Jonathan A. Plucker: Addressing Excellence Gaps: Frontloading

Jonathan A. Plucker: Addressing Excellence Gaps: Frontloading

By Jonathan A. Plucker, originally published in the August/September, 2021 issue of Equity and Access

Current debates on equity in advanced education tend to have two major positions. In the first, advocates argue that the best path forward is to find ways to help more students – and more diverse students – experience advanced learning services. In the second, people argue that the best path to equity is to simply remove advanced education. There is a lot of nuance to these positions, of course, but they generally boil down to that distinction.

It won’t surprise readers of my past columns to know that I firmly land in the first camp. If I had to summarize why, I’d point to the fact that we know advanced education works when done well (Plucker & Callahan, 2020), and also that the alternative doesn’t make much sense given that equity is rarely achieved by removing opportunity. So the questions of interest become:

• How do we make advanced learning opportunities more accessible?

• How to do it in ways that are equitable?

In previous columns, I have shared several research-based strategies for increasing access to these opportunities, including universal screening with local norms, ability grouping, and better training and support for educators. This column focuses on the foundation of these efforts: frontloading.

The basic premise of frontloading is that a major cause of excellence gaps is differential access to rigorous learning opportunities. In other words, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and economically vulnerable students struggle to achieve at advanced levels because they often do not have access to high-quality, rigorous learning experiences earlier in their education. By providing those opportunities early on, we can raise their achievement significantly, allowing them to qualify for additional advanced services as they develop and move through the K-12 system.

A good example is the Young Scholars program in Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, which many other districts have adapted to their own contexts. Although Fairfax County educators have evolved the program over the past 20 years, the core features remain the same. Students with potential for high achievement are identified as early as possible, with a strengths-based emphasis on alternative assessments. This process focuses on students who “have lacked access to gifted services, advocates for their high potential, and affirmation of their advanced abilities” (Horn, 2015, p. 21). Once identified, these students are cluster grouped in the early elementary grades, working with teachers who have received specific professional development in providing challenging instruction to these students.

Although there is much more to the Young Scholars model than conveyed above (see Horn, 2015, for additional detail and helpful references), the basic framework of it and other frontloading interventions is not complicated: Acknowledge that talented students exist everywhere, provide them with challenging instruction designed and implemented by teachers with the necessary training, and do it as early as possible in a child’s development and education.

Research on frontloading is positive, with evidence that such programs close excellence gaps and prepare more students for advanced education and achievement (e.g., Briggs et al., 2008; Horn, 2005; Olszewski-Kubilius & Steenbergen-Hu, 2017).

I also appreciate the emphasis that frontloading places on an overlooked aspect of equity efforts in K-12 advanced and gifted education: The primary goal of these efforts is to close excellence gaps by promoting the advanced achievement of disadvantaged students. Equity in participation is important – if you don’t have access to the playing field, you can’t play in the game – but participation is a short-term goal on the journey to equity in outcomes. In my experience, many districts emphasize equity of participation but not put in place the needed supports to achieve equity in outcomes. Frontloading efforts focus attention and resources on the quest for equal outcomes.

As a cautionary tale, consider equity efforts related to AP courses. A decade or so ago, many states and districts focused on having the AP student population look much like the general school population. These efforts have often been quite successful regarding participation, but few districts have experienced success toward equity of AP test scores. In other words, progress toward equity in outcomes is much harder to achieve, and participation alone does not ensure it. Districts with strong AP outcomes with respect to equity almost always have strong frontloading efforts to help prepare students for the more rigorous curriculum and instruction in AP courses.

As a final note, educators should also consider the role that after school settings can play in advanced education (Fredericks & Plucker, 2020). Educational leaders often find that the reduced barriers to innovation in after school settings provide helpful flexibility when implementing frontloading programs. For example, it may be easier for principals to hire after school instructors with advanced learning expertise rather than help teachers gain those skills when they have had little to no exposure to them in their preparation programs or careers up to that point. Of course, helping all educators gain those skills is important, but education leaders looking to implement frontloading programs immediately would be wise to consider starting in after-school contexts.

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