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

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