The High Flyer

Jonathan Plucker, Ph.D.

A disappointingly flawed Education Week story on San Francisco initiatives to reduce advanced learning opportunities in middle school math has garnered lots of attention. It’s called “A Bold Effort to End Algebra Tracking Shows Promise,” and was written by Stephen Sawchuk, who has a well-deserved reputation for being an excellent reporter. I was out of the country when it appeared, and I assumed it would burn itself out by now. But alas, Ed Week continues to circulate the article, and people continue to talk about it.

Advocates for advanced learning can learn a lot from the piece, both about how the media tends to cover topics related to advanced learning and how educators often justify anti-excellence policies. In rereading the article, my attention was drawn to Sawchuk’s many anti-intellectual dog whistles more than underlying problems with the district’s policies. Others have noted those problems—perhaps none better than Kurt Vonnegut in his short story “Harrison Bergeron”—so I’ll focus on the dog whistles.

1. The headline

Journalists usually don’t write the headlines that accompany their piece, but there’s nothing “bold” about the policy change described in the story. As I discuss below, the city’s “effort to end algebra tracking” is...

 
 
Rudy Crew

The world is getting more flooded by issues of disproportionality whether in education, politics, or opportunities to vote. A myriad of examples exist in the form of policies that pit people against each other rather than cause the steady increase in overall opportunities which comes with raising the bar for everyone.

In education, creating the proverbial level playing field that enables minority and low-income students to be identified and served in gifted education programs is critical. There are lots of children, children of color, children whose first language is not English, children living in poverty, who do not get access to gifted programs for all kinds of reasons. Either they never learn about these programs or they are not looked at as kids who ultimately could benefit from them. Many of these children have undeveloped abilities that may never be realized.

As M. René Islas, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, recently said, this really is a “social justice issue…children living in poverty, and from racial and ethnic and language minorities, are not getting a fair shake at getting access to gifted services.”

A study by the National Center for Research on Gifted Education found that...

 
 
Apoorva Panidapu

According to Apoorva Panidapu’s parents, their thirteen-year old daughter is a joyous person both on the face of it and to the core. Her most noticeable features are her radiant smile and her remarkable speed (except when it comes to chores).

For her parents, it seems that Apoorva is always in perpetual motion as she tries to satisfy her insatiable curiosity. By three years old, she was devouring one book after another, her father remembers. Apoorva is just so excited about so many things, including drawing, music, writing, speech and debate, Kung Fu, problem solving, teaching others, and everything in between. She can recite more than two hundred digits of Pi rapid fire, and she can memorize a deck of cards in fifteen minutes. “We don’t need a calculator when she’s around, or RAM for that matter, because her speed and memory are super charged for puzzles, codes, and theorems,” her mother confesses with a shy smile.

Recently, viewers all over the world got to see Apoorva’s love of learning on NBC’s Genius Junior, where she shared her passion for mathematics and competition. Apoorva was her team’s 'Super Brain for Number Cruncher' in the preliminary, semi-final, and...

 
 
Scott J. Peters

It’s no secret that identified gifted and talented populations are dominated by students from white and Asian American families and that students from African American, Latinx, and Native American families are disproportionately underrepresented. Less well known is the degree of this proportionality at individual schools or school districts. Disproportional representation in any educational service or program cannot be addressed through policy and practice if individual schools don’t know the scope of the problem or how long it’s been going on. Luckily, the data are now available to answer such questions.

Since the 2009–10 school year, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education has conducted a biannual survey of every school in the country on a range of civil rights issues. (These data were part of a large Fordham report entitled Is there a Gifted Gap? earlier this year.) Although this data collection has been going on since the late 1960s, what made 2009 a breakthrough year was that all schools were surveyed instead of just a sample. This universal data collection has continued ever since. What this means for practitioners is that information on gifted education service populations is now available for...

 
 
Timothy Daly

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in a slightly different form on The 74.

Why don’t more low-income and minority students succeed in school? There is plenty of talk about bad schools, insufficient resources, turbulent neighborhoods, and the like. And, yes, lots of disadvantaged students start school behind their more advantaged peers—and, because of these myriad challenges, stay behind. But there are many others who demonstrate success in school, at least for stretches of their educational careers, but fall off along the way. Instead of resigning ourselves to these outcomes, we must instead ask: Why, specifically, does this happen? And how do we fix it?

At EdNavigator, of which I am a founding partner, we have spent the past two years providing sustained educational support to hundreds of families in and around New Orleans, in all types of schools. Each of them has been afforded access to a Navigator—someone with deep roots in their community and professional experience in teaching, counseling, or school leadership—who serves as their personal education adviser. Through this work, we have gained deep insight into the day-to-day interactions of families and schools and the obstacles they confront. Our experience has brought the questions above...

 
 

The biggest takeaway from the new National Assessment of Education Progress results is a bleak one: Average scores are flat almost everywhere—fourth grade and eighth grade, reading and math, low- and high-income, black, Hispanic, and white. As my colleague Mike Petrilli wrote today in another Flypaper post, “it’s now been almost a decade since we’ve seen strong growth in either reading or math, with the slight exception of eighth grade reading.”

But lost in that disappointing decade of averages is a decade of fairly steady and unexpectedly universal progress for one set of students: high achievers. Not every top scorer benefited to the same degree—and that’s an enduring and substantial problem—but benefit they all did.

NAEP is administered every two years, and scores can fall into three “achievement levels” dubbed Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The grade- and subject-specific cutoffs are meant to reflect real-life aptitudes. Proficient is defined as “solid academic performance for each grade assessed.” Advanced indicates “superior performance,” and is therefore NAEP’s best proxy for “high-achieving” or “gifted” students.

Table 1 shows how students have fared in fourth and eighth grade over the last decade in reaching the Advanced level in math and...

 
 

Massachusetts has earned well-deserved accolades for becoming America’s highest-achieving state, as measured by national academic assessments. But as Bay State leaders know, behind its accomplishments lurk some of America’s largest achievement gaps. And it’s not just that low-income and minority students do worse than their wealthier and white peers on average; there are also big gaps among high achievers, discrepancies that professor Jonathan Plucker rightly calls “excellence gaps.” One cause may be the state’s severe shortage of programs for gifted students.

The selection of Jeff Riley as Massachusetts’s new education commissioner is a perfect opportunity to do better by high-achieving students of color. His sterling record as a principal in Boston and superintendent in Lawrence suggests that he’s up to the challenge. But it won’t be easy.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, Massachusetts’s white, black, and Hispanic eighth graders reach the test’s highest level in math, deemed “advanced,” at twice the national rate. But this masks massive academic inequalities. Although one in every five white students is advanced, that’s true of just one in every twenty-five black and Hispanic students—a gap that is also twice what it is nationally.

Given this galling rift, you’d hope Massachusetts,...

 
 

The 26,000+ members and supporters of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) should feel pretty good about their efforts and the fruits they have produced in education policy. Together we have successfully inspired change by helping legislators and the public understand the nature and unique needs of gifted children and the supportive environments they need for learning.

A little over two years ago, NAGC embarked on a focused plan to build awareness and increase support for the unique needs of these children. The NAGC Board of Director's bold plan of action to Change Minds, Change Policies, and Change Practices set out to achieve a vision where giftedness and high potential are universally valued, fully recognized, and actively nurtured.

I am pleased to report on two visible markers that show the movement is gaining traction and producing results that are bringing this vision to fruition.

First, the U.S. Department of Education prioritized the needs of students and children with "unique gifts and talents."  Specifically, Priority 5 of the Final Supplemental Priorities and Definitions for Discretionary Grant Programs emphasizes the need for programs that develop “ opportunities for students who are gifted and talented (as...

 
 
The STEM Network Working Group

The NAGC Board voted to support the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) position statement on Providing Opportunities for Students with Exceptional Mathematical Promise. However, a video by Jo Boaler has caused some to question the importance of identifying gifted students. This is a response from the NAGC STEM Network Working Group.

In 1980, in their Agenda for Action, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) asserted, “The student most neglected in terms of realizing full potential, is the gifted student of mathematics. Outstanding mathematical ability is a precious societal resource, sorely needed to maintain leadership in a technological world.” This is even truer today, nearly forty years later as the world becomes increasingly technological and interdependent. In 1995, NCTM appointed a Task Force on what they termed “mathematically promising” students and charged the task force with rethinking the traditional definition of mathematically gifted students to broaden it to the more inclusive idea of mathematically promising students. The Task Force defined those students as ones who have the potential to become the leaders and problem solvers of the future. They averred that mathematical promise is a function of ability, motivation, belief, and experience or...

 
 
James Bishop

One of the most illuminating presentations that I attended on the subject of giftedness was given by Dr. Linda Silverman of Colorado’s Gifted Development Center. The talk on perfectionism was the keynote of a regional symposium on giftedness in North Texas. In her presentation, Dr. Silverman took the position that perfectionism, when properly managed, can be a healthy attribute for gifted people. Her position was unsettling to a number of educators in the audience, many of whom held the growing viewpoint that perfectionism is inherently unhealthy.

In one particularly memorable exchange, an audience member took exception to the idea that perfection could be a healthy pursuit or that anything could be perfect. He challenged her with a question, asking if she felt her book, Counseling the Gifted and Talented, achieved perfection. She looked the audience member straight in the eye, and without a moment’s hesitation and with absolute conviction in her voice, replied, “Yes. My book was perfect.” She exemplified, on a personal level, the epitome of healthy perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the striving for achievement or production that is without flaw or error. As a disorder, perfectionism is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental...

 
 

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