Difficulties handling ‘advanced learners’ in new structure is test for school officials

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Paula Feynman is academic challenge and enrichment manager for Cambridge Public Schools.
Paula Feynman is academic challenge and enrichment manager for Cambridge Public Schools.

With relatively few “advanced learner” students being served by an expert hired by the public school district in the fall of 2013, that academic challenge and enrichment manager is working more broadly on how to better teach kids of all levels gathered in a single classroom – although still with an emphasis, she says, on “gifted learners.”

In a presentation last week to the School Committee, Paula Feynman agreed there were still questions about how to identify the “advanced learners” and fit their work into the schools’ structure, and members cautioned that what she proposed could “track” students into segregated groups or fail to identify students who aren’t challenged academically.

Feynman’s July 29 presentation, which answered a May 20 motion by committee member Patty Nolan for a progress report, fell far short of providing specific numbers and other data on the program’s work in the past two years and her goals. (Nolan’s motion had also requested input from parents. Feynman reported that the “parents felt strongly that they wanted to be the ones to contribute their voices separately” and would submit something in the fall.) Clearly engaged in her overview of the issues and challenges, committee members still called it a “report on a future report” and said they looked forward to seeing actual numbers of students, broken down by categories of schools, race, income and other pertinent measure, with target goals.

Between 15 to 20 students last year were identified as being able to work beyond their grade level in at least one subject, Feynman estimated – a category of advanced learners distinguished from students who often work above the average classroom level in one or more areas of a subject but are short of belonging at another grade level. “In general, the number can go from 3 percent to 5 percent really above grade level,” Feynman said. For the other advanced learner students, still generally within their grade level, the numbers generally expand to 10 percent to 15 percent, and her experience in Cambridge so far leads Feynman to believe Cambridge is closer to 15 percent.

Feynman has been working across kindergarten through eighth grades in all schools, including teaching some classes, to improve identification of accelerated learners and provide challenge for them either in their current classrooms, by moving them up a subject grade level or by creating special projects including an accelerated upper school math pathway. She is also working on improving differentiated learning in the classroom.

Who is an “advanced learner”?

There are many definitions of gifted learners, Feynman said, but “we are looking for the sweet spot” that is the intersection of “above average ability,” “creativity” and “task commitment.” She verifies a student for the advanced learner program through a variety of assessments, as a high IQ alone may not be enough if there is no appropriate program available.

In a few instances, students identify themselves as advanced learners, but at this point most are identified by family. Committee members expressed concern that this results in a pool that is disproportionately non-minority and of higher income, with those left out “probably not in families where people are advocating for them” for the program, as Nolan said. Feynman agreed that was a concern.

Also, “it is fairly well documented in research that teachers under-identify” accelerated learners, Feynman said. “We often have ideas of what a typical advanced learner looks like” and miss behavioral issues or even underachievement as tip-offs. She hopes better training will help teachers identify advanced learners.

Still challenges in advancing grade

080614i digital divideThe absolute numbers of students who qualify for advancing one or more grade levels in at least one subject – through Enriched Learning Plans, similar to Individualized Education Plans used for children with special needs – will be small, although Feynman was unprepared to say how many students qualified this past year. Feynman identified significant logistical issues with this group, including matching course schedules across grades and managing the break between the fifth and sixth grades and between the eighth and ninth grades as students change buildings.

Feynman pointed to the use of electives in the upper schools to provide advanced learner opportunities in the humanities. This year upper school and high school students competed in National History Day, and Putnam Avenue Upper School student Maya Parry won first place for performance, earning a trip to Washington, D.C., for the national competition. Cambridge Street Upper School ran an elective on Generation Citizen, a national civics education program. And a sixth-grade Putnam Avenue class took part in National Novel Writing Month, in which several students committed to writing a novel in one month during their lunchtime.

Differentiated learning in English-language arts is easier, she argued. A fourth-grade student doing sixth-grade work requiring another classroom, such as with math or science, is a dilemma the city has not completely solved.

This coming year brings a “capacity study” to identify whether there are staff in elementary school buildings capable of teaching courses above the fifth-grade level, but even if a school has staff, there will still be scheduling problems.

Feynman pointed to a new “accelerated math pathway” letting students enter the ninth grade ready for Algebra II or Geometry. (Until recently, students who wanted to pursue Algebra I in middle school had to do it outside of the regular school day.) But now high school enrollment has climbed and the upper schools are generating more students ready for advanced math. Those advanced math classes are filling up and many ninth-graders are finding themselves shut out.

“It cannot be in a city focusing on [science, technology, engineering and math] issues that we are working on a ‘space available’ basis,” Nolan said. The result has to be, she argued, that the high school hire more teachers.

Curriculum review to increase rigor

The district, Feynman said, considers increasing curriculum rigor as the first step in meeting the needs of advanced learners. Her appointment coincided with the beginning of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Huizenga’s multiyear comprehensive curriculum review of all subjects, and Feynman is serving on every curriculum writing committee. The process includes providing extension activities for all lessons in all subjects to help teachers provide challenges, and the new JK-8 Math in Focus curriculum, Feynman said, has that built in. The Understanding by Design process Cambridge is using to redo its curriculum includes developing that ability as well.

Feynman is optimistic that upcoming professional development work will improve teachers’ ability to challenge students at all levels in a single classroom. The city is also exploring how advanced-learner work can dovetail with the citywide rollout of a Response to Intervention program aimed at students performing below level, which uses quick assessments of student understanding and targeted interventions, usually done outside the classroom with a team of teachers and specialists.            .

“At the same time [the RTI students] are receiving their small-group instruction,” Feynman said, “what are the other students doing? Wouldn’t that be great opportunity to go in and do other small groups as well, to cement their knowledge?” Feynman said the joint RTI/advanced learner model is being used “across the country with a lot of success,” and a pilot program is in place at Amigos.

Questions about implementation

Student committee member Lucy Sternbach worried about the impact of increased small group work. “How will you make sure this doesn’t expand the achievement gap?” she asked, referring to her own experience in eighth-grade math seeing students whose families could pay for extra help as the ones who could accelerate in math. Members Richard Harding and Mervan Osborne also expressed concern that identifying and working in small groups could “lead to tracking,” as Osborne said. “To me, it’s unavoidable that we will get blowback from ID’ing our better students and pulling them out. How do we reassure that students in all boats are rising?”

Feynman argued that differentiated teaching in a single classroom is not tracking.  With solid professional training, she said, the goal will be to have all children challenged.

To Sternbach’s point, Feynman said that the experience of the past two years of trying to provide an accelerated math path to students outside the regular class day clearly was not equitable, and she hoped new options within the school day would safeguard against inequity. Now, she said, every student is provided the opportunity to do Algebra I in upper school.

“Are we there yet? No. Are we making progress? Yes,” Feynman said. “We are moving away from separate pieces to a vision of advanced learning services that coordinated with other departments.” They are now coherently aligned, she said, with the strategic mission of the district.

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