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Thursday, August 15, 2013

What is Spectrum?

Shauna Heath, the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instructional Support and Michael Tolley, the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, have told the Board and the public that they will form advisory committees this fall to explore delivery models and identification criteria for advanced learning programs. In the meantime, schools are moving forward on their own with changes in delivery models. We know that Wedgwood and Lawton are discontinuing self-contained Spectrum as the grades roll up. They claim to be using a cluster model, but it's unclear how closely they are following the cluster model described in literature. Whitman says that they will use a cluster model for 7th and 8th grade Spectrum this year. Again, it is unclear how closely they will adhere to the cluster model described in research. A number of schools, due to low enrollment, have never offered self-contained Spectrum. It is unclear what delivery model they are using.

Shauna Heath has also acknowledged to the Board and the public that the District has never assessed the quality or efficacy of advanced learning programs and that the District has no means of enforcing any standards for these programs. Bob Vaughan, the recent Program Manager for Advanced Learning has acknowledged that some of the A.L.O. programs exist "in name only".

So what, if anything, is Spectrum? Is every school free to define it for themselves? Does the District have any authority and, if they have authority, can they or will they exercise it?

Who has Authority?
According to Superintendent Procedure 2200SP, Spectrum is a program. According to School Board policy 2200 Equitable Access to Programs & Services and Policy F21.00 Specific Areas of Involvement Reserved to the District, placement of Spectrum programs is under the superintendent's authority. But what about the real issue: defining the program?

Policy 2200 gives the superintendent authority over program placement, but gives the schools authority to determine a delivery model for Spectrum so long as the change doesn't "have an impact on budgets, hiring or placement of staff, or on space within a building." And, even if the superintendent has authority to dictate a delivery model, that doesn't mean that the superintendent must exercise it. He can allow the schools to do what they like with Spectrum. In the end, even if the superintendent has the authority to define Spectrum and wants to exercise it, there is no indication that the superintendent can or will enforce that definition on the schools. The District can't even police schools' Special Education programs and services and they have federal law on their side in those cases.

Again, what is Spectrum?
Spectrum used to have two defining characteristics: an accelerated set of academic expectations and a prescribed delivery model. Students were taught to one grade level ahead (when developmentally appropriate) and were clustered together to form full classes. Sounds good, right? Only that was never the case in a lot of schools that supposedly had Spectrum programs. In many cases it was questionable whether they were providing an accelerated curriculum and in a number of cases it was certain that they were not forming full classes - not even half full classes - not even more than three or four Spectrum-eligible students together in a class. There was a brief effort to enforce standards on Spectrum - I'm thinking of a letter from June Rimmer to the community at Denny telling them that their Spectrum would be re-classified as an A.L.O. - but that resolve crumbled almost instantly. Now there is no effort to define Spectrum nor is there any effort to police it. Spectrum in many - if not most - schools is indistinguishable from an A.L.O.

An accelerated set of academic expectations
Spectrum, when it is done right, goes beyond the general education curriculum in three dimensions. It is supposed to be faster, deeper, and further. Lessons are supposed to be faster thanks to a compacted curriculum that skips the things that the students already know. It is also supposed to move faster because the students require fewer repetitions of the material to learn it. Instruction is also supposed to go deeper to explore concepts and give the students a more profound understanding of them. Students should be able to apply the concepts in a broader range of contexts. Finally, the students are supposed to go further. They are supposed to be working on material for at least a grade advanced. This is intended as a floor, not a ceiling. Unfortunately it is difficult to objectively measure whether the lessons are taught faster or the curriculum is compacted. It is really difficult to assess whether the lessons go deeper than general education lessons. The only aspect of the curriculum that is easy to objectively determine is the acceleration, so that's the one dimension that is measured or discussed. That's why the Spectrum curriculum is often abbreviated as "one grade level ahead". This has lead to any number of mistakes as people have taken that bullet-point description as the whole description ("one grade level ahead - and nothing more")- leaving out the other two dimensions - and also interpreting it as a ceiling rather than a floor ("one grade level ahead - and no more").

A prescribed delivery model
Spectrum once had a prescribed delivery model: self-contained classes - or as close to self-contained as the school could manage. A.L.O.s, created by the second Advanced Learning Review Committee in 2002, were supposed to meet the same academic expectations as Spectrum, but without the prescribed delivery model. That was supposed to be the difference between Spectrum and A.L.O.s - the prescribed delivery model. Some schools never had enough students to form self-contained classes. Few, if any, schools could form self-contained Spectrum classes in first or second grade. So that difference was never really in place across the District.

Starting a few years ago, however, schools that could create self-contained classes started to choose other delivery models. Some, like Wedgwood and Lawton, claimed to be following the cluster model developed by Dr. Dina Brulles. That may be the claim, but the evidence indicates that the schools are not following the model and are not doing the work that the model requires. The concern is that without a prescribed delivery model Spectrum is no different from an A.L.O. and, as we have seen, A.L.O.s are often no different from a general education classroom, so that would mean that Spectrum would become no different from a general education classroom.

In short, inclusive Spectrum is no Spectrum.

Just good teaching
How tragic would that be? When we think of what should be happening in a general education classroom it would include differentiated instruction for every student including support for students working beyond standards. If the teacher is doing what we would hope all teachers do - just good teaching practices that include differentiated instruction - wouldn't an advanced learner get an appropriate academic opportunity and experience in a general education classroom? Maybe. There are certainly classrooms where that happens.

There are also classrooms where that doesn't happen. The determinants are pretty varied and the situation appears brittle. Only if all of the various contingencies line up will it occur. The teacher has to want to do it, has to be trained to do it, has to have the resources to do it, has to have the support of the school leadership to do it, and, as much as anything else, has to have no higher priorities making demands on their resources. Nearly all of the families with children enrolled in Spectrum or APP can tell stories about how it didn't happen for their child.

The District has been trying to spend resources to make this more reliable. They have been pushing differentiated instruction for about ten years. The original rationale for the MAP assessment was to support differentiated instruction. They want us to believe that implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) will lead to more reliable differentiation. Take a look at the message from Whitman about their plan for a new delivery model for Spectrum and you'll see all kinds of references to the effort they are making to create the right environment for differentiated instruction. They really, really want people to believe that this will work and will work reliably. So why don't people believe them? I sure don't.

People don't believe them because the District and the schools have not delivered on their past promises. Worse, the District and the schools have not even acknowledged their past promises once they are broken. The District and the schools have refused to offer any assurances beyond "trust us". They have refused to assess the effectiveness of their efforts. They have refused to provide data that demonstrates the effectiveness of their efforts. They have refused to meet people even half-way. People don't trust the District because the District has never given us any reason to trust them. Aside from that, any model that requires that much complexity, training, and organization is too brittle to be sustainable. People want the cohort model (self-contained) because even if the District and the schools fail to fulfill all of their promises (as they have on a number of occasions) there has been enough value in the model to make it okay. The cohort model is simple and it works - every time.

What works?
Even if everything is made right for the plan to succeed at Wedgwood, Lawton, and Whitman, we all know that eventually - and it won't take that long - some critical element of the plan will fail or be removed and the intended outcome will be lost. When that happens - and it is when, not if - we all know that the District and the school will not acknowledge the loss of the critical element, will not acknowledge the failure, and will not take the necessary steps to make things right.

The choice is between a model doomed to failure and a model that always works. Why are we still talking about this?

15 comments:

Melissa Westbrook said...

A very nice wrap-up - at least we have this to archive.

A couple of points:

- the Superintendent, any of them, could have told schools what the delivery model should be. Spectrum certainly started out that way even when it was the Horizon program. But we come and go on the amount of site-based management and, like most of highly capable, it fell to the bottom of the list.

- my experience models some of what Charlie points out in terms of speed and compacting. Teachers were allowed to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of their classes (just like gen ed) and work to those. One teacher used to give a pre-test on a chapter and if the students knew it already, she'd just skip it and move on. It was great.

But she was also the teacher who had parent volunteers take the students out in the hall - one by one - and we quizzed them on multiplication tables 1-12. You miss one, we stop, note what level you were at and try again next time. You better believe those kids knew those math basics even as they worked deeper.

- "Some, like Wedgwood and Lawton, claimed to be following the cluster model developed by Dr. Dina Brulles." I'd have to read the wording of the statements from those schools but I suspect is more "modeled AFTER", not following. Dr. Brulles, in her visit to Wedgwood, said herself that they were not using her model. Period. The principal did not contradict her.

But honestly, it just doesn't matter.

And it doesn't matter because it has never mattered on whit to this district or any Board what highly capable kids get. Blah, blah, we have a program. Bob Vaughn, at times, tried valiantly, to get the district to focus and, in the end, just tried very hard to keep his very little piece of turf.

I think the assumption can be made that the next head of AL will just carry on testing and that's it.

Because no one at SPS truly cares and, according to some here, shouldn't care at all.

Anonymous said...

Whitman's letter describing their cluster grouping model ends with a list of organizations that "Support School-wide Cluster Grouping." I searched the Center for Talented Youth website and didn't find any references to cluster grouping.

Even Diana Brulles (Author of the Cluster Grouping Handbook) says it's a method to be used when you don't have enough gifted kids to form a full class or enough money to transport gifted kids to a central location for self-contained classes.

My guess is that those organizations support cluster grouping over doing nothing - not over self-contained programs. The letter seems less than forthright.

Lynn

Anonymous said...

How many current Board Members have had children enrolled in advanced learning programs? I'd like to hear if they feel those services are necessary. Is there any possibility there will be a board member attending meetings of the advanced learning task force?

Lynn

Melissa Westbrook said...

Lynn, to the best of my knowledge, none. That doesn't mean none of their children didn't test in but that none of them accessed these programs.

I'd have to think long and hard about whether I ever saw a Board member at any taskforce meetings I have been involved in/attended. Don't think so.

Anonymous said...

"If the teacher is doing what we would hope all teachers do - just good teaching practices that include differentiated instruction - wouldn't an advanced learner get an appropriate academic opportunity and experience in a general education classroom?"

This is Bryant's philosophy and they aren't shy about sharing it. Their classic example of how they do differentiation is asking one kid for a number sentence to describe 25 using addition and the other kid, multiplication. Wowza.

Nedad


Anonymous said...

Chris Cronas at Wedgwood adamantly believes that "social equity" requires evenly distributing top performing students among each classroom at each grade level, with no more than 6 advanced and/or high achieving learners per classroom. That is the basis of what he calls a clustered classroom. He has stated this publicly on numerous occasions.

This is actually the control group classroom configuration from the Winebrenner/Brulles studies and not the actual cluster configuration. This is the arrangement that was shown in the studies to be less effective for ALL students, not just the high achievers.

He has been told this numerous times (including by Dr. Brulles herself), but has personally decided that it was not an important factor in the study and/or it did not apply to Wedgwood's population. He has stated that he can duplicate their results regardless. The mind boggles.

@WW

uxolo said...

Three current Board members have experience with Highly Capable - as parents.

Charlie Mas said...

While it may be unclear whether the superintendent has the authority to determine delivery model for Spectrum, it is abundantly clear that the Board has absolutely NO authority to even chime in on the question.

For them to do so, either as a Board or as individual Board directors, would be an egregious example of meddling in the administration and management of the District outside of policy concerns.

Jon said...

The core problem is that the superintendent and staff have no incentive to offer programs parents want. They are not rewarded for increasing average test scores or for attracting more parents to our public schools. If anything, their incentive is the opposite, offering programs like Spectrum creates additional work for the administrative staff, so they do not want to do it.

That is something the board could change. They could make it so average test scores and participation rate in public schools are metrics on which the superintendent will be evaluated. Those metrics would encourage the superintendent and staff to offer additional alternative programs like STEM and language immersion as well as more advanced learning programs like Spectrum.

Melissa Westbrook said...

No Charlie, there is a way to say something without it being micromanaging or interference.

Any Board member, in public or private, can say to the Superintendent, "I have been hearing from my constituents about Subject X. What I hear is A, B, C. I have told them to address their concerns to X but that I would pass them along to you because part of my job is to make sure they are heard. Thanks."

That is not micromanaging - that is being a Board director who is listening. It directs nothing, threatens nothing - it just lets the Superintendent know feedback a Board member may be receiving.

"The core problem is that the superintendent and staff have no incentive to offer programs parents want."

Yup.

Charlie Mas said...

Actually, the superintendent and the staff have no incentives at all. That is the nature of bureaucracy - the only incentive is to reduce the drama and conflict so your day passes more easily.

Charlie Mas said...

I think the Board can direct the superintendent to clarify these questions about authority - that's a policy matter - but I don't think they can dictate what the answers will be.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, incentives, you got me there. I just said I believe a director can say something.

dw said...

Excellent post, summarizing many of the problems with advanced learning in this city. If only there was a way to make every staff member downtown read this.

One point though, in your follow-up comment, I will absolutely disagree with.

While it may be unclear whether the superintendent has the authority to determine delivery model for Spectrum, it is abundantly clear that the Board has absolutely NO authority to even chime in on the question.

My gut says you wrote this for effect, but it's not true at all. The Board very clearly has the right (and I would suggest the duty) to write policy that directs Advanced Learning (as well as other marginalized groups such as Sped and ELL) -- at a policy level. The subtleties of how to do this without micromanaging may be over the heads of some Board members, but not all.

You're well familiar with the recently neutered policy of not creating new APP sites. That was a carefully crafted policy that was almost certainly put in place to prevent the ridiculous splitting/destroying of APP that's happening now. It was smart and made good sense in every way. We might question whether that particular policy went too deep into implementation from an idealogical standpoint, but none of it really matters because the bottom line (and I know you'll agree with this) is that it was not enforced. Virtually no policies are ever truly enforced by the Board because they have no power other than the nuclear option of firing the Superintendent.

When you have no real options to enforce anything except to fire your Superintendent, it makes any enforcement very challenging. All you can hope for on a regular basis is that the personal relationships are strong enough to allow what Melissa is talking about, which is informal conversations, urging your Superintendent toward better solutions. I know these conversations happen all the time. The question is whether or not they are effective.

Anonymous said...

I contacted Board Member Carr about inequities in Spectrum delivery due to the model being size-based vs. needs-based. She punted it back to me to take up w/the district - who obviously have used the size-based model for years and see no issue w/it.

Very disappointed in her lack of interest.

Racena