Editor’s note: On November 17, 2022, seventeen members of the National Working Group on Advanced Education met for its third meeting in Indianapolis. (The first was on March 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C., and the second was on June 29, 2022, and held virtually.) The following is a summary of the discussion, with particular focus on integrating and reconciling excellence and equity, aligning advanced programs from kindergarten through twelfth grade, removing problematic state policy barriers, improving teacher training and selection, and the proper roles of high schools and higher education.
Integrating equity and excellence:
How do we integrate concepts of equity with excellence so that the narrative also encompasses the principle of quality education for all? What is the best way, for example, to conceptualize programs for advanced learners that signals more equity and inclusivity and is more politically palatable? What is the best language to use? In particular, what are alternatives to the terms “gifted education,” “ability grouping,” and “tracking”?
- We should not set up excellence and equity as a dichotomy. Great practice has to be and can be both.
- What equity and excellence in gifted education is and what it is not1:
- It is not about “status” or sacrificing the needs of one group of students for another or providing the same services to all. It is meeting the needs of all students.
- It is not seeing students as at-risk. It is seeing students as at-potential.
- It is not having multiple hoops to show a student’s perfection at everything. It is about multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their potential.
- It is not based on a national comparison for local programs. It is based on local context and data.
- It is not only recognizing students who come with easily recognizable gifted and talents. It is about being a talent scout and intentionally creating environments to recognize and develop talents not yet tapped.
- Be proactive to promote culturally responsive attitudes, access, assessments, and accommodations that create the environment for excellence, regardless of background.
- As much as possible, we should provide a “continuum of services,” individualized to each student, rather than thinking of children as either gifted or not.
- Change the terminology around “gifted education” to something like “advanced education,” “education for high achievers,” or “advanced learning opportunities.”
- “Grouping” or “equitable grouping” is a more accurate term than “tracking,” since the former imply flexibility, which is key to ensuring that these programs do not reinforce social inequities as tracking once did.
- Ideally, we’ll get to a point where we can individualize and personalize instruction, and in doing so, challenge all kids. But this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and until then, we need to acknowledge that advanced learning opportunities are the best way to meet the needs of advanced students. Grouping is also of minimal effectiveness without altering the complexity and pace of the curriculum, as well as methods of teaching. We must minimize making incorrect selections for these groupings, and make them flexible with on-ramps and, where appropriate, off-ramps.
- Building- and district-level leadership is very significant. If principals and district leaders believe that it’s possible to achieve both excellence and equity, then it’s possible.
Aligning advanced education from K through 12:
How can districts make sure advanced education services are well aligned across K–12 (or even pre-K–12), to ensure a robust, diverse pipeline into advanced courses in high school? What should on-ramps and off-ramps look like? As children progress through the grade levels, how do issues around identification and gatekeeping change? How important is it, for example, at different grade levels for districts to use measures beyond achievement tests when identifying students for these services or advanced courses, particularly in schools with high populations of low-income students and those from underrepresented racial groups? How can systems make sure students don’t encounter duplicative content or, conversely, significant gaps?
- There is a disconnect between the advanced learning services offered in elementary school, middle school, and high school. For better or worse, elementary gifted programs focus more on “critical thinking” and enrichment, while middle and high school advanced courses are usually subject-specific. The result is the lack of a continuous pipeline of learning for advanced students, and a lot of confusion for parents.
- To fix this, we need clear goals that reach and coordinate services across the levels. Among those should be expanding the pipeline of kids prepared for advanced courses in middle school and high school. That’s going to mean different programming in elementary school especially—gifted programs to boost critical thinking related to major subject areas and equitable opportunities for academic, subject-specific acceleration. A good solution is for school districts to hire K–12 coordinators of advanced learning opportunities to manage articulation between the levels.
- The “rules for getting in” are also inconsistent, so children may “qualify” for advanced programming at one level but not at the next, or qualify at a level for which they are not well prepared because they didn’t qualify for (or it didn’t exist or have room for them) at the previous level.
- High schools especially tend to put up barriers, such as not allowing middle school students to take high school level classes early or receive credit for such courses, during the transition from middle to high school, stemming in part from them having no control over the content and instruction at the middle schools that feed them. This can lead to both blocking kids from services and opportunities for which their qualified. On the other hand, the trend toward open enrollment for AP classes can result in encouraging kids to take AP and other advanced classes who are ill prepared to succeed in them.
- Some high schools may need to rely on outside resources for advanced classes, such as arrangements with local community colleges and/or online courses, but these can present logistical and other challenges for an individual high school to manage in the absence of state dual enrollment policies. But it can and does work in places, and can be a good option for some districts. It would also help many administrators if they had models of schools that have successfully integrated outside resources.
- Districts should automatically enroll gifted kids from elementary school into advanced courses in middle school and high school, as long as the courses represent their strengths and interests, and if students are demonstrating sufficient levels of performance. One caveat is the transition from enrichment classes to accelerative options, which might require some kind of re-evaluation of student preparedness.
- If a student is already identified for gifted or advanced education services, then the hoops to be accelerated should not be many. And for those not officially identified, schools should embrace a philosophy of rigor and challenge and allow promising motivated students to be accelerated. Once students, particularly under-represented groups, are accelerated and experience success, the bar is raised and they realize they are more capable than they realized.
- Schools need to do a better job of showcasing their successes of students in advanced courses, particularly under-represented groups and in Title I schools. School leaders should institute a student ambassador program as part of the advanced education services pipeline, where high school students are sharing about their experiences and pathways with middle schoolers, and middle schoolers with elementary school students. Many kids from under-represented groups and their parents do not know about the diverse options available, and educators have not effectively invited them into the spaces and conversations where they can learn or be influenced and supported to stretch. This is where peer-to-peer ambassador efforts can help. Youth listen to youth.
State policy barriers:
Which state policies impede this agenda? Regarding accountability and incentives, for example, if a superintendent or principal knows they will receive no “credit” for increasing advanced achievement, it may be rational for them to eschew advanced education. What else might be getting in the way?
Barriers that need to be removed:
- State policies are often used as an excuse to limit options for gifted students. People hide behind state policies as a reason to not accept certain proposals. One example is not giving “graduation credit” for high school level courses taken before entering high school. The kid may get “placement credit” but not “Carnegie unit” credit nor count coursework towards satisfying the state requirement for “four years of high school math.”
- Age-based placement is a problem. Districts and states shouldn’t impede early entrance to schooling, nor early entrance to middle schools or high schools. If a student is ready for instruction at a higher grade level—in all subjects or individual subjects—that student should not be prohibited from receiving it because of age.
Proactive steps states should take:
- State accountability policies must balance academic growth and moving students beyond proficiency. This advances both equity and excellence, as it ensures schools “credit” is given when low achievers make good progress, as well as when schools enable students who are already “proficient” to forge ahead further.
- States should create systems to support partnerships between advanced education programs and the entire school community to provide services and interventions for students who need advanced learning beyond the regular curriculum.
- States should mandate:
- Local, school-based norms for identifying students for advanced programs, as opposed to district-based norms that can under-identify students from marginalized backgrounds.
- Access to acceleration—both grade acceleration and subject-specific acceleration—where appropriate.
- The articulation or procedures of acceleration—including how students are identified, how they’re enrolled, how the programs work, and the alignment between elementary, middle, and high school (including credits, school report cards, and funding).
- Data collection, reporting, and accountability (number of identified kids, by demographic subgroup).
- States should enable schools to take advantage of online options for offering AP and other advanced coursework.
- We don’t know a lot about “effective” funding systems for gifted education; they vary dramatically. Competitive grants probably don’t do much good if they are the sole source, but are OK when used as a supplement to set the base funding amount. This should be monitored, though, to make sure the money is spent on advanced learning opportunities.
Teacher training and selection:
What content should be covered in training programs for teachers of advanced students? How does that vary by elementary/middle/high school? What are specific examples of effective training programs and/or textbooks for teachers of advanced students? Should schools/districts select teachers who themselves were advanced learners to teach advanced students?
- Providing in-service professional learning opportunities is incredibly important. High-quality versions, that teach educators how to make their instruction culturally responsive, should be required for teachers working with gifted kids, but everyone should be invited.
- There is a difference between the training needs and knowledge and skill requirements of teachers within advanced education programs and that of coordinators of advanced education programs, and their training should reflect their different needs. Teachers who are going to specialize in advanced opportunities, and especially in administrating such services, should also have coursework or a certificate.
- Many gifted-education coordinators who take on the role of gifted education in their school have never been exposed to gifted education courses or training. That’s a problem.
- Most states offer licensure or certificates in gifted education, but they usually aren’t required. And very few states have pre-service requirements for general education teachers.
- We can learn a lot about professional learning and support from the AP and IB programs.
- There is a federal requirement in ESSA that states provide gifted training to teachers and other school leaders. This ought to be enforced, but it isn’t.
- Funding for better training seems to work, as states with more and better funding are more likely to have licensure programs.
- Schools of education must stop promoting the ideas that ability grouping doesn’t work, acceleration doesn’t work, and meeting the needs of advanced learners is racist. None of this is true. Instead, the focus should be on providing equitable access to acceleration and other advanced learning opportunities.
- Teacher preparation programs should promote clear learning experiences for pre-service teachers focused on gifted education, as well as the importance of evidence-based concepts versus myths.
The roles of high schools and higher education:
What role should selective and specialized high schools play in districts’ playbook of programs, as well as their recruitment and retention of low-income students and those from racially underrepresented groups? To what degree can and should districts link their high school programming to higher education goals and outcomes? What role should institutions of higher education play in this agenda? Should they partner with districts in ways that provide dual enrollment or credentialing opportunities? And do the answers to these questions change for low-income students and those from racially underrepresented groups?
- Call high schools designed for advanced students “selective enrollment” or “specialized” high schools,” not “exam schools.”
- Specialized or selective enrollment high schools can act as one arrow among many in the quiver of programming and services for advanced students.
- To be justified, these schools should offer more than just a chance to join a select group of peers—they must offer programming that is not available at students’ base high schools.
- Admission should be based on more than an exam.
- These schools should be conceptualized as capstones of a continuum of services in K–12.
- Existing problems with selective high schools include a lack of transparency in admissions procedures, as well as rationing, with there not being enough spots. Too many kids who are eligible or could benefit don’t get into them. So districts should work to build a large, diverse pipeline into these schools. Districts that don’t have any should create them, and those that have had to resort to rationing should create additional schools, as well as “schools within schools” and honors-track alternatives.
- Selective high schools should marry the way the instruction is structured with the background and prior preparation of students who are admitted. In other words, they should be ready to scaffold supports for kids who might be underprepared and embed culturally-responsive policies and practices.
- Dual enrollment is often a good thing, but there must be much greater collaboration between the state and individual districts. And the state ought to lead to ensure that program benefits are being equitably distributed and that offerings in each district are high quality. For example, the credits awarded by a community college via dual credit or early college need to be transferrable to four-year colleges.
- Right now, lots of high school kids are ready for higher education, but there are still too many barriers. Access to dual-enrollment courses is sometimes restricted to eleventh and twelfth graders‚ for example. Scrap senseless polices such as these and broaden access in ways that maintain program quality.
- There is a quality control concern with dual enrollment, but one way to mitigate this is to select classes for which colleges grant credit. Steer kids toward classes that will transfer to four-year colleges. That’s built-in quality control. It’s also best if students can take classes directly from college professors and—if possible—in person on the college campus itself. Advising and counseling are also important.
Areas ripe for additional research:
- Out of school activities, parent-pay tutoring, and their impacts on achievement.
- Why are so many more kids above grade level in English language arts versus math? And what intentional efforts are being made to recruit and retain underrepresented groups to enroll in advanced English language arts and math?
- Do the attributes of effective teachers for advanced students from underrepresented groups differ from those for effective teachers of advanced students writ-large? For example, are teachers who themselves were academically high achieving in high school or college more effective with advanced students?
- 1Sourcing primarily from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s “Critical actions to realize equity and excellence in gifted education: Changing mindsets, policies, and practices.”