States can improve equity and outcomes in gifted education, but too many aren’t trying
Research shows the power of smart state-level policies, so why are there so few of them?
Last month, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) released the 2020–21 edition of its “State of the States in Gifted Education.” Published every two to four years, it’s the nation’s only broad summary of state-level policies, or lack thereof, concerning advanced education programs in K–12 schools.
At 228 pages, it provides an enormous trove of data on a host of topics, and one can enlist it in any number of analytic or policy activities. For me, so far, one big takeaway leaps out: Most states aren’t doing enough to ensure that these programs exist throughout their districts and that districts equitably identify and serve all the students who would benefit from them. This is especially clear in light of a brand new study by NWEA researchers Scott Peters and Angela Johnson, who found that state policies significantly impact the equitable identification of advanced children who are English learners or students with disabilities.
Multiple editions of the NAGC report have shown the extent to which states vary when it comes to mandating and guiding advanced education. According to the new release, for example, forty-one of them require that students be identified for such services, but just ten provide criteria for doing so, while twenty defer to local leaders and twelve have some other arrangement. Only twenty-eight states mandate that advanced programs exist for those students who are identified, and just twenty-three set standards and guidelines for those offerings. A paltry fourteen specify the amount of instruction or school time these services should occupy, thirteen have an acceleration policy wherein students learn at a faster rate or at a higher level than is typical for their age, and just ten have a policy addressing equity problems in their advanced programs. That’s despite ample evidence that Black, Hispanic, and Native American children are persistently underrepresented in almost every state in these services since their inception.
Of course, all this only matters if state policies matter—if they, in other words, affect how districts and schools are educating these students. But—no surprise—we know that policy matters. It’s by no means all that matters, but it’s the starting point. A 2004 study, for example, found that districts in states mandating local advanced education programs were at least twice as likely to offer them, and that a higher proportion of students in these states participated in them than in states without such mandates. Authors Bruce D. Baker and Reva Friedman-Nimz concluded that “program mandates and funding may be effective tools for increasing the distribution of opportunities for gifted children.”
Another study in 2012 suggested that state requirements for the identification of students for these programs can improve participation for children from marginalized backgrounds. It found, for example, that Florida districts that offered alternative pathways—grades, achievement tests, and teacher checklists, for instance, instead of the state’s usual intelligence-test-score method—doubled representation for low-income students and English learners while increasing the participation of Black students by two-thirds.
Most recently, the aforementioned NWEA study by Peters and Johnson, released just this month, found that three common state policies for advanced education—mandating that districts offer programs, requiring that they have formal plans for those programs, and regularly auditing districts for compliance—were correlated with increased access to and enrollment in those programs for English learners and students with disabilities. These are the two most underrepresented student groups in advanced education, with the former identified nationwide at one-eight of their proportion of the overall student population, the latter at one-sixth.
When states mandated that districts have programs, those districts were 27 percentage points more likely to offer services to students with disabilities and 24 percentage points more likely to offer services to English learners. For regular audits, those figures were 28 and 23 percentage points, respectively. And if states required formal plans, 8 and 10 percentage points.
Mandates to offer services and audits also increased representation—the proportion of all those enrolled in advanced education who belong to a given group—for students with disabilities by 11 percentage points and 5 percentage points, respectively. And audits boosted English learner representation by 10 percentage points.
“Given how bad the baseline representation is for these students, those are pretty big increases—even if we still have a long way to go,” Peters told me. “One of the clearest takeaways from examining these data is the correlation between state policies and the more-equitable identification of gifted and talented students,” he adds. Quite right.
All of this also suggests that a better targeted and more forceful state role would improve academic outcomes for advanced learners. If mandates and accountability boost the number of districts with programs, as well as having other direct impacts, if follows that all states could boost high-quality offerings and their effects by mandating the interventions that have long been shown to boost achievement—like acceleration and flexible and equitable ability grouping.
“Acceleration [is] one of the most-studied intervention strategies in all of education, with overwhelming evidence of positive effects on student achievement,” writes Johns Hopkins professor Jonathan Plucker. One study that looked at a century of research on the intervention’s impact on K–12 academic achievement, for example, found three meta-analyses showing that “accelerated students significantly outperformed their nonaccelerated same-age peers,” and three others showing that “acceleration appeared to have a positive, moderate, and statistically significant impact on students’ academic achievement.”
That same study also looked at thirteen meta-analyses of ability grouping and identified three models that boost outcomes: within-class grouping, cross-grade subject grouping, and special grouping for advanced learners. Moreover, there seemed to be little downside—and often upside—for students with lower achievement levels.
One path to more—and more equitable—advanced education therefore seems simple: States need to get more involved, requiring that districts offer and maintain high-quality programs, and then checking to ensure they do. Sadly, many school systems are going in the opposite direction, eliminating offerings in the name of equity. These data add to the evidence that such a strategy is deeply flawed. Will states prohibit it and keep districts from doing more harm? Along the way, they could do a lot of good.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“The only compassionate way to bridge the achievement gap is to focus on raising the floor to help the students who are falling behind, not lowering the ceiling for the few who are thriving.”
—Eric Santoro, a lawyer with three children in Philadelphia schools, two at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, quoted in “Parents challenge lottery systems used to diversify elite high schools,” by Sara Randazzo, Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2023
THREE STUDIES TO STUDY
“Where are the Gifted English Learners and Students with Disabilities?” by Scott J. Peters and Angela Johnson, EdWorkingPaper 23-742, March 2023, retrieved from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University
“Prior research has documented substantial inequity across, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines within the population of students identified as gifted. Less attention has paid to the equity of gifted identification for student learning English or those with disabilities and what effect state policies toward gifted education might have on these rates. This paper attempted to fill that void by analyzing data from the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection and Stanford Education Data Archive along with original coding of state gifted education policies. Our findings show that while both groups are substantially underrepresented, state mandates for schools to offer services, requirements for formal gifted education plans, and regular audits for compliance are correlated with much higher rates of gifted service availability and equity for English learners and students with disabilities. We also describe the location and characteristics of the top 5 percent most equitable schools for English learners and students with disabilities.”
“Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Online Delivery of Affective Curriculum for Gifted Students,” by Ophélie A. Desmet, Huzeyfe Cakmakci, and Abdullah Tuzgen, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, OnlineFirst, March 20, 2023
“The purpose of the present study was to evaluate the online delivery of an affective curriculum for gifted and talented youth to gain further understanding of its effectiveness and perceived advantages and disadvantages of delivering affective curriculum online. Using convergent parallel mixed-methods design, we evaluated data from thirty-eight secondary education students and four camp counselors to examine their experiences with the online delivery of an affective curriculum. We found the curriculum effectively increased students' self-perceptions, planning, and self-monitoring. Further, camp counselors generally perceived the online delivery to be effective and identified several benefits of online delivery, such as increased access and easier differentiating. Yet, they continued to prefer a face-to-face delivery where possible. Implications for practice are discussed.”
“Gifted education in Vietnam: Contribution and limitations,” by Anh Vinh Le, Hoang Phuong Hanh, and Dien Bui, Gifted Education International, OnlineFirst, March 15, 2023
“The story of Vietnam’s education together with its formulae for success and remaining issues have been much researched. However, there is a rather mysterious group of institutions in the country’s education system that is much less explored yet in close relation to its top ranking in international academic competitions: trường chuyên (specialization schools for the gifted, or in short, gifted schools). Through reviewing government legal documents and relevant reports, this article sketches the overview picture of various fundamental aspects of gifted education in Vietnam, including the evolution history, merits, limitations, and recommendations to improve the system quality. The contribution and shortcomings of this most prestigious group of schools will be examined given the prioritized investment from the Government, current societal context and demands in Vietnam and across the world, alongside most recent global movements in the educational domain.”
WRITING WORTH READING
“The Education Exchange: Do gifted and talented programs make racial segregation worse?” —Education Next, March 20, 2023
“AP access for all success spotlight: DeKalb County High School,” —AP State Newsletter (Tennessee), March 18, 2023
“I grew up as a “gifted kid”—here’s why Singaporeans should know about burnout sooner than later,” The Smart Local (Singapore), Nur Hidaya, March 17, 2023
“English learners and students with disabilities under-identified as gifted,” —EdSource, Zaidee Stavely, March 16, 2023
“School pulls test question equating politics to race, gender,” —Associated Press, Matthew Barakat, March 13, 2023
“We must recognize talented and gifted students,” —Quad-City Times (Iowa), Mike Matson (Mayor of Davenport, Iowa), March 12, 2023
“Parents challenge lottery systems used to diversify elite high schools,” —Wall Street Journal, Sara Randazzo, March 11, 2023
“Cincinnati Public Schools will offer A.P. African American Studies course that's sparked controversy elsewhere,” —WLWT5, Todd Dykes, March 9, 2023
“CPS selective enrollment test: What you need to know,” —Chicago Parent, Claire Charlton, March 9, 2023
“Understanding emotional sensitivity in gifted children,” —Psychology Today, Barbara Klein, March 8, 2023
“DreamFest gives gifted students a chance to utilize STEM talents and socialize,” —Spectrum News 1 (Kentucky), Sam Knef, March 7, 2023
Hi Brandon - it's Josh from the Excellence Project. This is the argument I've been making to potential funders of my organization. We know what works! We just need some resources to speak with legislators to let them know.