Sunday, September 21, 2014

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.



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