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.