Commentary: Can We Bridge the AIM Divide?


One of the reasons the Vanguard spent three articles in an attempt to unpack the AIM meeting is because, if you simply look at the end results – the motions that were passed and the votes – you essentially will have missed what happened at the meeting.

As one of our readers put it, reading the Enterprise coverage – “was this the same meeting?  The article seems to be a different take.”

As I have put it, there is a wide distance between what was said at the meeting by Superintendent Bowes and four of the school board members, and what was actually voted on.

In fact, when I read the three recommendations from the superintendent that were passed by a 4-1 vote with Madhavi Sunder dissenting, I have no idea what any of them mean in terms of policy.  First you have, “Explore alternatives for identifying talents and gifts from a wider range of domains beyond language arts and mathematics.”

Second, you have, “Work to ensure that current staff includes a GATE certified teacher at each elementary school and will try to augment that number in each successive school year.”

Third, “Reaffirm, through this agenda item, our commitment to formative assessments and student goal-setting.”

Not one of these really addresses the issues that the superintendent raised.  Perhaps the clearest statement was, “The clear, consensus opinion is that our current model separating some AIM-identified students in self-contained classrooms does not best serve the students of this District.”

I have no idea who the superintendent talked to during his 100-persons discussion – I will say I was apparently one of the 100 persons, and I know I didn’t convey anything close to that as one of my concerns as a parent and observer – but I can say this about every public meeting I have seen, there is no clear consensus about that.  That is the most divisive point in this community on this issue.

Dr. Bowes added, “The current testing doesn’t yield a diverse demographic for the program, and they don’t know why (‘It is unknown whether these results were caused through a flawed assessment instrument, misperception about the purpose of the exam, implicit bias or other factors.’).”

This is a crucial point that I will unpack more in discussion in a future column.  Here I will make two points – the district shifted to use the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test as the re-testing measure for at risk kids, despite the fact that there is really no evidence that it would work.  New York, for example, as captured in a New York Times article (Madhavi Sunder tried to raise this point and Barbara Archer shot her down, saying we’re not talking about the New York Times here), tried to use the Naglieri but found quickly it didn’t identify more children of color for their gifted program.

In short, as we pointed out at the time of implementation, the Naglieri was the wrong measure and therefore we should not be surprised it has failed here.

On the other hand, the HOPE Scale has been shown to work and the fact that it hasn’t yet is probably due to lack of patience and poor administration.

Strikingly, however, the superintendent’s recommendations really do not go to any of these concerns.

Moreover, the board actions on this, as they have in the past, look a lot more consensus driven than reflecting the actual rhetoric coming from the board members.  Put simply, the distance between the comments of board members is far broader than the 5-0 and two 4-1 votes reflect.

Bob Poppenga: “While I respect others’ opinions to the contrary, I don’t believe that we, as a governance team or District, have done a good job of communicating about, managing, or implementing the AIM program over the last several years.

“For many Davis parents, this has led to a level of concern, frustration, and mistrust that could perhaps have been avoided or mitigated.  It is important to try to address their concerns,” he said.

Tom Adams noted that there are a number of special programs, but this program is different.

He said: “But what to me is interesting about those programs is you don’t need a test to get in.  And you don’t need an identification and a specific label to access them.

“We should not really say to students the only real opportunity to get a challenging curriculum is how well you perform  on a certain battery of tests at a certain grade level in your academic career,” he said.

“We have to make sure that whatever educational plan we have, actually advances the social and emotional needs of our students,” he said.  “Here we have to be careful about labels.  Labeling, about the continuous use of them.  We know those are not healthy… especially at third grade.  Maybe later in life you can shrug them off.”

He added, “The reality is that once you start separating students that way, you’re not creating a healthy environment.”

Barbara Archer said, “The reason we are so stuck on this issue is that we have focused so much on identification and not enough on delivery of the program.”

Why are we focusing so much on this program?  Barbara Archer pointed out this is our eighth meeting in three years on AIM.  She said, “I am concerned about the resources – it takes up a lot of staff time.”

Madhavi Sunder expressed concern that some of these proposed changes represented a move away from the self-contained AIM model.  “This is the very first time John, that I’m seeing these recommendations from you and we had hours and hours of one-on-one meetings about AIM before this,” she said.  “I cannot make a decision to change a program that we’ve had for decades.  We’ve already cut that program down to one-half the size in a year and a half.”

She said, “To go to a quarter of the size without …  The parents here I think have been incredibly reasonable…  But trust is the most important thing at stake here tonight.  It’s the most important thing that has been at stake throughout these conversations.  We move at the speed of trust.  Rushing into something that’s not based on study or research, that’s based on just take my word, we have lost that trust.  Nobody will take our word at this point.”

It appears that Tom Adams wants to end this program, based on his comments, and it seems that Barbara Archer wants to do the same.

What has changed is that Tom Adams and Barbara Archer no longer have a third vote (previously Susan Lovenburg) and, instead, the swing voter is Alan Fernandes, who stated that “this about how do we deliver the best possible education for all of our children – AIM children and non-AIM children.”

The question going forward is where is the middle ground and how do we make this thing workable?

The rhetoric on Thursday perhaps shows that, really, the center does not hold on this issue, which is understandable.

The one motion that was passed that might help to change this is the motion by Alan Fernandes and Madhavi Sunder, where they direct staff “to use appropriate assessments for students who are English learners, low income, learning disabled, or from historically disadvantaged minorities and other underrepresented groups, for the purpose of ensuring the identification for these at risk student groups to ensure equal access to the AIM program each school year.”

This at least gets to the core of the broader programmatic problem.  The question now is whether the superintendent is vested enough in this program to find a solution and, given his presentation, reasonable people can have their doubts.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    I fully admit to my bias for promoting equity over aid to those who are already privileged. I have already admitted to my complicity in a previous post. Having said that:

    It seems to me that there is too much focus on preservation or destruction of a particular program, and too little focus on quality challenging education for all students. From what little knowledge I have to date, virtually all gained from following the conversation on the Vanguard, I would favor a gradual transition from a separated Gate program to a program of differentiated instruction in every class room. I realize that separated Gate has a devoted following, but perhaps it is time to recognize that it did, overtime, morph from its original form, and perhaps is not really the best way to address the broader needs of the entire student community.

  2. Don Shor

    My guess is that the next election cycle will end these ongoing attempts to scuttle self-contained GATE. But in yesterday’s discussion I posted a link to an article about other selection criteria and program approaches. Here’s the link:

    For those who don’t wish to wade through 15+ pages of polysyllabic edujargon, here’s my summary of the topic sentences.

    A Multi Criteria System for the Identification of High Achieving and Creative/Productive Giftedness

    Joseph S. Renzulli, University of Connecticut

    Amy H. Gaesser, Purdue University

    Consideration 1: There is No Such Thing as a Perfect Identification System!

    Consideration 2: The Objective vs. Subjective Trade-Off. The most frequently used type of identification information is tests of cognitive ability and/or academic achievement. These types of tests are considered objective …. Almost all other criteria (e.g., teacher, parent, peer, or self ratings, portfolio or writing sample assessments, or grades earned in school subjects) are considered to be subjective …. we need to examine the degree to which we are willing to make trade-offs between objective and subjective information.

    Consideration 3: People—Not Instruments—Make Decisions. … team members …may need different levels of orientation and training to become well-informed evaluators. Protocols for resolving differences of opinion that will invariably emerge can be structured in advance…. How much “weight” will be given to the various instruments or decision-making criteria should also be determined before implementing the identification system.

    Consideration 4: Avoid The Multiple Criteria Smokescreen. Most identification systems utilize a traditional nomination/screening/selection approach, and at least part of any multiple criteria screening process is usually based on non-test information (e.g., teacher nominations and/or ratings). … we may be systematically excluding high potential students from culturally diverse backgrounds or students who have shown signs of high potential in other than the high verbal, mathematical, or analytic skills measured by standardized tests. …

    Consideration 5: What Will We Call Selected Students? …In recent years, an approach that has gained in popularity is to label the service rather than the student ….

    Consideration 6: The Relationship between Identification and Programming. … a related decision in developing an identification system is the selection of a pedagogical programming model that will be used to guide direct and indirect services to students regardless of how they are grouped or organized for special program services. …. Organizational or administrative models address how we group students and move them from one activity to another (e.g., full-time classes, pull out programs, centers where students go for a given period of time each week, regular class inclusion approaches, to mention only a few).

    The Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness

    … The name derives from the conceptual framework of the theory – namely, these three interacting clusters of traits 1) Above Average but not necessarily superior ability as measured by cognitive ability and achievement tests, 2) Task Commitment, and 3) Creativity, and their relationship with general and specific areas of human performance.

    … it is the interaction among these clusters of traits brought to bear upon a particular problem situation and/or performance area that creates the conditions for the creative productive process to begin. …

    Above Average Ability … student’s performance within the parameters of this ring is minimally variable, as it is linked most closely with traditional cognitive/intellectual traits. …

    Task Commitment represents a non-intellective cluster of traits found consistently in creative productive individuals … ability to immerse themselves fully in a problem or area for an extended period of time and to persevere even in the face of obstacles that may inhibit others.

    Creativity … curiosity, originality, ingenuity, and a willingness to challenge convention and tradition.

    A frequently raised question is: Must Creativity and Task Commitment be present in order for a person to be considered “gifted?” In the study of human abilities, traditionally measured achievement tends to remain constant over time (indeed, this is the reason for the high reliability of cognitive ability and achievement tests). Task Commitment and Creativity, on the other hand, are not always present or absent; rather, they come and go within certain contexts and circumstances

    Giftedness is not viewed as an absolute or fixed state of being (i.e., “…you have it or you don’t have it”). Rather, it is viewed as a developmental set of behaviors that can be applied to problem solving situations. Varying kinds and degrees of gifted behaviors can be developed and displayed in certain people, at certain times, and under certain circumstances. In a certain sense, we might view the most important role of teachers is to provide young people with the opportunities, resources, and encouragement to generate creative ideas and the skills necessary to follow through on their ideas. …

    The RIS/GPS incorporates these important factors. It recognizes students with undiscovered potential and provides opportunities to develop their talents through an integrated continuum of special services, allowing for the identification of students who would benefit from services that recognize both academic and creative-productive giftedness.

    A key feature within this identification system is the formation of a Talent Pool that includes students who have been identified by both test and non-test criteria. The system includes students who earn high scores on traditional measures, but also leaves room for students who show their potentials in other ways or those who have high academic potential but underachieve in school.

    In districts where this system has been implemented, students, parents, teachers, and administrators have expressed high degrees of satisfaction with this approach…

    Implementation: The Nuts and Bolts of the RIS/GPS

    … The diagram (Figure 2) below forms the basis for the step-by-step process to select students for services based on multiple sources. After following the steps in the RIS/GPS, identification team members can assemble a “Talent Pool” comprised of the students who have been identified through multiple ability/achievement scores, teacher ratings, parent ratings, peer ratings, and self-nominations.

    Decisions about Talent Pool Size

    Deciding on the size of the talent pool is a function of two major decisions. The first is the number of special program personnel assigned to the program and the number of students that these personnel can provide adequate services to each week in such a manner that it makes a difference in the accomplishment of program goals. The second decision is the nature and extent of an expanded range of services that will be made available to targeted students by classroom teachers …

     This second decision about an expanded range of services also has implications for special program administrative personnel. If we expect classroom teachers to participate in the services mentioned above, and if we hope to offer a robust range of extra-curricular activities geared toward talent development, it is essential to have a program coordinator that plans and “grows” such services, monitors the effectiveness of the services, maintains student records, and communicates talent development progress with parents. All teachers involved in the expanded range of services should believe they are an integral part of the program rather than a random provider of an extracurricular activity. …

     Steps in Forming the Talent Pool

     A team of school personnel including teacher(s) of the gifted, classroom teachers, administrators, and pupil personnel specialists (e.g., counselor, school psychologist, social worker) should be responsible for managing the Talent Pool selection process. … A multiple criteria approach means that simply setting arbitrary cut-off points or adding up points from various instruments cannot make decisions. …

     [You’ll need to read the article for more discussion of these]

    Step 1: Academic Performance and Test Score Nominations

    Step 2: Teacher Nominations

    Step 3: Alternate Pathways

    Step 4: Special Nominations (Safety Valve No. 1)

    Step 5: Notification and Orientation of Parents

    Step 6: Action Information Nominations (Safety Valve No. 2)

    Processing Identification Information: Keeping it Organized and Communication-Friendly

    Despite our initial admonitions against emphasizing administrative “tidiness” at the expense of multiple sources of data identifying young people’s talents, it is nonetheless important to keep all sources organized in a coherent manner that enhances communication among stakeholders. We recommend placing a summary sheet (Figure 3) at the very top of each student’s file.

    In closing we would again point out that simplistic single-score identification systems cannot provide us with the rich information necessary in making decisions on how to best provide services to develop children’s unique talents and gifts. Choosing to implement a multiple criteria identification system harnesses the best theoretical evidence about talent development across the lifespan. It also provides avenues for traditionally under-represented student populations to participate in special programming, thus enhancing social equity. …

  3. Tia Will


    First, thanks for posting the link. I suspect that you may be right about the effects of the next election. However, the broader question for me is not whether or not self contained Gate continues for the sake of those particular students and their parents, but do we succeed in advancing all of our students, and do we succeed in closing the achievement gap which is also measurable and currently inadequately addressed. Will a shuffling of school board members address this issue ?

    1. Don Shor

      I fail to see the connection between self-contained GATE and the Achievement Gap, but the linkage is made rather frequently. The superintendent certainly seemed to be making it. So I really would like to ask how eliminating self-contained GATE would improve the Achievement Gap.
      My opinion is that nothing the board will do will close the achievement gap. But that’s another discussion perhaps.

      1. H Jackson

        I fail to see the connection between self-contained GATE and the Achievement Gap, but the linkage is made rather frequently.

        The demographic pattern for who participates (or doesn’t) in AIM strongly resembles the achievement gap, as defined by standardized test scores.  It also strongly resembles participation patterns in high school extra-curricular activities.  In Davis schools, students whose families don’t have college education are extremely under-represented in activities like the DHS music program, drama, dance, athletics, student government, robotics, newspaper, and yearbook.  I’m sure that there are plenty of other areas where this pattern also holds.

  4. Don Shor

    So if you happen to slog through all of what I posted above, you might conclude that the way to improve the diversity of the gifted program is by widening the Talent Pool.

    The problem is, if you use (most) tests to start the process, you narrow the Talent Pool.

    If you raise the cutoff from 96% to 98% as the previous board majority did, you narrow the Talent Pool and you reduce the diversity.

    In fact, if you wanted a textbook example of how to make a gifted program less diverse, DJUSD showed the way.

    If you want a more diverse gifted program, you make a wider talent pool. You set the test threshold lower, not higher, and you don’t exclusively use testing as your starting point. You use subjective methods for some part of the selection process. The board made a committee for that purpose, but it seems they didn’t have any way to reach further into the student population for prospective candidates. The results speak for themselves.

    Ultimately, making the program more diverse probably requires that it be larger, not smaller. Most of us at the time said that the board majority’s sole objective seemed to be to shrink the program. Had they been concerned about diversity, they would have taken other approaches. Repeatedly reminded about the diversity issue by Madhavi Sunder, they took no action. Faced with its consequences, they punted to the new superintendent. And now the superintendent has basically said there is no way to solve the problem in a self-contained program.

    Differentiated instruction in regular classrooms has been offered as the solution. But the small number of teachers certified, and the rather meek goal of one certified teacher in each school, doesn’t demonstrate a genuine commitment to gifted education.

    1. Mark West

      “You use subjective methods for some part of the selection process.”

      If the goal is to meet the needs of the small subset of students that the GATE curriculum was designed for, you need to start by getting rid of the standardized testing and return to the original methods of identification. The first step is the identification of potential candidates by their classroom teachers based on a subjective analysis of the performance and behavior of the child. This is then followed up by a one-on-one assessment by a trained psychologist. There is considerable danger of missing candidates in this screening due to teacher training and ability, class size, personality conflict and bias, but those can be addressed by increasing the level of training of the teachers, and by supplementing the teachers with additional trained personnel working in the classroom (psychologists, aids, etc.) so that no child is assessed by only a single teacher. This is more labor-intensive, time-consuming, and expensive, but it is the only process that actually works.

      Before going to that effort, however, you first have to educate parents (and apparently, School Board Members) on who the GATE curriculum is designed to help. It is not a ‘high achievement’ program, but one designed to help the small subset of students (2%) who learn differently from the rest of the population. GATE identified students do better with the GATE curriculum, and non-GATE identified students do better when the GATE students are removed from the classroom. This is especially true in the upper grades of Elementary School when students are really learning the basic skills and methods of ‘how to learn.’ Davis had a very good GATE program back when it was appropriately sized for the district, with a single classroom per grade level at 4th, 5th and 6th.

      Once the decision was made to expand the program beyond that small subset, the program was irrevocably changed to become a high achievement track that took resources away from the bulk of the population, creating two separate and non-equal populations in our schools. It is that process of removing the ‘high achievers’ from the regular classroom that directly impacts the achievement gap. Students learn as much from their peers as from the teachers, with interactions between students being critical. When you separate out the ‘high achievers’ everyone suffers, the low achievers because they don’t have more accomplished peers to learn from, and the high achievers as they don’t get the benefits from teaching what they know to others (thus reinforcing their own learning).

      The district has plenty of opportunities for high achieving students to self-select a more advanced curriculum at the Junior High and High School levels. We don’t need a separate track for those students at the younger ages.  The AIM program as currently constituted is a high achievement track, which should be scrapped in favor of a right-sized, true GATE program.

      1. David Greenwald

        Mark: your information here is quite wrong. In fact last year I did the research and found that the contention that gate was intended for a certain population of students is completely unsupported by the history of the program in Davis. Gate in Davis was always a hybrid program which was meant to serve  both high achievers and gifted students.

        Hit the link here and go about halfway down and you can see my historical digging and the record:


        1. Mark West

          “Mark: your information here is quite wrong. In fact last year I did the research and found that the contention that gate was intended for a certain population of students is completely unsupported by the history of the program in Davis.”

          “The Vanguard, in reviewing the GATE master plans dating back to 1996-97, finds no evidence to support this contention.”

          David – My familiarity with the program dates back to the ’60’s as a student, 30 years before your earliest ‘research.’ The Mid-90’s was when the most significant changes in the program occurred and when it started to switch to become a high-achievement program. I was a member or chair of the Site Council at Valley Oak where the program was housed for five years during this transition and had two daughters in the program at the time, so I am very well aware of what transpired. Your understanding is simply uninformed.

          1. David Greenwald

            You’ll note in the link I provide that I pull directly from district policy and identification criteria. You may wish to review that and address specifically where you believe my research is in error.

      2. Don Shor

        In the link I provided, Step 2 is teacher nominations. “…nominations from teachers who have received training in this process are accepted into the Talent Pool on a par value with test score nominations.”

        As a check on the subjectivity and the fact that some teachers over or under nominate, Step 4, Special Nominations, involves circulating lists to previous year teachers: “… to nominate students who have not been recommended by their present teacher, and it also allows gifted education teachers to make recommendations based on their own previous experience with students who have already been in the Talent Pool, or students they may have encountered as part of enrichment experiences that have been offered in regular classrooms.”

        And Step 3, Alternate Pathways, provides for input from other sources.

    2. H Jackson

      Differentiated instruction in regular classrooms has been offered as the solution. But the small number of teachers certified, and the rather meek goal of one certified teacher in each school, doesn’t demonstrate a genuine commitment to gifted education.

      I think it’s a step in the right direction.  Because a child being identified as gifted doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the only factor in deciding where you end up placing your child.  Maybe a family likes their neighborhood school, or other aspects to a school that doesn’t happen to have self-contained AIM — for instance, Montessori, dual immersion, Spanish immersion, Da Vinci model, ELL services, availability to other student services.  Knowing that your child can also receive AIM-connected instruction in a differentiated instruction setting is helpful.

      I also think self-contained AIM should continue to exist if it’s appropriate.

  5. Howard P

    If you raise the cutoff from 96% to 98% as the previous board majority did, you narrow the Talent Pool and you reduce the diversity.

    [Font problem is from the source]

    Raising the cutoff reduces ‘diversity’?   So we need lower the cutoff to increase ‘diversity’?

    How does ‘diversity’ contribute to meeting needs of students in an inherently ‘segregated’ program?

    I believe in the GATE/AIM concept as to meeting “special needs” of students that learn ‘differently’… just can’t see how ethnic identity fits into that… what if the students that would thrive better in the program were 50% Latino, 50% Black?  So we would include Caucasians, Asians, to achieve ‘diversity’ (in a self-contained program?)?

    Seems like some (not saying you, Don), want AIM to be elite, but ‘inclusive’ at the same time… that’s a tough row to hoe…

    Yeah, more and more thinking ‘differentiated instruction’, regardless of race/’color’ is the avenue to persue… if teachers are not trained/able to do that, perhaps they should take up another profession…

    The “one size fits all” model is bankrupt, to be sure.


    1. David Greenwald

      Howard: Your hypothetical is thinking about this in the abstract and backwards.  The problem with the standardized tests – the OLSAT – is that it systematically underreports (disadvantages) giftedness in black and Hispanic populations.  So if you have a tool that Under identifies a given population, what do you do about it?

      Your question is headed in the wrong direction.  If you had a test that identified as gifted 50 percent Latino and 50 percent black, I would likely conclude that is underreporting other populations and therefore would be suspect.

      1. Howard P

        Why do you believe kids are under-identified?  By ethnicity?

        I guess if you believe that the bell curve is the same for all kids, regardless of ethnicity, gender, family education, social status, economic status, etc., that might make sense…

        50+ years ago, my teachers identified me as “thinking differently”, acing everything I did (except PE and “art”… struggled to stay close to the median), socially “slow”… not overall “thriving”… one teacher recommended I be put in a GC environment… I needed that, in retrospect, to know I was not “alone”… spent two years in that program (aged out), and later, still needed to work on social skills, etc., but was way ahead of where I would have been, otherwise.  I was “the nerd”, “geek”, whatever, in elemenatary school, but started to ‘blossom’ in the GC environment… at that time, Blacks, Asians, Whites were all a part of that (Latinos did not live in the school district, much)… all sorts of parental education, economic status, etc. [my parents only graduated HS, and household income was low].

        I was not directed to the GC program for ethnicity, social/economic status… nor strictly acedemic… one teacher noticed a “spark” and how it might be snuffed in the ‘regular’ environment, other teachers agreed, did the IQ test thing, parents hestitantly went for it (but never bragged that their son was “special”)…

        AIM should aim for students that would not otherwise “thrive”… it should not be seen as getting into the “best club”… I have concerns that it has become the latter, or as a metric for ‘social justice’… and if that becomes the case, it should indeed be abolished… with prejudice.

        Putting aside ethnicity, economic status, etc., there are indeed kids who will thrive in AIM, where they would not in the ‘normal’ class situation.  Many intelligent kids, with good self-esteem, good social skills will thrive no matter what.

  6. Mark Kropp

    And respectfully all-
    Under an administration of $215k I would look to a class size of 25, and hire/pay teachers more then now, and then individually, with professional guidance, select the curriculum, encouraging GATE certification and subjects when supported by the teacher and parents. This isn’t so much about who was hired Sup, or who was elected to the Board, but more about the individual children in the system today. Line up all third graders attending Davis and adjust like sport teams. Yes, sometimes its the neighborhood I live in, but it surely doesnt matter my genetic predisposition ie Latino, Black, White etc. I’m saying we are all getting wrapped around test/test design, program/protocols, (certainly leftover feelings), and not just doing the job of educating. This means sometimes somebody doesnt get it and somtimes its obvious, and everyone understands. Let’s make every 2017 Davis student eligible for schools they want to get into!

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