Editor’s note: This is an edition of “Advance,” a newsletter from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute written by Brandon Wright, our Editorial Director, and published every other week. Its purpose is to monitor the progress of gifted education in America, including legal and legislative developments, policy and leadership changes, emerging research, grassroots efforts, and more. You can subscribe on the Fordham Institute website and the newsletter’s Substack. This week's edition features a guest perspective from Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Evan Glazer.
Introductory analysis by Brandon Wright
There are, as I’ve written before, two simple truths about gifted education: It’s a clear and substantial good for millions of students and the country’s future—and it can be much better than it is in most places and than it has been for decades. One of the biggest failings over that time has been the field’s tendency to exclusivity, with programs almost everywhere neglecting students who are Black, Hispanic, low-income, and from other underserved backgrounds. This is especially true in America’s most selective and specialized high schools. But work is underway at these institutions to remedy this, and the best of these efforts—like those of the Illinois Math and Science Academy described by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Evan Glazer below—suggest that leaders are committed to and capable of balancing excellence and equity in their classrooms.
Selective high schools are a valuable resource. They have long provided unique benefits to the students who attend them, especially those from marginalized families. This is due, in important part, to superior educational elements like course offerings, peer influence, instructors, and alumni networks. Their students demand and take more advanced classes, for instance, that can cover content more quickly and deeply—especially in challenging fields like mathematics, physics, and computer science. This attracts exceptional faculty who are prepared and eager to lead such courses.
For just as long, however, these institutions have struggled to enroll students from underserved backgrounds. In most places, the racial profile of admitted teenagers has been significantly more affluent, White, and Asian than the district-, region-, or state-wide populations. In New York City, for example, one-tenth of those who attend are Black and Hispanic, even though two-thirds of the district consists of such students. Similar figures exist elsewhere. That’s disturbing but not necessarily surprising, given the country’s enormous racial achievement gaps that are already huge when children begin kindergarten.
The challenge is fixing the bad in a manner that doesn’t destroy the good. This is difficult, and recent efforts to diversify admissions have often been done hastily, with too little thought given to their legality or impact. A federal judge, for example, ruled that changes at Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, were “racial balancing for its own sake” and therefore “patently unconstitutional.” (The effects of the ruling have been put on hold pending appeal.) And a study examining reforms in Chicago found, as the 74 reported, that students at its “selective enrollment high schools see no improvement in their test scores. In fact, academic records show that they earned worse grades and GPAs than their peers who were rejected from the schools.” Moreover, “the most disadvantaged saw the biggest declines. Disturbingly, they were also less likely to enroll in selective colleges than similar kids who weren’t offered admission to an elite high school.”
There are, however, institutions that approach this problem more thoughtfully and design their policies more carefully. One such place is the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, about an hour’s drive from downtown Chicago. Here, two of the school’s leaders explain its approach:
How the Illinois Math and Science Academy balances equity and excellence
By Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and Evan Glazer
At a time when academically rigorous and selective high schools around the country are struggling with how best to balance the excellence for which they’re known with the equity and opportunity that the country craves more of, the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) offers an interesting and encouraging case study. And yes, we acknowledge, we’re a little partial to it, as one of us (Paula) is a long-time member of the school’s board of trustees and the other (Evan) is its current president.
IMSA is a residential and selective high school that Illinois students attend in grades ten through twelve. It’s state-supported and thus tuition-free. Consistently ranked among the top high schools in the U.S. by Niche.com, the school has a thirty-five-year history of identifying and preparing students with interest and talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education to become innovative leaders in those fields, and ultimately to become contributors to solutions for major societal problems.
Like most institutions with selective enrollments, a major challenge for IMSA is balancing equity and excellence in its admission of students. The institution values diversity in its student population, and admission policies and procedures focus on a holistic review of applicants. Since 2015, IMSA has increased the number of culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse (CLED) students from 183 to 251 out of a total enrollment of around 650. These are teenagers from historically underrepresented populations at IMSA, including those who are Black, Hispanic, rural, and low-income.
The academic performance of an applicant is not viewed against a single scale, but considered in light of the local norms of their school or district. We examine the extent to which students took advantage of STEM opportunities available to them within their schools and communities, realizing that these differ based on where they reside and the resources available to them. In reviewing student profiles, important questions are: Is the applicant performing well in their local region on their exams and in their courses? Are they choosing challenges in STEM based on what is available to them? Is the student demonstrating involvement and interest in STEM outside of school, which may include watching STEM related videos online, engaging in free enrichment opportunities, or participating in a tuition-based summer program and extracurricular clubs?
Recognizing that students across Illinois have different preparation levels, IMSA provides supports for many of them so they can transition into a rigorous academic environment. Those who enter the school with a lower level of math or English preparation participate in a bridge program during the summer before tenth-grade called Excel—a free, three-week, on-campus experience where students engage in mini-courses to gain momentum and obtain additional preparation for their first-year classes. A resource period is also provided to those who are enrolled in entry-level math so they can dedicate additional time to this key subject, receive more targeted help in specific areas, and become more independent problem solvers. A writing center is also available, where more advanced students are trained on supporting new students to grow their writing skills. And finally, the initial coursework in tenth grade is designed with flexibility to allow students to productively struggle, fail, re-learn, and re-take assessments as needed.
Besides all this, students are provided individualized support through the Advocate support program, where those from under-resourced backgrounds have an adult mentor from the IMSA community who serves as a personal coach, helping them to navigate the school, develop strategies for any challenges they face, and take advantage of other opportunities and supports that address their specific needs. Students facing significant academic challenges are referred to a learning strategies team, where their learning needs are evaluated to create individualized, comprehensive plans for support.
Another strategy that is helping IMSA to balance equity and excellence was the creation of a pipeline for those with academic potential to enter the Academy. PROMISE is designed to provide middle school students from lower-income families additional academic enrichment in STEM and exposure to IMSA faculty, student mentors, and IMSA’s unique learning opportunities throughout the school year and summer. The program also works with prospective applicants to prepare them for the IMSA admissions process. Seventy-eight percent of PROMISE participants eventually apply to and are admitted to the school.
Transitioning to IMSA can be a big change for students, particularly if they have not been challenged academically in the past. (Boarding school itself may be a challenge.) When they recognize that their peers can do advanced work, they may start to doubt whether they belong and question their own abilities and efficacy. In addition to providing group and individualized academic supports, IMSA offers social and emotional connection opportunities. The Navigation Program for new students provides a safe, supportive environment to process issues concerning their transition to the school, and to present them with life-learning and social-development experiences that will help them be successful.
Students also have the option to participate in affinity groups reflecting their own identity, giving them an outlet to discuss challenges, have bonding experiences, and produce and engage in cultural shows and events—all intended to form identity and a sense of belonging at IMSA where pursuing excellence is an expectation. Some groups, such as the Black Student Union, also have connection points with caring professionals, like the Black Alumni Association, who provide guidance through tutoring and mentoring.
Even with all these efforts in place, IMSA still needs to work on closing equity gaps. Taking challenging coursework is a fine option at most high schools. But at a specialized institution, it is essential for students to do something marginally different—to feel ignited to explore a body of work they define and systematically examine through a sustained inquiry process. Unfortunately, an equity gap exists at IMSA among those students who take advantage of such projects. We are striving to learn new techniques and build stronger bridges that help CLED students recognize that research and entrepreneurship is very much within their realm of possibility.
We believe that all of these efforts, programs, and experiences will be instrumental in promoting success at IMSA and continued interest in STEM. As such, we recognize that closing this equity gap at our school may have a significant impact on diversifying the STEM pipeline into the future.
Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius is the director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy. Evan Glazer is the The President & CEO of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“‘What changed my mind about why I didn’t think I was that special was they told us we were very talented and unique. I thought to myself that I had some talents that some other people might not be able to do,’ recalled Kelly [a sixth grader], who is only being identified by her first name for privacy reasons.”
—“To expand NYC’s ‘gifted’ programs, one nonprofit turns to after school,” Chalkbeat New York, Christina Veiga, July 14, 2022.
THREE RECENT STUDIES TO STUDY
“An Analysis of Stakeholder Perceptions of Gifted Programs: A Report Card on Gifted Program Performance,” by Joyce VanTassel-Baska and Elissa Brown, Gifted Child Today, Vol 45, Issue 3, 2022.
“This study assessed stakeholder perceptions across 12 gifted programs in respect to the extent to which the programs were perceived to be effective in carrying out the formal operations required of the program in the areas of identification, curriculum, instruction, and assessment... [Stakeholders] reported that the programs needed to be improved in the following areas: identifying underrepresented populations, improving differentiated curriculum and accelerative options, providing professional learning for teachers, and using assessments appropriate for gifted learners to show growth.”
“‘Being on the Positive End of Every Negative Statistic’: Expanding Inclusion of Gifted Education Through Considerations of Critical Consciousness as Double Giftedness,” by Brandy S. Bryson, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, Volume 45, Issue 2, 2022.
“The narrow manner in which giftedness is often regarded perpetuates the underrepresentation of students of Color in gifted education programs, particularly for Black students. This case study highlights the story of a gifted Black high school student attending a predominantly White high school in the South. Bianca’s story illuminates her struggle with myriad racialized challenges within and outside of school and, more importantly, demonstrates her sophisticated and critically conscious appraisal of structural inequities.”
“Screening for Giftedness Using a Reading Curriculum Based Measure,” by Virginia M. McClurg, Bonnie M. Codalata, Sherry M. Bell, and R. Steve McCallum, Gifted Child Today, Vol 45, Issue 1, 2022.
“The psychometric integrity of a curriculum-based measure to screen for academic giftedness (Monitoring Instructional Responsiveness: Reading [MIR:R]) was evaluated by examining its ceiling, item gradient, and predictive capacity using 460 fourth grade students... [There was] an adequate ceiling. Item gradients were sufficient... [And it] accurately screened students who performed in the ‘advanced’ range on an end-of-the-year measure.”
WRITING WORTH READING
“To expand NYC’s ‘gifted’ programs, one nonprofit turns to after school,” Chalkbeat New York, Christina Veiga, July 14, 2022.
“[Madison County, Alabama] settles desegregation case, agrees to steps for including Black kids in gifted, college prep classes,” Associated Press, July 8, 2022.
“Gifted-student screenings often miss poor students who should qualify,” The Conversation, Bich Thi Ngoc Tran, Jonathan Wai, and Sarah McKenzie, July 15, 2022.
“‘The Fyre Festival of Nerd Camps’: Hopkins names new head for Center for Talented Youth following abrupt shutdown,” Baltimore Sun, Sabrina LeBoeuf, July 5, 2022.
“Millburn School District Plans to Improve Advanced Placement Program,” TAPintoMillburn/ShortHills, Elisa Margulis, July 4, 2022.
“Stop neglecting gifted students’ social and emotional needs,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Susan Miller and Tom Coyne, July 14, 2022.
The National Association for Gifted Children will be holding the Second Annual National Symposium on Equity for Black and Brown Gifted Students from August 16–18. Intended for a broad audience—including administrators, teachers, and parents—the event will focus on identifying, supporting, and serving these students, as well as on their social and emotional needs. Register and learn more.