Jonathan A. Plucker: Automatic Enrollment is a No-Brainer

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

This column represents my last contribution to Equity & Access: PreK-12 as NAGC president. I’ve enjoyed sharing the equity work being done in the field of advanced education, and I hope you have found these articles to be helpful as you tackle your own district’s equity challenges. I would like to express my appreciation to Maia Appleby and Larry Jacobs, who are delightful colleagues and passionate advocates for equity and access for our students.

Rather than rehash my previous columns, I would like to dive into a new advanced education intervention that is gaining attention: Automatic enrollment. It is a key feature of the Advanced Coursework Equity Act that was recently re-introduced by Sen. Booker and Rep. Castro, and several states have approved or are considering new policies to promote automatic enrollment (also referred to as auto-enrollment or mandatory enrollment).

Auto-enrollment is a simple idea: Students who show evidence of advanced achievement are automatically placed in advanced coursework.  No referrals, no additional testing, no mandatory info sessions – if you show evidence of advanced learning, you are enrolled in the advanced course. Such a practice removes requirements that often act as barriers to advanced learning, such as the need for teacher recommendations. There are variations for what auto-enrollment looks like in practice (e.g., how advanced achievement is determined, the degree to which students can opt out of the placement, whether district participation is optional or mandatory), but it boils down to high achieving students being placed in advanced courses.

This probably strikes most people as common sense, but it is far from common practice. One of the most important research findings in recent years is that advanced students are present in the vast majority of schools in this country, even high-poverty, low-performing schools (Peters et al., 2017). Yet White, Asian, and upper-income students end up enrolling in advanced coursework at much higher rates than other students. This phenomenon, among other factors, leads to the growth of excellence gaps – achievement gaps at advanced levels of student achievement.

As a case in point, see the recent article by Donald Thompson, a math teacher at Anacostia High School in Washington, DC, in the previous issue of Equity & Access: PreK-12. Only 15% of Anacostia students are proficient in reading, 10% in math. Yet when he and his colleagues looked at their student data, they found, “7-14% of our students qualified as gifted based on national norms … In a school where the vast majority of students are struggling, giftedness wasn’t even on our radar” (emphases in original). He notes that, “Our students can be the best and brightest if we can just get past their zip code and provide the opportunities they deserve.”

Mr. Thompson’s account matches my experience working with districts around the country, in that committed educators are often conditioned not to see the academic excellence occurring right in front of them. The deficit focus of many of our schools creates contexts in which exceptional performance becomes invisible. A major hurdle to improving equity is the widespread belief that low-income, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students only rarely exhibit advanced performance. This simply is not the case, and automatic enrollment directly addresses this problem.

There are many reasons to believe auto-enrollment will work, but few studies provide convincing evidence. That’s to be expected given the relative novelty of this intervention, and the effects need to be studied much more comprehensively. That said, auto-enrollment is a form of universal screening – and possibly universal screening with local norms, depending on implementation – strategies with considerable research support for improving equity (Peters et al., 2019).

Several colleagues are concerned about these policies and their unintended consequences. Given the dearth of research, those concerns are not unfounded. But I believe auto-enrollment should be embraced as both an equity strategy and an advanced learning intervention. In districts around the country, there is a growing tendency to address equity in advanced education by eliminating those services (for example, San Francisco, Vancouver, recent proposals in California, Virginia, and New York). That’s a strange approach – removing opportunity is always a poor path to equity – but it is becoming common.

In contrast, automatic enrollment implicitly endorses the value of advanced education, choosing to remove barriers to those services rather than eliminate them. For that reason alone, advocates for both equity and advanced learning should embrace auto-enrollment and help districts implement it as part of a comprehensive set of strategies for eliminating excellence gaps.

An important caveat: As I’ve noted in previous columns, no single intervention will address a district’s equity concerns, and auto-enrollment is no different. Students who have not previously experienced rigorous coursework may need additional support to take advantage of their advanced opportunities (Plucker et al., 2017), much in the way that increasing access to AP courses for Black and Hispanic students does not immediately translate into improved AP test performance. In addition, auto-enrollment probably helps students already performing at high levels, but it does little to help students with potential who are not yet working at advanced levels. Improving opportunity is a mile marker on a much longer journey.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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