Editor’s note: On June 29, 2022, members of the National Working Group on Advanced Education met for its second meeting, this time virtually. (The first was on March 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C.) The following is a summary of the discussion, with particular focus on social and emotional support for high-achieving students, especially those from underserved backgrounds; support for educators of advanced students; the importance of high-quality instructional materials; and how best to use ability (or “achievement”) grouping. We also note broader themes that came out of the conversation, areas where further discussion would be helpful, and additional topics to tackle at future meetings.
- Every student, including those from underrepresented racial groups and low-income backgrounds, deserves educational experiences that help them reach their full potential. Some children, due to high achievement, ability, or potential, require more than can be provided in the typical classroom geared toward the typical student. Schools should therefore offer distinctive and high-quality advanced programs, options, and services for all those who would benefit from them.
- The field of “gifted education,” originally designed to identify and serve the highly gifted, considered “giftedness” to be an inherent, dichotomous trait that a student either had or didn’t. Schools labeled students as either “gifted” in all subjects or none. By adopting a narrow definition of giftedness that ignored each child’s unique strengths, weaknesses, or interests, the field wrongly excluded many students capable of advanced work in one or more subjects, especially those who are low-income or from underrepresented racial groups.
- Districts should move toward a “continuum of services” that replaces binary “gifted or not” thinking. This strives to give individual students from culturally different backgrounds or at different ability levels what they need in each academic subject. Some students will realize their potential by skipping entire grades, for example, while others will benefit from certain advanced classes, while still others will get enough from within-class enrichment. And some students will need interventions that jump start their motivation and achievement and bring out their talents.
- It’s helpful for districts to distinguish between two groups of students when developing services: those already identified as high-achievers who need support to stay on that track, and those with the potential for high achievement, who need to be identified, encouraged, and assisted so that they come to participate in advanced programs.
- Almost everywhere, students who are low-income or from underrepresented racial groups have not received adequate access to advanced education opportunities. Many children from these populations who should enjoy the benefits of these programs have therefore been excluded—or at least never been sought out and included. The field must rectify this problem, including with a restorative approach for those who have been excluded.
- Going forward, schools should adopt a bias toward inclusion, especially in younger grades. Too often, advanced programs are driven by scarcity, such as serving only a tiny percentage of all students. We should open the gates wider.
- Districts can and should approach everything about the development, design, and implementation of these programs and services in culturally responsive ways—which means working to better recognize and allow for the upholding of students’ cultural identities and offering culturally relevant content.
- Identification and services need to be proactive and universal, not solely based on parent or teacher nominations or opt-in assessments that favor behaviors in students that are pleasing to teachers, and they should be appropriate for the population and local context. Districts should also ensure that their teachers do not develop “referral fatigue,” where they tire of recommending students who are not accepted into advanced learning opportunities.
- Nor should we focus exclusively on the technical aspects of building effective programs for advanced learners—we also have to pay attention to school culture writ large. We need leaders with high expectations for all students, programs that cultivate self-belief in students, and schools that foster a growth mindset in their educators and students.
Social and emotional support for high-achieving students, especially those from underserved backgrounds:
- All students need social and emotional support. That includes high achievers, who may be prone to certain emotional conditions, such as perfectionism.
- High-achieving students from underserved groups may have distinctive social and emotional and mental health needs that should also be addressed by schools. Examples include:
- Stereotype threat.
- Feelings of isolation.
- Feelings of not belonging.
- Lack of support from peers and cultural group. Recognition of academic giftedness is not always appreciated by some cultural groups but can be seen as a betrayal of the group.
- The effects of poverty and racial prejudice.
- To help students overcome these difficulties, districts should make programs more culturally relevant, train staff to counter personal and systemic biases, work to better retain students from underserved backgrounds, increase inclusivity, and help foster the development of students’ agency and self-efficacy.
- Students are more likely to persist and succeed in programs when they’re with peers who share key characteristics. This fosters a sense of belonging, which is especially important for students from groups that have been historically left out of these programs.
- It’s best for districts, when thinking about this support, to distinguish between two groups of students, including those from underrepresented racial groups and low-income backgrounds: those already identified as high achievers who need support to stay on that track (retention), and those with the potential for high achievement, who need to be identified, encouraged, and assisted so that they come to participate in advanced programs (recruitment).
- These best culturally relevant recruitment and retention practices will ultimately require a positive school culture with leaders who understand the importance of advanced education and are ready to grow and adapt their programs.
Support for educators of advanced students:
- We should move teachers away from the idea that if students are at grade-level proficiency, they’re successful. Educators should look at each student’s achievement and work to maximize student growth throughout the year.
- District and building leaders need to inform preparation programs about the skills and experiences that need to be provided to aspiring teachers and administrators to promote advanced learning.
- The group is somewhat divided over training specific teachers in best practices for high achieving students versus including these practices in professional development for all teachers. There was a consensus, however, to use data-driven approaches when creating these new approaches and also a need to use emerging practitioner-supported successful approaches.
- School administrators must understand that being an effective teacher of high achievers calls for a different skillset than being an effective teacher in general. Even the most qualified teachers may not arrive with an understanding of how best to teach high-achieving students, much less those from underrepresented racial groups and low-income backgrounds, so school systems should offer professional learning opportunities for them in this area with high-quality professional development.
- Especially at the secondary-school level, teachers’ content knowledge is an important factor in determining whether they will be successful with high achievers.
- We should seek to hire teachers who are highly qualified, but also do so in a culturally responsive manner to help support students from marginalized backgrounds and narrow excellence gaps.
- Our goals should include working towards eliminating racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic bias from classrooms. This is difficult, but not impossible, as biases that are deeply rooted and often unconscious can change with effective and ongoing professional learning and support. School systems should seek out administrators who are deeply committed to achieving equity-focused and excellence-oriented goals.
- Ultimately, students will benefit when teachers:
- Identify those with the potential for high achievement in one or more subjects.
- Can see when a student is or is not being challenged.
- Use data to help further the aforementioned ends.
- Use culturally responsive curricula, materials, experience, and instructional practices.
- Come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
High-quality instructional materials:
- We have far too little information about which curricula, when properly implemented, work well for smart kids.
- The “regular” curriculum might work fine for advanced learners so long as schools embrace acceleration. For example, allowing advanced third-graders to cover third and fourth grade math in a single year.
- A pre-differentiated, prescriptive (though not scripted) curriculum may work well for advanced learners, though there may be some benefit to pursuing specialized curriculum created specifically for the advanced learners at hand (such as the William & Mary program).
- Popular materials developed to align to the Common Core standards, such as Eureka Math and EL Education, likely have some benefits. But there is a lack of research or evidence that they truly make a difference—especially for advanced students, much less those from underrepresented racial groups or low-income backgrounds—and a lack of evidence that they are differentiated appropriately for students who need greater challenge.
- Teachers are unlikely to adapt, create, or use materials specific to their advanced learners without motivation, resources, and accountability, so there must be a specific focus on teacher support and implementation, as well.
- Districts should pay special attention to their elementary school teachers’ math instruction. Most of them are less comfortable with math than with English language arts, and there is some evidence that the math curricula in some widely-used materials aren’t rigorous or challenging enough to suit advanced math students.
- The benefits of acceleration policies have a deep research base, but their effectiveness can be hampered in places with low teacher quality and limited capacity to teach math sufficiently at advanced levels. This makes district leaders less likely to use these programs widely, so special effort should be made to explain to these leaders the benefits of these policies and broaden their use, particularly in schools with large populations of students from underrepresented racial groups or low-income backgrounds.
How best to use ability (or “achievement”) grouping:
- When done well, and equitably, grouping students by ability in separate classrooms can be an effective way to challenge talented children. When done poorly, however, it can be a new source of segregation.
- Ability grouping is only appropriate when the curricula or programmatic experiences are differentiated. When kids are re-grouped in classes where the curricula or experiences are the same as in “general education” classrooms, it will not show learning benefits and is indefensible.
- Districts should use universal screening, objective identification tactics, and frequent onramps, with frequent evaluations for students to move into appropriate-level class placements.
- There should be advanced content or honors classes (or the equivalent) in middle and high school in as many subjects as possible.
- These efforts should not come at the expense of quality in other classrooms. Districts should be able to benefit advanced learners without being detrimental to other students. Taking advanced learners out of heterogenous classrooms need not reduce classrooms’ quality or effectiveness.
- Parents should be included in the ability-grouping conversation. Any type of grouping that excludes children from an advanced group will trouble the parents of the students who aren’t selected. Districts should be prepared for this and explain that it is not beneficial to force acceleration on students who are unprepared for it.
- Districts should always be strongly focused on considerations of inclusion, so that as many students can benefit as possible. The question should be whether a student has a need or would benefit from a particular service. Demonstrated ability or achievement through standardized tests should not always be the determining factor.
- Districts should also be prepared to handle the political challenges of ability grouping. Policies should intentionally address and include efforts to improve equity, possibly acknowledging the difficult history of ability grouping and tracking and making clear how these programs are different and designed to recruit and retain students from underrepresented racial groups and low-income backgrounds, and to affirm excellence with all groups.
- “Ability grouping” can be a problematic term; the field might consider shifting to “achievement grouping,” “performance grouping,” or “advanced potential grouping” instead.
Areas ripe for further discussion:
- How important is it for districts to use measures beyond achievement tests when identifying students for advanced services, particularly in schools with high populations of low-income students and those from underrepresented racial groups? Will nonverbal tests turn up additional students, especially English learners or students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds?
- What are specific examples of effective training programs for teachers of advanced students?
- What content should be covered in training programs for teachers of advanced students?
- To what extent should districts seek knowledgeable and experienced professionals from other fields, such as mathematics or science, to teach advanced courses in their areas of expertise?
- How should we rate instructional materials on their suitability for advanced learners?
- How can districts make sure advanced learning services are well aligned across elementary, middle, and high school?
- Which state policies foster and advance this agenda, and which serve as barriers? Regarding accountability and incentives, for example, if a superintendent or principal knows they will be penalized for mediocre achievement in general and receive no credit for increasing advanced achievement, it’s rational for them to eschew advanced education.
- What is the best way to conceptualize programs for advanced learners that signals more equity and inclusivity and that is more politically palatable? And what is the best language to use?
- To what degree can and should districts link programming to higher education? And what role should institutions of higher education play in this agenda? Do the answers to these questions change for low-income students and those from racially underrepresented groups?
- With the increased conversation around equity for all students, how do we integrate concepts of equity with excellence, so that the narrative also encompasses the notion of a quality education for all?
- What role should selective and specialized schools, especially high schools, play or create in districts’ playbook of programs, as well as their recruitment and retention of low-income students and those from racially underrepresented groups?
Areas for additional research:
- Much of the research on social-emotional programming and services for advanced students is contained within smaller, qualitative studies. It would be useful to have a meta-review of what we currently know about these offerings, what programs are currently in use, and what programs are working best for students of various backgrounds.
- How students from different subgroups develop (or struggle to develop) positive identities when categorized as advanced or gifted, and what effects that identity has on future academic and professional outcomes.
- The peer effects of being in separate classrooms designed specifically for high achievers versus being in more heterogenous groupings.
- How exactly the social-emotional needs and issues of advanced learners differ from their less-advanced peers, the effect on these differences of being from an underserved background, and what that ought to mean for programs and services.
- Whether teachers who themselves were high achieving academically are better prepared to effectively teach high-performing students.
- Whether high-quality instructional materials (such as those with all greens from EdReports), when properly implemented, are effective for high-achieving students.
- Which curricula are districts using to educate high achievers? How effective are they?
- What, if anything, is being taught about advanced education and advanced learners in preparation programs for both teachers and administrators?