Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How should Seattle's schools handle advanced learning?

Charlie Mas has a post up at the Seattle Schools Community Forum, "Towards a Shared Vision for Advanced Learning", where he asks:
If we were to re-design Advanced Learning in Seattle Public Schools from a blank slate, how would we do it?
Thought-provoking discussion there already from Charlie. Go take a look. Melissa has also chimed in in the comments to Charlie's post.

Charlie Mas, by the way, is on the Seattle Public Schools Advanced Learning Task Force, which is supposed to "advise district staff as they develop facility recommendations that will support the delivery of services to advanced learners throughout the district."

Update: Charlie is asking for "any constructive feedback that you all can offer" in the comments to this post, saying that his current thinking is that APP should shift to "addressing the special educational needs of children with very high cognitive ability" but "no academic achievement requirement for eligibility" and "no specific effort or goal to accelerate." He also suggests a new second program for "those who are working significantly ahead of their classroom peers" with "eligibility ... [based] strictly [on] academic achievement without regard to cognitive ability." Quite a change, potentially, please discuss further in the comments.


Charlie Mas said...

Whenever I think about advanced learning programs, the driving question is this:

Which advanced learners cannot be well-served in our general education classrooms?

I identified two groups - although there is significant overlap between them.

The first group are children with cognitive ability more than 1.5-2.0 standard deviations above the mean. Research suggests that they don't just learn faster but actually learn differently from other students. We should have a program that addresses their special academic need. Eligibility to that program should be based solely on cognitive ability and the focus of the program should be addressing the special educational needs of children with very high cognitive ability. While the cognitive ability profile is essentially the same as the one now used for APP, this program would be different from APP in two significant ways. First, there would be no academic achievement requirement for eligibility. Second, there would be no specific effort or goal to accelerate. No target of two years advanced or anything like that. Of course, many of these students are working ahead, but some of them are not. At the risk of sounding heretical, I don't see any special virtue in acceleration over added breadth and depth of study. This change - if adopted - would pretty much take APP back to its roots as IPP, the Individual Progress Program.

The second group of students who, I fear, are not well served by the general education classroom are those who are working significantly ahead of their classroom peers. For this group we don't really care if they are working ahead because they are very bright or if they are working ahead because they are hard-working. The eligibility criteria for this re-visioned Spectrum group is strictly academic achievement without regard to cognitive ability - sort of the flip side of the proposal for IPP. Another difference: while the IPP eligibility is based on a nationally normed distribution, the new Spectrum program's eligibility would be based strictly on the peer group in the school. A student who qualifies for Spectrum in a school in which most of the students are working below grade level might not qualify for the program in a higher achieving school. Of course in the higher achieving school we might presume that the general education class offers enough challenge and enough intellectual peers for the academic experience to be appropriate.

Those APP families who are focused on acceleration might choose the Spectrum program, for the support of the acceleration, over IPP. They might not.

The IPP would be a self-contained program at a couple of locations, one north, one south. The new Spectrum would be in every school but would have to conform to a short menu of district approved structures and delivery models. It could be accomplished through small groups by skill-level, by pull-outs, or some other grouping tool. It would be subject specific so that students might be in the group for reading but not for math and vice versa.

Anyway, that's the current state of my thinking on this and I would like, very much, to hear any constructive feedback that you all can offer.

David said...

Charlie has an interesting idea, make APP based solely on cognitive test scores that indicate special needs and Spectrum based entirely on doing work a grade level or two ahead.

Backing up for a second, look at the needs of the two programs. APP generally is doing well, but it needs stability and teachers trained in gifted education. Spectrum has a lot of problems, but I would summarize Spectrum's problems by saying it needs consistency, a well understood mission, and availability across the district.

I have heard two plans so far that I think would work well. (1) Keep both APP and Spectrum based on both cognitive ability and academic achievement, but make Spectrum for one standard deviation out and APP for two standard deviations out. (2) Make APP based solely on cognitive ability at two standard deviations out and make Spectrum based solely on working one or more years ahead of grade level.

I like both of those. Either makes it clear what APP and Spectrum are supposed to be doing. A much clearer mission for a much more consistent and widely available Spectrum would relieve some the capacity pressure on APP which is causing some of the stability issues. It also would keep more parents using public schools and lift average test scores for our public schools by attracting high scoring children rather than letting those children just slip away to private schools as the district currently does.

Jessica said...

I totally disagree with Charlie's concept to make APP for "high scores + special cognitive needs" and use Spectrum for everyone else who tests into APP. APP works really well for a significant slice of Seattle's children, and I think the range of personalities and capabilities in the program benefit everyone. Placing a much smaller group into a self-contained IPP classroom undermines the concept of teaching "highly capable" kids together as a city cohort and reduces/eliminates the opportunity for inclusion for highly capable students with special needs.

As for this Spectrum concept, there's no way that teachers in every city school would be able to teach a curriculum that's variable by "peer group at school" when Spectrum seems to have trouble doing this now under current guidelines.

Not to mention that APP is getting more, not less, popular for city parents. And what's the evidence that it's not working for students? Last week at Thurgood Marshall, we had an enormously successful band concert with children from APP and the regular education program, a fantastic community event. Any school program can be improved -- including private school programs -- but i don't see any reason we should consider scrapping the whole APP concept.

Laurie said...

I think it's an interesting concept.

I have two children, both APP qualified. One of them fits the profile of the IPP student outlined by Charlie above. He has been in APP for a few years, but I don't think he is being well served by the program. He is unmotivated by grades and acceleration per se, but he is in class alongside kids who are high functioning and highly motivated to succeed in a more traditional sense; judged alongside these kids he suffers. He is very driven and incredibly creative. He has many interests and projects in science and engineering that he would dearly like to pursue in greater depth, but he is unable to really pursue these to their logical conclusions except in slivers of time he can carve out after loads of homework, music practice, and karate class. These interests aren't encouraged, explored, or developed in the program. I always thought he was the kind of student the APP program was designed for, but in fact he feels like an outlier there.

My younger child is in an option school, in first grade, and he fits the second profile Charlie laid out. He is qualified to move to Lowell, but he is much more adaptable than his older brother. He is thriving at his current school. He is fortunate to have a cohort of highly capable peers around him, and they motivate each other to keep working ahead. He would be fine at Lowell. He would likely also be fine in his option school or a neighborhood school where some effort was made to accelerate curriculum.

I guess my point is, given his profile, my younger son doesn't *need* a special environment or "special education" to thrive--acceleration alone would do it. My older son really really does--but it is unavailable to him through APP given its current structure.

I suspect this isn't going to be a popular viewpoint, but it *is* my experience, for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

@ Laurie
You are describing both my children perfectly!

You're not the only one.

- MP

CCM said...

Its an interesting thought re: basing APP on cognitive ability -- I do think that the kids that are 3 standard deviations above the norm are most likely not being served by the current model. I'm not sure what percentage of the current APP kids that would be -- but in our old district, that was the cut-off for the highly capable program and the program was very small.

Both of our kids are 2 standard deviations above - one slightly higher than the other - and I do think that they are being served in the program as far as being surrounded by other highly capable kids - much better than they would likely get in any other setting.

However - do I think that this program based on acceleration alone is missing the mark somewhat? Absolutely.

I don't think it generates passion for any one subject and there is absolutely zero time for creativity.

In fact - I think our daughter - who was very open-ended and creative when we started her in APP in third grade is now really operating in "the box" in 8th grade - which worries us greatly.

We are talking to our kids about not being so concerned with staying on this "train" of acceleration moving into high school - but really working on identifying their "passion".

Rushing through accelerated high school curriculum seems insane to me just as an excuse to keep them "engaged".

In a perfect world, there has to be another way to do it -- perhaps giving them projects and pursuits beyond cramming 4-years of high school into a 3-year time frame and then stumbling through a 4th year yet to be defined.

Crazy town - but we are current residents - and don't see a better alternative right now.

Anonymous said...

I recommend reading "Doing School" - which highlights smart kids going through the motions to achieve good grades based on the path that has been laid out for them - but not truly learning much in the process.

It is required reading for high school girls at Forest Ridge (we have a friend that attends).

What we really want is to be teaching our kids to "think", not plow through accelerated curriculum faster than their peers just because they can.

Eric said...

I really like the distinction that Charlie is making between the two groups.

One level of high-academic achievement ought to be enough. I think that APP right now is essentially just a more advanced -- and removed/isolated - version of spectrum.

IPP kids really are different. They learn differently. They are motivated differently. Pushing them to work several grades ahead but with essentially the same approach to learning does not meet their needs -- it just puts them in a more intense version of the system in which they were already struggling.

Bird said...

And what's the evidence that it's not working for students?

I do think that APP could be changed, or an IPP like program revived.

The APP curriculum from what I've seen is in many respects too narrowly defined (simply 2 years ahead in math, for example) and the range of abilities in APP might still leave a kid as much of an outlier as they were in the neighborhood school.

The fact that APP is popular and works well for most students doesn't mean that there aren't needs going unmet or that there aren't changes that could be made.

I think there does need to be some flexible instruction made available for kids on the far, far end of the spectrum. Those kids are such oddballs that they have to be served by a very individually tailored education, or they get no education at all.

For example, a kid who is ready for algebra at, say, fourth grade is the kind of kid who is really at risk educationally. They aren't served by SPS and they are, consequently, at risk for all sorts of problems.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bird. That's been our experience.

Most kids are served, but the outliers aren't. The APP program seems even more rigid than some neighborhood schools in that respect.

You choose the program thinking it's the only hope for your child to be in an appropriate learning environment, when the reality is they might still be an outlier.

Anonymous said...

There are definitely needs going unmet in the current APP program. Our child tests about 4 standard deviations out from the norm, and, while we have looked at APP, we decided it wouldn't work well for our child, who is doing work several years beyond the APP curriculum at his grade level. We would love to be part of the public schools, but we're not willing to enroll our child in a program that is ill suited to his needs.

I realize that our child is an outlier among outliers, but I personally know several other Seattle families in our situation. They all feel that there are no good options for their children in this city until the kids are ready for the UW's EEP.

I really wish there were a program here that allowed for more differentiation for kids or one that had an admissions cutoff of 3 standard deviations above the norm. There are a few areas around the country with thriving 145+ programs (several districts in the Minneapolis area and St. Louis are two examples).

I have always had concerns about the district's requirement of 95th+ %ile for achievement testing. Achievement and giftedness are not the same thing, and by requiring fairly high achievement for admission, the district loses some students who could really benefit from the current APP program. The district wants to increase APP participation among under-represented groups, but by requiring high achievement, they effectively keep some of the most disadvantaged gifted kids out.

--Wishing there were a program for my child

Anonymous said...

"Wishing there were a program for my child", our child is also four standard deviations out in math and doing fine in APP.

I think it depends on your expectations. We supplement a bit in math and reading, expecting school to be more for rounding and social skills, and don't expect APP to challenge our child that much in math. We have a friend who also has a child four standard deviations out in reading rather than math and, again, they just supplement a bit.

There's no program in Seattle, public or private, that is going to be optimal for a child four standard deviations ahead, so I wonder if finding something that works for your child is mostly a matter of setting your expectations. Whatever you are doing right now almost certainly requires a lot of work for you. Using APP and then adding some more challenging assignments yourself, as we and others are doing, would not be worse, would it?

-- Making APP into a program for my child

Anonymous said...


You may have to go outside this district for it. We took on more OT work (hubbie, a 2nd job as a consultant) to pay for private school. It isn't a G & T school like Country Day, but with the smaller class size (16), the kids get not only acceleration, but a great deal of depth, and project based learning in class. There are kids who range from spectrum eligible to the true G & T types (2+ SD above), but they coexist well. My kids are a mix, but the one in private school is similar to the older child Laurie posted about. Sometimes kids need the right opportunity to shine, and sadly public schools can only offer so much given their mandate and budget.


Anonymous said...

The reality is that the SPS APP curriculum is not much more than acceleration, albeit a restrained acceleration. "Fly by learning" is how someone described it.

The materials are not designed for advanced learners, even though there is curriculum specifically designed for gifted education. Where is the depth and complexity? The College of William and Mary has developed many materials for gifted ed, yet APP is tied to using the standard district materials no matter how inappropriate they may be.

It is possible to challenge students at a higher level, but someone needs to be out there advocating for it.

-not resigned to lowered expectations

Anonymous said...

The University of Virginia reviewed the APP program in June 2007 and recommended that SPS “develop an overall curricular vision and high-level scope and sequence as well as resources to implement.”

The importance of aligning the curricular objectives at and across grade levels in all content areas was becoming increasing urgent because the District was considering offering the program at more than one site.

The suggestion was to have curricular frameworks for each of the core content areas: science, math, social studies and language arts.

The committee that formed as a result of the review agreed on following:

-All learners must be provided with a rigorous curriculum

-Advanced learners have different needs compared with typical learners. Therefore, curriculum must be paced and adapted, modified or designed to accommodate their cognitive, academic, and affective needs.

-Advanced learners are best served by a confluent approach that allows for both accelerated and enriched learning.

It is now almost five years later...and there is no comprehensive 1-12 curricular framework.

A recent APP meeting even made note that “social studies is not currently part of the curriculum” [at Lowell].

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 11:16 2/9. Good to bring up the recommendation, but SPS likes to commission studies and then mothball them where the sun doesn't shine. Since SPS can't even manage a coherent general ed K-12 curriculum framework (except for math- and look at what we got) for all the above subjects you mentioned, it's doubtful they will adopt one for APP. Meanwhile, you have MAP to measure "potential" and "growth", but there is little to make sure that potential and growth are realized (beyond 2 grades in 2 subjects).

Anonymous said...

Sara, I am not aware of any private school in Seattle that caters to kids "2+ SD above", but I'd love to know about it if it does exist. To what school are you referring? Could you give the name of it please?

-- Making APP into a program for my child

Anonymous said...

Making APP.. the complete sentence includes a range of spectrum eligible to > 2+SD mix. If you want to exclude all but > 2+SD, then you are right, I don't know if there are schools with such a tight range. But to answer your question: there are schools both public and private that are designed for advanced learners. Bellevue SD has a program, through PRISM, Lake Washington SD also, and UW has their EEP. Private schools are: SCD, Evergreen, Open Window, etc. There's a lot of leg work, but in the proces we've met some great people who have been willing to share their experiences and advices. As I don't know your child's situation or learnining needs, it's best to look around and see what would work for your child. Thus far, the exceptional kids (prodigies) who require beyond the scope of traditional G & T programs are too few in numbers (thinking here of kids like Gabirel See) to have their own school. I think if your kids are at that point, you have to cobble an educational plan to get them what they need. We have a friend who live in Vancouver, WA area, and are homeschooling one kid with the help of EPGY since 3rd grade (for on line, check out Johns Hopkins CTY as well). Good Luck!


Anonymous said...

Sara, Seattle Country Day and Evergreen are not prepared to handle kids more than two standard deviations out. Their programs are not designed to handle kids that far ahead of the class. They do their best to handle them if you go there, but they are not prepared for it.

We and many of our friends in APP tried those and other private schools in the area, then switched to APP. APP is specifically designed for and, we found, better prepared to handle advanced students two standard deviations or more out.

I would agree that people should pick the best school for their child and that needs vary. But, in our experience and in the experience of many of our friends with gifted children, the best option for our child anywhere in Seattle is APP.

-- Making APP into a program for my child

Anonymous said...

Making APP, I may have offended you by suggesting looking beyond APP. Please reassure, it isn't a thumb down for APP. It's a great program. For our eldest in MS, it just didn't match up well so we opted out. The eldest hit very high on both verbal and math, but is a natural tinkerer who spends all spare time building things, composing music, and writing codes (shades of dad), but is hopeless at day to day stuff and getting lost in the midst. We found a smaller school (not a G & T) that focus on the science and art a better match. The kid is motivated now to go to school and do the school work. (part of that is because they have smaller class size, teachers who are allow to choose their instructional materials, and have the time and materials for kids to build/create or write while guiding their learning.) The youngest is a different nut who remains in the public school and will test for APP next year (haven't felt pressure to do so mainly because the youngest is such a go getter and completely sport mad right now).

To the main thread here, I wish there was a tighter rule on APP eligibility (along Charlie's 1st posting) as long as there is appropriate spectrum/honors program to support all the other kids who can do the work. That isn't happening. In MS and HS, there are finite seats. APP qualified kids get priority (in some schools). In Ballard, there are kids who qualified for biotech program, but there are not enough seats for them, hence the lottery. They are allowed to take biology in 9th grade, but must do so with all the other 10th graders(with few 11th graders who need remediation). As a result, they don't get the cohort effect, the depth and complexity when you have a collected group interested in learning the stuff vs. meeting the graduation requirement. I worry Ingraham IB program will face the same finite seat problem. In some MS, honors seats go to APP 1st. That's why getting an APP label is perceived as a gold star. It adds to the tension.

My fantasy of course would be to have local school districts form an alliance and pool their resources to offer magnet schools for these kids so they can do it right. Anyway, off to bed before my night shift starts.


Unknown said...

My son is in kindergarten and has tested into APP. However, he is also an early entrance kindergarten student and isn't allow into APP. He is extremely gifted as well as tall and mature. If he was born on Aug 31st instead of Oct 1st - he could go to APP where he would probably be most happy and challenged. I think the school district really needs to rethink this policy. If my son tested into early entrance and tested into APP then he should be allowed to attend. Thanks for listening.
Frustrated mom.

Anonymous said...

It is a "guideline" and not a Board approved policy. Challenge it.

Anonymous said...

Side question - did you determine your child's SDs via private testing? If so, would you mind sharing who/where you tested, and whether it's benefited your efforts to figure out an education plan for your child? Our daughter is probably one of those outliers, particularly in math, and after a couple years of school we're realizing we need to get a clearer handle on it to serve her, if only to figure out how best to supplement at home. Thanks!