Tag Archives: GATE

A mini FAQ, and a book review

Lots of email after last Tuesday’s Board meeting, and comments too. I got one comment I decided not to post because I thought it was too likely to be misconstrued. Still, I engaged in a great exchange with the author–a parent of a young child new to SFUSD–and based on that exchange I think it’s helpful for me to rephrase his comment as a series of questions and answers. After that, some thoughts on the book Mission High by Kristina Rizga. But first, the FAQ:

  • Has GATE been eliminated? GATE is not being eliminated, though new GATE identifications have been suspended for a time due to the lack of standardized testing data. Read my post on this topic, which goes into much greater detail.
  • Are all honors and AP courses being eliminated?  First, let’s be very clear up front that Honors courses are not the same thing as AP. Honors at the middle school level has been eliminated. Some high school honors courses for 9th and 10th graders will be eliminated. No AP courses are being eliminated that I know of. AP courses are overseen by the College Board, with a recommended curriculum and a test at the end. Honors courses do not have a standard curriculum from school to school, and prior to 11th grade a student receives no consideration from UC for taking most Honors courses. My opinion:  I am much more comfortable with the idea of expanding AP than I am with Honors, which seems to me to be somewhat arbitrary. I do, however, acknowledge that with the elimination of Honors in middle school, we need to be sure that teachers have the resources and the foundation they need to adequately differentiate curriculum for students at every point in the spectrum of learning. I also think we should begin to look beyond AP as a stand-in for rigor, and deepen our partnership with City College to expand dual enrollment in SFUSD and the College. Students who have real college courses, and credits, on their transcripts will be incredibly attractive to colleges.
  • Will the district turn Lowell and SOTA into ordinary lottery schools?  No.  It’s possible–for example, in response to my resolution last year that called, among other things, for examining the audition process at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts–the district may from time to time tweak admissions processes at these schools. My opinion: I do not expect, nor am I advocating for, any major changes in the competitive-entry admissions at either of these sites.
  • Is there a desire to remove any workaround (summer school, doubling up, validation exams) for students who wish to advance more quickly in math before 11th grade?  District policy does allow students to double up on courses and students who have either passed online courses or the validation exam have already been allowed to advance prior to the “decision point” that is envisioned as coming at the end of 10th grade looking forward to 11th grade. Those options aren’t necessarily recommended, but they are available. My opinion (not necessarily district policy): I see some equity issues, particularly with the online course that some students have taken, since it costs a considerable sum of money. However, I do not think that if an online course is accredited, and accepted by the UC regents as a CCSS Algebra course, that we should refuse to offer credit for it, and I also acknowledge that allowing students who can pay for such a course to move ahead doesn’t feel quite right if there are other students who want to take such a course but can’t pay.  (My children would rather poke their eyes out with hot pokers than take a summer math course online, but maybe that’s just my kids.)  I am discussing this issue internally and asking for some ideas and solutions to that problem.
  • Will students be forced to take non-math-based physics in 9th grade? No. The Board just heard a presentation on the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards in the Curriculum Committee and was told that schools will either choose Biology or Conceptual Physics for 9th grade OR every school will offer both Biology and Conceptual Physics as options. The final decision is still yet to be made–the Curriculum Committee strongly came down on the side of students having options at every school–but requiring every student to take Conceptual Physics in 9th grade is absolutely off the table.
  • How do the new the CCSS  Math for 8th grade and CCSS Algebra I course in 9th grade compare to the previous Algebra I taught in 8th grade?  Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a handy graphic that shows the overlap between the old/new courses:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.34.03 AM

And now a book review:

I’m really excited to recommend the book Mission High to anyone who cares about the future of public education, and in particular about the future of public education in San Francisco. Kristina Rizga, a writer for Mother Jones, spent several years “embedded” at the school, building strong relationships with students and teachers so she could tell their stories. Even before I read the book I was recommending Mission to people because of what I know about the teaching and leadership at the school. And the book just underscores my positive impression, giving a deeper and more detailed view of classrooms where teachers are working every day to encourage students to do more, learn more, and think harder. The book makes it so clear that much standardized testing only captures a fraction of what students know and can do (I knew that already but she makes a great case). I love social studies teacher Robert Roth’s focus on writing — “analyze, don’t summarize” he is quoted as saying over and over again to his students — because as a writer I know how much harder it is to write a good argument, citing evidence,  than it is to answer a true or false or multiple choice question.

I love the way the students at Mission High grow in confidence and ability and become powerful advocates for themselves and their school. I love the way they reject the label of “failing student” or “failing school” even though the school’s test scores aren’t stellar. The students, through the course of the book,  become writers and advocates and scholars. They go to college. They achieve. They lead.

Reading about the teachers and students profiled in “Mission High” makes you believe in the power of teaching to transform any life — not just the lives of those who have experienced incredible adversity–but also the life of any young person who has great potential and needs encouragement and instruction to reach it. I believe this kind of teaching is present in every school in SFUSD. Perhaps not in every classroom, perhaps not every day of every year– yet the ability and the potential is there. “Mission High” challenges me as a Board member to create those conditions where great teaching can flourish, for every student, in every school, every day. Have you read the book? Tell me in the comments what you think.

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).

Recap: Lots of public comment

Not a lot of weighty business on tonight’s board agenda, but we always manage to make our meetings interesting!  The meeting began on two uplifting notes:  a Superintendent’s Resolution commemorating the Week of the Administrator and commendations to a few of our hardworking administrators; then an announcement from the Superintendent that SF Mayor Ed Lee has agreed to release the Rainy Day Fund to SFUSD for 2011-12 – a lifeline of $8 million for next year.

Then on to an earful of public comment — about an hour’s worth — from several different school communities: SF Public Montessori, Bryant, Buena Vista and Lakeshore. First up, UESF and some of the parents at SF Public Montessori are upset that several of the preschool teachers received notices that they would not be retained next year; one was relieved of duty immediately due to issues with her credential. This school has had a troubled history in its few short years in the district, partly because of strong personalities with strong opinions for and against the project, and partly because it’s just challenging–not impossible, but challenging!– to fit the Montessori philosophy into a traditional public school model. The irony is that the current group of warring parents and staff at the school all truly love the program and are committed to building a great K-5 Montessori program in San Francisco. It’s just that they differ on how this should best be done, and with whom.

Next up: a group of parents and one teacher from Bryant Elementary, one of our SIG schools that will utilize the “turnaround” model as part of its reorganization plan (the model requires, among other things, that 50 percent of the current staff at a school find new jobs within the district).  Most of the parents spoke against the turnaround strategy, and were advocating against losing any of their teachers. Others spoke in support of the principal, including the Instructional Reform Facilitator, the school’s on-site teacher coach.

After that, Buena Vista parents and staff spoke about their misgivings in the wake of poor communication and shifting plans for their planned move to Horace Mann to form a K-8 Spanish Immersion school in the Mission.  They were unhappy to learn that 6th graders would be admitted to the school’s GE strand for 2011-12, having been under the impression that only 7th and 8th grade GE students would remain at the school next year; BV families are also upset to learn that the leadership of the new school remains in flux, subject to an open hiring process that will commence this month (many had hoped that the current principal of Buena Vista would automatically move into the leadership position at the new site, but the Board and Superintendent have decided that the fairest thing would be to conduct an interview process as we would for any other school community).  As it stands, the current Assistant Principal at Horace Mann, Adelina Aramburo (formerly the principal of Cesar Chavez ES, another SIG school!) will lead a planning team made up of staff and parents from each school, and will manage the transition until a site leadership team is selected.

Finally, Lakeshore parents came to express their unhappiness that their school would feed into Denman MS under the revised proposal for the middle school feeder plan. They have a point in that Denman is  further from their school than Aptos or Giannini, but I was a little put off when one parent said it didn’t feel “equitable” to be sent to Denman rather than Aptos or Hoover or A.P. Giannini. Equitable to whom? Her point, of course, was that the offerings of various schools differ. They do — the most obvious difference between middle schools being the presence or absence of a GATE or Honors track (it’s arguable whether that presence or absence is the most important difference, however).  Lick and Denman both do not have an Honors track, while Presidio, Hoover, A.P. Giannini, Aptos, Marina and Roosevelt all do (I am not sure about the status of an Honors track at Everett, Francisco, Horace Mann, Vis Valley or Martin Luther King — some of these schools are extremely under-enrolled, and it’s hard to support two tracks in that situation).  It’s late, and I don’t want to write a treatise on the subject, but I do think we are long overdue for a discussion about the role of Honors classes in this district (not to mention the sham that GATE is in elementary school, but I digress).

The treatise, in a nutshell:  Some people think we should just do away with Honors altogether — that it’s a leftover from a time when college was the goal for only a few and great jobs could be found without a college education; now, they argue, the Honors track is simply a sorting mechanism that introduces higher academic expectations for some and lower expectations for others. Another group argues that Honors classes challenge high-achievers and allow teachers to move faster on material than they otherwise would be able to in a GE population.

My question is:  which is it? As it stands right now, we are kind of having our cake and eating it too — saying that it’s possible to challenge high-achievers without Honors in some schools, and in other schools saying, no, Honors is the only way to make sure high-achieving students are receiving rigorous content. To me, it’s all about expectations and rigor. Can you have universally high expectations and acceptable levels of rigor if you have multiple tracks? But I’m also sympathetic to the argument that some kids need a faster pace of material than others. I actually know that is true, since I have two kids who learn at drastically different paces; the 5th grader is handily doing math that completely escapes the 6th grader.

I don’t know the answer yet, but I am continuing to ask the question, because I think it is hugely relevant to the middle school debate. I’ve asked that we bring this topic to a future Curriculum Committee meeting, because I’m interested in the pedagogy of GATE/Honors — What do we know about the benefits of tracked vs. differentiated environments? Now that we have opened Honors and AP classes to everyone, what have the results been?  I am not sure when the topic will hit the committee’s agenda, but I’ll post an update when the date is set.

Last, but certainly not least, we ended on a another uplifting note. At my invitation, staff from the Parent Education Network came to present to the Board about their organization, and their upcoming conference — EdRev 2011.  EdRev is an event that seeks to support several different swaths of the LD (Learning-Disabled) world — parents, who are looking for ways to help their kids be the successful, smart people they know they can be; students, who know they are smart but have felt stupid most of their lives because they learn differently; and teachers, who know their students can learn but need help and resources to assist their kids with LDs.  I can’t do the conference justice so go here to learn more (registration for parents is $60 with scholarships available; students and teachers may attend for free).

PEN has existed through sheer energy and determination over the past decade, and is finally growing into a bona-fide clearinghouse of information, resources and networking for parents, teachers and students (several student members of PEN’s SAFE Voices student to student mentoring group also spoke poignantly about their experiences). I was so pleased to finally host them in the Boardroom!