

    Our middle schools get a 1,2 and 3 out of 10 and Davis High and DaVinci both score a whopping 2 out of 10.

    Numbers aren’t everything, but they sure mirror my family’s experience in Davis Public Schools.

    1. Don Shor

      Yes, you posted those “similar schools rankings” last fall. And here was my reply then.

      I’d be willing to bet almost nobody could explain the “similar schools” ranking and how it pertains to the quality of the instruction at the school. Looking more closely at the link, using Korematsu Elementary as an example.

      Statewide rank: 9 (out of 10). So it’s a good school, right?
      Similar schools rank 2012: 1. So, it’s not a good school? Why?
      API: 896 (STAR etc.)

      How did the other schools in the 100 ‘similar schools’ do? How did Korematsu differ from a school with API in the 900s?

      Korematsu has 46 students with disabilities who scored substantially lower than their peers (675). That is a larger cohort of students with disabilities than I found in the schools with higher API scores.

      The socioeconomically disadvantaged and Latino students at Korematsu also scored substantially lower. The others all scored in the 850+ range. Asian students scored well above 900. (link:,YOLO)

      Scroll around and click on some of the other schools in the comparison group. This rating is essentially a measure of the impact relatively larger numbers of certain types of students have on overall STAR test results. Not much more than that.

      So when you say “I’m not the biggest proponent of test scores, but when it comes to our schools, they help tell the story better than I can…” I would reply that they don’t tell the story at all.

      I’m sorry your experience was horrific. I’m sure there are plenty of parents with kids currently in self-contained GATE who do not share your views on that. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why they’d be fighting so hard to keep the status quo.

      1. Gunrocik

        I don’t believe the author’s outdated experience and small sample size should be given much weight in the debate on GATE/AIM.

        The current GATE/AIM program is a disaster and has contributed to the mediocre performance of how our best and brightest rank within their peer group.

        If you have a child who is one of the 4-5% of the students who actually need a GATE education and not enrollment in a high achiever program–I can assure you that 100% of those parents are as disappointed in Davis schools as I am.  I know that because I’ve gotten to know those parents over the years–and many of us have given up on enrolling our children in this District.

        If the author spent one day in the classroom at Holmes, Willett or North Davis, they would come out with a much different perspective.  As noted by many on this blog and by many professional, caring educators, the program has spun completely out of control and is a detriment to the District’s children.

        1. Don Shor

          I believe the district should survey past and present GATE students and parents, and interview teachers as well, and they need to do this in a systematic manner. I don’t think your assessment is any more or less valid than mine. But you are articulating that there is frustration and dissatisfaction with the current program.

          In 2005 the district hired consultants to study the assessment tests and practices and make recommendations (GATE Identification Procedures David Jelinek, Ph.D. Principal Investigator College of Education California State University, Sacramento April 21 2005). After a number of specific recommendations about tests and implementation, they make these comments about differentiation:

          The evaluation committee’s interview results suggest that parents see little evidence of differentiated instruction occurring, while teachers cite varying examples of differentiation strategies; but it is apparent that this is more than a communication gap. A concerted effort to address differentiation for gifted students in regular classrooms appears to be a strong need.

          Teachers also expressed a need for more time to collaborate, observe, practice and debrief differentiation strategies. A strength in this regard is the district’s launch of a three-year professional development program focusing on differentiated instruction. To echo the evaluation committee’s recommendations to the board, this is a commendable effort. Its strength or weakness; however, depends upon program delivery and teacher participation. As the administration readily admits, old paradigms of professional development (talking heads) don’t work. The teacher interviews also bear this out – they want to collaborate, practice and debrief.

          So, did the district do anything about this? Parents dissatisfied, teachers participating?

          1. David Greenwald

            I have spent a lot of time talking to people on all sides of this issue – there is more than just two. There are those who think the program works, those who generally like it but want to modify it, those in the middle, and those who believe in the need for change. I see a lot of room for compromise but little agreement on even the most basic facts.

        2. MrsW

          I have spent a lot of time talking to people on all sides of this issue – there is more than just two. ….. I see …. little agreement on even the most basic facts.

          This is a true statement.

          Contributing to the lack of agreement on facts is that folks have been asking the District for “tomatoes” for years, but keep being given “tomahtos.”

          Would it be possible for a District administrator to tell us, what they can share with us that is actually relevant to the conversation?  And could we start from there?

          Because if the answer is that they can’t share anything actually helpful, that would be good to know, too.


  6. Robin W.

    Thank you for this piece, Don. I hope you submitted it to The Enterprise for publication as an OpEd and that you sent copies to the School Board members and district administrators.

  7. iWitness

    Gunrocik, I have a current junior high schooler who went through the Willett  and Holmes programs.  My older children in GATE in the past, all  tested very high, so even by your 5% numbers, inappropriate as they are for Davis, they were kids who needed the GATE experience to deal with their ability and they got it.  I got to know some of the Davis GATE/AIM teachers, and some former teachers who opposed self-contained classrooms and the second group were just uninformed on the principles and research.  They just never got it. I wish some of these former teachers who are against AIM who were credentialed GATE teachers with GATE experience would write in, because I haven’t met any.  A couple had gone to CAG conferences but a weekend conference doesn’t make the impact that a credential program does.  Even GATE teachers who have gone back into the non-sc classrooms still support the sc classrooms.  The advantages shown in many huge meta-studies of sc classrooms were not part of the education of any non-GATE faculty I have met.   I have experience with family members in several parts of the country also in sc programs and their parents are convinced that sc programs are the best way to educate high ability students.    Since I never was in a district big enough to be in a sc program myself, I knew what we had here the moment I saw it, from personal experience of the lack of it.  You can’t pull the out-of-date lever on such a thoughtful account as the one above.  I’m grateful I didn’t have to make it up as I went along to serve my now enrolled child (the opposite of my experience in school was enough of a guide).


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