The Wisconsin State Superintendent race will conclude on Tuesday, April 6th. In an effort to provide information on the two candidates (Dr. Jill Underly and Dr. Deborah Kerr), we posed the same set of questions to both of them. Here are their unedited answers in their entirety. Dr. Jill Underly’s answers are listed first as determined by a coin toss. WATG does not endorse or support any political candidate, and the responses to these questions is not a representation of WATG’s views or opinions.
What role should the DPI play in ensuring that advanced learners and highly capable students are served in Wisconsin and how should those students be served within our schools?
Dr. Underly: I am a proponent of all kids having access to content, experiences, and opportunities that engage all students - including advanced learners and highly capable learners. I would love for every school to have a dedicated gifted and talented curriculum and activities coordinator to help coordinate and identify these activities for kids.
Dr. Kerr: As State Superintendent, my role and that of the DPI will be to ensure the implementation of “Our Wisconsin Promise,” that EVERY student in our Wisconsin Schools will be known by name, strengths, passion and need, and graduate prepared for the future they choose. I have identified 4 key priorities to ensure that we achieve our promise for ALL of Wisconsin’s children that includes a focus on ensuring success for all students through equity and excellence, innovative and personalized learning for all students, engaging families and communities as partners and leading with strength and respect, honoring all stakeholders.
We will work together in partnership with all stakeholder groups including parents, educators and experts from the National Association for Gifted Children as well as the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted to identify the most promising and evidenced based best practices equitably serving our advanced learners across Wisconsin as well as across the country.
The pandemic has afforded us both the opportunity and as well as the challenge to reimagine what is possible for all of our students. No longer are we bound by bricks and mortar, time or place. Rather, we can ensure and deliver rigorous and relevant learning opportunities that meet the unique needs of each and every learner.
What is your understanding of State Statutes 118.35 and 121.02(t) and Administrative Rule 8.01(2)(t)2? How should these standards be funded and implemented? https://dpi.wi.gov/gifted/laws
Dr. Underly: My understanding is that every district needs to have plans and a process for identifying kids who are gifted and talented. In addition to the plan, the district needs to have structures in place to provide for ways to serve the identified kids most fully. After that - it’s going to look different in each school district, and a lot of that has to do with resources - both human and financial. It would be great to set-aside funding for at least a 25% GT Coordinator that could be a contract extension or part of a teacher’s job duties/contract. Right now, that’s not the case as it’s an unfunded mandate. School Districts instead often interpret the rules and provide differentiated learning and field experiences and other enrichment experiences for kids throughout the year and during the summer - providing access to enrichment without charge, as required by the rules.
Dr. Kerr: State Statutes 118.35 and 121.02 (t) and Administrative Rule 8.01(2)(t)2 require all public school districts across Wisconsin to plan, implement and provide gifted and talented programming for students meeting the definition of “gifted and talented pupils.” The statute not only clearly defines the characteristics of the students to be included in the program but also acknowledges that additional services and activities needed outside of regular educational programming to best ensure that the student can “fully develop such capabilities.” In addition, it calls on the state superintendent to establish guidelines for the identification of gifted and talented students and local school boards to ensure that all students meeting the identified criteria are provided access to gifted and talented programming.
During my tenure as Superintendent in Brown Deer, we made sure that all of our programming and policies, including Gifted and Talented, were focused on ensuring that our richly diverse student body, serving 1600 students: 80% students of color, 50% economically disadvantaged, and 23 languages, were afforded access to challenging and inclusive learning opportunities and experiences so each could reach their full potential.. Our inclusive student centered laser-like focus on excellence and success for all, resulted in our district closing the achievement gap for students of color while also raising graduation rates for all students.
We worked very hard in Brown Deer to address the “excellence gap,” to ensure that our Gifted and Talented program was representative of our students. Our Gifted and Talented Program reflects our diverse student body and our mission statement, “Together with our families and community, we will inspire students to be passionate learners, critical thinkers and innovative leaders who will enrich our world.” Recognizing that in order to accomplish high standards for all of our students, along with district resources, we reached out and received the support of our parents, our higher education partners as well as the community to provide excellent opportunities for our gifted and talented students.
In Administrative Rule, while there is clear guidance regarding how the standards are to be implemented, because there is a great deal of autonomy and competitive grants with limited funding, the plans that school districts develop and implement can and do look very different across school districts. For example, in Green Bay, the district chose to not only provide gifted and talented programming for students but also opened up the Leonardo Da Vinci School for Gifted Learners. Smaller districts, particularly those with limited resources may have fewer opportunities for their students identified as gifted and talented. This disparity in programming is exacerbated when already limited resources from the state for general student support and programming becomes even more scarce forcing a school board to make extremely difficult decisions regarding how to leverage limited resources to meet programmatic needs for all students.
As Wisconsin’s next State Superintendent, I want to ensure that the DPI budget equitably reflects the current needs of the students being served. This means that we must identify and allocate funding to adequately implement and address the standards identified in both State Statute and Administrative Rule. We will need to conduct an equity audit of programs, models, and policies that leverage resources for the most significant impact if we are going to be able to meet the unique needs of each and every child. We will then identify a long term, equitable, and sustainable plan that focuses on only those approaches with a strong evidence base and support high-quality implementation measures through training and technical assistance by DPI staff.
We have noticed a troubling trend of districts dismantling advanced programming in the name of equity. How will DPI ensure that districts show accountability for accomplishing both excellence and equity?
Dr. Underly: I haven’t noticed that trend at all. In many of the districts I interact with, they are adding advanced programming and licensing high school teachers with master's degrees to teach college level courses. There are programs such as Start College Now at our tech and public colleges that are opening up lots of opportunities for students. My interpretation of equity is that all children have access to the same robust programming that has been traditionally offered to GT students. Equity is then ensuring that students have access and that they are not underrepresented in enrichment programs and opportunities; and that these opportunities are always provided without charge as part of their public school education.
Dr. Kerr: The very first pillar of my platform is to “Ensure Success for All Students through Equity with Excellence.” I strongly believe that ALL students need to be challenged at their level of skill, a position supported through rigorous educational research. I also believe that we must also ensure that children from all backgrounds have access and opportunity to rigorous coursework at every grade level in order to close gaps and achieve at high levels.
I wholeheartedly agree with the following statement by the National Association of Gifted Children. “Ensuring the availability of rigorous coursework and gifted education programs and services at every grade level for all students who would benefit from the challenge, combined with equitable identification procedures, would reduce the underrepresentation of diverse learners in gifted education programs and put more learners from every population in a position to increase their achievement and maximize their potential. (Link)”
Administrative rule requires each local district’s Board of Education to create a plan and designate a coordinator for a gifted and talented program. In order to ensure that the components of each plan include the Gifted Programming Standards as identified by the National Association for Gifted Children, as well as the outcomes for effective gifted programming achieved, I would move to put into rule a transparent reporting structure that requires districts to share not only how students in the program have successfully met the standards but the outcomes achieved for the program. The DPI would intervene and provide the necessary support for those districts who have not successfully accomplished both excellence and equitable access to gifted and talented programming.
To ensure equity and access, I would not only make certain policies including equitable identification procedures are in place, but I would look to leverage partnerships with higher education and businesses in an effort to ensure that our teachers are highly credentialed in the area of gifted and talented as well as the students are being provided access to experiences and learning that help to further “develop their capabilities.”
Given that Iowa funds gifted education annually at $37.6 million, Minnesota at $12.5 Million, and Ohio at $73.5 million, while Wisconsin provides just $237,200 per year, how can WATG partner with DPI to increase our state’s investment in advanced learners?
Dr. Underly: DPI partners with CESAs on a lot of things and I think that the best route to advocate for advanced learners is to work through the CESAs for the smaller and mid-sized districts, and directly through the central offices with the Directors of Curriculum and Instruction for the urban districts and large suburban. Since this is already in state law, and it is for all intents and purposes an unfunded mandate, DPI could partner with CESAs as part of their CESA contracts to provide professional development to teachers on differentiated learning, enrichment opportunities and extension for advanced learners. They can also partner with CESA to provide enrichment field trips and experiences.
Dr. Kerr: Thank you for your willingness to be part of the funding solution. As I am sure you are aware, the Blue Ribbon Commission asked the Legislature to provide significant increases in funding for gifted and talented grants ranging from an additional $500,000 GPR for grants annually to an additional $2.5 million GPR for grants annually. I will work in partnership with you and all stakeholders supporting the needs of gifted and talented students to advocate for the support of the recommendations.
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