MMSD “Gifted” Program Plan — No Thank You


Roy Lichtenstein, "No Thank You."

The Madison Board of Education will be considering a “Talented and Gifted Program Plan” at their Monday, August 10, Student Achievement and Performance Monitoring Committee meeting. It is on the agenda as an action item for the August 17 regular Board meeting. This plan was developed outside of the public eye — no noticed meetings of the Advisory Committee, no published minutes — and the first look any interested citizens have had was when it was posted on Friday. August 7.*

Although there are some things I like in the plan, my initial overall reaction is “no thank you.”

My number one reason for urging rejection is the lack of attention given to demographics in the plan. The word “minority” only appears in reference to the Minority Student Achievement Network, the phrase “low income” does not appear. There is nice language about increasing the “identification of students from underrepresented populations,” and researching “additional assessment tools that are non·biased, multi·cultural,” but at the time of implementation (September, 2010), the screening and identification measures that will be in place (the WKCE, the Primary Math Assessment, the Primary Language Arts Assessment, TOMAGS, Writing Samples, Middle School Math Assessment, referrals, and even the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) do not have great track records in these areas (there is also a mention of MAP tests, but the meaning of that mention is not clear). Additionally, with the exception of the Torrance (and maybe TOMAGS) tests, these are all achievement, not ability, measures. They are not designed to be employed in the manner contemplated by the plan.

I said there are some things I like. These have some potential. I’m going to touch on three now (there are more — like the consistency throughout the district — that I don’t have time to delve into).

The first one is the requirement that the evaluation use data disaggregated by demographics (it also calls for annual reports, but as the case of the Equity Policy indicates, don’t hold your breath waiting for that). This is good. It would have been much, much better if the committee had instead begun their work by assessing the the current demographic inequalities in Talented and Gifted and advanced opportunities in MMSD.

The second is a guideline from the National Association for Gifted Children. In general, I am uncomfortable with the cut-and-paste inclusion of materials from a lobbying/advocacy organization in the plan, but this one is good:

Gifted programs must establish and use an advisory committee that reflects the cultural and socio-economic diversity of the school or school district’s total student population, and includes parents, community members, students, and school staff members.

This is clearly not the case with the current committee (is there a single member whose family income would qualify for free or reduced lunch? Do the families of 44.6% of the members?). Unfortunately, the locally produced “action steps” call for the current committee to continue and a sub-committee to be formed from current membership. This needs to be changed.

I also like the “Differentiated Education Plans,” but limiting these to “Talented and Gifted Students” is wrong. The one thing from the Strategic Plan draft that I can endorse without reservation is the policy of Individual Learning Plans for all students. This would be a wonderful but expensive reform. Only individualizing for those perceived as “Talented and Gifted,” is offensively inequitable.

Back to the things I don’t like (as you can tell, the lines are a bit blurry). Just two more that I have the time to address.

The plan asks the district to commit to “cluster grouping” in classroom assignments. The research on the benefits of “cluster grouping” is thin, the applicability of this research to Madison is questionable, and the potential for harm is great.

Since the Advisory Committee did not deign to provide the Board or the public with an extended exploration of what “cluster grouping” is, I’ll offer a little more here (contrast with this literature review provided to the Clayton, Mo. Board and note that if MMSD wants to do its own version there will be no extant research on that version).

According the Cluster Grouping Handbook, the practice requires dividing students into quintiles based on “local criteria” (that means those tests and referrals that have been so successful in bringing diversity to Talented and Gifted programs in Madison and elsewhere). The five groups are labeled Gifted, High Achieving, Average, Below Average, and Far Below Average. In classroom assignments, the Gifted are isolated from the Far Below Average and the High Achieving; the students are otherwise mixed. I repeat, the main “innovation” is to keep the “Far Below Average” and the “High Achievers” away from the “Gifted.”

Every student in Madison will be slotted into one of these categories and decisions concerning their education will be made based on incredibly imperfect assessment tools. We are talking about five and six year olds.**

As I said, the research on the supposed educational benefits of this is thin (in contrast, the research on the flaws of these assessment and referral practices, and on the harm done by labeling, is voluminous). The authors of the Handbook cite exactly two empirical studies. One of these is the unpublished Doctoral dissertation of Handbook co-author Dina Brulles. I could not find any peer-reviewed or non peer-reviewed publications of Dr. Brulles research. The other is a widely cited (but also not peer-reviewed) study by Marcia Gentry. My extensive searches of databases turned up other empirically based publications by Gentry, but none by other authors. I would welcome any citations.

Doctor Gentry conducted her research in schools that were less than 1% minority. Given the history of grouping practices and the demographics of Madison, I think extreme caution should be used in asserting the reproducibility of Gentry’s results in our district.

Additionally, the lack of diversity in her study means that important issues such as segregative and unequal impacts were not examined. At the very least, prior to implementation, the Board of Education and the public should be provided with assessments of segregation based on a trial run of the cluster grouping scheme. If the practice is implemented, these factors should also be included in all evaluations.

One of the asserted advantages of “cluster grouping” over tracking is that it allows for mobility among the quintiles. If cluster grouping is implemented, measures of this mobility in practice should also be part of evaluations. As Doctor Willis D. Hawley has noted, “Ability grouping often turns into tracking” (read the whole linked document for a fine introduction to the issues).

Cluster grouping may appear to be a politically attractive compromise. I am generally wary of both political compromises and grouping schemes in education policy, especially when the research basis for the desirability of the compromise is almost nonexistent. I urge the Board of Education to be wary also.

The other big area where I find the plan lacking is not about Talented and Gifted programing per se, but about advanced and honors programs and courses. The plan includes these action steps:

Develop a plan to increase participation of students in advanced courses, including support systems for transition to and completion of courses, and greater consistency in eligibility requirements across the District.

Review the design, implementation, and requirements for District embedded honors courses. Survey teachers, parents, and students to determine effectiveness and interest.

The idea is good, but do we really need a plan and a review? Here is what the Equity Task Force said in a recommendation that was never discussed in public by the Board of Education:

Open access to advanced programs, actively recruit students from historically underserved populations, and provide support for all students to be successful.

Pretty simple and it could be done tomorrow.

I’ll admit that some work would be needed to determine which courses have legitimate prerequisites, but with little effort, things like the “advanced biology placement test” and screening for 8th Grade Algebra could be tossed in the dustbin of history where they belong.

These entry level courses, the first rungs of the ladder, are the key to opening access; the barriers need to go. As long as the district puts these first rungs out of the reach of students who want to be challenged, inequalities will continue to be reproduced and upward mobility will be exception not the rule.

One related side note. These barriers are the reason I hate the “raise the bar” language that the Board of Education recently added to the Strategic Plan. We have enough bars keeping people out; the ambiguity invites more and higher bars.

Last thought is that the long-term costs — financial but also human — of this plan are not clearly explored in the document (there is offered a one year, prior to implementation figure of $83,000).

I’ll be offering some version of this critique in public testimony to the Board on Monday, August 10th. If you have thoughts — whether in agreement or disagreement with what I have written — please join me or email to

Thomas J. Mertz

*[Note: Because the Advisory Committee that produced the plan was not appointed by Board of Education, it is unclear if open meetings statutes are applicable, see: Staples Correspondence, February 10, 1981 and a 1991 memo to former MMSD Legal Counsel Clarence Sherrodd. If the Board approves this plan with the authorization of a continued Advisory Committee, that committee will be required to post meeting notices and publish minutes. Whatever the legality, it is not a good policy to have a plan which will effect every child in the district drafted without public scrutiny or input.]

**[Note: I am not clear what procedures are currently being used by MMSD although I have heard talk that some “cluster grouping” is going on. For sketchy information on current practices, see here and here.]

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Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, education, Equity, Local News, Take Action, Uncategorized

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