'Stop and Think Kids' Ask School Board Not to Dumb Down Gifted Education

Are Fairfax County Public Schools officials attempting to pull a fast one with gifted education? Many parents think they are, and so do the "stop and think kids."

 By Asra Q. Nomani 

Last week, Joanna Valencia, a Herndon, attorney and mother, drove her black Honda Odyssey minivan through northern Virginia traffic to pull onto Gatehouse Drive in Falls Church.

Five children piled out for an important mission at the headquarters for Fairfax County Public Schools:

Valencia's oldest son Diego, my son Shibli, and a handful of other children marched inside Room 1600 carrying lime-green signs emblazoned with a simple message for their elders on the Fairfax County School Board: "Stop and Think." With their parents, they wore red splashed on their clothes to symbolize the red in stop signs. 

Above the young students, an important message hung on the wall: "We Believe in Our Children." But, while the Fairfax County school board had an opportunity to teach the children an important civics lesson in good governance and transparency, students instead witnessed political maneuvering that set the stage for back-room dealmaking, set to be revealed Thursday night (DEC 20) at another meeting of the school board. Tonight, again, parents and students will ask the school board to "stop and think" before putting in place immediate changes county school officials are seeking. 

The current controversy over the gifted program began this fall when county school officials sprang on parents an "expansion" plan that would, among other things, require gifted students to go to advanced academic classes—many of them startups—in their neighorhood middle school, rather than at established gifted centers at certain middle schools. The speed of the proposed changes caused an appropriate uproar at public meetings with parents, with one school official dismissing the parent response as "pretty sad." 

One goal was to increase the enrollment of Hispanic and black children, whom officials say are suffering from an "achievement gap," or "gifted gap," in comparison to children who are white and Asian. The plan came in the wake of a complaint filed this summer by the NAACP and a local group, Coalition of the Silence, alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools discriminated in admitting students to Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, a premier gifted high school in the country.

But many parents, as well as minority rights advocates, including the NAACP, argue that the "expansion" actually represents a dumbing down of the county's gifted program. To me, as a parent who cares about the future of our children and our country, that's "pretty sad." At kitchen tables around the county, parents are pouring through facilities maps, enrollment figures, test scores and parent feedback forms, challenging school officials on many of the assertions they are putting forward and asserting, quite rightly, that Fairfax County Public Schools is railroading parents, ramming a plan through the school board. 

At last week's board meeting, the twelve school board members had a wide-ranging discussion about gifted education, which affects the country's ability to compete internationally, particularly in the fields of math, science and technology. Board member Ted Velkoff, assigned the task of running the meeting, handed out poker chips that members could "cash" in for speaking time. Dr. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, the  former director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary, explained the research showing the benefits of ability grouping for all students, not just gifted students. 

Several board members eloquently argued the need to have a thoughtful conversation on gifted education, deferring any countywide changes until the county had that deeper discussion with parents, educators and community members. Most board members seemed to agree with them.  Two board members, however, argued for piecemeal adoption of the bureaucrats' plan starting in fall 2013 for certain schools in their districts, without first having a countywide discussion.  

With parents of Colombian and Peruvian ethnicity, my son's friend, Diego, is part of the "underrepresented minority" that Fairfax County Public Schools is trying to reach with its "expansion" plan. During the meeting, he held his sign high: "Stop and Think."

As the meeting set to close, it seemed as if the deeper conversation would be had and the staff recommendation to break up successful centers would be rejected. School Board member Sandy Evans offered a wise motion that the board fix overcrowding at three elementary schools but defer widespread action until the board could have a meaningful discussion about the county's program. Before a vote could be taken, the lame-duck superintendent, Jack Dale, pulled a fast one. He quietly and casually shot up on the projector a carefully-crafted document with a four-point summary of his "sense" of the board. It included a proposal – No. 2 - to let his staff implement new centers starting in fall 2013. Dale conceded the board would have to decide if the recommendation was too "aggressive." 

Deadpan but with brow arched, Evans protested: "Number 2 just doesn't capture it all." Dale smiled. By evening's end, the board had agreed to let the board chair, Ilryong Moon, and Dale set the agenda for the next school board meeting on the issue. 

"What just happened?" asked a perplexed middle-schooler, witnessing the sleight of hand. 

The meeting ended, poker chips collected, and the children of the county had learned an unfortunate but important civics lesson about the fast and loose world of politics. Indeed, this week, Fairfax County Public Schools officials put forward a new plan, again to implement centers starting in fall 2013, although parents and many board members have clearly sent them a message that they were moving way too fast.

At the meeting this week, and in the weeks ahead, I hope that the board will set a better example for the children of the county—and the country—and reject any quick moves, allowing first for a thoughtful conversation about how to help our children compete in the world of the 21st century. That's the least that our "stop and think kids" deserve.  

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, living in Great Falls.

For more information: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=vb.456206724436745&type=2

To sign a petition asking the School Board to "stop and think" please go to:http://www.change.org/petitions/fcps-school-board-postpone-the-proposed-restructuring-of-county-middle-school-aap-centers

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Louise Epstein December 20, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Thank you for pointing out the FCPS procedural machinations, which unfortunately are not unique to this issue. Let's just hope that the future Superintendent has a different approach to governance.
Jim Hubbard December 20, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Consider for a minute that so-called gifted education in Fairfax County was originally intended for the brightest 1.5 percent of the school population (or children whose scores on a standardized test were two standard deviations above the norm.) Consider also that the gifted program now involves more than 16 percent of the school population below the high school level. (You don't need to be a skeptic to suspect that the Lake Wobegon effect has taken hold here in Fairfax.) Consider also that considerable research indicates that nearly all children prosper in classrooms that contain children of varying abilities and conversely that extremely few children "need" to be segregated into classrooms with only so-called high achievers. Consider that considerable research indicates that "tracking" students by "ability" puts many children, particularly those from minority or poor backgrounds at a considerable disadvantage. Perhaps the answer is neither to expand the gifted program nor to keep it as is, but to return nearly all students to regular classrooms and dedicate special resources only to those students who clearly cannot function in a regular classroom.
Asra Nomani December 20, 2012 at 07:24 PM
Thank you, Louise. Watching this AAP debate has been such an education for me, on the politics of education. What I hoped to do was share the insights I've gotten with readers, who don't have the experience of sitting in the spectator gallery of FCPS and school board meetings. If there is anything I've learned as a parent it's this: It's well worth paying attention to how decisions are made. There is a politics behind education policy. I know for some people: Duh. But many of us, we live in ignorant bliss.
Asra Nomani December 20, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Dear Jim, Thank you so much for reading the piece and sharing your thoughts. I think the points you raise are very important policy questions, many of which I have wondered myself. I've gotten a real education, not just regarding school policies, but also about the various schools of thoughts related to how to organize, for lack of a better word, students. The gifted education expert that I quote told the board that most research reveals that blending "gifted" kids (and I hear what you say about the politics of how a child gets that designation) with "general education," as it's called, doesn't lead to any marked improvement for kids in "general education," but leads to a lowering of achievement for "gifted" kids, partly because of peer pressure to not be as "smart" as you can be. I can only remember that two girls in high school made fun of me for making straight As, not because I was particularly smart, mind you, but because I was a high-achieving immigrant kid. I promptly "dumbed" myself down to get a B in English class. Did it score me popularity points? No way. So it was, in its own way, a good life lesson for me, which I think is part of the conversation--do "gifted" kids benefit from being with everyone, rather than separated. Someone on the school board, member Ted, put it well, these are "philosophical" questions. And I think we should talk about them as a community. I'll post the video to the expert's comments, if I can. Thanks for writing, Asra
Mark Gunderman December 20, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Parents of a gifted student may have unique hurdles to overcome when supporting their gifted child in school. The school clown or star athlete enjoys a better reception in the classroom than does the designated “brain” or “egghead.” It is true that the best atmosphere for gifted students is in programs where they can be with children of similar capabilities. Gifted students often have advanced abilities in the areas of in-depth and logical thinking skills, written and oral communications skills and/or visual or performing arts. Students attending these programs benefit from specifically planned educational instruction that challenges them to attain substantive academic goals. Well-established, state-of-the-art programs for gifted students provide the appropriate resources and instruction to prepare students for success in new technology environments. Parents need to closely monitor their child and contact teachers of the gifted who can evaluate a frustrated and confused student. The child may have exceptional ability, but may not have been able, for various reasons, to tap into that ability. Gifted teachers can act as guardian angels, assessing young students to determine if they are eligible for admission into the gifted programs. Children of advanced intellect may need as much special attention from their parents as children with learning disabilities. We should not assume a gifted child will automatically become an outstanding student.
Asra Nomani December 20, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Dear Mark, Thank you so very much for your very thoughtful contribution to the conversation. As a parent, I have just benefited so much from learning about how it is to nurture learning based on my child's learning style, not my idea of how he should learn. Could I ask you to give us context on how you've come to your understanding of gifted education? And, if I dare ask, what you think FCPS is really trying to do with its proposed changes? Thank you much for writing, Asra
Mark Gunderman December 20, 2012 at 09:58 PM
My daughter participated in Loudoun's Gifted Education Programs in the 1990's. I served on the Loudoun County Public School Advisory Committee for Gifted Education headed by the legendary Dr. Tom Woodall from 1997-2000. At the time, the committee served as a support group to review and make suggestions about gifted programs and to promote community awareness of gifted education. School personnel, community members and parents, representing all communities within Loudoun served on the committee. I believe FCPS is attempting to please all of the people all of the time with this politically correct and safe approach.
Jim Hubbard December 21, 2012 at 03:58 PM
The notion of gifted education has many obvious flaws, too numerous to discuss in this forum. Let's just concentrate on two. The original scheme, whereby gifted education was confined to those who scored two standard deviations above the norm, makes statistical sense. Any reasonable person, I think, would accept that scores that far from the norm raise some questions. The current scheme, whereby 16 percent of students are deemed "gifted," on the other hand, makes no statistical sense. What's magic about the boundary between the 83rd and 84th percentile? Unless there's a significant break in the scores at that point (which is highly unlikely), there's no good reason for treating children in the 84th percentile different from those in the 83rd. Second, is the testing instrument reliable and powerful enough to create the basis for such determinations? (After all, the proponents of gifted education contend that inclusion (or exclusion) from gifted education is a life-changing event.) Consider merely that a child's results on such tests can vary as much as ten points from one year to another. Is it responsible to attempt even to sort children in this way given the nature of the tests available? I think not.
Louise Epstein December 22, 2012 at 02:29 PM
It appears that the 16.6% statistic put forward by FCPS central in the last month does not include the many students who were admitted but chose not to attend the Centers. Two decades ago, these numbers were almost equal. Today, they are not, in part because FCPS created Local Level IV classes and encouraged parents to use them instead of the AAP (formerly GT) Centers. During this process, FCPS staff has failed to provide basic data to the School Board and public about the number and percentage of students in each grade who were admitted to the Center program versus who chose to participate in the Center program. If parents weren't watching this issue closely, School Board members might not realize that they hadn't been given complete data by staff. Similar concerns were voiced by School Board members about the data FCPS staff did NOT include in their recent monitoring report on math achievement. For example, the staff reported on how many students took AP and IB tests, but not on the AP and IB score distributions. Every time a group of people looks closely at an FCPS initiative, proposal or existing program, it seems like the same types of issues arise.
McLean resident December 23, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Jim, I too believe there are kids in the AAP who should not be there. However, your reference to those kids being above the 84th percentile isn't accurate. Children test into the program based on their scores on nationally normed tests, not tests normed to the district. That 16 percent of kids could actually be in the top 2 percent nationally. As I commented on a similar story, I would caution against focusing too much on the number of kids in the AAP program. Our area is atypical. We have a lot of highly educated, intelligent, successful residents, who likely are GT. it stands to reason that their children would be as well. Growth in the population, the attraction of a highly regarded school system, and a concentration of these kinds of parents likely contributes to the larger number of GT kids compared to the average school district or compared to the past. If we believe that kids should be admitted to the GT program based on objective criteria, such as nationally normed tests, then we can't set some cut-off that only x percent of kids in the district should be admitted, because we'd be denying some children the education they deserve because they happen to live in an atypical area.
Louise Epstein December 23, 2012 at 03:19 AM
McLean Resident, Yes, Fairfax County has many highly-educated parents. However, FCPS stopped admitting students based solely on test scores during the 1990s. Phrased differently, students no longer "test into" the program. Although group ability tests are used to identify one pool of second grade students to be screened, teachers and parents also refer many second through seventh grade students with lower test scores. Multiple criteria are used to evaluate students. When data was provided around 2005 to the GT Advisory Committee about the scores for students admitted, the range started under 100 and the mean was about 120, using national norms.
McLparent December 23, 2012 at 09:24 AM
What's clear to me is that FCPS should not be wasting money on prepping up kids who got into TJ that have been identified that need remedial math. Why help kids remain in a school where they don't belong? Waste of taxpayer money.
Kathy Keith December 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Questions: 1. Are these AAP students really above the other students? 2. What are the test scores compared to the other students? 3. How much additional money does FCPS spend to bus these students to AAP centers? 4. How much traffic do these centers add to the road from Kiss and Ride parents? 5. On standardized tests such as SOL's do all of these students test above all the other students? 6. Is there any re-evaluation year by year to keep students in this program? Or to add new students? My opinion, based on anecdotal, personal experience as a teacher, is that there are pros and cons of tracking. From what I hear and read, this program is causing more problems than rewards. The integrity and validity of this program has been damaged by private testing and prep courses for IQ tests. It's time to put all kids back into their community schools. Any teacher worth his/her salt can adapt and challenge these students.
A. T. January 04, 2013 at 08:15 PM
No one likes change due to the fear that they might be worse off. With these changes, more students could be better off in the long run. I have 2 AAP children and I welcome the change.
LBT January 24, 2013 at 06:41 PM
I disagree with your comment any teacher worth his/her salt can adapt and challenge these students. If we go by your theory, then these teachers should also be able to teach children with special needs on the other end of the spectrum. Without any specific training, the average teacher isn't equipped to challenge students on either extreme end of the spectrum. The gifted child is no less special than the special needs child, just in a different way.


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