The changes made to the Madison Metropolitan School District Talented and Gifted Plan, in response to concerns raised by one or more Board members at the August 10 meeting, are smaller than I anticipated. There are also some other — relatively small – changes I would like to propose. The Board is scheduled to vote on the Plan at their Monday, August 17th meeting.
My notes and recollections from the August 10th meeting contain two areas where explicit changes were called for. The first was a more unambiguous delineation of who would be included in categories such “underserved,” “multicultural,” etc.,. The second request called for the creation of a new advisory committee that would be reflective of the community as a whole. Superintendent Dan Nerad gave what appeared to be assurances that these revisions would be made (I do not have time to review the video, but if he did not give this assurance, he selected his words very carefully to make it appear that he did). Some changes were made to the TAG Plan in the new iteration, but these have only partially addressed the concerns of Board members.
In addition, one Board member asked essential “what will this look like?” type questions. The response from Superintendent Nerad was that he may be able to give partial answers prior to the vote. This unsatisfactory response was coupled with expressions of urgency that this plan must be passed on August 17th. I find it very troubling that only one Board member asked “what will this look like?” and equally disturbing that our Superintendent called for action from ignorance. If the materials that have been distributed to the Board and made public prior to a vote are any indication, ignorance will reign; these questions will not be answered.
This is part of a disturbing pattern of secrecy and/or and lack of concern for basing decisions on the best possible information (or any information at all), which has characterized this entire TAG process. Extending this pattern, in the newspaper today, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, Lisa Wachtel, displayed an unwillingness, or perhaps an inability, to reveal how many students the district currently identifies as “Talented and Gifted.” This is the most basic information. To even begin a planning process without it, is incomprehensible. For the Board to enact the results of such a process is a dereliction of duty.
An explicit mention of who is being identified in the phrase “underserved,” has only been added in the section on “social and emotional needs.” It does not appear in the sections on identification, it is not a part of the effort towards consistency and transparency, it does not appear in the action steps on increasing participation in advanced courses, it does not appear in the evaluation section, and it does not appear in the communication section. The improved identification, consistency, and transparency along with the call for policy evaluations are probably the four best things in the plan. I support them all heartily (if with some reservations about the limits of what is possible due to both the current state of knowledge and the nature of assessments — not to mention the scarcity of resources). These are also exactly where the need to be explicit is the greatest.
Additionally, there is no inclusion of gender in the new categories. Issues of gender and perceptions of talent are well recognized. Their exclusion is yet another example of the kinds of oversights that are endemic to a rushed and secretive processes (the whole thing reminds me of the State Budget issues that MMSD was so vocal in complaining about).
I cannot find any changes concerning the makeup or role of the Advisory Committee (note, I am away from home and a bit rushed; I am not 100% sure of this and would welcome a correction via the comments). As I noted in an earlier post, the Plan itself reads:
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.
I will add a few things. First, as much of the above shows, I believe in an open and accessible planning process. State statutes will require this of a committee authorized by the Board. Second, I think the inclusion of TAG experts and advocates is fine, but those outside of the TAG community need to be part of any advisory committee.
That takes care of what little was changed and the first swipes at what else should be. As indicated above, I cannot be as thorough as I like with this post, but I would like to touch on some other ideas for consideration. As I said in my testimony before the Board, my preference would be to do the minimum at this time, initiate an assessment of the current state of affairs and begin planning again with a more representative and open committee. I realize that it is highly unlikely that will happen, so I am offering less radical and perhaps more constructive suggestions.
The Board and the community deserve a thorough reporting of success and failures. Before beginning this implementation, there should be metrics that are spelled out. These should include, at the very least, the explicit measures of participation and disproportionality linked to an expanded category of who should be considered “underserved,” as well as some assessments of consistency and transparency. If any form of “ability grouping” is implemented, the evaluation of that policy must consider all students, not just those identified as Talented and Gifted. Lastly, any evaluation should include thorough financial audits of the process and implementation. Going forward with only the vague promise of “evaluations” now, this part of the plan would be a continuance of the pattern of bad governance.
Limit the Actions on Social and Emotional Needs
I support the research and staff development in this area, because I believe that our staff needs the tools to better see where help is needed. I do not think that the pilot programs and collaborative sessions are the best use of district resources. Our social workers, psychologists and allied staff are already overworked. I think a comparative assessment of the unmet social and emotional needs of TAG students and other students is in order, prior to a commitment of resources to programming. Students of all abilities have real needs.
Set aside “Cluster Gouping”
The issues I have raised previously — particularly the lack of research on this practice — in combination with the lack of answers about what an implementation will look like, I recommend that the Board not commit to this policy at this time. Previously, I urged the Board to ask for a trial run of class assignments based on a cluster grouping policy. At a minimum, this trial run should be done and subjected to scrutiny, well before a single child is assigned to a group based on their perceived “ability.” Ideally, any and all discussions of grouping schemes should include multiple options and a thorough examination of the limits of the tools being used to label and group students.
On a side note, there are real problems involved in deciding what the proper universe for evaluation will be in determinations of “giftedness” (World, Nation, State, District, School, Grade …) and these will directly impact implementation. If it is done at the school level — as the “Cluster Grouping” scheme requires — students transferring will move in or out of “giftedness,” depending on the other students at their schools. If the consistency of district-wide metrics is used, the concepts behind “cluster grouping” are abandoned. To me this is further evidence of the arbitrary wrongheadedness of labeling and grouping policies and clearly points to the need for Individual Learning Plans for all students, not just some.
In closing, I want to note that a careful reader will have ascertained that I am in strong agreement with the movement toward improved identification of Gifted and Talented students, staff development designed to improve identification and services, consistent programing across the district, and transparency at every level and step. This common ground I share with the Advisory Committee. I just think we can and must do better in multiple areas, before making commitments to future actions and the resources to pay for them.
Thomas J. Mertz