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.
Seattle Public Schools does a fair job of delivering highly capable services in grades 1-8. The Highly Capable Cohort is a system that should allow students who need to be taught in a different way to get that different kind of instruction. It isn’t working because the District has failed to try. Rather than teaching differently, the District has chosen to grade-skip HC students but to do it with a cohort to avoid the negative social consequences of grade-skipping. The students don’t get lessons designed for them but for general education students two grades ahead of them. When the “two grades ahead” language was first coined, the District staff protested that it was an over-simplification. A couple years later the District staff were saying that’s all there was to the program.

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 fa├žade 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.


Northender said…
The big question is why can parents still apply to AL/Spectrum programs? What is the point? This year the waitlists for AL have barely budged. Maybe it's their passive aggressive way of ending the program. No more kids get in....
Anonymous said…
Walk to math is also simply acceleration. In standards based education, there is no depth. There's only acceleration. If you embrace standards then you have accepted a linear model of learning, a world in which everyone is at a measurable point in their achievement of standards. There's no extra, there's only standards moving forward (or behind).

Outsider said…
The rant seems to come from another planet. On this planet, SPS doesn't do advanced learning because they don't want to. They aren't failing at anything. Advanced learning runs counter to both equity and the rights / needs of special ed students. The absence of advanced learning represents success, not failure. Nothing will change ever. Am I missing something?
Anonymous said…
I would like to counter your argument. It's not a curriculum that teachers need, it's more support in the form of more teachers to help deliver an mtss model. More people power. And it's not going to happen. Teachers don't have time or the energy by themselves to make and teach group after group pulling from these 1000's of lessons that you propose. Teachers need support from more people in the building, not curriculum.

Send help quick!
Anonymous said…
Outsider summed it up pretty well.

Seattle Public Schools does a fair job of delivering highly capable services in grades 1-8.

Nope. Not true. Middle school HCC has been reduced to the opportunity to grade skip in math and science. That's about it.

Outsider said…
Here is my rant: the kids who will hold the best jobs in America in the future are going to school right now in China and India. They will come on H1 visas. Big corporations prefer it that way, because foreigners are cheaper and more compliant. SPS bureaucrats prefer it also, because those future H1 kids overseas don't contribute to the "opportunity gap" here at home.

The few opportunities that will go to Americans are reserved for the 5% who can afford Bellevue or private schools or private testing to get into HCC, and that is also a feature not a bug. To the people who matter, who control these policies, denying advanced learning to working class and middle class American students is an imperative, not a failure. Nothing will change within the walls of public schools, ever.
Anonymous said…
I disagree with the point that Garfield doesn't serve students better than having the HCC spread across all high schools. By having the cohort somewhat concentrated, at least the school can offer more periods of the AP/advanced classes, so that, for example, if a kid wants AP Bio plus orchestra, they don't have as high of a chance that those would be offered the same period with no alternative for taking AP Bio some other period (or maybe AP Bio isn't even offered at a school where not enough kids sign up for it). Also, kids are less likely to have to always be known as "the smart kid" if there are several others with similar academic skills. And at GHS there are more same-aged peers taking the advanced courses, which matters when you are a 9th grader. Not saying there aren't many good points made in the post, just making sure no one thinks there's no disadvantage to dispersing the HCC across neighborhood schools.
- Bulldog Parent
Anonymous said…
Why apply for Spectrum?

Our school has walk to math ... BUT the only kids who get to walk to a "beyond grade level" class are those kids who are ENROLLED Spectrum students.

Have a kid who is on the wait list ... tough luck ... they aren't enrolled in the program and therefore aren't eligible to receive instruction beyond grade level standards.

As Charlie stated ... the standards are the cap ... not the baseline.

N by NW
Anonymous said…
It doesn’t matter who sits in the car, who drives it, or where we want to go when the car has no engine.

Actually, if the car doesn't have an engine but they're going to have to sit in anyway, I'd argue that it matters tremendously who is in it. If the others in the car want to talk about Pokemon or Instagram but you'd rather talk about mathematical proofs or philosophy, it's going to be an ugly "ride."

Anonymous said…
@ send help quick, teachers do need more support to implement MTSS. But the absence of an appropriately rigorous program NOW, prior to MTSS--and when they have self-contained classes--suggests that they also DO need a curriculum.

Anonymous said…
In recent years I have encountered school district personnel, including teachers, who have explained to me that HCC students should be working two years ahead, and Spectrum students should be working one year ahead, and ALO students should be working at grade level. I have also encountered teachers who have explained to me that "Spectrum means we need to give the students more homework to keep them from getting bored" and "HCC means we need to give the students more homework than the Spectrum students to keep them from getting bored". If that is what teachers think, then that is what students in those particular classes will experience; and with all due respect, that is absolutely NOT what advanced learning ought to mean.

lm said…
I talked to a Lafayette mom whose kids are in Spectrum. She absolutely hates the amount of homework, more than an hour a night. She is relieved that Spectrum kids are being reintegrated in regular classrooms. She feels like their family will get their weekdays back.
Lynn said…
It's not necessarily an advanced learning issue. My neighbor's child in a second grade general education classroom at Lafayette has homework every night. Fairmount Park has a no-homework policy for all students.

This discussion reminds me of the response I received when I told my oldest's first grade teacher that I thought her school refusal was related to lack of challenge in the classroom. (It's hard to be patient when you're six.) She sent home extra homework. I returned it with a note saying "She's not bored at home."

Requiring advanced learning teachers to receive training in the education of gifted students would solve this problem.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sigh. Anonymous, no anonymous comments (any name will do):

"I hear a lot of talk from families of children with late summer birthdays, who are planning to or have red-shirted kindergarten for a year to make it more likely that their child will qualify for advanced learning opportunities. I have a child turning 5 in Aug and starting kindergarten in the fall. Because I have heard of so many families doing this with advanced learning in mind, I've been a little concerned that there is more to think about than just whether or not your child is ready for kindergarten. But this post on SPS advanced learning makes it sound like all they do is allow children to move up to the next grade levels. Why not just have these kids skip grades? What's the point in holding back kindergarten for a year if you want your child to skip grades in the future? Pretty set on starting my child in kindergarten next fall, but interested in hearing more about why people hold kids back to create more advanced learning opportunities for them. Is this a trend? If a lot of people do it, will it harm children who our age appropriate for their grade, but on the younger side?"

That's a new one for me. I red-shirted my early September birthday kid because otherwise he would have been one of the youngest and shortest in his class for the rest of K-12. I don't regret that at all.

Grading skipping can be problematic even if it seems an easy solution. My impression is the district doesn't like to do it but you could probably make a case. It's certainly not the norm here.

Anonymous said…
I'm a K teacher. The best reason for red-shirting a child is if they are socially immature or have little/no interest in academics. K is pretty academic these days (which is another whole discussion:) It is a little easier for kids if they are interested in academics, can sit and listen to a story and have some decent self-help and problem-solving skills. It's often true that children who start school late catch onto academics more quickly in K. However I have kids every year who have summer birthdays and get into AL. I definitely have parents red-shirt kids, but not to get into AL.They red-shirt because they don't think their child is ready. I am seeing more of a trend of parents sending kids a year early who they think are really smart. Parents are concerned that their child will be bored if they wait for their regular admit date. I'm more mixed on this. There is such a push these days for kids to perform academically at younger and younger ages. I have kids who can read, but can't solve a problem with their peers. Sometimes it works out great sending kids a year early and sometimes I wish the parents had waited and sent their child to a pre-K program with a strong emphasis on social skills.
K Teacher
Anonymous said…
One more thought. As a K teacher, I've never had anyone regret having their child wait a year, but I've had a number of parents regret not red-shirting their summer child. I think the best judge is the parent. You know your child the best. If you have concerns, wait. If you don't, send them.
K teacher
Anonymous said…
RE: Redshirting a summer birthday for Advanced Learning

The achievement tests for Advanced Learning are grade-normed. The Cognitive Tests are age-normed. We have one child with a summer birthday we red-shirted, and one child with a spring birthday that started on time. Both are in HCC.

I believe red-shirting a child that gets an extra year of rigorous pre-k can help with early HCC qualification on the achievement tests. But more than half the kids qualify for HCC after k, and for those kids the age-normed Cogat is going to be harder to pass because its based on "learned reasoning".

I don’t consider life a “race”. People live a lot longer today than they used to. I believe a red-shirted summer birthday, regardless of HCC, is not a bad option. I was red-shirted, and I don't regret it.

redshirting said…
My birthday was 3 days before the cut off. I did fine and enjoyed being the youngest. My husband's birthday was 5 days before the cut off. They held him back; he did fine and enjoyed being one of the oldest. I agree with the K teacher who posted earlier. Go with your gut. You know your child best.

We followed the guidelines and let our daughters enter on schedule with their late June and mid-October birthdays. They both seem pretty happy with the results.

I do worry about the lack of direction in Middle School. I know a number of other HCC parents who are thinking about going private at that time. And to answer a question that was posed earlier, I got my kids tested so that they would have options. I got them tested in the hopes that their love of learning wouldn't be squashed in 3rd grade. However, it's because of the dismantling of the Spectrum and lack of direction in Middle School, I had them test again the next year and get into HCC.
Anonymous said…
The entire system is focused on narrowing the achievement gap. That's what's measured, and that's what gets all the attention. Raising the top is not going to reduce the gap. The top is the problem. Hold those students back, and discourage them to the point that their families go private when possible, and the gap starts to look better. Current incentives in no way support meeting the needs of advanced learners.

Meanwhile, at our middle school where Spectrum has been jettisoned in favor of blended classes with a lot of talk about differentiation, only 38% of teachers say they have sufficient support to actually differentiate instruction. Same number as the entire district. So the whole idea of differentiation is predicated on a system that is unable to support teachers in actually doing it.

Abandon hope

Anonymous said…
No wonder HCC is busting at the seams. It's the only option for kids that are ahead of the average.

Ignore the problem
Anonymous said…
Re: Redshirting,

I tell families with summer birthdays all the time just to head to New Zealand and start the school year in March. There is really no perfect answer, but I hate to see the limited perspective that many families and Kindergarten teachers bring to the question. As a middle school teacher, I see another effect of redshirting and I hear the regrets that K Teacher hasn't heard. I was determined NOT to redshirt my early September daughter, but we did wonder if we had made the right decision through elementary school. She's now a junior and we have no regrets. In fact, the research bears out that redshirted kids, especially girls, are more prone to depression and risky behavior in the upper grades. Here's an interesting perspective from the New Yorker a few years ago: (note, in NY the cutoff is December 31st, so redshirting happens with fall birthdays...another interesting note to compare to our August 31st system). I say, don't try to game the system...enjoy who your kid is and be happy!

-MS Teacher
Anonymous said…
Re: Redshirting
@MS Teacher. We had the exact opposite experience than you with our boy in middle school. We wished we had red-shirted him. Academics were harder in the younger grades. In middle school, he was less mature than the other kids and that was hard. In high school it really makes a difference also in sports. I agree that there is no perfect answer, but I would still recommend to parents to have your child wait a year if you have any concerns. We almost had our child wait a year, but were talked out of it by his preschool teacher. It was a mistake. We should have waited.
Another perspective
Anonymous said…
Thx Ms Teacher for posting that article. Like I said, It seems best to me to start my kid on time. However, hearing so many people talk about red-shirting for various reasons, including more advanced learning opportunities, made me start to second guess a little. I feel that my kid is ready for kindergarten & his current teachers have said the same. I'm worried that with red shirting being a big trend, that instead of being in a class of children with kids who are a year or less older, that my kid will be with classmates who are 1+ years older. Especially as I hear families of children with spring birthdays red shirting as well. But I guess at some point a mixed age class might be a possibility & maybe this wouldn't be so different. That there is no perfect answer, seems to sum it up.

On time
Ranting said…
The School board has been recently concerned about the district shutting down programs without notice or board approval. This will also probably happen with Spectrum. It will just die into the night. Why does Advanced learning even designate kids as AL if the only service they will realistically get is maybe an extra worksheet?
Anonymous said…
Another perspective, you say 'it really made a difference in sports" - yet someone has to be the youngest - so just as long as it s not your kid that's ok? This is the crux of why I dislike redshirting so much, I understand that we all make decisions that we think are the best for our child, however redshirting is an abuse of ones privilege. It's gaming the system for an advantage for your kid and the detriment of others. Still I don't blame you, the fact that we can't design a kindy year that is supportive of the spectrum of 5 year olds development is the real problem.

Middle Child

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