Promoting educational excellence and closing excellence gaps

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Jonathan Plucker

Last week, the Twin Cities was the epicenter of gifted education policy and practice as Minneapolis hosted the sixty-fifth NAGC Annual Convention. The convention provided a time for reflection about how Minnesota and the nation fare in supporting the needs of advanced students—and what we can do better.

After years of darkness, we are fortunate that a number of new studies are providing insights into who would benefit from advanced learning, the types of programs that are most effective, and policies needed to support high levels of student achievement.

For example, in a recent study we found evidence that large percentages of students—between 15 to 40 percent—start each school year already knowing most of what will be taught that year. Without access to a more rigorous and advanced education, the odds of them developing their talents are long indeed. Boredom need not be a characteristic of a bright student’s educational experience!

Fortunately, Minnesota has been a national leader in addressing the needs of gifted students. In studies of state-level policies to support academic excellence we identified Minnesota as one of only a handful of states that provide high levels of support for gifted students across multiple criteria. This includes requiring services for gifted students, providing a range of acceleration options for students able to move through school at a faster pace and requiring aspiring teachers to learn about the needs of advanced students before entering the classroom.

But more work needs to be done. A hot topic in education nationally has been the needs of bright low-income, Black, Latinx, and American Indian students. Recent research provides evidence of significant “excellence gaps”—large disparities in the performance of talented students based on economic factors, class, and race. Minnesota has large excellence gaps.

For example, on a recent national assessment of fourth grade mathematics, only 4 percent of Minnesota students qualifying for lunch aid scored in the advanced range versus 21 percent of those students who did not qualify. That’s a lot of talent being left on the sidelines as Minnesota seeks to compete globally.

Thankfully, Minnesota has been at the forefront of finding ways to identify and work with minority and low-income gifted students. In the most recent study on the issue sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Minnesota was in the middle of the pack for its excellence gap policies and outcomes. Collectively, these analyses suggest Minnesota is performing admirably but has room for improvement.

In a visit to Minnesota earlier this year, it quickly became obvious to me why the state is considered to be at the forefront of providing advanced education and ensuring equitable access to those programs. Roughly half of the state’s districts identify talented students using universal screening, an approach to identification that does not rely on nominations for screening. Instead, all students are screened, often using multiple indicators. This multi-faceted, universal approach is widely considered to be a research-supported best practice for identifying talented, disadvantaged students who are often overlooked.

I was similarly impressed by the state’s acceleration policies, which encourage students to move through the curriculum and education system as their abilities and efforts allow. This includes a unique and well-considered approach to allowing students to enter kindergarten early.

Minnesota is also leading in the important areas of program monitoring and public accountability, notably by including such requirements in its state education laws and policies, such as the World’s Best Workforce initiative.

There is much work left to be done to ensure that every Minnesota student is able to develop their talents, but the state has a foundation of policies, practices, and committed educators that provide it with a huge advantage compared to other states.

The NAGC convention was an opportunity to celebrate this progress and to recommit policymakers, educators, parents, and others to filling the remaining gaps to help Minnesota, as well as other states, take its support of gifted students to the next level by identifying all talented students—regardless of class, race, or ZIP code.

Jonathan Plucker is the president-elect of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) and chairman of the sixty-fifth NAGC Annual Convention. Dr. Plucker is the Julian C. Stanley professor of talent development at Johns Hopkins University.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.