The Introduction in England of Selective 16-19 Maths Free Schools

The latest in my series of shorter ‘Behind the Gifted News’ posts takes a closer look at the announcement that the English Government is introducing selective 16-19 free schools for mathematically gifted learners.

You can find the post here.

GP

November 2011

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Gifted Education Quality Standards: The Benefits Coda

Here is the promised Coda to my recent posts about Quality Standards in Gifted Education.

It takes a closer look at the many benefits that can accrue from the careful development and introduction of system-wide Quality Standards that fit the ‘flexible framework’ ideal I outlined in Part One.

This thinking is grounded in my personal experience of conceptualising, developing and introducing England’s suite of gifted education quality standards – the IQS, CQS and LAQS – between 2005 and 2009.

The Coda also reflects earlier material about the ideal process for developing quality standards for – as we have already observed – the process is at least as important as the end result, and sometimes even more important!

Part of that process must be to scrutinise the range of existing standards produced by countries around the world, as reviewed in Part Twoof this post, to see what can be learned from comparative study.

But it is also critical that each country develops its own standards from first principles, to fit its particular needs and circumstances. It must resist at all costs the beguiling temptation to adopt a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ approach to existing standards, so compounding the error of policy tourism.

The Many Potential Benefits of Quality Standards

The material that follows applies specifically to whole school or institutional quality standards such as those produced by England in 2005 and revised in 2010. But most of the arguments apply equally to district-level or classroom-level standards.

It further develops the list of underpinning aims and purposes highlighted in various support materials for existing standards, as set out in Table 3 of Part Two.

That list is somewhat biased towards benefits to users in schools, since the support materials are typically designed for that audience. It follows that some of the potential system-wide benefits are undeclared or relatively underplayed.

The benefits derived from whole school Quality Standards can be envisaged as a Venn diagram comprising two overlapping sets:


One set comprises direct benefits to any school that is using the quality standards to continuously improve the service it provides to its gifted learners.

The other set contains the many system-wide benefits that are derived from the widespread – ideally universal – use of such quality standards throughout that system.

Some of these system-wide benefits are dependent on the standards being developed – or at least adopted – by the body that oversees education within that system, typically an arm or agency of central government.

If gifted education quality standards do not secure such central commitment and endorsement, the system-wide benefits will almost certainly be significantly diluted.

It follows that quality standards developed by advocacy organisations of various kinds – eg NAGC in the United States – have relatively less leverage than those developed inside state or national governments, unless they have been endorsed by those governments.

The two circles overlap because some of the benefits accrue to schools and the system together, differing only in scale.

In the treatment that follows I deal first with the benefits which impact predominantly at school level, second with the benefits shared by the school and the system as a whole and finally with the benefits that are predominantly system-wide.

It is quite possible to make a case for placing some of these benefits into different categories, but I hope the categorisation I have adopted is at least semi-logical, and conveys the huge range of potential advantages conferred by properly-designed standards.

Benefits to the school

Self-evaluation and Review

Table 3 in Part Two showed that self-evaluation and review was by far the most referenced benefit of gifted education quality standards in the commentaries and support materials that I reviewed.

Self-evaluation processes have become integral to school improvement and accountability processes throughout the world, as increasingly we have come to accept that improvement is more likely to be secured if the school itself has been directly engaged in the evaluation of current practice, rather than relying exclusively on an independent, external expert to undertake that task.

This benefit is attributable only to the school if the self-evaluation process is deliberately ‘low stakes’, voluntary and conducted independently of any overarching processes to evaluate the effectiveness of schools throughout the system.

It can be shared with the system – though perhaps not without some risk to its effectiveness at the school level – if it becomes integrated into those overarching processes, perhaps by being incorporated into a school inspection or other quality assurance process.

The fundamental advantage conferred by standards is that schools have a user-friendly instrument that they can use to monitor:

  • to what extent they are improving the overall quality of their gifted education provision;
  • which elements are relatively strong and which are relatively weak, so informing decisions about upcoming improvement priorities; and
  • how far they have developed specific elements of provision, perhaps as a consequence of an improvement plan they have been implementing,

and to communicate the outcomes clearly to colleagues and other stakeholders.

Improvement Planning

Having established the current state of whole-school gifted education across the different elements that comprise the standards, schools can easily develop an improvement plan to address the priorities they have identified.

It makes sense to use the structure provided by the standards so that the next round of self-evaluation is straightforward.

Other than in the most exceptional circumstances, schools are unlikely to attempt progress in every element of the standards simultaneously, but they may wish to note consequential changes and issues that arise in elements they are not tackling directly, for there are normally several dependencies between the elements within any set of standards.

Reflection By Teachers on their own Practice

Self-evaluation at the institutional level may also be complemented by more informal and personal use of the standards, to support reflection upon existing practice.

For example, the gifted education manager in a school may wish to use the standards to inform his or her own performance management process. A personal contribution to whole school improvement can be articulated using the standards, so complementing any personal competence framework in use.

The same manager may wish to prepare a progress report to his head teacher, or to ready himself for a professional development activity. He may wish to use the standards in similar ways with the staff he manages, or they may wish to do so independently.

Some standards – such as England’s Classroom Quality Standards (CQS) – are deliberately designed first and foremost to support such reflection, perhaps leading teachers towards a more formal self-evaluation process at a later stage.

Peer Review

It is a relatively small step from self-evaluation to peer review. School improvement is driven increasingly by collaboration between staff and between different schools. Quality standards provide the common language and shared ‘flexible framework’ that colleagues need to undertake self-evaluation together and also to apply broadly common expectations across two or more schools.

Peer review can often help lend added value and significance to self-evaluation and improvement planning because it introduces a different perspective, perhaps not as authoritative as that brought to bear by an authorised inspector, but also less threatening because less ‘high stakes’.

By using standards across two or more schools, users also understand more clearly how the ‘flexible framework’ operates, not as a strait-jacket but as a support to the development of divergent and innovative practice which may differ significantly to their own.

In this way, Quality Standards support professional development through the process of comparing and contrasting the approaches of different schools to any or all of the elements within the standards.

Curriculum Planning

In the case of the English standards, this benefit is more likely to accrue from use of the separate Classroom Quality Standards, which are much more specific about teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum content. In other standards, this dimension is more heavily present within the whole school or district standards.

Using self-evaluation as the basis, gifted education and curriculum specialists can develop a curriculum that builds on existing strengths and tackles identified weaknesses, incorporates appropriate differentiation and progression and utilises a diverse range of stimulating resources and materials.

Benefits to the school and to the system

Improve Pupil and School Achievement

I was surprised that this did not feature more regularly in the support materials for existing standards, but then it was equally surprising that it featured so insignificantly in the standards themselves!

It is essential in my view that standards address the issue of pupil achievement head-on and also make some attempt to quantify the improvement they seek, at least for learners who are already identified as high achievers.

For what is the core purpose of gifted education quality standards if it is not to improve whole school support of gifted and talented learners, so contributing to school improvement and, by doing so, to improve learners’ attainment, aspirations, motivation and self-esteem, so bringing about improvements in their overall achievement?

Both improved pupil outcomes and improved school performance, as measured through inspection or other quality assurances processes, are vital evidence of the health and success of a school. They help the school to attract more pupils and cement its wider reputation in the local community.

And improvements in learners’ achievement, once aggregated, are directly beneficial to the system as whole, which is invariably dedicated to the raising of standards.

Similarly, the system has a vested interest in aggregated school improvement since maximising the proportion of good and outstanding schools, while minimising the proportion of satisfactory and inadequate schools is an obvious indicator of the overall health of the system.

What better ways of demonstrating to the taxpayer and the voter that the Government’s education policies are successful? What more likely to build the state’s reputation by improving its performance in PISA and other international comparisons studies?

Define the Shape and Constituent Elements of Gifted Education

It is beneficial to all gifted education stakeholders at every level in the system to adopt a common ‘architecture’ for whole school gifted education so they can understand the inter-relationship between these components and use them to describe the complex nature of effective practice.

This is especially important in a field like gifted education where many of the fundamentals are still contested and where schools might be forgiven for confusion in the face of the many competing models and approaches that are presented to them as effective practice.

While schools that already have sound practice in place may be confident enough to draw from this embarrassment of riches to refine and improve a customised approach, this is not true of the majority of institutions which are at an earlier stage of development.

The centre benefits from having a shared understanding with schools of this ‘architecture’ so that it can communicate effectively in guidance, professional development and other activities that it provides or sponsors.

Parents and learners also benefit by being able to communicate their perspective to schools and to the centre, as well as to any intermediate bodies, such as school districts/local authorities

This ‘flexible framework’ is an outcome of careful consensus-building across the full range of stakeholders. It will not work if it endorses one particular model or approach above all others, unless there is system-wide consensus to support such a position.

There are many secondary, spin-off benefits from deploying this architecture as we shall see below.

Common Language for Discussion

Similar arguments apply to the descriptive terms used within the framework. They give everybody concerned a common language to capture performance against elements – or parts of elements – at the different levels embodied in the standards.

The terms describe or capture effective practice but, critically, they do not define it tightly, otherwise divergence is obstructed, innovation throttled and the quality standards will not operate optimally.

As we have seen, the terminology needs to established with particular care: if it is too loose and flexible it will carry too little specificity – offering little more than ‘motherhood and apple pie’. On the other hand, if it is too tightly specific it will prevent schools from developing solutions that fit their unique circumstances and from pushing forward the paradigm of effective practice.

Establish Generic Understanding Across Subjects and Phases

A shared architecture and terminology can together support interaction between individuals and groups who might otherwise have different conceptions of effective practice.

This situation may well exist amongst those in the profession. Within a school it is quite common that different subject areas or departments have a different understanding of how gifted learners should be identified, taught and supported.

While there may be a case for some limited variation to reflect subject differences, such variance is often unacceptably large, with the consequence that learners experience a bewildering lack of consistency as they move through their daily and weekly timetables.

Quality Standards can help to reduce this within-school variation, helping to build up a shared school-wide approach that is adopted across all subject areas and departments but which can be interpreted within the common framework.

The same arguments apply to interaction between phases of schooling, which is of course particularly important for learners’ transition between those phases. A gifted learner is more likely to thrive in the new setting if an effort has been made to establish continuity and progression. And continuity and progression can more easily be developed through the common adoption of Quality Standards.

Discussion between subjects and phases can also be facilitated at other levels in the education system, helping to ensure consistency in the provision of gifted education both vertically – between phases – and horizontally – across the curriculum. Quality Standards prevent the creation of ‘silos’, parts of the service that do their own thing regardless of the direction pursued by parallel interests.

External Assessment

External assessment is the ‘high stakes’ approach to quality assurance, at the other extreme to self-evaluation. As suggested above, the centre can if it wishes embed gifted education quality standards within its standard processes for evaluating schools and holding them to account. But this may have ‘downside’ as well as ‘upside’ if it causes schools to see the standards as something imposed rather than voluntary.

That said, assessment typically leads to an externally validated rating of the quality of provision, and it may be helpful to schools and to the centre to publish the outcomes of such assessment. In the case of schools, it is usually better if the assessment rating is positive! In the case of the centre, assessment ratings provide a straightforward means of assessing quality across the system, identifying pockets of strength and weakness and charting progress towards any improvement targets it has set.

Such assessment could be undertaken at the level of the standard as a whole, or related to each element within the standard. The latter would obviously be a much more complex and expensive proceeding, but it would provide the centre with valuable data to inform decisions about where it should target support, both geographically and in terms of the architecture of elements.

For example, if assessment or professional development tends to be particularly weak in the primary sector in one region of a country, that might lead to a decision to target resources at rectifying such weaknesses in the next period.

Select schools into a Partnership

This is a variation on external assessment where the priority is to decide whether or not schools meet the criteria necessary to become members of a select collaborative group. The criteria may be established by the existing schools within the partnership or by an external ‘gatekeeper’.

Quality Standards can be used as a hurdle for initial admission into the partnership and for ongoing monitoring of performance once within it.

Cross-school Collaboration

There is an increasing reliance on cross-school collaboration to drive school improvement, rather than top-down models driven by the centre. Many schools are already organised into networks and clusters of different kinds, designed to give them access to a wider range of expertise and resources – and to support the sharing of effective practice.

Gifted education Quality Standards are key to this process, in that they enable collaborating schools to more easily compare and contrast their approaches, identifying similarities and differences and so learning from each others’ experiences. This is helpful from a strategic perspective, because the diffusion of effective practice from exemplary schools to other schools raises the overall quality of gifted education across the system.

This is particularly important because it addresses directly the fundamental question about the effectiveness of school-to-school collaboration: whether it is possible to capture effective practice found in one setting and apply it directly in another. Those who question the value of such an approach may well be rehearsing similar arguments to those marshalled against policy tourism, albeit in microcosm.

Quality Standards can support schools in adjusting and refining the effective practice they come across in other schools so that it fits their existing provision and responds to their unique needs and circumstances.

They can also be used to develop and support joint projects, providing a basis for joint planning and implementation across any number of schools.

Professional Development

When professional development in gifted education is focused on enabling the participant to improve the quality of provision in the setting in which he works – in addition to developing his own personal competences – then Quality Standards come into play.

There must be alignment between the standards and any personal competence framework also in use. The standards help the participant to identify how he wishes to improve provision as a consequence of the professional development he is undertaking, to organise the learning process and to capture what he has learned.

They can then be used to monitor progress in implementing the improvements suggested by the professional development activity so it is possible to answer the question ‘how will things be different as a consequence of this investment’? This makes it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of the activity.

Professional development providers can use gifted education Quality Standards as the ‘architecture’ around which to organise their entire menu of provision, as well as one-off activities, workshops and courses.

The standards will provide the structure for long postgraduate courses and short half-day sessions alike. They will be relevant to initial teacher education and induction, as well as professional development for serving teachers and leadership and management activities for more senior staff.

If they are used consistently across the professional development ‘offer’, participants will be able to understand more easily how different items in the menu relate to their priorities and to each other.

If the centre provides a directory of professional development activities available from a range of different providers, this too can be organised in line with the standards, making it much easier for potential participants to identify the activity that most appropriately meets their needs.

Innovation

We have already noted that ‘flexible framework’ quality standards provide sufficient space for settings to provide very different responses to learners’ needs and to continuously improve the quality of their service.

They also enable schools to capture different approaches to different elements within the standards and, from that point, to work out innovative approaches that draw from and build on solutions adopted by other schools.

By undertaking this process they are constantly ‘stress-testing’ the framework by ensuring that their innovative practice can be accommodated within it. If they evaluate as effective some practice that is not strictly consistent with the wording of the standards, then arguably the standards should be adjusted at the next review point to ensure that this is rectified.

The centre can also present innovative practice to settings using the architecture of the standards.

Advocacy

Quality Standards can be used by advocates for gifted education, from parents engaging with their child’s school to national organisations seeking to change system-wide practice.

If one or more settings appears not to be satisfying elements of the standards, advocates can use them to hold those settings to account. If the shortcoming is prevalent in many schools, advocates can use the standards to hold the centre to account for this collective weakness.

Schools should not be afraid that parents – and indeed learners – will use standards to hold them to account in this way. Indeed, they should welcome it. For parents and learners should also have a shared commitment to the achievement of the standards – and understand how they can make their own contribution to their achievement.

But Quality Standards are not a panacea in this respect. Most of the existing standards are relatively coy about quantifying acceptable resource allocation, recognising that it may not be possible to allocate scarce resources to this priority above others. Those producing the standards do not wish to create hostages to fortune, otherwise there is a risk that schools will not use the standards.

System-wide benefits

There are also some benefits that typically impact principally at the system-wide level.

Improve Gifted Education Locally, Regionally and Nationally

The centre benefits directly from the aggregated improvements achieved by individual schools against the standards, which together improve the quality of gifted education in the relevant local authority, region and country.

The centre can, if it wishes, use reporting against the standards to quantify how much improvement there has been during a set period. This will inevitably be an approximate measure because of the flexibility schools enjoy over the interpretation of the standards, but it is a good guide nevertheless.

Build Consensus

The value of quality standards for building consensus across a range of stakeholder holding very diverse views has been a leitmotif of this series of posts.

If there are significant differences or variations in the interpretation of effective practice and how to deliver it, this is detrimental to the centre’s aim of improving the overall quality of provision.

It can be helpful to have some degree of divergence rather than a cautious unanimity, otherwise there is a risk that innovative ideas and practice will not emerge. But, if there is too much divergence this creates a recipe for confusion as schools struggle to make sense of the many conflicting opinions that they encounter.

It is critical that gifted education Quality Standards ‘hold the ring’ by accommodating a reasonable amount of divergence, but they cannot be expected to encompass some of the most extreme, outlying perspectives.

In agreeing the standards therefore, experts and researchers are invited to adopt a spirit of compromise for the greater good, and ultimately to secure improved outcomes for gifted learners.

They are invited to focus primarily on bringing about such improved outcomes rather than intermediate objectives, such as formulating and testing the efficacy of their own pet theories, so establishing for themselves a stronger position in the hierarchy of experts.

For Quality Standards are essentially pragmatic and designed with the needs of the practitioner in mind.

Set Minimum Expectations for Schools

That said, the centre can deploy Quality Standards with some rigour, by using them to define minimum expectations that all schools must achieve if they are to avoid direct intervention.

There may be an issue about validation of schools’ claims that they have in fact achieved such minimum expectations, because of the degree of flexibility built into the standards, but professional discretion should be permitted and the centre can, if it wishes, test the reliability of returns by sampling the performance of a small cross-section of schools

Accreditation of Schools

Achievement of these minimum expectations may be rewarded by some form of accreditation, award or other recognition. Or this may be reserved for those settings that achieve exemplary level across the standards as a whole, or in particular elements, so providing a reward for the demonstration of excellence.

Such exemplary schools might then be accredited to support other schools, so helping to support system-wide improvement through the collaborative models discussed above. This recognition may be valuable to schools as a marketing tool in a competitive environment, helping to attract a more aspirant and so potentially higher-achieving pupil intake.

According to market-driven theory at least, if schools are actively competing for gifted learners, the overall quality of provision for them is likely to improve.

Structure Guidance and Catalogue Resources

The organisational capacity of the standards can also be applied to guidance materials and to catalogues of resources: the advantage is the same – simply that users can more easily find what they are looking for.

If all guidance materials follow the same pattern and order of elements that is found within the Quality Standards, how much easier a task it is for busy practitioners to find the materials that they are seeking. And if absolutely everything is organised on the same basis, how easy it becomes to cross reference resources to professional development, research to resources and so on.

Research

In the research context, the benefits of Quality Standards are not confined to organising research outcomes, but can also help in the research commissioning process.

If research is catalogued against the standards, it becomes much easier to see the gaps in the evidence base for effective practice, or where the research is a little ‘long in the tooth, and to commission accordingly. The centre can, if it wishes, target resources at strengthening the research base underpinning specific elements or sub-elements which it deems to be a particular priority.

Education researchers can also see at a glance those fields that are relatively under-researched and use that information to support their own bids for research funding, so both the supply and demand sides of the research ‘market’ are supported.

And schools themselves can organise their own action research in gifted education so that it supports those elements it is targeting for improvement. Both internal and external evaluation studies can be built around the Quality Standards architecture too.

Changing paradigms

Finally, analysis of the way in which Quality Standards have changed over time – and ideally they should be reviewed roughly every five years to ensure they remain fresh and up-to-date – gives a remarkably clear picture of how different paradigms of effective practice supersede each other.

A more thorough awareness of the historical development of effective practice, as it applies at the school level, provides important context for those wishing to understand contemporary practice and to innovate to improve it further.

Making sure it works

By my calculation, that makes 22 benefits – and I have merged some of my initial list to improve the flow of the argument. There are quite possibly other advantages that I have missed.

Which of these is the most significant? Well, according to my world view, it has to be Improving Pupil Achievement, since that is the fundamental reason for the introduction of gifted education Quality Standards.

In an ideal world, funding for such work would be top-sliced to pay for an evaluation that sought – as far as possible – to isolate the impact of the introduction of Quality Standards from other interventions and to quantify as rigorously as possible the impact on pupil outcomes in both the medium and longer terms.

It would help if this evaluation was also formative, maintaining a close eye on the development and trialling process to ensure that it properly reflects the views of all all stakeholders and achieves the balanced consensus that is essential to the success of the standards.

For there will always be temptations to take short-cuts in an effort to speed up the development process, or to design a process that gives too much credence to the perspective of one group of stakeholders compared with others.

But such short-cuts are illusory. And any process that places relatively greater emphasis on the perceptions of schools – in an effort to make the outcome more ‘school friendly’ – or on the perceptions of the research community – so as to make the standards more ‘evidence-based’ – are ultimately doomed to fail, or at least to result in much less effective quality standards than could be achieved through a more carefully balanced development process.

Having developed this approach and provided consultancy to Hong Kong built around it, I am well-placed to offer similar advice and support to other countries that wish to introduce new gifted education quality standards, or to improve their existing standards.

And if you are not considering quality standards you should be! For any country contemplating serious gifted education reform, quality standards provide an excellent mechanism to introduce, embed and sustain major system-wide improvements that will directly benefit its gifted learners, its education system and, ultimately, its economic competitiveness.

GP

November 2011

Gifted Education News from the Gifted Phoenix Twitter Feed, 20/10/11-20/11-11

I am experimenting with monthly posts that offer highlights of the gifted education news supplied through the Gifted Phoenix Twitter feed.

I plan to provide this service for GT Voice’s new monthly newsletters, so it seems appropriate to post it here too.

Do let me know whether or not you find this helpful – and remember:

To obtain prompt news and balanced critical commentary on UK and global gifted education, subscribe to @GiftedPhoenix on Twitter!

  • BOA Chair Moynihan attacks government for reneging on Olympic legacy commitments including talent support: http://t.co/ZQGLwHFF
  • End of this Indy piece says national music plan delayed by dispute over ringfencing and support for gifted: http://t.co/rIXPCJka
  • Direct link to IFS Briefing Paper on impact of month of birth on children’s cognitive/non-cognitive skills: http://t.co/iMxgaaf5
  • Papers on early childhood gifted education from the Central Eastern European Forum – http://t.co/AZn06DXm
  • US NAGC policy moves in the right direction – http://t.co/ZMJFAVmd – but they really need to drop all fixed percentages
  • Margaret Sutherland and Valsa Koshy to speak at ECHA Conference in September 2012 http://t.co/dkhhHVVi
  • The Higher summarises the BIS Committee’s scathing criticism of the Government’s HE reform process- http://t.co/Ts2Ef3sl
  • Finally on Early Entry to GCSE – http://t.co/AcrGmaC5 Isn’t it worrying that < 60% of those with L5 maths at KS2 manage A*/A in Yr10 or 11?
  • The Government will underwrite costs of Ed Psych training – http://t.co/FTEB6dRt – but will they be better able to support gifted learners?
  • This Cameron narrative seems as much about coasting pupils , often highish achievers as about coasting schools http://t.co/dMAmJdyV
  • Mayor Boris launches an inquiry into London Schools – http://t.co/gIpTIYDz Tony Sewell (Generating Genius) is scoping it
  • Overall the BIS Select Committee Report is an excellent critique of rushed and piecemeal HE policy – http://t.co/tZTcMhvz
  • London Academy of Excellence starts marketing its wares. One Newham socialist gifted pupil is unimpressed! http://t.co/g0f04Hay
  • NAHT recognises the value to gifted learners of primary specialist teachers: http://t.co/I2m1nQxu but is otherwise ‘not enamoured’
  • Fascinating Trinity Laban Interdisciplinary Longitudinal Study into Dance Talent Development – http://t.co/p2rkwNhu
  • Huge Saudi gifted conference mysteriously ‘postponed until further notice due to circumstances beyond our control’: http://t.co/ZdbRbXbP
  • Mail predicts Admissions Code revision will lead to 50% increase in grammar school places by 2018: http://t.co/PDISE2km No source/basis?
  • The Finnish Parliament’s Committee for the Future says the country should fast-track gifted learners – http://t.co/Aa7DoOZ3
  • DfE publishes the setting case studies it promised – http://t.co/J2yRMalb – a case of never mind the width, feel the quality?
  • Lord Hill concedes face to face careers guidance for disadvantaged (in receipt of Pupil Premium perhaps?) – http://t.co/eMXwiVf9 (Col 582)
  • First impression of the first draft of those ‘master teacher standards’ – http://t.co/qwITtR9h – rather too prosy and imprecise…
  • 80% of KS2 L5 made 3 levels of progress in Eng, 79% in Ma: http://t.co/5zbXJpsW (Tab.1d) – but only 12.5% Eng and 17.8% Ma made A*
  • The Mail serves up a dog’s breakfast of confusion between IQ, ability, achievement, selection and gifted – http://t.co/DIOr7HSD
  • Evidence of significant variability in teenagers’ IQ scores – as many as 21 points over 3-4 years: http://t.co/Q5BmG85o
  • Does SEN Information Act 2011 Analysis say that twice-exceptional learners don’t officially exist? http://t.co/sMVckjuN (p4)?
  • Electric Word (parent of Optimus education) issues profit warning as education sales slump http://t.co/qGKfZqtp


GP

November 2011

A Comparative Review of Gifted Education Quality Standards: Part 2


This is the second part of a post dedicated to a comparative analysis of gifted education quality standards.

As far as I can establish, a total of 10 standards have been developed in six countries since the publication of NAGC’s original district-level Gifted Program Standards in 1998. Two countries – England and the US – have updated and published revised standards. The other four – the Netherlands, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and Wales – have each produced a single edition.

Part One set out a personal perspective on what constitutes a really good set of quality standards, summed up in the paradox of a ‘flexible framework’, offered a basic typology and concluded with the history of their development.

Part Two is a comparative assessment of the 10 standards, concluding with an in-depth review of the content of eight of them.

I will conclude the post in due course with a Coda which examines in more detail the multiple uses to which well-designed quality standards can be put and the significant benefits they can deliver.

Comparative Analysis: Structure and Purpose

We begin with an examination of the shape and structure of the 10 standards. Table 1 sets out the basic factual information, showing the standards in the order of their development.

Table 1

Standard Country Date No. of elements No. of levels
NAGC v1 USA 1998 7 2 (Minimum, Exemplary)
IQS v1 England 2005 14 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
CPS Netherlands 2005 6 1
CQS England 2007 7 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
Welsh Assembly Wales 2008 10* 1
LAQS England 2009 13 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)
TKI New Zealand 2009 9 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)*
MSP Saudi Arabia 2009 9 4 (Limited, Developing, Good, Excellent)*
NAGC v2 USA 2010 6 1
IQS v2 England 2010 14 3 (Entry, Developing, Exemplary)

Notes

*It could be argued that the TKI standard has five levels, because there is a column devoted to what it means to fall short of the entry level standard, while the improving standard contains two different columns

*The MSP standard explains that schools will be assessed on this 4-level scale but, additionally, one of the elements relates exclusively to schools aspiring to advanced partnership, whereas other schools need only to meet the standards in the eight other elements

*The Welsh Assembly standard divides two of its elements into three significant sub-elements, so it is arguable that it really comprises 14 elements.

The number of levels is typically either one or three, with just a couple of exceptions. In the MSP example, the four gradings are not actually built into the standard, but imposed on a single set of statements. Something similar is found in the Dutch standard, which invites schools to score themselves on a 1-5 scale against each statement.

The inclusion of a ‘not meeting the standard’ column is unique to the New Zealand example and is worthy of wider consideration. It could be helpful to settings considering whether or not they currently meet the entry level statements, giving them additional context for that judgement.

The number of elements within each standard ranges from 6 to 14, with the UK Standards at the upper end of the range and the US and Dutch examples at the lower end.

Table 2, below, shows that there is relatively little common practice in the division into elements or the order in which they appear. (This is also true of the placement of material within specific elements).

Table 2

IQS1 IQS2 CQS1 LAQS NAGC1 NAGC2 CPS TKI MSP Welsh Assembly
Identification Standards and progress Conditions for learning Leadership Student identification Learning and development Organisation and policy Professional learning Student achievement A whole school strategy/action plan
Effective provision in the classroom Effective provision in the classroom Development of Learning Policy Professional development Assessment Education and learning Definition Leadership and management Identification strategies and criteria
Standards Identification Knowledge of subjects + themes Ethos and pastoral care Socio-emotional guidance and counselling Curriculum planning and instruction Support and counselling Policies/procedure School ethos A target for improvement of school’s provision/pupils’ performance
Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Assessment Understanding learners’ needs Resources Program Evaluation Learning environments Communication with parents pupil and environment Resources Teaching and learning Learning styles, teaching approaches, organisational strategies Curriculum offers breadth, depth and flexibility Provision addresses pastoral care
Assessment for learning Transfer and transition Planning Engaging with the community families + beyond Program design Programming Quality improvement and assurance Identification Classroom management Reviews to identify underachievement and support individual pupils
Transfer and transition Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Engagement with learners + learning Identification Program administration and management Professional development Benefit to other pupils Maori dimension Student personal development Improve the skills of all staff
Leadership Leadership Links beyond the classroom Effective provision in the classroom Curriculum and instruction Cultural diversity Parental involvement Support for exceptionally able
Policy Monitoring and evaluation Learning beyond the classroom Effective Teaching and Learning Commitment to and evidence of Resources including ICT
Ethos + pastoral care Policy Enabling curriculum entitlement + choice Beyond the regular classroom Advanced Partnership Taking account of pupils views + encouraging them to take responsibility for learning       Taking account of parents’ views + encouraging them to take responsibility for supporting their child’s learning; Working with partners to enhance provision
Staff development Ethos + pastoral care Transfer + transition Monitoring action plan and effectiveness of school’s policy.
Resources Staff development Staff development
Monitoring and evaluation Resources Standards
Engaging with community families and beyond Engaging with community families and beyond Monitoring + evaluation
Learning beyond the classroom Learning beyond the classroom

There is no suggestion that those preparing the standards are drawing on a shared understanding of how gifted education practice should be broken down into its constituent parts. Nor is there any evidence to suggest a tendency towards consensus over the 12-year period.

The elements provide a basic architecture for the standard that the authors believe will be logical and rational for the users. There is no particular merit in having a specific number of elements although one can see that the range we have probably marks the parameters of ‘useability’. Arguably, 14 is at the upper end of manageable while six is the barest minimum for such a complex set of processes.

Table 3 shows that the Standards and their supporting resources together identify some 20 underpinning aims and purposes that their gifted education quality standards are intended to address.

There is inevitably a degree of subjectivity in this analysis, since some objectives are more overtly stated than others – and different descriptions of purpose are sometimes provided in different materials, depending on the intended audience.

Self-evaluation and improvement planning by settings are by far the most common and almost ubiquitous.

Table 3

Purpose IQS1 IQS2 CQS LAQS NAGC1 NAGC2 CPS TKI MSP Welsh Assembly
Define the shape and constituent elements of gifted education x
Establish generic understanding across subjects and phases x x x x
Common language for discussion x
Reflection by teachers on their own practice x
Improve pupil and school level achievement x x x
Improve gifted education locally, regionally and nationally x
Set minimum expectations for schools x
Self-evaluation x x x x x x x x x
External assessment x x x x
Improvement planning x x x x x x x x x
Peer review x x x
Curriculum planning x
Professional development x x x x
Innovation x
Advocacy x
Cross-school collaboration x x x
Select schools into a partnership x
Accreditation of schools x
Structure guidance x x
Catalogue resources x x x

The table also demonstrates that, as far as public declaration is concerned, the English quality standards are relatively more ambitious in terms of the number of tricks they seek to take.

This is arguably because the design and development process was tied explicitly to the expansion of a national programme for gifted education and overseen by the body responsible for the country’s wider education policy. The standards were designed with a strategic function, rather than being produced for a specific project or subset of schools, or by an advocacy-driven organisation such as NAGC.

The ways in which the standard could support other aspects of the national programme – and vice versa – were at the forefront of our thinking, as were the opportunities to anchor the standards firmly in other areas of policy. To give an example, we tried very hard to persuade OFSTED, our schools inspectorate, that they should adopt the standards publicly as the basis for inspection judgements in schools.

We were only partly successful. Although the User Guide makes clear that the three levels of the IQS are explicitly aligned with specific OFSTED grades – satisfactory, good, excellent – and the standards are mapped against the self-evaluation framework OFSTED had in place for schools at the time, it was a bridge too far for the fiercely independent inspectorate to adopt entirely a quality framework developed through a process that they did not control.

The substantive point remains that, with the right degree of support and influence, gifted education quality standards can be embedded in the very fabric of education accountability measures, and indeed in many other dimensions of national or state education policy, so making them potentially a very powerful policy lever indeed.

No other country has come closer than England to achieving this outcome.

Comparative Analysis: Content

The remainder of this analysis considers eight of the ten standards (I have excluded the English classroom and local authority quality standards because they add relatively little additional value given their specialist focus. It is worth remembering their existence, however: they explain apparent omissions in the English IQS, which does not need to address in detail matters of pedagogy and supra-school administration because they are covered elsewhere.)

Rather than undertake an exhaustive analysis of every single similarity and difference between the eight examples, I have tried to highlight some of the more interesting variations.

I have also focused on the incidence of wording that appears to invite all settings to follow specific practice – even though this may not be supported universally as best or even effective practice – rather than giving them flexibility to implement the standards as they see fit.

The selection of such ‘non-negotiables’ throws a particularly interesting light on the priorities of the standards’ authors. It is a perfectly valid aim for a quality standard to embed such practice universally, across all settings, though an excessive number of ‘non negotiables’ will inevitably compromise a flexible framework approach.

Some – the Welsh Assembly example springs to mind – contain quite a few of these apparent requirements, others – notably the Saudi MSP standard – are almost bereft of them. Sometimes of course it is hard to tell, for there are several different ways to promote aspects of provision on the face of quality standards while stopping short of absolute compulsion.

I have divided this treatment into sections headed by the name of particular standards, though I have taken the two IQS standards and the two NAGC standards together. Each section also addresses specific themes, so readers will find that they are flitting constantly between standards. I could find no other way to organise the material short of a huge and unreadable grid.

The English IQS (2005 and 2010)

Courtesy of Richard Croft

The IQS contains an explicit requirement for a co-ordinator or lead teacher in each school with overall responsibility for gifted education. In fact this requirement is common to all the standards except the two NAGC versions, which may be explained by their status as district standards. (The 1998 edition does include an oblique reference to a district co-ordinator, specifying that such a post-holder should have appropriate qualifications).

Other ‘non-negotiables’ in the IQS (though they may only apply at certain levels) include:

  • securing through identification a gifted and talented population representative of the whole school population (something similar can be found in the later NAGC standards but this is otherwise unique;
  • supporting those with multiple exceptionalities and the exceptionally able (2005 only). With the exception of NAGC (2010), the former do not seem to get the same positive treatment in any other standards, but the latter feature even more significantly in the Welsh Assembly standards (though nowhere else). Significantly, both references are dropped from IQS 2010. Support for pupils of different cultures and backgrounds is also referenced in the 2005 edition but dropped in the later version;
  • links with local and national providers of out-of-school gifted education (2005 only) replaced in the 2010 edition by a reference to collaboration with other schools. It is as if provision offered by universities and voluntary organisations has become irrelevant given a policy change around this time that shifted English gifted education towards being more school-led.

The English standards are also notable for incorporating expectations about the academic performance of gifted learners. These change subtly between the two editions: the earlier focuses on standards relative to gifted learners in similar schools; the later switches to national averages and also introduces expectations for pupils’ progress. Both refer exclusively to high attainers, who are of course only a subset of the gifted population.

There is nothing as explicit in the later NAGC standards, even though they are built entirely around pupil outcomes. They seem to address every dimension of competence except academic achievement. Students are to demonstrate ‘important learning progress’ but nowhere is this quantified, whether in relative or absolute terms.

The MSP standards do refer to high student achievement , but only in general terms. The Welsh Assembly Standards demand targets for students’ performance as well as for the improvement of the school’s provision, though without setting any kind of benchmark for either.

It may be that the authors of these standards decided to do without such a reference because it was impossible to find a formulation that would apply equally to all gifted learners. But, if we accept that high attainers are a subset of the gifted population, it seems rather absurd for standards (especially those based on outcomes like NAGC 2010) to exclude some sort of expectation relating to their academic achievement.

Conversely, the English standards are typically coy about funding, referring only to ‘appropriate budgets’. The Welsh opt for a similar reference to the school governors ‘allocating appropriate resources’

The first NAGC standards are slightly better, calling for gifted education to be equitably and adequately funded compared with other programmes, and for funding to be tied to programme goals (and adequate to meet them at exemplary level). Similar terminology is retained in the 2010 edition. The other standards are almost silent on this critical issue.

The NAGC Standards (1998 and 2010)

courtesy AlaskaGM Photos

‘Non-negotiables’ include:

  • the evidence base supporting identification should draw on multiple assessments ‘including off-level testing’ and make use of ‘culturally sensitive checklists’ (2010);
  • a personalised assessment profile must be developed for each student (1998);
  • gifted programmes must be ‘an integral part of the general education school day’ (1998);
  • flexible grouping and, ‘suitable adaptations’ which are specified at exemplary level as early entrance, grade-skipping, ability grouping and dual enrolment (1998); by 2010 this is modified to: ‘educators regularly use multiple alternative approaches to accelerate learning’;
  • students interact with educators who meet the national teacher preparation standards in gifted education; educators participate in ongoing professional development to support students’ social and emotional needs (2010).

The US standards are typical in devoting significant attention and space to professional development, although this is clearly an input rather than an outcome.

At exemplary level, the TKI standards require that all teachers in the school have undertaken relevant professional learning, that an induction process is available for new staff, and that gifted education specialists have specialist qualifications.

Similarly, Saudi schools must ensure that a differentiated professional development programme is available for all teachers which incorporates some work on the theory and practice of giftedness and creativity.

In Wales, staff training must cover a range of bases including identification, formative assessment, strengthening pupils’ self-esteem, differentiation, learning styles, thinking skills and problem-solving. Support staff must also receive appropriate training.

While the English standards maintain a curious separation between identification and the assessment of gifted learners, the later US standards sensibly take the view that identification is integral to assessment.

Identification is subsumed within ‘support and counselling by the Dutch, but is almost entirely absent from the MSP standard, presumably on the grounds that it is undertaken external to the school.

The 1998 NAGC standards places heavy emphasis on what they call ‘socio-emotional guidance and counselling’ devoting an entire element to this. All learners must receive guidance to support their socio-emotional development, on top of dedicated guidance and counselling for vulnerable learners.

The phrasing is redolent of a ‘deficit model’ approach, consistent with a strand of US gifted education thinking built on the assumption that gifted students typically have social and emotional ‘issues’. This is redressed somewhat in the 2010 standards where emphasis is rightly placed instead on developing all students’ personal, social, cultural and communications competence, as well as their leadership skills.

There is also another element called ‘Learning and Development’ which addresses students’ personal development, including: self-knowledge and understanding; understanding of and respect for similarities and differences within their peer group; and understanding of their own cognitive and affective development.

Such ‘soft skills’ are almost entirely lacking from either version of the IQS, which merely contain brief references to support for learners’ social and emotional needs and action to combat bullying and stress. The Welsh also tend to concentrate on the more tangible issues within this spectrum, such as careers education and guidance and pupils’ attitudes to learning.

The pastoral support dimension is slightly better developed in the Dutch CPS standards but only the Saudi version rivals the coverage in the later NAGC standards, covering students’ self-esteem, resilience and perseverance, as well as their tolerance and respect for each other.

CPS – Netherlands (2005)

Courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar

The Dutch standards are amongst those with relatively few ‘non-negotiables’ other than expectations that there will be a school co-ordinator, partnerships with higher education and business and links into a regional and national network of schools.

There is some emphasis placed on action planning for improvement, a feature that is also found in the English IQS and, in pronounced fashion, in the Welsh Assembly standards.

But, whereas this tends to foreground SMART targets and data, the Dutch begin a stage earlier, with an expectation that schools with have articulated a vision for gifted education and defined the model of provision they will follow. Only then can an action plan be produced.

New Zealand incorporates something similar: entry level involves developing an appropriate definition of gifted and talented which recognises different types of giftedness.

The CPS standards are particularly noteworthy for the inclusion of an element called ‘Benefits to Other Pupils’ which does not appear in any of the other examples (although there are briefer references to a ‘rising tide lifting all ships’).

TKI – New Zealand (2008)

courtesy of etnobofin

   The TKI standards are again more tightly specified:

  • entry level identification must involve more than two sources of information (eg parents, teachers, peers)       and more than two types of information (eg tests, observations, interviews). A register and individual profiles are required at improving level;
  • exemplary teaching and learning involves the co-construction of differentiated work modules by students and staff, something similar also features in the Welsh standards and in NAGC 2010;
  • out of school provision in improving schools will include the deployment of expert coaches, tutors or mentors.

But the tightest level of specification is reserved for schools’ response to diversity. The TKI standards devotes an entire element to The Maori Dimension and another to Cultural Differences.

Under the former, all schools are expected to demonstrate an understanding of the Maori world view and consultation with Maori staff. At the middle level, Maori theories and conceptions of giftedness should be acknowledged and respected, while exemplary schools should reflect Maori beliefs throughout their provision.

This progression is repeated in the Cultural Differences segment, which causes some unnecessary duplication. It as if inclusion of a separate Maori element of the standard was itself a ‘non-negotiable’, even though a single section could have covered both quite comfortably.

This heavy diet of diversity puts into perspective claims by the authors of the 2010 NAGC standards that they give significant attention to the same issue. The 2010 standards are certainly a big advance on their predecessors, but do not begin to match the Kiwi approach.

One can appreciate the distance between the two by replacing ‘Maori’ with ‘African American’ or ‘Hispanic’ and parachuting the TKI element into the NAGC standards…

MSP – Saudi Arabia (2009)

courtesy of Saudi

We have noted already that there are few ‘non-negotiables’ in the Saudi standards. Perhaps the only substantive example is the reference to a school co-ordinator – a post for a committed key professional working within the school’s senior leadership team who is supported with the time and resources to model best practice, be the resident expert in teaching and learning and act as a key driver in bringing about ‘deep’ change.

The MSP standards are strong on teaching and learning, encompassing much of the material that is covered by England’s separate CQS. They advocate a wide repertoire of teaching strategies, the development of subject knowledge and an understanding of how to use and apply it, student involvement in negotiating their work, collaborative learning, higher order questioning, problem-solving, independent research and a risk-taking culture.

Parental engagement is strongly featured relative to most other standards, and is probably only matched by the Welsh document. A flavour is given by the expectation that:

‘parents are helped to understand the complex nature of ability and and the importance of opportunities and personal motivation in the fulfilment of a child’s potential’

Maintaining a positive school ethos is also prominent, exemplified by a reference to the school community working:

‘together in harmony, upholding a shared set of values such as respect, honesty, courage and responsibility’.

Welsh Assembly (2008)

courtesy of Plaid

The Welsh standards seem rather paternalistic compared with most of the others. The list of ‘non-negotiables’ is relatively extensive, encompassing several of the themes addressed above, such as providing a school co-ordinator, staff training and development, support for the exceptionally able and careers guidance. It even extends to a requirement that learners can school library and IT facilities out of school hours!

This is not in itself an unreasonable expectation, but it is surely too insignificant to feature on the face of the standards.

As one might expect, these standards are very much consistent with NACE policy. There is no reference to accelerative practice or a faster pace of learning, even in the section about supporting exceptionally able learners. Whereas the US standards may seem a little too ready to embrace acceleration, the Welsh are very much the opposite.

Welsh schools should also have:

‘a clear rationale for identification that is inclusive and encompasses all children who have abilities and talents above those normally found in the school’.

There is very strong emphasis on multi-faceted progress monitoring against the required action plan. Alongside the priority placed on parental engagement, a sub-element is also devoted to pupil voice, which is much more developed in these standards than any of the others.

Schools must listen regularly to pupils’ views about the experience of being a gifted and talented pupil, including feedback about their aspirations, what helps them to learn and what barriers exist to their achievement. They must also demonstrate that they have acted on such views.

What Lessons Can We Draw?

It is not my purpose to produce a league table of gifted education quality standards. They must be judged against the objectives set by those who designed them and considered in the very different educational contexts to which they apply.

None of the standards is head-and-shoulders above the rest. All have outstanding features; all have shortcomings. This reinforces the importance of taking a global perspective and reviewing all existing standards whenever a new one is produced. Insularity is never the route to best practice.

But I very much prefer those that come closest to the ‘flexible framework’ ideal, rather than those which seem overly prescriptive and over-detailed.

This optimal approach, while it encompasses the full span of what is important in gifted education, is relatively sparing in its insistence on specific practice, confining such prescription to fundamentally significant issues and a handful of policy priorities.

It is otherwise all too easy to devise standards that become a straitjacket, serving only to constrict the divergence and innovation that is always necessary to improve our shared understanding of what works.

For the fundamental purpose of quality standards must be to support and release the creativity and commitment displayed in every single setting, harnessing it – though loosely – for the ultimate benefit of all gifted learners.

As indicated above, this post will conclude with a Coda dedicated to reviewing the multiple purposes of gifted education quality standards and how these can be pursued simultaneously without compromising each other.

We will look at the score or so which feature in Table 2 above but my own work suggests that there are several others besides. I am at 25 and counting…

Whenever I am asked which gifted education reform has had most impact I always reference quality standards. Six countries to date have understood their power and value. Let’s hope that many more will follow their example.

GP

November 2011

A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards: Part 1

This post looks at the nature and purpose of gifted education quality standards, reviews the history of their development and draws lessons from a comparative analysis.

It is designed partly as background reading for those interested in developing state or national gifted education quality standards of their own. As far as I can ascertain, no such analysis has ever been published before, although one hopes that the authors of all quality standards produced to date have conducted their own private analysis.

Colleagues in Hong Kong are considering whether to proceed with such standards and this post is partly a spin-off from a consultancy and professional development package prepared specifically for them. In matters of gifted education, Hong Kong often leads where other states follow.

The post is organised into two main sections and a coda:

  • Part 1 sets out my idea of what constitutes a good quality standard, which differs somewhat from most of those in existence, offers a basic typology of quality standards and outlines the history of their development to date;
  • Part 2 is a comparative analysis of eight gifted education quality standards produced in five different countries;
  • The Coda will take a closer look at the many and varied purposes of a well-designed quality standard and will be published a little further downstream.

What is a Good Quality Standard?

There is a difference between describing the nature of extant gifted education quality standards and explaining what such standards should be like.

Paradoxically, the notion of a standard betokens a certain level of precision that does not necessarily coincide with my idea of best practice.

The august British Standards Institute has defined a standard as:

‘A published document that contains a technical specification or other precise criteria designed to be used consistently as a rule, guideline or definition. Standards help to make life simpler and to increase the reliability and the effectiveness of many goods and services we use. They are a summary of best practice…’

But, during several years creating and working with gifted education quality standards, the phrase I have found most neatly captures their fundamental essence is ‘a flexible framework’.

For effective quality standards must be precise enough to:

  • capture, clearly and succinctly, all the elements of effective practice in gifted education at a specified level in the education system; and so
  •  equip all stakeholders with a common language to describe effective practice, so they can communicate effectively with each other.

On the other hand, they must be imprecise enough that they can:

  • apply universally, to every setting, regardless of phase, sector, status, funding or any other variable;
  • reconcile into consensus the wildly differing perspectives of experts – be they practitioners, academics or policy makers – and the full range of other stakeholders; and
  • allow sufficient scope to meet widely varying circumstances, support divergent interpretation, promote innovation and allow for changes to the paradigm and the wider policy context (at least up to the point where they need to be revised).

Hence producing a quality standard should be a careful balancing act between these two conflicting priorities. One is not always convinced that this important principle has been grasped by those charged with their development.

Flexibility in Design and Development

This spirit of compromise is part of a bigger bargain between the centre – typically an educational arm of government – and the myriad of local settings to which the standard applies.

The centre has a vested interest in deploying the quality standards as a policy lever that drives improvement throughout the system – and also as an instrument to push particular priorities that it deems significant (though too many of these will overload the standard, so it needs to be selective).

Meanwhile, local settings are typically seeking a practical tool they can use to evaluate, improve and validate their own practice; an instrument that will support school improvement and professional development alike; and a platform for local partnership and collaboration.

While expert practitioners may be relatively inclined towards pragmatism and eclecticism when developing an understanding and appreciation of what works best in gifted education, expert academics in the research community may be more inclined to argue for a particular model, approach or paradigm in gifted education.

They need to be prepared for the possibility that their most cherished beliefs will not appear on the face of the standard (though the standard can nevertheless accommodate them).

To give an example, it may not be desirable for a gifted education quality standard to explicitly advocate grade-skipping, so making it in effect a universal requirement, even though grade-skipping may be perfectly permissible within the terms of the standard.

Sometimes researchers can take the opposite track. I well remember resistance to our classroom quality standards (see below) on the grounds that such a standard would be based by definition on one pedagogy, so preventing other pedagogies from being freely expressed in the classroom!

Such a criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the flexible framework paradox.

By virtue of being a consensual compromise, a single framework can support many different outcomes, whereas a more tightly-drawn document could not reconcile the very different objectives of stakeholders.

But, even with this principle of flexibility, quality standards have a limited shelf life. Once the gifted education paradigm has shifted significantly, or wider education policy has undergone radical reform – perhaps as a consequence of the election of a new government – they need to be revised and updated, given a new lease of life.

Otherwise they will ossify gifted education by holding practitioners to outdated assumptions of what constitutes effective practice.

Flexibility in Application

And a gifted education quality standard should be applied in a similar vein.

Because there is a need to break down provision into its constituent elements, often to define more than one level of performance and invariably to ensure that the resulting tool is readily accessible, quality standards are typically published as a grid.

The rows and columns might suggest precision and tight specification, but closer analysis should reveal a more elastic approach.

In constructing standards containing different levels, it is not imperative to maintain consistency of approach between the levels. Statements relating to the same element at a higher level can be cumulative – covering the same issue but with extra ‘demand’ built in – or they can add greater breadth by introducing another related issue, or they may do both simultaneously.

Settings should be encouraged not to apply the standards to their practice with a slavish ‘tick-box’ mentality. The process of discussing and agreeing which ratings apply in a particular setting is at least as important as the outcome, quite probably more important, because it invites communication and supports the building of consensus.

Moreover, reaching an overall judgement is not a matter of calculating an overall ‘score’ which determines a given category: settings should use discretion and professional judgement to reach a ‘best fit’ judgement which they can collectively agree and which is supported by the evidence.

Varieties of Gifted Education Quality Standard

Quality Standards can be categorised according to three key variables:

First, the layer of the education system to which they apply

Standards may be applied to:

  • learning settings (I am using this term in preference to ‘classroom’ in recognition that such a standard may be fully applicable to out-of-hours and out-of-school learning);
  •  institutions – most typically schools, but we opted to call our whole-school standards ‘institutional quality standards’ (IQS) in recognition that they should apply equally to colleges of further education, nursery schools, pupil referral units (PRUs) and so on;
  • local authorities, or school districts, or indeed any other grouping of several institutions, regardless of whether it is based on geography or some other relationship. So, for example, a ‘local authority quality standard’ could apply just as well to a chain of academies or charter schools;
  •  regional, state or national gifted education programmes and services. Although none exist as far as I am aware, I have argued before on this blog that the development of a national – more exactly an international quality standard – would be an important step towards effective international collaboration.

Second, the levels of performance that they specify

  • some standards have a single level, typically pitched to be reachable by all settings, or almost all settings, allowing for the fact that there will always be some outliers – such as failing schools – that we should not seek to accommodate;
  • others have two levels – typically a baseline standard and a standard for advanced or exemplary performance to which all settings should aspire and which some centres of excellence will be able to achieve;
  • others still have three levels, inserting a level for improving settings between the entry and exemplary levels, so providing an extra step in the ladder to support a process of steady but continuous improvement (though it should be possible for settings to continue working at their current level if they prefer and, certainly, there should be no ceiling on the top level, so even the very best schools can never say that they have ‘completed’ a standard).

I know of no gifted education quality standards with more than three declared levels, though a couple get close to specifying five, as we shall see later.

Third, the core purpose(s) of the standard

  • If a standard is intended primarily as an instrument for self-review, or external assessment, rather than the ideal of a multi-faceted instrument with several different purposes, it will look somewhat different;
  •  It is critical to understand that a quality standard cannot have as one of its purposes the assessment of personal competence. Personal competence frameworks are entirely different animals, necessary to personal training and development and to performance management.

Quality standards are fundamentally school (institutional) improvement tools. They should align with personal competence frameworks, and both should inform professional development (because one is about the acquisition and demonstration of personal knowledge, understanding and skills; the other about the application of that knowledge and skills to bring about institutional improvement).

 This distinction is sometimes difficult to maintain, particularly when a quality standard is pitched at the level of classroom settings, but it is important to recognise that, even there, many other factors than personal competence will affect the quality of education provided, most obviously if there is one or more para-professionals present. A quality standard should reflect the cumulative impact of all inputs and processes, not just the single teacher.

The History of Quality Standards

This map shows the geographical spread and the historical development of gifted education quality standards taking account of all of which I am aware. All are available in the English language, which makes comparison that much easier.

1998: The first gifted education standards were produced, under the auspices of the US National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) by an 18-strong task force. They applied at the school district level and applied the following principles, which begin to embody some (but not all) of the ideas set out above:

  • Standards should encourage but not dictate approaches of high quality;
  • Standards represent requisite programme outcomes and standards for excellence;
  • Standards establish the level of performance to which all educational school districts and agencies should aspire;
  • Standards represent professional consensus on critical practice in gifted education that almost everyone is likely to find acceptable;
  • Standards are observable aspects of educational programming and are directly connected to the continuous growth and development of gifted learners.

2005: Originally conceived in 2003, influenced in part by the NAGC standards, but envisaged from the outset as a school-level tool, the original English Institutional Quality Standards were developed, trialled and consulted on by a small team of consultants working with the support of an expert advisory group and eventually published in 2005.

The original User Guide embodies much of the thinking that we developed from the initial idea, which first emerged from a series of discussions between yours truly and the first director of NAGTY’s Student Academy.

The IQS were updated in 2010 though changes were fairly minimal.

The institutional standards were followed by classroom quality standards (CQS) in 2007, which amplified the teaching and learning dimensions of the IQS and applied them to learning settings rather than to whole school practice.

The CQS were conceived as a scaffolded support tool with three different layers, each undertaking a subtly different function.

  • The first layer was designed as a set of prompts to encourage reflection and discussion by classroom teachers of the application to all learners of seven key features of challenge and support within teaching and learning.
  • The middle layer applied these features specifically to gifted learners and provided a basis for a more thorough self-evaluation process. This is initially conducted within a generic rather than a subject-specific context, but a subject-specific treatment was also provided for English, maths, science, ICT and PE.
  • The third layer was originally envisaged as a comprehensive online resource base containing exemplification, case studies, action research and interactive discussion, predominantly provided ‘from the bottom up’, not least to exemplify the ownership and shaping of these standards by the professionals using them.

In 2009, the set of English quality standards was completed with the introduction of local authority quality standards (LAQS) – analagous to the US district standards, but based on the assumption that the role of local authorities is, first and foremost, to support the improvement processes instigated by schools.

All subsequent standards developed outside the US were influenced to some extent by the IQS:

  • the Quality Standards in Education for More Able and Talented Pupils published in 2008. These weredeveloped by the Welsh Assembly Government in collaboration with NACE and based on NACE’s Challenge Award, a commercially available standard which emerged at about the same time as the IQS (each informed the other’s development). The Challenge Award materials cost £250 while assessment costs from £700 to £1,900+ depending on the size of the school;
  • the self-evaluation instrument published in New Zealand in 2009 (though this was also informed by several earlier versions developed in that country);
  •  the assessment instrument developed in Saudi Arabia for the Mawhiba Schools Partnership in 2009 (though it also drew on professional standards for teachers and research on school effectiveness).

NAGC radically revised and updated its US district standards in 2010.

A working group undertook the work, according to a new (and rather curious) set of principles:

  • ‘Giftedness is dynamic and is constantly developing; therefore, students are defined as those with gifts and talents rather than those with stable traits.
  • Giftedness is found among students from a variety of backgrounds; therefore, a deliberate effort was made to ensure that diversity was included across all standards. Diversity was defined as differences among groups of people and individuals based on ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, gender, exceptionalities, language, religion, sexual orientation, and geographical area.
  • Standards should focus on student outcomes rather than practices. The number of practices used or how they are used is not as important as whether or not the practice is effective with students. Consequently, the workgroup decided not to identify acceptable versus exemplary standards. Moreover, such a distinction would be difficult to support with the research.
  • Because all educators are responsible for the education of students with gifts and talents, educators were broadly defined as administrators, teachers, counsellors, and other instructional support staff from a variety of professional backgrounds (e.g., general education, special education, and gifted education).
  • Students with gifts and talents should receive services throughout the day and in all environments based on their abilities, needs, and interests. Therefore, the Workgroup decided to use the word “programming” rather than the word “program,” which might connote a one-dimensional approach (e.g., a once-a-week type of programme option)’.

Source: ‘Frequently Asked Questions about the 2010 pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards’

Most of these are unexceptionable, though the last two are perhaps a little prosaic to be regarded as ‘principles’ in their own right. The section in bold is the most problematic.

For, while the new standards quite reasonably include student outcomes, they continue to include a whole range of practices alongside. There is nothing on the face of the standards – or in the guidance available on NAGC’s website – to suggest that the practices are intended to be illustrative rather than binding.

Indeed, the Q and A explains that:

‘The revised standards will elucidate the next steps toward excellence in gifted programming by helping school districts move beyond the focus on practices alone to the relationship between certain practices and desired student outcomes’

It is as if the group developing the standards has been persuaded of the case for a flexible framework, has considered offering maximum flexibility by basing its framework on student outcomes alone, only to decide that ‘evidence-based practice’ must be included alongside so that users of the standards can anchor their effective practice in inputs and processes as well as outcomes.

The two-fold justification for removing the exemplary level is even more puzzling. Presumably, had they wished to, they could have defined ‘exemplariness’ entirely in terms of student outcomes.

There is no explanation of why ‘the research’ would not easily support the exemplary distinction. One can only conclude that the researchers engaged on this project found it impossible to agree, on the basis of aggregated research findings, a framework to define flexibly what constitutes exemplary practice in gifted education.

If so, that is a sad indictment of the contribution of the gifted education research community. It suggests to me that researchers may have had too much control of the revision process relative to other stakeholders.

The documentation does not say whether the working group examined international examples of quality standards before revising their own.

Let us hope that they did, for neglecting to review and learn from other models would not be consistent with good research practice – and also runs counter to the fundamental principles upon which this blog rests!

Actually I think the 2010 Standards are rather good, though some way from my idea of perfection…

GP

November 2011