High Achievers

Lisa Riggs

Over the past year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has published numerous articles (including a book) explaining how schools across the country are overlooking high-achieving poor students. In the age of ESSA, the role of the states and districts in serving its high-achievers is more important than ever before. In Texas, where I live and work, nearly 8 percent of children are identified as gifted and talented, but before my arrival in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), only 4.5 percent of students were so identified. That percentage was unacceptable, so the district reinvented its approach. Its current methods—now much improved—ought to be an example of what other districts across the country can do to better serve high-ability boys and girls.

In December 2015, the SAISD board approved a universal screening assessment and matrix for all first and fifth graders for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Therefore, every student would have an equal opportunity to be identified for these essential GATE services. (In a district where 92 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and 98 percent of students are Latino or African American, this work is even more critical.)

Identification is just the first step in...

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires a “negotiated rulemaking” process whenever the Department of Education issues regulations under parts of the law pertaining to assessments, academic standards, and several other topics. This process requires a panel of experts, which the agency assembled in March. Their work thus far (they’ve met twice) has revealed major problems on the regulatory front concerning gifted and high-achieving students. These issues need immediate attention, including close scrutiny by the lawmakers who crafted ESSA.

As Education Week explains the process, panel members “essentially get together in a room and try to hammer out an agreement with the department. If the process fails, which it often does, the feds go back to the drawing board and negotiate through the regular process, which involves releasing a draft rule, getting comments on it, and then putting out a final rule.” The Department of Education assists this process with issues papers (which provide background), discussion questions, and draft regulatory language that the panel can edit based on its discussions.

Last week, the group tackled assessments, an area of ESSA that directly affects gifted and high-achieving students. Unfortunately, in the twenty-plus pages of draft regulations and seven issue papers that accompanied those discussions,...

Allow me to let you in on a little secret from deep inside the nation's policy making machinery: Policy elites view the rise of Donald Trump—the candidate and everything he stands for—with equal parts alarm and revulsion. That's probably not much of a secret. A campaign that draws its oxygen from anti-elite sentiments probably doesn't expect much attention or affection from think tanks and serious people in education reform. Not surprisingly, there hasn't been much.

But it's well past time to start thinking seriously about education reform in the Trump era. Even if 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue becomes the one piece of real estate destined never to be festooned with the candidate's surname, the restive 2016 campaign should serve as a wake-up call. Broad swaths of Americans feel disconnected from public institutions and are convinced that policy makers don't understand or much care about them.

Education policy has done little to bridge that divide. When downwardly mobile white, working-class Americans hear us talking about education reform, it's a fair bet they don't think we're talking about them and their children. And they're not mistaken. The priorities and language of reformers—achievement gaps, no-excuses schools, social justice, and the "civil rights issue of our...

M. René Islas

How often have you heard, “Gifted students will do fine on their own?” This is just one of the many myths that become barriers to properly educating millions of high-potential students. The following is a list of the most prevalent myths in gifted education, accompanied by evidence rebutting each of them. (For a student’s perspective, watch The Top 10 Myths in Gifted Education, produced by teens in the Baltimore County Public Schools for the Maryland State Department of Education.)

Myth 1: Gifted students don’t need help; they’ll do fine on their own

Would you send a star athlete to train for the Olympics without a coach? Gifted students need guidance from well-trained teachers who challenge and support them in order to fully develop their abilities. Many gifted students may be so far ahead of their same-age peers that they know more than half of the grade-level curriculum before the school year begins. Their resulting boredom and frustration can lead to low achievement, despondency, or unhealthy work habits. The role of the teacher is crucial for spotting and nurturing talents in school.

Myth 2: Teachers challenge all the students, so gifted kids will be fine in the regular classroom

Although teachers...

Myles Mendoza

As a parent of three young children in Chicago Public Schools, I’m starting to get nervous.

Luckily, my family can afford to live in a neighborhood with one of the city’s few higher-performing elementary schools that aren’t governed by selective enrollment. But in the upper grades, even Chicago’s best neighborhoods have almost no high-quality options unless you can afford a private school.

So we’ve begun the effort to get our kids tested to see if they can be among the lucky few to gain entry into Chicago’s selective enrollment schools. Because the system is point-based, families strategize on how to get their kids into these coveted programs. Parents in the know find tutorials online. Some even spend hundreds of dollars for test preparation.

Recently, as I sat in a testing center waiting for my son to finish his exam, I looked around and saw a lot of affluent parents like me. I wondered, what about the children without parents to advocate for them? What about those families without social capital or financial means—do they even know these gifted programs exist?

Gifted schools and programs are supposed to be for all students with unique abilities, but as I sat in the...

This study examines the impact of achievement-based “tracking” in a large school district. The district in question required schools to create a separate class in fourth or fifth grade if they enrolled at least one gifted student (as identified by an IQ test). However, since most schools had only five or six gifted kids per grade, the bulk of the seats in these newly created classes were filled by the non-gifted students with the highest scores on the previous year’s standardized tests. This allowed the authors to estimate the effect of participating in a so-called Gifted and High Achieving (GHA) class using a “regression discontinuity” model.

Based on this approach, the authors arrive at two main findings: First, placement in a GHA class boosts the reading and math scores of high-achieving black and Hispanic students by roughly half of one standard deviation, but has no impact on white students. Second, creating a new GHA class has no impact on the achievement of other students at a school, including those who just miss the cutoff for admission. Importantly, the benefits of GHA admission seem to be driven by race as opposed to socioeconomic status. They are also slightly larger for minority...

Way back in the early days of the accountability movement, Jeb Bush’s Florida developed an innovative approach to evaluating school quality. First, the state looked at individual student progress over time—making it one of the first to do so. Then it put special emphasis on the gains (or lack thereof) of the lowest-performing kids in the state.

Many of us were fans of this approach, including the focus on low-achievers. It was an elegant way to highlight the performance of the children who were most at risk of being “left behind,” without resorting to an explicitly race-based approach like No Child Left Behind’s.

Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners recently interviewed one of the designers of the Florida system, Christy Hovanetz, who elaborates:

By focusing on the lowest-performing students, we want to create a system that truly focuses on students who need the most help and is equitable across all schools. We strongly support the focus on the lowest-performing students, no matter what group they come from.

That does a number of things. It reduces the number of components…within the accountability system and places the focus on students who truly need the most help….It also reduces the need for...

M. René Islas and Keri Guilbault, Ed.D.

A recent report showing low levels of participation by black, Hispanic, and low-income students in the gifted and talented programs of Montgomery County underscores the significant challenges before our nation in the pursuit of equity in excellence.

Montgomery County school officials should be applauded for commissioning the study and for announcing plans to hold community meetings to discuss the findings later this spring. But ultimately, meaningful reforms will require actions, not words. This is particularly true of changes to the practices and policies serving gifted students from historically underrepresented populations.

The report highlights the need for families to be fully aware of the existence of gifted education programs and the ways their children can be identified for participation. Gifted identification would ideally begin early in a student’s career to allow for planning and early intervention. This requires a change in attitude; chiefly, it demands that we drive a stake through the dangerous fallacy that gifted students don’t exist in disadvantaged or diverse populations.

County school officials must also ensure that multiple criteria are used to identify students as gifted and that universal screening procedures are in place. These practices do not water down the talent pool. Instead, they aim to...

Dina Brulles, Ph.D.

The goal of gifted programs should reflect that of any other educational program: to engage students with appropriately challenging curricula and instruction on a daily basis and in all relevant content areas so that they can make continual academic growth.

Over the past several years, the Paradise Valley (AZ) Unified School District has continued to expand gifted services in response to identified need. The district provides a continuum of services designed for the specific learning needs of gifted students from preschool through high school.

With a student population that is 30 percent Hispanic and 37 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, Paradise Valley uses a multifaceted identification process and embeds a gifted specialist in each of the district’s elementary schools to train teachers and staff to recognize high potential. The result: 32 percent of the district’s gifted population is non-white, a doubling of this portion since 2007.

Strong gifted programs take time to develop and will change over time. Developing sustainable services requires that we continually modify our programs to respond to many factors. Educational trends, district initiatives, state policies, shifting student demographics and staffing all can significantly influence how programs develop and evolve. Embedding gifted services into what...

M. René Islas

Last fall, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a working paper by researchers Thomas S. Dee and Hans Henrik Sieversten titled The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health. The well-developed study quantifies the effects of predicating enrollment in formal schooling on the mental health of students. However, parents, educators, and policy makers must be careful not to over-apply these findings for children with extraordinary gifts and talents.

Dee and Sieversten use robust data and a sound statistical methodology to demonstrate that delaying entry into kindergarten results in better mental health among students in later years, particularly when it comes to self-regulation. The researchers note that improved self-regulation may serve as a leading indicator for future academic success. While this is a potentially valuable finding, we must take heed of the numerous caveats and limitations of the study. It is particularly important to be cautious when making real decisions for individual children.

The intellectual foundations for the study come from Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC) data. The study is therefore more indicative of Danish social and educational environments. While the DNBC provides a robust trove of information, the special characteristics of the Danish setting may not...

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