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Fairfax County School Board Will Address Inequity in Its Advanced Academic Program

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It was my first time to witness a school board meeting in Fairfax county. Fairfax County School Board At-Large Member Karen Keys‐Gamarra last night requested the Board to consider a work session to discuss "inequities of opportunity and access for historically underrepresented populations to Advanced Academic Programs". This is certainly a good first step. What struck me the most however was what I heard before the meeting from a current student. The student talked about his experience of being enrolled in the gifted program in grade school during which he might have appeared a year ahead of his peers in math. Now, that he is in high school, he is now five years ahead in math. He is wondering whether his peers would not have fallen so far behind if they were likewise afforded the same opportunities and access that were given to him.

Poverty profoundly affects basic education in so many ways. One way poverty insidiously undermines education is by limiting opportunities. Often…

An Example of Inequity in Education: Fairfax County Public Schools

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Paul L. Morgan, George Farkas, Marianne M. Hillemeier, and Steve Maczuga write in Replicated Evidence of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Disability Identification in U.S. Schools, "Findings of minority underidentification are consistent with reports that schools are more likely to (a) medicalize the struggles of White children while criminalizing those of minority children and (b) identify White children as gifted among those who are similarly high achieving." Sadly, the county I live in is an example of such schools.

Here are the facts.

(1) White and Asian children are much more likely to be identified as talented than Black and Hispanic children:


The Gifted and Talented program of Fairfax county already suffers from over-identification. More than 23 percent of students are deemed gifted or talented. Statistically, this means some of these students enrolled in talented programs are not even one standard deviation above the mean.

(2) Black and Hispanic students are more li…

When Our Actions Defeat Our Intentions

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Vikas Mehrotra reminds us of the story of the "cobra effect" in a Freakonomics radio podcast. The story is an anecdote from the time India was a colony of Britain. The British wanted to address the large number of venomous snakes in India, but in the process of incentivizing the killing of cobras, the population of these venomous snakes actually increased. The reward for killing a cobra led to breeding of cobras for the sole purpose of collecting a reward later. When the British found that the program was being abused, the reward system stopped, and the breeders were forced to release their snakes into the wild. Such is an example of a perverse effect as predicted by the law of unintended consequences. Our intentions are more than often noble, but we must keep ourselves vigilant with the actions we choose to take.

The previous post on this blog talks about the disparity based on socio-economic status of advanced academic programs between schools in Fairfax county in Virginia…

The Advanced Academic Program of Fairfax County Public Schools

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The Institute for Educational Achievement has just released an advanced reading copy of a report entitled "AMERICA AGREES: PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARDS GIFTED EDUCATION". The report is a "compilation of results from a national opinion poll assessing the general public’s understanding of and attitudes towards gifted education". One major finding of the poll is that the American public has a good grasp of what "gifted" means, and how this greatly differs from a "high achieving" student. This distinction is reflected in the following items the poll includes: Gifted students are rare, and gifted students need special programs. In the poll, gifted students are considered different from high-achieving students. High-achieving students are often characterized as students with "Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity (GRIT)". In addition, a supermajority of Americans agree that giftedness is not associated with family income. In Fairfax county, …

Do Not Use the Word "Trash": A Lesson On Water Pollution

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Last night, I happened to browse through my son's study guide in his seventh grade class on Investigations in Environmental Science. The topic was eutrophication and the guide was asking my son to describe in his own words water pollution. The guide specifically stated not to use the word "trash". "Trash" does seem a general word and perhaps, it is time for my son to use specific terms. Not using "trash" may also help my son appreciate the fact that water pollutants responsible for eutrophication are often invisible to the naked eye. Water pollutants in the form of floating objects are of course easy to spot, but invisible ones, like nutrients from fertilizers, may easily be the factor that turns a living lake into a dead one. Years ago, in the town where my mother was born, I helped the local administration initiate a wastewater management project. The project faced strong opposition and perhaps, part of the reason was most people in the town had nev…

What Research in Education Badly Needs

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This semester, with great help from my teaching colleagues, General Chemistry is now taught at Georgetown with an overarching narrative, a story that binds and embraces all the topics covered. Chemistry is all about atoms - this is how we explain matter and all of its properties. Thus, even with a myriad of research publications showing up every year from chemists, some of which may end up gathering dust in libraries or go unbrowsed on the internet, these papers can still serve as foundations for future work for these not only contain descriptive observations and stand-alone guesses, but have gone through the test of either fitting in an established theory, or refining or even changing an existing one based on evidence. Myths have a much smaller chance of survival in the field of chemistry now since both the past and future are considered, and fads are then easily identified for these are simply not sustainable. A chemist cannot really cling on an idea just because it sounds appealing…

Excellence Gap versus Excellence Shortage

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Lack of equity is a problem different from lack of excellence. The National Association of Gifted Children in its position statement on excellence gaps declares, "Closing excellence gaps is both a social-­equity issue and a workforce development issue that carries national competitiveness and security implications." There is nothing inherently wrong in this statement. However, it detracts us from the central issue of equity. The workforce development issue is in fact less clear since it is really difficult to gauge whether the United States is lacking in talent or not. Excellence shortage is a matter of opinion. Lack of equity, on the other hand, is based on evidence.

The graph below provided by an article published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning shows vividly the excellence gap.


These are the percentages of students by race and year that have received a GPA of 3.0 or better at the University of Virginia. While at least eighty percent of Asian and White Americans…

Born in August - More Likely to Have ADHD

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I was a senior in college when I was 19 years old. I was therefore young compared to most of my peers. Back in first grade when conduct was part of the report card, I should just say that my rating under the subject left a lot to be desired. This continued even in the later years of elementary school where my math grade approached 100% while my conduct grade was stranded at 78%, with 75% as the passing mark. At least, I passed. Imagining myself as a student in an elementary school here in the United States makes me wonder if I would actually be more likely referred to an evaluation for some condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Perhaps, I would. There is a study that just came out in the New England Journal of Medicine that goes through data on children in the US who were born in the period from 2007 through 2009 and were followed through December 2015. The paper's very interesting finding is that "rates of diagnosis and treatment of ADHD are high…

"Treating All High School Students Equally"

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“To be clear, the Court is not saying that petitioners are not gifted, contrary to their claims. The Court is merely saying that the K to 12 Law was not infirm in treating all high school students equally. The Manila Science High School students are, after all, high school students just like all other students who are, and will be, subjected to the revised curriculum,” the Supreme Court of the Philippines stated in its ruling upholding the constitutionality of the country's K-12 curriculum. Equity, however, does not mean equality, and an effective education is one that responds to student's needs. The previous post on this blog, Focusing on What a Child Needs in Basic Education, talks about the problem of labeling children without actually addressing the needs of each child. This statement from the court is a very good example of how we terribly miss the central point of education.

It does catch my attention whenever my alma mater, Manila Science High School, appears on the ne…

Focusing on What a Child Needs in Basic Education

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Although it is obvious that an effective education must be guided by what a child needs, we often spend more time labeling our students as if skills and knowledge are static. In gifted education, for example, we focus more on "bragging rights" thereby reducing classrooms for these exceptional children to mere positions of ascendancy and neglecting the fact that these children have unique needs. Paying more attention to what a child needs is important in education as an article in phys.org reminds all of us. When we think of needs, we have a specific child in mind and there is no need for ranking children in any given classroom. It is only through a recognition of these needs, how special these are, how these can not be possibly met in a general classroom, can we in fact justify a separate program, a separate classroom designed specifically for exceptional students.


Focusing on needs means less attention should be given to what a child's accomplishments are. This involves…

When a Court Decides on Matters Involving Education

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The Supreme Court of the Philippines has ruled that DepEd's K to 12 is consitutional. The court can weigh on content that needs to be taught if these are deemed in line with the interest of the state in the well being of its citizens. DepEd's K to 12 is therefore seen by the Supreme Court justices as a curriculum geared toward the welfare of Filipino citizens. Such ruling, of course, takes into account only matters of constitutional proportion, more specifically, balancing the rights of the citizens against greater state interest. The court cannot really decide whether a curriculum is pedagogically sound as this determination should rest in the hands of educators, not lawyers, not judges. Thus, DepEd's K to 12 is constitutional in so far as its general nature is judged to be for the common good. After all, who can really argue against two additional years of basic education? However, whether the K to 12 curriculum is effective or not is a matter only data and research can …

More Than Half of Filipino Families Are Deprived of Basic Education

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A couple of years ago, the Philippines has adopted a more detailed and comprehensive way of measuring poverty. This methodology takes into the account the following dimensions: education, food and nutrition, health and santitation, and employment.  Two indicators are used for education: school attendance and educational attainment. School attendance counts the number of families that have at least one school-age child (between age 5-17) that is not attending school, while educational attainment counts the number of families that have at least one family member aged 18 or older who have not completed high school. The initial numbers for the years 2016 and 2017 are indeed sobering for educational attainment: At least half of Filipino families have one member aged 18 or older that has not finished basic education.


These numbers represent the first attempt to measure poverty in the Philippines along different dimensions. These are derived from representative surveys that include about 500…

Why Do We Keep Doing the Same Things That Are Already Known Not to Work in Education?

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If you are renovating a home, you would not pay a contractor if the work does not yield good results. If you are on a drug regimen, you will not be advised to continue with the same course, if positive outcomes are not observed. Ingrid McCarthy at STEM Sellshas some highly inspirational words to share: "We can't keep doing things the same way and expect different results." Yet in the field of education, we seem unable to apply the same principle as we stubbornly cling onto schemes that simply do not work.



One good example is gifted education. It is widely known that enrollment in gifted, talented or advanced academic programs has gross underrepresentation of the poor and certain minority children. This underrepresentation, of course, mirrors the well known academic achievement gap associated with poverty and race. This is only expected since there is really no other way but to look at achievement when screening for gifted students. What will be surprising is if these two…

Lacking Attention Or Motivation: We Should Tell Stories in Our Classrooms

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A mom and a teacher, Shari Gent, provides nine tips to help kids who struggle in starting and completing tasks in one of the recent issues of ADDitude magazine. While most of her suggestions involve rewards and a change in mindset, one seems to have a high probability of working and may apply, in fact, to all students: "connect uninteresting activities to areas of interest". Children diagnosed with the attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are capable of demonstrating at least in a few activities focus, organization and motivation. These are often activities that are of great interest.


Thomas Brown, a clinical psychologist specializing on ADHD, notes this similarity among all children, regardless of whether they have ADHD or not in his article, "The Mystery of ADHD Motivation, Solved". All children are motivated in tasks that they are interested in.

While Brown does describe the lack of motivation insightfully, comments from readers clearly indicate a wan…

Voter Education in Basic Education

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In tomorrow's election in the United States, the party that manages to convince their supporters to go out and vote will win. Society does reflect a situation in which we have already acknowledged that convincing people that our values matter do not work and what simply works is exciting people with what they already believe in. Such is the enigma of moral education. Richard Weissbourd shared a story in the Harvard Education Letter years ago: "I asked my six-year-old daughter and a few of her friends a question posed in a popular character education program: “Should you be honest with your teacher if you forget your homework?” One of my daughter’s friends hesitated slightly but then piped up: “Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to tell you the truth?” Emboldened, another friend stated flatly, “I know that you want me to say I should be honest, but nobody is honest about that.” Weissbourd cited research that showed students "felt only patr…

Advanced Academics: Examining Our Mindset

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"Without examining our theories and thinking, focusing on policy and resource issues will do little to change the reality of learning inequality."  This is indeed a profound statement of Anthony Muhammad in the preface of his book Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap: Liberating Mindsets to Effective Change. And I find advanced academic programs as one of the best areas in basic education where Muhammad's words must be heard and seriously considered. It is a fact that minorities and low-income children continue to be underrepresented in these programs, yet we persist in finding ways to alleviate the problem without addressing the heart of the matter: Our continued belief that there are always children who are exceptionally superior in intelligence compared to their peers in a classroom. With this mindset, we then device screening schemes through which we can identify these children early on. And when we find our selection is biased towards socioeconomic status or race, w…

The Drawback of Advanced Academic Programs

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As parents, we simply want the best for our children. The adage that says children need to be challenged is fairly common among both parents and educators. Thus, it is only expected that we want our own children to be attending schools with high scores in standardized tests and challenging learning experiences. An article in the Washington Post five years ago illustrates how great a length a parent will go to simply to place his or her child in an advanced academic program:
"When a contributor to a local parenting listserv recently solicited recommendations for an “educational consultant” to help get her child into Fairfax County’s program for “gifted” students, readers were quick to attack.
“My God!” wrote one parent, “this is wrong!”" Sadly, that one parent who says, "this is wrong", is more likely an exception. Labeling students and creating tiered schools unfortunately can actually harm basic education and a recent 50-year longitudinal research study shows that…

Parents' Engagement in Their Children's Education

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Two nights ago, I attended a meeting of the Title I Parents Advisory Committee of Fairfax County Public Schools. Title I schools in the United States are schools that have at least 40 percent of its students qualifying for either free or reduced-price lunch. Title I schools are provided additional funds by the federal government to help address the academic achievement gap based on family income. The main topic of that evening's meeting is parent engagement, as numerous studies have shown, parent engagement correlates with succesful academic outcomes. One issue raised in that meeting is the difference between parent's involvement and engagement. A large percentage of students' parents often come to school events such as Bingo Night, Talent Shows, Multicultural Dinner, and other social gatherings but when it comes to meetings of Parents Teachers Associations, the attendance is usually low. To analyze the relationship between what a parent does and how a student performs in…