So let’s talk about GATE . . .

GATE is the acronym that stands for Gifted and Talented Education. It’s established by the state of California, which has posted what looks to be a pretty comprehensive history of educational programs and requirements for students who are academically gifted.  I’m not going to go into all that, and instead mostly confine this discussion to San Francisco Unified and where we find ourselves today.

Here is what the research, as I understand it, says: fewer than five percent (most say two to three percent) of the population is truly gifted–meaning they are Einsteins or Mozarts or similarly brilliant artists, thinkers or theorists. That two to five percent absolutely need differentiated instruction and academic supports tailored to their needs, just as the 10 percent of students identified as having a disability absolutely need differentiated instruction and academic supports tailored to their needs to derive a benefit from their education. For the academically gifted, those supports could include: individualized learning plans, more challenging material, a faster pace, and less structure.

Now let’s talk about San Francisco Unified, and many other districts that, like us, relied on test scores and academic performance to identify gifted students. In SFUSD, 32 percent of students are currently GATE-identified. One of my favorite segments from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on NPR  is News from Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Sorry. Though I think highly of our SF students, including my GATE-identified daughter, there’s no way that 32 percent are Mozart- or Einstein-level gifted. We aren’t Lake Wobegon. So how did we get here?

Prior to 2014-15, the California Standards Test (CST) served as the primary identification mechanism for GATE students. This led to the state of affairs we have in SFUSD, as in other districts, where we tend to lump high-achieving students together with those who are truly gifted and talented. But using the CST favored students who are good test takers and those who know English well, creating a selection bias. The CST was suspended two years ago to align new assessments to the Common Core.

In the two years since the CST was suspended, the district’s Office of Equity and Access suspended new GATE identifications and has been reconsidering how students should be identified as gifted  in SFUSD. Current research, as summarized for the Board by district curriculum experts, suggests that we should be wary of several issues in GATE identification: that the use of traditional academic tests will place undue value on test-taking skills; that no single measure should be the sole bar for identifying giftedness; and that giftedness exists in equal proportion across language, racial and class groupings.

But identification is only part of the issue. The much more important part, of course, is curriculum. To provide an experience that is meaningful for gifted and talented youth, it’s important that the district respond to and meet their individual differences and tailor learning to their needs. It’s important that gifted and talented students be afforded opportunities to work with other GATE students in addition to their non-GATE identified peers. We also need to be mindful of the needs of high-achieving students who aren’t necessarily GATE, but still need challenging classes to realize their academic potential.

The Curriculum & Instruction Department is working to craft all of the above into a future proposal for the Board. The important thing for parents to understand is that GATE is not going away, but it is likely to change to provide a richer experience to a smaller, more rigorously identified group of students.

WordPress, which hosts my blog, allows you to add a poll to your posts. I’m experimenting with it — curious to know what you think and if this is a helpful feature for blog readers to share their views (I do moderate comments, so sometimes it takes a while for me to post comments).


17 responses to “So let’s talk about GATE . . .

  1. I agree with several of the comments above – the actual “GATE” label is a red-herring that makes it too easy to dismiss the real issue as a Lake Wobegon phenomenon. Whatever we call them, there is a real problem with how we are serving those 20-30% of “high achieving” kids. Neglecting them isn’t going to help address the real problems that I imagine the “new policies” are trying to solve.

    I don’t care about my kid getting a “gifted” label. I DO care about him being challenged and engaged, to help foster excitement about school and learning. And I recognize that SF isn’t a bubble – he’ll soon be competing (college, career etc.) with kids from other places where they are getting this challenge and engagement.

    That hasn’t been happening meaningfully or systematically in our API 900+ elementary school, and we had been holding out hope for the middle school honors curriculum (our feeder school at the time was reputed to have a strong Honors program, which I understand has now been dismantled). It seems unconscionable that this was eliminated first, and now we’re still in a period of developing plans and proposals for how to address the significant gap this creates for high-achieving kids (ie, real kids who are in school NOW for whom this is not a theoretical issue or future consideration).

    As we face making a middle school decision this time next year, we’re in a bind. We’d much rather keep him with his friends and the strong community of families we currently have at our neighborhood school. But with this much uncertainty around what the “honors” curriculum will look like, we feel we have no choice but to apply to private middle schools. We are fortunate to have this as an option, though we didn’t even contemplate it for elementary school because we were so committed to staying public. So this is a shame both for us, because it’s our preference to stay in public school, and for SFUSD because we are active in our kids’ school and support it in lots of ways.

    This is an overly long comment, but we are just completely exasperated by what we perceive as a real short-sightedness around this issue on the part of the district and a failure to take it seriously. The message we get is absolutely what you describe in your poll – “high achievers will do well regardless.” And so faced with this flawed logic we will have to vote with our feet, and I don’t think we’ll be the only ones.

  2. Thank you for raising this issue, setting up this poll, and inviting comments. Though I have reread your post several times since yesterday, I have not been able to respond to the poll because none of the choices reflect what strikes me as the fair outcome. Shouldn’t there be an option that says “I’m OK if my child is not GATE-identified, but I expect my child (high-achieving or not – and all children) to receive appropriate and effective differentiation.”?

    One of the things that dismayed me when I toured elementary schools was that it was clear that if teachers had a lot of professional development for differentiation, it was because the PTAs/PTOs raised enough money to pay for extra training (and for the teacher time away to take the training). At one school, the principal was completely candid that differentiation is really difficult, requires extensive training, and that he had written a grant to help pay for more professional development training for his teachers – this was not a school where the PTA raises outsized amounts each year. If the district’s answer to parents’ concerns that their kids aren’t being challenged is differentiation, why are individual schools being forced to figure out how to pay for their teachers’ professional development in this area?

    I don’t have a problem with the GATE identification being limited to the top 2-5% of some reliable and objective measure. That’s not uncommon, and those kids are going to benefit tremendously if they do indeed get additional support and services, and, ideally, some kids previously overlooked will be identified. My concern is there is an inference that the ~85% who are neither GATE-identified nor identified as having a disability (~10% as you note) are somehow going to be fine in classrooms where teachers may or may not have extensive professional development training in differentiation (depending on how much the PTA raises or how many grants the school was able to apply for and get). Yet our hard-working teachers are being asked to somehow do the difficult-to-impossible job of differentiating in classrooms where some kids may be far below grade level and other kids may be far above and lots of other kids are in between. I understand the budget is limited, but it’s perplexing that the District seems to support a system that leaves so many kids inadequately challenged.

  3. I do think that the “gifted” description gets tossed around too liberally. But GATE is ostensibly for “talented” students, too, right? I’m concerned that SFUSD seems to be looking to define what a GATE student is differently (i.e. more strictly) from what the state intends.

    I have heard that GATE-style classes end up with mostly white students, while remedial classes have many African-American and Latino students. If the outcome of any particular policy results in racist outcomes, the policy needs to be re-evaluated. The fact that one of the factors in identifying a GATE student was if the parent thought they should be is one that stands out as problematic.

    However, restricting GATE to truly “gifted” students doesn’t really address the concern of how to educate the “talented” (or “high-achieving”) students to keep them from getting bored, but also improving the educational outcomes of under-achieving cohorts, while addressing the achievement gap. It’s a tall order!

    However, reducing GATE and eliminating middle school honors pushes the parents of some of those students to “top up,” which is a kind of backdoor privatization that doesn’t help the students it claims to.

    It’s a complicated problem without clear solutions (especially with our budget constraints).

  4. Matt says there is no research to support the claim that differentiation can work in classrooms of 35 just as well as in classrooms of 15. However, it may be that you can put fast learners together in a larger classes and get good results so that you can give low performing students more attention in smaller classes. There is some evidence that high performing students don’t need as much individual attention as low performing students.

    For K-5 there is a positive correlation between the percent exceeding the common core math score and more students per teacher; larger class size. That is because the higher the percent of Black and Latino students the smaller the class size and the higher the percent of Asians the larger the class size.

  5. Thank you for starting this conversation. I sincerely hope that the district can find something in between GATE tracking and one size fits all curriculum. I agree that is harmful to all to separate children into gifted and not gifted groups. I doubt my children are in the percentage of population that is gifted, but they both really love math & learn math concepts extremely quickly. The pace of math instruction has been too slow for them (3rd & 5th grades now) and they really need to have math instruction at their level to stay engaged in school. They both want faster paced & more challenging math and their learning needs are not being met with current curriculum . I have not seen evidence of district supported differentiation and have been very disheartened to hear about the removal of honors math in middle school. I believe accelerated pathways are especially critical for math. Isn’t it possible to have some honors or accelerated classes available without having 2 separate tracks?

  6. The district blithely asserts that differentiation can work in classrooms of 35 just as well as in classrooms of 15. None of the research they cite addresses or supports this claim.

    In fact, it’s wishful thinking to assume that students in a class of 30-35–extremely heterogeneous in age, maturity, motivation, attentiveness, language ability, previous experience, etc.–are each going to receive a meaningful, challenging math education from anyone less than a super-teacher.

    The only way for such an unrealistic program to succeed is to define success down. This means that having more kids meet absolutely minimum benchmarks will be considered sufficient. And if that is the measure of success, then that is what will be striven for. As a result, the needs of high-achievers will not be invested in. (“They’ll do fine no matter what”, in the words of the survey.)

    Resources are scarce–I get that. I just wish the district would be honest with parents instead of pretending that they are seriously addressing the needs of kids who are currently not being challenged.

    (If I’m wrong, I’ll be interested in seeing what measurable goals are in place to assess the program’s success in addressing these needs.)

  7. This seems to be missing the forest for the trees. Who cares if some study somewhere says that only 1.75% of people are “gifted” according to some arbitrary definition of the word. SFUSD should in no way feel constrained by that. They should be offering high quality, creative instruction to all who would benefit from it. If that’s 3% of students then so be it, but if it’s thirty percent then hooray we should be celebrating the fact.

    I could be being cynical, but I just don’t see anything to be gained from hyper-selectivity other then perhaps cost savings or a de-facto elimination of the program by eliminating essentially all the participants.

    And also GATE, gifted, talented are all terrible designations. Can’t we just call it creative learners or something…

  8. Louise Whitlock

    This just looks like a convenient way for SFUSD to get around the need and responsibility to provide high quality education to high achieving students of all races and ethnicities. It started when the Honors courses were taken out of the middle schools and now this is just a way to make it ok to only serve the under achieving students, students with disabilities and immersion students. Too bad for the students who strive to do better, who want to be challenged, to achieve high academic success and be able to compete to be accepted at the best colleges this country has to offer. Shame on the Board of Ed — you’re supposed to be looking out for all students. All I can say is that I’m glad my kids are out of SFUSD middle school, one is already off to college and the other one has one more year at Lowell (thank God for Lowell — and don’t ever mess with it!). I’m truly sad and sorry for the other up and coming families who have no choice now, like we did. It’s just not right or fair since all they want is a chance for their kids to grow and excel, just like everybody else. I’m sorry for my bitterness, but I put a lot of time and energy in to the SFUSD public schools and I feel that the leaders are taking it in the wrong direction. I sure hope that the underachieving kids excel, because otherwise this will have been a huge gamble that will not have helped any of the students.

  9. I voted for the focus on students who are not achieving. But that should not exclude putting high achieving students together. There is some validity that the high achieving students are likely to do well regardless, but I can see if fast learners are in a class with a lot of slow learners they could be harmed.

    We don’t seem to have a problem producing highly educated workers who invent and develop. The problem has been producing workers who produce, operate and maintain those inventions. We have a shortage of those lower level workers and too many on welfare. We need to upgrade workers at the lower levels to be competitive in the global market place. The problem starts in school when we pay more attention to those who are easy to teach to the detriment of those who struggle.

  10. From my own personal experience, GATE programs helped me immensely. I grew up as a lower-middle class white person in the suburbs. I was GATE identified and was able to take GATE and honors classes through middle and high school. I completed calculus in high school because I participated in an advanced math track. I am extremely appreciative that I was identified as GATE and was given the opportunity to take theses classes. My life would have taken a different course if I had not been identified because my family was not in a position to support my academic career. My mother was a working single parent and relied on the school system to create a pathway for me. My mother never spoke to my teachers, never went to school events, and never advocated for me. When I applied for college, I did it completely on my own and with GATE and honors courses on my transcripts, I felt that I could apply to the UC system and have a chance of gaining admissions. I did end up attending a UC for my undergraduate and graduate degrees. For students like myself who do not have parents guiding them through the system, GATE and honors classes can make a huge difference in how they see themselves and where they can imagine they will go. In terms of breaking up systemic poverty and prejudice, districts like SFUSD which are majority minority and low income should preserve their GATE and honors classes in an effort to help support academically accelerated students not only to provide differentiated learning but also to give the students the an opportunity to pursue a different pathway than they or their parents might imagine. As I said before, curriculum is a class and not a race issue. When you take away curriculum and sequencing which other students, in private institutions have access to, you are removing educational opportunity for low-income, public school children. I have heard that parents can achieve the “same outcome” of an advanced math and science sequence by having their children “double up” on classes. That practice seems even more exclusionary than GATE identification. It requires parents and students to know what they need to do by-pass the system which has been put into place as an “equalizer”. If parents have never been to college or if English is their second language or if they are not around or too busy to focus on their child’s high school math and science sequence, the child might simply miss the opportunity which would have been there if there was simply GATE tracking and an advanced math sequence. What is being put into place, simply means more work for parents who want their children to apply to the UCs and means that kids who don’t have parents who can advocate for them will simply get lost in the mix. My other fundamental disagreement with this system is that if college graduation, not college admissions, is the goal for SFUSD graduates, the district should be looking at which SFUSD students graduate from college within 6 years and then look at their course sequences to see if GATE and honors students fair better in terms of their graduation rate. If they do, then the district should ask themselves why. It might be that more rigorous – not less – academic training helps low-income students graduate. In my reading, it seems that low-income students have a difficult time graduating from college because they are not academically prepared and do no have family support. If that is indeed the case, the district should be figuring out how to dramatically raise, not lower, standards and its academically accelerated students should be supported in every way possible. There is an organization called SEO scholars which helps support low income students from high school through college. Their main goal in the high school years is to actually add 1.5 years of math and 2.5 years of english study in order to prepare students for college. You can see their website here:
    If they are successful in their practice, maybe SFUSD should be looking more toward a model that increases class time and preparation for its students rather than blaming tracking and eliminating curriculum which is offered in districts to the north, east and south, in charter schools, and in private schools.
    As I’ve said before, rich people will always have access to education which is rigorous, supported, and tailored to a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. You can go to the websites of some of San Francisco’s elite schools like University High School and see what is offered. Poor people rely on public education to “level the playing field” as they are born into a situation which is disadvantaged in terms of resources, many times basic resources such as stable housing and food. If we diminish the strength and quality of our public education system, we are giving up a crucial tool for social mobility and our democracy.

  11. i don’t care about GATE identification per se, and i agree that GATEkeeping (!?) is biased and perpetuates racist and regressive structures. therefore, the district’s move to shrink who qualifies does not really interest me. that said, i (cynically) see this as yet another move on SFUSD’s part to rebrand high achievers as average learners so it can lower the bar of possibility for all students, thereby masking the (true) achievement gap. my own children do appear to be high achievers (but who really knows, as they have never been challenged in the right way — mainly by learning in a non-native language, having to translate course material for peers, or learning myriad ways to maintain focus on learning when classmates disrupt learning or display aggression). after eight years as a parent in the system and 16+ years as a CA public school student myself, i remain skeptical of: (a) SFUSD’s commitment to challenging ALL students at their *true, actual level*; and (b) SFUSD’s capacity to differentiate in any meaningful way, even if it wanted to. ability grouping is now anathema — at least ideologically and rhetorically, even though we all know it is part of even progressive pedagogy…leveled readers’ workshop, anyone? — so where does the conversation go from here? for me, the test of SFUSD’s and the BOE’s openness to parent and student input and investment in high achievers *from all cohorts* will be if, when parents and students push back and beg for rigor, those bodies assume their usual posture, which is to accuse advocates of rigor of elitism and racism, or if they actually listen and dialogue and admit that SFUSD’s differentiation scheme is flawed and destined to fail and will therefore prompt an even bigger exodus of resourced families from the district (or admit that “differentiation” — whatever that means — is insufficiently supported; or based on severely cherry-picked research; or yet another way to push blame and accountability onto classroom teachers instead of identifying systemic problems or social ills too vast for schools to redress; etc.). perhaps at tomorrow’s BOE meeting we will find out : ) .

  12. I concur that the selection process is flawed; but I hope that GATE identification will be re-worked, not suspended forever. I guess the bigger issue is money to fund differentiated learning & challenge for high performing students. I see my older child struggle with boredom and disillusionment year after year. A friend in Pacifica is contemplating taking her son out of 8th grade math and taking him to community college for math, and is suggesting I do the same. Maybe we will, but it seems unrealistic for our family because of the expense, the homework load of the normal school day and the fact that we have a pretty busy life already. I’d rather see resources offered during the school day. Some teachers seem to be great at differentiating. Others seem to be overwhelmed with the task. Sometimes, that comes across as contempt for a bright kid’s inquisitive questions, other times my student is just ignored because she usually doesnt make many waves. I would love to see funding for teacher support to better differentiate.

  13. 🙂 AGREE – “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

  14. I couldn’t care less about the GATE identification. What I care about is the fact that my child is bored in her middle school classes; the teachers are not trained to differentiate well and/or don’t have the time to do it because there are too many students; and the trend is to teach to the lowest level. I understand the point of mainstreaming in elementary school, but at some point, having kids of all different levels in one classroom isn’t effective. GATE or Honors classes need to be re-instated in SFUSD in some form.

  15. My problem with GATE stems from when I was in an integrated middle school serving black and white children. Almost all of the kids in my GATE pull out class were white like me. The projects and assignments were fascinating, collaborative, differentiated, self-selected, and wonderful. But, no kids of color were in the group, even though we were almost 50% African American at that school and had many teachers of color.

    What lessons did this specialized class most importantly impart to all of us? That white kids are smarter and deserve beautiful quality lessons. At that age I kept asking myself why all the students didn’t get the same opportunity to do such creative assignments in small groups. I guess my greatest GATE talent was in seeing the absurdity and the inequity of GATE over 30 years ago, and the segregation lists haven’t changed since. The GATE identified student lists we receive at the high school where I teach on the Peninsula have almost no Latino names on them, yet 40% of our the students we serve are Latino. My colleagues and I try to add as many names as possible because we observe academic talents in so many more of our students who have been diminished by our white culturally centric vision of intellectual ability and talent. It is racism when we classify our children in this way. Indeed, all students are gifted and talented in different ways (Research in the Ivory Tower shows this over and over and Common Sense knows this to be true). It is my job as a teacher to help students realize their talents and intellectual abilities, against a system that sorts them in biased and dehumanizing ways. I have seen great benefit to grouping GATE identified white and Asian kids with non GATE identified Latino kids- it’s called building trust and an inclusive society.

  16. I would not begin to know how to respond to this poll. While my personal feeling is that I wouldn’t need any labels for my child, just the opportunity for differentiated instruction, I watched a couple of kids in our Spanish immersion program shrink from being excited, advanced learners in kindergarten to either just needy or actively disruptive by the end of first grade. These were extremely bright kids whose families did not have the resources to support them well at home. I don’t know whether early identification as “gifted” could have prevented this backslide, but I think of them (and one in particular) regularly. There is something to be said for being noticed in a difficult world. I believe that these kids need GATE programs – or some kind of concrete identification – more than anybody. They are the ones most hurt by its removal.

    As for more resourced children, there are many ways up the same mountain. It is not the removal of GATE education that is problematic, so much as some of the other “side effects” of lack of differentiation, many of which have distinctly negative consequences (rather than just the neutral effect of not challenging the kids sufficiently). In our case, this had as much to do with overburdened teachers as anything. I have many issues with the label of gifted, and I agree that it is too easily thrown around. I do believe though that finding some space for teachers to more flexibly meet the needs of all of the kids is key. If some form of identification is what it takes to do this, than I would be sad to see that go.

  17. As you say, “…identification is only part of the issue. The much more important part, of course, is curriculum.” I’d suggest that at least as important as curriculum is implementation. Thus, we have a new Common Core math curriculum (with a large body of empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness), but extremely sparse investment in teacher support, training or performance evaluation. This, more than student identification or specific curriculum, has always been the problem.

    I agree that labels should not be important. A child should not have to be GATE identified to receive “differentiated instruction and academic supports tailored to their needs to derive a benefit from their education”.

    But will the district now be requiring of our children an “Einstein-level brilliance” before concluding that they deserve that same level of basic competence in instruction?

    (And can we look forward to seeing evaluations of our teachers and administrators as to how well they are performing towards that goal?)