I have been hearing from many parents of gifted students that they are disappointed and frustrated with district support of GATE education in our schools.
In order to fix this problem, there are several parents (some led by Lowell HS teachers) who have been advocating for a return of honors classes. I thoroughly disagree with this proposal because I don’t think tracking is best for either group. Ability grouping does not necessarily solve the problem for our gifted kids. For example: If higher-performing students have a poor teacher, there is no guarantee they will learn more just by being in the same class. Good instruction is the key to learning.
In addition, tracking students by ability also causes some very negative effects for non-identified kids and our schools. In almost all cases lower-performing kids do MUCH worse are and tracked out of opportunities for college. Social stigmas that follow students who are implicitly labeled ability grouping tend to make both teachers and students perform poorer than before, just based on lower expectations. Students in these classrooms also have a higher chance of having a class full of high-needs kids, less experienced teachers, and larger class-sizes.
So if we agree that it’s NOT OK with our kids to have an opportunity to excel if it means other kids doing worse… what’s the answer?
Let’s Talk about Differentiation
The district says the answer is differentiation. This means taking the existing curricular goals (based on grade level standards) and customizing instruction to meet the individual needs of the students. For English Learner students this may mean providing reading material on the same science concepts but just at a simpler level. For GATE students it could mean giving students more complex reading. All students grapple with the same basic content, but the curricular resources and demonstrations of learning are adjusted to meet the specific needs of the students.
This sounds great! So what’s the problem?
Well, let’s just come out and say it, we haven’t REALLY been doing differentiation consistently in all our classrooms. If it’s happened (like it is in my girls’ classroom) it’s only because my daughters’ teacher is highly skilled and is committed to serving ALL kids. She still wishes she could do more and has personally told me she wishes the district was doing more to support her. She is not alone! She and other similar teachers are doing this DESPITE the system. That’s not right!
Let’s face it–differentiation is hard. I did it only after I had been teaching a few years and had developed a good basic curriculum. It takes time to develop a lesson and then tweak all your resources up and down for a variety of learning styles and then implement that in your classroom.
That said, one of my favorite classes when teaching English at Galileo was my 10th grade class. I had an extreme group of learning styles in my class, from very high performers to students who had never read a book, to newcomers just out of English Language Development classes, to students receiving Special Education services. Nonetheless, we all learned together, in a classroom of 35 I might add. We did this with a lot of group work, project-based learning and I also had an amazing teacher’s aide.
Some Ideas We Should Try…
I am not a math teacher, so I cannot say I have all the answers when it comes to redesigning support for our high performing students in math. We definitely need to look at our math program and include math teachers and parents in the redesign of this program to serve all our students.
That said, I have been involved in educational reform (as a classroom teacher, as a site instructional coach, and at the district level.) This experience has led me to believe we can make some great and positive changes if we implement the following recommendations:
Creating smaller class sizes – It sounds like there is a real need for this in middle school math. I had this during my first year as an English teacher (only 20 kids in a HS English class vs. 35 in 10th grade.) It made a HUGE difference in my ability to know my kids and differentiate appropriately. And I was differentiating for high performers, EL students (70%) and SPED kids.
Including gifted kids in the RTI model of support – Currently it seems focused on meeting the needs of SPED, EL and other students groups who are often low-performing. It is a fallacy that gifted students don’t need support. They have their own unique learning challenges and need to be seen as a specific demographic that is in need of support.
A new model of GATE support for our district – There is currently no clear structure for supporting GATE instruction in our schools. Each site has a GATE coordinator, and is supposed to have a GATE parent representative. Nonetheless, there is no clearly articulated structure defining how these folks along with the principal are supposed to support GATE identification, equity and instruction in our schools. I believe the district should develop a defined model for implementing GATE in all schools at all levels. It should also be supported with funding for professional development for teachers, curricular planning time, and staffing.
Creating common enrichment resources – Along with the above, recommendation, we should also be thinking about common instructional resources. We finally have a common curriculum throughout the district which I don’t think we’ve ever really had. Before we had adopted text books, but text books aren’t curriculum. The SFUSD PK-12 Math and ELA curriculum outlines standards and outcomes for each unit across grade levels. I don’t see why the district couldn’t pay highly skilled teachers throughout the district to create enrichment and extension activities for our gifted students. I could tell you how I did this in ELA. I’m sure there are some AMAZING MATH TEACHERS in our district who are already doing this and could help develop resources in this area.
Incorporate a clear system for accountability – Finally, what I’m hearing most from all types of parents is their frustration with a system that says, “Deal with it!” when things go wrong. This isn’t just about GATE programs. It’s about all programs. If they work (often they work VERY WELL!) then that’s great. But, if they don’t, then you’re usually out of luck if you are a regular parent. I have been successful in getting change to happen when I’ve encountered problems, but it shouldn’t take a Master’s Degree in Education and experience working at the central district office to know who you have to call to get stuff fixed.
Some Good News
Common Core State Standards – These stress critical thinking and abstract reasoning… very high level thinking abilities. If teachers are REALLY teaching to the standards, we won’t have as much boredom in class. Also, the standards work on a continuum, (as opposed to previous standards that just list knowledge and skills). If you child is ahead, there is no reason teachers shouldn’t be looking to higher grade expectations for similar concepts. If your child is struggling, go a grade lower. This was much more difficult to do previously, because all the standards were organized in such big lists and it was hard to see connections year to year.
More funding for our district and our schools – Schools pulled money out of GATE because of draconian budget cuts in the 2000’s until basically last year. With more money, schools will have more resource: more librarians, social workers, school coaches etc. We can and should demand more resources for GATE to support our students.
New Assessments and Accountability Measures – No Child Left Behind required schools to give multiple choice tests that were based on memorization of discrete facts. Now we have Smarter Balanced tests that measure student ability to think critically and express ideas through writing. Previous accountability measures focused schools on bring up underperforming students. We no longer have this same accountability measures because we have new assessments (Smarter Balanced) and are developing new ones based on the new tests.
A Final Note
Finally, we, as educators, need to fess up about how we often treat parents of gifted students. We need to work with them in the service our all our students. If families don’t understand differentiation, that’s not their fault. They are either NOT SEEING it or they need more information on how it works. It’s up to educators (and not just teachers!) to educate and inform families about what schools are doing to support gifted learners.
This quote below sums up a lot of what I’m hearing from families about their experience in the public school system:
I see, hear, talk and read about this very issue everyday – parents who complain that they can’t get their school system to provide the appropriate education for their gifted child, parents who are asking each other for advice on how to work the system properly to ensure their gifted child receives the education he needs, and parents complaining because they are tired of having to repeatedly ask and beg the school system for the appropriate education for their child.
This is not OK. We need to make substantial changes in how we work with all families… including the families of gifted students… to improve learning outcomes for all our kids!
What do you think about all this? Does any of it make sense to you?
Related reads: Let’s Talk about Gifted Education–Articles and Resources for Gifted Families, It’s Time We Stopped Playing the Blame Game with Gifted Programs, Why We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race