We, the bloggers,are amazed at the administration's distorted description of the elementary math discussion that took place at the May 18th board meeting. That board meeting was a first for us in many ways, but also a sad reminder that more change is needed in the D181 administration. To begin with, it was literally the first time in years that almost all board members initiated and actively participated in a discussion on a topic of great importance -- how math should be taught next fall at the elementary schools. The board members who initiated the discussion were very concerned about the administration's plan to eliminate flexible ability groups in math across grade levels at each elementary school. It was also the first time in years that a majority of the board (5 of the 6 members who were present) directed the administration to change course on the Learning for All instructional model -- and reinstate flexible ability groups in math across elementary grade levels, rather than continue the inclusive, heterogeneous integrated service model within each classroom.
Because we were so impressed with the new board's discussion and the positive direction the new BOE seems to be taking the district to ensure the best quality instruction for ALL of our children, we decided to give the administration first crack at reporting on the meeting in the weekly Board Summary prepared by the director of communication. Boy, what a mistake that was! In our opinion, the board summary that was emailed to parents on Friday afternoon completely distorted the discussion and undermined the BOE, excluding key points various board members made during the meeting and completely ignoring a disturbingly provocative statement the Assistant Superintendent of Learning made in response to the BOE's directive. You can click on the link above to read the summary for yourselves, but we want to state that we can only imagine that upon reading the Board Summary, the board members who actively participated in the math discussion must have felt like they had been slapped in the face by the administration.
The May 18 Board Summary is a perfect example of why parents, teachers and community members need to listen to the actual podcast in order to realize just how misleading the administration's summary of the elementary math discussion is. You can access the podcast at: http://podcast.d181.org/?p=382. The discussion begins at Counter 00:46:48 with Dr. White stating that the board requested the discussion. There was absolutely no administrative presentation for the new board on the proposed math plan for next fall to kick off the discussion. The fact that the administration had NOTHING to present to the new board was, in our opinion, passive aggressive push back and immediately foreshadowed the negativity the administration was about to direct at the board members who wanted to have a serious discussion on our students' math future.
Dr. White stated that he and other administrators were available to answer questions during the meeting and then turned the discussion over to the board. This was another first since typically the administration presents information and then answers board member questions. So Ms. Garg began the discussion by explaining that the administration last presented elementary math information to the board in February and April (Counter 00:47;10) and had explained that only 2-4 students per elementary school would be identified for accelerated math starting next fall. Garg stated that the board hadn't really had discussion yet on these plans, nor discussed how the administration was going to strive for consistency among schools.
We have listened to the podcast of the math discussion several times this week and, in our opinion, it can best be described in 3 points:
1. The majority of the board members expressed real concerns about the negative impact the proposed inclusive, integrated service model will have on our math students.
2. A majority of the BOE reached consensus to reinstate FLEXIBLE, ABILITY GROUPS in math across grade levels at each elementary school because this will best meet the needs of ALL students,
3. The administration and lone board member Marty Turek expressed their lack of support and, in our opinion, feigned ignorance on how to implement the board majority's directive.
When you read the administration's Board Summary of the discussion, you will note that a KEY word is only used twice in the description. That word is FLEXIBLE. The summary leaves the impression that what the board majority has directed is for creation of PERMANENT TRACKING of students in elementary math with absolutely no flexibility for teachers to move students in and out of ability groups during the school year. Dr. White and the administration are cited as expressing concern for PERMANENT ability groups. Dr. Schneider is cited as commenting on the negative effect of "creating what could essentially be a tracking system."
NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! Each and every board member who advocated for reinstatement of ability groups in math made clear to the administration that teachers should have flexibility to modify students' placements during the school year as needed. Veteran and new board members expressed legitimate concerns as to the negative impact that the administration's inclusive model could have on our students, especially when they matriculate to high school and are put at a placement disadvantage against students from the other feeder schools that have retained ability groupings, advanced and accelerated tiers for more than the few students that our administration are now calling unique learners. The board members who advocated for flexible ability based groups in math across grade levels clarified for the administration that there SHOULD be flexible movement in and out of the ability groups and that teachers should be able to change a student's placement.Yet the Board Summary fails to mention any of this, leaving the impression that the BOE wants to implement a rigid tracking system.
Since the Board Summary is, in our opinion, a distorted version of the truth, we feel it is our obligation to point out some key points and statements the board members in support of flexibility that were not mentioned:
1. Counter 00:50:16 -- Jennifer Burns pointed out that she had had conversations with parents of advanced learners who said their students "needs were not being met in the classroom through differentiation. Then looking at a teacher perspective, [she] also heard from teachers that differentiating to a classroom of learners with a wide range of ability is challenging." She expressed her concern that under the administration's inclusive model, students who would be offered subject acceleration would be a "relatively limited group of people, group of students" and she was concerned that there would still be a large group of student who would "fall through the cracks, whose needs are not going to be met by differentiation within a single classroom with flexible grouping." Another concern parents had brought forward was "that there isn't consistency between the schools." In her opinion, "it seems to me that ability grouping across the grade can provide -- if
there is flexibility between those groups and movement between those groups --there is flexibility that is needed at a school level and at a classroom level, however, the demands on the teacher to meet the needs of every student within the classroom are much more reasonable."
2. Counter 00:54:38 -- Jill Vorobiev pointed out that during her students' tenure in the district, there had been close to about 10 years where 30% of the students had been subject accelerated in math starting in 3rd grade by one year and the administration's proposal seems like they were "going from a third of the students to a couple per building." Her concern was that since the administration wasn't doing away with subject acceleration at the middle school, "essentially we are now saying we are going to start students in grade 6 at either grade 7 or 8 math and in a few years we are actually effectively eliminating 6th grade math, down the road, that's how the plan looks, conceptually I struggle with how do we get kids from at grade level through 5th grade to the following year either being in 7th or 8th grade math why is there this new resistance to subject accelerating kids when it's been done for so long and math is so specific and tracked through the high school level....I have concerns about taking away the subject acceleration in math at the elementary level and I don't understand how we can go from grade 5 to grade 7 or grade 5 to grade 8. We are going to effectively going to deny that opportunity to some kids."
3. Counter 01:04:30 -- Burns reminded the board how the district had "ended up herer" and that all the changes had been initiated after a study was commissioned on the gifted and advanced learning program and "specifically because there were some problems with identification and question over whether or not the needs advanced learners were being met in the district. And there was also a need for flexibility....on the part of the teachers. I would suggest that flexibility doesn't mean that teachers have to be able to decide whether or not they are grouping within a classroom or across a grade. I think that flexibility can be provided by an openness to movement between groups, if you are grouping across an entire grade level."
4. Counter 01:06:35 -- Garg offered her opinion that "we've had a tumultuous two years in math. We've gone through some compacting, accelerating all students, then we had a pilot last year that was a little bit of a roller coaster ride and we've come out and picked two materials and we realize that the standards are rigorous. The one thing to keep in mind is that we're not the only district implementing these standards. Districts like ours are implementing it, districts like ours who have
had ability grouping are going to continue doing it, we are continuing to do it in the middle school and we've actually made the criteria to be more consistent, we've removed the opt in. In my opinion, also look to continue to provide the same opportunities, have some criteria, that the schools have some flexibility to form their groups."
5. Counter 01:16:28 -- Richard Giltner stated "I'm a bottom line guy Dr. White. I think sometimes we are talking past each other here. I think subject acceleration is not the issue, it's how we deliver acceleration, that's the issue. And one side says we can differentiate within a classroom and another side is saying we need flexible grouping across the grade level. I think that's kind of this big issue that's been talked about for a long time. And I think intuitively a lot of us think that people will learn math at different speeds, so it's very challenging to have all these kids in the same classroom. I don't delve into this lightly, it's balance of determining policy and providing oversight as a board versus micromanaging and telling people how to do their job, but I think when this Learning for All Plan was put into place in math, the community was not ready, the ground work was not properly placed, the ability to assess the results was not there yet. What we are using to judge its success or lack of success was not clearly determined in advance, and the cost of implementation was not spelled out very clearly in terms of coaches or whatever else we are going to need. So, in math, I would support and suggest that we return to ability based grouping at the grade level, with flexible grouping at least quarterly, and consistency across the district and the grades. I am not saying no to this plan, I am just saying not at this time. We have too many things to tackle, in terms of common core, in terms of Math in Focus, and if we can just get this behind us, at least for now, I think there are so many other great things we can accomplish in terms of curriculum updates, maybe looking at foreign language, etc. There's a lot of things we can agree on, and we keep talking about this one thing that we don't agree on and I think if we can just put this behind us for now, this is not a criticism of anyone, Dr. Schneider, or anyone in your department. I'm not saying that you don't have the best interests of the students at heart, because I know you do, you're doing what you think is best, but I just think this is what's best for our community right now."
6, Counter 01:19:02 -- Leslie Gray also addressed the concept of flexibly grouping by stating: "I just want to make sure that when we flexibly group across the grade level that each group can move at an independent pace, I think that's very important and some of the gaps we experienced in the past were because of skipping, we don't necessarily need to skip, it can just be moving at a faster pace when the teachers determine in their discretion the kids are ready to move on, not tying each of the groups across the grade to staying at a certain pace together I think is very important." She encouraged the administration to look to how The Lane School has balanced teacher discretion, flexibility while allowing the advanced learners to move at a faster pace and "also that flexibility component, when students show the readiness component, they can move up and down, that was lacking in the past." She hoped the administration would build consistency because "no matter what school you go to you should have similar learning opportunities in the district, we need to have that uniformity."
7. Counter 01:20:26 -- Marty Turek spoke next and asked whether the administration had any data to show that their inclusive model "was a failure yet." He argued that the board was quick to demand data, but without this data the board was trying to undo the administration's educational model. We have to interject at this point and state how HYPOCRITICAL Mr. Turek's data comments were, in light of the fact that for the last three years, board members have asked, begged and pleaded for data and research from the administration to support the inclusive, social justice, integrated, all-in-one-classroom, heterogeneous model of instruction that was being forced on our students, and it was NEVER adequately provided. Yet now he wants data? Please, Mr. Turek, give all the concerned parents, community members, teachers and students a break! What's worse was his admission that "everyone agrees" that there is a group of students that "we have yet to address" -- the "gifted." To have the former board president of two years make this scathing admission and then NOT support the board majority's desire to immediately rectify the situation in a manner that will ensure that all students are taught at their appropriate academic level is truly terrifying!
We think these excerpts from each of the board members who were in attendance (Gary Clarin was not) clearly establish that the BOE was NOT directing the administration to implement rigid, permanent tracks. Nevertheless, despite their candid, open discussion, the administration claimed ignorance (for lack of a better word) in how to go about implementing the proposed flexible ability groups across the elementary grade levels. Fortunately, the BOE refused to catch the bait and cast the line back at the administration stating that it is the administration's job to implement the board's direction.
We were quite disturbed that, in our opinion, the administration acted like it didn't know how to proceed with the board's directive, since as board members pointed out during the discussion, other districts -- who are also implementing common core -- have retained ability groups across grade levels, and D181 did it in the past. D181's past ability groups were not flexible enough -- per Dr. Moon's report on Advanced Learning -- and the challenge she identified in her report was how to fix the identification piece, in order to ensure that no student would miss an opportunity to be challenged at their academic level.
It seems to us that the administration has come full circle. In 2012, rather than implement Dr. Moon's identification recommendations, it chose to completely alter the instructional model -- first compacting and accelerating for all students (in math). When that didn't work, it reversed course and eliminated acceleration for all claiming that under Common Core, students should not be accelerated. The administration's instructional model for next fall would eliminate math acceleration for all but a very small group of "unique learners." In fact, Common Core standards do not advocate elimination of accelerated instruction and the administration should have been aware of that, since it is clearly spelled out on Pages 80 and 81 of Common Core Appendix A.
We also want to take this opportunity to point out that the administration is incorrect in using the word "tracking" to describe the flexible ability groups the board majority has directed it to implement. Tracking, by definition, is an identified cohesive group of students that are usually in a self-contained program. An example of this can actually be found in District Troy 30 C (Dr. White's former district) where accelerated students are identified and put in self contained programs). As recently as April 2015, District Troy 30C updated its "Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated Programs of Education." (See: https://www.troy30c.org/images/526/14-15%20Updated%20DEA%20Docs%208.14/Accelerated_Programs_Overview_3_30_15.pdf
D181 parents and teachers should read how Dr. White's former district (and remember, he only left there one year ago) is not using the heterogeneous model that he is advocating in D181. The Troy 30C report also makes it quite clear that Dr. White should be aware of methods to identify and place students into ability groups! Perhaps the Department of Learning's ignorance is also partially a result of prior boards hiring first time curriculum administrators at the recommendation of the superintendent, acting like D181 is a starter district, and allowing them to learn on the job, rather than bring curriculum expertise and proven, successful experience to our district.
In our opinion, worse than the administration's apparent ignorance of how to implement the board's directive, we were and remain appalled by a comment made by the current Assistant Superintendent of Learning following the board spelling out its new directive on implementing flexible, ability groupings in math across the elementary grades. After remaining silent for the first hour of the discussion (deferring to the Directors of Learning to answer questions), he stated at Counter 01:42:41:
"What we need to understand is that we are making a significant philosophical shift and one that I personally would not support."
Well, well, well, That seems to be quite the push back, one that in our opinion, borders on insubordination. It should make everyone's heads snap up when they listen to the podcast and cause all D181 parents and board members to question this administrator's willingness or ability to implement the board's directive. This "in your face" response by an administrator was another "first" for us as we listened to the podcast, and our immediate reaction was to conclude that if an administrator cannot support the board of education, perhaps it is time for that administrator to hit the road.
Coming on the heels of this administrator's declaration that he will not support the board's directive, it really was not that surprising that the Board Summary, prepared by the administration, failed to present the board directive as a positive step that the administration will support. Rather than accurately describe the thoughtful and comprehensive discussion that the board engaged in to reach its directive that flexible ability groups be reinstated in the elementary grades, it suggested that the BOE is seeking to implement permanent, inflexible math tracks for our students,
So the only question that remains at this juncture is what is the BOE going to do to ensure that the administration successfully implements the board's directive AND does so in a manner that is supportive and will not undermine the BOE? We will all have to wait and see, but it is clear to us that more "change" is needed -- administrative change. We can only hope that the BOE continues to take all of the necessary steps needed to meet the needs of ALL of our students.