Put Students First. Seek Growth. Be Open to Change. (Part Seven – Finale)

When I posted Part 1 over seven weeks ago, I said it was the first installment of a multi-part blog series. At that time, I didn’t know how many posts it would take to cover the flawed methods that my local school district uses to choose students for its exclusive gifted school. The current selection process has led to gross racial and socioeconomic inequities, as illustrated in the pie charts below.

Data Source: Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) 2021-2022 Fall Membership Reports 

Although this is the final installment of Put Students First. Seek Growth. Be Open to Change, it is not the end of the story. Until changes are implemented to ensure equity in the ways that students are selected to attend the top-ranked public school in the state, I will continue to call out the school district and its leaders for their hypocrisy. As a tax-paying resident of the City of Virginia Beach—my children both graduated from VA Beach high schools—I feel a civic responsibility to reveal the names of the district and the gifted school in this post. 

Examples of Hypocrisy

1. The district’s strategic plan, Compass to 2025, comprises six goals. Each goal includes an “Equity Emphasis.” Under Goal 3, Student Ownership of Learning, the equity emphasis is 

Identify and address inequities in learning opportunities for students by investigating and implementing best practices and seeking innovative solutions. 

I am certain that the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) has identified the inequitable representation of students at Old Donation School (ODS); however, I don’t believe “best practices” and “innovative solutions” have been fully investigated or considered. Consequently, “inequities in learning opportunities for students” persist. 

2. The Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted 2020-2025 (a.k.a. “the 5-year plan”) is a lengthy document that VBCPS is required by law to submit to the VDOE. The following statement is one of eight activities under the objective of “Research, identify, and implement assessment measures to identify students from underrepresented, underserved, and underresourced populations.” 

Conduct an annual review of referral, application, selection data, and procedures to ensure equitable representation of students at ODS.  

I am also certain that reviews of referral, application, selection data, and procedures at the gifted school are conducted annually, but the reviews have not yet resulted in any changes of note “to ensure equitable representation of students at ODS.” 

3. VBCPS’s Core Values are at the top of every page of vbschools.com, the district’s website. The core values are 

  • Put Students First.   
  • Seek Growth.   
  • Be Open to Change.   
  • Do Great Work Together.   
  • Value Differences. 

The pie charts above are evidence that the VBCPS’s leaders put some students first. People who “seek growth” and are “open to change” do not necessarily grow or change. And what does “do great work together” mean? There continues to be a lack of work to address the inequities at the gifted school; leaders who “value differences” would have fixed this problem by now. 

Absence of Purpose

An article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) explained that an organization’s vision, mission, or values are not the same as its purpose (Kenny, 2014). A later piece in HBR noted that “many enterprises struggle to define, much less live, their purpose” (Blount & Leinwand, 2019). In my opinion, ODS’s inequity problem stems largely from the school not having a defined purpose, which I alluded to in Part 5: “The actual purpose of the gifted school does not appear on the school’s or district’s websites, and it is not in the 5-year plan either.” 

After reading the HBR articles, I located Harvard’s purpose on the university’s website

Higher Education, Higher Purpose – As a research university and nonprofit institution, Harvard is focused on creating educational opportunities for people from many lived experiences. 

If the leadership of VBCPS truly aspires to have “equitable representation of students at ODS”—as written on pages 8 and 52 of the 5-year plan—they should craft a statement of purpose for the school that reflects this. With ODS’s recent change in administration, now would be the perfect time to define the school’s purpose.  

Defective Data

In Parts 2-6 of this series, I described some of the flawed methods that VBCPS uses to identify gifted students. The data yielded by these methods are used again by the ODS Selection Committee to determine which applicants will receive invitations to attend the school. Here is a list of the data sources and concerns about each one: 

  • Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) – Not culturally neutral; possibility of examiner effects on test performance; some children practice for the NNAT, others do not (see Part 2
  • Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) – Not culturally neutral; possibility of examiner effects on test performance; some children practice for the CogAT, others do not (see Part 3)   
  • Teacher Checklist for Observing Gifted Behaviors – Locally developed instrument lacks evidence of validity and reliability; many items are long and confusing; teacher narratives are subjective; possible gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or socioeconomic bias from teachers (see Part 4)  
  • Report cards – Teachers’ grading practices can be inconsistent; some Citizenship, Participation & Collaboration, and Productivity criteria contradict gifted behaviors; possible gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or socioeconomic bias from teachers (see Part 5)  
  • Student interviews (Grades 5-12) – Interview protocol lacks evidence of reliability and validity; possible gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or socioeconomic bias from interviewers (see Part 6
  • Problem-based tasks (Grade 1) – The “tasks” are worksheets that lack quality; worksheets are not free of bias (see Part 6

Think Equity, Norm Locally

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the positive relationship between teacher quality and student achievement (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2000; Koedel & Betts, 2007; Lee, 2018). Other research indicates that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to have teachers who are not as effective as the educators who teach higher socioeconomic students (e.g., Goldhaber, Lavery, & Theobald, 2015; Mansfield, 2015; Sass et al., 2012). Further, children who live in economically disadvantaged areas often face learning obstacles that privileged children do not encounter, an issue I pointed out in Part 3.  

Learning obstacles manifest as scores on standardized tests such as the CogAT. According to the CogAT’s primary author, “inferences about ability require comparison of an individual’s performance with the performance of others who have had a similar opportunity to learn” (Lohman & Gambrell, 2012). A major reason for the 29-point gap between the percent of economically disadvantaged students in VBCPS and the percent of economically disadvantaged students at ODS is that the selection process doesn’t take learning opportunities into account. As I wrote in Part 3, “even slightly lower CogAT scores prevent kids who haven’t had the same educational benefits that other kids have had from being accepted to the district’s exclusive gifted school.” 

To make the ODS selection process more equitable, VBCPS should stop using national norms to interpret test scores. Local norms should be used instead. I made this recommendation in Part 3 and it bears repeating. (A brief explanation of local and national norms can be found here.) 

This Student Needs More 

VBCPS’s 5-year plan states that the ODS Selection Committee uses “three questions as consideration when examining ODS applications” from students: 

  1. Is there evidence throughout the application that this student needs more than what is provided through the resource cluster program at his/her home school? 
  2. Is there evidence that shows this student has the potential to be successful in the ODS setting? 
  3. Is there evidence that the student is either achieving at high levels OR is displaying gifted characteristics and behaviors as identified by the parent, teachers, and/or GRT [gifted resource teacher]? (p. 81) 

In Part 5, I commented on the second and third questions and promised to address the first question in the final part of this series. The resource cluster model mentioned in the question is “an arrangement in which a group (cluster) of identified gifted students is assigned to a classroom with a cluster teacher who collaborates with the GRT to provide differentiated curriculum and instruction” (5-year plan, p. 89). The only difference between cluster teachers and regular classroom teachers is that the former receive training from the district on gifted students’ needs and curriculum differentiation. 

If the ODS Selection Committee—“a team of approximately 25 people, all employees of VBCPS, representing a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and ethnicities” (5-year plan, p. 80)—received specific information about the gifted cluster programs at each applicant’s home school, then team members might be able to answer the first question with certainty. In Promoting Privilege: Selecting Students for a Public Gifted School, I explained it like this: 

It is unlikely that there is enough credible evidence in a student’s application for gifted school selection committee members to make fully informed decisions about whether the child “needs more than what is provided through the resource cluster program at his/her home school.” … The committee lacks information about students’ home schools, their gifted cluster programs, and how each child fits in at their home school. Consequently, the committee is making a guess as to whether “this child needs more” than what their home school has to offer. 

Some of the most effective teachers in Virginia Beach work at ODS. While there are many other excellent educators at schools across the district, it is reasonable to assume that any student who attends ODS will receive “more than what is provided through the resource cluster program at his/her home school.” So who’s to say which applicants need more? Maybe the economically disadvantaged applicants need more. 

Try Something New

To “ensure equitable representation of students at ODS,” VBCPS should dissolve its current student selection process and try something new. The best suggestion already appears in the district’s 5-year plan: “Consider the feasibility of implementing a lottery system for selecting identified gifted students for available seats at ODS grades 2-8.” 

On pages 25-26 of my Promoting Privilege article, I described a lottery system that the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) in Georgia used to diversify a new magnet school for high achievers. The district had been under U.S. District Court jurisdiction since 1969, when it was ordered to dismantle its “dual school system.” At that time, I was a freshman in a high school that DSCD claimed was integrated because two Black teachers worked at the school. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court while I was a first-year teacher at a DeKalb County elementary school

The lottery system that DSCD used for desegregation purposes serves as a model for an ODS lottery, which I proposed on pages 25-26 of my article:

The incoming second-grade cohort would be selected on a school-by-school basis, with the district’s 50+ elementary schools allotted two places each for identified gifted first-grade students whose parents submit an application within a deadline. When more than two students from a school apply, a lottery would determine the two students. This would work similarly for rising sixth graders, except that each of the district’s 13 middle schools would be allotted 12 places for identified gifted students. . . . Under the proposed partial lottery system, if every elementary school sent two of its rising second graders and every middle school sent 12 of its rising sixth graders, there would be 20 or more “at-large” spots in the new second-grade cohort and the new sixth-grade cohort. These remaining places would be filled by students whose lots were drawn from two large pools of applicants… who were not selected to represent their elementary or middle school.  

If the powers that be are worried that this new method of selecting ODS students will compromise the school’s high academic standards—a concern held by some current ODS teachers—then a new committee can be formed to ensure that each applicant has met a set of predetermined minimum requirements (e.g., at or above a specific percentile on the CogAT using local norms, satisfactory academic grades on most current report card).  

Any current teachers who aren’t happy with the requirements or other changes at ODS would be given the opportunity to transfer; their jobs can be filled by newly recruited teachers of color. This suggestion aligns with the “Equity Emphasis” of Goal 3 of VBCPS’s Strategic Framework: “Place a priority on recruiting, retaining, and promoting a workforce representative of our diverse student population.” 

Final Recommendations

I expressed another concern and reason for the racial and economic disparities between VBCPS’s student population and ODS’s student body in my 2021 article  – there might be a lack of ODS applications from economically disadvantaged students and students of color. If this is the case, I believe that VBCPS is obligated to investigate the underlying reasons for this trend. On pages 24-25 of the article, I wrote that  

this situation is reminiscent of the gifted school study by Barlow and Dunbar (2010), where “few parents of color and/or low-income applied for the program. Many of them knew little or nothing about Rockwood Magnet School; others did not see a benefit in having their young child compete against children with far more advantages” (p. 73). The “reasons that minority parents gave for not enrolling their children were their concerns that their children would feel marginalized at a predominately white, middle-class school” (p. 74).  

I went on to explain my recommendation, which involved hiring “a reputable research organization with no affiliation to the district” to hold focus groups and conduct anonymous surveys with stakeholders in communities where there are few applications to ODS. The focus groups should not be conducted by moderators who are “of an age, ethnic background, or gender that might inhibit group members from participating in the conversation” (Jarvis & Barberena, 2008). 

After VBCPS leadership receives a comprehensive report of the research organization’s findings, they can take action to address ODS’s problem of token integration. Besides hiring effective teachers of color to work at the school, VBCPS should engage in a campaign targeted at students and their caregivers across the district. Leading the campaign would be the new administration at ODS, who would welcome visitors and communicate the benefits of attending ODS to students at every VBCPS elementary and middle school.  

A Message of Inspiration

Displayed prominently on the ODS website is the school-wide theme for 2021-2022, a marginally modified quote from Amanda Gorman‘s 2021 inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Here is the actual quote from the poem:

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The website also includes a message that explains the significance of the quotation, written by the previous ODS administration: 

This message has been selected to be an inspiration for gifted children… they have tremendous potential to make an impact on the world around them. The idea of seeking and of taking opportunities to be a beacon for others in your work, in the example you set, and in making a difference in our world, are to be encouraged, developed, and celebrated in this learning environment. This theme directly encourages students to seek ways in which they can go forth and make a positive difference in the lives of others. 

Many of the students who currently attend and have attended ODS are aware that certain identity groups are grossly underrepresented in the school’s student population, as well as in the teaching faculty. They understand that ODS’s lack of diversity is wrong. These students have a strong desire to heed their former administrator’s words and “seek ways in which they can go forth and make a positive difference in the lives of others. When will the leaders of VBCPS follow suit and take action to “ensure equitable representation of students at ODS”? If only they were brave enough to see the light.

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