In 2001 a federal law commonly called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed. It prioritized getting our lowest students to grade level benchmarks. Districts are evaluated by this. In some districts teachers are evaluated by this. Local newspapers annually post how districts fare on these. Special education classes of all kinds flourished to “get children to benchmarks.”
For the child starting kindergarten who is already reading and doing multiplication – usually with little, if any, parent “teaching,” there is not much available to learn in a grade-level classroom. These children face multiple risk factors from bullying to disproportionately high dropout rates when they do not get an appropriate education, to name just two. A response to NCLB has been an obvious flight to homeschooling. Another response was found in some districts that started programs for gifted children as an important way for them to provide appropriate education at all levels of ability. I live in Washington State where “Highly Capable Programs” are by state law a part of basic education. It took eight years of in-state lobbying after NCLB, to pass in 2009.
To identify gifted children, traditional common practice is to use both intelligence (ability) testing – which is done by birthdate and not grade level – and achievement testing to ascertain where the student is grade-level-wise in various areas, such as mathematical, verbal ability etc. In my experience, these ability tests frequently found gifted children that are 3-5 years above age-grade level in their areas of giftedness.
Recently, however, both New York City and Seattle have shuttered their full-time programs. Vancouver (WA) was threatening to do this as well. There are some children who verifiably are years above grade level in achievement and are being put back into general education classrooms where teachers – focused on getting even their lowest students to grade level benchmarks – are being told to “differentiate”. To the alarm of advocates who have been trying to get equity for gifted students, many of the programs for gifted children have been shutting down. From Seattle to New York City, full time, self-contained classes are being shuttered. The reason they state? Equity!
How do we know there’s an equity problem in Gifted Land?
Districts in Washington (and undoubtedly elsewhere) are required to report to the state data on students in programs. The data include gender and race, as well as free and reduced lunch (based on income). Districts decide to close their programs because they are clearly inequitable.
So why is there an equity problem?
It is because the district practices are inequitable. New York City and Seattle were among the first to close. They were testing on Saturdays in remote locations away from the students’ schools. They were referred by parents. The children who can’t get to the qualifying location or who have parents unaware of the testing – these children never make it to the qualifying test. In some cases, the testing is done on only one date. If they are ill or absent for any reason, it is automatically disqualifying.
Further, some districts do not transport their identified students to their program which may be across town from where they live. Children with parents who cannot transport (for lack of a car, because of a job…) never make it to the program for which they are qualified.
When I was a program manager in a Washington State district, my district wanted to stop
transporting students. Aghast, I did a public records request of nearby Vancouver District, a
comparable neighboring district that did not provide transportation. The request revealed fewer
than half of the identified gifted children ever made it to their program! When I showed it to my
superiors – and argued the equity part of it – we kept our transportation.
Retired from the school district for several years, I did another public record request in 2019 of Vancouver because I was working with some state legislators. The public record request in 2019 revealed that of 69 eligible second graders in Vancouver, only 11 made it to the program available for them. The others “chose” their neighborhood school. I knew two of those families – and both wanted their kids in the program. One was a full time working single parent, the other had both parents working full time. Parents who work full time or don’t have a car are not able to transport their children every day. In Vancouver’s case, they not only tested on Saturdays, but also did not transport their qualified students to their classes! Meanwhile neighboring districts who test students on school days and transport them to services do not have an “equity problem.”
There is a recent move toward using an initial universal screening of all children in a district using non-verbal measures. These screenings happen in school and on school days. A variety of further evaluation is also done during the school day in neighborhood schools. For gifted students, there may need to be a range of services just as there is a range of services for special education students. For services outside of the student’s neighborhood, transportation should be provided as it is for all other students.
Recently I got a call from a concerned parent in Vancouver (WA) School District because the district was planning to shutter their full-time program for gifted children. This parent had gotten my name from one of the state legislators I had worked with. The call came about two days before a school board decision was going to be made on the issue. I was asked to meet with a few parents, to counsel them. The cry from parents was familiar. However, I decided that no matter how sincere and disturbed they were, however many parents went to the school board meeting in defense of the program, they may have the same result as New York and Seattle parents had. Rather, I suggested to go on the offence! Point out the district’s poor practices; share the public records requests and consider the neighboring districts who used best practices and have solid programs. And give that information to the school board. The result? Their district plans were changed. They would have a working group study the issues and include parents in the group.