Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Guest Post - HCC and SPS

 Editor’s note: I’m happy to publish any essays about SPS or public education in general. This one is from Megan Hazen who has three children in Seattle Schools.

Last Tuesday the Seattle School board passed an amendment to board policy 2190, which governs how Highly Capable (HC) students are served in Seattle. These students have demonstrated an atypical cognitive capacity to learn academic subjects quickly and deeply. State law says that basic education for these students includes specific adaptations from general education programming. The foundation of the state law is research and scientific understanding about the variance in human learning as well as recognition that students who learn atypically must be specifically served atypically in order to be served at all.

The changes to policy 2190 reflect a multi-year effort on the part of SPS to change the HC service model, but this specific step (which removes the guarantees of the old policy) is highly contentious. The proponents will claim that they need these changes to address the racism visible in the current service model, while the opponents claim that they need to retain the current model in order to get any service at all. Watching the debate is like watching two trains speeding towards each other, but on different tracks. There is no hope they will ever meet in the middle because they are holding different arguments.

The proponent side of the argument recognizes visible racist inequity. They appear to believe that they can solve the problems by treating the symptoms - take away the current model and you will take away the problem. The arguments for the changes all focus on historical barriers to access, not on the effectiveness of the service itself. The new policy is written to assure that there are no visible racial inequities. (It does not, strangely, appear to care about gender or disability equity in the slightest.) There is no recognition that this visible inequity is a symptom of a problem endemic to SPS - HCC looks racist because it is in a racist system, not because HC is in itself racist. (HC is a human variance, equally represented across races, genders, and other sub-groups of the population.) The board solution is a little like putting ice on someone’s forehead before taking their temperature - sure, it makes the measurement fail to see a fever, but it does little to address the underlying fever, never mind whatever the illness is that generates the fever.

The opponent's argument is on a different track. This one is focused on the question of HOW to provide educational services to HC students. Opponents of changing 2190 are able to recognize failures in the current model, but they are looking for a new model that actually specifies how to provide education. They want to know what training will be provided to improve identification rates, and they want a plan to correctly identify and effectively educate students with cognitive atypicalities; they want specifics about how curricula are chosen, how acceleration will be provided (pull out classrooms? Walk-up schedules? Grade skipping?), and what types of enhancement (depth of subject material? Social-emotional support? Peer access? Challenge projects?) are guaranteed. To continue the metaphor above, the opponents of the policy change are holding out for a treatment for the underlying illness, knowing that curing the illness will also eliminate the fever. Their flaw is in refusing any aspirin to reduce the fever while they wait.

In a moment exemplary of this problem at the last board meeting Director Rankin declared that HC policy must be set ‘because it is required by state law’. With that mindset her goals are to make the appearance of the program acceptable to state requirements while simultaneously making the appearance of the program less measurably inequitable. A better answer would be that HC policy must be set ‘because some students have measurable atypical learning that does not respond well to general education standards’. This mindset would guide the district towards a place where every student with atypical learning could be served. The questions become not ‘do we have equal representation of all racial groups in Seattle, but ‘is this the best program to serve Black HC students? And Asian, and female, and gender non-conforming, and disabled HC students?’. If this district can affirmatively answer these latter questions they will get representative participation, because families will gravitate towards the optimal service.

Unfortunately, SPS consistently appears to think that questions of instruction are its lowest priority. This is true not just with HC, but with most of the biggest challenges we see in SPS:

- instead of using scientifically proven reading curricula to start they double down on intervention to eliminate the symptom of unreliable literacy learning,

- instead of developing universal design to serve disabled students they outsource these students to other institutions,

-instead of asking how to bring education to students in Spring of 2020 they declared that no instruction at all would have the fewest measurable symptoms of failure.

Once you start looking for this pathology you see it in almost every on-going failure of the school district. It’s not an HC problem - it’s a district problem. If the people of Seattle want a functional and successful school district they must demand that the foundational questions of education take priority.

A successful resolution to the arguments about serving HC students won’t exist until the two sides can get on the same track. The conversation needs to start with an understanding of cognitive atypicality, and then a look at what sorts of curricula best serve these students. A viable instructional plan for flexible acceleration, exploration for depth, and social-emotional supports for asynchronous development must be identified. Measurable standards, provision for training and implementation, and accountability guidelines must follow. It is not okay to hide the symptom of inequitable access by eliminating the instructional plan entirely, and it is not okay to hide the symptom of poor accountability by making the guidelines so general that they can not be evaluated.

Even parties who do not require HC intervention for themselves should be urging the district towards this approach, because the same transition will be required for solutions involving Covid schooling, curricula adoption, and even school safety issues. The first question is always about the educational needs of the students, followed by what needs to happen to ensure that those needs are met.

SPS doesn’t have the luxury of starting with wishful thinking, they must start with their primary mandate: Education.


Welcome Home said...

The district's Honors for All report indicates that the district does not have the capacity to deliver effective differentiation evenly throughout the district. There is no reason to believe the district will be able to deliver HC services via differentiation.

The board is setting the district - up for a lawsuit.

Stuart J said...

The state law MANDATES that access to highly capable is BASIC education. It is specifically FUNDED by the state. This is not an option. This is not fun and games. This is a FUNDED MANDATE passed by the legislature. What Seattle is doing opens the doors wide for waste of human potential, there's no accountability, no visibility of where the money provided by Hi Cap services will go. The law is here https://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28A.185

Anonymous said...

Well said. Thank you for sharing this well reasoned argument. One can only hope that the school district will consider it and do the right thing for the kids, rather than whatever optics they appear to be managing to.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Anonymous, I need you to give yourself a name next time, please.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I concur with much of what Megan has to say. I did not listen in to the discussion at the Board meeting because I knew I would not like what I was hearing. I may do so because I would like to hear what each director had to say.

In the BAR (Board Action Report), staff talked about how successful they were in bringing Sped students into regular classrooms as well as a successful ELL transition. I think there are those who might not agree. I would also point out that the district has allegedly had ALOs (Advanced Learning Opportunities) at every school ( if you believe what is written in their CSIPs). But ALOs were always a joke and, just like this changed policy, allows schools to do whatever they decide is right for their community. That is NOT a program. It might be something to point out to OSPI.

Megan rightly points out the lack of language around 2E kids as well as gender issues is troubling. It’s another example of not listening to Sped parents.

I have seen for years and years that the district has tried to attract more students of color to Advanced Learning. But when you allow schools to decide what they will do or what they won’t do to support students who would benefit from the program, then you will never get a base of students of color. When you tie high stakes testing scores to a school score, you can see how some principals might not want their highest achieving students to leave.

I can absolutely understand black/Latino/Native American parents not wanting their child to be the only child of color in a classroom. I had advocated for AL parents of color to be the ones to go into schools with high minority populations to advocate and encourage other parents. Especially if it is done in another language that is most comfortable to minority parents. But the district never tried this.

I do think that for some parents of color there are many factors as to why they might not want to move their child to another school for a program. This new policy will negate some of that but some watered down version of HC is not going to help their child.

I will go out on a limb here and say that the numbers of students of color in the program may go up but I’d bet by high school, not much will look different from what you see today. Not because students are not bright enough to take AP classes but because they did not have the steady diet of rigor that kids from another school may have had.

Lastly, I have NO idea how you track how the program is doing if you have 100 schools doing it their own ways. Again,I think OSPI should be notified that this is what is happening.

Christina said...

It should be noted that kids are getting assigned HC without any referral or testing right now. Many families I know had kids designated as AL because of testing in school in primary and are now “HC.”

Melissa Westbrook said...

Christina, can you tell us more? What school is this?

Outsider said...

Regarding Christina's comment: one middle school I know about formerly had an "honors" tier of classes (somewhat the remnant of the old Spectrum), but cancelled them starting this year. Some students who would have been in those honors classes were instead assigned to HCC, even though the were not HC designated (I am pretty sure). HCC classes are also fairly soft this year, with zero work outside of school hours and not even enough work to fill school hours (not sure if due to instruction being remote, or due to the general dumbing-down trend in SPS.)

Christina said...

Melissa- it’s all over. I have many friends in elementary who are experiencing this situation. Their kids tested in to AL, either through the title one testing done in school or the Saturday testing and now they are getting notified that their kids are HC, under no attempt by the families to pursue or ask about the designation. I assumed it meant there was no more AL?

Christina said...

Melissa- it’s all over. I have many friends in elementary who are experiencing this situation. Their kids tested in to AL, either through the title one testing done in school or the Saturday testing and now they are getting notified that their kids are HC, under no attempt by the families to pursue or ask about the designation. I assumed it meant there was no more AL?