The World Council Moves to Kentucky USA

The latest in my ‘Behind the Gifted News’ series of shorter Blogposts reviews the news of the imminent relocation of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children (WCGTC) to the Center for Gifted Studies, University of Western Kentucky, USA.

The full post can be found here.


November 2011

More on STEM and Gifted High Achievers in England

I have been researching the relationship between STEM and gifted education in Ireland, Australia and elsewhere, with a view to comparing and contrasting their approaches to those in England, the US and the ASEAN States, all three of which have been reviewed in previous posts.

But a new publication has led me to revisit the English situation, just ahead of the publication of a new Schools White Paper which is likely to set out Government plans for the future development of school-based STEM education here.

In that context, I also want to take a closer look at the impact of investment in STEM education on achievement, specifically high achievement in the core STEM subjects in GCSE and A level examinations, which are taken predominantly in Year 11 (age 16) and Year 13 (age 18) respectively.

Regular readers will know my premiss that the English STEM programme has been too little focussed to date on the highest achievers – the gifted and talented – and that this strategy will undermine efforts to strengthen our international competitiveness.

There is a risk that England is falling into the same trap as the US, whose situation is illustrated starkly in the recent Hanushek study of high level maths achievement relative to other competing countries, as reviewed in my last post.

Educating the Next Generation of Scientists

The new publication in question is ‘Educating the Next Generation of Scientists‘ published in November 2010 by the National Audit Office.

The NAO is a public body independent of Government which employs some 900 staff to scrutinise public expenditure on behalf of Parliament. The Head of the NAO is known as the Comptroller and Auditor General, and he has a statutory responsibility to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which Government departments have deployed their resources.

The purpose of this Report is to:

‘evaluate progress by the Department for Education in increasing take-up and achievement in maths and science up to age 18 and the extent to which specific programmes to raise the quality of school science facilities, recruit and retain science and maths teachers, and improve the appeal of science to young people have contributed to any increase’.

This describes the schools dimension of England’s national STEM programme, the development of which was traced in my earlier post.

The Report notes that, net of the enormous costs of teaching STEM subjects in schools, the Government has spent around £100 million annually on STEM support, almost half of it within the Department for Education’s budget. So this is a sizeable programme by English standards.

Progress on improving achievement and take-up

In my view, the analysis of take-up and achievement in the Report is partial and rather cursory. Although it traces the development of the national STEM strategy through the various documents summarised in my earlier post, the Report fails to pick up any emphasis on our highest achievers at age 16, relying exclusively on the standard achievement benchmark of GCSE grade C and above.

This is despite noting in passing the emphasis within the Science and Investment Framework 2004-14 on the achievement of A*-B grades (which is in itself insufficiently demanding but is nevertheless a move in the right direction).

The analysis of A level achievement (our main post-16 qualification and the gateway to university entry) is slightly more relevant, since it concentrates on the achievement of grades A-C , so lower grade A level passes are excluded. But that benchmark is still pitched too low in my view.

We learn that:

  • Take-up of the separate sciences – primarily physics, chemistry and biology – increased by almost 150% between 2004-05 and 2009-10. (Promoting study of separate sciences at GCSE has been a core focus of the programme because of evidence that this tends to correlate with greater success at A level and in undergraduate study.)
  • There are ‘generally rising trends in GCSE achievement in maths and the separate sciences over the period, against the standard A*-C grade benchmark. For example, 55% of students achieved grade C or above in maths in 2004-05, increasing to 65% in 2009-10. (I am not sure how these figures are derived since the dataset I have seen gives as 58.4% the percentage achieving GCSE maths at A*-C in 2010.) In the separate subjects of physics, chemistry and biology, the percentage achieving C and above has increased from 90/91% to 94% over the same period (these figures are broadly in line with my dataset).
  • Take-up has increased at A level, markedly so in maths and more steadily in biology and chemistry. However, entries for A level physics have only increased very slightly. While the other subjects are on target to achieve the targets set for 2014, physics is at grave risk of undershooting.
  • In terms of A level achievement at grades A-C (there is no reference to the introduction of the A* grade in 2010) there have been steady increases since 2001-02, of 11% in biology, 8% in maths, 8% in physics and 7% in chemistry. In all cases, at least 72% of A level entries in these subjects are awarded a C grade or above, with maths reaching 82%.

But are these the right benchmarks?

My previous posts have sought to demonstrate the important relationship between success in STEM education and the performance of a country’s gifted high achievers in STEM subjects. Those Asian countries that achieve most highly in maths and science in PISA and other international comparisons studies were aware of this from the beginning – and recent publications should begin to raise awareness in the US. Even Finland now acknowledges the need to provide extra challenge and support for its gifted learners.

Given this context, I do not believe that achieving a C grade or above at GCSE can be the right benchmark for a national STEM programme. In physics, chemistry and biology, this benchmark is now almost in reach of 100% of those entered for the examinations!

Surely the STEM programme must be focused significantly on those who progress to A level and on to a degree – the so called ‘STEM pipeline’ – but we all know that a GCSE grade C is inadequate preparation for achieving a C grade or above at A level – the benchmark monitored in the NAO report – and that a C grade at A level is itself no longer sufficient to secure a place on most STEM-related first degree courses.

This report illustrates the correlation between GCSE grades and A level grades in different subjects. To take an example, we can see that over 50% of those achieving a C grade in maths GCSE went on to achieve a U (ungraded) in A level maths and only 11% achieved grades A-C. In physics, chemistry and biology, only 14-16% of those with a C grade at GCSE went on to achieve at least a C grade at A level while 32-36% were Ungraded.

My earlier posts have shown that the international comparisons studies are considering a much higher level of high achiever, though admittedly as part of a holistic focus on science and maths achievement.

We have seen that the advanced level in PISA 2006 was achieved by just 9.0% of UK 15 year-olds in maths and only 5.7% in science. The countries that top these comparative studies are getting 28% of mathematicians to the advanced standard in maths and 8% to the advanced standard in science. Even though the UK performs relatively well in science – much less so in maths – there is still a lot of ground to catch up on some of our main international competitors.

Given that a GCSE grade of C or above can be achieved by well over 90% of our students in the sciences, one can see just how irrelevant such a benchmark has become. Almost half of all entries to the separate science GCSEs now achieve an A*/A (16% in maths) which suggests that even a focus on that subset of high achievers would be significantly out of kilter with the PISA benchmark for advanced performance. However, it would be much better than grades A*-C.

Time series data on the performance of our highest achievers

In my earlier post, I looked at the change in GCSE performance at A*/A grades between 2009 and 2010, pointing out that top grade GCSE performance in maths and the sciences is behind the trend in all GCSE subjects and behind the trend in A*-C performance in each of the four subjects.

I have now reviewed changes in GCSE performance at A*/A grades in STEM subjects since 2005 and changes in A level performance at A*/A grades (remember that an A* grade was only introduced in 2010) in STEM subjects, also since 2005.

The data shows that:

  • Between 2005-2010 achievement of A*-C grades in all GCSE subjects has increased by 7.9%, whereas achievement of A*/A grades has increased by only 4.2%. This suggests that schools are guilty of concentrating over-much on helping students achieve a C grade rather than challenging and supporting all learners to improve.
  • In maths, physics, chemistry and biology, the rate of improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades significantly undershoots the rate of improvement in those achieving A*-C grades: STEM subjects are not exempt from the generic criticism above;
  • In maths, physics, chemistry and biology, the improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades is significantly lower than the improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades in all subjects. So, despite the STEM programme, the highest achievers are relatively more underserved in STEM subjects.
  • Between 2005-2010 achievement of A*-C grades in all A level subjects has increased by 5.5%, whereas achievement of A*/A grades has increased by only 4.2%. Although in post-16 settings the needs of the highest achievers are relatively well catered for, they are still not improving at the same rate.
  • In further maths and biology, the rate of improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades significantly undershoots the rate of improvement in those achieving A*-C grades; there is a slight undershoot in physics, broad parity in maths and a significant overshoot in favour of A*/A in chemistry. It would be interesting to research what has happened in chemistry and seek to replicate that in the other subjects.
  • In maths and further maths, the improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades is lower than the improvement in the percentage achieving A*/A grades in all subjects (very significantly so in the case of further maths), whereas there is broad parity in the case of physics, while chemistry and biology are running ahead of the improvement for all subjects.

In short, although the evidence at A level is much more mixed, the GCSE evidence demonstrates unambiguously that we are not investing enough of our effort in the education of our highest achievers in STEM subjects.

This is likely to be reflected in PISA 2009 and, given that other countries clearly are investing in their highest achievers, we can expect to drop significantly down the tables marking out the countries with the highest proportion of their students achieving the advanced level.

It is also worth noting that these results include independent schools as well as state schools, and that the highest achievers are to be found disproportionately in the independent sector. I do not have access to the statistics for state-maintained schools only, but they are highly likely to tell an even more worrying story.

And the same point applies in spades to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in state schools. There is an urgent need to respond to the excellence gap in STEM-related achievement as part of the wider effort to concentrate on high achievers.

Other key findings in the NAO report

The Report identifies five stated and one hidden ‘critical success factors’ in improving take-up and achievement in STEM subjects, reporting progress against each:

  • Careers information and guidance has been patchy and requires improvement. More general efforts already under way to strengthen the scope and quality of information, advice and guidance in schools will hopefully begin to address this issue;
  • The quality and quantity of school science facilities. There is limited data but what is available suggests that progress has been relatively slow. The Report does not say so but the abolition of BSF, the previous Government’s colossal capital building programme, is unlikely to speed up progress;
  • The quality and quantity of science and maths teachers. Targets for increasing the numbers of specialist chemistry teachers will be met, but those for increasing the numbers of specialists in maths and physics will not. This situation may be eased by the recession. The Report does not recognise that the case for focusing on the achievement of higher GCSE and A level grades is of course strengthened by the need to increase the supply of high quality specialist teachers: a C grade at GCSE or at A level is not really sufficient;
  • Young people’s attitudes towards science and maths. The Report uses TIMSS and PISA data to show that, although the UK generally compares favourably with other countries on these measures, it has lost some ground in recent years. (It is strange that the Report makes use of the international comparative data on these ‘soft’ measures but not in its analysis of improvements in achievement.)
  • Availability of GCSE Triple Science – ie the separate subjects of physics, chemistry and biology. The Report notes that take-up has increased by almost 150% in the past five years, but almost half of secondary schools do not yet offer triple science and it is less widely available in areas of higher deprivation, thus creating an obstacle to narrowing the excellence gap.

The hidden critical factor is school specialism. The Report says that:

‘Schools with a specialism in science, technology, engineering or maths and computing are effective in bringing together the programmes and resources that support good take-up and achievement in science and maths.’

Regression Analysis

The Report uses regression analysis to isolate interventions associated with statistically significant increases in numbers achieving A*-C grades at GCSE in the sciences, concluding that STEM specialist schools account for almost all of the increase attributable to interventions per se (though enrichment activities, the role of STEM Ambassadors and professional development support through the National Science Learning Centres also register positive effects). Similar results are derived when A level achievement is examined.

This may be deliberately underplayed given the Government’s recent decision to dismantle the specialist schools programme, devolving the funding direct to schools and leaving them to decide whether to continue spending it on their identified specialisms. One can only conclude that such a change could have potentially dire consequences for the national STEM programme unless an alternative system is created.

However, it is important to keep this in proportion: the Report notes that well over 90% of the cause of increased intake and higher performance is attributable to other external factors such as pupil intake.

It would be interesting and worthwhile to run the same regression analysis to isolate impact of these different activities on achievement at A*/A grades at GCSE and A Level.

The Report confirms that there has been some progress in securing coherence across a wide range of small-scale programmes (over 470 separate initiatives were under way in 2004) but adds that the newly-rationalised set of interventions could be further rationalised and provided to schools in a more systematic way.

Regression analysis demonstrates a positive association between higher take-up and achievement and the number of programmes under way in any school, although diminishing returns can set in if schools undertake large numbers of activities with similar objectives. There is currently considerable regional and local authority variation in the take-up of different activities and the ‘offer’ has not yet reached all state secondary schools.


The overall conclusion is that:

‘Increased take-up and achievement in school science and maths is, as this report shows, dependent on a number of key factors. These need to be brought together in coherent pathways to maximise successful results and efficient use of public resources in pursuit of this objective. The Department has made progress in doing so, for example by rationalizing the previous plethora of initiatives within a national programme. However, gaps and inconsistencies in availability and uptake remain, creating a shortfall in value for money which the Department could and should address in developing its future programme for science and maths in schools.’

And the Report recommends that, in taking forward the policy priorities of the new Government, the Department for Education should:

‘develop an overarching programme with a clear logic, based on evidence of cause and effect. The programme should provide a framework with clear priorities, a well-defined critical path and appropriate measures of progress. It should provide a basis for engaging with local authorities, schools and colleges on the actions required in the following key areas:

    • a systematic approach which gives assurance that there will be sufficient teachers with a specialism in maths, chemistry or physics;
    • more even take-up of continuous professional development opportunities for teachers, particularly in local authority areas where fewer schools are currently using Science Learning Centres;
    • a realistic assessment of what progress can be made to bring school laboratories up to a good or excellent standard, since the previous target was neither informed by robust data nor achieved within the specified timeframe;
    • actions at local level to give all young people access to a curriculum that includes the study of separate sciences; and a school or college that performs well in science and maths, whether through a relevant specialism or by other effective means; [my emphasis]
    • further development of the analysis presented in this report with a view to: evaluating more coherently and consistently the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of individual programmes in increasing take-up and achievement; and providing information on local use of programmes to support reviews of whether take-up is sufficient and appropriate.’

One can reasonably expect that the plans set out in the imminent White Paper will reflect those recommendations.

It remains to be seen whether the need to target more support on our highest achievers is also addressed. If it is not, then analysis of the PISA 2009 results published just two weeks later will almost certainly help to make the case.


November 2011

On International Comparisons of the Performance of Gifted High Achievers

This post considers how PISA and other international comparisons data can help to make the case for national investment in gifted and talented (G&T) education.

It is timed to anticipate the PISA 2009 results for reading, maths and science, to be published on 7 December 2010. It incorporates a review of a new report from Hanushek, Peters and Woessman on ‘US Math Performance in Global Perspective’ which draws on data from the 2006 PISA round.

The publication of PISA data is now a major international event. If previous rounds are anything to go by, PISA 2009 will generate exceptionally heavy media interest around the world.

In those countries where performance improves, there will be much backslapping and self-congratulation. Relatively new governments will claim the responsibility, conveniently disregarding the significant contribution made by their predecessors.

But if improvement has been modest, there is every chance that one’s international competitors have improved at a faster rate. In those countries where performance declines, relative to other countries or relative to the country’s own performance in the 2006 round, relatively new governments will be shifting the blame onto their predecessors – and will nevertheless remain under considerable pressure to announce major new programmes to reverse their negative trend.

High achievement in PISA 2009

The PISA 2009 Assessment Framework sets out in exhaustive detail the nature of the exercise. It confirms the inclusion of an updated assessment of reading literacy and unchanged assessments of maths and science, all undertaken at age 15. For reading literacy there are five levels of proficiency; for maths and science there are six levels.

The level 6 descriptor for maths says:

‘At Level 6 students can conceptualise, generalise, and utilise information based on their investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and flexibly translate among them. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply this insight and understandings along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations. Students at this level can formulate and precisely communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings , interpretations , arguments, and the appropriateness of these to the original situations.’

The level 6 descriptor for science is as follows:

‘At Level 6, students can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.’

Comparative data about the performance of the highest achievers in different countries can potentially tell us a lot about the effectiveness of their education systems in providing challenge and support to their G&T learners.

One can also analyse the composition of the high achieving cohort in each of the three fields – by gender, ethnic and socio-economic background – to draw inferences about the relationship between equity and overall achievement. There is evidence from previous rounds to suggest that high equity systems tend to secure larger percentages of high achievers, a critical point that both the US and the UK need to take on board (and on which I commented briefly in this earlier post).

High achievement in England and the USA

Readers with good memories will also recall that I drew on the comparative data about students achieving the highest PISA benchmarks, in addition to data drawn from the TIMSS and PIRLS studies, when analysing the ‘excellence gap’ in England.

My overall conclusion was that:

‘…the UK/England is above average in educating its high achievers and not atypical in terms of its excellence gap, but… lags far behind the world leaders – typically the knowledge-based economies that invest most heavily in gifted education.’

It will be fascinating to see whether or not the new PISA data will reinforce this conclusion – and whether it will support similar analyses of the performance of high achievers in the US.

One such analysis – the aforementioned study by Hanushek et al – has just been published. It met with relatively little attention in the G&T community, preoccupied as it was with the impending NAGC Annual Convention in Atlanta. but it reinforces powerfully the messages only recently conveyed by the National Science Board in its Report ‘Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators’ which I summarised in this post and which were prominent at the Convention.

The authors begin by noting the US Federal Government’s commitment to STEM education. While noting that the emphasis has been placed on supporting more disadvantaged students to achieve basic achievement levels, they cite the conclusion from their own earlier studies that:

‘countries with students who perform at higher levels in math and science show larger rates of increase in economic productivity than do otherwise similar countries with lower-performing students…In short, the U.S. cannot afford to neglect high performers in our quest to bring up the bottom. Performance at the top end is no less important, and improvements at both ends reinforce each other, helping to accelerate the growth in productivity of the nation’s economy.’

They choose to concentrate on maths, rather than science or reading, because their own earlier studies show that maths achievement is particularly significant to a country’s national economic competitiveness – and because there is relatively greater international consensus over the content of the maths curriculum and the order in which concepts are introduced.

They have devised a methodology to review the performance of high-achieving maths students in each US state and in 10 selected urban districts compared with the 50+ countries engaged in the PISA 2006 maths study. This involves linking performance of high achievers on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) assessment of Grade 8 maths in 2005 and high achievers on the PISA assessment of maths (Grade 9) a year later in 2006.

In the 2005 NAEP assessment, 6.04% of 8th Grade students achieved the advanced level (NAEP assesses performance at three levels – basic, proficient and advanced). Hanushek et al use PISA 2006 data to estimate the percentage of students from other countries who would have achieved the advanced level had they taken NAEP 2005, by calculating the PISA score that secures the equivalent performance level.

I am not equipped to judge whether this methodology stands up to rigorous scrutiny. This note from the US National Center for Education Statistics would suggest that there are some significant comparability issues between PISA and NAEP which Hanushek et al do not address and which might be sufficient to call their findings into question. I leave others who are better qualified to judge.

The results

Let us for the time being give them the benefit of the doubt, for their findings ought to be seriously worrying for US educators and the US Government:

  • Overall, 30 of the 56 countries undertaking PISA 2006 secured a higher percentage of advanced students than the US. Taiwan topped the table, with 28% of students achieving this level. Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland followed. Fifteen countries achieved more than twice the US figure; the other 15 include the UK (23rd);
  • 18 states exceed the US average. Massachusetts and Minnesota are some way ahead of the rest – their performance would lift them into the top twenty countries and so they would out-perform the UK. The lowest-ranked states – Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia and Louisiana – are out-performed by countries such as Serbia and Uruguay. Results for many states are equivalent to those of developing countries;
  • The research also isolates the achievement of white US students and those whose parents have a college degree, so as to test the hypothesis that the poor US showing is attributable to underachievement amongst minority ethnic students and households with lower levels of parental support. But the percentage of high achieving students from all backgrounds exceeds the US figure for white students in 24 countries (including the UK) and 16 countries exceed the US figure for those with a degree-holding parent (although the UK is not one of them). So even when selecting a favoured sub-group from the overall population of high achievers, the comparison is unfavourable to the US;
  • Thirteen states exceed the US average in respect of white students, with Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey leading the field. In the case of students with a degree-holding parent, fifteen states exceed the US average, and Massachusetts and Minnesota lead the way. Mississippi brings up the rear in both cases: the percentage of advanced achievers from college educated families in that state is equivalent to the percentage of high achievers from all backgrounds in Uruguay and Bulgaria;
  • Performance in selective urban districts ranges from Austin and Charlotte – which are broadly comparable with the UK – to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington DC. The latter are also outperformed by Bulgaria and Uruguay, but just outscore Chile, Thailand, Romania, Brazil and Mexico.

An annex to the report contains a briefer analysis for science and reading performance, though the authors attach significant health warnings and will only say that the US is outperformed by many countries on these assessments too, although the difference is not so pronounced as in maths.

In relation to science, some of their concerns about comparability and statistical error rather call into question any self-congratulation in the UK about achieving the 3rd best score on this measure, outscoring the US significantly but being outscored in turn by Massachusetts as the leading US state, as well as Finland and New Zealand . The lowest performing state on this measure is Hawaii, which scores alongside Greece and Portugal.

In relation to reading, they can only approximate the statistical comparison summarised above ‘because PISA was maladministered within the US in 2006, no PISA results are reported for that year’. However, on this measure, the US and UK score very similarly, both outscored by 14 countries. Massachusetts comfortably exceeds them both, scoring on a par with Finland, which sits just behind Korea and New Zealand. New Mexico and Oklahoma are the poorest-performing states, sandwiched between Chile and Latvia respectively.

Why are there so few high achievers in the US?

Hanushek et al are rather coy about causation, but they provide data to show that over-concentration on basic performance levels as a consequence of the No Child Left Behind legislation is not to blame: the percentage performing at advanced level has increased noticeably over the period in question.

Indeed, whereas the percentage stood at 6.04% in 2005, it had risen to 7.9% in 2009. The authors make no reference to the likely impact on their international comparisons – and it will be interesting to see from the PISA 2009 data whether other countries have improved at a similar rate.

It will also be important to look at the socio-economic background of the high-achieving cohort – it is surprising that the authors have not done so directly in this analysis, rather than relaying on the broader proxy measure of having a parent with a college degree.

But, in terms of causality, they opine that:

‘the incapacity of American schools to bring students up to the highest level of accomplishment in mathematics is much more deep-seated than anything induced by recent federal legislation’

They suggest a multiplicity of factors may be at work, such as low aspirations and expectations, a sizeable minority ethnic population and significant immigration into the US but:

‘some of our findings point specifically to problematic elements within the nation’s schools. That even relatively advantaged groups in American society—white students and those with a parent who has a college education—do not generate a high percentage of students who achieve at the advanced level in math suggests, we submit, that schools are failing to teach students effectively… We see no sign that NCLB has been harmful to the highest-performing students. But we do fear that this policy environment leaves the impression that there is no similar need to enhance the education of those students the STEM coalition has called ‘the best and brightest’.

In conclusion…

The situation in the US does appear dire – or at least it was so in 2005/2006. But the UK cannot afford to be any less concerned. Although some 9.0% of its students achieved the advanced level in science, that places it way behind the world’s top performers and headed by the likes of Estonia and Iceland, as well as some of our main European competitors such as France, Germany and the Netherlands.

While some of the highest rated countries, like Finland, have universally high educational standards and (until recently at least) an approach to pedagogy which rules out targeted support for gifted learners, several others – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, the Netherlands – are countries that continue to invest significantly in the education of their gifted high achievers.

We urgently need a research study that examines this correlation more closely – to produce hard evidence of the impact on international comparisons of high achievers’ performance of sustained educational support for gifted learners.

There is certainly a prima facie case for arguing that it is very much in our interests to ensure that they convert their potential into high performance and so generate economic benefits for our countries in an increasingly competitive international environment.

Nations that realise this belatedly will be at a significant economic disadvantage and may never be able to catch up the ground they have lost.


November 2011

On Social Mobility Through Fair Access to Higher Education and the Professions

Regular readers will recall that Part 3 of my extended post on ‘The Transatlantic Excellence Gap’ scrutinised the UK’s progress on improving social mobility through fair access to university – and sought to establish the relationship between that policy priority and gifted and talented (G&T) education.

I will not reprise the full details, but the broad thrust of my argument is that there is a significant overlap between these two areas of education policy – they form a Venn Diagram, each with their own separate concerns but also with a substantive element of shared common interest – and that they should be drawn much more closely together, combining the ‘pull’ from universities and the ‘push’ from schools and the post-16 sector, so securing positive outcomes for all three sectors at lower aggregate cost.

The case is strengthened by this last point: by eliminating duplication and securing economies of scale through effective partnership towards a common end, we can help reduce public expenditure and so contribute towards reducing the deficit.

The continued separation of national responsibility for universities (in DBIS) and schools (in DFE) makes this harder to secure in organisational terms but the obstacles should not be insurmountable. Such a relationship could potentially be fostered and secured between the wider range of stakeholders through determined partnership between G&T Voice, the planned umbrella group for G&T education in England and the the Bridge Group, the newly-formed independent policy association promoting social mobility through higher education.That might be something for each to consider as they develop their respective roles and rationales.

The Bridge Group

The Bridge Group does not as yet have an online presence (though members are beginning to tweet under the hashtag #bridgegroup).It has been formed to:

  • influence the development of national policy and strategy relating to social mobility and higher education;
  • promote greater awareness and clearer understanding of the social mobility agenda with the English government, Parliament and other key decision-makers;
  • identify, share and commission research on matters of relevance to the role of higher education in achieving social mobility; and
  • establish and maintain a network through which members can engage with a wider group of stakeholders to share expertise relating to social mobility and higher education.

Membership is open to those with experience and expertise relevant to social mobility policy and practice – and who are committed to the aims above. The Group plans to meet three times a year. Each meeting will have a theme and evidence will be collated to generate a policy paper and recommendations.

The first meeting has just taken place. I will not say too much about it as it is important to respect the unofficial ‘Chatham House’ arrangements we agreed to observe. However, it addressed the issue of how, in the current funding climate, can higher education institutions work with the professions to promote social mobility. We heard and discussed evidence from three experts, put forward our own ideas and heard from Alan Milburn, who has been appointed by the Government as an independent scrutineer of its progress towards securing better social mobility. From September 2011 he will be reporting annually to Parliament.

The discussion at the workshop has prompted this coda to my September post, which will develop and extend the argument about the benefits of connectivity. In particular, I want to set out how the principle could be translated into a transferable, scalable and sustainable policy solution, since that was the challenge presented to us by the Bridge Group, which is quite rightly seeking workable solutions to recommend to Ministers. Their timing is admirable, since the Coalition Government is currently developing its cross-departmental social mobility strategy which it will publish in February 2011.

There were many strong ideas emerging from yesterday’s discussion but many of them were either:

  • significant, but essentially second-order, process-related issues that might influence provision but could not be said to directly increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing into competitive universities and thence into the professions; or
  • partial solutions that might contribute to that end, for example by strengthening the provision of internships in the professions (as recommended by Milburn in his report for the previous Government, which was referenced in my earlier post. I feel confident in mentioning it here because it is already in the public domain.)

One recommendation that fell into the first category was also reprising a Milburn recommendation: the creation of an independent Social Mobility Commission. I can see how that might be counter-cultural when we are experiencing a ‘bonfire of the quangos’. But Milburn confirmed that he has only two Cabinet Office civil servants to help with his gargantuan task.

It is not quite clear how this arrangement can operate for an exercise that is supposed to be fully independent of Government and one process-based recommendation the Bridge Group might offer could be to provide, through its membership, full support to Milburn as he undertakes his role. A de facto commission already exists in the form of the Bridge Group itself.

A holistic, strategic approach (that is also scaleable and sustainable)

But surely the Bridge Group’s search for policy recommendations must be directed, first and foremost, at identifying policy interventions that have the capacity to increase significantly the numbers of gifted but disadvantaged young people – the ‘most able, least likely’ – entering competitive universities and the professions. I will not repeat the data showing which universities and which professions most need attention: they know who they are.

Ideally these must be policy interventions that can bring about a significant, measurable improvement in numbers within the maximum 5-year lifespan of this present Government. Although the politicians refer regularly to the generation-long lead times required for social mobility reform, the fact that Milburn will be reporting annually tells us that they will also need to look for ‘quick wins’.

Michael Gove never tires of telling us that, in 2007, just 45 FSM-eligible young people made it to Oxbridge. To put it bluntly, we must all agree that we cannot afford to allow that scandalous situation to continue. And it should be perfectly possible to design a policy intervention that begins to increase those numbers significantly within the next five years.

Ideally, binding commitments are also needed to continue the effort over perhaps 10 or more comprehensive spending reviews, but as pragmatists we know that may be impossible to secure. In short, such is the short-termism of government, that ‘quick wins’ may be the only wins in town, despite the best intentions of all concerned.

What I am advocating is a ‘flexible framework’ that is capable of imposing some organisation and coherence on an increasingly fragmented policy context, while allowing all players sufficient autonomy to continue to do their own thing, consistent with the wider philosophy espoused by the Coalition Government.

As I noted in my earlier post, Sir Martin Harris, Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), rightly argued in his April 2010 report commissioned by the previous Government that there is a pressing need for strategic co-ordination and sustained intervention, not least across the education sectors involved. If anything the case for such co-ordination has increased as a consequence of the direction of travel pursued by the Coalition Government, since there is a risk that greater institutional autonomy carries with it unhelpful fragmentation of joint endeavour.

So we need to draw together – within a loose federation that does not unduly compromise autonomy -:

  • the different sectors involved – primary and secondary schools, post-16 institutions, universities and the professions – as well as the many national organisations with an interest, many of which were represented at the Bridge Group event;
  • the wide range of existing support and provision, some of it regional, some national, designed to improve fair access to HE and to the professions. This includes holistic programmes supporting target groups of students to enter particular universities and professions, but also initiatives that may be addressing separately different elements of need, such as raising attainment and achievement to the necessary levels, strengthening students’ aspirations and expectations, providing relevant information, advice and guidance and developing parental and family support;
  • the different sources of funding which support this endeavour, which are also becoming more fragmented as a consequence of recent Government decisions. In terms of central Government support they now comprise the Pupil Premium, the ‘targeted support’ expected to take up some of the slack from the abolition of the EMA, and the planned National Scholarship Fund supporting entry to HE that was proposed in the Browne Review. It is also desirable to lever in some matching funds from universities’ own budgets and from the professions.

Some additional notes on funding

Apropos the National Scholarship scheme, we know that all universities that want to charge a higher graduate contribution than the £6,000 threshold will be obliged to participate. DBIS plans to consult on the details but it proposes to attract matched funding from universities against its own investment of £150m.

It anticipates that universities will offer scholarships to targeted students, including relevant recipients of the pupil premium, to ensure that the fees for at least their first year of higher education are fully subsidised. It is also interested in other ideas, such as expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications.

But it is vital that the solution incorporates the post-16 sector and post-16 funding, since the pupil premium is only available to those in schools aged up to 16, and we know that something like half of the target group currently enter different post 16 settings after completing Year 11. Although the Government’s structural reforms might change this somewhat, a substantial proportion of these students will continue to move into the post-16 sector between school and university, and we cannot afford to ignore their needs during that crucial two-year period.

Given that a significant proportion of funding in all three sectors will in future follow the disadvantaged student, it is crucial in my view that any policy intervention is also focused directly on the student, rather than on the institutions that he or she chooses to attend, and draws on these resources. That removes much potential deadweight.

What might this flexible framework look like?

Well, potentially it might look something like this:

Partners Eligible Students: – gifted

– disadvantaged

– age 14-19 or 14-21

Initial needs analysis process

Access to a comprehensive, constantly updated database of external opportunities

Development of a tailored programme linking school/college/HEI internal provision with external opportunities drawn from the database

Tailored programme will address as necessary:

– attainment/achievement

-aspirations and expectations

– information, advice, guidance

– parental and family support

– other customised provision as required

Termly/annual targets and renewed needs analysis

Learner carries portable programme via portfolio between schools, sectors, into university and potentially into profession

Schools Pupil premium
Post-16 institutions Post-16 targeted support
Universities HE National scholarships (and matched university funding)
Professions Contribution from Professions
Potentially managed by the Bridge Group at arm’s length from Government
Robust formative and summative independent evaluation to inform development

A flexible framework of this kind would have the following elements:

First, support for a tightly defined cohort of the ‘most able least likely’ young people. I would suggest that this includes all learners:

  • formally identified as gifted by their schools in Year 9 (and recorded as such on the school census return)
  • who are eligible for FSM, assuming this is the measure adopted to define eligibility for the Pupil Premium
  • who are aiming to enter a competitive university and potentially a professional career.
  • within a specific age range. This should start in Year 9, when pupils are choosing their GCSE options and should extend at least through to the point of entry to HE, and potentially to obtaining their first professional post (assuming these two are sequential). So either a 5-year or a 7-year programme. (This is not to say that there shouldn’t also be wider awareness-raising activity for younger pupils in both primary and secondary schools which could also be made coherent under the same framework,)

I note in passing that there are surprisingly few young people who will meet these criteria – probably no more than 2,000-3,000 per year group.

Second, a process for determining on an ongoing basis the particular needs of each student, so that a tailored programme can be devised that might draw differentially on the different resources available according to the students’ particular needs. (The National Strategies have already refined a potentially suitable needs analysis tool developed by Young Gifted and Talented for the City GATES initiative, but there may well be other similar tools available.)

Third, a comprehensive searchable database of all the different types of external opportunities and provision available to these students – provision which can be combined with the support provided through the learner’s own school, college or university to create a coherent programme, complete with termly review and targets, designed to give these young people the best chance of securing the outcomes they seek in terms of entry to university and a profession.

This would ensure that young people’s options are not constrained by what is on offer in their region and/or from their local university. It would also happily accommodate the several holistic support programmes of this type that already exist in different parts of the country.

Suppliers of such external opportunities could if they wished use the database to identify gaps in the market and establish new provision to fill them.

Fourth, such an entitlement would be passported between school, post-16 settings and HE, provided the same students can be sure of receiving support from each of the three different funding sources. All cost could be met from the pupil premium, post-EMA targeted support, HE scholarship and, potentially, matched funding from HE and the professions. So existing and planned budgets would take the strain.

It would also be possible to use it to introduce radical reform, such as increasing the scope for young disadvantaged learners to undertake elements of degree level study while at school, thus shortening the duration of university-based study and reducing the cost to them of undertaking it. There are several models to build on, in the UK – the OU’s YASS scheme – as well as in the US and Australia.

The Bridge Group and its members could if they wished take responsibility for establishing and co-ordinating this framework at arms-length from Government, though it would need a small topslice from the available funding – or an additional source – to meet the associated costs. It would be highly desirable to include sufficient funding to allow for robust formative and summative evaluation which could be tendered competitively.

An initiative of this kind would be affordable, scalable and sustainable. It would offer the Bridge Group an excellent opportunity to make a real difference to social mobility. And it would be much more likely to increase relatively quickly the flow of bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into our most competitive universities and the most demanding professional careers.



Vietnam’s High Schools for the Gifted

A shorter post in my ‘Behind the Gifted News’ series – about a recent announcement of heavy investment in Vietnam’s High Schools for the Gifted – can be found here.

At $118 million, the sheer size of the planned investment is astonishing, but it remains to be seen whether the funding will lessen the rigours of gifted student life and the pressures on their teachers.


November 2011

On the Relationship Between STEM Education and Gifted Education – Part 2

Part 2 – STEM and G&T education in England


As with the United States, concern about STEM education in England has a long and convoluted history.

At the beginning of the decade, SET for Success, the Report of a Review by Sir Gareth Roberts, was published in April 2002. The Review notes that numbers of students choosing to study maths and physical sciences at A level is declining significantly. In relation to schools, it recommends action to:

  • address shortages in the supply of teachers
  • improve the quality of practical teaching environments
  • reform courses to ensure they interest and inspire pupils, especially girls and
  • improve careers advice and other support to promote STEM study at higher levels

Two year later in 2004, the previous Government published a 10-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework which noted that the decline in STEM subject take-up was continuing unabated. This publication confirmed the Government’s plans to improve:

  • the quality of science teachers and lecturers in every school, college and university;
  • the results for students studying science at GCSE level (age 16);
  • the numbers choosing STEM subjects in post-16 education and in higher education; and
  • the proportion of better qualified students pursuing R&D careers.

The Framework contains many recommendations for improving training, professional development and support for teachers, introducing specialist higher level teaching assistants, growing the network of specialist schools and so on. But there is no direct focus on improving GCSE results other than through these secondary measures – and the declared target is solely to improve the (already significant) proportions of young people achieving GCSEs at grades A*-C in the relevant subjects.

Two years further on again, a publication called the Science and Innovation Investment Framework: Next Steps (March 2006) recognised – apparently for the first time – the importance of improving the supply of higher-attaining pupils, so establishing a potential relationship with G&T education.

It sets out the Government objectives, which include:

  • achieving year on year increases in the number of students taking A levels in physics, chemistry and mathematics;
  • continually improving the number of pupils achieving at least level 6 at the end of Key Stage 3 (11-14 year olds);
  • continually improving the number of pupils achieving A*-B and A*-C grades in two science GCSEs.
  • establish from 2008 an entitlement for all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 to study three separate science GCSEs

so as to increase progression to, and attainment at A level science and then into university.

One year later, in October 2007, yet another publication appeared: The Race to the Top: A Review of Government’s Science and Innovation Policies. This reinforced the commitment to study of triple sciences at GCSE and added a further recommendation that all those pupils who would benefit should have the option of studying a second mathematics GCSE. It also urged continued investment in enrichment opportunities including science and engineering clubs in every school and an annual National Science competition.


The 2006 STEM Programme Report describes how the Education Department and its partners will bring greater coherence to the wide range of STEM education initiatives then under way. It establishes a High Level Strategy Group a STEM Advisory Forum (see below) and and a National STEM Director, all of which continue to this day (though there is as yet no guarantee that the Coalition Government will continue with them in the longer term).

The National STEM Centre is jointly funded by the Department for Education and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. It leads the Government’s STEM programme ‘bringing together business, industry, charitable organisations, professional bodies and others with an interest in STEM education to facilitate closer collaboration and more effective support for schools and colleges’.

The Centre also hosts the UK’s largest collection of STEM teaching and learning resources and provides facilities for STEM organisations working with schools and colleges.

The STEM Advisory Forum is intended to support communication between the High Level Strategy Group and Advisory Forum members, so enabling ‘the wider STEM community to receive information and feedback on policy and delivery developments, express their views and contribute to policy formulation and development’. The Forum is run under contract to the Department for Education by Nord Anglia, a large educational consultancy.

The Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) is jointly funded by the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to create enhancement and enrichment opportunities to inspire young people in STEM, to ensure that information about all such opportunities is made available to schools and colleges, and to encourage organisations wishing to provide such support to target their contribution as efficiently as possible.

STEMNET runs three programmes of its own:

  • STEM Ambassadors, which draws on over 24,000 volunteers to promote STEM subjects to pupils;
  • STEM Clubs Network, which supports provision for children to undertake STEM activities in a stimulating out-of-school learning environment;
  • Brokerage of STEM enhancement and enrichment opportunities, through the national co-ordination of 52 organisations that undertake a brokerage role with schools across the country.

The Science Learning Centres comprise a National Centre and nine regional centres which support teachers’ professional development, so aiming to improve the quality of science teaching. Each Centre has a main base, satellite centres and a repository of online resources. The Science Centres are supported jointly by the Department for Education and the Wellcome Trust.

There are other organisations too but this list is sufficient to exemplify the crowded nature of the territory: one can’t help feeling that some of these organisations might usefully be merged, so eliminating overlap, centralising administration and achieving economies of scale.

Were this to be undertaken, the financial contributions from Gatsby and Wellcome might even be sufficient to run the whole shebang, saving the taxpayer a significant amount.

Recent impact on high level attainment

The 2010 data shows a continuing increase in the proportion of pupils taking triple science at GCSE – ie separate physics, chemistry and biology – the percentage is up about 30% on the previous year. But there is cause for concern about trends in performance at the top levels, denoted by GCSE grades A*/A.

The BBC database allows us to extract the following data on full course GCSE results for the whole of the UK in 2009 and 2010:

2010 A*/A 2009 A*/A 2010 A*-C 2009 A*-C
All GCSEs 22.6 21.6 69.1 67.1
GCSE maths 16.2 15.4 58.4 57.2
GCSE physics 48.4 49.3 93.6 93.1
GCSE chemistry 48.9 50.9 93.6 93.9
GCSE biology 46.9 47.9 92.7 91.9

This shows that:

  • whereas there was a 1% increase in all GCSE subject entries scoring A*/A in 2010 compared with 2009 – the comparable change in
    • GCSE mathematics was +0.8%, slightly worse than the general trend
    • GCSE physics was -0.9%, somewhat worse than the general trend
    • GCSE chemistry was -2.0%, significantly worse than the general trend
    • GCSE biology was -1.3%, again significantly worse than the general trend
  • whereas for all subject entries the change in A*-C grades was 1.0% higher than the increase in A*/A grades in:
    • GCSE mathematics the difference was 0.4% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE physics the difference was 0.4% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE chemistry the difference was 1.7% in favour of A*-C grades
    • GCSE biology the difference was 1.8% in favour of A*-C grades – and A*/A performance fell while A*-C performance increased.

In short, top grade GCSE performance in maths and the sciences is behind the trend in all GCSE subjects and behind the trend in A*-C performance in each of the four subjects.

This raises a very big question about the extent to which schools are challenging their high attainers across the board, but we will concentrate solely on STEM in this post.

Why is there a dip in high level GCSE STEM attainment?

The National STEM Director, Sir John Holman, has said:

‘The proportion of students achieving A and A* grades in the sciences has fallen, in contrast to the trend in other subjects. This is probably related to the exam regulator OFQUAL’s instruction to exam boards to make their questions more challenging to high ability students. I hope that OFQUAL has now rescued the situation and that we will have stability and reliability in science grades in the future. This is particularly important with A* and A grades because students achieving these high grades are much more likely to continue the study of sciences at A level.’

Whether or not this dip can be attributed solely to OFQUAL activity is a moot point, since OFQUAL’s own report on the summer 2010 examinations makes clear that they were concerned to tighten standards at grade C and above, not just A*/A and, moreover, the ‘changes in the overall cohort for the sciences meant that it was difficult to judge whether standards overall had been tightened appropriately’ (p17)

Careful analysts might also want to make allowance for a variety of other factors including:

  • the impact of other course choices eg short courses and GCSE equivalents
  • the inclusion of the other home countries
  • the inclusion of the independent sector

but there is nevertheless a prima facie case for questioning whether England’s massive investment in STEM has had sufficient impact on the achievement of our highest attaining pupils, relative to those achieving the standard C grade benchmark or above.

Closing thoughts

As Holman says himself, it is typically the highest attainers who will go on to perform well at A level, progress to undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects and then into STEM-related careers. So are we doing enough to stimulate our gifted STEM students, or could we learn some important lessons from the National Science Board report we analysed in part 1 of this post?

Were England to give higher priority to meeting the needs of gifted STEM students, it could do worse than build on existing initiatives like:

  • Exscitec – a company based at Imperial College, London which concentrates on delivery of a wide range of STEM outreach activities specifically for G&T learners, including its flagship STEM World Summer School; and
  • the CREST Awards Scheme administered by the British Science Association, which is already being extended to a wider range of gifted learners, including many from disadvantaged backgrounds, with funding from the Department for Education.

But the fundamental issue is how to persuade all schools to offer the same level of classroom challenge and support to students capable of an A* at GCSE as they do to those on the D/C borderline. We expect imminently some promised reforms to the school performance tables and a new draft OFSTED school inspection framework which may go some way towards securing this.

We need the Government’s massive STEM infrastructure to raise its game as well. My earlier post on the exciting work under way in Asia might offer some valuable pointers for both the US and England to consider, perhaps together!


November 2010

On the Relationship Between STEM Education and Gifted Education – Part 1


Part I – STEM & G&T Education in the USA


Recent Federal Activity

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education has been a prominent issue in the United States for several years. The STEM Education Coalition’s website provides an impressive list of relevant reports produced between 1996 and 2008.

More recently, the White House has sought to co-ordinate activity to support STEM education through the Educate to Innovate campaign launched in 2009. Educate to Innovate has three broad objectives:

  • to increase STEM literacy so that all students can learn deeply and think critically in STEM subjects;
  • to improve the performance of American students in relevant international comparisons “from the middle of the pack to top in the next decade”; and
  • to expand STEM education and career opportunities for under-represented groups, including women and girls.

In September 2010, the President announced an expansion of Educate to Innovate through Change the Equation, the name given to a new not-for-profit organisation established by the business community to help in ‘elevating STEM education as a national priority essential to meeting the economic challenges of this century’.

Change the Equation also has three stated goals:

  • to improve STEM teaching at all grade levels;
  • to inspire student appreciation and excitement for STEM, especially among women and under-represented minorities; and,
  • To secure a sustained commitment to improving STEM education.

To coincide with this announcement, the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) – a group of 20 of the USA’s leading scientists and engineers established by Obama in April 2009 – published a Report to the President setting out wide-ranging policy proposals for improving STEM education.

The press release marking publication singles out some of the most significant recommendations aimed at federal government, including that they should:

  • recruit and train 100,000 great STEM teachers over the next decade who are able to prepare and inspire students;
  • recognize and reward the top 5 percent of the Nation’s STEM teachers, by creating a STEM master teachers corps;
  • create 1,000 new STEM-focused schools over the next decade;
  • use technology to drive innovation, in part by creating an advanced research projects agency for education;
  • create opportunities for inspiration through individual and group experiences outside the classroom; and
  • support the movement for shared common standards in maths and science.


The National Science Board

Not to be outdone, Some four months previously, another body, the National Science Board – the Governing Board of the National Science Foundation and Policy Advisors to the President and Congress – had published its own report which is the main focus of this post.

The NSB has 25 members from university and industry appointed by the President. The Board is responsible, along with the Director, for administering the activities of the National Science Foundation, established in 1950 to, inter alia, ‘recommend and encourage the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering’.

The NSB had formerly published, in October 2007, a ‘National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the US Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education System’ . This sets out wide-ranging recommendations including the formation of a National Council for STEM education and development by the NSF of a ‘national roadmap’ for STEM education.

It subsequently offered a set of recommendations on STEM education to the incoming Obama administration in January 2009 which includes the proposal that:

‘The Federal Government should ensure that we are developing the talents of all children who have the potential to become STEM innovators or excellent STEM professionals.’

This is further developed in the NSB publication ‘Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators: Identifying and Developing Our Nation’s Human Capital’ which effectively joins together the G&T education and STEM agendas in the USA, pointing to the importance of ‘STEM innovators’, defined by the Report as:

‘those individuals who have developed the expertise to become leading STEM professionals and perhaps the creators of significant breakthroughs or advances in scientific and technological understanding.’

The focus of the Report can probably be traced to the fact that one of the current members of the National Science Board is Camilla P Benbow from Vanderbilt University, a psychologist and gifted education specialist perhaps best-known for her involvement with the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY).

The Report draws on the work of an ad hoc Task Group led by Benbow which was formed in August 2008 and an expert panel discussion held in August 2009. The Task Group was asked to identify strategies to increase the number of future STEM innovators and set out recommendations for how the NSF and federal partners might support their development.

The Arguments Advanced in the NSB Report

The Report begins by tracing interest in the development of American scientific talent back to the Second World War and the Sputnik wake-up call delivered by the Russians in the 1950s. It argues that this national sense of urgency was dissipated by the 1970s but needs urgently to be revived, given the strength of international competition.

It quotes PISA 2006 data showing that US 15 year-olds above the 90th percentile were rated only 30th in the world on maths literacy and 13th on science literacy. Furthermore, in the 2007 TIMSS study, the percentage of US 8th graders achieving the advanced benchmark in maths (6%) was dwarfed by Taiwan (45%), South Korea (40%) and Singapore (also 40%).

It also draws on data showing that the best qualified US students have for decades been disinclined to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in STEM subjects. It references the well-known evidence base for the argument that US G&T education is neglected, including the NAGC’s ‘State of the States‘ review and the 2007 Achievement Trap report, which drew attention to the underachievement of gifted learners from minority ethnic and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Report cites survey and research evidence to support the contention that ‘intellectual talent often generates attitudes ranging from ambivalence to outright hostility’, going on to highlight the significant scope that exists to improve the identification and development of STEM talent:

‘More often than not, across the educational ecosystem, we see a patchwork of individual, often ad hoc provisions implemented and funded at the local level: these approaches have been instrumental for many of today’s STEM innovators and should continue. In addition, a coherent, long-term, state- or Nation-wide plan to develop the next generation of leaders in STEM is also needed. Our Nation has too often left to chance the fate of those with exceptional talent rather than ensuring widespread, systematic and appropriate opportunities to flourish.’


The NSB’s Recommendations

The Report recommends a set of policy actions and a research agenda for three ‘keystone recommendations’. While I accept that much remains unknown in the territory, I am not sure it will serve the US to invest too high a proportion of its scarce resources in generating further research studies. I have the ex-policy maker’s preference for concrete action to change the situation described in the report, so I will concentrate solely on the policy recommendations.

First, the NSB argues that the country should provide opportunities for excellence in the form of ‘co-ordinated, proactive, sustained formal and informal interventions to develop the abilities of its most talented students’ by:

  • encouraging the adoption of supportive policies at state and district level on differentiated instruction, acceleration and enrichment and transition between schools;
  • improving access to and the quality of dual enrolment, college-level coursework and enrichment programmes;
  • supporting high-quality STEM-focused professional development for teachers, including non-subject specialists working with younger learners;
  • giving federal support to programmes with a proven record of success in stimulating potential STEM innovators;
  • through the NSF, encouraging stronger partnership between universities, museums, industry, content developers and providers, research laboratories and schools to ‘deploy the Nation’s science assets in ways that engage tomorrow’s STEM innovators’;
  • creating NSF-driven programmes that provide portable merit-based scholarships for talented students to take part in challenging enrichment activities.
  • increasing online access and online learning activities in rural and low-income areas; and
  • creating a national database of appropriate formal and informal learning opportunities and promote these nationally to parents, educators and providers.

Second, the US should cast a wide net to identify and develop all abilities amongst all student demographics by:

  • improving the availability and ‘vertical coherence’ of existing talent identification;
  • expand existing tests and identification strategies to ensure that spatial talent is not neglected;
  • increasing access to above-level testing and other identification activity, especially in disadvantaged urban and rural areas;
  • encouraging initial training and professional development of teachers in talent identification and development; and
  • encouraging early childhood educators and paediatricians to improve awareness of early giftedness and how to respond to it.

Third, the country should foster a supportive ecosystem that celebrates excellence and innovation through a positive and inclusive culture by:

  • establishing a national campaign to increase understanding and appreciation of academic excellence so transforming unhelpful stereotypes;
  • encouraging through professional development the creation of positive school environments that foster excellence;
  • increasing schools’ capacity to engage their learners in peer-to-peer collaboration and connections between students and the scientific research community;
  • holding schools – and potentially districts and states – accountable for the performance of their highest achieving students at each grade;
  • arranging for the NSF in partnership with the Institute of Education Sciences to hold a high-level conference that brings together scientists and educators to discuss teacher education and pedagogical best practice in fostering innovative thinking in children and young adults.


What Impact will the Report Have?

The Report concludes:

‘The Board firmly believes that the recommendations set forth in this report will help to ensure a legacy of continued prosperity for the United States and engender a renewed sense of excellence in our education system, benefiting generations to come.’

Well, maybe, but this is clearly a crowded area in US policy-making with a whole host of federal interests involved. Arne Duncan’s statement on the publication of the President’s Council Report acknowledges the contribution and involvement of the NSF amongst others.

But it is not yet clear whether the NSB will be successful in persuading the federal Government to invest in G&T education, albeit with a STEM focus.

I am not well-versed in how these things are handled on the other side of the Atlantic but, had I been the federal official charged with developing national STEM education policy, I could have wished for a somewhat clearer report with:

  • some prioritisation between the different recommendations and a clearer delineation of responsibility for their implementation;
  • greater clarity about how these recommendations relate to other parts of the Presidential agenda for STEM as set out in the publications referenced above; and, above all,
  • some realistic costings showing how the recommendations can be achieved within a finite budget .

For I fear that, while much of the Report makes eminent good sense, it is insufficiently specific about how its recommendations can be delivered.

Time will tell whether the Report will influence directly the content of US national policy on STEM education. If it can do so, it is perhaps the best hope for the reform of US G&T education, especially if the vital connection between STEM support and narrowing the ‘excellence gap’ can be sustained.



November 2010