Please feel free to skip this rant about advanced learning
It's been a while, but I've been feeling an Advanced Learning rant building in me. It got pushed over the edge today when I got thinking about the District's inability to implement MTSS.
For those who prefer to skip rants - and especially rants on this topic - please do skip it.
It would be better to teach the students in a way tailored to their needs and abilities rather than simply providing the standard instruction delivered two years early. So far, no one in Seattle Public Schools has shown any interest in even having this discussion, let alone developing a curriculum (as promised) for HC students. The saving grace is that should any such curriculum ever be developed, a delivery model is in place to implement it, the Highly Capable Cohort.
Instruction for HC students must be designed (I would say “re-designed” but it has yet to be designed a first time) from the ground up, with the needs and abilities of the students in mind. Until that is done – or at least until the District decides to do it – there is no point in debating program sites, professional development, eligibility criteria, or anything else. It doesn’t matter who sits in the car, who drives it, or where we want to go when the car has no engine.
After underserving HC students in grades 1-8, Seattle Public Schools abandons them completely at grade 9 and offers them nothing at all in high school. The opportunity to see former classmates in classes and hallways is hardly a cohort. There is no high school instruction made for them. Access to AP classes is neither HC service nor a substitute for HC service. It is, again, at best, grade-skipping with a cohort of grade-skippers. The cohort at Garfield made sense when some high schools didn’t offer any AP classes at all, but that’s no longer the case. HCC students can have access to AP classes or Running Start at any school, not just at Garfield, so continuing the cohort at Garfield only serves tradition. It's not serving students.
Once you describe the problem, the solution becomes obvious: the District needs to develop a 1-12 HC curriculum designed with the needs of HC students in mind and the District needs to implement this curriculum across all HCC sites. You know, just like the District promised to do in 2009 but never did.
Want to know what’s funny? That’s the good news. Yep. The grossly misguided and inadequate service provided to HC students is the good news.
The bad news is that this shadow of service is the only service available. There is no service at all for students who cannot gain access to HCC. Seattle Public Schools utterly fails to support non-HC students working beyond Standards through a total refusal to even try.
The Standards, intended as a floor in theory, function in practice as a ceiling. There is no reliable support provided for students working beyond Standards. In fact, student work beyond Standards is aggressively discouraged as it disrupts horizontal and vertical articulation and violates fidelity of implementation. District officials, school administrators, and some teachers claim that these students are served through differentiated instruction, but that is either a total lie or nearly a total lie.
The District claims to offer support for advanced learners three ways: ALO, Spectrum, and MTSS. They are all false.
ALO is the false promise of differentiated instruction in a general education classroom. ALO is a lie. There is no differentiated instruction, or at least not enough to make a difference. What, if anything, happens for an ALO student that wouldn’t happen for the same student in the absence of an ALO? What are ALO students supposed to be taught that is different from what general education students are supposed to be taught? Nothing. There is no Standard or curriculum for ALO students. They are not taught anything different from general education students.
Spectrum used to be delivered in self-contained classrooms. That was its distinguishing feature. That was how you could tell it from ALOs. No more. Spectrum students are no longer is one classroom together. Instead, they are evenly distributed across all of the classrooms in a school. In other words, Spectrum is now the same as an ALO, which, as we just noted, is the same as general education. In other words, Spectrum is the same as general education. Spectrum is a lie. What are Spectrum students supposed to be taught that is different from what general education students are supposed to be taught? Nothing. There is no Standard or curriculum for Spectrum either. It too is no different from general education. If anyone knows of something done for Spectrum students that wouldn’t be done for those students in a school without a Spectrum designation, I wish they would tell me about it.
Spectrum and ALO are completely broken and worthless, but there’s no need to fix them because the District intends to replace them with MTSS. Really, could someone in the District just admit that? It’s painfully obvious, but it would still be a relief if people would just acknowledge it. MTSS is supposed to provide the structure and resources needed to facilitate differentiated advanced instruction and codify the process for reliable delivery. Just one problem: the differentiated lesson that is supposed to be on the shelf and ready for the teacher to use isn’t there. No one has written the thousands of alternative lessons needed to make this work. Consequently, MTSS is also a lie.
There’s something else working against it: teachers’ need to differentiate is set by their mission. Their job, they have been told, is to deliver the grade level curriculum. That’s what they hear like a drumbeat: all of the pacing guides, Standards, calls for fidelity of implementation, Tier I of MTSS, and talk about vertical and horizontal articulation tell them that is their job. Teachers certainly alter the style of their instruction to meet the needs of individual students, and they will supplement with content below grade level when necessary for remediation, but they do not commonly supplement with content beyond grade level to support students who are ready for it because that’s not part of their mission. The fourth grade teacher is charged with the delivery of the fourth grade curriculum. For some students they may have to include elements of the third grade – or even the second grade – curriculum to get that job done, but it is never necessary for them to include any fifth grade curriculum to achieve that goal.
Again, once the problem is clearly stated, the solutions are equally clear. The District needs a curriculum designed to support students working beyond Standards and they need to charge the teachers with delivering it. The elements of this curriculum would be the same as the elements of a Spectrum curriculum if the District ever wrote one. Since the District is preserving the façade of Spectrum they can even call it the Spectrum curriculum when they write it and then, when they eliminate Spectrum in favor of MTSS, they will have a ready-made narrative about how it will be okay because the Spectrum curriculum will be preserved. The charge to teachers needs to be changed from “Deliver the grade level curriculum” to “Deliver the right tier of curriculum to each student in your class”.
In this way MTSS will credibly support students working beyond grade level in general education classrooms and since teachers are charged with implementing MTSS, the delivery of an advanced curriculum for advanced learners could be made reliable. If the curriculum is written and the teachers are charged with using it, the teachers will deliver the lessons – even in a general education classroom. In the absence of a curriculum and a charge there is no chance.
Again, this written curriculum for advanced learners needs to be something different from grade-skipping. When I first asked about Spectrum in 2000 no one could describe it for me until I heard it from the fourth grade Spectrum teacher at Lafayette. He said that Spectrum was supposed to go deeper, go broader, and go faster. It didn’t necessarily have to go further, but there wasn’t anything preventing that. As a parent I wasn’t all that interested in acceleration. I didn’t care if my kids did fifth grade math (or reading or writing or science or history) in the fourth grade. What I really wanted was for them to have a more profound understanding of the fourth grade content (deeper), for them to be able to recognize it and apply it in a wider variety of contexts (broader), and to be taught at the velocity of their learning (faster). If the additional learning speed were applied to the deeper and broader then it didn’t have to go further. I was not impatient for my kids to get next year’s lessons – they could get those next year. There was no urgency.
The problem is that there is no quick, easy way to document and measure added depth, breadth, or velocity. There is, however, a quick and easy way to measure acceleration. All you have to do is check the grade level on the cover of the textbook. The District is going to have to find a way to demonstrate depth and breadth of learning and they are going to have to show that advanced learners will get it thanks to a compacted curriculum.
That’s a trust problem and it is a problem of their own making. They will have to work very hard to show that they are doing something different for advanced learners through MTSS.
I suspect this change will reduce the political problems the District has from Spectrum, though most of those were addressed by dissolving it. Will families know that some students are getting the MTSS Tier II Advanced lessons which are different from the MTSS Tier I lessons that their classmates are getting? How subtle or obvious will it be? Will they think that some students are getting something better than other students? Are there complaints like that now about Walk To Math? Will there be a report that will show that 70% of the students in School A are getting Tier II Advanced while only 15% of the students in School B are getting it? And if there is such a report, will it prompt accusations about equitable access? I don’t know.