Emphasizing Excellence in Education Policy

January 1, 2017 by Kristin Hanson

Basic competency should be a “mile marker,” not the end goal, says Julian C. Stanley Professor Jonathan Plucker

“How many of you are influencers of education policy?”

That’s a trick question Jonathan Plucker likes to ask his audiences — typically school teachers, administrators, researchers, and sometimes parents — to kick off a presentation. The answer is, of course, all of us, but Plucker carries a particularly big stick in the debate.

A distinguished scholar, Plucker joined the Center for Talented Youth in January as its inaugural Julian C. Stanley Professor of Talent Development — a post named for the late Hopkins sociologist whose research led to CTY’s founding in 1979. Plucker, who holds a joint appointment in the School of Education, will collaborate with colleagues across Hopkins from a range of disciplines, including those in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine. His body of research covers several education-related issues but for the past decade has focused on narrowing the excellence gap — the difference in academic performance at the highest levels based on demographic and socioeconomic indicators.

“In this country, we’re so used to thinking that we can focus on equity or excellence, but other countries, such as China and the Netherlands, are investing in both,” says Plucker, who spoke on this topic at Hopkins’ 2016 Science of Learning Symposium. “Isn’t it a huge loss if the majority of our talent in this country is coming from an increasingly smaller piece of the pie?”

In this conversation, Plucker elaborates on how his new platform at Hopkins will amplify his efforts to fight the excellence gap on a national scale.

Two men and two women sit on either side of a computer sitting on a table, while a man standing behind them speaks.
Jonathan Plucker, standing center, speaks with incoming education doctoral students at Johns Hopkins.

Why is the excellence gap an important issue to tackle?

Current federal education policy is mainly about getting students up to basic competency. But what does it do for a really talented kid from, say, a low economic background to just get to grade level? What if that child has the talent to be part of the team that eventually cures cancer? Or be the next Shakespeare? Or design the next life-changing technology? That child is out there right now, sitting in one of our classrooms. By bringing her to grade level and stopping, you’ve transformed her into a really talented kid who’s bored at grade level, rather than below it. As a society, we shouldn’t be OK with that. We should see basic competency as a mile marker for children on the way to finding things they’re really passionate about, things that will make a difference for them and the world around them.

Is it even possible to change this situation?

Education policy is both the foundation and the framework for how we work with children. Our educational systems generally do not go outside of that framework. The research is clear that the framework can be changed in important, high-impact ways, such as modifying a state’s K-12 school accountability system. The indicators you put in these systems drive change — yet almost none of them mentions anything about advanced students. If we have a framework that doesn’t even mention talent development, that makes talent development harder.

“Education policy has a disproportionate impact — no matter how much you put into a bill through research, review, and comment, the impact can be a thousandfold, maybe a millionfold, depending on the size of the state.”

Jonathan Plucker Julian C. Stanley Professor in the Center for Talented Youth and the School of Education

Can you give an example of where that framework could change?

You can look first at the structure for most school accountability systems, in which schools get no credit for doing a great job moving students beyond grade-level. But there’s plenty of punishment if they don’t get their students to grade level. The system so strongly emphasizes minimum competencies. Also, look at teacher training requirements. Nearly every state requires prospective teachers and administrators to have special education courses as they prepare to be teachers and leaders. That makes perfect sense. But what about advanced students and advanced education? Only four states require any coursework in gifted education, yet we’ve heard from educators in those states who tell us that they didn’t have any relevant coursework. As a country, we can do better than this. These are fixable problems.

Have you had success thus far in changing these kinds of policies?

Right now we’re working with several states on their accountability systems. There have been a couple different states with whom we’ve changed a clause in a piece of legislation, and that clause fundamentally changes how children are educated. Education policy has a disproportionate impact — no matter how much you put into a bill through research, review, and comment, the impact can be a thousandfold, maybe a millionfold, depending on the size of the state. Conversely, if the policy is written poorly, it will negatively impact those million children. Policy is very powerful.

How has coming to Hopkins given you an advantage in this work?

Professionally, Hopkins’ caliber and its proximity to D.C., New York, and Philadelphia are invaluable. Someone can call me from a think tank in Washington and say, “Can you come to town for this meeting tomorrow afternoon?” I can usually say, “Sure, I’ll be there.” It magnifies my team’s and Hopkins’ influence. And the Hopkins colleagues I’ve met thus far are talented, insightful people. It’s leading to interesting collaborations and helping us hold ourselves to a high standard for all the work we’re doing.

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Topics: Center for Talented Youth, School of Education, Support Scholars