How Schools Can Challenge All High Achievers

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Episode 76 │ How Schools Can Challenge All High Achievers

Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023

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Show Notes

Brandon Wright

From supplemental instruction to grade skipping, there are options when it comes to challenging our most advanced learners, but these opportunities can be hard to access. Brandon Wright, editorial director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute joins the show to share best practices in gifted education and what families can do if their child would benefit from a more advanced curriculum.


  • Learn more from Brandon by following him on social media at @BWrightEd or subscribing to his substack here

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Kisha: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and we are your co hosts.

Kisha: Yes, we are. You know, Helen, several episodes of our show have covered special education and how to ensure your child is getting the services they need. But today we're diving deeper into advanced education, which some of you may know as gifted education. If your child needs access to more challenging material, What do those accommodations look like?

Helen: That's right, and the answer to that question isn't always clear, especially to parents, and advanced education varies a lot by school district. That's why I'm so grateful that we have expert Brandon Wright here today to dig into this topic with us.

Brandon is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is the co author or co editor of three books, including most recently, Getting the Most Bang for the Education Buck, co-edited with Rick Hess. He is also the father to a 17 month old boy. Welcome to the show, Brandon!

Kisha: Welcome!

Brandon Wright: Thank you. Thank you. Happy to be here.

Helen: Thank you for joining us. We'd love to start off just by hearing a little bit about your story and how you got interested in education policy and advanced education specifically?

Brandon Wright: Sure. So I went to law school, but before that I had a gap year and I was a substitute teacher, basically all grades, pre K through 12, all subjects in a number of districts around the area in which I lived at the time. And then, when I was in law school, I clerked for a firm that represented families of students with special needs who the families felt weren't getting the services that they were due under federal law. And so, after law school, I found my current employer the Fordham Institute, and I've been here ever since. I started as an intern and now I'm still here.

Helen: That's great. Thank you.

Kisha: Yes, that is great. Brandon, can you give us a picture of the state of gifted education or advanced education, as people are calling it, and why it's so important right now?

Brandon Wright: I think for a long time a lot of people just assume that, you know, because these kids are advanced or capable of advanced achievement, that they don't need special attention. They don't need their education to be tailored to them. They'll be fine anyway. And that's wrong for a few reasons.

One, every child deserves to have, an education that maximizes their potential. I think that's just a right that every child in our country has. Beyond that it's bad for our communities. It's bad for our country. If you're taking some of the kids, who are most likely perhaps, to be inventors or be leaders of nonprofits, Kids who, are capable of doing, you know, great things, which is obviously true of all kids, but for these kids with extra potential, if you're not nurturing that right, then you're selling them short, and they're not going to be as far ahead as they could have been if they had access to these opportunities.

So, you know, that harms our communities. It harms our economy, harms our democracy. It's a big, broad problem. And what's worse is it's been getting worse with a rise in focus. And I think a very well meaning and due focus on things like equity. Equity is something that we need to focus on. There are, you know, too many populations in our country who have been ignored, forced into schools that don't educate them well at all. But somehow people have misinterpreted advanced education as the education of advantaged children, and that's so often not the case.

In fact, the advanced students who have been most ignored, most neglected essentially, throughout the entirety of American education are marginalized students, are advanced black students, advanced Hispanic students, advanced low income students. These are the kids who are ignored the most, whose schools are least likely to offer these programs. So doing away with advanced education in the name of equity is really the opposite of what should be happening.

The more you do that, the less likely you are to do right by marginalized students who are capable of advanced achievement. So these are big, broad problems that are getting worse.

Helen: I want to jump in a little bit with some of that context of the problem.

So I know Brandon, you were part of a group that recently wrote a report building a wider, more diverse pipeline for advanced learners. That does just this, how do we marry excellence and equity in a strategy to propel all our students forward? And you had 36 recommendations in that report.

Some of them surprised me that there are things school districts are doing just by status quo that are preventing advanced learners from being able to access that challenging content or programs or whatever. Could you talk a little bit about maybe some of the big recommendations that came from that report

Brandon Wright: Sure. The first, big recommendation is to simply offer these programs. They don't exist in at least a third of school districts.

Helen: Wow.

Brandon Wright: And for those school districts who say that they do have them, it's often, some little supplement. It could be like an hour a week. It's just these in, in too many places. It's, it's, it's a meaningless program. So first of all, is to implement substantial programming for advanced education. That's very general, of course, but what we mean by that, is essentially K through 12, or at least, third grade through 12 school should offer a continuum of services.

That's a pretty wonky policy word, but what we mean by that is there should be a variety of programming that is available to any kid who would benefit from them. So it could be anything from supplementary after school math programs or extra instruction in a math class they're already in, all the way to grade skipping and everything in between that. So it could be achievement grouping in a classroom. It could be achievement grouping in a separate classroom. It could be accelerated classes. And what those services are obviously change also as kids get older.

Once you get into high school, you know, things like. AP classes, IB classes, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate is what I mean by those two, honors classes, things like that are going to be more common in high school. Whereas, perhaps a separate achievement grouped classroom would be more common in something like elementary school.

So first of all, is offering these services, offering this broad variety of services. And erring on the side of inclusion versus exclusion. So, if you think any child could benefit from any of these services, they should be given the opportunity to be in these programs.

Kisha: That's right.

Brandon Wright: Beyond that, you need to seek them out. So, you should universally screen everyone. You could, look at grades, you could use a standardized test that's already being used in a school district. It could be teacher recommendations also. Screen everyone and don't do it one time. Too many school school districts will screen somebody in third grade and they'll be like, this 10 percent of kids, they're gifted and the rest of them aren't. And essentially the implication is that it's some inherent permanent thing that if you're identified as this in third grade, you're that forever and worse, if you're not, you're not forever. And that's just not how human beings work. It's not how children work. It's not how learning works.

Yeah. It's also just terrible politics. So you want to constantly identify these kids, at least every year, if not multiple times in, in a given year. And a third one to talk about you know, how equity concerns fit into this. Two things essentially.

One, use local norms when you're doing this. So say you're in a big populated school district. Generally, if there's 10 elementary schools, some of them are, are, are going to be in the affluent areas and some are going to be in the less affluent areas, what school districts too often do is they'll essentially create an objective cutoff for everyone across that school district.

And what they do is they overselect advantaged kids, rich kids who have had all of these advantages that they've had since birth, and they're excluding low income kids, Black and Hispanic kids. And that's a huge problem. So one easy way to fix that is to try to identify a subset of kids in every school.

Beyond that, of course, you want to pay special attention to marginalized children and try to see where, perhaps, are teachers biases leading them to not identify kids or not recommend kids for certain opportunities. So that should be a priority from the administration, from the school board, from the principal.

Teachers should be given training in these areas to combat harmful assumptions. So once I think you do all of those things, offer these programs and select for them well and on an ongoing basis I think school districts would end up doing much better by so many more of their students who are capable of advanced achievement.

Helen: Thank you, Brandon. That's helpful. Because I think as parents, we don't always see what's behind the curtain. And I shared when we were prepping for this that like knowing even this in my child’s school district, she's a new kindergartner. I feel like there's something I should know that I don't know. So it's helpful to have that list. One of the things that surprised me, you mentioned is this acceleration. So some of this is programs, but some of this is also just letting kids move more quickly through school districts. Could you talk a little bit about that? What is the state of that in our schools right now? And why are schools preventing that from happening?

Brandon Wright: Sure. So I think the most common version or what people usually think about when they think about acceleration is grade skipping. But really, that's only one of the many possible varieties of acceleration when we're talking about acceleration, it can really span a number of things, right? It could be early entry to kindergarten. It could be skipping entire grades, like I said, but it could also be just skipping certain grade levels in certain subjects. It could be, offering two grades into one year. It could be a kid is in high school, but also taking college classes. It could just be advanced courses that are offered in a high school.

So it's again, the continuum, this broad variety of programming. But at heart, what it's essentially saying is, what is the current speed and depth of instruction in a given classroom and a given grade? And is a given kid not being served well by this? Are they capable of more? Are they capable of going faster? Are they capable of going deeper? In short, are they capable of learning more than this current instruction in this classroom is capable of providing them. A big context here that's, I think, important for parents to understand is that if you have a very mixed achievement classroom, kids who are low achieving and very high achieving in the same classroom, that is extremely hard. I would say impossible for a teacher to instruct well.

He or she just simply cannot give the attention, cannot differentiate their instruction in an effective way across that spectrum of achievement. So what you're essentially doing is, if this kid isn't served well in this classroom, let's accelerate them. What sort of magnitude of acceleration is appropriate? Okay, let's do that. And your second part was sort of why schools don't have this.

Helen: Yeah, especially stuff like, people worry about the kindergarten age cutoff, right? I was like, of course you should be able to enroll your kid in kindergarten early if they're ready for it. But I've never heard of a school allowing that.

Brandon Wright: Yeah, you often can't enroll them early. You can often delay enrollment. In my homeschool district they offer this sort of early kindergarten, which is a whole year of instruction between pre K and kindergarten, but then they roll them into the next year's kindergarten class so that each kindergarten class has a 19 month age range which goes, I think, to my point before about how it just instructing that range of achievement is just literally impossible. It's just a bad setup. But schools don't like acceleration, because I think for one, it's administratively complicated, having kids skip grades they're often worried about things like, will they fit in socially?

I think they're worried about other parents, right? If certain parents, you know, see one kid skip, then, other parents are going to wonder why their kid cannot skip. It's complicated but it's actually the version of advanced programming that by far has the biggest research base.

Helen: Oh, interesting.

Brandon Wright: It is an unimpeachable research base. Acceleration works extremely well. So, when schools aren't doing this, for whatever reason they aren't, and a bunch of those are understandable,. They're essentially harming the achievement of kids who would benefit from acceleration.

Helen: Thank you.

Brandon Wright: Figure out a way, I guess.

Helen: Yes, figure out a way, and let parents know what the way is.

Kisha: Right, right, exactly.

Brandon Wright: Yeah. So, there's a place at the University of Iowa called the Bell and Blank Center. They've been pushing acceleration for a very long time. If parents are interested they could use the information in these resources to know what to talk about with their school, with their principals, with their school boards.

Kisha: So we have some things that parents have shared, Brandon, that we wanted to talk to you about. Helen, I'll read the first one.

Helen: Go for it.

Kisha One, a parent shared, I have a 10 year old receiving high school level math instruction. The middle school the child is slated to attend has indicated they will not be able to offer advanced education. Switching schools is not the best route for our family, so what can I do to ensure my child isn't bored?

Brandon Wright: That's a very good question. As a parent myself, who will soon be thinking about school, it's a very tough spot. And so many of us can't move for a variety of reasons. But yeah, I mean, if the middle school that they're going into, if you can no longer give them access to the high school math that they're currently getting, and you can't move and you don't want to move schools. You could talk to the school, but if they’re are dead set on not being able to provide this, then I think, you know, the only option would be tutoring of some kind, if you can afford that, or if you can get funding from the city or state for that tutoring. What research shows is that tutoring is actually extremely effective.

High dosage, high quality, one on one tutoring really, really works. So, if you can't get it at your school, then I would say, you know, try to get it outside of your school. I know that there are, even I think free or low cost online options, things like Khan Academy, K-H-A-N. But, I would suggest that, if you can afford it or find a way to, getting getting help outside of your child's school.

Helen: Thank you. Okay. I've got another one following up on my question earlier about acceleration. So another parent shared, I have a first grader who is advanced in reading and math. The school hasn't been able to differentiate all of the curriculum in class to make it challenging, but they have offered to let my child skip ahead of grade for next school year. However, I'm nervous about the social impact on my kids since they might be a bit immature for the grade. What should I do? What do you think about that one? What advice would you offer?

Brandon Wright: Yeah, it's a tough choice. I mentioned the Bell and Blank Center at the University of Iowa earlier. They have a bunch of resources on there, including some studies on the social and emotional effects of grade skipping. So I would encourage you to look into that. What they find is that it often isn't harmful and in fact, it could be beneficial. What sometimes happens when kids are capable of more advanced achievement than their current classrooms are able to provide they get bored, like you said. And when they get bored, they may act out, their behavior could be worse actually in their sort of age level classroom than it would be in an accelerated classroom or a grade skipped classroom. Obviously, of course, it also comes down to what you think about your individual child.

I also assume you could try it. And if it didn't work, you could reverse course. But, the research is comforting on that front. On the achievement front, on the academic outcome front, I'll reiterate again that acceleration has a fantastic research base. It really tends to work.

Helen: Yeah. So don't be too scared. Don't be too. Yeah. Cool. Kisha, I know you had another one too another question.

Kisha: How can families advocate for accelerated learning for their own children and children in their communities?

Brandon Wright: I think parents when they're organized and driven on a regular basis, you know, affect local change, affect, even state level change. So. I would first encourage parents to organize and unify their approach and talk to their local school, their principal, their school board, their superintendent. When school board elections come up, you could run, you could back a candidate.

There's also change that can happen at the state level. That's a little harder to change sometimes, but in our report, we have nine of the 36 recs are for state leaders. And in general, it's essentially creating a floor.

So, you know if a state policy requires every school to offer gifted programming, that's a win. If state policies mandate that you have to universally screen every student, that's a win. It's one way to, to force sort of local hands that are unwilling to move on this subject.

Helen: I want to build on that because you talked both about the recommendations and the power of advocacy, right? And what parents can do. Could you help take us out of the abstract? Like, are there States or districts that stand out to you that have, whether by public pressure or because they've tuned into the research, have dramatically changed or evolved their policies around advanced education? Just any bright spots that we could point to?

Brandon Wright: I would say the most prominent example of a place that has sort of reversed course is actually the biggest school district in America: New York City. They have had gifted programming for a very, very long time, but under their previous mayor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the end of his tenure, he essentially scrapped the majority of gifted education in effect, and planned to essentially do away with it in general.

Fortunately though, Mayor Adams, who is now, at the helm. He campaigned on reversing course and in fact has since he's taken office. It hasn't been perfect.

I've written about this a few times and it's, and it's a work in progress, but essentially he rescued gifted education from the abyss. And has really attempted to so far balance excellence and equity. I haven't said that phrase yet, but it's a very important one, right? Some people, think that they’re sort of two mutually exclusive things, right? That you can't have these, this, this advanced programming that focuses on high achievement and also be equitable at the same time. That's just simply not true.

So in New York what Mayor Adams administration has done is they've done a few of the things that I've talked about. They have expanded gifted seats in elementary school. They have focused on trying to identify more marginalized kids for these seats. They have expanded what they consider when they screen kids for this as opposed to for example, just test scores, they're looking at grades which can balance things out a little bit.

They have taken the previous mayor's decision to scrap these programs at the middle school grades. And once again allowed six through eight to have these programs. And in high school he kept a number of these very highly selective high schools that over the years have produced more Nobel laureates than most countries. These, Brock Science, Stuyvesant High School. It's not perfect.

Again, some of the policies are not quite there. At elementary school, there's too much of a lottery system. The middle schools can still choose not to offer these programs. Some of the selection at the high school grades are also a bit too much of a lottery.

And I don't think there's enough of local norms yet. I don't think they've fully focused on marginalized kids as much as they could, or done that in the right way. It's a very, very prominent example of an administration a democratic, one, looking at the research, looking at what's actually best for the children in their city and realizing that advanced programming fits in that book.

Helen: Yeah. So if you've got equity issues, with your advanced programming, the answer isn't get rid of it, it's make it more equitable, right? That's my take away.

Brandon Wright: And a lot of the school districts are getting rid of it. Yeah, there's very prominent examples for example, in in California where school districts in the name of equity have just eliminated certain advanced math classes. It's a mess. So there are good cities that have avoided that track, like New York.

Kisha: Brandon, this has been really enlightening. And I want to thank you for sharing your expertise on this subject. I know that listeners are always thinking about -what does this mean for my child? Are they advanced? Are they not advanced? What opportunities are available to them? And so this really helps them navigate advanced education and what to do. out of everything that you have shared and what we've discussed today, what's one thing you want families to walk away with from this episode?

Brandon Wright: I would say that the biggest thing is that we've been thinking about gifted education wrong for a very, very long time. I mentioned earlier, all of the kids who, after screening for these programs were deemed, you know, not gifted. Don't think about it that way, that's the wrong way to think about it. It's not how children work. Almost every child would benefit from acceleration or enrichment in something. So your child is capable of advanced achievement, would benefit from certain advanced programming. Your school district just needs to find a way to offer a good variety of them and screen on a regular basis.

Helen: Great. And Brandon, if folks want to learn more about this topic, you've mentioned a couple of resources already. Any other websites or resources you would recommend?

Brandon Wright: Sure, my organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute runs a advanced education focused substack, called Advance, A D V A N C E. And it's a collection of almost everything that we write about on this topic at our organization, including a number of guest authors. We generally send something out every two weeks and it covers basically all aspects of advanced education.

Helen: Great. Thank you so much, Brandon, for joining us. This has been a great conversation. Really appreciate you illuminating this topic for our listeners and for me, Kisha I don't know about you, but I'm like, I'm at the beginning. I gotta, yeah.

Kisha: Brandon, I have a two and a seven year old. So we're both at the beginning of all of this. And we're all in it together, right. To our audience listening today, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode, please check out notesfromabackpack. com, and thanks for tuning in. Be sure to join us next time.