Thursday, July 24, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

GATE operates on a false premise

By Susanna Mould

We moved to Davis from out of state when two daughters (now in high school) were entering second and fifth grades. We chose Davis, in part, because of its highly educated adult population, which we hoped would place our children in an intellectually engaging environment that could compensate for the notorious underfunding of California schools.

My older daughter had been identified as “gifted and talented” in our existing school district, so before we moved I inquired about the Davis GATE program. I submitted her test scores, and received a rejection letter informing me she was about 2 test points shy of the cut-off. I called to request some flexibility and was told that the cut-offs were firm because the GATE program was full, with a wait-list, and Davis has so many children within spitting distance of the bar that any exceptions would open floodgates.

I would love to know what percentage of Davis second-graders test within 10, or even 5 points of GATE eligibility. I’m willing to bet that the number is in the double digits, which means that the premise of the entire program is false. Although the kids served by GATE test in the top 2 percent nationally, they are not all that exceptional in the intellectually rarified Davis universe. And that is my first and foremost issue with GATE.

The district’s junior high school class configuration underscores the fallacy of the GATE rationale. Tacitly recognizing that the Davis school district is overloaded with exceptionally intelligent and motivated students, the district offers “honors” classes in English, math and social studies at all three junior highs.

These honors classes follow the exact same curriculum as the GATE classes, and the honors students generally perform just as well as the GATE kids in high school, and on AP tests and the SAT. This suggests to me that the specialized GATE program does not save any elementary school child from the perils of academic boredom, and that our regular program is just as successful at fostering ambitious children’s ability to undertake exceptional academic accomplishments.

This leads to my second issue with GATE. Since many, many kids are excluded by a hair from eligibility, I cannot escape the conclusion that GATE is, indeed, an instrument of elitism in a town that is shockingly obsessed with academic status. When my younger daughter entered third grade, a number of her second-grade classmates did not report to school at Patwin. Parents hopefully asked last year’s teacher, “Oh, did so-and-so move out of town?” The tactful response was usually, “No, s/he transferred to Willett.”

I had only lived in Davis for one year, but I already understood that this was code for “s/he made it into GATE,” and this was a DJUSD crossroads, a litmus test that inspired a mix of admiration and shame in many of my fellow Patwin parents. The cultural acceptance of the GATE myth of superiority was so pervasive that Patwin parents of comparably bright children (myself included) literally humbled themselves when they encountered GATE parents around town, congratulating the GATE parents on their children’s success in a reverential tone suggestive of downcast eyes. The GATE parents would politely refrain from commenting on their children’s documented superiority, and simply respond, “Oh, so-and-so just loves Willett” without acknowledging the “G” word.

A similar dance takes place when these children reach sixth grade. The Patwin parents, now a little tired of the charade and aware that their children are just as smart as so-and-so and will take equivalent classes in junior high, now look the GATE parents in the eye and ask, “Is so-and-so excited about going to Emerson next year?” This is a loaded question, because GATE kids attend Holmes Junior High, while the rest of the Willett population joins Patwinners at Emerson.

My GATE-parent friends understood this and were uniformly gracious. Some responded that their child is indeed excited about Emerson, some reported that they and their child were torn about which junior high to attend, and others pointedly explained that their child decided on Holmes because they wanted to stay with their friends.

But plenty of GATE parents respond to the question by proclaiming “Oh, so-and-so is going to Holmes because that’s where the junior high GATE program is,” or simply respond “So-and-so isn’t going to Emerson, s/he is going to Holmes next year,” with an expression of incomprehension, because everyone knows that so-and-so is in GATE and that GATE kids go to Holmes. These are effective, if unintentional, reminders that GATE children have a lifetime membership to an elite GATE club.

Ultimately, the district probably will retain GATE for the time being, because of the passionate and vocal support of the GATE parents. I guess I want to say to the rest of the Davis school district community that, academically speaking, this is no big deal. Your kids will receive an equally challenging and engaging elementary school education, and an identical education in secondary school.

But I do believe the program is destructive to our community inasmuch as it fuels the insanely competitive academic environment in this town, which leads children to feel they are failures if they are not at least National Merit semifinalists in high school.

As an aside, as someone who spent several years begging people to donate to the Davis Schools Foundation and to vote for parcel tax after parcel tax, my final concern is expense. I don’t know if GATE classes are more costly to operate than regular classes, but if they are, it would seem irresponsible to disproportionately fund a restricted program composed of students with no genuinely distinctive need, particularly in the absence of any objective evidence that the cost produces any educational benefit for those students.

— Susanna Mould is a Davis resident and parent.

Special to The Enterprise

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Discussion | 15 comments

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  • Perry WhiteApril 07, 2013 - 11:02 am

    Wow, what a sad article! The author, in the first paragraph states that she chose Davis "... because of its highly educated adult population which we hoped would place our children in intellectually engaging environment..." In the penultimate paragraph she states, "But I do believe the program is destructive to our community inasmuch as it fuels the insanely competitive academic environment in this town..." In the final paragraph, she argues that Gate should be eliminated because it is too expensive. In short, "My kid didn't get in, so the program it too competitive and too expensive for the community." I have two kids who went through the Davis school system; one did Gate, the other didn't. It doesn't seem to have made a whit of difference. The problem is not "Gate or no Gate." It is the tiger moms and dads who put so much emphasis on it. If this mom finds Gate competition objectionable, wait until her kids apply to college! Competition is part of life--sometime you win, sometimes you lose. And no, it isn't always fair. I'm sure her kids are smarter than a lot of the kids in Gate, but life isn't fair either. The one part of her essay that I agreed with is the fact that Davis has a lot AP classes, and kids get a great education at the level of academic challenge that they can handle.

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  • Susanna MouldApril 07, 2013 - 4:29 pm

    Whoa there! You should read my letter again. First of all, I moved to Davis so that my kids could be in a town where I knew education would be a high priority, and where they would be surrounded by kids who came from homes that fostered a love of learning. I did not come for the dysfunctional parental culture of academic snobbery and competitiveness that I found when I came to Davis, one which instills in even the youngest children the belief that they are a failure if they are only, God forbid, test in the top 95 percentile nationally. Second, I am far from bitter that my kids missed the GATE cut-off by a few points. When we got to Davis, we didn't even know what the GATE program was, and by the time we had been here a year, neither of my girls were particularly interested. They both received stellar elementary school educations at Patwin, and were blessed to have two years each with Linda Biewer-Elstob, who has been recognized as one of the top teachers in the region, and who was selected by the DeYoung Museum to prepare the teachers' manual for its King Tut exhibit a few years ago. My girls have consistently been surrounded by extraordinarily intelligent children - some of whom, like them, missed the GATE cut-off by a couple of points, and others who qualified but declined the GATE invitation. Third, I did not say the program was too expensive. In fact, I said I didn't even know if it cost a dime more than the other classes. But I did observe that, if it was more expensive, the cost was not justifiable because the program does not serve an underserved student population, or even a geniunely distinctive minority sector of our students. All GATE does, academically, is provide 8 years worth of perks and special treatment to a group of kids who, in 3rd grade, happened to answer a couple more questions correctly on a standardized test than their classmates. God help your kid if he or she had a bad cold or missed breakfast that day. And no one has really talked about the parents who "buy" their kids' way into the program, by having their little first and second-graders receive specialized exam tutoring for the purpose of beating the GATE odds, and those who pay for private testing to circumvent the fact that their child was a couple of points shy of the mark on the school-administered test. Most of the kids who enter GATE were not even necessarily bored or feeling under-challenged in their classes. It's just a great opportunity to get into special program, carry around a badge of "gifted" designation, and receive special treatment for the next 8 years. These kids are not actually These kids also get perks such as an instant pass into next year's GATE/honors classes even if they don't make the grade, whereas the non-GATE Honors are not permitted to re-enroll unless they maintain top grades in Honors classes, or are able to appeal the grade-point pre-requisite. And finally, if we are spending more on GATE kids than others, I don't believe we are getting any bang for this buck. I am almost certain that the non-GATE kids who take Honors classes in our town do just as well as, if not better than, the GATE-ers on SATs, AP tests and extra-curricular academic pursuits. So what does GATE actually accomplish, other than providing a bunch of perks and status boost for kids who, for the most part, are not genuinely distinguishable from a large chunk of our school population? Kids who, I suspect, are not as a group significantly more accomplished than their non-GATE peers on DHS graduation day.

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:31 pm

    "All GATE does, academically, is provide 8 years worth of perks and special treatment to a group of kids who, in 3rd grade, happened to answer a couple more questions correctly on a standardized test than their classmates." You state repeatedly that GATE starts in 3rd grade; however, it is 4th grade. Also, it only runs through 9th grade, so that's 6 years, not 8.

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:35 pm

    Hm. Something doesn't jive. In this comment the author says, "When we got to Davis, we didn't even know what the GATE program was, and by the time we had been here a year, neither of my girls were particularly interested." Yet in the opinion column itself she states, "My older daughter had been identified as “gifted and talented” in our existing school district, so before we moved I inquired about the Davis GATE program."

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  • Wendy AmundsenApril 07, 2013 - 7:27 pm

    Thank you for speaking out on this subject. There are many excellent formats to deliver enrichment to our students, but our current GATE program isn't one of them...the emperor has no clothes.

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  • Carrie ZiserApril 07, 2013 - 10:29 pm

    You are very brave to share your thoughts about GATE in this community. It is amazing how much backlash you can receive in Davis when questioning the "norm." I highly recommend you read this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/ It shares how Finland has become an educational superpower by promoting EQUITY between all kids and their learning environments. For the past few decades our school district has been focused on separating kids into one special program or another... maybe it is time for a new approach?

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:06 pm

    The author states that, "the honors students generally perform just as well as the GATE kids in high school, and on AP tests and the SAT." Equity of outcome isn't equity enough?

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    When I read "the honors students generally perform just as well as the GATE kids in high school, and on AP tests and the SAT," that suggests TO ME that those kids and their differently learning styles were both being well served in their elementary and junior high school GATE and non-GATE classes. There is no data to suggest that taking away GATE classes will produce the exact same results...in fact, that data shows otherwise.

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  • Susanna MouldApril 10, 2013 - 6:41 pm

    Many, if not most of "Those Kids" to which you are so marginally distinguishable from many of their peers that the "data" doesn't really say anything about their learning needs or styles. Despite that the program is meant to remediate the boredome among kids who feel under-challenged, there is NO ATTEMPT to select participants based on any demonstrated struggle to remain engaged and motivated in regular classes. Elibilibity is simply determined by an inflexible, and patently random test score threshhold (random because so many excluded kids score a non-meaningful "squeak" below the bar). Why not AT LEAST broaden the pool to include all similarly-gifted and require teachers to RECOMMEND participants from that pool, based on their observations of a child's TRUE NEED for greater depth and stimulation? Then, maybe, GATE would actually serve the purpose for which it was designed.

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  • ChristineApril 12, 2013 - 6:37 pm

    Agreed. And yet that wasn't the jist of your post, was it? Your argument wasn't that there should be a different testing/evaluation procedure. You clearly state that your issues with GATE are that there is no difference in outcome between kids enrolled in GATE and those who aren't, and that they are "failures" if they aren't in GATE. I wholeheartedly agree that the entrance testing could be vastly improved.

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:20 pm

    Looks to me that GATE parents are darned if they do and darned if they don't as far as saying "the G word." Wow. "Reverential tone suggestive of downcast eyes?" I admire your honesty, but I also feel very sorry for you that you feel SHAME that your child didn't have, "documented superiority" per DJUSD. PS: plenty of parents, myself included, have GATE-qualified kids that we chose to not have in GATE. I'm not the least bit cowed that my kid doesn't have a, "lifetime membership to an elite GATE club."

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  • ChristineApril 10, 2013 - 5:25 pm

    Lastly, GATE classes don't cost the district more.

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  • Susanna MouldApril 10, 2013 - 6:19 pm

    Christine, you seem really interested in finding fault with my opinion. In the end, it is just that -- my opinion -- that GATE students are not genuinely distinctive from a large percentage of our student population, and hence not legitimately entitled to a special program & privileges for 7 or 8 years - as demonstrated by their general inability to capitalize on these perks by distinguishing themselves (as a group) in the long-run. I have to tell you, I have received about a dozen grateful comments, e-mails, FB messages and Enterprise posts. Anyway, here are my responses to your specific points: (1) If GATE doesn't cost more, then just ONE of my concerns is unwarranted. (2) I'm not sure "equity" accurately describes a situation where the so-called "cream of the crop" is, for the most part, NO MORE SUCCESSFUL in school than kids who are supposedly NON-GIFTED and who went through the REGULAR PROGRAM program without all the bells, whistles and privileges of GATE. Sheesh, you actually prove my point here! The stated purpose of GATE is to prevent boredom among the most intellectually gifted kids, because the regular program is supposedly INSUFFIENTLY CHALLENGING for them. And, yet, despite the District's best efforts to create a program in which they can maximize their talents, the majority of GATE kids do not academically distinguish themselves from their non-GATE "honors" peers. (3) The "shame" to which I refer is what the culture in this town imposes. Imagine, my 8 (9?) year-old daughter was embarassed about not getting into GATE. That feeling did NOT come from her parents, who told her from the start that it was meaningless. But the GATE reverence in this town is so pervasive that it is impossible for parents to escape the initial (illogical) sense of stigma when the kids part company in fourth grade (sorry about the mistake on grade level - it was a long time ago for me!) (4) Not that it matters, but I inquired from out of state about GATE eligibility because I had heard Davis had a "good" program for gifted and talented kids. Didn't really know anything else.

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  • ChristineApril 12, 2013 - 7:12 pm

    Not finding fault with your having an opinion, just offering up my own as that is what this public forum is all about, right? I must assume that you didn't share your thoughts for general consumption for the purpose of only receiving kudos and, "grateful comments, e-mails, FB messages and Enterprise posts." Regardless, I must clarify that in no place does is the stated mission of GATE curriculum to have GATE kids, "academically distinguish themselves from their non-GATE 'honors' peers." That's not even REMOTELY the goal. The fact that all graduate fairly equally on the metrics shows that the needs of kids, both GATE and non-GATE, are being pretty well MET. If GATE kids *were* graduating with superior statistics, THAT would be alarming. Lastly, what are the,"the bells, whistles and privileges of GATE?" (For the record, I'm a GATE and non-GATE parent. I haven't decided if I'm going to put my youngest in GATE, regardless of qualification. I'm simply tired of hyperbole and ad hominems being hurled at GATE kids, families, and teachers.)

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  • KimApril 12, 2013 - 1:22 am

    Ms. Mould: Our family, like yours, moved here because we wanted to be in a community which, among other things, placed a high value on our children’s education. I didn’t look into whether there was a GATE program or not, or whether my kids would be eligible, because I assumed all Davis children receive an excellent education. From your editorial and comments, I am learning that, in fact, all students (GATE or not), are doing well and have wonderful opportunities for honors classes, etc. (Other articles suggest there is still an achievement gap here, but that doesn’t seem to be the current concern) Since, as you’ve argued, non-GATE students do as well as GATE students and, as others pointed out, the GATE program does not cost the district extra monies, what, then, is wrong with keeping the program? It seems the biggest issue you have with GATE is that it supposedly makes non-GATE students feel inferior. But nothing you have written suggests it is the GATE kids or their parents who do or say anything to make your child feel embarrassed. Your only example of this uncomfortable division of GATE vs. non-GATE comprises of passive-aggressive questioning by parents like you “now a little tired of the charade,” who ask the parent of a GATE student if their kid’s excited about going to Emerson. In that case, you are the one who is forcing that parent to make the distinction between GATE offerings in jr. high. You are the one who is making it ugly. In fact, if the non-GATE kids’ self-esteem is lowered by not being in GATE, it apparently is not affecting them academically because, as you’ve already pointed out, they do just as well on AP’s, SAT’s, extracurriculars, etc. This leads me to think it’s parents like you whose egos are most hurt by the exodus of GATE kids in the 4th grade, not your kids. You also contend that because GATE students don’t do any better than non-GATE students in later years, separating them does not save the GATE child from academic boredom. However, I don’t think the goal of GATE is to push the GATE students to have better academic outcomes than the non-GATE students. It is to keep them engaged in the classroom where their academic needs were unmet in a regular classroom. (In fact, if the statistics showed GATE children did better in later years, I imagine the argument would be that non-GATE students didn’t do as well because they weren’t given the same opportunities as GATE students and, so, GATE should be eliminated). Which leads me to what I think is your one potentially viable anti-GATE argument: GATE should only be available to those students who are not sufficiently challenged in a regular classroom. Your editorial assumes the current testing models (and the cut-off percentiles used by the district) do not actually capture this group of students. And then you state that “[m]ost of the kids who enter GATE were not even necessarily bored or feeling under-challenged in their classes.” How can you possibly know this? I don’t pretend to know how the current OLSAT and other tests came to be used as the standard, but many of the students I’ve seen leave for GATE in 4th grade were hard to keep engaged in class because the teacher spent much of the time working with kids struggling with the work and couldn’t differentiate the curriculum enough to engage all the kids (my observation from volunteering in class). I don’t know how pervasive the private exam tutoring and re-testing you refer to is, so perhaps it would be helpful to get that data from the district and re-examine policies relating to private testing. The district itself re-tests some students with certain risk factors and others whose scores fall within the standard error of measure in an effort to ensure all students who would be best served in GATE are identified. Certainly, the current testing system will capture some high-scoring students who are sufficiently challenged in the classroom, but that is not a reason to eliminate the program altogether. If there is a better system for identifying GATE students, I suggest that be the focus of your and our community’s push for change.

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