Letter: Carmel Clay Schools seems intent on watering down high-ability program

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Editor,

The Carmel Clay school board recently sent out a survey to all parents of elementary students in the district. This followed an outcry from parents of high-ability students about launching the Total School Cluster Grouping program in the next school year without parent input.

Interim Co-Supt. Amy Dudley recently mentioned that only “several parents of high-ability children are working to convince administrators to drop plans for the TSCG model.” She should refer back to the petition the board was provided this spring, signed by over 500 parents who were against the change (change.org/p/carmel-clay-schools-keep-a-designated-gifted-and-talented-program-for-carmel-s-high-ability-students)!

Dudley said that the survey was sent out to gather feedback “from all parents.” This could be seen as a step in the right direction – after putting the plans on hold, the school board really wants our opinion, all our opinions, and will use this “one factor” in future decision making.

But beware– those of us who work in research know how a survey can be used to a researcher’s or group’s advantage. First, it is important to know that data from a survey are categorized by researchers as low-level evidence. Why are they used? They are cost-effective, easy to administer and can provide some preliminary information on a specific topic. However, there are multiple potential problems with surveys: formulating a clear research question, dealing with missing data (not everyone responds and/or fully completes the survey), choosing the correct study population and writing clear, unbiased questions to name a few. Many of these survey aspects, if not handled well, can lead to skewed, inaccurate data.

The survey sent out by the board is a good example of a poorly executed survey. It is very interesting that Dudley made the point that this survey was “vetted.” In fact, its goal was not clearly stated; it was sent to all parents of elementary school students, not the appropriate target population, including alumni from the robust former Challenge program; and finally, the questions used were poorly designed, including what is known as double-barreled questions or leading questions. This is just one sample question from the supposedly vetted survey:  Classrooms are diverse based on factors such as gender, culture, ethnicity, achievement, and/or ability (you are asked to mark how important this is to you on a scale of 1- not important to 4 – very important).

This question is obviously set up to lead parents to choose diversity. Additionally, multiple factors are thrown in (i.e., double-barreled), including, interestingly, “ability.” Thus, if you choose diversity as important you are choosing against having high-ability students in a separate classroom. This creates a false dichotomy. 

As a biracial family, I fully support diversity and inclusion, but they should not be used in a manipulative way, overtake common sense or be applied to all situations. We do not expect a diverse football team or advanced string orchestra, nor would we want that. Multiple parents have expressed the opinion that the premise of this question is ridiculous and offensive, and ultimately it is leading to the answer the board wants. Keep in mind there were other poorly designed questions that, due to space considerations, are not presented here.

One can conclude only one of two things after completing this survey: Either the board is not familiar with good survey design, including validation, or there was intention to frame the survey to seek answers it desires to present as “evidence” for the TSCG program to the community. Neither possibility is encouraging. Once again, this school board has let us down and appears intent on watering down the district’s gifted program, which began several years ago. More than 500 parents expressed concern about the TSGC program through a petition. We and our children continue to be directly impacted by the board’s moves, including this poorly executed survey that was sent out to all, to obtain inaccurate data. We can only hope the board will shift in its approach and be truly open to providing the best possible gifted program for our students. After all, this is why many of us locate here and place our children in the district’s well-rated public schools.

Lola Shukla, Carmel

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