Closing England’s Excellence Gaps: Part 2

This is the second part of an extended post considering what we know – and do not know – about high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in England.

512px-Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gap

Mind the Gap by Clicsouris

Part one provided an England-specific definition, articulated a provisional theoretical model for addressing excellence gaps and set out the published data about the size of excellence gaps at Key Stages 2,4 and 5, respectively.

Part two continues to review the evidence base for excellence gaps, covering the question whether high attainers remain so, international comparisons data and related research and excellence gaps analysis from the USA.

It also describes those elements of present government policy that impact directly on excellence gaps and offers some recommendations for strengthening our national emphasis on this important issue.

 

Whether disadvantaged high achievers remain so

 

The Characteristics of High Attainers

The Characteristics of high attainers (DfES 2007) includes investigation of:

  • whether pupils in the top 10% at KS4 in 2006 were also high attainers at KS3 in 2004 and KS2 in 2001, by matching back to their fine grade points scores; and
  • chances of being a KS4 high attainer given a range of pupil characteristics at KS2 and KS3.

On the first point it finds that 4% of all pupils remain in the top 10% throughout, while 83% of pupils are never in the top 10% group.

Some 63% of those who were high attainers at the end of KS2 are still high attainers at the end of KS3, while 72% of KS3 high attainers are still in that group at the end of KS4. Approximately half of high attainers at KS2 are high attainers at KS4.

The calculation is not repeated for advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers respectively, but this shows that – while there is relatively little movement between  the high attaining population and other learners (with only 17% of the overall population falling within scope at any point) – there is a sizeable ‘drop out’ amongst high attainers at each key stage.

Turning to the second point, logistic regression is used to calculate the odds of being a KS4 high attainer given different levels of prior attainment and a range of pupil characteristics. Results are controlled to isolate the impact of individual characteristics and for attainment.

The study finds that pupils with a KS2 average points score (APS) above 33 are more likely than not to be high attainers at KS4, and this probability increases as their KS2 APS increases. For those with an APS of 36, the odds are 23.73, meaning they have a 24/25 chance of being a KS4 high attainer.

For FSM-eligible learners though, the odds are 0.55, meaning that the chances of being a KS4 high attainer are 45% lower amongst FSM-eligible pupils, compared to  their non-FSM counterparts with similar prior attainment and characteristics.

The full set of findings for individual characteristics is reproduced below.

Ex gap Capture 7

 

An appendix supplies the exact ratios for each characteristic and the text points out that these can be multiplied to calculate odds ratios for different combinations:

The odds for different prior attainment levels and other characteristics combined with FSM eligibility are not worked through, but could easily be calculated. It would be extremely worthwhile to repeat this analysis using more recent data to see whether the results would be replicated for those completing KS4 in 2014.

 

Sutton Trust

In 2008, the Sutton Trust published ‘Wasted talent? Attrition rates of high achieving pupils between school and university’ which examines the attrition rates for FSM-eligible learners among the top 20% of performers at KS2, KS3 and KS4.

A footnote says that this calculation was ‘on the basis of their English and maths scores at age 11, and at later stages of schooling’, which is somewhat unclear. A single, unidentified cohort is tracked across key stages.

The report suggests ‘extremely high rates of ‘leakage’ amongst the least privileged pupils’. The key finding is that two-thirds of disadvantaged top performers at KS2 are not amongst the top performers at KS4, whereas 42% advantaged top performers are not.

 

EPPSE

Also in the longitudinal tradition ‘Performing against the odds: developmental trajectories of children in the EPPSE 3-16 study’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al, June 2011) investigated through interviews the factors that enabled a small group of disadvantaged learners to ‘succeed against the odds’.

Twenty learners were identified who were at the end of KS3 or at KS4 and who had achieved well above predicted levels in English and maths at the end of KS2. Achievement was predicted for the full sample of 2,800 children within the EPPSE study via multi-level modelling, generating:

‘…residual scores for each individual child, indicating the differences between predicted and attained achievement at age 11, while controlling for certain child characteristics (i.e., age, gender, birth weight, and the presence of developmental problems) and family characteristics (i.e., mothers’ education, fathers’ education, socio-economic status [SES] and family income). ‘

The 20 identified as succeeding against the odds had KS2 residual scores for both English and maths within the highest 20% of the sample. ‘Development trajectories’ were created for the group using a range of assessments conducted at age 3, 4, 5, 7, 11 and 14.

The highest job level held in the family when the children were aged 3-4 was manual, semi-skilled or unskilled, or the parent(s) had never worked.

The 20 were randomly selected from each gender – eight boys and 12 girls – while ensuring representation of ‘the bigger minority ethnic groups’. It included nine students characterised as White UK, five Black Caribbean, two Black African and one each of Indian (Sikh), Pakistani, Mixed Heritage and Indian (Hindu).

Interviews were conducted with children, parents and the teacher at their [present] secondary school the learners felt ‘knew them best’. Teacher interviews were secured for 11 of the 20.

Comparison of development trajectories showed significant gaps between this ‘low SES high attainment’ group and a comparative sample of ‘low SES, predicted attainment’ students. They were ahead from the outset and pulled further away.

They also exceeded a comparator group of high SES learners performing at predicted levels from entry to primary education until KS2. Even at KS3, 16 of the 20 were still performing above the mean of the high SES sample.

These profiles – illustrated in the two charts below – were very similar in English and maths respectively. In either case, Group 1 are those with ‘low SES, high attainment’, while Group 4 are ‘high SES predicted attainment’ students.

 

Supp exgap Eng Capture

Supp exgap Maths Capture

 

Interviews identified five factors that helped to explain this success:

  • The child’s perceived cognitive ability, strong motivation for school and learning and their hobbies and interests. Most parents and children regarded cognitive ability as ‘inherent to the child’, but they had experienced many opportunities to develop their abilities and received support in developing a ‘positive self-image’. Parenting ‘reflected a belief in the parent’s efficacy to positively influence the child’s learning’. Children also demonstrated ability to self-regulate and positive attitudes to homework. They had a positive attitude to learning and made frequent use of books and computers for this purpose. They used school and learning as distractions from wider family problems. Many were driven to learn, to succeed educationally and achieve future aspirations.
  • Home context – effective practical and emotional support with school and learning. Families undertook a wide range of learning activities, especially in the early years. These were perceived as enjoyable but also valuable preparation for subsequent schooling. During the primary years, almost all families actively stimulated their children to read. In the secondary years, many parents felt their efforts to regulate their children’s activities and set boundaries were significant. Parents also provided practical support with school and learning, taking an active interest and interacting with their child’s school. Their parenting style is described as ‘authoritative: warm, firm and accepting of their needs for psychological autonomy but demanding’. They set clear standards and boundaries for behaviour while granting extra autonomy as their children matured. They set high expectations and felt strongly responsible for their child’s education and attitude to learning. They believed in their capacity to influence their children positively. Some were motivated by the educational difficulties they had experienced.
  • (Pre-)School environment – teachers who are sensitive and responsive to the child’s needs and use ‘an authoritative approach to teaching and interactive teaching strategies’; and, additionally, supportive school policies. Parents had a positive perception of the value of pre-school education, though the value of highly effective pre-school provision was not clear cut with this sample. Moreover ‘very few clear patterns of association could be discerned between primary school effectiveness and development of rankings on trajectories’. That said both parents and children recognised that their schools had helped them address learning and behavioural difficulties. Success was attributed to the quality of teachers. ‘They thought that good quality teaching meant that teachers were able to explain things clearly, were enthusiastic about the subject they taught, were approachable when things were difficult to understand, were generally friendly, had control over the class and clearly communicated their expectations and boundaries.’
  • Peers providing practical, emotional and motivational support. Friends were especially valuable in helping them to respond to difficulties, helping in class, with homework and revision. Such support was often mutual, helping to build understanding and develop self-esteem, as a consequence of undertaking the role of teacher. Friends also provided role models and competitors.
  • Similar support provided by the extended family and wider social, cultural and religious communities. Parents encouraged their children to take part in extra-curricular activities and were often aware of their educational benefits. Family networks often provided additional learning experiences, particularly for Caribbean and some Asian families.

 

Ofsted

Ofsted’s The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? (2013) defines this population rather convolutedly as those:

‘…starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2.’ (Footnote p6-7)

There is relatively little data in the report about the performance of high-attaining disadvantaged learners, other than the statement that only 58% of FSM students within the ‘most able’ population in KS2 and attending non-selective secondary schools go on to achieve A*-B GCSE grades in English and maths, compared with 75% of non-FSM pupils, giving a gap of 17 percentage points.

I have been unable to find national transition matrices for advantaged and disadvantaged learners, enabling us to compare the proportion of advantaged and disadvantaged pupils making and exceeding the expected progress between key stages.

 

Regression to the mean and efforts to circumvent it

Much prominence has been given to Feinstein’s 2003 finding that, whereas high-scoring children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (defined by parental occupation) perform at a broadly similar level when tested at 22 months, the disadvantaged group are subsequently overtaken by relatively low-scoring children from advantaged backgrounds during the primary school years.

The diagram that summarises this relationship has been reproduced widely and much used as the centrepiece of arguments justifying efforts to improve social mobility.

Feinstein Capture

But Feinstein’s finding were subsequently challenged on methodological grounds associated with the effects of regression to the mean.

Jerrim and Vignoles (2011) concluded:

‘There is currently an overwhelming view amongst academics and policymakers that highly able children from poor homes get overtaken by their affluent (but less able) peers before the end of primary school. Although this empirical finding is treated as a stylised fact, the methodology used to reach this conclusion is seriously flawed. After attempting to correct for the aforementioned statistical problem, we find little evidence that this is actually the case. Hence we strongly recommend that any future work on high ability–disadvantaged groups takes the problem of regression to the mean fully into account.’

On the other hand, Whitty and Anders comment:

‘Although some doubt has been raised regarding this analysis on account of the potential for regression to the mean to exaggerate the phenomenon (Jerrim and Vignoles, 2011), it is highly unlikely that this would overturn the core finding that high SES, lower ability children catch up with their low-SES, higher-ability peers.’

Their point is borne out by Progress made by high-attaining children from disadvantaged backgrounds (June 2014) suggesting that Vignoles, as part of the writing team, has changed her mind somewhat since 2011.

This research adopts a methodological route to minimise the impact of regression to the mean. This involves assigning learners to achievement groups using a different test to those used to follow their attainment trajectories and focusing principally on those trajectories from KS2 onwards.

The high attaining group is defined as those achieving Level 3 or above in KS1 writing, which selected in 12.6% of the sample. (For comparison, the same calculations are undertaken based on achieving L3 or above in KS1 maths.) These pupils are ranked and assigned a percentile on the basis of their performance on the remaining KS1 tests and at each subsequent key stage.

The chart summarising the outcomes in the period from KS1 to KS4 is reproduced below, showing the different trajectories of the ‘most deprived’ and ‘least deprived’. These are upper and lower quintile groups of state school students derived on the basis of FSM eligibility and a set of area-based measures of disadvantage and measures of socio-economic status derived from the census.

 

Ex gap 8 Capture

The trajectories do not alter significantly beyond KS4.

The study concludes:

‘…children from poorer backgrounds who are high attaining at age 7 are more likely to fall off a high attainment trajectory than children from richer backgrounds. We find that high-achieving children from the most deprived families perform worse than lower-achieving students from the least deprived families by Key Stage 4. Conversely, lower-achieving affluent children catch up with higher-achieving deprived children between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.’

Hence:

‘The period between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 appears to be a crucial time to ensure that higher-achieving pupils from poor backgrounds remain on a high achievement trajectory.’

In short, a Feinstein-like relationship is established but it operates at a somewhat later stage in the educational process.

 

International comparisons studies

 

PISA: Resilience

OECD PISA studies have recently begun to report on the performance of what they call ‘resilient’ learners.

Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in Schools (OECD, 2011) describes this population as those who fall within the bottom third of their country’s distribution by socio-economic background, but who achieve within the top third on PISA assessments across participating countries.

This publication uses PISA 2006 science results as the basis of its calculations. The relative position of different countries is shown in the chart reproduced below. Hong Kong tops the league at 24.8%, the UK is at 13.5%, slightly above the OECD average of 13%, while the USA is languishing at 9.9%.

Ex Gap Capture 9

The findings were discussed further in PISA in Focus 5 (OECD 2011), where PISA 2009 data is used to make the calculation. The methodology is also significantly adjusted so that includes a substantially smaller population:

‘A student is classified as resilient if he or she is in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in the country of assessment and performs in the top quarter across students from all countries after accounting for socio-economic background. The share of resilient students among all students has been multiplied by 4 so that the percentage values presented here reflect the proportion of resilient students among disadvantaged students (those in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of social, economic and cultural status.’

According to this measure, the UK is at 24% and the US has leapfrogged them at 28%. Both are below the OECD average of 31%, while Shanghai and Hong Kong stand at over 70%.

The Report on PISA 2012 (OECD 2013) retains the more demanding definition of resilience, but dispenses with multiplication by 4, so these results need to be so multiplied to be comparable with those for 2009.

This time round, Shanghai is at 19.2% (76.8%) and Hong Kong at 18.1% (72.4%). The OECD average is 6.4% (25.6%), the UK at 5.8% (23.2%) and the US at 5.2% (20.8%).

So the UK has lost a little ground compared with 2009, but is much close to the OECD average and has overtaken the US, which has fallen back by some seven percentage points.

I could find no commentary on these changes.

NFER has undertaken some work on resilience in Northern Ireland, using PISA 2009 reading results (and the original ‘one third’ methodology) as a base. This includes odds ratios for different characteristics of being resilient. This could be replicated for England using PISA 2012 data and the latest definition of resilience.

 

Research on socio-economic gradients

The Socio-Economic Gradient in Teenagers’ Reading Skills: How Does England Compare with Other Countries? (Jerrim 2012) compares the performance of students within the highest and lowest quintiles of the ISEI Index of Occupational Status on the PISA 2009 reading tests.

It quantifies the proportion of these two populations within each decile of  achievement, so generating a gradient, before reviewing how this gradient has changed between PISA 2000 and PISA 2009, comparing outcomes for England, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany and the US.

Jerrim summarises his findings thus:

‘The difference between advantaged and disadvantaged children’s PISA 2009 reading test scores in England is similar (on average) to that in most other developed countries (including Australia, Germany and, to some extent, the US). This is in contrast to previous studies from the 1990s, which suggested that there was a particularly large socio-economic gap in English pupils’ academic achievement.

Yet the association between family background and high achievement seems to be stronger in England than elsewhere.

There is some evidence that the socio-economic achievement gradient has been reduced in England over the last decade, although not amongst the most able pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged homes.’

Jerrim finds that the link in England between family background and high achievement is stronger than in most other OECD countries, whereas this is not the case at the other end of the distribution.

He hypothises that this might be attributable to recent policy focus on reducing the ‘long tail’ while:

‘much less attention seems to be paid to helping disadvantaged children who are already doing reasonably well to push on and reach the top grades’.

He dismisses the notion that the difference is associated with the fact that  disadvantaged children are concentrated in lower-performing schools, since it persists even when controls for school effects are introduced.

In considering why PISA scores show the achievement gap in reading has reduced between 2000 and 2009 at the lower end of the attainment distribution but not at the top, he cites two possibilities: that Government policy has been disproportionately successful at the lower end; and that there has been a more substantial decline in achievement amongst learners from advantaged backgrounds than amongst their disadvantaged peers. He is unable to rule out the latter possibility.

He also notes in passing that PISA scores in maths do not generate the same pattern.

These arguments are further developed in ‘The Reading Gap: The socio-economic gap in children’s reading skills: A cross-national comparison using PISA 2009’ (Jerrim, 2013) which applies the same methodology.

This finds that high-achieving (top decile of the test distribution) boys from the most advantaged quintile in England are two years and seven months ahead of high-achieving boys from the most disadvantaged quintile, while the comparable gap for girls is slightly lower, at two years and four months.

The chart reproduced below illustrates international comparisons for boys. It shows that only Scotland has a larger high achievement gap than England. (The black lines indicate 99% confidence intervals – he associates the uncertainty to ‘sampling variation’.)

Gaps in countries at the bottom of the table are approximately half the size of those in England and Scotland.

Ex gap 10 capture

 

One of the report’s recommendations is that:

‘The coalition government has demonstrated its commitment to disadvantaged pupils by establishing the Education Endowment Foundation… A key part of this Foundation’s future work should be to ensure highly able children from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in school and have the opportunity to enter top universities and professional jobs. The government should provide additional resources to the foundation to trial interventions that specifically target already high achieving children from disadvantaged homes. These should be evaluated using robust evaluation methodologies (e.g. randomised control trials) so that policymakers develop a better understanding of what schemes really have the potential to work.’

The study is published by the Sutton Trust whose Chairman – Sir Peter Lampl – is also chairman of the EEF.

In ‘Family background and access to high ‘status’ universities’ (2013) Jerrim provides a different chart showing estimates by country of disadvantaged high achieving learners. The measure of achievement is PISA Level 5 in reading and the measure of disadvantage remains quintiles derived from the ISEI index.

Ex Gap 12 Capture 

The underlying figures are not supplied.

Also in 2013, in ‘The mathematical skills of school children: how does England compare to the high-performing East Asian jurisdictions?’ Jerrim and Choi construct a similar gradient for maths, drawing on a mix of PISA and TIMSS assessments conducted between 2003 and 2009, so enabling them to consider variation according to the age at which assessment takes place.

The international tests selected are TIMSS 2003, 4th grade; TIMSS 2007, 8th grade and PISA 2009. The differences between what these tests measure are described as ‘slight’. The analysis of achievement relies on deciles of the achievement distribution.

Thirteen comparator countries are included, including six wealthy western economies, three ‘middle income’ western economies and four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan).

This study applies as the best available proxy for socio-economic status the number of books in the family home, comparing the most advantaged (over 200 books) with the least (under 25 books). It acknowledges the limitations of this proxy, which Jerrim discusses elsewhere.

The evidence suggests that:

‘between primary school and the end of secondary school, the gap between the lowest achieving children in England and the lowest achieving children in East Asian countries is reduced’

but remains significant.

Conversely, results for the top 10% of the distribution:

‘suggest that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and the highest achieving children in East Asia increases between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school’.

The latter outcome is illustrated in the chart reproduced below

Ex gap 11 Capture

 

The authors do not consider variation by socio-economic background amongst the high-achieving cohort, presumably because the data still does not support the pattern they previously identified for reading.

 

US studies

In 2007 the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation published ‘Achievement Trap: How America is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Low Income Backgrounds’ (Wyner, Bridgeland, Diiulio) The text was subsequently revised in 2009.

This focuses exclusively on gaps attributable to socio-economic status, by comparing the performance of those in the top and bottom halves of the family income distribution in the US, as adjusted for family size.

The achievement measure is top quartile performance on nationally normalised exams administered within two longitudinal studies: The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B).

The study reports that relatively few lower income students remain high achievers throughout their time in elementary and high school:

  • 56% remain high achievers in reading by Grade 5, compared with 69% of higher income students.
  • 25 percent fall out of the high achiever cohort in high school, compared with 16% of higher income students.
  • Higher income learners who are not high achievers in Grade 1 are more than twice as likely to be high achievers by Grade 5. The same is true between Grades 8 and 12.

2007 also saw the publication of ‘Overlooked Gems: A national perspective on low income promising learners’ (Van Tassel-Baska and Stambaugh). This is a compilation of the proceedings of a 2006 conference which does not attempt a single definition of the target group, but draws on a variety of different research studies and programmes, each with different starting points.

An influential 2009 McKinsey study ‘The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools’ acknowledges the existence of what it calls a ‘top gap’. They use this term with reference to:

  • the number of top performers and the level of top performance in the US compared with other countries and
  • the gap in the US between the proportion of Black/Latino students and the proportion of all students achieving top levels of performance.

The authors discuss the colossal economic costs of achievement gaps more generally, but fail to extend this analysis to the ‘top gap’ specifically.

In 2010 ‘Mind the Other Gap: The Growing Excellence Gap in K-12 Education’ (Plucker, Burroughs and Song) was published – and seems to have been the first study to use this term.

The authors define such gaps straightforwardly as

‘Differences between subgroups of students performing at the highest levels of achievement’

The measures of high achievement deployed are the advanced standards on US NAEP maths and reading tests, at Grades 4 and 8 respectively.

The study identifies gaps based on four sets of learner characteristics:

  • Socio-economic status (eligible or not for free or reduced price lunch).
  • Ethnic background (White versus Black and/or Hispanic).
  • English language proficiency (what we in England would call EAL, compared with non-EAL).
  • Gender (girls versus boys).

Each characteristic is dealt with in isolation, so there is no discussion of the gaps between – for example – disadvantaged Black/Hispanic and disadvantaged White boys.

In relation to socio-economic achievement gaps, Plucker et al find that:

  • In Grade 4 maths, from 1996 to 2007, the proportion of advantaged learners achieving the advanced level increased by 5.6 percentage points, while the proportion of disadvantaged learners doing so increased by 1.2 percentage points. In Grade 8 maths, these percentage point changes were 5.7 and 0.8 percentage points respectively. Allowing for changes in the size of the advantaged and disadvantaged cohorts, excellence gaps are estimated to have widened by 4.1 percentage points in Grade 4 (to 7.3%) and 4.9 percentage points in Grade 8 (to 8.2%).
  • In Grade 4 reading, from 1998 to 2007, the proportion of advantaged learners achieving the advanced level increased by 1.2 percentage points, while the proportion of disadvantaged students doing so increased by 0.8 percentage points. In Grade 8 reading, these percentage point changes were almost negligible for both groups. The Grade 4 excellence gap is estimated to have increased slightly, by 0.4 percentage points (to 9.4%) whereas Grade 8 gaps have increased minimally by 0.2 percentage points (to 3.1%).

They observe that the size of excellence gaps are, at best, only moderately correlated with those at lower levels of achievement.

There is a weak relationship between gaps at basic and advanced level – indeed ‘smaller achievement gaps among minimally competent students is related to larger gaps among advanced students’ – but there is some inter-relationship between those at proficient and advanced level.

They conclude that, whereas No Child Left Behind (NCLB) helped to narrow achievement gaps, this does not extend to high achievers.

There is no substantive evidence that the NCLB focus on lower achievers has increased the excellence gap, although the majority of states surveyed by the NAGC felt that NCLB had diverted attention and resource away from gifted education.

In 2011 ‘Do High Fliers Maintain their Altitude?’ (Xiang et al 2011) provides a US analysis of whether individual students remain high achievers throughout their school careers.

They do not report outcomes for disadvantaged high achievers, but do consider briefly those attending schools with high and low proportions respectively of students eligible for free and reduced price lunches.

For this section of the report, high achievement is defined as ‘those whose math or reading scores placed them within the top ten per cent of their individual grades and schools’. Learners were tracked from Grades 3 to 5 and Grades 6 to 8.

It is described as exploratory, because the sample was not representative.

However:

‘High-achieving students attending high-poverty schools made about the same amount of academic growth over time as their high-achieving peers in low-poverty schools…It appears that the relationship between a school’s poverty rate and the growth of its highest-achieving students is weak. In other words, attending a low-poverty school adds little to the average high achiever’s prospects for growth.’

The wider study was criticised in a review by the NEPC, in part on the grounds that the results may have been distorted by regression to the mean, a shortcoming only briefly discussed in an appendix..

The following year saw the publication of Unlocking Emergent Talent: Supporting High Achievement of Low-Income, High-Ability Students (Olszewski-Kubilius and Clarenbach, 2012).

This is the report of a national summit on the issue convened in that year by the NAGC.

It follows Plucker (one of the summit participants) in using as its starting point,the achievement of advanced level on selected NAEP assessments by learners eligible for free and reduced price lunches.

But it also reports some additional outcomes for Grade 12 and for assessments of civics and writing:

  • ‘Since 1998, 1% or fewer of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade free or reduced lunch students, compared to between 5% and 6% of non-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the NAEP civics exam.
  • Since 1998, 1% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP writing exam while the percentage of non-eligible students who achieved advanced scores increased from 1% to 3%.’

The bulk of the report is devoted to identifying barriers to progress and offering recommendations for improving policy, practice and research. I provided an extended analysis in this post from May 2013.

Finally, ‘Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and America’s Persistent Talent Underclass’ (Plucker, Hardesty and Burroughs 2013) is a follow-up to ‘Mind the Other Gap’.

It updates the findings in that report, as set out above:

  • In Grade 4 maths, from 1996 to 2011, the proportion of advantaged students scoring at the advanced level increased by 8.3 percentage points, while the proportion of disadvantaged learners doing so increased by 1.5 percentage points. At Grade 8, the comparable changes were 8.5 percentage points and 1.5 percentage points respectively. Excellence gaps have increased by 6.8 percentage points at Grade 4 (to 9.6%) and by 7 percentage points at Grade 8 (to 10.3%).
  • In Grade 4 reading, from 1998 to 2011, the proportion of advantaged students scoring at the advanced level increased by 2.6 percentage points, compared with an increase of 0.9 percentage points amongst disadvantaged learners. Grade 8 saw equivalent increases of 1.8 and 0.9 percentage points respectively. Excellence gaps are estimated to have increased at Grade 4 by 1.7 percentage points (to 10.7%) and marginally increased at Grade 8 by 0.9 percentage points (to 4.2%).

In short, many excellence gaps remain large and most continue to grow. The report’s recommendations are substantively the same as those put forward in 2010.

 

How Government education policy impacts on excellence gaps

Although many aspects of Government education policy may be expected to have some longer-term impact on raising the achievement of all learners, advantaged and disadvantaged alike, relatively few interventions are focused exclusively and directly on closing attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners – and so have the potential to makes a significant difference to excellence gaps.

The most significant of these include:

 

The Pupil Premium:

In November 2010, the IPPR voiced concerns that the benefits of the pupil premium might not reach all those learners who attract it.

Accordingly they recommended that pupil premium should be allocated directly to those learners through an individual Pupil Premium Entitlement which might be used to support a menu of approved activities, including ‘one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low income pupils’.

The recommendation has not been repeated and the present Government shows no sign of restricting schools’ freedom to use the premium in this manner.

However, the Blunkett Labour Policy Review ‘Putting students and parents first’ recommends that Labour in government should:

‘Assess the level and use of the Pupil Premium to ensure value for money, and that it is targeted to enhance the life chances of children facing the biggest challenges, whether from special needs or from the nature of the background and societal impact they have experienced.’

In February 2013 Ofsted reported that schools spending the pupil premium successfully to improve achievement:

‘Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels’.

Conversely, where schools were less successful in spending the funding, they:

‘focused on pupils attaining the nationally expected level at the end of the key stage…but did not go beyond these expectations, so some more able eligible pupils underachieved.’

In July 2013, DfE’s Evaluation of Pupil Premium reported that, when deciding which disadvantaged pupils to target for support, the top criterion was ‘low attainment’ and was applied in 91% of primary schools and 88% of secondary schools.

In June 2013, in ‘The Most Able Students’, Ofsted reported that:

‘Pupil Premium funding was used in only a few instances to support the most able students who were known to be eligible for free school meals. The funding was generally spent on providing support for all underachieving and low-attaining students rather than on the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Accordingly, it gave a commitment that:

‘Ofsted will… consider in more detail during inspection how well the pupil premium is used to support the most able students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

However, this was not translated into the school inspection guidance.

The latest edition of the School Inspection Handbook says only:

‘Inspectors should pay particular attention to whether more able pupils in general and the most able pupils in particular are achieving as well as they should. For example, does a large enough proportion of those pupils who had the highest attainment at the end of Key Stage 2 in English and mathematics achieve A*/A GCSE grades in these subjects by the age of 16?

Inspectors should summarise the achievements of the most able pupils in a separate paragraph of the inspection report.’

There is no reference to the most able in parallel references to the pupil premium.

There has, however, been some progress in giving learners eligible for the pupil premium priority in admission to selective schools.

In May 2014, the TES reported that:

‘Thirty [grammar] schools have been given permission by the Department for Education to change their admissions policies already. The vast majority of these will introduce the changes for children starting school in September 2015…A small number – five or six – have already introduced the reform.’

The National Grammar Schools Association confirmed that:

‘A significant number of schools 38 have either adopted an FSM priority or consulted about doing so in the last admissions round. A further 59 are considering doing so in the next admissions round.’

In July 2014, the Government launched a consultation on the School Admissions Code which proposes extending to all state-funded schools the option to give priority in their admission arrangements to learners eligible for the pupil premium. This was previously open to academies and free schools via their funding agreements.

 

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

The EEF describes itself as:

‘An independent grant-making charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents.’

The 2010 press release announcing its formation emphasised its role in raising standards in underperforming schools. This was reinforced by the Chairman in a TES article from June 2011:

‘So the target group for EEF-funded projects in its first couple of years are pupils eligible for free school meals in primary and secondary schools underneath the Government’s floor standards at key stages 2 and 4. That’s roughly 1,500 schools up and down the country. Projects can benefit other schools and pupils, as long as there is a significant focus on this core target group of the most needy young people in the most challenging schools.’

I have been unable to trace any formal departure from this position, though it no longer appears in this form in the Foundation’s guidance. The Funding FAQs say only:

‘In the case of projects involving the whole school, rather than targeted interventions, we would expect applicants to be willing to work with schools where the proportion of FSM-eligible pupils is well above the national average and/or with schools where FSM-eligible pupils are under-performing academically.’

I can find no EEF-funded projects that are exclusively or primarily focused on high-attaining disadvantaged learners, though a handful of its reports do refer to the impact on this group.

 

Changes to School Accountability Measures

As we have seen in Part one, the School Performance Tables currently provide very limited information about the performance of disadvantaged high achievers.

The July 2013 consultation document on primary assessment and accountability reform included a commitment to publish a series of headline measures in the tables including:

‘How many of the school’s pupils are among the highest-attaining nationally, by…showing the percentage of pupils attaining a high scaled score in each subject.’

Moreover, it added:

‘We will publish all the headline measures to show the attainment and progress of pupils for whom the school is in receipt of the pupil premium.’

Putting two and two together, this should mean that, from 2016, we will be able to see the percentage of pupil premium-eligible students achieving a high scaled score, though we do not yet know what ‘high scaled score’ means, nor do we know whether the data will be for English and maths separately or combined.

The October 2013 response to the secondary assessment and accountability consultation document fails to say explicitly whether excellence gap measures will be published in School Performance Tables.

It mentions that:

‘Schools will now be held to account for (a) the attainment of their disadvantaged pupils, (b) the progress made by their disadvantaged pupils, and (c) the in-school gap in attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.’

Meanwhile a planned data portal will contain:

‘the percentage of pupils achieving the top grades in GCSEs’

but the interaction between these two elements, if any, remains unclear.

The March 2014 response to the consultation on post-16 accountability and assessment says:

‘We intend to develop measures covering all five headline indicators for students in 16-19 education who were in receipt of pupil premium funding in year 11.’

The post-16 headline measures include a new progress measure and an attainment measure showing the average points score across all level 3 qualifications.

It is expected that a destination measure will also be provided, as long as the methodology can be made sufficiently robust. The response says:

‘A more detailed breakdown of destinations data, such as entry to particular groups of universities, will continue to be published below the headline. This will include data at local authority level, so that destinations for students in the same area can be compared.’

and this should continue to distinguish the destinations of disadvantaged students.

Additional A level attainment measures – the average grade across the best three A levels and the achievement of AAB grades with at least two in facilitating subjects seem unlikely to be differentiated according to disadvantage.

There remains a possibility that much more excellence gap data, for primary, secondary and post-16, will be made available through the planned school portal, but no specification had been made public at the time of writing.

More worryingly, recent news reports have suggested that the IT project developing the portal and the ‘data warehouse’ behind it has been abandoned. The statements refer to coninuing to deliver ‘the school performance tables and associated services’ but there is no clarification of whether this latter phrase includes the portal. Given the absence of an official statement, one suspects the worst.

 

 

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC)

The Commission was established with the expectation that it would ‘hold the Government’s feet to the fire’ to encourage progress on these two topics.

It publishes annual ‘state of the nation’ reports that are laid before Parliament and also undertakes ‘social mobility advocacy’.

The first annual report – already referenced in Part one – was published in November 2013. The second is due in October 2014.

The Chairman of the Commission was less than complimentary about the quality of the Government’s response to its first report, which made no reference to its comments about attainment gaps at higher grades. It remains to be seen whether the second will be taken any more seriously.

The Commission has already shown significant interest in disadvantaged high achievers – in June 2014 it published the study ‘Progress made by high-attaining children from disadvantaged backgrounds’ referenced above – so there is every chance that the topic will feature again in the 2014 annual report.

The Commission is of course strongly interested in the social mobility indicators and progress made against them, so may also include recommendations for how they might be adjusted to reflect changes to the schools accountability regime set out above.

 

Recommended reforms to close excellence gaps

Several proposals emerge from the commentary on current Government policy above:

  • It would be helpful to have further evaluation of the pupil premium to check whether high-achieving disadvantaged learners are receiving commensurate support. Schools need further guidance on ways in which they can use the premium to support high achievers. This should also be a focus for the pupil premium Champion and in pupil premium reviews.
  • Ofsted’s school inspection handbook requires revision to fulfil its commitment to focus on the most able in receipt of the premium. Inspectors also need guidance (published so schools can see it) to ensure common expectations are applied across institutions. These provisions should be extended to the post-16 inspection regime.
  • All selective secondary schools should be invited to prioritise pupil premium recipients in their admissions criteria, with the Government reserving the right to impose this on schools that do not comply voluntarily.
  • The Education Endowment Foundation should undertake targeted studies of interventions to close excellence gaps, but should also ensure that the impact on excellence gaps is mainstreamed in all the studies they fund. (This should be straightforward since their Chairman has already called for action on this front.)
  • The Government should consider the case for the inclusion of data on excellence gaps in all the headline measures in the primary, secondary and post-16 performance tables. Failing that, such data (percentages and numbers) should be readily accessible from a new data portal as soon as feasible, together with historical data of the same nature. (If the full-scale portal is no longer deliverable, a suitable alternative openly accessible database should be provided.) It should also publish annually a statistical analysis of all excellence gaps and the progress made towards closing them. As much progress as possible should be made before the new assessment and accountability regime is introduced. At least one excellence gap measure should be incorporated into revised DfE impact indicators and the social mobility indicators.
  • The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) should routinely consider the progress made in closing excellence gaps within its annual report – and the Government should commit to consider seriously any recommendations they offer to improve such progress.

This leaves the question whether there should be a national programme dedicated to closing excellence gaps, and so improving fair access to competitive universities. (It makes excellent sense to combine these twin objectives and to draw on the resources available to support the latter.)

Much of the research above – whether it originates in the US or UK – argues for dedicated state/national programmes to tackle excellence gaps.

More recently, the Sutton Trust has published a Social Mobility Manifesto for 2015 which recommends that the next government should:

‘Reintroduce ring-fenced government funding to support the most able learners (roughly the top ten per cent) in maintained schools and academies from key stage three upwards. This funding could go further if schools were required to provide some level of match funding.

Develop an evidence base of effective approaches for highly able pupils and ensure training and development for teachers on how to challenge their most able pupils most effectively.

Make a concerted effort to lever in additional support from universities and other partners with expertise in catering for the brightest pupils, including through creating a national programme for highly able learners, delivered through a network of universities and accessible to every state-funded secondary school serving areas of disadvantage.’

This is not as clear as it might be about the balance between support for the most able and the most able disadvantaged respectively.

I have written extensively about what shape such a programme should have, most recently in the final section of ‘Digging Beneath the Destination Measures’ (July 2014).

The core would be:

‘A light touch framework that will supply the essential minimum scaffolding necessary to support effective market operation on the demand and supply sides simultaneously…

The centrepiece of the framework would be a structured typology or curriculum comprising the full range of knowledge, skills and understanding required by disadvantaged students to equip them for progression to selective higher education

  • On the demand side this would enable educational settings to adopt a consistent approach to needs identification across the 11-19 age range. Provision from 11-14 might be open to any disadvantaged learner wishing it to access it, but provision from 14 onwards would depend on continued success against challenging attainment targets.
  • On the supply side this would enable the full range of providers – including students’ own educational settings – to adopt a consistent approach to defining which knowledge, skills and understanding their various programmes and services are designed to impart. They would be able to qualify their definitions according to the age, characteristics, selectivity of intended destination and/or geographical location of the students they serve.

With advice from their educational settings, students would periodically identify their learning needs, reviewing the progress they had made towards personal targets and adjusting their priorities accordingly. They would select the programmes and services best matched to their needs….

…Each learner within the programme would have a personal budget dedicated to purchasing programmes and services with a cost attached. This would be fed from several sources including:

  • Their annual Pupil Premium allocation (currently £935 per year) up to Year 11.
  • A national fund fed by selective higher education institutions. This would collect a fixed minimum topslice from each institution’s outreach budget, supplemented by an annual levy on those failing to meet demanding new fair access targets. (Institutions would also be incentivised to offer programmes and services with no cost attached.)
  • Philanthropic support, bursaries, scholarships, sponsorships and in-kind support sourced from business, charities, higher education, independent schools and parents. Economic conditions permitting, the Government might offer to match any income generated from these sources.’

 

Close

We know far too little than we should about the size of excellence gaps in England – and whether or not progress is being made in closing them.

I hope that this post makes some small contribution towards rectifying matters, even though the key finding is that the picture is fragmented and extremely sketchy.

Rudimentary as it is, this survey should provide a baseline of sorts, enabling us to judge more easily what additional information is required and how we might begin to frame effective practice, whether at institutional or national level.

 

GP

September 2014

Closing England’s Excellence Gaps: Part One

This post examines what we know – and do not know – about high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in England.

Mind the Gap by Clicsouris

Mind the Gap by Clicsouris

It assesses the capacity of current national education policy to close these gaps and recommends further action to improve the prospects of doing so rapidly and efficiently.

Because the post is extremely long I have divided it into two parts.

Part one comprises:

  • A working definition for the English context, explanation of the significance of excellence gaps, description of how this post relates to earlier material and provisional development of the theoretical model articulated in those earlier posts.
  • A summary of the headline data on socio-economic attainment gaps in England, followed by a review of published data relevant to excellence gaps at primary, secondary and post-16 levels.

Part two contains:

  • A distillation of research evidence, including material on whether disadvantaged high attainers remain so, international comparisons studies and research derived from them, and literature covering excellence gaps in the USA.
  • A brief review of how present Government policy might be expected to impact directly on excellence gaps, especially via the Pupil Premium, school accountability measures, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC). I have left to one side the wider set of reforms that might have an indirect and/or longer-term impact.
  • Some recommendations for strengthening our collective capacity to quantify address and ultimately close excellence gaps.

The post is intended to synthesise, supplement and update earlier material, so providing a baseline for further analysis – and ultimately consideration of further national policy intervention, whether under the present Government or a subsequent administration.

It does not discuss the economic and social origins of educational disadvantage, or the merits of wider policy to eliminate poverty and strengthen social mobility.

It starts from the premiss that, while education reform cannot eliminate the effects of disadvantage, it can make a significant, positive contribution by improving significantly the life chances of disadvantaged learners.

It does not debate the fundamental principle that, when prioritising educational support to improve the life chances of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, governments should not discriminate on the basis of ability or prior attainment.

It assumes that optimal policies will deliver improvement for all disadvantaged learners, regardless of their starting point. It suggests, however, that intervention strategies should aim for equilibrium, prioritising gaps that are furthest away from it and taking account of several different variables in the process.

 

A working definition for the English context

The literature in Part two reveals that there is no accepted universal definition of excellence gaps, so I have developed my own England-specific working definition for the purposes of this post.

An excellence gap is:

‘The difference between the percentage of disadvantaged learners who reach a specified age- or stage-related threshold of high achievement – or who secure the requisite progress between two such thresholds – and the percentage of all other eligible learners that do so.’

This demands further clarification of what typically constitutes a disadvantaged learner and a threshold of high achievement.

In the English context, the measures of disadvantage with the most currency are FSM eligibility (eligible for and receiving free school meals) and eligibility for the deprivation element of the pupil premium (eligible for and receiving FSM at some point in the preceding six years – often called ‘ever 6’).

Throughout this post, for the sake of clarity, I have given priority to the former over the latter, except where the former is not available.

The foregrounded characteristic is socio-economic disadvantage, but this does not preclude analysis of the differential achievement of sub-groups defined according to secondary characteristics including gender, ethnic background and learning English as an additional language (EAL) – as well as multiple combinations of these.

Some research is focused on ‘socio-economic gradients’, which show how gaps vary at different points of the achievement distribution on a given assessment.

The appropriate thresholds of high achievement are most likely to be measured through national assessments of pupil attainment, notably end of KS2 tests (typically Year 6, age 11), GCSE and equivalent examinations (typically Year 11, age 16) and A level and equivalent examinations (typically Year 13, age 18).

Alternative thresholds of high achievement may be derived from international assessments, such as PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS.

Occasionally – and especially in the case of these international studies – an achievement threshold is statistically derived, in the form of a percentile range of performance, rather than with reference to a particular grade, level or score. I have not allowed for this within the working definition.

Progress measures typically relate to the distance travelled between: baseline assessment (currently at the end of KS1 – Year 2, age 7 – but scheduled to move to Year R, age 4) and end of KS2 tests; or between KS2 tests and the end of KS4 (GCSE); or between GCSE and the end of KS5 (Level 3/A level).

Some studies extend the concept of progress between two thresholds to a longitudinal approach that traces how disadvantaged learners who achieve a particular threshold perform throughout their school careers – do they sustain early success, or fall away, and what proportion are ‘late bloomers’?

 

Why are excellence gaps important?

Excellence gaps are important for two different sets of reasons: those applying to all achievement gaps and those which apply more specifically or substantively to excellence gaps.

Under the first heading:

  • The goal of education should be to provide all learners, including disadvantaged learners, with the opportunity to maximise their educational potential, so eliminating ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’.
  • Schools should be ‘engines of social mobility’, helping disadvantaged learners to overcome their backgrounds and compete equally with their more advantaged peers.
  • International comparisons studies reveal that the most successful education systems can and do raise attainment for all and close socio-economic achievement gaps simultaneously.
  • There is a strong economic case for reducing – and ideally eradicating – underachievement attributable to disadvantage.

Under the second heading:

  • An exclusive or predominant focus on gaps at the lower end of the attainment distribution is fundamentally inequitable and tends to reinforce the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.
  • Disadvantaged learners benefit from successful role models – predecessors or peers from a similar background who have achieved highly and are reaping the benefits.
  • An economic imperative to increase the supply of highly-skilled labour will place greater emphasis on the top end of the achievement distribution. Some argue that there is a ‘smart fraction’ tying national economic growth to a country’s stock of high achievers. There may be additional spin-off benefits from increasing the supply of scientists, writers, artists, or even politicians!
  • The most highly educated disadvantaged learners are least likely to confer disadvantage on their children, so improving the proportion of such learners may tend to improve inter-generational social mobility.

Excellence gaps are rarely identified as such – the term is not yet in common usage in UK education, though it has greater currency in the US. Regardless of terminology, they rarely receive attention, either as part of a wider set of achievement gaps, or separately in their own right.

 

Relationship with earlier posts

Since this blog was founded in April 2010 I have written extensively about excellence gaps and how to address them.

The most pertinent of my previous posts are:

I have also written about excellence gaps in New Zealand – Part 1 and Part 2 (June 2012) – but do not draw on that material here.

Gifted education (or apply your alternative term) is amongst those education policy areas most strongly influenced by political and ideological views on the preferred balance between excellence and equity. This is particularly true of decisions about how best to address excellence gaps.

The excellence-equity trade-off was identified in my first post (May 2010) as one of three fundamental polarities that determine the nature of gifted education and provide the basis for most discussion about what form it should take.

The Gifted Phoenix Manifesto for Gifted Education (March 2013) highlighted their significance thus:

‘Gifted education is about balancing excellence and equity. That means raising standards for all while also raising standards faster for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Through combined support for excellence and equity we can significantly increase our national stock of high level human capital and so improve economic growth…

…Excellence in gifted education is about maximising the proportion of high achievers reaching advanced international benchmarks (eg PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) so increasing the ‘smart fraction’ which contributes to economic growth.

Equity in gifted education is about narrowing (and ideally eliminating) the excellence gap between high achievers from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds (which may be attributable in part to causes other than poverty). This also increases the proportion of high achievers, so building the ‘smart fraction’ and contributing to economic growth.’

More recently, one of the 10 draft core principles I set out in ‘Why Can’t We Have National Consensus on Educating High Attainers?’ (June 2014) said:

‘We must pursue simultaneously the twin priorities of raising standards and closing gaps. We must give higher priority to all disadvantaged learners, regardless of their prior achievement. Standards should continue to rise amongst all high achievers, but they should rise faster amongst disadvantaged high achievers. This makes a valuable contribution to social mobility.’

 

This model provisionally developed

Using my working definition as a starting point, this section describes a theoretical model showing how excellence and equity are brought to bear when considering excellence gaps – and then how best to address them.

This should be applicable at any level, from a single school to a national education system and all points in between.

The model depends on securing the optimal balance between excellence and equity where:

  • Excellence is focused on increasing the proportion of all learners who achieve highly and, where necessary, increasing the pitch of high achievement thresholds to remove unhelpful ceiling effects. The thresholds in question may be nationally or internationally determined and are most likely to register high attainment through a formal assessment process. (This may be extended so there is complementary emphasis on increasing the proportion of high-achieving learners who make sufficiently strong progress between two different age- or stage-related thresholds.)
  • Equity is focused on increasing the proportion of high-achieving disadvantaged learners (and/or the proportion of disadvantaged learners making sufficiently strong progress) at a comparatively faster rate, so they form a progressively larger proportion of the overall high-achieving population, up to the point of equilibrium, where advantaged and disadvantaged learners are equally likely to achieve the relevant thresholds (and/or progress measure). This must be secured without deliberately repressing improvement amongst advantaged learners – ie by introducing policies designed explicitly to limit their achievement and/or progress relative to disadvantaged learners – but a decision to do nothing or to redistribute resources in favour of disadvantage is entirely permissible.

The optimal policy response will depend on the starting position and the progress achieved over time.

If excellence gaps are widening, the model suggests that interventions and resources should be concentrated in favour of equity. Policies should be reviewed and adjusted, or strengthened where necessary, to meet the desired objectives.

If excellence gaps are widening rapidly, this reallocation and adjustment process will be relatively more substantial (and probably more urgent) than if they are widening more slowly.

Slowly widening gaps will demand more reallocation and adjustment than a situation where gaps are stubbornly resistant to improvement, or else closing too slowly. But even in the latter case there should be some reallocation and adjustment until equilibrium is achieved.

When excellence gaps are already closing rapidly – and there are no overt policies in place to deliberately repress improvement amongst high-achieving advantaged learners – it may be that unintended pressures in the system are inadvertently bringing this about. In that case, policy and resources should be adjusted to correct these pressures and so restore the correct twin-speed improvement.

The aim is to achieve and sustain equilibrium, even beyond the point when excellence gaps are eliminated, so that they are not permitted to reappear.

If ‘reverse gaps’ begin to materialise, where disadvantaged learners consistently outperform their more advantaged peers, this also threatens equilibrium and would suggest a proportionate redistribution of effort towards excellence.

Such scenarios are most likely to occur in settings where there are a large proportion of learners that, while not disadvantaged according to the ‘cliff edge’ definition required to make the distinction, are still relatively disadvantaged.

Close attention must therefore be paid to the distribution of achievement across the full spectrum of disadvantage, to ensure that success at the extreme of the distribution does not mask significant underachievement elsewhere.

One should be able to determine a more precise policy response by considering a restricted set of variables. These include:

  • The size of the gaps at the start of the process and, associated with this, the time limit allowed for equilibrium to be reached. Clearly larger gaps are more likely to take longer to close. Policy makers may conclude that steady improvement over several years is more manageable for the system than a rapid sprint towards equilibrium. On the other hand, there may be benefits associated with pace and momentum.
  • The rate at which overall high achievement is improving. If this is relatively fast, the rate of improvement amongst advantaged high achievers will be correspondingly strong, so the rate for disadvantaged high achievers must be stronger still.
  • The variance between excellence gaps at different ages/stages. If the gaps are larger at particular stages of education, the pursuit of equilibrium suggests disproportionate attention is given to those so gaps are closed consistently. If excellence gaps are small for relatively young learners and increase with age, priority should be given to the latter, but there may be other factors in play, such as evidence that closing relatively small gaps at an early stage will have a more substantial ‘knock-on’ effect later on.
  • The level at which high achievement thresholds are pitched. Obviously this will influence the size of the gaps that need to be closed. But, other things being equal, enabling a higher proportion of learners to achieve a relatively high threshold will demand more intensive support. On the other hand, relatively fewer learners – whether advantaged or disadvantaged – are likely to be successful. Does one need to move a few learners a big distance or a larger proportion a smaller one?
  • Whether or not gaps at lower achievement thresholds are smaller and/or closing at a faster rate. If so, there is a strong case for securing parity of progress at higher and lower thresholds alike. On the other hand, if excellence gaps are closing more quickly, it may be appropriate to reallocate resources away from them and towards lower levels of achievement.
  • The relative size of the overall disadvantaged population, the associated economic gap between advantage and disadvantage and (as suggested above) the distribution in relation to the cut-off. If the definition of disadvantage is pitched relatively low (ie somewhat disadvantaged), the disadvantaged population will be correspondingly large, but the economic gap between advantage and disadvantage will be relatively small. If the definition is pitched relatively high (ie very disadvantaged) the reverse will be true, giving a comparatively small disadvantaged population but a larger gap between advantage and disadvantage.
  • The proportion of the disadvantaged population that is realistically within reach of the specified high achievement benchmarks. This variable is a matter of educational philosophy. There is merit in an inclusive approach – indeed it seems preferable to overestimate this proportion than the reverse. Extreme care should be taken not to discourage late developers or close off opportunities on the basis of comparatively low current attainment, so reinforcing existing gaps through unhelpfully low expectations. On the other hand, supporting unrealistically high expectations may be equally damaging and ultimately waste scarce resources. There may be more evidence to support such distinctions with older learners than with their younger peers. 

 

How big are England’s headline attainment gaps and how fast are they closing?

Closing socio-economic achievement gaps has been central to English educational policy for the last two decades, including under the current Coalition Government and its Labour predecessor.

It will remain an important priority for the next Government, regardless of the outcome of the 2015 General Election.

The present Government cites ‘Raising the achievement of disadvantaged children’ as one of ten schools policies it is pursuing.

The policy description describes the issue thus:

‘Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to get good GCSE results. Attainment statistics published in January 2014 show that in 2013 37.9% of pupils who qualified for free school meals got 5 GCSEs, including English and mathematics at A* to C, compared with 64.6% of pupils who do not qualify.

We believe it is unacceptable for children’s success to be determined by their social circumstances. We intend to raise levels of achievement for all disadvantaged pupils and to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.’

The DfE’s input and impact indicators  – showing progress against the priorities set out in its business plan – do not feature the measure mentioned in the policy description (which is actually five or more GCSEs at Grades A*-C or equivalents, including GCSEs in English and maths).

The gap on this measure was 27.7% in 2009, improving to 26.7% in 2013, so there has been a small 1.0 percentage point improvement over five years, spanning the last half of the previous Government’s term in office and the first half of this Government’s term.

Instead the impact indicators include three narrower measures focused on closing the attainment gap between free school meal pupils and their peers, at 11, 16 and 19 respectively:

  • Impact Indicator 7 compares the percentages of FSM-eligible and all other pupils achieving level 4 or above in KS2 assessment of reading, writing and maths. The 2013 gap is 18.7%, down 0.4% from 19.1% in 2012.
  • Impact Indicator 8 compares the percentages of FSM-eligible and all other pupils achieving A*-C grades in GCSE maths and English. The 2013 gap is 26.5%, up 0.3% from 26.2% in 2012.
  • Impact Indicator 9 compares the percentages of learners who were FSM-eligible at age 15 and all other learners who attain a level 3 qualification by the end of the academic year in which they are 19. The 2013 gap is 24.3%, up 0.1% from 24.2% in 2012.

These small changes, not always pointing in the right direction, reflect the longer term narrative, as is evident from the Government’s Social Mobility Indicators which also incorporate these three measures.

  • In 2005-06 the KS2 L4 maths and English gap was 25.0%, so there has been a fairly substantial 6.3 percentage point reduction over seven years, but only about one quarter of the gap has been closed.
  • In 2007-08 the KS4 GCSE maths and English gap was 28.0%, so there has been a minimal 1.5 percentage point reduction over six years, equivalent to annual national progress of 0.25 percentage points per year. At that rate it will take another century to complete the process.
  • In 2004-05 the Level 3 qualification gap was 26.4%, so there has been a very similar 2.1 percentage point reduction over 8 years.

The DfE impact indicators also include a set of three destination measures that track the percentage of FSM learners progressing to Oxford and Cambridge, any Russell Group university and any university.

There is a significant time lag with all of these – the most recent available data relates to 2011/2012 – and only two years of data have been collected.

All show an upward trend. Oxbridge is up from 0.1% to 0.2%, Russell Group up from 3% to 4% and any university up from 45% to 47% – actually a 2.5 percentage point improvement.

The Oxbridge numbers are so small that a percentage measure is a rather misleading indicator of marginal improvement from a desperately low base.

It is important to note that forthcoming changes to the assessment regime will impose a different set of headline indicators at ages 11 and 16 that will not be comparable with these.

From 2014 significant methodological adjustments are being introduced to School Performance Tables that significantly restrict the range of qualifications equivalent to GCSEs. Only the first entry in each subject will count for Performance Table purposes, this applying to English Baccalaureate subjects in 2014 and then all subjects in 2015.

Both these factors will tend to depress overall results and may be expected to widen attainment gaps on the headline KS4 measure as well as the oft-cited 5+ GCSEs measure.

From 2016 new baseline assessments, the introduction of scaled scores at the end of KS2 and a new GCSE grading system will add a further layer of change.

As a consequence there will be substantial revisions to the headline measures in Primary, Secondary and Post-16 Performance Tables. The latter will include destination measures, provided they can be made methodologically sound.

At the time of writing, the Government has made negligible reference to the impact of these reforms on national measures of progress, including its own Impact Indicators and the parallel Social Mobility indicators, though the latter are reportedly under review.

 

Published data on English excellence gaps

The following sections summarise what data I can find in the public domain about excellence gaps at primary (KS2), secondary (KS4) and post-16 (KS5) respectively.

I have cited the most recent data derivable from Government statistical releases and performance tables, supplemented by other interesting findings gleaned from research and commentary.

 

Primary (KS2) 

The most recent national data is contained in SFR51/2013: National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2: 2012 to 2013. This provides limited information about the differential performance of learners eligible for and receiving FSM (which I have referred to as ‘FSM’), and for those known to be eligible for FSM at any point from Years 1 to 6 (known as ‘ever 6’ and describing those in receipt of the Pupil Premium on grounds of deprivation).

There is also additional information in the 2013 Primary School Performance Tables, where the term ‘disadvantaged’ is used to describe ‘ever 6’ learners and ‘children looked after’.

There is comparably little variation between these different sets of figures at national level. In the analysis below (and in the subsequent section on KS4) I have used FSM data wherever possible, but have substituted ‘disadvantaged’ data where FSM is not available.  All figures apply to state-funded schools only.

I have used Level 5 and above as the best available proxy for high attainment. Some Level 6 data is available, but in percentages only, and these are all so small that comparisons are misleading.

The Performance Tables distinguish a subset of high attainers, on the basis of prior attainment (at KS1 for KS2 and at KS2 for KS4) but no information is provided about the differential performance of advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers.

In 2013:

  • 21% of all pupils achieved Level 5 or above in reading, writing and maths combined, but only 10% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 26% of others, giving an attainment gap of 16%. The comparable gap at Level 4B (in reading and maths and L4 in writing) was 18%. At Level 4 (across the board) it was 20%. In this case, the gaps are slightly larger at lower attainment levels but, whereas the L4 gap has narrowed by 1% since 2012, the L5 gap has widened by 1%.
  • In reading, 44% of all pupils achieved Level 5 and above, but only 21% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 48% of others, giving an attainment gap of 21%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was eight percentage points lower at 13%.
  • In writing (teacher assessment), 31% of all pupils achieved level 5 and above, but only 15% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 34% of others, giving an attainment gap of 19%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was three percentage points lower at 16%.
  • In grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS), 47% of all pupils achieved Level 5 and above, but only 31% of FSM pupils did so, compared with 51% of others, giving an attainment gap of 20%. The comparable gap at Level 4 and above was two percentage points lower at 18%.
  • In maths, 41% of pupils in state-funded schools achieved Level 5 and above, up 2% on 2012. But only 24% of FSM pupils achieved this compared with 44% of others, giving an attainment gap of 20%. The comparable gap at level 4 and above is 13%.

Chart 1 shows these outcomes graphically. In four cases out of five, the gap at the higher attainment level is greater, substantially so in reading and maths. All the Level 5 gaps fall between 16% and 20%.

 

Ex gap table 1

Chart 1: Percentage point gaps between FSM and all other pupils’ attainment at KS2 L4 and above and KS2 L5 and above, 2013 

 

It is difficult to trace reliably the progress made in reducing these gaps in English, since the measures have changed frequently. There has been more stability in maths, however, and the data reveals that – whereas the FSM gap at Level 4 and above has reduced by 5 percentage points since 2008 (from 18 points to 13 points) – the FSM gap at Level 5 and above has remained between 19 and 20 points throughout. Hence the gap between L4+ and L5+ on this measure has increased in the last five years.

There is relatively little published about KS2 excellence gaps elsewhere, though one older Government publication, a DfES Statistical Bulletin: The characteristics of high attainers (2007) offers a small insight.

It defines KS2 high attainers as the top 10%, on the basis of finely grained average points scores across English, maths and science, so a more selective but wider-ranging definition than any of the descriptors of Level 5 performance above.

According to this measure, some 2.7% of FSM-eligible pupils were high attainers in 2006, compared with 11.6% of non-FSM pupils, giving a gap of 8.9 percentage points.

The Bulletin supplies further analysis of this population of high attainers, summarised in the table reproduced below.

 

EX Gap Capture 1 

  

Secondary (KS4) 

While Government statistical releases provide at least limited data about FSM performance at high levels in end of KS2 assessments, this is entirely absent from KS4 data, because there is no information about the achievement of GCSE grades above C, whether for single subjects or combinations.

The most recent publication: SFR05/2014: GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics, offers a multitude of measures based on Grades G and above or C and above, many of which are set out in Chart 2, which illustrates the FSM gap on each, organised in order from the smallest gap to the biggest.

(The gap cited here for A*-C grades in English and maths GCSEs is very slightly different to the figure in the impact indicator.)

 

Ex gap table 2

Chart 2: Percentage point gaps between FSM and all other pupils’ attainment on different KS4 measures, 2013

 

In its State of the Nation Report 2013, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission included a table comparing regional performance on a significantly more demanding ‘8+ GCSEs excluding equivalents and including English and maths’ measure. This uses ‘ever 6’ rather than FSM as the indicator of disadvantage.

The relevant table is reproduced below. It shows regional gaps of between 20 and 26 percentage points on the tougher measure, so a similar order of magnitude to the national indicators at the top end of Chart 2.

 

ExGap 2 Capture

 

Comparing the two measures, one can see that:

  • The percentages of ‘ever 6’ learners achieving the more demanding measure are very much lower than the comparable percentages achieving the 5+ GCSEs measure, but the same is also true of their more advantaged peers.
  • Consequently, in every region but London and the West Midlands, the attainment gap is actually larger for the less demanding measure.
  • In London, the gaps are much closer, at 19.1 percentage points on the 5+ measure and 20.9 percentage points on the 8+ measure. In the West Midlands, the gap on the 8+ measure is larger by five percentage points. In all other cases, the difference is at least six percentage points in the other direction.

We do not really understand the reasons why London and the West Midlands are atypical in this respect.

The Characteristics of High Attainers (2007) provides a comparable analysis for KS4 to that already referenced at KS2. In this case, the top 10% of high attainers is derived on the basis of capped GCSE scores.

This gives a gap of 8.8 percentage points between the proportion of non-FSM (11.2%) and FSM (2.4%) students within the defined population, very similar to the parallel calculation at KS2.

Other variables within this population are set out in the table reproduced below.

 

ExGap Capture 3

Finally, miscellaneous data has also appeared from time to time in the answers to Parliamentary Questions. For example:

  • In 2003, 1.0% of FSM-eligible learners achieved five or more GCSEs at A*/A including English and maths but excluding equivalents, compared with 6.8% of those not eligible, giving a gap of 5.8 percentage points. By 2009 the comparable percentages were 1.7% and 9.0% respectively, resulting in an increased gap of 7.3 percentage points (Col 568W)
  • In 2006/07, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils securing A*/A grades at GCSE in different subjects, compared with the percentage of all pupils in maintained schools doing so were as shown in the table below (Col 808W)
FSM All pupils Gap
Maths 3.7 15.6 11.9
Eng lit 4.1 20.0 15.9
Eng lang 3.5 16.4 12.9
Physics 2.2 49.0 46.8
Chemistry 2.5 48.4 45.9
Biology 2.5 46.8 44.3
French 3.5 22.9 19.4
German 2.8 23.2 20.4

Table 1: Percentage of FSM-eligible and all pupils achieving GCSE A*/A grades in different GCSE subjects in 2007

  • In 2008, 1% of FSM-eligible learners in maintained schools achieved A* in GCSE maths compared with 4% of all pupils in maintained schools. The comparable percentages for Grade A were 3% and 10% respectively, giving an A*/A gap of 10 percentage points (Col 488W)

 

Post-16 (KS5)

The most recent post-16 attainment data is provided in SFR10/2014: Level 2 and 3 attainment by young people aged 19 in 2013 and SFR02/14: A level and other level 3 results: academic year 2012 to 2013.

The latter contains a variety of high attainment measures – 3+ A*/A grades;  AAB grades or better; AAB grades or better with at least two in facilitating subjects;  AAB grades or better, all in facilitating subjects – yet none of them distinguish success rates for advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

The former does includes a table which provides a time series of gaps for achievement of Level 3 at age 19 through 2 A levels or the International Baccalaureate. The measure of disadvantage is FSM-eligibility in Year 11. The gap was 22.0 percentage points in 2013, virtually unchanged from 22.7 percentage points in 2005.

In (How) did New Labour narrow the achievement and participation gap (Whitty and Anders, 2014) the authors reproduce a chart from a DfE roundtable event held in March 2013 (on page 44).

This is designed to show how FSM gaps vary across key stages and also provides ‘odds ratios’ – the relative chances of FSM and other pupils achieving each measure. It relies on 2012 outcomes.

The quality of the reproduction is poor, but it seems to suggest that, using the AAB+ in at least two facilitating subjects measure, there is a five percentage point gap between FSM students and others (3% versus 8%), while the odds ratio shows that non-FSM students are 2.9 times more likely than FSM students to achieve this outcome.

Once again, occasional replies to Parliamentary Questions provide some supplementary information:

  • In 2007, 189 FSM-eligible students (3.7%) in maintained mainstream schools (so excluding sixth form colleges and FE colleges) achieved 3 A grades at A level. This compared with 13,467 other students (9.5%) giving a gap of 5.8 percentage points (Source: Parliamentary Question, 26 November 2008, Hansard (Col 1859W)
  • In 2008, 160 students (3.5%) eligible for FSM achieved that outcome. This compares with 14,431 (10.5%) of those not eligible for FSM, giving a gap of 7.0 percentage points. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds, in maintained schools only, who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth form colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are counted. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
  • Of pupils entering at least one A level in 2010/11 and eligible for FSM at the end of Year 11, 546 (4.1%) achieved 3 or more GCE A levels at A*-A compared with 22,353 other pupils (10.6%) so giving a gap of 6.5 percentage points. These figures include students in both the schools and FE sectors. (Parliamentary Question, 9 July 2012, Hansard (Col 35W)) 

 In September 2014, a DfE response to a Freedom of Information request provided some additional data about FSM gaps at A level over the period from 2009 to 2013. This is set out in the table below, which records the gaps between FSM and all other pupils, presumably for all schools and colleges, whether or not state-funded.

Apart from the atypical result for the top indicator in 2010, all these percentages fall in the range 6.0% to 10%, so are in line with the sources above.

 

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
3+ grades at A*/A or applied single/double award 9.0 12.8 9.3 8.7 8.3
AAB+ grades in facilitating subjects 6.3 6.2
AAB+ grades at least 2 in facilitating subjects 9.8

 

Additional evidence of Key Stage excellence gaps from a sample born in 1991

In Progress made by high-achieving children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Crawford, Macmillan and Vignoles, 2014) provides useful data on the size of excellence gaps at different key stages, as well as analysis of whether disadvantaged high achievers remain so through their school careers.

The latter appears in Part two, but the first set of findings provides a useful supplement to the broad picture set out above.

This study is based on a sample of learners born in 1991/1992, so they would presumably have taken end of KS2 tests in 2002, GCSEs in 2007 and A levels in 2009. It includes all children who attended a state primary school, including those who subsequently attended an independent secondary school.

It utilises a variety of measures of disadvantage, including whether learners were always FSM-eligible (in Years 7-11), or ‘ever FSM’ during that period. This summary focuses on the distinction between ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’.

It selects a basket of high attainment measures spread across the key stages, including:

  • At KS1, achieving Level 3 or above in reading and maths.
  • At KS2, achieving Level 5 or above in English and maths.
  • At KS4, achieving six or more GCSEs at grades A*-C in EBacc subjects (as well as five or more).
  • At KS5, achieving two or more (and three or more) A levels at grades A-B in any subjects.
  • Also at KS5, achieving two or more (and three or more) A levels at grades A-B in facilitating subjects.

The choice of measures at KS2 and KS5 is reasonable, reflecting the data available at the time. For example, one assumes that A* grades at A level do not feature in the KS5 measures since they were not introduced until 2010).

At KS4, the selection is rather more puzzling and idiosyncratic. It would have been preferable to have included at least one measure based on performance across a range of GCSEs at grades A*-B or A*/A.

The authors justify their decision on the basis that ‘there is no consensus on what is considered high attainment’, even though most commentators would expect this to reflect higher grade performance, while few are likely to define it solely in terms of breadth of study across a prescribed set of ‘mainstream’ subjects.

Outcomes for ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’ on the eight measures listed above are presented in Chart 3.

Ex gap Table 3

Chart 3: Achievement of ‘always FSM’ and ‘never FSM’ on a basket of high attainment measures for pupils born in 1991/92

 

This reveals gaps of 12 to 13 percentage points at Key Stages 1 and 2, somewhat smaller than several of those described above.

It is particularly notable that the 2013 gap for KS2 L5 reading, writing and maths is 16 percentage points, whereas the almost comparable 2002 (?) gap for KS2 English and maths amongst this sample is 13.5%. Even allowing for comparability issues, there may tentative evidence here to suggest widening excellence gaps at KS2 over the last decade.

The KS4 gaps are significantly larger than those existing at KS1/2, at 27 and 18 percentage points respectively. But comparison with the previous evidence reinforces the point that the size of the gaps in this sample is attributable to subject mix: this must be the case since the grade expectation is no higher than C.

The data for A*/A performance on five or more GCSEs set out above, which does not insist on coverage of EBacc subjects other than English and maths, suggests a gap of around seven percentage points. But it also demonstrates big gaps – again at A*/A – for achievement in single subjects, especially the separate sciences.

The KS5 gaps on this sample range from 2.5 to 13 percentage points. We cited data above suggesting a five percentage point gap in 2012 for AAB+, at least two in facilitating subjects. These findings do not seem wildly out of kilter with that, or with the evidence of gaps of around six to seven percentage points for AAA grades or higher.

 

Overall pattern 

The published data provides a beguiling glimpse of the size of excellence gaps and how they compare with FSM gaps on the key national benchmarks.

But discerning the pattern is like trying to understand the picture on a jigsaw when the majority of pieces are missing.

The received wisdom is capture in the observation by Whitty and Anders that:

‘Even though the attainment gap in schools has narrowed overall, it is largest for the elite measures’

and the SMCPC’s comment that:

‘…the system is better at lifting children eligible for FSM above a basic competence level (getting 5A*–C) than getting them above a tougher level of attainment likely to secure access to top universities.’

This seems broadly true, but the detailed picture is rather more complicated.

  • At KS2 there are gaps at L5 and above of around 16-20 percentage points, the majority higher than the comparable gaps at L4. But the gaps for core subjects combined are smaller than for each assessment. There is tentative evidence that the former may be widening.
  • At KS4 there are very significant differences between results in individual subjects. When it comes to multi-subject indicators, differences in the choice of subject mix – as well as choice of grade – make it extremely difficult to draw even the most tentative conclusions about the size of excellence gaps and how they relate to benchmark-related gaps at KS4 and excellence gaps at KS2.
  • At KS5, the limited evidence suggests that A level excellence gaps at the highest grades are broadly similar to those at GCSE A*/A. If anything, gaps seem to narrow slightly compared with KS4. But the confusion over KS4 measures makes this impossible to verify.

We desperately need access to a more complete dataset so we can understand these relationships more clearly.

This is the end of Part one. In Part two, we move on to consider evidence about whether high attainers remain so, before examining international comparisons data and related research, followed by excellence gaps analysis from the USA.

Part two concludes with a short review of how present government policy impacts on excellence gaps and some recommendations for strengthening the present arrangements.

 

GP

September 2014

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’

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This post reviews ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’, a recent publication about support for low income high ability students by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the United States, and considers its relevance to other national settings, especially England.

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

Although not formally part of the ‘Summer of Love’ series, this is linked to those posts. It offers a useful comparator for an upcoming report on supporting high-achieving disadvantaged learners towards higher education, third of a trio of publications that are staging-posts in the sequence.

It also offers some basis for judgement whether the wider narrative devotes sufficient attention to the equity dimension of gifted education. My Gifted Phoenix Manifesto asserts that it is essential to maintain equity-driven gap-narrowing in judicious balance with excellence-driven efforts to raise standards for all gifted learners regardless of background.

I am particularly interested in the implications for the design of suitable policy interventions. But also in the application in England of the Pupil Premium, additional funding determined by the number of disadvantaged pupils which schools are expected to use to reduce the attainment gap between them and their peers.

The key issue is whether or not the Premium is being utilised effectively to tackle excellence gaps between high attaining learners – and the prospects for further improvement in that quarter, should it be needed.

The NAGC report does not help in this respect, but I have taken the liberty of introducing additional material relevant to the topic, because it is so pivotal to the equity strand of the emerging ‘Summer of Love’ narrative. Put crudely, understanding what constitutes an effective intervention is of limited value if there is no resource or incentive to implement it.

While ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ remains the centrepiece of the post, I have also factored in other recent and relevant material from a variety of US and English sources, especially where it seems to me that the argument in NAGC’s publication is guilty of elision, or needs tempering to enhance its relevance to English settings.

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The Summit

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ made its appearance in November 2012, the product of a two-day National Summit on Low-Income High Ability Learners which took place from 30-31 May, with support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The NAGC Website retains a page dedicated to the Summit including biographies of many of the participants and a multitude of background reading. The supporting resources include a list of Summit Presenter Recommended Readings and an Annotated Bibliography. Other useful contributions have been linked into the text below.

According to the Agenda:

  • The event began with an overview and expectation-setting session led by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Director of CTD at Northwestern University and current NAGC President;
  • There was a presentation on The Effects of Poverty on Educational Opportunity by Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute. Three respondents subsequently shared their thoughts on how poverty-related issues present amongst different US populations.
  • Paula Olszewski-Kubilius introduced the themes and rationale for an ensuing discussion focused respectively on school programmes and supplemental programmes that ‘work with promising learners from poverty’. Brief composite summaries of the featured school and supplemental programmes are provided. (Further links to each programme are supplied below.)
  • Following small group discussion and a first stab at delineating an emerging research agenda, the next session focused on ‘Building a Psychological Entity that Supports Commitment to High Achievement/Psycho-social Skills and Issues with Promising Learners from Poverty’.  This featured Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania (whose presentation is here) and Frank Worrell, from the University of California.
  • The second day kicked off with a session on ‘Research and Policy: Next Steps for Action/Reinventing the System for High Ability Learners from Poverty’ with inputs from Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B Fordham Institute and Jonathan Plucker, then Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University (whose presentation is here).
  • Finally ‘Overlooked Gems Then and Now: What’s Changed, What’s the Same’ – a comparison between the outcomes of an earlier NAGC venture into this territory and the current effort – was led by Joyce VanTassel- Baska from the College of William and Mary Center for Gifted Education.

The resulting publication ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ divides participants in a slightly different way, citing Olszewski-Kubilius, Duckworth, Finn, Plucker, Worrall and Wyner respectively as ‘Featured Presenters’, followed by 18 ‘Moderators, Panelists and Respondents’ and a further 35 ‘Participants’.

Of these 59, all are resident in the United States. Almost half are academics employed in US universities, a further 15 or so work in district, county or state education departments or state associations for the gifted. The remainder are associated with selected programmes featured in the publication or with the sponsors (whose programmes also feature).

It says that the Summit was intended to:

  • Share recent research on the education and development of low-income high ability learners;
  • Identify barriers that prevent them from reaching the highest levels of school achievement and ‘success in adulthood commensurate with their abilities’;
  • Share details of successful school-based and supplementary programmes;
  • Synthesise best practice for identifying and supporting low-income learners, ‘especially culturally and linguistically diverse students’; and
  • Generate a research agenda to inform future practice.

It explains that the Summit and Report together were designed to build on the earlier publication ‘Overlooked Gems: A National Perspective on Low-Income Promising Learners’ dating from 2007. NAGC’s page on the Summit carries a shorter summary of the proceedings of the April 2006 conference that generated this report.

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is divided into a series of short chapters which dart around the territory and include a fair degree of duplication. So, in undertaking this analysis, I have taken the liberty of reorganising the material to focus respectively on:

  • The nature of the problem, as currently manifested in US education, including evidence of underachievement and analysis of the barriers to progress and participation by this target group. I have undertaken a good deal more ‘ground-clearing’ than appears in the report itself;
  • The skills and attitudes that can inhibit progress by such learners (which the Report calls ‘Psychosocial Issues’);
  • Effective policies, initiatives, programmes and practice – and the problems associated with replication and scaling (which are given rather cursory treatment);
  • The identified research agenda, insofar as this throws further light on the material already presented.

I have introduced commentary on different but associated material throughout the analysis, wherever it seems to fit best. Much is concentrated in the first part of the post, which considers in some detail the issues that ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is designed to address.

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Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix

Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix

 

Defining the Target Group

The report is rather remiss in not bothering to define with any exactitude what constitutes a ‘Low Income High Ability Student’ and in failing to engage with the issues that arise from the adoption of a definition.

The low income dimension is associated principally with eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, the criterion applied to data published through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The analysis also makes use of PISA data on the comparative performance of learners from different socio-economic backgrounds and how this varies between countries.

There is no comparison of these measures and no exploration of their good and bad points compared with alternative approaches to defining educational disadvantage.

Any treatment of these issues in England would be certain to include some commentary on the pros and cons of eligibility for free school meals (FSM) as a measure, compared with alternatives that utilise a localised geographical indicator, based on wards or neighbourhoods, or possibly even an alternative proxy derived from family background.

This analysis suggests that such issues are equally pertinent in the US:

‘Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau (currently $21,756 for a family of four). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch…

…Researchers often use free or reduced price lunch (FRPL) enrollment figures as a proxy for poverty at the school level, because Census poverty data (which is used at the state and district level) is not available disaggregated below the school district level and is not collected annually…

While FRPL data is generally a reliable poverty indicator in the elementary grades, it is less so in the high school grades. Because free and reduced price lunch is an opt-in program at the majority of schools, researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-represented in school lunch program enrollment. High school students may refuse to enroll in FRPL due to a perceived stigma attached to the program.’

The high ability dimension is comparatively muddier, in that the report relies principally on attainment measures – the Advanced Level on NAEP assessments and, on one occasion, ‘the highest achievement levels’ in PISA assessments of reading maths and science (for background on the latter see this previous post).

This introduces into proceedings the oft-encountered confusion between ability and attainment/achievement, which are of course quite different animals. Indeed the difference between ability unfulfilled and ability already manifested through high attainment/achievement is absolutely pivotal to this topic.

The problem is that much of the available data relates to high achievement, as opposed to high ability. The resulting bias towards achievement data reproduces at macro level an issue often encountered in identification for gifted programmes, where attainment evidence is  paramount, resulting in neglect of learners with unfulfilled potential, often attributable to disadvantage.

It is strange that no use is made of data about the composition of the population served by gifted programmes of different kinds and levels, even though there must be abundant evidence that many of these are heavily skewed against learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There may even be aggregated national data available. If there is a gifted flag and a FRPL flag in the national data collection, what is the problem in establishing the relationship?

Certainly the Office for Civil Rights publishes information (page 9) about the ethnic composition of gifted programmes nationally.

Their March 2012 summary notes that almost three-quarters of students enrolled in gifted and talented education (GATE) are either White (62%) or Asian (10%) whereas the overall enrolment rates for these populations in areas offering GATE programming are 49% and 5% respectively. Contrastingly, 16% of GATE enrolments are Hispanic and 10% Black, while the comparable overall enrolment rates are 25% and 19% respectively.

Across the sample, only 4% of African-American and 5% of Hispanic students are enrolled in gifted programmes.

This introduces a second problem, in that there is evidence throughout that the report is relying disproportionately on material – both data and research – about the under-representation of (and limited support for) learners from minority ethnic backgrounds in gifted programmes, as opposed to material that relates directly to learners of any ethnic background who are from low-income families.

This is understandable, given the prominent historical focus on minority provision in the US. There are signs that the focus is beginning to shift, given recent data about the increasing size of income achievement gaps compared with minority achievement gaps (see below).

England has already moved to perceiving this issue predominantly through the lens of financial disadvantage, an adjustment that also came about in recognition that some minority ethnic achievement gaps are narrowing (although others remain pronounced) and that financial disadvantage is apparently the core problem.

This approach is not without its critics, since other explanations of minority ethnic gaps may tend to be underplayed as a consequence.

On the other hand, the historical emphasis on minorities may have tended to obscure and even aggravate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners in majority populations. In England, white working class boys are a particular cause for concern.

While there is clear and significant overlap between minority ethnic and financially disadvantaged populations, whether in the US or England, they are by no means synonymous in either country, so prominent health warnings are necessary whenever such assumptions are made.

I have made similar observations in respect of New Zealand, where minority ethnic issues are so prominent in educational discourse – including discourse about gifted education – that they appear to overshadow the issue of financial disadvantage.

To give this report credit, it does point out quite clearly that, while poverty and ethnicity overlap, they are by not the same thing. Three general assumptions are expressed:

  • ‘Poverty and minority status are not the same. Although there is overlap, poverty manifests differently based on geography, ethnicity, and race.
  • Poverty is pervasive and includes students from rural, White, urban, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and other cultural backgrounds.
  • Typical characteristics of gifted students may manifest differently in low-income, high-ability learners.’

Earlier in the report, 2010 Census data is quoted revealing that 38% of African-American, 32% of Hispanic, 17% of White and 14% of Asian children ‘live in low socio-economic circumstances’. (It is not stated whether this is defined by FRPL or some alternative indicator).

It might have gone further in clarifying that the broader construct of disadvantage reflects the complex interaction between these factors and several others, not least gender, parental level of education, incidence of special educational needs, English as an additional language and even month of birth. As in the UK, it is quite likely that social class may also be a factor.

The large number of variables that may impact on disadvantage in any one individual reinforces the danger of embarking on analysis that gives particular prominence to any single factor, even if evidence suggests that it is the main driver.

It is also a salutary reminder that the response to disadvantage – whether or not within gifted programmes – must be tailored to individual circumstances. The data and research evidence may point to significant trends, but programmes will stand or fall on their capacity to address each learner’s unique needs.

It follows that regular assessment of those needs and how they are changing over time is an essential element of effective practice (and one that is probably underplayed in Unlocking Emergent Talent).

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Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix

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Analysis of the Problem

The initial Overview section of the report identifies these constituent elements of the problem it seeks to address:

  • Relatively few US students of any description are achieving levels of excellence, whether defined in terms of NAEP Advanced Level or the highest levels of PISA assessment.
  • Poverty has a negative impact on educational achievement. The report draws first on evidence of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on achievement gaps in the US, compared with other countries, drawn from analysis of PISA 2006 and 2009. The point could have been illustrated pertinently by this diagram

OECD Numbers Final.xlsx

Incidentally, the UK is close to the OECD average (14.0) on this measure

  • Within the US there are also achievement gaps at every level, including ‘excellence gaps’ as evidenced by NAEP. Three different measures are cited:

‘Between 1998 and 2007, 1.7% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP math exam compared to between 6% and 10% of non-eligible students.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th- grade free or reduced lunch students, compared to between 5% and 6% of non-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the NAEP civics exam.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP writing exam while the percentage of non-eligible students who achieved advanced scores increased from 1% to 3%.’

  • Some evidence is also offered to support the argument that US schooling does not currently improve or sustain the performance of the top-achieving students compared with comparatively lower achievers, nor does it close the gap in performance between high- and low-income high-achieving students, as measured by attendance at selective universities, graduation and completion of a postgraduate degree.
  • High ability students (as opposed to high-achieving students) are not perceived as a priority within US education policy. Moreover:

‘Success in closing achievement gaps amongst lower achieving students does not appear to impact gaps amongst groups of top students’.

This is compounded because efforts to address equity in education often fail to embrace those ‘who are already showing advanced ability and/or achievement’ while the overall commitment to supporting gifted education per se is described as ‘tenuous’. The level of support depends where one lives and remaining funding is often under threat.

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A very recent US publication ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color’ from The Education Trust (May 2013) provides more in-depth analysis of the excellence gap data (though its coverage is frustratingly incomplete and it too is guilty of unhelpfully interweaving minority ethnic and economically disadvantaged data).

It also relies on NAEP advanced level data for FRPL-eligible students, examining trends from 2003 to 2011, particularly in maths and reading at grades 4 and 8 respectively.

  • In 4th grade maths, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark increased from 1% to 2% between 2003 and 2011; meanwhile the percentage of high-income learners improved from 6 to 12%, thus widening the gap. A similar pattern was seen in 8th grade maths.
  • In 4th grade reading, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark remained at 2% between 2003 and 2011, whereas high-income learners improved slightly, from 11% to 13%. The gap also widened at 8th grade.

Meanwhile, gaps were typically narrowing at the ‘below basic’ benchmark (though there was no significant change in 4th grade maths at this level).

This study also analyses progress at the 90th percentile of performance, so independently of the NAEP advanced benchmark, finding some evidence of gap-narrowing (which isn’t quantified for low-income students).

By 2011 there are wide gaps in performance between low-income and high-income learners: 21% for 4th grade maths, 26% for 8th grade maths, 24% for 4th grade reading and 21% for 8th grade reading. But these are invariably smaller gaps than apply at the 10th percentile for low-achieving learners.

Only at 12th Grade is this pattern reversed. At that age, the gap at the 90th percentile in maths is 24%, compared with 18% at the 10th percentile; in reading the 90th percentile gap is 21% compared with 19% for the 10th percentile.

So the overall picture is perhaps somewhat less clear-cut than the selective facts provided in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ would suggest.

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The pattern is by no means identical in England. I included materials about England’s own excellence gaps in this recent post, which draws particularly on Jerrim’s work on PISA reading assessments.

His work reveals that, on this measure at least, countries display significantly different profiles when it comes to the relationship between background and achievement at different deciles of achievement:

‘He comments on the difference between the US – where the association between background and achievement is relatively strong across the achievement deciles – and Finland, where the association is comparatively weak.

In England there is a relatively strong link between socio-economic background and high achievement:

‘Socio-economic test score differences at the 80th percentile are greater here than in 18 out of the other 22 OECD countries considered (and significantly so on 11 occasions). The same is not true, however, at the bottom of the PISA reading test distribution, where England is actually ranked above the median, having smaller socioeconomic test score differences.’

…He finds that, while the average gap has declined [over time] and that is repeated at the bottom end of the achievement distribution, this is not true at the top.

…He finds that the narrowing of the gap appears to have been driven by a relatively greater decline in achievement amongst those from advantaged backgrounds but:

‘Whereas the apparent decline in performance for the top SES quintile seems to have occurred quite evenly across the achievement distribution… the decline suffered by the most disadvantaged group is most apparent at the top end.’

It would be fascinating to pursue further the apparent disparities between the US and England that this amalgamation of sources begins to uncover, but we must content ourselves for the time being with the broader truth that both countries have significant issues with their socio-economic excellence gaps that urgently need addressing.

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What can Education Contribute to Gap-Narrowing?

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How much Difference Does Education Make?

There is nothing at all in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ about the relative impact of educational interventions on disadvantage compared with other strategies, such as tackling the root causes of poverty by redistributing wealth. It seems to be taken for granted that the interventions described will address the problems identified, as long as such effective practice is more widely adopted.

The omission is curious, since Plucker’s presentation to the Summit is unfailingly explicit about the fundamental importance of reducing poverty to tackling the excellence gap.

Plucker poverty 1 Capture

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Plucker poverty 2 Capture

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Another recent publication, ‘Improving Performance of Low-Achieving and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students’, written by Ben Levin for the Global Cities Education Network, sets the context nicely:

‘The relationship between these social factors and school outcomes has been known for a long time. And at least since the Coleman Report (done in the United States in the mid-1960s), there has been a vigorous debate about how much schools can actually do to overcome these differences. That debate continues, with some contending that schools are rather powerless in the face of social disadvantage and others claiming that schools can do a great deal to overcome social inequities. According to various estimates in the research literature, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the variance in student achievement is due to factors outside the school, and anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the variance is explainable” (in statistical terms) by factors inside the school.’

Levin goes on to point out that there is huge variance between schools’ performance at any given socio-economic level – and that there are similar disparities between countries, as revealed by the PISA data. Although system-wide improvement is feasible, significant achievement gaps remain in even the most successful countries.

The assumption that school factors may account for up to 50% of variance seems relatively optimistic from a UK perspective. For example, the 2010 BERA Paper ‘Social Equality: can schools narrow the gap?’ warns:

‘However, school effects must not be overstated, as they have sometimes been by national policy-makers. According to studies in the UK, typically between 10-20 per cent of the variance in attainment between pupils is related to school factors – though this does not mean all variance is down to school-level factors, since some will be attributable to teachers.’

In addressing the contribution that gifted education can make to reducing excellence gaps, we would do well to inject a dose of realism about the overall impact of such interventions, while not succumbing to the temptation to underplay their potential significance.

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The latter position can be all too easy to reach in the light of some contributions to this debate. In recent months, significant attention has been paid to discussion of Sean Reardon’s comparatively pessimistic assessment.

In July 2011 he published The Widening Opportunity Gap Between the Rich and Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations which examines the changing relationship between family economic background and educational achievement since the 1970s.

He compares learners from families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution (around $165,000) with those at the 10th percentile (around $15,000). This is of course a significantly more polarised distinction than exists between those eligible for FRPL and those ineligible.

He notes that income inequality has become much more pronounced since the 1970s, such that a family with school-age children at the 90th percentile in 1970 earned five times the amount of a family at the 10th percentile. Nowadays, the multiple is 11. As a consequence, wealthy families now have a comparatively higher proportion of income to invest in their children’s development.

He argues that:

  • The income achievement gap is almost twice the size of the achievement gap between black and white students whereas, in the 1960s, this ethnic achievement gap was almost twice as large as the income-related gap. Hence family income has become a significantly better predictor of success in school than ethnic background.
  • The increasing gap does not seem attributable to differences in parents’ educational level – the relationship between these two factors has remained fairly stable since the 1960s. Consequently, family income is now almost as strong an indicator of children’s achievement as their parental level of education.
  • The size of the gap is at least partly attributable to a significantly stronger association between income and achievement for families with above average incomes, where the effect is now some 30-60% larger than it was for children born in the 1970s.
  • The gap is already sizeable when US children enter kindergarten but then remains relatively stable throughout the remainder of their schooling, neither increasing nor decreasing, so schooling appears to make relatively little difference (though Reardon appears to compromise this position slightly elsewhere.)
  • Evidence suggests that the increase is partly associated with increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development at the top end of the distribution. Children from wealthier families are better prepared to succeed in school when they enter kindergarten, and they retain this advantage throughout their subsequent schooling.

Reardon’s research has recently been given fresh impetus by an article in the New York Times which glosses his argument thus:

‘The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.’

He suggests that wealthier parents are increasingly focussed on the school success of their children because such success has become increasingly important in an environment where a university degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job. Upward social mobility is much harder to secure, so parents are increasingly competing to secure their children’s success.

The level of this investment is significantly higher amongst high-income families than amongst middle and low income families. The gap between the rich and the middle class – ‘upper tail inequality’ – is a new and unfamiliar condition and little thought has been given to addressing it.

Wealthier parents are gaining this advantage through:

‘More stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.’

It is this fundamental ‘opportunity gap’ that needs to be addressed, rather than the achievement gap evident in schools, which is partly a consequence of it.

Breaking the link between education and family background might involve replicating the behaviour of wealthy families, by investing heavily in the development of high-quality childcare and pre-school experience, paying relatively more attention to improving the quality of parenting than to improving the quality of teachers.

In the light of this there is arguably negligible benefit in investing in subsequent educational interventions that support low-income high-ability learners, because the damage has already been done and later investment is unlikely to level the playing field sufficiently to make a real difference.

But, as noted above, comparisons between the 90th and 10th percentiles by income – as opposed to eligibility and non-eligibility by FRPL or FSM – are bound to result in a relatively pronounced effect.

Moreover, it is not clear whether Reardon’s conclusions apply equally at all levels of achievement. There might be some reason to believe that the effects he describes are somewhat less pronounced in the case of disadvantaged learners who are relatively high attainers, or who have the potential to be so.

And some might argue that an intervention tailored to individual need, which also includes an explicit focus on parental education, might stand a better chance than most of having a positive effect at least commensurate with its cost.

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Inter-school Variance Still Matters at the Micro-Level

Given the temptation to surrender to negativity, it is important that we do not lose sight of Levin’s point about inter-school variance (as well as inter-national variance). There must be scope for improvement if we can bring more schools (and more countries) up to the level demonstrated by the strongest performers.

This of course raises further difficult questions about the transferability and replicability of effective practice –whether between schools or between countries – that must be set aside as beyond the scope of this post.

Let us continue on the brave assumption that, given the right inputs and distribution processes, improved outcomes can be spread and embedded within a much wider range of settings – and that the right inputs and processes are understood and available to us.

Inter-school variance in support for high-achieving low-income learners has been discussed in another recent US publication. ‘A Level Playing Field: How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game’ reports the findings of a three-year study of 35,000 high attaining learners in elementary and middle schools. The sample was drawn from the top 10% of achievers from each school.

The analysis compares the performance of high-achieving learners from high-poverty and low-poverty schools respectively (as defined by the top and bottom quartiles according to the percentage of learners eligible for FRPL).

It is important to note that high achievers in high-poverty schools are not necessarily from a disadvantaged background, though that is significantly more likely. The same goes for advantaged high achievers in low poverty schools. The study is rather quiet about this issue, though its findings are nevertheless significant.

Two measures are used: improvement in outcomes over time, measured through maths and reading achievement on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, and projected ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in maths and reading, which were derived from a study that linked MAP scores with these benchmarks.

Key findings were:

  • The vast majority of middle school high-achievers were projected to achieve the ACT benchmarks – 95% in low-poverty schools in both maths and reading; and over 85% in maths and over 80% in reading in the high-poverty schools. So, on this measure, while there is a disparity, the gap between high and low poverty schools is relatively small.
  • As for improvement in performance, the research finds that high- and low-poverty schools ‘produce roughly consistent rates of improvement over time in both reading and mathematics’. The achievement gap between the high- and low-poverty schools did not widen during the study period (though it didn’t narrow either).
  • There is, however, very significant variation between schools on this measure, both in the low-poverty and the high-poverty samples:

‘For example, at the beginning of the study, the average high-achieving math student in a high-poverty school started out performing at about the 90th percentile relative to national (NWEA) achievement norms. But if such a student attended a school that produced 10th percentile growth, that student would enter middle school performing at only the 77th percentile, whereas a comparable student at a 90th percentile growth school would enter middle school performing at the 93rd percentile. For these two students, the differences in opportunities could be quite large.

In short, given the large variance in growth across schools, it is quite clear that factors other than poverty largely control the relative growth of high achievers generated by any given school. This trend is interesting because it is counterintuitive. Given the advantages in resources available to wealthier schools, many might expect that students attending such schools would show superior growth over time. This was not necessarily the case.’

It follows that transferring from a high-poverty to a low-poverty school will not necessarily produce a dramatic improvement in high achievers’ performance. And it is a mistake to assume that low poverty equates to high quality, or vice versa for that matter. Quality operates independently of the relative poverty of the intake.

  • The study calculates that, if all high-poverty schools were able to produce the growth achieved by schools in the 75th percentile of the sample, the college-readiness gap between high- and low-poverty schools would be eliminated. The Preface comments:

‘Perhaps the best news coming from this study is that many high-poverty schools meet and exceed that target. The top high-poverty schools show growth that not only equals the best low-poverty schools but also dwarfs the meagre returns achieved by the worst ones. In fact, the 22 high-poverty elementary schools with the best growth rates entirely erased and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 27 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates. And the 13 high-poverty middle schools with the highest rates of growth closed and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 16 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates.’

So, to sum up, when it comes to narrowing achievement gaps – including excellence gaps -education may not matter that much at the macro level when compared with other key variables, but which school matters considerably at the micro level for the individual gifted learner.

Moreover, if all schools could perform at the level of the best, that would have a significant effect within the relatively narrow limits of education’s contribution to the overall equation. So attention shifts to the optimal way of transmitting effective practice between settings (or it would had we not set aside the difficult questions about this). This issue is another missing link in the argument set out in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.

In passing, it is worth noting that one of the policy recommendations in ‘A Level Playing Field’ would be very familiar to those involved in English gifted education:

‘Moving forward, this study encourages policymakers to reframe the national discussion about how to best serve high achievers by recognizing that the nation’s “elite students” should not be defined solely as the top 1%, 5%, or 10% in the standardized testing pool, and that each and every school has its own group of elite students.’

There is real value in framing policy to address the needs of the most able pupils in every school, even though this population would vary considerably compared with national norms. This takes one stage further the arguments in the report in favour of local norms.

Not only should interventions be tailored to the needs of individual learners, but they should also be sufficiently flexible to be adopted in every school, since no school should be allowed to assume that it has no gifted learners. If exceptions are permitted, it follows that high-ability learners within them who are held back by disadvantage will miss out on their entitlement.

This has been an extensive detour and it is high time that we returned to the substance of ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.

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Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix

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Barriers to Overcome

The report identifies seven barriers to participation by disadvantaged learners in programmes suited to their educational needs which, it says, are particularly problematic for those catered for by public (as opposed to private) schools.

  • Narrow conceptions of giftedness that perceive it as an inherited and fixed trait rather than malleable and potentially evidenced through unfulfilled potential. The Report speaks of ‘already-developed ability’ as opposed to ‘potential to achieve’, but this is inaccurate and confusing since the distinction is fundamentally between selection on the basis of achievement (which favours those from advantaged backgrounds) and selection on the basis of ability (which should not do so, assuming that ability is evenly distributed within the population). The report avoids confronting this issue of the distribution of ability head on (see below), though it does acknowledge the deleterious effect of limited exposure to ‘a literacy-rich home’ and ‘challenging curriculum and enriched learning opportunities’.
  • Misconceptions about disadvantaged high-ability learners which boil down to low expectations and over-emphasis on what these learners lack by way of ‘economic, social and cultural capital’ rather than their strengths. These impact negatively on teacher nominations for gifted programmes, often dictated by poor identification practice that fails to utilise qualitative evidence and does not take account of learners’ different cultural backgrounds.
  • Limitations of pedagogy and curriculum which do not foreground talent development but tend to underestimate learners’ capabilities, concentrating overmuch on tackling ‘perceived academic deficits’ through ‘drill to build up missing basic skills and content knowledge’. It is also suggested that US schools do not offer a sufficiently culturally responsive curriculum that reflects the experiences, heritage, language and values of minority ethnic groups as well as of ‘majority cultures living in geographically depressed areas’.
  • Poor identification practice, including using a narrow range of evidence, failing to take account of the limited learning opportunities formerly made available to such students, perhaps by applying inappropriate national norms, relying overmuch on nominations from inexperienced teachers who have had no appropriate training, and failing to offer learners more than one opportunity to demonstrate their ability and to take proper account of improvement over time.
  • Introducing obstacles to programme participation, such as expecting learners to travel outside their own area or expecting them to meet associated transport costs. Sometimes parents’ inability to press for appropriate educational adjustments or secure access to the best quality schooling can also prove problematic.
  • The Gifted Label which can damage relationships between the learner and his peers, even resulting in rejection and/or bullying. Consequently, potential gifted learners may avoid the imposition of the label, or be dissuaded if their own background is under-represented in the gifted group.
  • Limited access to out-of school opportunities, which – in the US particularly – have been used by parents to compensate for ‘the shortage, or absence, of advanced courses in their children’s schools’. There is an extensive tradition of such provision in the US, especially summer schools and shorter weekend and holiday courses, often linked to talent search procedures. But the vast majority require payment of tuition fees, so they are largely enclaves for the advantaged middle classes.

All of these are familiar in the English setting, though the last is somewhat less pronounced, simply because the range of opportunities of this kind is significantly more limited here, and there may be a stronger tradition of schools providing their own out-of-hours learning opportunities.

They are all perfectly valid, but they stand as proxy for the more substantial barrier that I have alluded to above: the assumption that ability (as opposed to achievement) is unequally distributed in the population, whether by ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background.

This issue is now so toxic that there is often a tendency to ignore it. There are continuing research traditions which make it their business to detect perceived differences in intelligence or ability, and to conclude that these impact significantly on educational achievement.

But, even if these arguments can be made to stand up (and they are open to challenge on a variety of grounds), the fundamental difficulty is that they serve to reinforce precisely the low expectations that lie at the root of the problem.

It follows that there is much virtue in starting from the fixed and incontrovertible assumption that, while the distribution of achievement is undoubtedly affected by gender, ethnic and socio-economic background, the distribution of ability is not.

Then the equity-driven side of the equation for gifted educators is far more straightforward to grasp and aim towards: it is simply to ensure that entry to gifted programmes is broadly representative and that success – whether demonstrated by a measure of high achievement, progression to selective higher education or any other outcome – is evenly distributed.

If too few low-income learners are admitted to a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that identification procedures are over-reliant on attainment measures, as opposed to evidence of hidden or emergent potential.

If too few low-income learners are successful within a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that the content and/or assessment is inappropriately weighted against learners from such a background.

This is not to argue for fixed quotas, or affirmative action, but simply to advance a straightforward corrective to the ‘deficit thinking’ that is outlined in the report.

It is only by following these arguments through to this ultimate position that we can effectively counter the hold of unfairly low expectations on our efforts to narrow and ultimately eliminate unhelpful excellence gaps.

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Psychosocial Factors

The report poses two questions: which non-cognitive factors are most significant in determining the success of low-income high ability students, and which of these most lend themselves to improvement through education?

It calls for more research into the characteristics of successful learners with this background, which is perhaps tantamount to admission that the treatment subsequently offered is both provisional and potentially incomplete.

As a precursor to that treatment, it offers an outline drawn from research on African-American and Latino gifted students which may not be fully transferrable to the low-income population (the emphases are mine):

‘These students had high educational and career aspirations and were extremely motivated to accomplish them. They demonstrated a strong work ethic and commitment to study. Their families were emotionally supportive and they had extended family and other adults such as teachers, coaches, mentors, and church leaders to turn to for additional support and guidance. High self-esteem gave them the confidence to actively seek advice and assistance from adults outside the family when they needed it. They had a peer network of other students with similarly high goals and commitment to academic achievement who provided psychological, emotional and social support to remain on track despite setbacks or obstacles. They were confident in their own racial identity and open to multicultural experiences, including friendships.’

The subsequent text does not dwell on the importance of support networks within and beyond the family, concentrating exclusively on the learners’ own characteristics. Nor does it treat all of those, selecting instead the following list which it suggests are ‘especially critical and malleable’:

  • Mindsets, or beliefs about intelligence and ability. Those who see their capability as fixed are disadvantaged compared with those who believe they can improve their performance through effort. This is allied with the concept of ‘grit’, or resilience, associated with recognition of the significance of persistent effort over time. Educational settings can encourage learners to appreciate the contribution to success made by their own effort and persistence.

‘Grit’ is currently receiving significant attention. Duckworth’s presentation concludes with an admirably brief summary of the conclusions from her research into this phenomenon

Duckworth grit Capture

  • Motivation, which is associated with students’ belief that they can do well in school, and that doing well is important to them and will contribute significantly to their life chances. Motivation is associated with high expectations from educators, who give learners opportunities to succeed, so building their confidence and motivation to succeed further.
  • Some other factors are identified as particularly relevant to high achievers, though the commentary suggests that findings associated with minority ethnic groups are being applied here to low-income students without too much supporting evidence. Factors include: negative stereotypes of groups to which the learner belongs, which can impact on their engagement and performance; a perceived choice between achievement and affiliation with a group of friends or peers, and the risk that choosing the former lays the student open to isolation and bullying; and the capacity to develop ‘dual identities’ to reconcile conflicting expectations and norms.

There is a fairly extensive literature in England about the impact of aspirations and attitudes – whether the learner’s or their parents’ – on learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, though the extent to which these vary according to ability or prior achievement is relatively less explored.

It will be interesting to compare the findings from the forthcoming ‘Investigation of school and college-level strategies to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education’ with other more generic material and also with the list above.

A 2012 study by Gorard et al: ‘The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation’ offered a meta-analysis covering 13 different kinds of aspiration, attitude or behaviour (AAB), four of which were relevant to parents (parental involvement, parenting style, parental expectations and parental substance abuse).

Five more relate to a learner’s own attitudes and aspirations: self-concept or esteem (self- perception and evaluation of one’s worth or goodness), self-efficacy or locus of control (belief in one’s ability to achieve and that one’s actions can make a difference), aspiration (what one hopes will happen in the future), motivation (the reason for a decision and strength of purpose in carrying it out) and attitude (one’s feelings about school and education).

The remaining four are behavioural: engagement with extra-curricular activities, engagement with paid work, substance abuse and poor behaviour.

The survey sought evidence of a causal relationship between each of these and attainment/participation, having determined that such a relationship involves four aspects:

  • There is an association, or correlation between the two variables;
  • The AAB pre-existed any improvement in attainment/participation and can be used to predict subsequent changes;
  • Controlled interventions have altered the level of an AAB, so producing changes in attainment/participation that cannot be otherwise explained; and
  • There is a plausible account of how the AAB influenced attainment/participation.

The authors comment:

‘The evidence in most areas is generally too immature at present to estimate the effect sizes or the costs of any type of intervention. It is important, therefore, that future work moves towards estimates of both, which can then be broken down into estimates of cost-effectiveness for specific sub-groups of learners, such as low attainers and families of low socio-economic status (SES).

Much of the work found in this review on the causes of attainment was conducted in the USA. Its results are relevant to the experience on this side of the Atlantic, but it would be helpful to see more of this kind of work, concerning both participation and attainment, being carried out in the UK, and reflecting the country’s specific context and culture.’

This parallel summary report ‘The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing the Educational Attainment Gap’ concludes:

‘The existing evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement in children’s education to improve outcomes. The immediate focus should be on rolling out and closely monitoring such interventions.

There is mixed evidence on the impact of interventions focused on extra-curricular activities, mentoring, children’s self-belief and motivation. Further development of such interventions should be trialled alongside evaluations of their effectiveness.

There is little or no evidence of impact for interventions focused on things like addressing children’s general attitudes to education or the amount of paid work children do during term time. Such interventions might be pursued for other reasons, but the evidence does not currently support their use to raise attainment.’

While there are clear differences between the typologies adopted – and the English research relates to all disadvantaged learners rather than just high-ability learners – there is cause for caution.

While ‘psychosocial factors’ may be significant, the evidence base is thin and, without such evidence, we may be tempted to exaggerate their impact relative to other factors that may more readily explain achievement and excellence gaps.

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Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix

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Effective Policies, Initiatives, Programmes and Practice

The report comes at effective provision in three overlapping chapters, devoted to programme models, policies and initiatives and best practices respectively.

Six effective practices are identified from analysis of a range of different school-based and supplementary programmes (one or two of which are called slightly into question by the analysis above):

  • Gateway function: a focus on preparation for subsequent educational experience, often at critical transition points, so helping to ‘increase access, create additional entry points into, and address “leaks” in existing pipelines of talent development’.  Ideally provision should comprise ‘comprehensive talent development paths…that begin in pre-school (or earlier) and continue through Grade 12 and beyond.
  • Selection criteria matched to level of developed talent: provision for younger learners is more inclusive and less selective than provision for older students. Selection criteria draw on multiple evidence sources to produce a holistic assessment, including quantitative data based on local norms rather than rigid national cut-off scores.
  • A challenging enriched curriculum that requires higher-level thinking skills: learners with developing abilities can benefit from challenge as much as the highest-achieving students. This often demands professional development to raise teachers’ expectations and develop their differentiation skills.
  • Significantly extended learning time beyond the school day: this may be as important in tackling underachievement amongst potentially high-achieving students as for those performing at lower levels.
  • Components that compensate for the benefits enjoyed by more advantaged students: this might include tutoring, mentoring and counselling, internship opportunities and careers advice.
  • Expanded student support networks: providing opportunities for learners to work with similar students from other schools or localities, so creating a stronger peer network. This might be complemented by mentor support and parental education, so as to strengthen family support.

This is followed by a series of seven ‘policies and action initiatives’:

  • Increase expectations, by introducing and working towards clearer definitions of advanced levels of learning on state tests, focusing simultaneously on increasing the proportion of learners achieving those levels and narrowing achievement gaps. Similar goals should be set in respect of NAEP and PISA measures of advanced performance. Also ensure that high-quality teaching is available to these learners, especially in high-poverty schools.
  • Support high achievement through a range of strategies including more specialist STEM schools, implementing a ‘gifted education pedagogy’, additional focus on gifted education in initial teacher education and subsequent professional development, extending access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, improved access to out-of-hours supplementary programmes,
  • Start early and sustain, by supporting pre-school and elementary school enrichment activity, identifying high achievers and then providing them with consistent support throughout their time in school. This will demand focus on instilling psychosocial skills ‘supportive of continued commitment to high achievement’.
  • Provide additional support alongside the school curriculum, such as mentoring, tutoring, advice on university entry and access to role models.  Given the significance of family support, programmes must develop parents’ understanding and advocacy.
  • Remove barriers to programme participation, ensuring that definitions and identification processes are inclusive of ‘marginalised and under-identified gifted students’, that information is translated into community languages and that districts and schools are supportive of learners progressing through the curriculum at their own pace.
  • Focus wider school reform on high ability: ensure that efforts to address achievement gaps incorporate excellence gaps, that Response To Intervention (RTI) and grouping strategies address these learners’ needs and that success is measured in a way that incorporates high achievement. Effective practice must be shared, so that successful programmes can be replicated and adapted elsewhere.
  • Invest in research to determine ‘the conditions under which interventions are effective and with whom’. It is critical that these are cost-effective and scalable. (There is a brief and not too helpful section on replicability and scalability which rather vaguely suggests exploration of distance education models and the development of ersatz supplementary education within school settings, possibly built on partnership between organisations offering supplementary programmes and school districts.)

Finally, there is a third series of ‘best educational practices’ which highlights material earlier in the text. In summary it advocates:

  • Inclusive, culturally responsive and holistic identification practice, supported by teacher education.
  • Culturally responsive programmes and services incorporating development of both cognitive and psychosocial skills.
  • Positive cultures in schools that ‘exalt individual differences of all kinds and value and reward high academic achievement create [sic] contexts in which low-income, high-ability students from all backgrounds can thrive’.

There is also a final exhortation:

‘A list of best practices will remain just that unless it is coupled with a commitment to looking at low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students from a different lens and from a perspective that emphasises strengths instead of weaknesses, differences rather than deficits, possibilities as opposed to limitations, and solutions instead of obstacles.’

The Appendix to the report provides separate summaries of eight different programmes featured at the Summit. This is both a small sample and a mixed bag, containing some very small programmes and some rather large ones. There are also two projects focused exclusively on supporting learners from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The links below are to project websites where these are available:

  • Project Excite, a year-round out-of-school programme for minority learners in Grades 3-8 provided by Northwestern University and two local school districts.
  • Project Nexus, a former programme of the Maryland State Education Department (2005-2008) helping to prepare low-income students for higher education.
  • The Scholars Program, provided by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), a year-round out-of-school programme supporting urban students in New York and San Francisco to progress to selective universities.
  • The TEAK Fellowship, a year-round out-of-school programme for talented New York City students from low income families supporting admission to high school and university.
  • The Young Scholars Program, operated by Fairfax County, Virginia to support low-income high ability learners in grades K-2, preparing them for subsequent gifted programmes.

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Moving Forward

The report admits to ‘a lingering concern’ associated with the interaction of different variables – it specifies rural/urban/surburban, race and culture – and the implications for effective provision. This is welcome in light of some of the reservations expressed above.

It also quite rightly rejects ‘categorical designations’ because they ‘fail to capture the variation in levels of poverty, opportunity and education within the subgroups included in each category’. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

It proposes a research agenda that foregrounds our limited understanding of the characteristics of successful learners from low-income backgrounds since:

‘Although we can speculate on obstacles and impediments, there is not a deep understanding of how these intersect with race, culture, gender and domain of talent.’

There is surely a risk that the interaction of so many different factors – elements of disadvantage, as well as variations in background, schooling and personal attitudes – is so complex and individualised that it will not be possible to draw general conclusions that can be consistently applied across this population?

The research agenda proposes further work to investigate the characteristics of successful learners, the development of psychosocial skills, the removal of barriers (professionals’ perceptions and assumptions, identification, family and community beliefs) and effective provision (appropriate curriculum and instruction, the characteristics of successful programmes, scaling and replication and teacher education).

One cannot help feeling that, rather than providing a basis for extensive further work of this nature, any available funding might be better spent in devising cost-effective and scalable interventions that start from our current understanding of effective practice – and evaluating them formatively and summatively so as to refine that understanding and adjust the programmes accordingly.

But maybe this is the tension between giftedness and gifted education once more raising its ugly head. Or maybe it is my bias against research and in favour of policy-making; or perhaps a little of both.

Still, a focus on the tangible and immediate – on inputs and processes and their success in generating efficiently the right mix of positive outcomes – is likely to generate more substantive and more immediate returns than in-depth psychological study.

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Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix

Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix

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Drawing the Strands Together

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Unlocking Emergent Talent and Elements of Effective Provision

Unlocking Emergent Talent is a helpful resume of what is currently understood as effective practice in identifying and meeting the needs of high ability low income learners, but it does not add conspicuously to our collective understanding of such practice.

It also displays some shortcomings, in substituting evidence about minority ethnic students to fill gaps in the evidence base for low-income students and, to a lesser extent, in not consistently differentiating findings about high-achieving students from findings about high-ability students.

It does not fully address, or else skips over, a series of substantive issues including:

  • Different definitions of ‘high ability’ and ‘low income’ and the issues associated with selecting one of several alternatives.
  • The wider evidence base on excellence gaps, which presents a rather more complex picture than that presented in the report.
  • The range of factors that contribute towards disadvantage and the complex manner in which different factors interact and impact on the learner.
  • The relatively limited contribution that education can make to tackling disadvantage and the correspondingly significant impact of poverty on educational achievement.
  • Variation in the quality of support between settings, the impact of reducing this variance (and associated questions about our capacity to spread and embed effective practice).
  • The distribution of ability within the population.
  • The value of parental engagement compared with learners’ own ‘psychosocial skills’, and the significance of those skills relative to other variables.
  • Cost and efficiency and their influence on the shape of interventions to support the target group.
  • Identifying the right blend of in-school and out-of-hours provision.
  • Considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of stand-alone provision for disadvantaged learners, integrated support for advantaged and disadvantaged alike, or a mixed economy.

All that said, it provides a helpful framework against which to assess current practice and from which to begin to develop new practice. From a domestic perspective it supplies a reasonable reference point for consideration of the relatively similar English publication we expect in September.

The read-across will not be perfect. The English report will be dedicated specifically to support for progression to higher education and its focus is exclusively 11-18 year-olds. It will adopt a relatively liberal definition of ‘high-achieving’ which is broad in terms of the range of achievement it embraces, but does not otherwise accommodate those whose ability is not yet translated into high achievement. It is likely to concentrate substantively on in-school and in-college strategies, as opposed to external programmes.

Nevertheless, my forthcoming review will undoubtedly be aided by this prior excursion into broadly similar territory on the other side of the Atlantic.

.

The Pupil Premium

That said, one further critical issue will not be assisted by the comparison: whether available funding, principally in the form of the Pupil Premium, is allocated in such a manner that high-achieving disadvantaged learners receive their fair share of support – and whether such funding is making a real difference to their expectations of progression to higher education, and especially to selective universities.

I have raised in at least one previous post the question whether:

‘Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the same level of benefit from the Premium as other disadvantaged learners, notably those who are not likely to achieve national benchmarks at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

For the Premium does not currently operate as an individual entitlement following the learner. The Government has issued no advice to schools to suggest that it should be deployed in this fashion…

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued that each eligible learner should receive a Pupil Premium Entitlement, so ensuring that the funding directly benefits those eligible for it. The IPPR argues that this should pay for:

‘extra catch-up tuition, small group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low-income pupils’.’

While there has been no apparent shift towards such an entitlement, other levers have been brought to bear to increase the general emphasis on gap narrowing. Ofsted inspectors will be monitoring the attainment gap in every school and will not rate a school outstanding unless it is closing that gap. Schools that are struggling will be required to appoint a head teacher from a successful school to advise them.

Ofsted has reinforced the message that schools should have:

‘Carefully ringfenced the funding so that they always spen[d] it on the target group of pupils’.

And, when it comes to high achievers, has expressed the desire that they have:

‘Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels’.

One might reasonably expect that the imminent Ofsted report on provision for highly able learners, next in line for publication in the ‘Summer of Love’, will incorporate some further coverage of this kind, including some guidelines to differentiate effective and less effective practice. That messaging should then be traceable across to the third and final publication, where it should be an important feature.

It remains to be seen whether the other key accountability lever School Performance Tables, will be used to incentivise schools to support their higher achievers. The consultation on secondary school accountability – recently closed – proposed the publication of generic attainment data for pupils attracting the Premium, but did not commit to differentiating that by prior achievement.

We know that the current method of delineating such achievement, National Curriculum levels, is set to disappear in 2016 and, although there has been a commitment to a new system for grading high attainment in the core subjects at the end of KS2, we do not yet know how that will be done.

The Government has published a series of short case studies of effective use of the Premium, one of which features the gifted and talented programme at Paignton Community and Sports College. It doesn’t offer any startling insights into best practice, but it does confirm official endorsement for deploying some of the available funding in this fashion.

There is evidence elsewhere that the broad message has already been taken on board. A new scheme administered by the National College of Teaching and Leadership ‘Closing the Gap: Test and Learn’ supports school-based research into effective approaches to narrowing the gap. It is beginning with a consultation phase in which schools have been asked ‘which group of pupils should we be most attending to?’

The initial results make positive reading.

Curee consultation Capture

As things stand, one might reasonably expect that a significant proportion of the funded projects will be focused on our target group.

But there are also issues associated with the fact that the Pupil Premium is not available in post-16 settings, where entirely different funding arrangements apply. There is no mechanism for securing consistent support across the transition between 11-16 and 16-19 education for the substantial proportion of students who progress to higher education via two separate institutions with a break at 16 (or, for that matter, for those who change institutions at some other point in their school careers, most often as a consequence of moving house).

There have been suggestions that this might change. Press coverage in May 2012 reported that consideration was being given to a Student Premium for all pupils eligible for free school meals who passed the EBacc. The funding, worth up to £2,500 a year, would be confirmed at the age 16, subject to confirmation of a university place, but would not be available until the student entered higher education.

Then the Government’s report on progress in the first year of its social mobility strategy mentioned:

‘Options for reform of the National Scholarship Programme and other forms of student support, including a possible ‘HE Premium’, alongside other models… and whether we can give greater certainty of the support available to individuals at the point they are considering applying to university.’

No reforms of this nature have so far been forthcoming.

Towards the end of the first post in the Summer of Love series, I proposed a targeted intervention programme supported by an annual Pupil Premium topslice. The funding would be transferred into a personal entitlement or voucher that could be passported on the individual learner, following them across into a post-16 setting if necessary.

There is a precedent for such a topslice in the form of the £50m of Pupil Premium funding set aside for summer schools. A further £50m topslice represents just 2% of the total sum available for the Pupil Premium in 2014-15.

It should be possible to generate a matched contribution from a separate 16-19 funding source if necessary, though the total amount required would be relatively small.

Let us end with some traditional but provisional ‘back-of the envelope’ costings,

In the early secondary years the funding might be targeted at broader awareness-raising for all Premium-eligible learners achieving Level 5 at KS2 in English and Maths (or the equivalent in the new assessment regime). This is currently some 14% of the Year 6 cohort so, assuming a total year group of 600,000, some 84,000 learners annually across Years 7-9.

From Year 9/10 onwards it might be focused more tightly on a tailored programme for each Premium-eligible learner with the capacity to enter a selective higher education course, or a selective university, or to achieve a specified benchmark, such as A levels at Grades AAB+. In 2010-11, just 7% of all state school students achieved these grades (though admittedly in ‘facilitating subjects’ only).

I cannot find a reliable estimate of the proportion formerly eligible for free school meals, but modelling undertaken by HEFCE in 2011 (Annex D) suggests very small numbers in POLAR Quintile 1 (2,741 aged under 21) achieved this outcome (and not only in ‘facilitating subjects’ either). It is highly unlikely that the national cohort of Premium-eligible learners considered likely to achieve this would exceed 5,000 per year group.

So we might expect a steady-state national cohort of around 250,000 in Years 7-9 and some 20,000 in Years 10-13. A sum of £50m would enable one to allocate:

  • £1,500 per year to learners in Years 10-13 (20,000 x £1,500 = £30m)
  • An average of £6,000 per year per school for learners in Years 7-9 (3,000 x £6,000 = £18m) though the sums provided would be weighted to reflect distribution while avoiding ‘penny packages’

So leaving sufficient change for formative and summative evaluation, possibly even a thorough randomised control trial!

.

GP

May 2013

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