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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Special Education Opinion

Can Gifted Education Be Excellent and Equitable?

A new report recommends policies to support both goals
By Rick Hess — July 13, 2023 6 min read
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The National Working Group on Advanced Education issued Building a Wider, More Diverse Pipeline of Advanced Learners last month, offering a series of recommendations for improving advanced learning opportunities. Launched by the D.C.-based Fordham Institute in 2022, the group holds that “excellence, done right, means doing the hard work to help all students achieve at high levels—not just the students who come to school with great advantages.” To discuss the effort and its recommendations, I reached out to Mike Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute and convener of the group. An old friend, Mike is the author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma, a fellow editor at Education Next, and an influential pundit. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Mike, you just issued the final report from the National Working Group on Advanced Education. Can you tell me a bit about the group and the project?

Mike: Thanks so much, Rick. It’s a terrific group that produced an important report. We launched in spring 2022 with an ideologically and racially diverse assemblage of 20 academics, practitioners, advocates, and policymakers. Our mission was to develop a coherent set of recommendations to states, school districts, and charter networks for how they could expand advanced learning opportunities for all kids, and especially for students from underserved groups. After meeting four times, we finished up in June 2023. Our final report offers 36 concrete, evidence-based recommendations to boost opportunities for advanced learners from grades K-12. It was such a great experience, especially to be able to find so much common ground at this time of heightened polarization.

Rick: What are a couple of the group’s big recommendations?

Mike: I am particularly excited about those focused on our youngest students. One is to establish “universal screening” for gifted and talented programs. This means selecting students for these programs by looking at test scores or grades for all students rather than relying on parent nominations or teacher recommendations, as those tend to overlook lots of kids who might benefit. Another is to use local, school-based “norms.” Meaning: Rather than say that a student has to score at the 90th percentile nationally in order to receive advanced learning services, require them to score at the 90th percentile in their school. That way, every school has gifted programming, including high-poverty schools where achievement tends to be lower, and this allows you to cast the net much wider.

Rick: The report is titled “Building a Wider, More Diverse Pipeline of Advanced Learners.” But it strikes me that the focus is really on what we’d normally describe as “gifted education.” Can you talk about the notion of “advanced” learners as opposed to “gifted” learners?

Mike: Partly this reflected our focus on students who achieve at high levels—or have the potential to do so—rather than kids who are “gifted” per se. We weren’t focused on students with musical or artistic gifts, for example. Nor did we want to engage with the many debates in the field about how to define giftedness. But even more importantly, we think that the term “gifted” carries a lot of baggage and would benefit from a rebranding. Critics aren’t wrong that the field of gifted education was at one time racist and classist. We think it’s time to turn the page and for our schools to focus on high achievers and those with the potential for high achievement, rather than those with some sort of innate “gifts.”

Rick: What does the group have to say to those who don’t think that test scores or grades are reliable measures of merit, even with universal screening?

Mike: First, I’d steer away from the use of the word “merit” here. This isn’t about giving kids, or their parents, a trophy for being smart. The point is to provided services that students need in order to thrive and fulfill their potential. Lots of kids can get what they need in a typical classroom, but high-achieving students will sometimes need something more or something different. As for the measures, districts and charter schools should use indicators that are valid and reliable, and test scores and grades are hard to beat. But they can be supplemented with others. Teacher recommendations, for example, are fine—as long as they aren’t required. If a teacher sees potential in a student and thinks she could benefit from advanced learning opportunities—great! It’s just critical that we don’t make students jump through multiple hoops and hurdles to gain access, because that limits the pool and can introduce bias. Even self-nominations or peer nominations could be considered as part of the process.

Rick: You mentioned the group’s recommendations are “evidence-based.” Can you say a bit about how readers should understand what that means?

Mike: We worked hard to stay as close to the research evidence as we could when it came to developing our recommendations. By all means, readers should dig into the report and its citations to see if we succeeded. It helped that the Working Group included well-respected scholars including Nicholas Colangelo, Laura Giuliano, Tarek Grantham, Jason Grissom, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Scott Peters, Jonathan Plucker, and Jonathan Wai. But to be sure, there are topics where we need much more research to guide practice, and we said that too.

Rick: How feasible will it be to move some of these recommendations, especially in a polarized political environment?

Mike: As you know, Rick, this is not an easy topic for the left and right to discuss. Indeed, one reason we launched the Working Group was because of recent controversies in which districts eliminated or scaled back “gifted and talented” programs, honors courses, or selective admissions schools out of concerns about their effect on equity. For example, the head-scratching decision in San Francisco not to allow any student to take Algebra 1 before high school, supposedly in order to level the playing field. Our group, with representation from left, right, and center, is saying that the way to promote equity in advanced education is to mend it, not end it. And really to extend it to many more students, including those from marginalized groups. I hope that these comprehensive recommendations will help policymakers and practitioners find common ground. For equity advocates, we’re saying: Yes, we need to be more inclusive, and work harder to find students of color and low-income kids who could benefit from advanced learning, even if they come into school without sky-high achievement. At the same time, for excellence advocates we’re saying: Yes, there’s a place for advanced education in our schools, and it’s not for everyone.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about the process of finding common ground given these tensions?

Mike: You know, it sounds cliché, but it’s true: The most important thing we did was to listen to one another. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, when we lived and worked on Zoom, it was super helpful to have two of our meetings in person, to get to know one another, build some trust, and get a better idea of where everyone was coming from. There was no special process: We were just together and had a chance to debate and hash through the big topics that we ended up addressing in our report.

Rick: What in the report is going to frustrate those on the right? And those on the left?

Mike: Some on the right won’t love some of the language in the report, such as our call for culturally responsive teaching. And some on the left will reject the idea that we need advanced education at all, or might not like our belief that all advanced learners—including white, Asian, and affluent kids—need support and opportunities. But I strongly suspect that most fair-minded readers will find plenty to applaud.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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