As the end of another school year approaches, we have been deliberating how best to address the state of curriculum in D181. Over the last three weeks, the D181 administration released the MAP scores, presented their interpretation and excuses for yet another year of declining individual student performance data and then, using brand new criteria/cut-off scores, released placement decisions for next year's 6th grade students into the middle school math, language arts and social studies tiers. Between all of us bloggers, we have attended or listened to the podcasts of the last two board meetings and the May Learning Committee meeting, and we have concluded that D181 has come full circle in the curriculum mess that led to hiring Dr. Moon five years ago to do an assessment of the gifted programs.
We have concluded that D181 is no better off, in fact we believe it is worse off, than it was in 2011 when the Department of Learning began leading the district down the socially just/learning for all pathway to nowhere.
We are not going to rehash the minutiae of the last five plus years of D181's curriculum history, nor are we going to link every sentence to the podcast counters. Instead, below are the links to the last three meetings. We urge our reader to listen to the nearly 11 hours of meeting tapes (just as we have) and hear for yourselves the discussions (or lack thereof) that took place. This blog post is simply going to remind our readers of some of the issues that were addressed in those three meeting, describe our reaction and ask you to Sound Off. (But remember to do so before June 9, when we will be signing off permanently.....)
May 9, 2016 BOE Meeting: http://livestream.com/ccsd181/boe/videos/122460527
May 16, 2016 Learning Committee Meeting: http://livestream.com/ccsd181/boe/videos/123236141
May 23, 2016 Learning Committee Meeting: http://livestream.com/ccsd181/boe/videos/123902110
Long before the district hired or promoted the last five DOL administrators --- Stutz, Russell, Benaitis, Schneider and this year's 2 interims -- D181 had dedicated gifted and advanced learner programs both at the elementary and middle school levels. GRC, and later ACE, were the names of the previous gifted programs. In addition, starting in elementary school, there was math compacting and acceleration offered to the highest achieving math students and by the time they got to middle school, there were 3 levels of math (one or two years acceleration), 2 or 3 levels of language arts and 2 levels of social studies. These programs required placement based upon students achieving certain cut-scores on either of or a combination of cognitive and achievement tests. The cut scores were chosen by the DOL administration and seemed to change year after year, depending on who was running the department. The problem with the past programs, however, was that students who just missed the cut-offs were not really afforded an appeals process and were rarely added to a higher tier. That is, unless they were grandfathered into the programs with scores they had received in second grade that placed them into GRC/ACE, even if those scores were well below the cut-offs needed for new students to place into the programs going into middle school. Five years ago, in 2011, Dr. Moon was hired to evaluate the gifted programs in D181. Her conclusions included: D181 was committing educational malpractice, gifted students were only having their needs met on a part time basis , the identification process for placing students into the gifted or advanced tiers was flawed and needed to be changed to allow more students an opportunity to be successful, and district wide there was not appropriate differentiation taking place in the general classes.
Following Dr. Moon's report, the district embarked on a "journey" (to use Dr. White's favorite phrase) under Dr. Schuster's leadership to develop a new philosophy of learning, which ultimately led to Dr. Schneider's and the DOL's creation and implementation of a socially just Advanced Learning Plan, which then morphed into the Learning for All Plan. During the Learning for All years, "gifted" became a dirty word in D181 and was replaced with various iterations such as "advanced learner" or "unique learner." The gifted programs were stripped down and a one size fits all/acceleration for all model replaced it. All students were accelerated one full year in math, and a seven year plan was presented that once fully rolled out would have all students taking ACE social studies and ELA. This seven year plan was pushed by the DOL despite concerns raised by some teachers that such a plan would lead to watering down of the curriculum or would simply be too difficult for the average or below average students. Teachers were tasked with effectively differentiating all instructional levels within their classroom. In addition, under the plan, as the seven year roll out began, students could opt in to any of the upper level programs in the middle school regardless of their placement scores.
Rather than work on fixing the broken identification process, the administration (in our opinion) simply opened the floodgates and let anyone in who wanted to try the upper level tiers. For those of you who have followed the discussion on required student performance to stay in the upper level classes, you will remember that over the years, students went from having to maintain an 80% in the classes to only a 70% and then could actually stay in the class if parents insisted, regardless of the student performance.
As we now know, the acceleration for all model didn't work. The differentiation of all students within one classroom didn't work. The dismantling of the gifted program didn't work, and the Learning for All Program didn't work. Each year the new fangled socially just curriculum program rolled out culminated in a growing awareness that student performance was declining in most schools and over most grades. Certain schools and grades did show good performance but the administration did not undertake a real analysis of what was working at those schools that should be implemented in the schools/grades where performance was tanking.
Year after year for the last five years, the MAP scores have declined. Year after year the BOE and the community have listened to a series of excuses from the administration as to why this might be. From a change in achievement tests given statewide, to a change in norming standards on MAP, to growing pains from implementation of common core standards, to the challenge of implementing new math materials, there was always an excuse given. Yet what was missing was any attempt to truly collect or analyze not only the test data but class work data, to understand the performance decline and make the necessary adjustments.
In the Spring of 2015, the new BOE members finally demanded change. Even without the real analysis of why scores were going down, they recognized that the Learning for All program wasn't working and student performance was declining, especially in math. The BOE directed a reinstatement of math tiers. The administration pushed back and after nearly one year, the board directive hadn't been fully implemented. This spring, teachers began speaking out about how the programs have either been watered down to make them easier for the average learners or if not watered down are too difficult for many students. If one listens to the meetings, you will hear reports from teachers of students crying because they are so stressed out from the higher level work. You will hear them say how materials have become so watered down due to the opt-ins, that the courses are no longer challenging the highest achievers. And throughout all of this, one can look at the student performance data and see that has continued to decline. The teachers are now seeking placement changes, especially in ACE social studies and ELA. Listening to the teachers, it is clear they want a return of tiered programs so that students can be taught at their appropriate levels.
But the problem with a return to tiered programs is that one must have an appropriate identification process to properly place students. So has the identification process been fixed? No it has not.
Listening to the May 16 Learning Committee meeting, there was extensive discussion of how the DOL had to come up with new cut-offs this year. Unlike last year when cut-offs were based on a combination of scores from the Inview test (a cognitive test) and MAP tests (achievement tests) this year, Inview was eliminated, leaving only MAP scores. In addition, for language arts and ACE social studies, students took a writing narrative assessment graded by the sixth grade ELA teachers. Apparently there was confusion by the DOL administration as to what exactly the BOE was looking for in terms of placement of students into the math, language arts an social studies tiers. But rather than go before the BOE to seek clarification, the DOL took it upon itself to simply start adjusting the cut-off's until it achieved class sizes that it thought would balance the interests of the BOE, administrators, and teachers.
We are not going to detail the Learning Committee discussion, but suffice it to say that it is clear that rather than select cut-off scores based upon an analysis of student performance in the classes and the corresponding MAP and narrative writing sample scores achieved by successful students, the cut-offs were tweaked to fill seats. There was no scientific analysis done of student performance to determine what the appropriate cut-off scores should be. In fact, during the committee discussion, there was talk of possibly further manipulating the cut-offs to get to a desired number of students for each level. But worse than this was the insistence by the DOL administration that it was very difficult for them to set the criteria without there being a philosophy of learning in the district on how to treat gifted students.
SAY WHAT? Did the DOL administration really say this? Yes they did and to us this was a sign that everyone in the DOL has dropped the ball big time. How could any administrator not know about the PHILOSOPHY of LEARNING that the BOE approved less than five years ago? And IF the DOL administrators really believe that there is no philosophy of learning, why the heck didn't they go before the BOE to ask before deciding on the placement criteria it thought would balance all interests?
When we listened to this discussion we were horrified. Not only hadn't the BOE been consulted about the methodology the DOL was using to set the placement criteria, but the teachers who were consulted and who had voiced their concerns, came to the meeting to express their shock that the criteria had been changed from what they had been led to believe the cut-offs would be.
But instead of the committee insisting that no placement decisions should be sent to parents until after the BOE could address the DOL administrator's questions, and clarify what the philosophy of learning, philosophy of gifted, directives and intentions of the BOE actually are, the learning committee further "tweaked" the placement criteria to tighten the ACE social studies criteria to address the teacher's concerns, even though it would lead to much smaller ACE classes than the last couple of years. What amazed us as we listened to the discussion was that it was almost as if the DOL administrators and certain committee members were prepared to manipulate the data to suit whatever the "flavor of the day" by the DOL administration or certain committee members decided that evening to sample.
And two days later, placement letters were sent home to parents without first discussing any of this with the BOE at the May 23 meeting.
So we waited to see whether or not there would be substantive discussion by the BOE on either the MAP data or the placement criteria at the May 23rd board meeting. Both items were on the agenda. But after cursory presentations on what had been discussed at the Learning Committee meeting, the BOE didn't have much of anything to say on either topic.
WOW. We were shocked. And we remain shocked and concerned. As we sit here writing this post, there is absolutely no way that the administration or BOE can say that the identification process it is using for next fall is appropriate, based on research, will ensure proper placement of students into their correct level, will not change next year when the DOL or someone on a committee wants to change it, and will not be subject to change up or down depending on the desired class size.
Is this what Dr. Moon meant when she said D181 needed to fix the identification process? The district has now reinstated tiers that it was quick to eliminate under the Learning for All Plan. The DOL administrators are now once again using the phrase "gifted" students. The ACE program which five years ago was criticized for being too small and excluding students who just missed the cut-off, is now once again going to be very small and subject to tight, restrictive cut-offs.
So like we said at the beginning, we have come full circle. Yes, now there is an appeals process, but it is subjective. So we anticipate that there will be claims of unfairness and claims that not all students who could succeed are getting the opportunities to try the higher level work. And at the end of the day, we won't be surprised if a future board or administration suggests hiring another consultant to assess the state of the tiered programs. And the identification process. And the cycle will start all over. And nothing will have really changed, except that student performance will have steadily declined over the years.
So SOUND OFF!