Raising the TAG Bar

As Eugene School District 4J works to meet a June deadline to comply with a corrective order regarding gifted education issued by the Oregon Department of Education, a second complaint has been filed against the district, according to the parent who filed the complaints and the education department.

The corrective action order was issued to 4J in response to the first complaint filed by the parent, who felt that the district was not compliant with state talented and gifted (TAG) requirements. The same parent, Ellen Wischnowski, filed a second complaint this month on behalf of another child after her child’s TAG plan was revised significantly without notifying her. That complaint is being investigated by the state Department of Education’s TAG office, according to the department, which will decide whether to pursue it.

Oregon’s Talented and Gifted Education Act, enacted in 1987, requires that districts identify and provide services for K-12 students found to need more challenge than what’s typically offered at their grade level. Oregon is one of six states that mandates gifted programming but doesn’t fund it.

Although the state mandates TAG programming, it doesn’t require a special program or approach. The law requires only that educators find “the appropriate level at which a student should be working and then [give] that student material at a rate that [he or she] is able to learn, which oftentimes is at a faster pace than a student who isn’t gifted,” according to Kerri Sage, 4J’s half-time TAG coordinator.

4J has spent $70,000 in the past year to cover the costs of training staff, one of three requirements included in the corrective action order.

‘Rigorous curricula for every student’

4J’s website says the district is dedicated to providing “a climate of excellence and rigorous curricula for every student.” Specifically, “classroom teachers assess a student’s level and rate in all subject areas and modify the instruction to provide appropriate content challenge and instructional pacing.”

Ten years ago, when Wischnowski enrolled her son in kindergarten, she says, her efforts to get him more challenge were met with insults and derision. When he was TAG identified in third grade, she says, “I wanted him to at least read books at his level.” She was told that her son couldn’t bring books from home or the school library because they were distracting.

Wischnowski’s son tested out of third grade math and got an A in his new fourth grade class. When her son changed schools the following year, he scored 98 percent on a year-end math exam but was told his new school didn’t allow acceleration and wouldn’t recognize his completed work from the other school (both were in 4J). Her son repeated a year of math with double homework.

Wischnowski encountered similar problems when her son advanced to middle school — reading material below his level and inflexibility when she tried to have him accelerated.

Wischnowski says she met with the then-superintendent, then presented her case to the 4J School Board. The board suggested her son take higher-level courses, but when he moved to the next grade, Wischnowski says, he was denied advancement. When she went back to the school board, she says, they told her they couldn’t help.

In December 2010, Wischnowski filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Education stating that the district was not in compliance with the state mandate. “4J has not followed state law in regard to the requirements for TAG-identified students since my first student hit kindergarten nine years ago,” says Wischnowski, who filed the complaint on behalf of her son, now in ninth grade, and all 4J TAG students.

The state spent a year investigating Wischnowski’s complaint, she says. “What they found,” she says, “was that 4J was not compliant with the state TAG mandate, that they were not identifying students appropriately, that once students were identified, that they were not receiving differentiation or acceleration, and that it was not a one- or two-school issue, that it was districtwide, every school,” she says.

In response to the complaint, the Department of Education issued a corrective action order. 4J was instructed to make three changes, according to Sage. First, they were told to provide more professional development for teachers around TAG issues. All 4J teachers had to take three trainings on TAG law, building plans, differentiation and other aspects of gifted education.

Second, 4J was told to expand testing elementary school students to include all second graders. And third, the district was told to restructure its forms, documents, and online information to communicate that all grades are included in gifted education. “We had a K-8 focus because by the time students get to high school, they have a lot of differentiation options just based on the courses they choose and levels of math,” Sage explains.

The district’s deadline for compliance is June 15. Sage says the second and third requirements have been met and she is hopeful the teacher training component will be completed on time. If 4J doesn’t meet the deadline, the district stands to lose state funding, but it’s unclear how much.

Board Chair Jennifer Geller said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of the matter, but she noted that “the district has taken additional steps this past year to better meet the needs of TAG students.”

The second complaint, filed this month, was filed on behalf of only one student, Wischnowski’s daughter, and came after Wischnowski says she exhausted options at the school and district level. “The TAG plan is not being followed,” she says, explaining that she had worked to get advanced instruction for her child. After six or eight weeks, all but one component of that instruction was removed without consulting her. “I really wanted to resolve it … I really don’t want my daughter in a holding pattern for two years.” Wischnowski asked for a state mediator to help, but was told mediation is available only for special education matters.

Funding or ideology?

It’s hard to say whether the problems in 4J are simply financial — the district has slashed its budget over the past decade — or whether they reflect an ideological approach to educating gifted students.

In Oregon, 42,065 of the state’s 552,883 students were identified as gifted and talented in 2010-11. The state allocates $350,000 per biennium for TAG education. This covers one TAG specialist, who provides guidance to the state’s 197 districts on best practices, as well as administrative and other support. Current funding is “inadequate to support implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and oversight of a large population of learners with diverse needs,” according to The Quiet Crisis in Talented and Gifted Education in the State of Oregon, a legislatively mandated report released last year. “The futures of over 42,000 Oregon students are in jeopardy.”

The report recommends that the state create and implement a five-year, $7.5 million Oregon State Talented and Gifted Education Plan to include professional development, data systems, competitive grants to support evidence-based practices, and assistance to districts. A bill before the Legislature seeks $6.8 million each biennium for TAG education.

In Eugene, 1,197 of 16,000 students are TAG-identified, according to Sage. Eugene allocated $21,700 in 2011-12 for TAG; last year 4J added $70,000 to cover the costs of staff training as required by the complaint, she says. There’s no federal funding for TAG students.

“Obviously there’s a financial element to it because first of all, you have to have teachers who are trained, so there’s a cost to that,” says Marjorie DeBuse, director of UO’s Youth Enrichment and TAG Programs and an adjunct assistant professor in the UO’s College of Education. “You have to have appropriate materials,” she adds. And lower teacher-student ratios are key to successful TAG programs.

But finances aside, DeBuse points to the current culture of schooling. There is, she says, “this standards-based culture with all of its focus on bringing up the bottom and little understanding that by bringing up the top, you also bring up the bottom.”

Paula Wilkes, a gifted education consultant with Summit Center in Los Angeles who developed a TAG certificate program at Pacific University, agrees. ‘Our society, when it comes to children in the schools, is [more interested in] what is equal than what is fair and appropriate,” she says. “I don’t think it’s fair and appropriate for the gifted kids in our classroom to be taught at the same level as the average child is.”

As for the children, she says: “All children deserve to go to school expecting that they’re going to be engaged in learning.”

How to teach TAG students

Research on how best to teach gifted students suggests a variety of approaches.

Acceleration — allowing students to skip grades if they can show they’ve mastered the material at their level — is controversial because it can be difficult to administer.

Clustering, putting gifted kids in one classroom with a teacher who challenges them, happens in many districts in Washington and works best in larger schools, but is less common in Oregon — though some 4J schools use it. Some advocates say it’s a logical fix because it’s virtually cost-free.

Pulling students out of their regular classrooms for specialized TAG instruction is the approach 4J used before the mandate. Some criticize pullout programs for disrupting peer relationships and providing TAG kids appropriate education for just a small part of each week. When Measure 5 was enacted in 1990, funding for pullout programs disappeared, says Kerri Sage, 4J’s TAG coordinator.

Another approach is differentiation, which Rebecca Blocher, the state’s TAG specialist, says is the national trend. “What the TAG program looks like now [in Eugene] is either schools, grade levels, or individual teachers working hard to differentiate or create opportunity for kids within the confines of their school system,” says Sage, who acknowledges that “it’s very hard” for teachers to differentiate given the size of many classes.

For high school students in 4J, online courses fill some needs, though most such courses are for credit recovery. Juniors and seniors can take college courses through the district’s Expanded Options Program if it’s felt that the courses “support their educational learning plan,” according to the program. A UO program called Duck Link is available to juniors and seniors who have taken the highest level course offered in high school. Through College Now, a Lane Community College program, students who complete instruction in certain courses at high school get Lane credits as well as high school credits. And 4J’s Virtual High School Collaborative online courses are available primarily to high school students.

School clubs like Math Olympiads and Oregon Battle of the Books provide additional outlets for some TAG students.

Outside school, parents and others have assembled a variety of extracurricular options, some of which take place inside schools but aren’t funded or administered by them. One example is the Morning Club at Roosevelt Middle School that was started by Tom Lininger, a parent who teaches law at UO. With a focus on debate, the club meets weekday mornings for an hour before school. (Lininger also started UO Courses for High School Students, which offers four-credit classes on non-school days.) Clubs like Lininger’s are a lifeline for many TAG kids, but they also raise equity issues when they exist only at some schools. And some parents balk that their children have to take courses outside the school day to be challenged.

Sage tells the story of a parent who told her, “We can provide for our student outside the school day … What we’re worried about is the six hours that he’s sitting in the chair day in and day out and what kind of experiences is he having in that setting.” — Anne Bridgman