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D181 Gifted Program Criticized by External Evaluators

The evaluation team hired by the district suggested the discontinuation of the ACE program and the creation of a clearer district philosophy about what makes a gifted student.

The identification process and curriculum of District 181’s current gifted program are “not defensible,” according to an external evaluation conducted by Dr. Tonya R. Moon and her team from the University of Virginia.

Moon and colleague Dr. Catherine M. Brighton presented the findings of the team, which was hired by District 181 last fall to provide an unbiased state-of-the-program report, during Monday night’s District 181 Board of Education meeting at in Burr Ridge.

Among the Moon team’s recommendations were that the Affective and Cognitive Enrichment (ACE) program, which takes gifted students away from their home schools one day per week for specialized instruction, be discontinued; that the district establish task force to develop a more clear philosophy and direction for the gifted program and how gifted students are identified; and that the district eventually hire an administrator whose sole responsibility would be to oversee the gifted program.

The evaluation presented Monday was not a finalized report and the Moon team will, based on feedback from the board and administration, present more information to the board at a future meeting—most likely the Feb. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Brighton, who talked mostly about the evaluation of District 181’s gifted curriculum, said the elementary ACE program for gifted students is a “part-time solution for a full-time need.”

The program is problematic, she said, because it crams gifted education for selected students all into one day a week and there is little communication between ACE program staff and general education staff. Brighton said home-school teachers were not very clear on what their ACE students did when they went off to Monroe School, where the program is housed.

“It’s really impossible to look at the gifted program without considering the general education program,” Brighton said.

The team’s report indicated that though differentiation within the classroom for students of differing achievement levels was discussed on the district’s website, there was no evidence of it during the team’s two-day visit.

“The lack of differentiation of instruction in both the general and gifted classrooms ... prevents the district from achieving its full potential and, consequently, does not develop students’ potential to their fullest,” the report reads. “We recommend that district-wide conceptual-level curriculum be developed at each grade level in each content area.”

Board President Michael Nelson later disputed the Moon team's conclusion that there's no differentiation in district classrooms. 

Brighton suggested that District 181 look to increase the rigor and challenge of the general education curriculum meant for all students. The team's report also recommended exploring the possibility of accelerating the entire district's math program by one grade level.

Who makes the cut?

Moon, who mostly spoke on gifted-program assessment and student identification, said there’s no standard definition in the gifted-education community of what exactly “gifted” is, so District 181 must come up with its own philosophy on what makes a gifted student, and implement a definition that can be reliably measured so students are in the right places.

“Without that clear vision and clear definition, you don’t know who you’re measuring or what you’re measuring,” Moon said.

Currently, the district relies on external testing (SCAT and STEP test) and teacher observations to select gifted students. Students are evaluated at the end of second grade for possible gifted placement in third through fifth grade, then another evaluation takes place at the end of fifth grade to see if any new students should be placed in the gifted program at middle school.

The Moon team’s written report (which can be found in full here on the District 181 website) recommended that if the district continues to use external testing to select gifted students, it needs to establish through empirical evidence that students who do not make the cut on those tests don’t, in fact, succeed in environments like that of the ACE program and the district’s Enriched Language Arts (ELA) program.

Moon’s report says the district also needs to show that teacher observations have been an accurate predictor of whether a student will be high- or low-achieving.

Board supports change, differs on route

There was much discussion of Moon’s findings among board members Monday night and little action. The board decided it would hear the finalized report before making any decisions.

All board members seemed to be in general agreement that the gifted program needed to change, but several, including Board President Michael Nelson, were wary of establishing the philosophy task force suggested by Moon.

Yvonne Mayer said the district has been through that process several times over the past 20 years with regard to the gifted program and it has produced no results.

“The members end up catering to the loudest person in the room, or the pushiest person in the room, or the person with the best relationship with the district,” Mayer said.

Mayer recommended that the district hire a contracted gifted-program administrator in advance of any decisions to get the program revamp started instead of a task force.

Superintendant Dr. Renée Schuster, though, said it’s important that, either through a task force or a survey, it's clear the community is behind the philosophy of the gifted program going forward. Schuster said the community needs to be able to voice its opinion on whether the currently “exclusive” ACE and ELA programs just need some adjusting, or if a new, “inclusive” program should be implemented.

All board members said they were not opposed to a more inclusive program.

Several board members also asked that possible alternatives from comparable, high-achieving districts be mentioned in Moon's final report. Mayer and Brendan Heneghan were among the board members who, in addition to Moon's recommendations on what needs to be fixed, wanted suggestions on what that fix might look like. 

Joshua Raymond January 31, 2012 at 08:51 PM
If the problem is with the assessments, why not fix the assessments or choose better ones?
Joshua Raymond January 31, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Rebecca, if you read through the research, you will see that such a study was performed against a control school that initially outscored the treatment school. The comparison school was chosen because of similar demographics. I'm not sure how one would measure teachers' expectations for students. The study does discuss the effect of cluster grouping on all students and notes that for high percentage of all students increased an academic level (47% in 2000, 34% in 2001), but a small percent did decrease (3% in 2000, 9% in 2001). There are also comparisons on the averages of all students between the schools. Good luck finding such a study by a non-GT organization. GT is the red-headed stepchild of education. Most teaching colleges don't even offer a single course in it, where the current trend is de-leveling and differentiation. While cluster grouping is not tracking, dividing students into levels goes against current policy trends even though the data supports it. I hope you will review the study thoroughly and not dismiss it simply due to authorship. We have one elementary school our district that uses cluster grouping with great success, but the district politics have prevented other schools from implementing it. Whenever parents at that school have objected, the principal shows them how scores have improved.
Ann Mueller February 01, 2012 at 04:19 PM
I am interested in knowing which site in D181 uses "cluster grouping with great success." Joshua, is D181 the district that you are referencing? Thanks, Ann Mueller
Joshua Raymond February 01, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Ann, I'm involved nationally on G/T advocacy, so your G/T changes interested me. My local school district has 13 elementary schools ranging from the 90th to 99th percentile with one implementing cluster grouping. Data analysis of schools in our district has shown a rise in test scores across the board for this school since the change to cluster grouping. While cluster grouping has good evidence supporting its use, it is very difficult to get implemented in schools. It takes a strong leader with a commitment to evaluating the data. Too often the concern is placed on how will grouping students affect their self esteem. While this appears to be a legitimate concern at face value, when students in the low and low average groups actually begin achieving as opposed to feeling lost throughout the entire instruction time, their self-esteem rises. It is more the parents' egos that get in the way when their children are assessed into low and low average groups and you need a principal and superintendent who are willing to state that a child's improved education is more important than a parent's bruised ego.
Ann Mueller February 01, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Joshua, I agree with you that cluster grouping can have very positive results. I saw this in action at both my 25 year-old daughter's elementary school and then when I was working at one of the elementary buildings in D181. Especially at the school where I was working, it was the parents who complained about the cluster grouping in math at the 4th and 5th grade levels and how it would affect their students' self-esteem and their later placement in the middle school math program. However, if a lower level student is able to achieve in a cluster setting in math and not be frustrated by being exposed to rather difficult material that is delivered in a fast paced way, then the cluster approach increases a student's self-esteem because they have achieved success by mastering the math material. Parents all too often are so concerned by the "cluster lable" of their student and, therefore, transfer this negative way of thinking to their student(s.) If a teacher can group students together who are of a similar level and needs based on actual performance data, it is easier for the teacher to service these students and the students end up working with other students with similar questions and levels of understanding. There is a huge need for a qualified assessment professional in a district of D181's level if testing is to be interpreted and applied correctly. Ann Mueller

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