Advocacy for Gifted Students
Following is a summary of the Advocacy Roundtable I hosted at the Fall OAGC Conference in Columbus:
OAGC Parent Day 10.19.08
Advocacy Roundtable Discussion
led by Jeanne Kelly Bernish, Cincinnati, OH
Advocacy: influencing the outcome of a particular cause or policy; in this case, being a voice for a gifted child.
Learn the rules and the players. Teachers and administrators are professionals. There is always a clear line of authority each school district follows, and districts are always arranged hierarchically. Learn what that order is and use it to your best advantage. Begin at the beginning – learn who the gatekeepers are. When you hit a dead end, politely ask who you need to speak with next. I always let the person I was working with know when I was about to go over their head to the next level. I considered it a courtesy and never did it in a threatening way.
Speak the language. Educators have their own language which includes words and phrases like: core competency, disruptive innovation, benchmarking, taxonomy and, my personal favorite, pedagogy. Fortunately the internet provides a simple way to translate teacher-speak into easily understandable words and phrases. As you become more and more familiar with the jargon, remember to distill the essence of your advocacy into simple and easy to understand language so your spouse can follow along.
Choose your words carefully. Some educators and administrators may have an emotional response to certain terminology parents often use in advocating for their children. And many times a phrase that may have been in vogue a few years ago is now passe’ (“tracking”/bad; “ability grouping”/better). Also – certain words tend to have an inflammatory effect and should be avoided if at all possible. The noun “boredom” is often used by children and their parents to connote a state of dissatisfaction in the classroom. Consider using: weariness, ennui, apathy, disengaged, unconcerned, frustrated,… Trust me, your child’s teacher will appreciate the effort.
(Similarly, “gifted and talented” also can set off a strongly charged emotional (and sometimes negative) response. If you are speaking to someone with limited knowledge of gifted education issues you might try using “high ability,” “accelerated learner,” or “students who fit a particular profile” in place of gifted and/or talented.)
Support your argument. When preparing for a meeting with educators or administrators try to bring along appropriate collateral material. Few are familiar with the current research and I always try to closely match the documentation to the topic we will be discussing. Make a set of copies for everyone and hand them out at some point during the meeting – don’t be afraid to highlight pertinent passages.
Know your limitations. Advocacy takes time, effort and patience. “Quick fix” is not an option in the public school system. There may be short term relief strategies – but be prepared to lose a year (or more) before real reforms take place. This is a hard one to swallow – and many parents give up and decide to withdraw from public school rather than lose a year (or more) of instruction/time/growth.
Live in the now. Schools are often paralyzed into inaction by concerns for what that student will do “the next year.” If he learns algebra this year, what will he do next year? Or, if we subject accelerate him now, what will he do once he gets to high school? Long term planning is critical to long term success – but intervention should not be delayed because the path ahead is murky or unsure. Do not let the unknown be an excuse for inaction. Keep the focus on the child and meeting his/her needs now.
Assume nothing. The principal at our former elementary school had a background in gifted education – yet she was totally unaware of the acceleration options being employed within her own district and the current best practices in gifted education. I assumed she was an authority who knew what all the options for intervention were and I was wrong.
Just because a teacher has experience with differentiation does not mean that he/she has had training in differentiation to high ability (gifted) students. Always ask – it is not confrontational to want to know if your child’s teacher has training in this area. The reality is that some teachers still think that more work layered on top of classroom work equals differentiation.
Never assume your child is learning. Ask questions. Listen carefully. Take action. Trust your instincts.
Be like Spock. Remove emotion from the equation. Compile, cite and utilize objective data. Keep a file folder with all of your child’s test scores and understand the nature and measure of each test. In this file you should have:
1) a nationally normed achievement test result;
2) a group or individual ability (IQ) test result;
3) a talent search aptitude test result along with any accompanying recommendations or collateral materials from the test makers.
4) any testing data that shows your child’s progression or regression over time – this may also be referred to as Value Added Assessments (VAA). Any time you have a Fall Achievement test and a Spring Achievement test for the same child you can create a mini VAA for that particular student. Do not overlook the long term results. The scores can point out achievement gaps and loss of progress if your child begins to disengage – in effect, functioning as an individual value-added assessment for your child. (Many states have compiled this data to get a better idea of how student groups are learning. You might consider requesting the data for gifted from your district to see if they are gaining a year’s worth of learning during the school year).
Do your homework. A surprising number of parents do not understand the difference between a state achievement test score and a nationally-normed test result. For most parents this will not matter. But the parent of a gifted student must be intimately familiar with the test scores and what they mean.
Document. Document. Document. I communicate almost exclusively by email. Teachers prefer it and the happy consequence of communicating this way is that you will always have a written record. If you march through the proper lines of authority you can forward the entire email history as you pitch your case to the next level and save valuable time. It also requires each person to be held accountable for his/her role in your child’s education. If I have questions after a meeting I will send an email requesting clarification of a particular point or rule. If a teacher does not respond to my request I can skip on to the next level. I also appreciate having the ability to edit my email before I send it – particularly if the topic is charged with emotion from a recent event. Have a disinterested third party read it before you send it – or wait a day and reread it when you have had a chance to cool off after a contentious meeting or conversation. Remember to stay focused on the ultimate point you are trying to make – if your child is struggling in math class don’t get off topic and start advocating for something else.
Find a guide. Try to find someone who has been there before. A support group for parents of gifted children; a gifted specialist who has demonstrated concern or an interest in meeting your child’s particular needs; someone who had prior experience with advocacy in your school district; or even an afternoon spent reading personal narratives on “Hoagies.” We are all on the same journey. It is easier if you have a kindred spirit in your corner.
Reach out for the greater good. When you act as an advocate for your child you can be a catalyst for others as you move through the system. As you explode myths associated with giftedness, as you improve the dialogue amongst teachers, administrators, and other parents, you are acting as an ambassador for high ability children everywhere.
Ask questions and look outside the box. Check with your PTA/PTO and find out if the gifted instructor in your school is receiving grant money or if they are being excluded. At our first elementary school the GIS was denied a $ 20 grant request for paint by the PTA. ELO was considered “elitist” by PTA leadership. Yet other teacher’s classroom supplies were paid for to the tune of $ 150 per year per teacher – and that included the reading intervention specialist. If your PTA/PTO does not support gifted education in your school try to find out why and work for change. Explain that gifted education gets virtually no funding from the state or federal government and that, as an active member of the PTA/PTO you would like it to be supported, too. Don’t give up if your request is denied – each year sees new leadership. Or, you may decide to volunteer your time and money to other causes that do benefit your child (like offering to help write grant requests for the GIS, or starting your own support group for parents of gifted and talented kids).
Go to school board meetings. Our school board meetings are televised so the community can watch them – but the meetings themselves are almost exclusively attended by teachers and administrators. Consequently, the school board members are always talking to the teachers and administrators – and not the parents or the community they represent. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to take notes. Just show up. You belong there as much, if not more, than anyone else. And once you show up the school board will have to speak to you, too.
Express your gratitude. When you come across a resource or person who moves the ball forward, tell them “thanks.” Let them know that you appreciate the efforts made on your child’s behalf.
For more information on advocacy, testing and giftedness, please visit the following:
Ohio Department of Education (www.ode.state.oh.us/)
OAGC (www.oagc.com/) and NAGC (www.nagc.org/)
Re-Forming Gifted Education by Karen Rogers
A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students, Available for free: (www.nationdeceived.org)
Academic Advocacy for Gifted Children: A Parent’s Complete Guide, by Barbara Gilman