Newsweek article on how US hates its gifted kids

A recent article in Newsweek provocatively titled “America Hates Its Gifted Kids.” Here are a few excerpts:

In the most recent global tests – scored on a 1,000-point scale – the U.S. scored a 481 in math, 497 in science, and 498 in reading comprehension. In comparison, international averages were 494, 501, and 496, and the U.S. lags well behind the world’s leaders, a list which includes some of the usual suspects like China, Japan and the Netherlands, but also has Latvia, Slovenia and Vietnam.

Why is the world’s largest economy so bad at teaching its children? One growing school of thought is that the U.S. education system, in its laudable quest to make sure the worst students reach minimal standards, is cheating its best pupils.

“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” said David Lubinski, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University…

For years, teachers have operated under the assumption that gifted children – the tiny group smarter than 99.99 percent of their peers – need and deserve less attention than the kids in remedial classes. When the research team looked back at Stanley’s original assessments of classroom dynamics, they found that teachers more or less ignored gifted children, instead teaching to a one-size-fits-all curriculum that catered to the lowest common denominator…

Megan Tomlinson, a 10th-grade English and Journalism teacher at High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she has seen too many talented students have their potential squandered because their school doesn’t foster growth.

The full article is at:

NY Times calls for more support for academically gifted students

The New York Times editorial board published an article about how the education system is failing advanced students. The full editorial is available online at:

and a follow-up posting on the New York Times blog is available here:

Here is an excerpt from the editorial:

Not only do average American students perform poorly compared with those in other countries, but so do the best students, languishing in the middle of the pack as measured by the two leading tests used in international comparisons.

On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test, the most recent, 34 of 65 countries and school systems had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds scoring at the advanced levels in mathematics than the United States did. The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland all had at least twice the proportion of mathematically advanced students as the United States, and many Asian countries had far more than that.

Other tests have shown that America’s younger students fare better in global comparisons than its older students do, which suggests a disturbing failure of educators to nurture good students as they progress to higher grades. Over all, the United States is largely holding still while foreign competitors are improving rapidly.

Federal, state and local governments and school districts have put little effort into identifying and developing students of all racial and economic backgrounds, both in terms of intelligence and the sheer grit needed to succeed. There are an estimated three million gifted children in K-12in the United States, about 6 percent of the student population. Some schools have a challenging curriculum for them, but most do not.

With money tight at all levels of government, schools have focused on the average and below-average students who make up the bulk of their enrollments, not on the smaller number of students at the top. It is vital that students in the middle get increased attention, as the new Common Core standards are designed to do, but when the brightest students are not challenged academically, they lose steam and check out.

Analysts and scholars have studied international trends and identified the familiar ingredients of a high-performing educational system: high standards and expectations; creative and well-designed coursework; enhanced status, development and pay of teachers; and a culture where academic achievement is valued, parents are deeply involved and school leaders insist on excellence.

But raising the performance of the best students will require the country to do far more.

Education: Keep the baby, replace the bath water

By Hemant Bhargava
The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on July 14, 2013

Madhavi Sunder’s two recent articles on AIM/GATE (“AIM is one of school district’s most diverse programs” and “Napa model does not fit here”) reinforce the old adage “Do not throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Opponents of the self-contained AIM model in Davis have frequently lamented drawbacks and limitations of this model, calling for its elimination in favor of an amorphous unproven and ill-defined “alternative” differentiated learning model.

With any model, if you try hard enough and collect enough metrics and criteria to judge it, you will always find something to criticize. Self-contained AIM sometimes is considered too big, but others say it is too small and elitist. Pick on diversity: You can always find some ethnic group or some income range that is not perfectly represented. If you worry about identification, you can argue that the tests favor only one group of children or, if the district has worked hard to find tests that fit different types of children, that they are too unfair.

The important thing is not that the model is or be perfect. Rather, that if you truly find a gap in it, if you find something missing or less than perfect, then try to close that imperfection, propose a realistic workable alternative. The mere presence of an imperfection is no reason at all to demand that the program be scrapped or fatally crippled, as those against self-contained GATE/AIM repeatedly have sought.

What are the alternatives? Some point to Napa’s differentiated learning model. Look, Napa is not Davis by any means. According to 2012 census data, 69 percent of Davis adults age 25 or above have at least a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, Napa’s score is 30.7 percent, right alongside the California state average of 30.2 percent.

In a typical California district such as Napa, only 2 to 4 percent of children would be considered eligible for the GATE/AIM program. Those numbers are simply not enough to form self-contained classes in neighborhood schools. You would have to combine children from seven to eight schools into one location, which means a lot of driving to drop off and pick up kids.

Others previously had held Lafayette as an exemplar, but that fallacious argument was easily debunked (see The Davis Enterprise article, “GATE is good for all students”).

One educational model does not fit all districts. A recent contribution by a GATE opponent (“Baby Bear’s ready for his bed”) ridiculed the self-contained model, noting that though Goldilocks tried various sizes and found a perfect one, she was booted off at the end. But the author missed some key points of this treasured fairy tale, which silently emphasizes that each individual has different wants and needs. Children will succeed academically when the curriculum fits their ability and needs.

Should Mama Bear have her chair taken away just because Papa Bear likes his better? Should she feel ashamed that her chair is more comfortable? Does her choice mean that Papa’s chair is “wrong” or change the value of Papa’s chair in any way? No, Mama Bear is not being “elitist” because she prefers her own chair — it is simply the appropriate chair for her.

Mama’s preference for her own chair doesn’t mean that she feels Baby’s and Papa’s chairs are of any lesser quality or value, and likewise it is ridiculous and irresponsible to conclude that by choosing AIM, families are denigrating the other educational choices available to them. What if Papa says his feelings are hurt because Mama chose a different chair? Should we just order Papa’s chair for every child in Davis and demand they use it, or should we explain to Papa that Mama’s choice of chair relates to what is best for her and should have no bearing on his choice?

Why are some in Davis working so hard to shoehorn every student into the same identical “chair” when we have different types of great chairs available? Should we limit the Bear home to a single type of chair? And who would be given the power to choose what is best for all of them?

It would be wonderful if we could run off to Ikea and order a one-size-fits-all chair that would adjust itself by customizing its fit the needs of Baby Bear one moment, Mama Bear another time and Papa Bear some other time. Unfortunately, this just isn’t realistic.

While there are chairs that offer a certain degree of adjustment, the fact is that this one-size-fits-everyone-best chair doesn’t currently exist. Nor does such a differentiated learning educational model. We are fortunate to have so many highly skilled teachers in Davis working hard to meet the needs of each of their 33 children. Let’s support and applaud them rather than limit them to one type of chair.

Self-contained AIM, combined with differentiated instruction in other classes, is indeed “best practice” for educating children in both self-contained and general ed classes (again, see “GATE is good for all students”). Districts who turn to alternative models do so because they simply don’t have the numbers of qualifying children to form neighborhood based self-contained AIM programs.

Davis is blessed with an extremely educated population, one that also values excellence in education for their children. We are fortunate in this respect. Let’s clean the bath water but keep the baby. In fact, please shower the baby with some love and affection.

— Hemant Bhargava is a Davis resident.

We value exemplary programs

By Deborah Nichols Poulos
The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on July 10th, 2013

I am proud of all of my teaching experience, including 19 years teaching grades 1-6 in neighborhood programs, not just my eight years teaching GATE. My advocacy in support of AIM is motivated by those who attack it, not because I favor it over other programs. So far, all I’ve seen or heard are presentations about other districts’ success with GATE programs. None has contradicted the effectiveness of AIM in Davis.

The AIM program was never “designed for 1 or 2 percent of our school population.” In 1994, the program was expanded from one classroom for each fourth, fifth and sixth grade to meet the needs of all the district’s identified high-ability students interested in self-contained classrooms. It is not surprising that the population of students in a top university town, with an exemplary AIM program, would serve more than a nationwide percent of high-ability students.

Opponents of AIM bring emotional perceptions and prejudices to the table. Proponents of AIM reference its stellar status among the state’s gifted programs, research that supports it as a “best practice,” and research showing self-contained AIM benefits all of the district’s children. If the AIM magnet program is attacked for having a perceived negative effect on neighborhood schools, are campaigns against Spanish Immersion and Montessori soon to follow?

Teacher morale is impacted by district budgets and attitudes. Having been in the trenches, I know. Elementary teachers must spend their own money for basic needs, like paper and copying. Few understand the time and effort teachers put in to provide the excellent programs for which this district is known. They get to school early, work through recess/lunch periods, stay late, take work home and when they go to bed at night they are often thinking about how to meet this or that student’s special needs.

Teachers frequently have to choose between time with their own children and children in their classrooms. These issues have everything to do with district office budget priorities and understanding, and nothing to do with the existence of magnet programs.

The excellence of Davis schools has long been credited for attracting families who put their children’s educations at a high priority. The reputation of our schools is believed to keep housing values high. I wonder what will happen when our school’s exemplary programs are downgraded or dismantled.

Deborah Nichols Poulos

Research supports AIM’s aims

By Deborah Nichols Poulos
The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on June 20th, 2013

The AIM (formerly GATE) program of self-contained classes for students who have high academic potential is under attack.  There is so much disinformation being tossed about, some contradicting itself, that it is hard to keep track.

Opponents of AIM say the program should be limited only to those burdened with problems that make it impossible for them to learn in a neighborhood classroom. Some claim AIM teachers and classrooms receive special funding, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Some say AIM is “elitist,” despite the fact that it is the most diverse magnet program in the district.

These critics cannot claim that the AIM program is failing to meet its constituents’ needs, so they claim that this program is interfering with meeting the needs of students not in the program.

With this scattershot attack it is difficult to identify critics’ real objections to AIM. The Davis school district’s AIM program has been recognized as “exemplary” by the state. We have spent more than four decades trying a multitude of approaches for gifted education that have been used all over the country. Research has consistently shown that the “best practice” nationwide is the self-contained program for gifted students. It is no accident our program has been so successful that it is a model to which other districts aspire.

Funding for the district’s gifted program has been mischaracterized. I was one of three teachers of self-contained classes at Valley Oak from 1983 to 1991. I was also president of the Davis Teachers Association for three years.

AIM teachers receive no extra pay. All AIM teachers are paid on the same certificated salary scale as all other teachers in the district, based on years of experience and education.

AIM teachers receive no extra funding for field trips or special programs, such as Future Problem Solving. As both a regular and GATE classroom teacher, I know these activities are entirely dependent upon the time and effort a teacher chooses to devote to them.

In 1981, I took my regular sixth-grade class on a weekend trip to Point Reyes with a GATE class. In the 1990s, I repeated that trip several times with my Patwin general education fifth- and sixth-graders. No class received district or site funding.

AIM teachers receive no special funding for educational programs or training. I took all the master’s degree classes in GATE at Sacramento State at my own expense. Each school allocates its site funds to send teachers to conferences or workshops. Funding for these programs for AIM teachers is no different from other classroom teachers.

Opinions about current AIM testing, identification, delivery mechanisms, etc., have run wild. Some assert that the very existence of the AIM program or any other special education program hurts the neighborhood program. But these critics have presented no evidence showing AIM classes have any effect, positive or negative, on the quality of experiences for students in neighborhood or other classes.

Placing more gifted students back into neighborhood classes stretches even thinner their teachers’ ability to meet a wider range of needs, especially given increased class sizes. How can the district help all students reach their potential by ignoring the special needs of the gifted, best met in self-contained classrooms? The district would never ignore the special needs of the struggling student, nor the wishes of parents in other magnet programs, like those who want their children to grow up speaking Spanish, or who want to home-school.

We should not rely on opinions, many clearly out of date and prejudiced against self-contained gifted classes. Both the up-to-date educational research and experience support the district’s current practices, testing and self-contained classrooms, instead of enrichment or clusters. With the single exception of the newly instituted lottery, Davis has a stellar GATE program.

— Deborah Nichols Poulos is a longtime Davis resident and retired teacher. Reach her at

AIM is one of school district’s most diverse programs

By Madhavi Sunder
The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on June 9th.

Racially charged terms have been used to attack the Davis GATE (now AIM) program, from “segregation” to “eugenics.” These charges are far removed from reality. In fact, the Davis AIM program is one of the most diverse of all of the district’s magnet programs, with demographics that closely resemble our district as a whole.

Our school district is 3 percent African-American, 17 percent Asian, 18 percent Latino and 57 percent white. Data from the last two years shows that students were identified for eligibility for the AIM program at similar percentages: 4 percent African-American, 24 percent Asian, 17 percent Latino and 51 percent white.

Questions about diversity — including not only ethnic but also socioeconomic diversity — in our district’s programs are important. But as the school board members said last month, this is an issue that affects all of our programs, not just AIM.

Indeed, DJUSD recently released data (see District’s website new link) that show striking discrepancies in various school programs. The Da Vinci Charter Academy is 2 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian, 12 percent Latino and 77 percent white. Birch Lane’s Montessori program is 2 percent African-American, 14 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino and 68 percent white. The César Chávez Spanish immersion elementary school is 2 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian, 25 percent Latino and 59 percent white.

These numbers should not condemn any of our magnet programs. These programs have successfully served students and families in the district for decades. All of them have wait lists. They are stellar parts of a stellar district. At the same time, the numbers challenge us to do better.

The Board of Education has suggested that the district’s new strategic plan include study of our magnet programs. Do some families naturally gravitate toward certain special programs, like Spanish immersion? Lower-income families may be less aware of magnet options, or less able to drive out of their neighborhoods to attend them. More information can help us correct for some inequalities.

Montessori has conducted outreach, including tabling at the Davis Farmers Market, to educate families about the program. Davis Excel has been tabling as well to educate families about AIM. In these ways we can seek to diversify our magnet programs while still preserving parental choice, a keystone of the Davis schools.

The AIM program owes its diversity to changes in district policy since 2003. Prior to that date, only children whose teachers recommended them or whose parents knew how and when to test for the program participated in it. Testing was done outside the school day.

To address unequal access, the district adopted a program of “universal testing.” The district began administering during the school day a test of abstract thinking and reasoning called the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) to all third-graders to identify high academic potential.

The OLSAT, a multiple-choice test, is one of the most reputable, thoroughly researched and cost-effective group-administered tests for identifying academic needs. Because the test, which contains both verbal and nonverbal reasoning, may not best reflect the abilities of all students, the district AIM coordinator administers a second, free test called the Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (TONI) in small groups to students who are English language learners or who have certain other risk factors.

The combination of the OLSAT and TONI tests produces a spectrum of AIM-identified children that reflects much of the diversity of our district. Offering a variety of tests as we do in Davis is considered a “best practice” in GATE identification and one reason the Davis program has been hailed as “exemplary” by the state. Our GATE-identification process was reviewed by an outside expert and commended in an evaluation as recently as 2009.

Opponents of the AIM program are now attacking the use of the TONI test, charging that it makes the program “too big.” It is ironic that the same critics who are denouncing the program as “segregated” are the ones seeking to remove the diversity from the program.

Children who do not qualify for a free retest using the TONI can take a single private test administered by a psychologist at their own expense. The district has strict rules about the private tests — a student must identify the psychologist and day and time of the test beforehand in writing to the district to avoid seeking out a better score. The district continues to provide for this outside option because we no longer have a psychologist on staff capable of administering the comprehensive one-on-one exam.

If identification methods are being challenged, we should discuss with teachers whether some students are being improperly identified, and are being put into curricula beyond their capacity. If more students would benefit from the AIM curricula, then we should admit all who are likely to benefit.

Many have in the past suggested adding an additional strand at Montgomery Elementary School, providing an AIM option in a school with a high percentage of low socioeconomic-status children.

Parents and school officials are invited to visit for a more complete collection of data, facts and research.

— Madhavi Sunder is a Davis resident, a professor of law at UC Davis and a member of Davis Excel.

Dubious legal advice drove GATE lottery decision

By Carlton Larson

The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on May 19th.

When the Board of Trustees of the Davis school district voted to implement a lottery for GATE admissions, it relied heavily on the legal advice provided by the board’s counsel, who contended that the current method of GATE selection exposed the district to the risk of a lawsuit. As several board members suggested, the lottery seemed to be the only legally permissible option.

The underlying problem is that the number of students deemed GATE-qualified exceeds the number of GATE seats. GATE-qualified students are all students scoring in the 96th percentile or higher on a standardized test, as well as students with one “risk factor” who score at the 95th percentile and students with two risk factors who qualify at the 94th percentile.

The district defines risk factors as economic disadvantage, environmental disadvantage, health problems, language or cultural disadvantage, and social and emotional problems.

Under the prior placement policy, GATE classrooms were filled first with students scoring at the 99th percentile, then the 98th and so on down the line. Because the students with two risk factors and a 94th percentile score always came last, they were more likely not to be placed in a GATE classroom.

The board has refused to release any formal opinions prepared by its counsel, so my understanding of her legal objection to this procedure is based on what she publicly presented to the board. The argument appears to be this: The existing selection procedure risked a disparate impact on what the counsel termed “protected classes.” The students who qualified in part because of risk factors were less likely to secure GATE placement than those students who did not. According to the counsel, this consequence was unlawful, and the only solution was to implement a placement lottery from among all GATE-qualified students.

Unfortunately, this advice is almost certainly wrong. I approach this issue not as a GATE parent (I have no children in the Davis school system), but as a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, where I teach and write about, among other things, equal access to public education.

As I listened to the counsel’s presentation to the board, I could not believe what I was hearing. Four other UC Davis law school professors, including some of the nation’s most distinguished anti-discrimination scholars, were with me in the audience and they all agreed that the counsel had offered highly dubious advice.

There is obviously no explicit discrimination against students with risk factors, since many will score in the 96th to 99th percentiles. Indeed, promising students with risk factors are specifically sought out to be retested with a separate, non-verbal test called the TONI.

Approximately one-third of the students who ultimately qualify for GATE do so by scoring in the 96th to 99th percentiles on the TONI. Moreover, few, if any, of the risk factors constitute “protected classes” under federal or state law.

But even if they were protected classes, the counsel’s argument still would fail for the simple reason that it proves too much. If standardized test scores are an impermissible basis for GATE placement, surely they also must be impermissible for GATE qualification.

If counsel is correct, choosing a threshold of 94 percent with risk factors rather than 92 percent with risk factors also would be illegal, because of the disparate impact on students with risk factors. So would choosing 90 percent rather than 92 percent, and so on. The whole program would seemingly be invalid. But not just GATE — the use of the SAT in college admissions and the use of Advanced Placement tests to award college credit would be equally unlawful.

I often instruct my students not to leave their common sense behind when analyzing legal issues. If a line of argument leads to absurd results, it probably is flawed. The counsel’s analysis logically extends to any school program that has a limited number of seats. There could be tryouts for a school orchestra, but a lottery would be necessary to determine which violinist sat in the first chair. There could be tryouts for the varsity football team, but the selection of the starting quarterback would need to be made by lottery from among all qualified quarterbacks.

Counsel was asked about this specific example during the hearing, and although the answer was garbled, she seemed to say that in certain circumstances a lottery would be required for filling positions on a sports team. If this is the logical consequence of her argument, then the analysis has gone seriously off the rails.

One would expect that advice to drastically change the district’s placement policy would be backed up by some substantial legal authority, or even the experience of other school districts. But there is nothing in the United States Constitution, in federal statutory law, or in state law that requires or even suggests that an admissions lottery is required in the circumstances in which Davis finds itself.

No published judicial decision has ever held that a lottery is required to ensure non-discriminatory access to a gifted program. We like to think of ourselves as special in Davis, but it is surprising indeed to discover that the laws themselves operate differently here.

The whole issue arose from a complaint filed by a parent alleging differing treatment of two standardized tests (an easy problem to fix). It did not seek a lottery. The agreement by which that complaint was settled did not require a lottery either. Yet somehow the lottery emerged as a legal mandate to fend off potential litigation. Perversely, the lottery “solution” will generate precisely the opposite result — lawsuits filed by parents of children rejected by the lottery.

As an educator, I am also deeply concerned by the policy consequences of the board’s decision, which include the real possibility that the highest-scoring students will be excluded from GATE classrooms entirely. The use of percentiles generally obscures the very significant differences in performance among the highest scorers on standardized tests.

The 2012 LSAT, which is used in law school admissions, is a good example. The test had 101 questions. Fifteen correct answers separated a student at the 26.1 percentile (45 correct) from a student at the 59.7 percentile (60 correct). But 15 correct answers also separated the 94.6 percentile (81 correct) from the 99.9 percentile (96 correct).

For elementary students, there is similarly a very real difference between reading two grades above grade level and reading 10 grades above grade level. The former student might benefit from GATE, but for the latter student, GATE is critical. The alternatives for that child are either intense classroom disengagement or skipping several grades, resulting in a classroom placement where she may lag socially and physically behind her classmates.

Under the old placement regime, this child would have been guaranteed admission to GATE; under the lottery, she may well be excluded entirely. It is inconceivable to me why any school system would exclude its most precocious students from its most challenging curriculum. It is not just educational malpractice; it is, quite simply, cruel.

There are serious and legitimate issues currently being debated about the size, scope and structure of the current GATE program. But the lottery issue is not difficult. It is not required by any sensible interpretation of the law, has significant harmful effects and should be abolished immediately.

— Carlton Larson is a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

Napa model does not fit here

By Madhavi Sunder and Gabriela Zaragoza
The following article was published by the Davis Enterprise on May 1st, 2013

The Napa school district is ranked 412th of 770 California districts, while Davis is ranked 95th according to SchoolDigger. Napa did not have any gifted and talented program at all till 2009 while the Davis GATE program, decades old, has been recognized as “exemplary” by the state.

Yet, when the Davis school district seeks to examine other models for such education, it turns to Napa. We understand that district administrators have visited Napa to study their program. We should proceed carefully and think critically about whether the Napa model fits here.

At the invitation of PAGE, a group seeking alternatives to the current GATE program in Davis, Dana Cope, the coordinator of Napa’s gifted and talented program, spoke in Davis last week. PAGE advocates the elimination of the GATE classrooms in Davis, where students who score in the top percentile on a national test can elect to be taught in a classroom where the teacher challenges them with more difficult material than that usually presented at their grade level.

Napa does not have GATE classrooms. In Napa, advanced learners are often left to teach themselves on computers. While computer-aided learning certainly has its benefits, it is no replacement for the interpersonal interaction and invaluable role of a teacher who is trained, experienced and focused on the pitfalls and challenges students often face that hinder their ability to reach their potential.

The Napa district is to be commended: It went from no advanced learner program at all to having some real options for these kids in just three years. Some suggestions are good, such as incorporating more project-based learning into all of our classrooms (but for this we might look closer to home, to Da Vinci or Montessori).

But is Davis prepared to abandon appropriate classroom instruction by a teacher in favor of learning at a computer? Should we forego school entirely in favor of teaching children via YouTube?

Madhavi Sunder and Gabriela Zaragoza

Please Come Support the Program Thursday, May 2nd, at 7pm.

A discussion of the GATE program is on the agenda at the Board of Education meeting . The meeting will be held at Community Chambers, 23 Russell Blvd.

The agenda can be located here:

We at Davis Excel are concerned that the Superintendent will request authorization from the School Board to expend resources to hire an outside consultant to evaluate the GATE program, even though the program has been repeatedly evaluated as recently as 2009–and without any discussion of the content of the prior evaluations in the GATE advisory committee.

Prior evaluations of the program have been performed either through outside competitive federal grants, or by the district staff itself, through surveys.

If the District moves ahead with hiring an outside evaluator, we need to insist on a neutral evaluator from outside the district.

Summary of Evolution of Identification Overall Score Criteria

GATE classroom opponents have repeatedly suggested that the program has grown too big. A review of the GATE program entrance criteria shows that the overall score criteria have grown more strict over time. This suggests that the Davis student population has changed over the years, as those qualifying has not fallen despite the stricter criteria.