See schools run

Recently, I listened to a couple of longtime friends reminisce about their Nancy Oatesearly days as first-graders at Glenwood Elementary School. Both of them entered first grade already knowing how to read. They were put into the Dick and Jane reading group. Average readers were sent to the Spot and Puff group. Those not yet able to read were assigned to the Little Baby Sally group. Sometimes when the teacher had her hands full, members of the Dick and Jane group led the Little Baby Sally group, tutoring them in phonics and helping them recognize words.

Such was the state of gifted education in Chapel Hill in the 1960s. Much has changed since then. The Gifted Program in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools today seeks to identify children of high intellectual potential in kindergarten, then offers tiered enrichment programming for the gifted, the highly gifted and those so smart they are deemed to have “profound learning needs.” (More than a decade ago, I read a letter to the editor in which a mother referred to her child as “severely gifted.” I guess that’s who the last category serves.)

CHCCS has a reputation for its stellar public schools, the high marks many of its students score on proficiency tests, and high graduation and college acceptance rates. And that, above all else, keeps families paying high prices for real estate in the school district despite high property and taxes. The average price for a single-family home in Chapel Hill is about $400,000 and comes with an annual property tax bill of about $7,000. That seems like a reasonable sacrifice to make when you consider that tuition in private schools in the area ranges from about $13,000 to $22,000. That’s per child, per year.

So when the school system came into a budget crunch and the school board initially decided to make the cuts from the academically gifted program, parents took notice. Within weeks, the school board had recanted and decided not to make any cuts anywhere, but instead ask for full funding, even though it would mean a property tax increase of 3 cents per $100 of a property’s assessed value.

I’m certainly not advocating for the school board to make cuts to any remedial programs for students who do not have the advantages that their high-IQ peers enjoy. But I can see why the board changed its mind on cutting from the academic top. If the reputation of city schools begins to slip, people are less willing to pay more for housing inside the district. Real estate prices begin to slip, and that means less property tax revenue coming in to pay for all of those extras that make Chapel Hill desirable – a luxury library, an art czar, a marble bench that no one sits on, and all those consultants who back town staff.

We need our gifted programs as much as we need remedial programs, though for very different reasons. See us jump to pay more taxes.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. anon

     /  April 21, 2014

    unfortunately there has been a long time push/defunding of those kids who have not been tested for LEAP but are typically outperforming most of their peers, the so called “gifted”.

    At least two current school board members have had kids in LEAP, which has a lot of resources and full time permanent teachers for it. It is for advanced kids who get tested a lot to get into the program. (many of these kids are socially awkward – did not say all). In the past, parents who didn’t want to test their kids so much and wanted a more typical social experience could have accelerated Math and more extra “gifted” type work, while still being in a team of “typical” students.

    However, what the school board has been doing has been minimizing the value of options for kids who aren’t tested for LEAP but are clearly able to handle advanced work at least in specific subjects (e.g. math). In fact the superintendent proposed cutting accelerated math for non LEAP kids, before a public backlash. (for some reason they never guessed you might have a kid excellent in math but not necessarily language, for example).

    anyway, that’s what’s been going on – less tailored educations to kids who can excel in many subjects but not all. So gifted has become sort of a step child to LEAP.

  2. many

     /  April 21, 2014

    “all the women are strong….all the men are good looking….and all the children are above average”

  3. James Barrett

     /  April 21, 2014

    Hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t use their name, but here it goes.

    What “lot of resources” do you think is devoted to LEAP? The LEAP classes are just as large as every other class in the district — therefore those “permanent teachers” are the same teachers who would be assigned to those students if they were at their home school (ie, there is ZERO $ in teachers). And given the turnover we’ve seen in the LEAP teachers over the past couple of years (4 out of 6 left in the 5 years my son was in the program), I wouldn’t say there’s much difference between the LEAP teachers and others. The *only* resource you can point to is the transportation involved, and that is so small the administration doesn’t break it out separately.

    There’s no question instruction for ALL levels needs to be improved in our district. That is what everything we have done recently has been focused on. However, it is not fair to equate the proposed cuts with a reduction in instruction for gifted students. Instruction happens by the classroom teacher. And happens regardless of label. I’ve been clear with administration that I can only support these cuts if we are changing the focus of gifted specialists from being primarily (yes, “primarily” today is what they report to me) focused on identification and instead focused on coaching teachers to deliver great instruction to all students (again, regardless of label). I believe we can deliver the same service to gifted students with these reductions if we minimize the identification work. See this national commentary for an echoing of how I feel about how we’re delivering today —

    I believe the labeling of gifted students distracts us all from the real needs for growth for every student. I’d be happy we didn’t do it at all, since the label in and of itself is no value to our students. Let’s focus on making sure our teachers know they are expected to deliver a year’s growth for each and every student (and more for those who are behind), and delivering the coaching they need to make that happen. High expectations and better support are the differences we can deliver regardless of these cuts.

  4. many

     /  April 21, 2014

    Mr. Barrett,

    What you seem to suggest is illusory superiority. The article you link had a statement that resonated with me:

    “One recent study found that, across the United States, 95 percent of kindergartners tested in the fall demonstrated mastery of counting up to 10, identifying one-digit numbers, and recognizing geometric shapes. Despite this widespread level of proficiency, teachers reported spending an average of 12.7 days per month reteaching this content, a finding negatively associated with student learning.”

    Is “gifted” the new “average”, or perhaps more likely it is the curriculum that is behind?

    The assumption made by the Chapel Hill School district is that they have a high number (I see claims of 40%) of the students are “gifted”. This is hard to believe, unless of course the term “gifted” has been seriously diluted. To me, Chapel Hill schools are (only slightly) better than average because of caring teachers, involved parents and a higher than average education and income, nothing else.

    Of course smaller class size is better, but it sounds to me as if a whole new set of assumptions and a much better recognition of what it takes to challenge and engage all the students from an early age is what is needed more.

  5. anon

     /  April 22, 2014

    LEAP kids have full time class rooms each with a permanent teacher. There is approximately one “gifted” specialist for an entire school (multiple grades).

    the size of the LEAP classrooms is no different statistically than the other classes. My point is having one gifted specialist for an entire school and saying that is the same as having classrooms each with a LEAP teacher with them all day is silly.

  6. anon

     /  April 22, 2014

    to keep it simple James,

    there are no “gifted” classrooms, there are only LEAP and non-LEAP classrooms and that is part of the problem… are you really going to claim having one gifted specialist for three grade levels is the same commitment as having LEAP teachers for each classroom?

  7. Linda Convissor

     /  April 22, 2014

    Can someone please explain what LEAP and non-LEAP are/mean?

  8. Nancy

     /  April 22, 2014

    LEAP is Learning Environment for Advanced Programming. Students are selected after IQ tests and teacher recommendation, and they are all in their own classroom together with their own curriculum.

    I take exception to Anon’s comment that their is only Leap and non-LEAP. CHCCS has 5 levels of Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) programs. Granted, LEAP is like getting into Harvard, and some parents find ways to name drop and boast when their children make the cut. But there is life for smart kids outside of LEAP.

  9. James Barrett

     /  April 22, 2014

    Nancy, the other thing to note is that while LEAP may serve 2% of our students, when we have 40% identified as gifted, the vast majority of our gifted services are delivered outside of LEAP. That would be a bad thing if Anon’s insinuation that LEAP is getting something special in the way of resources had any basis in fact, but since it is allocating the same resources to those students that they would get in another classroom, it isn’t a financial issue. We can have a conversation about whether segregating those students is a good thing (in general, I believe it is not, but we don’t have a viable alternative right now), but it isn’t a budget issue.

  10. many

     /  April 22, 2014

    This might help explain:

    I’ll say it again; if 40% or more of the students are in the “gifted” percentile then there is something very wrong.

    Oh, BTW, no pressure kids, just do your best.

  11. James Barrett

     /  April 22, 2014

    46% of Chapel Hill residents have ADVANCED degrees (ie, masters, PhD or professional). That’s such an outrageous number (compared to 9% across NC), that 40% of students doesn’t sound off-base to me (given I have 2 children identified as gifted with no advanced degrees in my household). Our demographics are so skewed, it is really hard to consider what is “normal”. Which again is why I support focusing much less on the label and more on making sure each and every student is seeing growth they need and deserve. Ann Arbor, MI has 41% advanced degrees and eliminated all identification several years ago for exactly the same reason. They compared to other districts where trying to provide direct gifted services limits you to less than 10% of the population being served, while improving instruction benefits all (gifted and non).

  12. many

     /  April 22, 2014

    Not sure what the percent of advanced degrees has to do with the identification and segregation of “gifted” students. Are you suggesting that the advanced degree population has something to do with the number or choice of “gifted” children? Could that assumed connection be attributed to confirmation bias or something else, is there a quota?

    Your last sentence makes it sound (to me) as if the number is used to justify budget (funding).

    Applause for Ann Arbor, it seems as if they are leading and have more confidence in their education system than Chapel Hill does.

  13. James Barrett

     /  April 22, 2014

    Education level of parents is a pretty good indicator for how their children will do in school. So yes, I think the # is real. And the point of the last sentence (which was paraphrased from Ann Arbor board meeting minutes) is that trying to directly serve 40% of students specifically for gifted is simply not affordable. So we use a model where we indirectly serve through our teachers who are supported by coaches and specialists. However, we are confusing everyone by continuing to label the 40% as if that is a magic ticket of some sort that gets them something different (when that is not the model). Ann Arbor is letting the differentiated model work — by letting classroom teachers deliver instruction to every student as needed regardless of label.

  14. anon

     /  April 23, 2014

    if 2% of the kids (LEAP) get their own curricula and teachers yet all the other kids are together in the same classrooms, there is actually very little differentiation going on for the 50-98% tile that are just below LEAP.

    and no one has rebutted that having one gifted specialist to serve three grade levels at the school is comparable to what LEAP has.

    If the gifted studens were treated the same as LEAP they would also be collected into classrooms with their own curricula and teachers – but they are not (Fact).

  15. anon

     /  April 23, 2014

    if the concept of LEAP is good – take the top 2% and give them their own classrooms, why should this concept not be extended to those just below them?

    It would actually make more sense for the district to have half day curricula so for example math/science would cluster and english/social studies and expand the number of students who could take more advanced clusters rather than testing for LEAP

  16. anon

     /  April 23, 2014

    nancy – in middle school gifted is one person who serves three grades (with a tiny bit of extra stuff) otherwise the student is in a standard classroom; so it’s not anything close to having your own curriculum or full time teacher ala LEAP

  17. many

     /  April 23, 2014

    Mr. Barrett,

    I think we agree. I too think the Ann Arbor model is far better, leading to less confusion and is a statement of confidence that their education model is working.

    I am not confident that the education or income level of parents can be directly linked to “giftedness” in their offspring. I tend to believe that those children for the most part do have better environments and more pressure to succeed. However you are an educator and I am not, so I trust your analysis. Further investigation on the subject would make interesting reading.

  18. James Barrett

     /  April 23, 2014

    Many, I didn’t say “gifted”, I said success in school. The other factors you mention lead to those better outcomes, which is what we end up measuring when we identify “giftedness”, so it ends up indirectly being equated, but I would never suggest our identification equally (or accurately) identifies across the spectrum.

    The issue in CHCCS is that we profess the Ann Arbor model of differentiation everywhere, but we implement a hodgepodge of direct services, extreme clustering for LEAP, and still do a ton of work for identification. I’m not convinced differentiation is the absolute best option. I don’t see how all of our teachers can teach the entire spectrum of needs every day. But I don’t know that anyone has the perfect answer for how to cluster while countering the racial and income-based disparities that have long existed in public education. But this is a discussion for a future gifted plan — what we have in front of us today is how to best implement the strategy we have (differentiation) and I believe we can absorb cuts to the gifted specialists by reducing work on identification and focusing instead on differentiation coaching for teachers to improve instruction for all.

  19. many

     /  April 24, 2014

    Of course nothing is perfect. The idea of differentiated learning is troubling in the context of this discussion because it seems to imply special treatment and inequality. I acknowledge you dispute that as fact, but you must admit the optics and acknowledge it is the perception of a large number of people. This implication, true or not devolves the conversation into being about the parents, social status, money or the politicians……..and not the children.

    In a more perfect world, additional teachers or separate classrooms are not needed because students that are behind are “peer tutored” by the gifted or talented students (yes, even the 2%). The bar is raised for all by the youngsters that are doing the learning, the “gifted” exercise their talents, communicate their ideas simply and effectively to their peers learning patience and compassion. Identification becomes less important as the goal becomes more measurable and about moving ahead as a group. That is what I mean by being more confident in your system and methods.

    As an aside, being from the corporate side of things one of the most vexing problems we have with new grads is not their intelligence, creativity or follow through. The deficiency is their patience with and willingness to help others, their ability to communicate, build a team or bring on new members, sharing the knowledge. In short leadership and influence is an area that needs improvement. This issue becomes even more pronounced with teams being geographically and culturally diverse and distributed with little face time or shared hours. Far too often, we find some are from a privileged environment where their ability to deal with ambiguity and conflict is quite frankly stunted and results in isolation and frustration.

    Over time I have observed that most people (there are rare exceptions) are equally intelligent, the difference is that they know different things, or see things from different angles. The true “gifts” are inclusion and when those different things and viewpoints meld resulting in new solutions and progress that cannot be delivered individually.

  20. James Barrett

     /  May 1, 2014

    Relevant commentary today from the Fordham Institute (whose politics I never agree with, but they do provide well-thought-out education ideas that make me think):

  21. many

     /  May 1, 2014

    Thank you.
    I am a little taken aback by the suggestion “…is it ultimately a politically acceptable excuse for not doing anything special for high-ability children?” Again, I am not an educator, but experience tells me that plenty is done for the “high ability” children, and their needs demand a different focus than others.

    Separation does no one any good, and honestly I do not think we are good enough at recognizing all of “high ability” children, or even all the areas of “high ability”. This notion is born out of the sheer number of entrepreneurial kids that drop out, disgusted with the system.

    I do agree with the professional analogy, I think it was Buckey Fuller that bemoaned societal categoritis and over-specialization, wasn’t it?

    Again, I think the problems can be largely solved by leveraging the “high ability” student talents to assist the teaching staff and at the same time develop their own (often under developed) areas of communication, persuasion and leadership. This is not to say they should not enjoy advanced placement and challenges that suit their abilities as well.

    I posted this to the other thread. Interesting and thought provoking reading, and I believe has many elements of truth.