Thursday, July 14, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

Although embraced by many, the concept of differentiated instruction has been criticized by others for not meeting the needs of students identified for Gifted and Talented Education programs.

Programs exclusively for GATE students are important, advocates say, because these classes offer challenging, fast-paced learning environments, teachers trained and certified in GATE instruction, and relief for students who sometimes hide their giftedness to avoid being singled out or ridiculed for their intellectual ability.

“The intent is right, but the fundamental problem is that it’s extremely difficult to teach differentiated instruction, and is next to impossible in a class of 30,” said Julie Rucker, whose two children attended public school in Del Mar before being transferred to The Rhoades School, a private school in Encinitas for gifted children in grades K-8. “Also, they need an environment where they are constantly challenged by a strong peer group, not just six kids.”

San Diego County parents who have been disappointed with the GATE program or the implementation of differentiated instruction at their public schools – and those who can afford tuition – have found refuge in private schools where admittance tests are administered to ensure high academic standards. Such schools – like The Rhoades School and The Bishop’s School, a college preparatory school in La Jolla serving students in grades 7-12 – say they offer accelerated, enriched coursework for advanced students that challenges them all day long.

Supporters of homogeneous classes for GATE students say grouping students by academic ability “increases student achievement by allowing teachers to focus instruction, [and] teaching a group of like-ability students allows teachers to adjust the pace of instruction to students’ needs,” according to a December 2004 article in Education World.

The California Association for the Gifted claims that fewer than 20 percent of gifted students are appropriately challenged in school. “In many school districts, learners of all abilities share the same classroom,” states CAG in its “Gifted Learners in the Regular Classroom” position paper. “Research has shown that the learning needs of those who possess high levels of ability and talent differ from the needs of other students in the class … They deserve meaningful challenges to further their learning … Classroom practice must be modified to meet the needs of gifted and talented learners if they are to realize their potential.”

San Diego Unified School District’s GATE program has been considered a model for excellence throughout the state. SDUSD offers two levels of accelerated instruction – one is the Seminar program for students who score in the 99.9th percentile on the Raven intelligence test, and the other is the GATE cluster program for students who score between 98 and 99.8 on the Raven test but are not “off the charts” like the Seminar students.

Because the Raven test is a non-reading test that uses shapes and symbols that build upon one another and become progressively more difficult, its strength is that it can assess culturally diverse and bilingual populations, which can help evaluate non-verbal, shy or non-English speaking students.

Seminar students are grouped in their own classrooms and are considered the truly gifted, scoring three standard deviations from the norm on the high end of the scale, according to Laura Rafal, SDUSD GATE psychologist. Rafal said it would be unthinkable for public schools not to provide special education for students three standard deviations from the mean at the low end.

Author and differentiation expert Susan Winebrenner – who has visited the Del Mar and Solana Beach school districts, among many others across the country, to train teachers on successful differentiated instruction techniques – said in a 1996 report, “Gifted students are as far removed from the ‘norm’ as are students with learning difficulties.”

Yet GATE advocates say public schools routinely deny the same services to GATE kids that they consistently provide to special needs students. Both groups of children, they say, are often unable to learn in traditional classroom environments and require special services and uniquely trained instructors to meet their academic needs. It’s a matter of equity, not elitism, according to Winebrenner.

Meeting the needs of all students

In Vista, principal Larrie Hall said that GATE students in his open-access honors classes at Lincoln Middle School will receive appropriate attention and will be taught by faculty trained in the latest techniques that can inspire all levels of students to higher achievement. He said the GATE students in these honors classes, however, will be expected to produce work “that is significantly different in quality and depth from the work completed by other students.”

But many warn about giving gifted students extra work, because they perceive it as punishment for being bright, which can cause them to hide their talents. “It shouldn’t be more work, just different work,” said Janet Bernard, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Del Mar Union School District.

Another pitfall GATE students commonly experience comes from teachers who utilize their high-achievers to tutor slower learners in mixed-ability classrooms. Winebrenner and other experts oppose this practice, and so does Hall who promised that GATE students in his school’s honors classes will not be allowed to tutor or teach other students. “Teachers, not students, are paid to teach,” he wrote in his parent handout.

Teachers and counselors in the Los Angeles Unified School District are resisting the school board’s push to require all high school students to take college preparatory courses, according to a May 29, 2005 Los Angeles Times article. They say forcing struggling kids to take rigorous classes will inevitably lead to failure for many. “We’re forcing them to drop out,” said math teacher Geoff Buck, in the article. “We’re actually doing them harm.”

But LAUSD board of education president Jose Huizar says more rigor “will lead to higher graduation rates,” according to the article. “We have to set high expectations for these students.” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, LAUSD superintendent Roy Romer, many parents and community members support the move.

At the San Dieguito Union High School District in North County, all honors classes at high-ranking Torrey Pines High School became open access this past school year, although students not classified as GATE were warned before enrolling that they would be expected to meet high standards and that the material, pace and instruction would remain as demanding as in previous years. The result, according to superintendent Peggy Lynch, was positive. “What we’re finding is that those kids are succeeding,” she said.

Can open-access honors classes provide rigorous coursework challenging enough to engage GATE students while raising achievement for the rest of the class at the same time? The change at Lincoln in Vista this coming school year will be watched by many to see if Hall’s drive for open access will provide the results he envisions.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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