If we were to re-design Advanced Learning in Seattle Public Schools from a blank slate, how would we do it?
Would we have self-contained classrooms, intentionally integrated classrooms in the cluster model, randomly integrated classrooms with all skill levels, or some sort of hybrid in which students are sometimes in one mix and sometimes in another, such as "walk to math" or other skill-level grouping? Are there some gifted or high performing students who cannot be adequately served in a general education classroom? Are there some who could be served in a general education classroom? Are there some who could be served in a general education classroom - but only if there is some sort of deliberate effort to do so?
Who should be served by advanced learning programs? Gifted students with high cognitive ability? How high? Kids with high academic achievement, possibly as a result of talent, possibly as a result of motivation and effort, and definitely as a result of preparation and exposure? Kids who are really motivated and hard-working, even if they don't have any special cognitive ability? Some combination? Should some kids be served in one kind of program and other kids served in another?
Never mind what we have now. What should we have? Should we have anything at all?
For me, the issue turns on this question: are there students who will not get an appropriate academic opportunity in a general education classroom?
Accelerated Progress Program (APP)
There is a body of research that concludes that students with cognitive ability more than 1.5-2.0 standard deviations above the mean don't just think faster than other kids, they think differently. This research strongly suggests that these students should be taught in a different way and in a separate class from other students. They should get an education that is designed around this cognitive ability. That research is out there. You can choose to believe it or accept it or not, but that's what the science suggests. This range roughly corresponds with the cognitive ability in students who are identified as suitable for APP. APP, one might conclude, is an effort to provide that different sort of education - plus a lot of sensitivity and awareness around the other issues that come with it - needed by children in this range.
Eligibility for APP, however, also requires high academic achievement, which reflects preparation and exposure in addition to the cognitive ability. The instruction provided in APP seems to be more responsive to the advanced achievement than to the high cognitive ability. Should APP - or whatever would replace it in a re-design - be re-focused on the cognitive ability and away from the academic achievement? What would that look like?
Some suggest that these students don't need anything different and they don't need to be separated. I'm not sure what forms the basis for that conclusion, but I will tell you that nearly every family with a child in APP has a story about how they would have loved it if their child could have been appropriately served at their neighborhood school, but that wasn't happening. Many of them are convinced that APP saved their child's future, if not their lives.
Based on either the science or the personal histories, I cannot imagine that Seattle Public Schools would not have some sort of separate gifted education program to address this need. We can discuss whether eligibility should be determined by cognitive ability alone or cognitive ability and academic achievement and we can certainly discuss what sort of instruction should be provided in this program, but I'm pretty sure that there will be such a thing because the need for it is well-documented.
Here's a really tough question: How and when should kids be deemed no longer eligible for APP? Should their cognitive ability be regularly re-tested? Should students only be re-tested if a teacher voices a concern that the program may not be a suitable assignment? Should students have to produce some minimal amount of work or earn some minimal grade? Could a student be removed from the program based on behavior?
Can the sort of students who find themselves Spectrum-eligible get an appropriate academic opportunity in a a general education classroom? That's a trickier question.
On one hand we have a great body of research that is very clear that self-contained classrooms are, far and away, what provides the best opportunity for the bulk of these students. The same research also concludes that it does other students no harm to lose these children from their classrooms. Self-contained classes were the state of the art ten years ago and they still are.
In recent years, however, a number of studies are emerging that suggest that IF some sort of instructional strategy is followed or IF some sort of intentional design is applied, then we can get outcomes similar to those available from self-contained classes. Then there are the folks who simply jump to the conclusion that these students are not so special and that they will do just fine wherever they land. This determination is often based on the same process that discounts the need for child car seats.
The data is muddied a bit by variations in selection criteria. Are we talking about students with cognitive ability in the top 10%, the top 5%, the second 5%, the 90th-97th percent? Are the students further qualified by academic achievement and, if so, by what range of academic achievement?
As with APP, there are a lot of families with children in Spectrum programs with horror stories about how poorly their child was served in the neighborhood school and how much better everything is in self-contained Spectrum.
So as much as we would like to be able to say that our neighborhood schools should be able to adequately serve theses students, the candid truth is that some of our neighborhood schools cannot. What is the appropriate response to this reality?
Should the District even have a response at all? Your neighborhood school doesn't provide your child with an appropriate academic opportunity? Too bad. It's one-size-fits-all here. Maybe you'll get lucky and your child will get a teacher who knows how to differentiate instruction and does it every so often. Maybe you'll get lucky and your neighborhood school will allow some grouping by skill level. Maybe not. You're certainly free to work with your teacher and school, but they are under no obligation to work with you. The District is certainly beating a drum for differentiated instruction, but no teacher is under any requirement to march to that beat. The District's effort has been more cheer-leading than anything structural or enforceable. It certainly isn't reliable.
Should the District response be some district-wide effort to personalize education for every student - to make a stronger, bolder move to the universal application of differentiated instruction? Is the District capable of such an effort? Would the District's effort be effective? Could the District reliably provide differentiated instruction if they really really tried and used all of the tools at their disposal to make it happen? Could the District require schools to make some sort of documented, enforceable, intentional effort? What if the District required schools to describe in their CSIP how they serve their advanced learners or deliver differentiated instruction? Would this sort of effort and response create general education classrooms that reliably met the academic needs of moderately gifted, high performing students in the Spectrum-eligible range?
Should the District acknowledge that they are nowhere near being able to do that and resort to Spectrum or something like it? If so, then which students should the program serve? Gifted ones? Academically advanced ones? Gifted and academically advanced? How gifted? How academically advanced? Is there some other criteria that better defines those with the special need? And how should the District serve them? In the proven effective self-contained delivery model? In some other model that shows promise? However the school principal decides?
Right now the District is working everything at once so nothing at all is working.
APP brings together a strong cohort of students but it's less clear if the program is as selective as it should be or if it is too focused on academic achievement rather than cognitive ability both in eligibility and in program. If APP works it works thanks to the cohort and the teachers, not the principals or the district. It's the people in the classroom, not the program that works. The APP review described wide variations from classroom to classroom. The aligned, written, taught and tested APP curriculum that was promised - it was supposed to be implemented concurrent with the split - was never delivered. The APP Review project was dropped from the Strategic Plan without comment. There is no good measure of the results of any effort to align the APP curriculum. The program lacks clear, solid, legitimate rationale or design.
Self-contained Spectrum programs are reportedly working well where they are found, but they aren't found in many areas, and they often create capacity management issues. We have equity problems because there are large parts of the district that lack the critical mass of students needed to form self-contained programs. Then there are schools which have independently rejected the self-contained model - with or without the District's approval. Some of them have well-conceived models; some of them don't. There is no effort to align anything Spectrum. There is no effective choice in Spectrum either. Spectrum is so lacking structure that it doesn't even deserve to be called a program anymore.
Middle school Spectrum is really a mess. All of the middle schools supposedly have Spectrum programs, but some of the middle schools have absurdly few Spectrum students. There are twelve students enrolled in the Spectrum program at Aki Kurose and half of them, six, are in the eighth grade. Mercer has a total of 27 Spectrum students, 12 in the eighth grade, 12 in the seventh grade, and three in the sixth grade. Even in schools with large programs, the "program" is really only the LA/SS block class. There is an independent process for math placement and there is no Spectrum science class. If Spectrum is LA/SS only, then why do the students need to demonstrate numerical cognitive ability and academic advancement in math to be eligible? Why can't they qualify with verbal cognitive ability and academic achievement in reading and writing alone?
Advanced Learning Opportunity programs (A.L.O.'s)
A.L.O.s never deserved to be called a program. No one can say what is or is not an A.L.O. or how they are any different from what should be happening in the school with or without the A.L.O. designation. The schools were supposed to provide a structure and the District was supposed to provide accreditation for these programs but they never did. Consequently, the designation is meaningless. Not only are schools deciding for themselves what constitutes an A.L.O., they are also deciding which students may participate. The original intent of A.L.O.s was to allow students to self-select participation. That's gone. The original intent was that each of them would have a clear design. That's gone. The original intent was that each of them would be subject to review. That never happened. Schools can freely claim to offer an A.L.O. without any requirement that they justify the claim. Many of them make the claim but cannot support it.
If students cannot self-select participation into A.L.O.'s then we don't have any opportunity for students who choose to challenge themselves to go beyond grade level. Shouldn't there be such an opportunity that doesn't have some test as a gatekeeper?
There are a lot of other questions: If A.L.O.'s are a good idea in elementary school, why do they stop being a good idea in middle school? Why does Spectrum stop being a good idea in high school? What is high school APP and why do we say we have it at Garfield, but not at Roosevelt or Ballard where the number and variety of AP classes is nearly as rich and the cohort nearly as high performing? Why do we say we have it at Ingraham IB but not at Chief Sealth IB? Why aren't STEM and NOVA recognized as APP pathways in high school?
Let's focus on these two questions and see where they lead us.
- Who do we need to serve and how do we need to serve them?
- What requirements should the District set and enforce and what details should be left to the schools to determine?
Don't worry about legacy; there is none. All of the programs are in tatters. The good news is that we have a blank slate.