By Scott Parks
Last fall, the Fairfax County Public School staff proposed dramatic changes to the Level IV Advanced Academic Program (known as AAP, and formerly known as the Gifted and Talented, or GT, program). This proposal, developed with no input from FCPS parents, recommended extending Level IV services to all county Middle Schools for the 2013 school year, effectively eliminating the highly successful Level IV Centers.
On Thursday, Jan. 24, after only one round of informational meetings with parents and two School Board discussions, the School Board will vote on this idea. The good news is that the proposals have been scaled back to four middle schools, Herndon, South County, Thoreau, and Cooper Middle Schools, from the original eleven. The bad news is that the vote is still being rushed through at all.
There is also good news from School Board member Tammy Kaufax, who has submitted a motion to delay expansion of the Level IV program until a comprehensive review is conducted, a detailed plan is developed, and School board guidelines for Level IV teacher qualifications is established.
It is vital that we all understand what is at stake here, whether our children attend a Level IV Center or General Education program. This proposal drastically weakens the county’s AAP program, and steals resources from the General Education (Gen Ed) programs and aggravates overcrowding at the same time. It imperils the readiness of AAP students for the challenges of specialized and Honors high school science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula, and eliminates or reduces access to important non-technical subjects shared and enjoyed by AAP and Gen Ed students alike, such as music, the arts, and shop. Whether your children attend AAP classes or Gen Ed, this proposal would reduce the quality of their education.
What are the issues with this proposal?
- It would dilute and diminish the quality of the Middle School AAP program.
- It would diminish the quality of the Middle Schools Gen Ed program.
- It does not help those most in need of improved access to AAP programs.
- It is founded on dubious projections of student population growth.
- It lacks clear guidance and a coherent plan.
Impacts on Advanced Academic Program Quality. Key to the success of any Advanced Academic Program, no matter how structured, are qualified, experienced AAP teachers focusing on teaching their AAP classes. There are three paths to establishing teacher qualification for AAP in Fairfax County. A teacher can get a Master’s Degree in AA Education, a Virginia AA teaching certificate, or a FCPS AA teaching certificate. Experience teaching AA comes only with time in an AA setting. Nationwide, and particularly in the DC area, there are not enough qualified AA teachers – particularly when trying to start four new AAP centers at the same time, on 6 months’ notice. To address this situation, FCPS allows a principal to assign a teacher without an AA qualification to teach AAP/Honors courses, as long as they don’t teach a full load of them.
Here’s the solution to standing up so many AAP centers, so quick. Don’t use AAP qualified teachers. In fact, Principal Randall of Cooper Middle School told a group of concerned parents in a meeting last month that she intends to assign her existing (Gen Ed) teachers to the AAP program, and have them teach 3 AAP/Honors courses and 2 Gen Ed courses, circumventing the requirement to demonstrate teacher qualification in AAP. In other words, Principal Randall intends to staff her AAP program without regard to the qualifications of the teachers. This approach will certainly allow the centers to open in September 2013, but at the expense of our children’s education.
Study after study has consistently shown that effective AA education requires different teaching skills and approaches than Gen Ed, just as any specialized education program does. Those skills and approaches are exactly what are taught in the teacher certification and advanced degree programs being circumvented in the rush to field AAP.
Furthermore, those same studies have consistently shown that requiring a teacher to teach both AAP and Gen Ed dramatically reduces the effectiveness of that teacher’s AAP instruction, and that, over time, the two courses of study converge, at appoint just higher than the Gen Ed standard. Just as AA students need to focus on the accelerated treatment of their AAP coursework, so AA teachers need to stay “in the groove” of AA instruction techniques.
Impacts on General Education Programs. The FCPS AAP curriculum has very specific additional facility requirements, above and beyond those for Gen Ed. For a new center, particularly one with no renovation work planned or underway, meeting those requirements means repurposing existing Gen Ed resources. In the case of Cooper MS, the plan includes reallocating a Gen Ed science lab to AAP use, and converting the shop, an art room, and the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classroom to AAP use. Work request DC407, submitted in December even though the Board has not yet voted on the proposal, detailed the following:
- Divide ESOL Rm 108, Expand Science Rm 109, and convert to Science Lab
- Convert Shop Rm 124 to Project Based Learning Lab (AAP Technology Lab)
- Convert Art Rm 119 to Science Lab
- Divide Rm 126 and convert to Art Rm and Synergistics Lab
This is a net loss of 4 Gen Ed rooms to AAP use, with half a room back in recompense, and the loss of shop as an elective entirely. The FCPS staff is installing AAP at Cooper at the expense of the General Education population that would be attending that school anyway. AAP is important, but not at the blatant expense of the General Education students.
It is also important to remember that AAP students do not live in an academic bubble. They are fully integrated into the General Education population for languages, arts, music, drama and other electives. These courses provide a rich opportunity for engagement of AAP and Gen Ed peers, away from the differentiated STEM environment. But unlike core courses in Science, Math, English, and Social Studies, these diverse programs are very sensitive to the size of the student population. They require a sufficiently large student population to have enough students interested in a topic. This leads to a natural focus in different areas in different middle schools, most noticeably in languages, but also in music and the arts.
This proposal would have a dramatic and negative impact on the diversity of elective offerings in our middle schools. Kilmer, under this proposal, will lose 20% of its student population – a group that is disproportionally represented in language and music classes. This will have a devastating effect on those programs at Kilmer, with the possible loss of the music department’s part-time teaching augmentation and at least one tier of both band and orchestra, leading to a reduced ability to focus on the needs of specific capability levels, and the likely loss of instruction in one or more languages.
For AAP students, the situation is even bleaker. While General Education students can apply to a different middle school whose focus better aligns with their needs, under this proposal AAP students would be required to attend their base middle school (after a year or two of “liberal pupil placement”). AAP students would not have the right to study the language of their choice if it were not taught at their base middle school – Chinese, for example, which is not taught at Cooper but is taught at Kilmer.
Inappropriate Focus. Access to Advanced Academic programs has been proven again and again to be a key factor for keeping disadvantaged kids in school, and helping them overcome the challenges of their environment. And yet this proposal disproportionally favors the more affluent portions of the county, and ignores the most disadvantaged. FCPS has two middle schools in which 50% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches; this proposal would create AAP centers at two schools where less than 10% qualify, including one with the astonishingly low rate of 1.5%. Clearly, the priorities established by this proposal need to be reexamined.
Questionable Projections of Student Population Growth. Both the perception of urgency and the perceived viability of this proposal are based on projections of FCPS student population growth over the coming years. The FCPS facilities staff point to their overall county predictions, which have been within 1.5% of the final attendance for the past 9 years. But their predictions accuracy at the pyramid and individual school levels paints a far bleaker picture. Time and again, those predictions have proven wildly inaccurate, resulting in well-meaning but flawed decisions. In one case, the model was so inaccurate that it led to the closing of an elementary school when the clear and compelling need remained. In fact, the FCPS staff has made 9 significant changes to their prediction model in the past 6 years, in an attempt to correct its reporting deficiencies, and is now preparing to redesign or replace the entire enrollment projection model (“FCPS Enrollment Projections: Process and Accuracy,” Facilities Planning Office, January 2012). Despite multiple requests, the FCPS staff has been unable to provide data demonstrating the validity of their enrollment model at the pyramid or school level.
Advocates for this proposal assert that Cooper MS will see a drop in enrollment by 2014 of 410 students, or nearly 15%, based on FCPS projections. They similarly assert that Kilmer MS will see a ~500 student increase over the next 5 years. They use these numbers to assert that it is imperative to remove the Cooper pyramid AAP students from Kilmer to reduce potential overcrowding, and to assert that they can be accommodated within the Cooper facility without issue. A simple statistical validation test, based on the past 10 years of enrollment of the four feeder schools for Cooper Middle School, suggests that the FCPS projections are deeply flawed.
Figure 1 illustrates the student populations of Cooper’s four feeder schools over the past 10 years, and the FCPS projections for the next two years. It also shows a linear regression estimate based on the past 10 years, and its predictions for attendance for the next two years. While a linear regression model is too simplistic to account for all the nuances of a highly dynamic environment (for example, one with very large inflows or outflows of people, substantial redistricting, etc.), it provides a very useful validation tool for more stable environments – such as the population of the Cooper pyramid.
As can be seen in the figure, the dotted black lines representing the linear regression results display a very high degree of correlation with the actual enrollment numbers, indicating that the linear model provides a very good predictor over short periods of time in this instance. In fact, on average, the linear model’s estimates of enrollment for each school over the last 10 years are within 4% of the actual attendance. In aggregate (a very good indicator of Cooper Gen Ed future enrollment), the average estimate is within 1.25%, and the standard deviation (a statistical measure of the year to year consistency of the estimate) is less than 1%. Again, this suggests that the linear regression model is a highly reliable statistical predictor of future enrollment, over the short term. It predicts that, barring redistricting or other catastrophic event, the Cooper incoming class sizes will remain stable with 4-5 additional students each year, and a 99.9% chance that they will shrink by no more than 3.5%.
Contrast this with the FCPS prediction of a 14% decline in Cooper incoming class size based on drops in all feeder school populations. A statistical test known as a “Z-test” can estimate the likelihood of the FCPS prediction being correct, given the historical data. The Z-test results indicate that the likelihood of any of the FCPS elementary school predictions being accurate is much smaller than one in a billion. The likelihood of the prediction of the cumulative population across all four schools is statistically zero.
This assessment is echoed in statements by Carol Horn, FCPS AAP Coordinator. In an internal email dated 14 December 2012 (after this proposal had been submitted to the School Board) and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Horn wrote to Sloan Presidio, “…At the middle school level, Cooper, Franklin, and Thoreau may have capacity issues as well.” When even the Assistant Superintendent questions the validity of the predictions, it is time to validate the model.
Our first order of business must be to resolve the disconnect between these enrollment predictions. The ramifications of the linear projection is correct do not stop at more trailers. They include inadequate cafeteria, library, physical fitness, even restroom facilities. And that will destroy the learning environment for all our kids, AAP and Gen Ed alike.
This statistical analysis clearly demonstrates that significant review and validation of the FCPS enrollment model must be undertaken before it can be considered a credible basis on which to make decisions that impact our children’s education.
Inadequate Planning and Guidance. For an initiative as significant as this proposal to be effective, clear guidance must come down from the School Board – guidance on objectives and priorities, particularly the priority of future middle schools in which to establish AAP centers; teacher qualifications and AAP/Honors versus Gen Ed teaching load; minimum AAP population for effective instruction; facility renovation and repurposing, and loss of Gen Ed resources; terms such as “liberal pupil placement” and a myriad of other topics. And based on that guidance, a plan needs to be formulated thoughtfully, and with a weather eye for unintended consequences. This is not a task to be rushed.
But first, the enrollment model must be subjected to a rigorous review and statistical validation, to ensure that it is representative both in the aggregate and for the individual pyramids and schools. Only then can we be confident that we are making decisions based on sound data.
In the commercial or federal government worlds, once draft guidance was in place and the model was validated, the stakeholders would gather for a simulation, in which central staff, principals, teachers, and parents would play out the AAP expansion on paper, considering not just the details of establishing the new centers, but the change in the dynamics, scope, and environment for all effected schools and communities. The results of this would then be briefed to the School Board for final approval of the guidance and plan, and to set the timeline for implementation.
In summary, this 2013 Middle School AAP expansion proposal, even limited to 4 schools, is poorly conceived, and predicated on questionable demographics and assertions. The slow, steady march of AAP in the FCPS Elementary School network represents a structured model of AAP deployment, allowing time for appropriate teacher training and facility planning to accommodate the needs of all students, at the expense of none. The ramifications of doing this right are clear from the past two decades. Fairfax County’s public school system is nationally recognized for excellence, and is a significant draw for parents and companies, keeping our community and tax base strong. Rushing Middle School AAP expansion, at the expense of adequate teacher training, scaling back our current General Education program resources, and inadequate facility planning and overcrowding, can rapidly negate those gains and drive those parents and businesses away. Once we lose our reputation for AAP excellence, and are viewed as having an AA program in name only, it will be very hard to recover.
This is about our children’s education, and that of the children of families that do not even live here yet. The decisions we make on AAP expansion today will impact a generation of Fairfax County scholars. We owe it to them to follow School Board Member Kaufax’s thoughtful urgings, delay a rush to failure, and take the time to think this through, as we have with the Elementary School AAP expansion to date.