This is the first in a several part series on gifted programs in our district. Click here to read more posts in this series.


Everyone Has Met This Parent…

You and your children are at the library. You notice them begin to play with a “new friend” so you decide to strike up a conversation with her parent and immediately realize you have made a mistake. You should have hidden your nose in a book. What started out as a pleasant conversation, quickly takes a detour when the topic of school enrollment comes up. “Public school?” the mother states, with a face that looks like she has just realized she has the stomach flu. “We are considering a variety of options.”

When she starts explaining what these options entail: a few hard-to-get-into public schools and an even larger array of private schools, you wish you hadn’t been so friendly. You have run into one of those parents. You know the type. Their children are so amazing: they roll over at two months, write their names by three and learn to read chapter books by four. These types of children would never do well in a regular public school. These children are special, unique… “gifted” (as opposed to other people’s kids who are just, well… MEH.)

Families spend thousands of dollars each year getting their children tested to assess their intelligence and academic aptitude; even when research shows testing young children for this purpose is of little value. Children’s brains develop at such a rapid rate, it is hard to say a child who scores high on one measure at the age of three, will continue to score at the top of their class even a year later. (Read more about new research on “growth mindset” here and here.) Nonetheless, “independent” (private) schools thrive on the model that there are “special” children who require a learning environment as unique and special as the children they teach.

If you find yourself getting angry with some of the perspectives I’m sharing… PLEASE, PLEASE, bear with me and read further. I’m being totally honest about how I have felt. I’ve made some realizations since then, that I will get to later. That said, it’s important for me to share where I’m coming from as both a pro-public school parent and educator committed to equity for all kids. This is my very particular point of view, and it’s relevant to the conversation (or lack of conversation) I see currently occurring among parents and educators when talking about gifted and talented programs.

That said, let’s examine my thinking further…

The Rise of the Gifted Program

While many of these parents do exist, it would be an over simplification to believe all parents who choose private education think this way. Moreover, it is easy to disparage parents who choose to self-segregate by opting out of the public education system. Still, you will find many parents such as these within our public education system. Parents who “have” participate in the enrollment lottery only in so much as it gives them what they want: Claire Lillienthal, Rooftop, Grattan, Sherman. If it doesn’t work out, they pull the plug. In doing so, they contribute in their own way to more and more segregation in our schools.

But it’s not only parents that are part of the problem. Public school educators, seeking to win over this demographic, and the economic and political capital these parents bring, have created many specialized programs to cater to the whims and desires of affluent and educated parents, even when it goes against what educational research says is true.

Practices such as these have led to our education system creating magnet, “gifted”, honors and charter school programs. This idea is not new. Interestingly, it all started around the 1970’s, at a time when many urban districts were looking for ways to desegregate our schools.:

From an article titled Magnet Schools by Christine H. Rossell via EducationNext:

“The idea was simple enough: draw white students to predominantly black schools by offering a special education with a focus on a particular aspect of the curriculum, such as performing arts, or Montessori, or advanced math, science, and technology. Federal and state agencies, anxious to avoid the growing messiness of coercive integration measures like forced busing, directed new resources toward these magnets, encouraging their pioneering academic programs and giving grants for new facilities. Glossy brochures were mailed to parents and press releases to local media. The hope was that these well-funded, themed schools would ignite a passion for learning as well as spark a movement to voluntarily integrate schools.”

In a similar way, public and private schools have sought to “market” themselves by creating “gifted and talented” programs. IQ tests along with teacher observations and other measures of academic achievement have been used to identify students in order to place them in specialized classes or enrichment programs. In most cases, once students have been identified gifted (usually in the 2nd or 3rd grade) they stay “gifted”. It doesn’t matter if their grades go up or down, or if they struggle in a new subject, once they receive the “gifted” label it follows them for the rest of your school career.

What is the opposite of gifted? … stupid?With this context in mind, it is understandable why educated parents who cannot afford to put their children in private schools might feel strongly about getting their children in such programs. Nobody wants to think that their child is being left out, or left behind. What is the opposite of gifted? … stupid?

We LOVE our children. Every parent thinks their child is unique, wonderful, special. And, any parent with the resources to do so will do whatever they think is necessary to get the best education they can for his or her kids.

Honors Classes Turn Out to Be Another Form of Tracking

Initially, many educators and parents argued that this new system would allow teachers to focus their instruction to better target student needs. Kids who needed it, could get extra help without dragging down their peers who were ready to fly. Yet, over time education researchers started to find the practice of tracking students by ability was yielding negative consequences: for students in both groups.

I remember when I was a child, the “gifted” kids would leave class for an hour each week to do enrichment activities. Those who were not identified as gifted, were consistently reminded how “unspecial” they were. When I was in sixth grade, I remember being asked by one of my friends, “Why am I not gifted?”. I had no response. I remember feeling guilty and confused. I didn’t work any harder than my friend. She deserved to go as much as I did.

My husband recounted a related experience when he was in the fourth grade. His mother got a call to come to school and speak with the principal. Apparently, my husband and his twin brother had started a rebellion in class that day. They explained to their teacher they no longer wanted to participate in the TAG (Talented and Gifted) program. They did not think it was fair to be pulled out of class (via intercom announcement!)to “do fun stuff” while their peers had to remain in their regular class.

After a while, my husband and his brother decided they didn’t feel right leaving their peers behind. They explained to their teacher, they did not wish to go. This so upset her so she informed the principal who promptly called their mother. My mother-in-law, explained to the principal she agreed with her sons, and in support of their decision pulled them from the program. After word of this got out, some of the other TAG students also asked to be pulled from the program as well. Though the school continued the program, they stopped announcing it over the intercom and made other changes.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Honors Classes ≠ Learning

As it turns out, not only are honors classes unfair to students who get left behind, research shows they also do little to further learning for those in them. (For a great summary, see the excerpt from “Introduction of Heterogeneous Classrooms” by Maika Watanabe at the end of this document.)

I remember my “gifted” class in 6th grade. We left the class each week so Mrs. Agony could enrich our bright and eager young minds. (This is not her real name BTW, but her real name wasn’t much better!)  I don’t remember learning anything. The only thing I DO remember is the day she showed us slides from her vacation to China. It was readily apparent to all of us that she didn’t have any curriculum planned that day and had decided to narrate along as she showed a pack of slides she had hastily bought on her trip. She must not have viewed them ahead of time, because the presentation ended abruptly when topless showgirls started showing up in the photos. (True story!)

My view of gifted and honors classes was solidified when I myself became a teacher at the secondary level. I know many teachers of high school honors and AP classes, who are highly qualified to teach these courses. That said, it is common knowledge at many schools that Honors or AP teachers are often chosen based on seniority (e.g. they have been around longer than anyone else) or based on who their are friends are, rather than by their ability to teach advanced material.

The arbitrary nature of how these programs are been implemented is even more evident when you look at them from a district lens. For several years I worked with schools and districts to increase college and career access for underrepresented students (in SFUSD and OUSD, specifically). I have seen firsthand how selection criteria differs widely from one school to the next. I have also seen how students and families who are unskilled in navigating “the system” must overcome repeated barriers while privileged children are automatically scheduled into “college-going-courses” (as I was) and breeze on through.

As more and more research comes out about the negative effects of segregating students by ability, it has become harder and harder for districts and site leaders to justify the practice. Nonetheless, parents, who grew up with these programs during the 70’s and 80’s are often egged on by educators who benefit from academic tracking (e.g. honors teachers, schools that cater to “high performing” students). These vocal and active parents have often resisted the shift to heterogeneous (and equitable) classrooms.

Parents Press for Attention to Programs for Gifted Students by Nora Fleming of EdWeek

“From court cases and legislative lobbying to their own fundraising campaigns, parents are putting pressure on states and school districts to boost services for gifted children, whose needs and abilities, they say, often aren’t met inside a traditional classroom.

While parents of the gifted have long faced challenges in proving the worth in providing “extras” for highly capable students, the fight has become even harder now in many districts where dollars are tight and other needs are deemed more pressing.

And, according to some advocates, the stakes can be even higher for low-income and minority parents who view gifted and talented programs as a means of providing their children with greater opportunity in cash-strapped school systems.

“In a low-resourced district, the concerns of parents of gifted students who can’t access gifted education services are often heightened,” said Natalie Jansorn, the director of those programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships and other funding to help gifted students. “They have no assurance their child will be challenged in the regular classroom that is focused on meeting minimum test requirements, and they don’t know where else to turn.”

As school funding in urban districts has plummeted, and pressure to “close the achievement gap” has increased, the fight for fewer and fewer resources has intensified. Over the past ten years, school “accountability” systems such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have forced many school teachers and administrators to prioritize their efforts on meeting the needs of students who are academically behind: English Learners, low-income students and students receiving special education services. Meanwhile, funding for programs like GATE and honors has gone by the wayside. In this scenario, parents and educators have become like rats in a cage, fighting over crumbs. Parents express concern that the education system’s only concern is teaching to the lowest performing students, while educators, especially those focused on educational and social equity, associate gifted/honors programs with overprivileged students and entitled parents.

Mea Culpa

OK, here’s where I come clean. When I wrote a post last spring about the District’s move to eliminate GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) and Honors programs at the middle and high school level, I was amazed to find that in making the connection between gifted programs and social inequity, I touched a nerve with many readers. (See the comments section at the bottom of the post.)

I have to admit. My first response was very similar to the one I describe at the beginning of this post… “Oh! Sure! You entitled, (White) parents! Of course you want a gifted program. You don’t want your kids in school with Black and Brown kids.” If I had wanted to, I could have stopped the conversation right there and patted myself on the back for being such a fearless, crusader for social justice.

Yet, as I have engaged in conversation with the commenters I have realized there is much more going on. Some of the parents I have spoken to expressed frustration at having their concerns brushed aside by educators who didn’t have the time or bandwidth to challenge their kids. One reader wrote about his families experience:

The teachers that are asked to differentiate instruction are often under-skilled, under-trained or under-resourced. Differentiation as it’s practiced resolves to the teachers asking her to tutor other students. That’s ok for some portion of the class, but she is not being taught at a level that provides the necessary challenge to maintain her interest.

Differentiation, or customizing instruction for the level of the student, is the district’s answer to meeting the needs of all students. But, is it truly happening in all classrooms? Not when “differentiation” is defined as having GATE students tutor their peers. Not when “differentiation” means more worksheets of the same type of work students can already successfully do.

But how can we expect teachers to meet the heightened demands of a fully differentiated classroom when they are provided with little training and no additional resources? It is unrealistic to expect teachers (and even principals for that matter) to implement district initiatives such as these without district-wide systems linked with resources, training and support. It’s no wonder many teachers express frustration and apathy when asked to “up their game” to challenge kids who are performing beyond grade-level expectations when they are already maxed out trying to help low-performing students catch up.

Conversations like these have made me have a change of heart.

As parents we may agree that segregation and tracking is bad, and still push for our children to receive instruction that is tailored to their needs. Wanting the best for our kids does not make us racist. Neither does advocating for our childrens’ right to challenging and engaging curriculum.

Conversely, educators who focus only on the needs of poor performing students miss out on opportunities to enrich learning for all students. Even worse, they blame struggling learners for their own inability to differentiate, and lower expectations for all our students.

Teachers feel overwhelmed when they are not sufficiently trained or supported in meeting the needs of diverse learners in their classrooms. This is not a reason for teachers or district leaders to blame “demanding” children or “nagging” parents for wanting more from their educational experience. Gifted students challenge their peers to expand their thinking and tackle academic problems in new and creative ways. Educated, vocal parents can be great allies for teachers and schools in fundraising and advocating for increased support of high quality academic programming for all students.

It’s Time we Stopped Playing the Blame-Game.

Instead of getting caught up in the “entitled” parent versus “lazy” teacher debate, parents and educators must have honest, challenging conversations about what it means to be truly gifted and talented and what good differentiated instruction looks like for any child and what district-wide systems need to be put in place to support classroom teachers in meeting the needs of ALL children. When I say all, I am including English Learner students, black and brown students, newcomer students, students who receive special education services, and YES, students who consistently exceed our expectations and think in new and innovative ways.

Change Brings New Opportunities

Having new standards creates a need to develop new curriculum.

With the new Common Core State Standards implemented this year, changes in instruction are inevitable. The new standards are already more challenging than previous CA State Standards; they stress critical thinking and problem-solving, require an increase in academic vocabulary, a higher level of reading comprehension and a deeper understanding of abstract mathematical concepts.

These new standards have meant a new district-wide curriculum in English and Math. This year was the first year district teachers began implementing the new SFUSD Core Math Curriculum. Last year, district teachers began implementing the SFUSD English Language Arts Pre-K Core Curriculum. Over the past few years, the Curriculum and Instruction Office has worked teams of teachers across the district to map out unit plans and learning goals for English and Math at each grade level. In doing so, there now exist new opportunities for these same teacher teams to develop and share resources and best practices for meeting the needs of exceptional students in heterogeneous (mixed) classrooms, whether these students are gifted, English Learners, or students with learning disabilities.

Having new standards also means thinking about assessments in new ways.

STAR tests, which were previously used to identify GATE students, have gone away. STAR tests have been replaced with Smarter Balanced Assessments, vastly different end-of-year tests that require critical thinking, reasoning, and writing ability. As new state and district assessments go into full effect this year, the district must develop new measures for gifted and talented abilities.

Hopefully we will find better indicators of gifted ability than in the past when we used mainly grades and multiple-choice tests. Students will have to demonstrate innovative thinking and higher levels of academic achievement than just being hard-working or good students. These shifts could also create a more equity in our schools by giving more black, brown and English Learner students access to GATE resources and supports. (I have seen many under-performing students turn around their academic achievement once they were properly challenged in class.)

New brain research on neuroplasticity should also inform a new understanding of how often we assess for giftedness. Being assessed once as a third-grader and never again, simply does not make sense knowing how the brain is constantly changing and growing new neural networks. What about students who show promise in middle school or high school. Shouldn’t they also have access to more challenging work?

Next Steps…

These are just my initial thoughts in this very important conversation. It is critical that parents AND educators start talking about their hopes, fears, and questions as we move forward to create a more equitable and effective GATE program in our district. Please take a moment to share your ideas, experiences and comments below. And share this post with other parents and educators who may be interested in this conversation.

Also, check back regularly on this blog. As a GATE Parent Representative for my daughters’ school, I will be asking questions and attending district meetings to gather more information and resources which I hope to share here. Parents play an important role in supporting quality education for all kids. They also play an important role in supporting our teachers… the amazing folks who dedicate their lives to educating our kids! We must be active participants in the GATE redesign process; to monitor, support and advocate for equitable classrooms that differentiate for all types of learners… including those with exceptionally bright, creative and talented young minds. :)

What do you think about all this? Does it make sense to you? What are your hopes, concerns, or questions about the District redesign of the GATE program? Write them in the comments below.

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Join the conversation! 17 Comments

  1. I really appreciate your perspective. It’s challenged my thinking which I always appreciate. That said, I am one of “those” parents with a high-achieving, inquisitive, very smart child (she really could write her name at 3, read chapter books at 5). I am a big public school supporter, both personally and professionally, and I value so many things about SFUSD. But as a parent, I worry about my child getting bored and tuning out because the only differentiation she gets is more worksheets, tutoring her peers, or wholly self-directed projects like reading different books. And this is only 2nd grade, with 22 kids in her class. By 4th grade, when there are 35 kids in her class, I just don’t see how any educator, no matter how awesome, could provide the individualized learning each child needs. That smaller class size is what appeals to me about private schools — smaller classes, more opportunities for creative curriculum, and the lack of NCLB testing pressure.

    GATE probably isn’t the long-term answer. More school funding and the demise of NCLB are what we really need. In the short term, though, how do we keep ALL kids engaged in their education? I don’t have the answer.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for sharing! I hear you… I was one of “those” kids and am now one of “those” parents as well. This post is my first attempt at getting a conversation going about this important topic and I don’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, my girls are now in 4th grade and are reading at the 6th grade level. They are NOT bored in either English or Math and are in a heterogeneous class with lots of different types of learners. The difference is now the curriculum is different (because of new standards) and they have an amazing teacher who knows what read differentiation looks like. That said, you can’t expect parents to go along with a program that just exists classroom to classroom. Until parents experience the real deal, they won’t be supportive of this new approach which I wholeheartedly believe is better.

      Reply
  2. Glad I stuck it out to the end of the post because the first part was a tough read for a parent of a “gifted” child. Can I tell you how much I hate it when “gifted” is in quotes? As if it’s something that only exists in the imaginations of “those” parents.

    I’m so glad you mention that parents of gifted students can be allies for teachers. We get that differentiation doesn’t really work – we sympathize with teachers! That said, of course we want what’s best for our students and given the state of funding for gifted education we have to continue to advocate. Sometimes that means private school or homeschooling. By the way, we’re a public school family – not in CA – but are considering alternatives for so many of the reasons you mentioned.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for sticking it out. I have to say real differentiation DOES work and it’s amazing when it really happens. That said, not all teachers are trained or supported in doing it properly. And it’s usually only done by veteran teachers who have time to hone their craft and curate great resources at various levels. My girls are thriving and are reading WELL BEYOND their peers in a mixed ability classroom filled with mostly low-income and English Learner students. My girls are never bored, but it’s because they have a highly skilled teacher. Please don’t leave the public school system! WE need parents like you.

      Reply
  3. I am not an educator, but I spend lots of time observing in classrooms and working with children. I can envision (and have observed) many ways to teach to a variety of reading levels in language arts, particularly with approaches like readers and writers workshops. I cannot imagine how teachers would do that in mathematics — particularly higher level math (middle/high school) that pulls heavily on previously learned concepts. I’d love to learn how that’s possible. Until then, I will worry that the current math curriculum will be too slow for some, while others will feel that they are incapable in math because the curriculum is moving too fast.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your post! I am in the same boat as you as I am a HS English teacher by trade. That said, the new standards are different from the old CA State Standards and are organized on a continuum (as opposed to discreet concepts as before.) As I watch the new standards being implemented in my daughters’ 4th grade classroom, I am seeing how they are learning multiplication as a CONCEPT. This understanding has been building all the way beginning from 2nd grade. They are highly functioning math students and are not bored in their classes which are really mixed ability. I believe this is due to the fact that their teacher embraces the new teaching curriculum and is integrating critical thinking and abstract reasoning in her class. (Not just teaching rote memorization of the multiplication table.) In this way, she is able to teach the same basic concept (multiplication of 2-digit numbers) on a variety of levels in the same mixed-ability classroom.

      That said, I DO agree that district “experts” could do a better job of sharing how all this is possible. For as parents, it is hard to trust in and believe in a system that we haven’t experienced and can’t even imagine in some cases.

      Reply
  4. Alison, thank you so much for this comprehensive article on so many hot topics right now.

    I can really see the pros and cons around GATE/Honors, differentiation, and Common Core. I was most surprised to learn that tracking does little good in advancing learning for honors students too, and perhaps this is the case for my child. He appears to be coasting in a Common Core Math grade 7 class. He uses “meh” to sum up how he feels about Common Core Math, so he neither finds the curriculum to be stimulating or challenging.

    Until recently, there’s been no support for the students and parents on how to complete homework assignments and some of the methods taught in class are completely new to us all. I worry that many students and parents in my child’s school do not take the time to find such resources, do not have computers and internet in their homes, and will consequently not do well with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests that have replaced the previous Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests.

    That all said, I support the direction that Common Core will be taking students in, especially for the youngest students, which SFUSD appears to directing most of its efforts in. As for middle school and high school, right now, the benefits are less clear to me.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your post. In some cases, the research actually says grouping by ability can help high performers. But that’s only if they receive high quality instruction. It’s not just a given. It sounds like your teacher needs more support in the new math curriculum. My girls teacher is rocking it out of the park. That said, it is very different mindset and if you aren’t fully familiar with it, it would be hard to teach to general students, let alone a high performing student wanting more.

      Check out the SFUSD website under Calendars to check out the Math Counts event at Presidio MS. If I were you, I might make a visit to see if you can meet some Math Dept folks there. They may be able to help you access some resources to see what SHOULD be covered and also learn what you can do to improve instruction in your child’s class.

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  5. I am a product of public school and always loved my school experiences, all the way from kinder to graduation. I even remember wondering to myself when i was in high school why anyone would even consider private school when public school seemed to offer so much.

    And here’s the real connundrum, I was one of those brown students, in fact 95% of my school was brown, but we didn’t know it — we thought were all just a tan white….I think we only had fewer than 10 anglo kids in the whole school (those that were non-hispanic) and about 5 black kids.

    Of course my high school had about 2000 students and I came from a large town with another 20-30 high schools of the same size. We had every imaginable sport, art, music, etc. I truly relished my educational experience.

    And yes most of us were poor but again, we didn’t know we were poor. We still had honors classes and yes I was one of those. I rememer summers as far back as 7th grade going to enrichment camps, funded by the district of course. And my high school sent more kids to ivy league colleges than any other in the late 80’s.

    I was a nerd, a geek, and I loved learning, spending every free moment at the library and looking forward to academic quiz bowl competitions.

    I have to wonder if maybe my experience wasn’t truly the public school experience because I was so very sheltered.

    Now I’m a parent and teacher. My kids go to private school — not the fancy expensive type but the smaller, christian world view type. As more people move towards making public school more private (charters, etc), I am trying desperately to duplicate my own school experience for my kids…i picked the most normal school I could find except that I did want some sort of control over the environment. Afterall, public schools are not what what they used to be, and neither are my kids are not what I used to be.

    Reply
  6. I don’t know if I am one of those perants…all I know is that my bright kid who loves to learn was crying every morning when it was time to go to school. His first two years at a public school were a nightmare for our family. We got lucky this year and have an amazing teacher, and for the first time in three years my kid is actually learning. I don’t know if GATE is a valid option for public schools, but I wish the system was set up in a way that learning was not a matter of getting lucky.

    Reply
    • Again, I’m not sure what you mean by saying GATE might not be a valid option and public schools are a “matter of getting lucky”. I guess you could say that about private or charter schools as well, right? As, you have to apply, and being a “good fit” for a private school means you are “lucky” enough to have money to pay for school, or “lucky” enough to speak English and own a computer to fill out online applications, or “lucky” you don’t have a kid with kid who has a high needs learning disability. Public schools are charged with educating ALL students, and my kids are BETTER for being in a learning environment that honors the value that ALL kids have to bring to the classroom.

      Reply
  7. Research show that an inclusive classroom is undeniably better for all the inclusion kids (SPED, 504, ESL)….but the research also shows those circumstances are NOT better for the other kids. As a teacher, I spend the majority of my time focusing on the special needs and the students that are behind grade level. That, coupled with discipline issues, school bureaucracy, and the endless paperwork…leaves little time to focus on those kids at grade level or above. Some schools even have practices that specifically ignore the kids that can do well.

    Research shows that grades are at an all-time high because of lowered standards and expectations (we wouldn’t want anyone to feel stupid); but, test scores are at an all-time low, because of lack of advanced teaching.

    So while the smarter kids may be better, in a sense of equality world-view stance, they are NOT better academically.

    Reply
    • First off, it seems you are confusing the terms inclusion and heterogeneous. ALL classrooms should be inclusive, meaning they should be welcoming to all students no matter what race, language, socio-economic status or sexual orientation: despite whether they are heterogeneous (e.g. students are grouped by ability) or not.

      Frankly, your comments typify what this post is all about. You approach to instruction seems based in a fixed mindset of “smart kids” (your words) vs. “inclusion kids” (am I to read this as “dumb kids”?) Clearly, you are a believer in sorting kids, and that is the type of instruction I am GLAD our district is moving away from. Based on this reasoning, an English Learner student or kid with an IEP is … NOT smart?

      I agree that paperwork, poor leadership, and a lack of adequate support (in the form of reasonable class sizes, professional development, school staffing, etc.) can make good instruction challenging to damn near impossible in some cases. And, believe you me, I’ve worked in several schools where this was the case. Nonetheless, when you focus on students as the primary problem, it seems you are playing the blame-game by implying, “If only I didn’t have to do so much work trying to teach all the kids with learning problems… I’d be able to do really good instruction!”

      By the way, the research ACTUALLY shows high-performing kids do slightly better or the same in heterogeneous classrooms, while low-performing students are HARMED by ability grouping. All kids ALSO learn better problem-solving skills, communication skills, cultural competency; and classes are less segregated by race, socio-economic status, language, etc. I became a public school teacher because I wanted to teach ALL students, not just the students who were easiest to teach. And I am definitely NOT OK with any policy that harms or segregates kids.

      Reply
      • Poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh….lets get on the same page. Call it whatever you want….of course classrooms should teach all races, genders, cultures, ages, etc….that is what I refer to as heterogenous. What I don’t agree with is including all students that need a lot of help in the the classroom with those that don’t (need too much extra help) – that’s what is called “inclusion” on the IEP’s. Not because I have a fixed mindset or because I don’t think all students can’t learn. On the contrary, brain plasticity indicates that all brains have the ability to learn and to improve intelligence.

        And, the reason that schools are getting away from “tracking” or grouping by ability, is because the discrimination laws prohibit giving some kids a lesser quality education and sadly that was happening when the better teachers were being assigned to the better students.

        BUT, the research does show that tracking is actually beneficial in some instances such as in the case of mathematics (which is what I teach) so long as both groups can be afforded equal quality instruction.

        I advocate for separate instruction, or ability-grouping, because different learning abilities require different teaching strategies. Especially with students experiencing math anxiety, it’s counterproductive to be in an environment where other students are easily grasping concepts.

        I think math teachers should teach all kids, just separately according to understanding. And, that students should be able to easily move on to more advanced classes as their skills increase.

        By the time students come to me in 8th grade, I have a wide range of math aptitudes — some students can barely add (forget subtracting), many can’t multiply, few can manipulate fractions…and don’t get me started on negative numbers. I would that I could reach out to these students…but here’s the problem — those are 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade topics….and in 8th grade we are zooming on to probability, graphing, geometric transformations and pre-algebra. The teacher is left with a no-win situation — in the schools I’ve taught, about 25% are 2-5 years behind, 50% are 1-2 years behind, and only 25% of the students are on grade level. As a teacher it’s my job to teach, but I only have 43 minutes to try to tailor lesson plans that reach all the students.

        How much easier would it be if my 4 classes were grouped by ability — I would be able to target each class where they are — teaching what they need and helping them catch up much faster. But sadly, the bottom 25% are left to fend for themselves, and the top 25% are held back…because with only 43 minutes, I have to focus on getting the most kids to pass the minimum standards testing.

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        • Separate instruction is never equal. Flexible groupings that occur within classrooms make sense. If you believe in brain plasticity then your argument doesn’t hold water. Students should be able to move fluidly in and out of support and enrichment based on where they are at any given time. Once they are scheduled into ability groups by class they are stuck in programmatic tracks. The ONLY way you can justify grouping by class is if you regularly assess students (test them every month or so?) and then rearrange their schedule as they move up or down in need of support. That is totally infeasible in our current system. The reality is, they get put in a leveled class and stay there…. FOREVER.

          Putting students into ability groups by classroom ALSO separates them from their peers and has even more negative effects. I wrote about it here. Kids who are put in the “dumb class” get farther and farther behind. Also, kids don’t just get placed in classes by ability. Research shows, test scores are not the best determinant of ability and often kids get placed in classes based on race and socio-economic status.

          I have 20 years of experience working with school districts and schools on college access and equity issues. Please educate yourself and stop defending a racist, segregationist system from the 50’s.

          Just the fact that you state: “And, the reason that schools are getting away from “tracking” or grouping by ability, is because the discrimination laws prohibit giving some kids a lesser quality education and sadly that was happening when the better teachers were being assigned to the better students”. So discrimination laws are the problem? There are “better students”. I think ALL students are GREAT.

          It’s our job as public educators to teach ALL students and not make the kids that are struggling feel like dummies in front of their peers. There are ways we can do this that are more effective, more creative, and also more equitable. They ALSO teach ALL students compassion and empathy for diverse learning styles, challenges and talents.

          Reply
          • Separate is never equal? My experience comes from schools where 80-90% are minority and low income, so clearly I’m not out to separate them by anything else other than where they are in their learning journey. You CANNOT expect students that can’t add or multiply to move on to higher level math, not gonna happen, at least not with math. Math skills build upon each other. So yes, the ones furthest behind will continue to get further behind, unless someone stops the crazy merry go round and pays lots of individual, targeted attention to them, and that’s nearly impossible in one classroom where teachers must follow standardized curriculums.

            Montessori classes already group in multi-age learning centers based on a students understanding. Professional tutors also assess to group based on where a student is with the curriculum, not age. Both of those mediums assume every child can learn but they also know children learn at different paces, and learn BEST when instruction is tailored to the student.

            Tell me how the same teacher, teaching the same curriculum to all students, is somehow discriminatory or unfair to any student. I’m only advocating for each student to get to start where they are, whether that be 4 yrs behind, 2 yrs behind, on grade level or advanced. With the goal of smaller classes for students that are behind grade level to accelerate their pace with hopes of getting them on grade level.

            I’m advocating for every student to get a fair chance.

          • I’m going to end this dialogue here. I am NOT advocating for one-size fits all instruction. Skillful differentiation allows teachers to move students fluidly into and out of groups based on ability, strengths, social or developmental issues, etc. I have placed students into to mixed-ability groups for one task (say reading a text at their grade level) and then regrouped them into a heterogeneous group by ability to complete a performance based task. This all happens seamlessly, with very little interruption to instruction.

            I am advocating against VISIBLE ability grouping that shames students, socially isolates them and restricts their access to educational opportunity. For example, in many of our middle and high schools kids tracked into “math support” classes do not have opportunities to take art or music classes. Because of complicated class schedules, they also flow in groups to English and Science classes creating classes that are heavily weighted with kids with more needs. This is inequitable for ALL students.

            Finally, we don’t group by ability in English, Social Studies, Science, P.E. Why are we doing it in Math? As a high school English teacher, I’ve had students who read at the 2nd grade level and kids who are read well beyond college level in the same class. I still expected all my students to read novels and generate thoughtful analytical essays. It is our job as educators to create complex and meaningful instruction which allows students to demonstrate proficiency wherever they are in the learning spectrum, while exposing them to the content that appropriate for their grade-level.

            You are arguing for an educational model which was not very successful for ANY students and was WORSE for Black and Latino students. I’m glad our district is listening to educational research, and adopting a more innovative approach to math instruction for the benefit of all our kids.

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Academics, Equity, Parenting

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