By Jonathan A. Plucker, originally published in the May/June, 2021 issue of Equity and Access.
My last column focused on the need for ability grouping and its likely, positive effects on closing excellence gaps. In this issue, the discussion shifts to professional learning for educators. As preparation programs for teachers, administrators, and school counselors currently stand in most states, preservice educators and future leaders do not receive adequate opportunities to learn about advanced students (Plucker et al., 2018).
This lack of coverage means that educators enter schools without a sense of the research on advanced students, including both their unique needs and strategies for promoting advanced learning. For example, students may be advanced in one area but struggling in another, and failure to complete homework or turn in assignments may be a sign of being underchallenged rather than laziness. More to the point, future teachers receive little preparation for differentiating instruction, curricula, and assessment for the wide range of student performance levels they will encounter in their classrooms.
For example, as mentioned in my previous column, Peters et al. (2017) found that over 15% of students perform 3 or more grade levels above in reading/language arts and 6% in math. Other research suggests the spread of student performance in an elementary or middle school classroom may be 6 (or more!) grade levels. That’s a staggering range of readiness for teachers to address, and it is difficult to envision a scenario in which teachers with little training in differentiation can accomplish it.
At a minimum, everyone working with students should have knowledge of the needs of advanced students, how those needs differ (or not) from those of students at other levels of performance, best practices in differentiation, the particular needs of twice-exceptional students, and strategies for closing excellence gaps (Harris & Plucker, 2014; Plucker & Peters, 2016). Regarding administrators, leadership programs rarely address advanced learning, and future principals and superintendents should be familiar with the topics listed above in addition to strategies for creating cultures of advanced achievement and closing excellence gaps in their schools.
There are three ways educational leaders can begin addressing this preparation problem. First, principals and superintendents should communicate their intent to hire teachers who have experience working with a wide range of students, including those who are advanced. Put another way, an athletic director is unlikely to hire a coach who has no expertise or training in working with advanced athletes, and principals should prioritize hiring teachers who can work with the wide range of student performance levels that exist in every classroom.
I’ve occasionally had principals share they would hire such teachers if they could, but that teachers generally do not graduate from preparation programs with this knowledge and skill set. This leads to my second recommendation: Put pressure on your state’s biggest providers of teachers. Having been a professor in several teacher and administrator prep programs, I can vouch for the fact that deans listen to superintendents and principals about the types of skills that graduates should have. If leaders need teachers to emerge from preparation programs with additional skills, the principals and superintendents should let deans and directors of local programs know this directly.
Third, professional learning – for teachers, counselors, and administrators – can be focused on the needs of advanced students and strategies for closing excellence gaps (Henderson & Jarvis, 2016; Spoon et al., 2020). There is good news on this front, in that federal Title I and Title II funding can be used for professional learning on these topics. In particular, Title II of the Higher Education Act defines “teaching skills” to include employing “strategies grounded in the disciplines of teacher and learning” that include a “focus on the identification of students’ specific learning needs, particularly students with disabilities, students who are limited English proficient, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and the tailoring of academic instruction to such needs.”
It is hard to imagine a situation in which a school district would hire a band director with no experience or training in working with advanced musicians. If such a person were hired, it would then be strange to not provide that teacher with professional learning opportunities to remediate this gap in their expertise. Yet this occurs frequently with classroom teachers regarding advanced learners. Providing educators with high-quality preservice preparation experiences and professional learning opportunities is a key strategy for closing excellence gaps.