Can gifted education survive the Common Core?

What does the Common Core portend for America’s high-achieving and gifted students? Quite a kerfuffle has erupted in many parts of the country, with boosters of these rigorous new standards declaring that they’re plenty sufficient to challenge the ablest pupils and boosters of gifted education fretting that this will be used as the latest excuse to do away with already-dwindling opportunities for such children.

Previous research by Fordham and others has made clear that the pre-Common Core era has not done well by high achievers in the United States. Almost all the policy attention has been on low achievers, and, in fact, they’ve made faster gains on measures such as NAEP than have their high-achieving classmates. Gifted children, in our view, have generally been short-changed in recent years by American public education, even as the country has awakened to their potential contributions to our economic competitiveness and technological edge. It would therefore be a terrible mistake for the new Common Core standards, praiseworthy as we believe they are, to become a justification for even greater neglect.

We asked gifted education expert Jonathan Plucker of the University of Connecticut to help us and others understand what lies ahead, particularly with regard to how the opportunities presented by the Common Core can benefit high-ability students as well as others. In a new brief, Common Core and America’s High-Achieving Students, he addresses these challenges and provides guidance for CCSS-implementing districts and schools as they seek to help these youngsters to reach their learning potential. Four key points emerge:

  1. Common Core is no excuse to ditch gifted services. One key challenge for the gifted education community is that the CCSS are indeed being used in some places to justify reducing or even scrapping gifted education services on the grounds that the new universal standards are more challenging than what came before them. No doubt the level of rigor will rise in many states for standards, curriculum, and tests alike. But that doesn’t mean they’ll adequately challenge the most advanced students, girls and boys working well above their grade level. Since the standards represent grade-level learning, curricula and assessments based on them will, by definition, not challenge students who are already surpassing these expectations. It stands to reason, as Plucker makes clear, that schools must still go the extra mile if they are properly to serve those children, some of whom may already be quite a considerable distance down the road to career and college readiness.
  2. State and local officials should get rid of policies that hurt gifted students and strengthen practices that help them. Many districts and schools have formal or informal policies that limit the learning of advanced pupils. For instance, some states cap how far students can progress within the curriculum in one school year or base kindergarten entrance on age rather than readiness. Some districts have added prohibitions on within-class ability grouping. Many discourage grade-skipping and other forms of acceleration. Such “anti-excellence” policies, often inscribed in state laws and regulations, are nearly always bad for high-ability children and must be excised if the Common Core standards are to be successfully implemented for them, too. On the other hand, the CCSS can facilitate policies that are good for gifted learners, such as academic acceleration, which depends on clear expectations of what students should know and be able to do at specific grade levels. If a ten-year-old has already mastered the expectations of fourth grade, why not move her into fifth or sixth, whether completely or just in selected subjects?
  3. Schools must work harder to make differentiation “real.” Differentiating instruction by students’ ability and/or achievement levels is a skill set that few teachers have mastered. But it won’t get any better if we throw our hands up. The few hours (at most) of annual professional development spent on training teachers to educate gifted students are clearly not sufficient; we need more time and higher-quality training devoted to curricular and instructional differentiation by ability level. Initial teacher preparation programs need to take this challenge seriously in ways that most today do not. Once on the job, teachers also need ample opportunities to plan together to meet the educational needs of their high-ability learners. And principals ought to build this into their schools’ priorities.
  4. Schools should make use of existing high-quality materials that help teachers adapt the Common Core for gifted students. There are plenty out there! A number of organizations and gifted education experts, including the National Association for Gifted Children, have published units, lessons, tips, and guidelines to help educators build on and extend the Core for high-ability children. Let’s get them into the hands of teachers. Likewise, educators of the gifted can serve as key resources for their districts.

The advent of the Common Core standards can and should boost the learning of America’s ablest young learners, not serve as a rationale for denying them opportunities to fulfill their potential. Getting this right calls for re-evaluating and strengthening policies for the gifted, providing more robust programs and services for them, doing what it takes to make differentiation more than a pipe dream, and tapping into resources and educators who can amplify both the standards and their students’ chances of success. It’s a great opportunity to right one of the wrongs perpetrated on U.S. K–12 education during the NCLB era. In so doing, we can brighten the prospects of millions of kids—as well as the entire country’s future.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.