It was interesting going back over all five of the school board members’ comments from last week’s school board meeting on GATE/AIM. Given the late hour and the length of the meeting, there was a lot of texture to the comments that was missed the first time.
I think that Alan Fernandes was right when he said, “We mostly talked about our vision and our ideals, but I haven’t heard a lot of (specifics),” and in this case the devil really is in the details.
In my view, the question remains, can we get to a place where all five board members feel comfortable supporting a reform proposal? A lot of people seem confused by my stance here, arguing that we make 4-1 and 3-2 decisions all the time, so there is no reason why we have to go 5-0 here.
My consideration is practical. To get to a 5-0 vote requires there to be compromise where both sides get something that they want while conceding things they would rather not concede. For me, and really every school board member I have spoken to — and I believe I have met with four of the five on this issue specifically — while this is a divisive issue, and an important issue, it is not the most important issue. For me the achievement gap and early childhood education are far more important.
So, can we get to a place where we can fix the things that most people agree have been wrong with the program, while at the same time keeping in place the aspects of the program that most can agree on? If we can, this issue may not completely go away, but it will allow us to move on to address the other more important issues.
Of the board members, it seemed like Alan Fernandes was most actively thinking in terms of ways he might be able to craft some form of compromise. He argued in his comments that this change is not “earth shattering,” instead saying, “We’re still going to do what we do here. What we do here is really serve not only the most unique and gifted and talented and high achieving students, but we endeavor to serve everyone.”
His compromise is to “phase things in” for the purpose of collecting data.
I am not sure I really agree with Alan Fernandes here. While we may not be moving mountains, putting in place changes that may well cut in half a program that a segment of the community deeply values seems rather drastic. Adding to that concern is the lack of research or data to justify the change.
I will admit, I was a little taken aback by the lack of a data-driven process. When Board Vice President Madhavi Sunder said, “It looks as though this proposal seriously limits access to the self-contained program,” she asked for the educational or other rationale for raising the cutoff score to 98.
Superintendent Roberson responded that they didn’t know the rationale for the 96th percentile score either. His report acknowledges that the scores in other districts range from 90 to 99 across communities. He reiterated that this was based on a number of conversations. He even acknowledged, “We are not married to that number.”
Whenever I have pushed on the issue of the lack of educational justification raising the cut-off to 98, the pushback is there was no rationale for the 96th percentile cutoff to begin with.
I get it. Basically the district at some point in time in the distant past threw a dart onto the board that landed at the 96th percentile. There was no justification that we can discern for that cut off. Other districts have different cut offs.
However, we have been hanging an important educational program from that dart for years now. And so we can move the dart around with again no justification but we are moving that entire education program with it. And we are thus uprooting or potentially uprooting a lot for no reason that I have heard articulated in any clear or conclusive way.
Now I do understand that the AIM committee itself had long discussed the possibility of raising the cutoff. That decision apparently grew more urgent when the lottery was put into place.
That made sense. I think Alan Fernandes nailed it on Thursday with regards to the unfairness of the lottery.
Superintendent Roberson stated that he hoped they will not need it, but they are not going to eliminate it. If there is more demand for the program and more students qualify for it than there is capacity in the program, the lottery would be used to match the demand for seats with the available supply of seats.
Alan Fernandes said, “The existence of the lottery in my view seems to suggest that for those are unsuccessful in the lottery, we’re not meeting a need.” He said this “suggests that there are some people whose needs are not being met.”
Superintendent Roberson tried to sidestep it, saying that “it means we don’t have enough seats.”
But Mr. Fernandes pushed the point, “For people who want to be in the program… For those who are unsuccessful in the lottery aren’t able to be in those classrooms that we believe are best suited for them.”
Mr. Roberson continued, “Having the lottery shows me there’s more demand for the program than we have seats.” And he acknowledged that it was, in Mr. Fernandes’ words, “a laudable goal to no longer have a lottery.”
The problem with the lottery is that there are kids who we believe might benefit from the AIM program, but who are unable to realize that benefit due to size constraints. I have come to believe the same about raising the qualification limit to another arbitrary point. The fact that this is a supply problem, not a demand problem, suggests that the solution should be a real increase in supply rather than a contrived decrease in demand.
I have heard, at least from some, that they might be willing to consider raising the limit, if it can be done in a way that is inclusive and diverse. Some have suggested that a way to forge that compromise would be to bring back Deanne Quinn, who would be able to ensure that the new smaller program remained diverse.
I was also a little surprised when I went back through the comments, at the moderate stance that Tom Adams took. He said, “What I really was concerned about with the proposal is going up to 98 – for the simple reason that as one of our commentators said, there’s this issue of equity if the previous year it was 96.”
Is there a place for compromise? I’m not sure. What I heard from Susan Lovenburg was some well thought out philosophy, but not enough specifics on how to get to that well-articulated philosophy.
I think that Barbara Archer acknowledges that we have a community divided on this, but I don’t have a good sense as to whether she would go for an interim step this year.
Archer raised an interesting point in her comments that the board passed a motion in June that “the focus of the assessment would be to identify students whose needs cannot be met in classrooms which fully implement best practices of differentiated instruction.”
The problem is, as someone else pointed out, that the motion actually addresses the wrong issue. I believe we need to identify students, not whose needs “cannot be met” in the mainstream classroom, but rather whose needs are better met in a self-contained classroom.
I think we have gotten too wrapped up on size and should deal not in philosophy, but rather need.
So here is what I would suggest as a year one landing spot that might be able to gain the support of a 5-0 vote.
First, keep the assessment level at the 96th percentile.
Second, eliminate, as we already have, private testing, but allow transfers and students who miss the OLSAT in third grade to take a make up exam of some appropriate sort.
Third, implement the HOPE scale pilot program concurrent with a re-deploying on the unconscious bias training (which I was told was a one-time training five or six years ago and which we should be doing anyway).
Fourth, implement the new second stage retesting for those with risk factors and those who scored within the margin of error.
Concurrently, we need to get really good statistics on (A) the number of students in the self-contained program, (B) the number of students who opted out of the self-contained program, and (C) the ethnic and racial and socio-economic status breakdowns of the program as compared to the student body at large.
And then come back after this has been in place for a year – so that would be after the 2016-17 school year – to reassess where we are and whether we need to ramp up the qualification profile.
In the meantime, the district should focus on what everyone seems to agree it needs to do – figure out how to implement the best practices of differentiated instruction.
—David M. Greenwald reporting