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5 ways to embrace advanced learning programs & make them available to more kids

Peg Tyre | July 11, 2024

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While debates rage over who should win admission to selective high schools, public education leaves millions of talented young people, many of them students of color and from low-income backgrounds, without access to advanced learning. Vanderbilt University researchers have found that high-achieving students from the wealthiest 20% of U.S. families are six times more likely to receive gifted-and-talented services than those from the poorest 20%. Among Black and white students with comparable grades and test scores, Black students are 66% less likely to be referred.

The concentration of white and Asian students in advanced programs in public education has spawned a movement to dismantle gifted-and-talented programs, schools that require admissions exams and other advanced programs on the grounds that they promote racial and economic segregation. But in many instances, talented Black and Latino students stand to lose the most; the backlash against advanced education hurts the very students critics hope to help.

The best way to solve the controversy is to embrace both excellence and equity, supporting advanced learning but widening the range of students who can access it to better reflect public education’s rapidly diversifying enrollment. In a recent FutureEd report on the state of gifted education, Excellence with Equity: Rethinking Gifted Education, I outline five steps school systems can take to increase opportunity for capable learners and present some case studies describing how particular districts have done just that.

Retire the word “gifted.” Academic promise is not limited to a special few, and innate ability does not trump hard work in achieving success. Opening advanced learning to all who want to try as Arizona’s Gadsden Elementary District 32 does with accelerated math, unlocks young people’s potential. Gadsden dropped the word “gifted” to bury stereotypes, more accurately reflect the nature of the programs and give hard work the privileged place it deserves. “We are looking for kids at the higher end of proficiency and who want to do the work,” says Homero Chavez, a guidance counselor who built Gadsden’s advanced program from the ground up.

Seek talent everywhere. Ideally, school systems screen all students at least once, preferably twice or more times, through their school careers for evidence they can take on advanced work. It’s also important for districts to use multiple measures to identify highly capable learners rather than rely on a single test or teacher recommendation. In New York City, Chancellor David Banks established a universal screening system in public preschools, where teachers were trained to recognize potential in every classroom by identifying high performers relative to their neighborhood peers and inviting their families to apply for their children to attend advanced classes. This is one example of a process called universal screening with local norms. New York preschoolers are screened again in second grade, with students scoring in the top 10% in English, social studies, math and science automatically invited to apply for advanced programs.

Front-load advanced learning. “Starting a program for advanced learners in high school and hoping to achieve anything like equitable outcomes is simply not going to happen,” says Jonathan Plucker, an expert on gifted education and a research professor at Johns Hopkins University and past president of the National Association for Gifted Children. Instead, provide opportunities for elementary and middle school students to advance and accelerate their learning. For example, North Carolina law requires the state’s highest-scoring third graders to receive advanced math coursework in fourth grade.

End the scarcity mentality. Like many school districts around the country, Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools had not kept up with the times when it came to providing advanced learning. Despite a growing and demographically changing population, for many years the school district reserved these opportunities to just four magnet middle schools: two focused on humanities and two centered on math and science. After many stumbles, the district has landed on a promising formula: universal screening plus a race-neutral lottery for seats in the four magnet middle schools, coupled with expanded opportunities in its other middle schools. “We’ve made it a high priority to add advanced curriculum,” says district spokesperson Christopher Cram. “[Parents] are making it known what they want. And we want to give it to them.”

Provide appropriate instruction. Acceleration can take many forms, from rapid movement through individual courses to grade-skipping or early college enrollment. Research shows that one of the most effective ways to support advanced learners is to create flexible groups within classes, based on readiness, interest and potential. These can be reconfigured easily to reflect student growth and changing interests. However, the burden of keeping advanced learners engaged cannot fall entirely on classroom teachers. Classrooms frequently contain children at five or more levels of ability. Making high-quality materials available for teachers instructing academically capable students is more effective than simply telling them to differentiate their curriculum on their own.

Parents take note when their children express the interest, motivation and drive to learn more. Affluent families supply enrichment or opt for private education if they sense their children’s needs are not being met. Students from all walks of life are entitled to the same opportunities.

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