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.