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.
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 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).
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)’.
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…