My View: PPS must create a system that meets all students’ rate of learning

The Portland Tribune’s story about the crisis faced by talented and gifted students (Tribune, Feb. 21) implies that the $2,000 to $4,000 of funds left unspent by individual Portland public schools could somehow help satisfy the unmet needs of TAG students.

But even when fully spent, these funds (which in 2011-12 averaged $1,100 unspent out of $3,300 budgeted per school) are usually used for some combination of the school TAG coordinator’s salary and enrichment opportunities for TAG students. Although appreciated by the students, these do not help them learn at the rate or level they are capable of, two key determinants of the quality of education for TAG identified students.

The only way out of this crisis is to recognize that TAG students have the same rights as special education and all other students anywhere on the spectrum to access an appropriate educational environment. Using $1,100 more per school for more enrichment activities would not even come close to making this happen.

The issues at elementary, middle and high school levels differ. But as a parent of two elementary students, I believe that at least the following supplementary aids and services are necessary for elementary TAG students in PPS to succeed in their education:

n Group the highest achieving students in each grade in the same classroom rather than sprinkling them around. A group warrants the extra effort by the teacher to differentiate instruction to meet their rate and level needs. Research shows that this not only better meets the needs of these special learners but positively affects those in the middle as well.

n Require all elementary schools to have common reading and math times, and consistently allow students to be subject accelerated by attending math or reading in higher grade classrooms — often called Walk To Reading and Mosey To Math. Arrange scheduling and transport to a central nearby location to provide middle school level classes when required.

n Put the Access Academy in its own school where it can grow to accommodate all students who are TAG identified at or above the 99th percentile. The more extremely gifted children who voluntarily transfer here, the more time teachers at other schools can spend with other students who need less extreme differentiation.

n Embrace computer-based adaptive learning so that students in the same classroom can routinely practice skills at advanced rates and/or levels. Fortunately, this can also provide extra review for slower learners and can offload some drills so the teacher has more individual time with students at every level.

These measures would be a very big deal. They would also encourage parents of all but the most profoundly gifted students to keep them in their neighborhood school. If the administration of PPS’s total $268,000 of TAG funds were centralized, as Kim Matier suggests, perhaps it would be better if they were also used centrally to jump-start some of these measures and begin to address the real issue: creating an educational system that meets all students’ rate and level of learning.

Mark Feldman of Southwest Portland is a member of Portland Public Schools’ TAG Advisory Council.

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