It is difficult to come to terms with the title of a new book by respected colleagues Chester E. Finn and Brandon Wright: Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students. Can we, as talent development advocates and educators, really be working this hard, only to fail?
According to recent research, yes. And according to Finn and Wright’s analysis of the data, the problems are pervasive and systemic. Not only are we producing fewer high achievers than other comparable countries, we are doing an abysmal job serving disadvantaged students – the ones who need our help the most, given the barriers they face.
Across the country, bright kids are floundering in an educational system that doesn’t acknowledge their needs or support their development. Solutions require education policy change.
The facts can prompt us either to throw in the towel or buckle down to meet the challenges before us.
Here at CTD, we’re facing the problem head on. It’s time to practice the grit that we want our children to embrace. Luckily, Finn and Wright have paved the way with a book that encourages optimism and activism – tools for change.
In this issue of Talent, we present highlights from Finn’s book and talk with him about his vision for how Talent readers can respond to it.
We also talk with leaders at two schools with very different student populations and discuss their strides in identifying and nurturing high-ability students. As sobering as the statistics are, good things are happening. Let’s both celebrate and learn from them.
One thing is clear. We cannot solve the problems alone. Entire school systems cannot do this alone. We need parents and educators from every ethnicity and at every income level to stand together and make their voices heard. That is the only way to influence policy makers to create change.
For some of you, this problem may not hit close to home. You are pouring energy and funds into your kids’ education and enrichment, and they are thriving. Think, though, about your neighbor who isn’t able to do those things. Wouldn’t life be easier for both of you if our education system was set up to foster growth at all ability levels?
Now is the time for change. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed by President Obama on December 10, has provisions that support high-ability learners. But, the law is not enough. We must work together, demonstrate motivation and commitment, and work toward talent development for all.
Glancing through the first chapters of Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, by Chester E. Finn and Brandon Wright, we learn some startling statistics:
Center for Talent Development (CTD) talked with Finn about his book, and he admits his findings paint a bleak picture.
“The domestic data make clear that we have very few kids achieving at a high level, and most of those doing so are relatively privileged kids,” Finn says. “The international data make clear that many other countries have a lot more kids achieving at a high level, and…they’ve got better representation of disadvantaged kids among their high achievers than we do,” Finn says.
“Moreover, our trend lines are fundamentally flat, while a fair number of other countries have trend lines pointing upward or ratios that are getting better,” he adds. His conclusion? “We’re not good, and we’re not gaining.”
While the data may be depressing in a vacuum, it is generating positive momentum. As he states in his book, Finn believes that “while we ought to be embarrassed, even angry with ourselves, over the superior performance of other countries on many of the metrics that we’ve been examining, we ought not be intimidated.”
Finn’s research has spawned great conversations and a sense of urgency around how to identify and nurture high-ability students. NPR is writing about it. Congress is debating it, and Center for Talent Development (CTD) is addressing it, as well.
The overarching goal is broad-scale policy change.
No matter how much individual good a single teacher, talent development program, or school system fosters, the overall student population – and our economic well-being – will continue to suffer without sweeping changes to our education system as a whole.
Failing Our Brightest Kids is, at its core, a call to action. “Attention is being brought to this issue after a long period of serious neglect,” Finn says. “The time is right for people to make some noise.”
“Above all, what this issue needs is coherent, focused, articulate advocates,” Finn adds. Even better would be for those advocates to be as diverse as we want our high achievers to be. “We need low-income and minority parents saying, ‘Our kids are getting jipped.’”
In their final chapter, Finn and Wright detail the “Moves America Should Make” – 10 policy recommendations they believe would improve education for high-ability students and increase the percentage of disadvantaged students among them.
“The two [recommendations] I’m most bullish about,” says Finn, “are universal screening and some form of separate education.”
Universal screening identifies kids who will benefit from acceleration, supplementation, or other kinds of academic opportunities beyond the regular expectations of their grade level.
“There is persuasive domestic research about universal screening producing a more equitable balance of high-ability students,” Finn says. He suggests targeting the top 5-10% of highest scorers on third grade reading and math tests in each school for special support and services.
Identifying students by school ensures the diversity that targeting the top performers in each state would not.
Once high-ability students are identified, systems need to be in place to support them. This is where separate education comes into play. Gifted schools, accelerated programs within a school, and pullout programs are all effective strategies for moving these students forward.
Finn also recommends differentiation, though he is careful to note the difference between his recommendation and the differentiation typically practiced by schools. “There’s a distinction between differentiation in a single, heterogeneous classroom with a single teacher and letting kids move forward at their own speed,” he says.
“It’s absurd to charge each of our almost four million teachers with responsibility for educating a wide spectrum of achievement and ability in the same room at the same time,” Finn says. “Unless they have a surprisingly narrow spectrum of achievement and ability in their classroom, it forces teachers to teach to the middle. If they have any extra energy, they teach to the kids below the middle because that’s where all the policy pressure has been.”
Instead, Finn says, “The ideal is to let kids progress through the K-12 system as fast as each kid can successfully do so.”
“This is a big public policy challenge facing our country,” Finn says. “It’s a human capital challenge, an equity challenge, and a social mobility challenge. If we all care enough to make some noise and highlight the public good that [educating high-ability students well] could do for society, I think we’d have a possibility of making a difference.”
If you are interested in helping our nation become more competitive in this global society and ensuring that all students – including high-ability students – are appropriately challenged and nurtured toward growth, please consider committing to one or more of the following action items.
Every thing you do, large or small, matters.
Inner city schools experience unique challenges, but there are still great opportunities. Center for Talent Development (CTD) talked with Michael Lane, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of one such school, Galapagos Charter School (Chicago campus), where 96% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 100% of the population is African American or Latino. In the interview that follows, Lane shares his perspectives on today’s education trends, initiatives that have been successful for Galapagos, and the benefits produced by offering to all children opportunities too often reserved for a privileged few.
There are no teachers and students at Galapagos; instead, you have “instructors” and “scholars.” Why?
When we started, we were trying to break the mold. The nomenclature of the traditional system oftentimes brings certain stereotypes. While some can be positive, some of them over the years have been negative. We wanted to start with a clean slate. Renaming the positions helped us to achieve that. Calling students scholars invokes a sense of lifelong learning and learning for the sake of more than just compliance and material gain, but for the intellectual pursuit of learning.
What percentage of your scholars are high achievers?
The higher performing scholars are close to 10 to 15% of our population, if we define it as those who traditionally score between the 85th to 95th percentile on nationally normed testing.
Why, in your mind, are students from minority populations and low-income families so underrepresented among the top achievers in our country?
As a nation, we do an extremely poor job of educating our higher performing children. Even if you take our top performing students, they would not be the top performers internationally. One reason is that, in our public school system, for better or for worse, we try to be very egalitarian. Providing equal access is a hurdle for programs that push for a higher level of intellectualism.
I also think we have done a poor job of identifying the talent we have in the inner city. Even when we do identify, we don’t develop those students. We lose a lot of children. Students aren’t intellectually challenged, so they look for opportunities elsewhere to be challenged.
What classroom challenges do you face trying to change these trends?
The reality is that it is extremely difficult for an instructor to work with 25 or 30 children who come from a variety of academic backgrounds and try to meet all their needs at once. Differentiation is great in theory, but it doesn’t always work out in practice. It’s a difficult skill to be able to teach to a whole group, identify sub-groups and then effectively instruct the sub-groups. We have a vision, but it’s a challenge to bring it to fruition.
How have you been making strides at Galapagos? What’s working?
Ultimately, you have to individualize instruction. We do that through small class sizes and having structures in place for instructors to work with scholars in small groups.
One of our most successful efforts has been a program we call G-Corps. This program is designed for our middle school scholars (grades 5 – 8) and focuses primarily on mathematics. All the children have traditional math and English/Language Arts classes, and then they also benefit from time spent with G-Corps Fellows, who are top college graduates dedicated to working with scholars exclusively on mathematics. For an hour a day, every scholar in those grade levels receives small-group instruction in a setting that ranges from a one-to-one to a one-to-four grouping.
G-Corps is unique. It’s allowed us to provide individualized tutoring to each of our scholars at no cost to parents and built into the school day. Both our lower-performing and higher-performing scholars are all being serviced, so no one feels pulled out. They go to a large room with small groups and no sense of being separated or ostracized. This model has fostered tremendous growth in all our scholars.
How do you support instructors in the difficult task of differentiation?
We are very proud of our professional development. Before the school year even begins, we spend three and a half weeks on professional development with our instructors. Also, we’ve built into our school week approximately two hours every Friday for professional development. It doesn’t always go toward differentiation, but it does allow us to spend a lot more time on that topic than we would in a traditional system.
We’ve also set up a system in which all our instructors are observed and coached weekly by one of the directors. Finally, we regularly hold data meetings with the entire instructional staff where we look at our data on a macro, school-wide level and then drill into the data on classroom and individual levels. During those data and coaching meetings, differentiation is at the forefront of the discussions.
You’ve also partnered with CTD for a number of years. How is that relationship helping you meet students’ needs?
When we discovered CTD six or seven years ago, we were focused on our struggling scholars and not concentrating as much on our scholars performing at higher levels. We initiated a relationship with CTD’s Summer Program to ensure that our scholars are exposed and have access to intellectually stimulating material and instruction during a period of time when children from the inner city typically don’t have much to do.
We also thought it was a wonderful thing, especially for the older children, that the Summer Program was nestled within the Northwestern University campus. Children who live on the West side of Chicago rarely get a chance even to drive by a college campus. To spend two to three weeks living in a college dorm, eating in a college cafeteria, and being around other children excited by the programming and subject matter – whether it is robotics or Shakespeare – greatly expands their horizons. They meet other children who may or may not look like them, but with whom they share commonalities. That can make a big difference in their lives, paving the way for higher achievement and making college enrollment and graduation a more desired and achievable goal.
How does a school district respond when a group of parents approach the principal and raise the questions, “How are we serving gifted and talented students? How can we improve?”
That’s what happened in Lake Bluff School District 65, in Lake Bluff, Illinois, serving just fewer than 1,000 students in preschool through grade 8, a few years ago. It was Dr. Kevin Rubenstein’s third day on the job as director of student services, technology, and assessment, and it set the stage for a good portion of his work over the next few years.
The request was not a shock to the school district; the goal of improving service to high-performing students was one of the reasons Rubenstein had been hired. With the leadership team of Rubenstein, Kellie Bae, curriculum coordinator and teacher leader, and the principals of the elementary and middle schools, Lake Bluff School District 65 has focused on meeting the needs of high achieving students through focused partnerships and parent engagement.
While Bae and Rubenstein acknowledge being in a well-resourced district, they assert that intentional, strategic planning has been the real key to success. “We’ve made talent development a priority in our staffing and professional development, and that has made all the difference,” Rubenstein says.
Here are some steps Lake Bluff has taken to focus on the needs of their high-performing students. Perhaps one or more of these tactics could help your school, too?
Lake Bluff employed Eric Calvert, of Center for Talent Development, to conduct an external audit. This resulted in Building a Foundation for a Continuum of Services for Gifted Students: Formative Assessment Report.
Test data showed that Lake Bluff students outscored students from other schools with similar poverty levels and affirmed that the curriculum was already rigorous and well aligned with “college ready” standards. While Lake Bluff was meeting many students’ needs, findings showed they needed to do more to service “outliers,” or the most highly advanced students. The audit provided specific recommendations for structures, support systems, policies, and professional development that would ensure adequate enrichment across all ability levels.
Lake Bluff has a goal of maximizing the academic achievement and personal growth of each student. To do that effectively, the district uses above-grade-level testing to measure its highest-achieving students’ abilities and growth. “We have formed a very nice partnership with Center for Talent Development to accomplish this,” says Rubenstein.
To qualify for the above-level testing, offered by Northwestern University Midwest Academic Talent Search and paid for by the Lake Bluff school district, students must score above the 90th percentile in both reading and math on a nationally-normed test. Keeping standards high for taking the test is important, according to Bae. “We want students to have a positive experience with the testing – not frustration halfway through because they weren’t ready for it,” Bae says.
Rubenstein adds that the district is committed to its vision of supporting each student, and they are constantly seeking opportunities for more enrichment because of it. “As we continue to raise the bar,” says Rubenstein, “students continue to surpass our expectations.”
As a result of off-level testing, Lake Bluff decided to offer even more classroom support for their “outliers” – the most highly advanced students. Grouping by ability for small group math instruction was the answer.
This was easy to do using existing teachers for students in most grades throughout the school, but it proved a challenge for students in grade 5 because the older students, with whom they would be matched according to ability, are housed in a different building. Lake Bluff opted to ask their Math Enrichment Specialist to work with four outstanding math students in grade 5 so they could access grade 6 content.
Bae, who works in the office where the group meets, says she has witnessed a lot of growth. “They are working with like-minded peers, and they’re guided by a teacher who isn’t satisfied with their use of ‘go-to’ strategies like ‘guess and check,” Bae says. “They are being challenged, and they’re learning to take risks.”
Another ‘win’ for Lake Bluff has been the creation of a differentiation book club to support teachers in meeting the needs of all students – high achievers, included. Currently, Lake Bluff teachers are reading one of three books:
Bae says the book club has been a great conduit for information sharing. “Regularly, we assign readings and then host building-level meetings to discuss ideas, share information, and problem-solve,” she explains.
After seeing how well instructional coaching benefited a summer academy that Lake Bluff hosted for students needing a math boost, Lake Bluff incorporated it as a professional development strategy throughout the school.
“We know good things are happening in our classrooms,” says Rubenstein. “This studio model allows teachers to observe each other and see what outstanding differentiation looks like.”
Bae adds that it’s important to communicate the strategy as a value-add for teachers, not as remediation. “Even the most talented people in the world have coaches helping them get a little bit better every day,” she says. “That’s what we want for our teachers, as well.”
Taking advantage of parents’ concern for advanced students, Lake Bluff formed Parents Interested in Enrichment, a group that meets regularly throughout the school year. Meeting minutes are posted on the Enrichment Resources section of the Lake Bluff website, and the group has started a blog, as well. “This communication is an essential part of what was missing in our approach to enrichment,” Rubenstein says.
Bae adds, “We offer morning and evening meetings throughout the year to enable more parents to attend, and we use a variety of methods and activities to keep the meetings informative and fun.” At a recent meeting, for instance, parents discussed an article in Parenting for High Potential, completed a Venn Diagram exercise on their child’s interests and strengths, and received an activity sheet helping them to generate more detailed answers to the question, “How was school today?”
“Parents were not just part of the impetus for our enrichment emphasis,” says Rubenstein, “they are needed for our ongoing strategic planning work, too.”