Interview with Tamra Stambaugh on the Common Core and Its Impact on Gifted Education
Stambaugh, T.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development - Educators Guild

The following Q&A on the common core and its impact on gifted education was written by Tamra Stambaugh, an assistant research professor in special education and executive director of Programs for Talented Youth at Vanderbilt University.

What is Common Core and how does it affect gifted children?
Will gifted students’ needs be better met with the implementation of Common Core?
What are some tips for educators to implement common core with gifted students?
What kinds of differentiated tasks can teachers prepare for gifted students in the classroom?
How will the Common Core impact college admissions, especially for gifted students?

Tamra Stambaugh, Ph.D. is an assistant research professor in special education and executive director of Programs for Talented Youth at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Stambaugh conducts research primarily in gifted education with a focus on students of poverty, key curriculum and instructional interventions that support gifted learners.

What is Common Core and how does it affect gifted children?

Common Core is a set of College and Career academic standards focused on reading and math for students grades K-12. The development of the Common Core standards was led by the National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards were developed based on leading state and international standards. Teachers and experts were invited to comment on or contribute to the development of the standards. Forty-four states to date have adopted the Common Core standards (

Common Core standards are basic college and career readiness standards designed for all students and were not written for gifted students. As many states are just beginning their journey toward implementation of Common Core, much about the impact on all students, including the gifted, is yet to be discovered. Proponents of Common Core argue that more rigorous, consistent standards across the nation promotes equity in educational expectations among the States, a chance to better compete in a global society, and the chance to have a better prepared group of high school graduates ready for college, career, and life in the 21st century. As there are fewer standards for teachers to teach, there can also be a stronger emphasis on depth and mastery instead of breadth.

Opponents argue that the new standards won’t change anything until larger educational problems are fixed, the standards take away from local and state control of what should be taught, the standards aren’t developmentally appropriate for younger students, and the intentions of the standards are for financial gain instead of the education of students. In one study researchers analyzed Common Core standards against current state standards and found that the Common Core standards are less rigorous in some areas than state requirements (see Porter, McMaken, Hwang, & Yang, 2010).

Will gifted students’ needs be better met with the implementation of Common Core?

Gifted students learn at a faster pace and make abstract connections within and across disciplines more easily than their same-age counterparts. A more rigorous set of standards can be an exciting thought for gifted children and their advocates but it is not enough.

Teachers will still need to differentiate for gifted students, in the era of Common Core. In a national survey led by the Fordham Foundation (2008) teachers reported spending less time and attention on high performers in the classroom than on low performers (Fordham, 2008). As new standards are introduced for all students, it is unlikely that teachers will shift their focus to advanced students if this currently isn’t being done – especially with the accountability structures that are an integral part of state assessment systems. There are many competing priorities for educators right now. Given past history and even stiffer accountability systems in some states it is unlikely that gifted students will be a focus any time soon and the results of the Fordham Foundation survey will continue to be a reality.

We also know from Rogers’ meta-analysis (2007) that gifted students show positive academic gains when provided with curriculum modifications that are more rigorous than what is being taught in the general curriculum. Unfortunately gifted students’ performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test across ten years of high stakes testing remains “languid” while all other groups show growth (Fordham Foundation, 2008). A value-added study by Wright, Horn, and Sanders (1997) suggested that gifted students were more likely to make value added gains and to show growth when provided with a differentiated curriculum that met their needs.

Raising standards for all students means raising standards for gifted students, too. Several studies suggest that gifted students can learn more in-depth content than previously thought and may know up to 2/3 of the curriculum before it is taught (Reis, et al., 1993). If the Common Core initiative assumes that the level of complexity can be raised for all students then the level of rigor expected of our most academically able students also needs to be raised. Gifted students can perform at higher levels than we currently expect if there are appropriate support structures and opportunities for higher-level practice and learning. The U.S. lags behind in international assessments at all levels, including for those who score in the top percentiles (see PISA and TIMSS results). In addition, talent search entities across the nation report that gifted students at the middle school level are already outperforming typical college seniors as evidenced by their ACT and SAT scores.

There are opportunities for gifted education to grow during this era of Common Core. School and state education leaders have the opportunity to embed gifted education into discussions and training about Common Core as intensive professional development is occurring on this topic. Moreover, as there are some common standards that are more vertically aligned, leaders in gifted education can work together to create stronger accelerated resources for gifted learners and also create an accelerated scope and sequence that better meets the needs of gifted and talented learners. Finally, as new assessments are being written and accountability measures re-evaluated, we can lobby for assessments that have a higher ceiling and may be taken out of sequence based on a gifted student’s progression through the curriculum instead of his/her grade level (e.g., a gifted child may take an end of course exam when the content is mastered).

What are some tips for educators to implement common core with gifted students?

  1. Don’t assume the standards are rigorous enough for gifted students and likewise, don’t assume that gifted students will just know the standards without being taught. As shifts occur in the way teaching is happening and what is being taught, gifted students may need some time to adjust to a different way of learning, but this does not mean they don’t need more rigorous content, higher expectations, and adjustment to the learning pace. They may just need to learn a new way of “doing” school. This doesn’t make them any less gifted nor does it lessen the need for ongoing adaptations to better meet their needs.

  2. Differentiation for gifted students is still necessary. Gifted students need fewer repetitions to learn new content, can grasp more advanced concepts within and across disciplines earlier, and prefer concept-based/whole-to-part teaching. While Common Core standards seem to support this type of learning to an extent, teachers will likely need to “unpack” the standards and scaffold instruction for the majority of learners and gifted students are still likely to move through the standards at a faster pace or will need more depth and complexity as well as adjustment to instructional strategies. As previously mentioned, raising the bar for all means raising the bar for gifted, too. Now that educators in most states are examining how to add rigor to the curriculum in general, conversations about adding rigor or creating/re-aligning advanced standards for gifted is most appropriate and necessary.

  3. Classroom instructional management strategies such as different grouping strategies, diagnostic-prescriptive assessments, and acceleration are essential in a Common Core classroom to meet the needs of the gifted.

  4. Administrators need to support teachers with the resources and structures necessary for gifted student growth. Without school-wide systems that allow for and support a variety of grouping strategies, replacement curriculum, and acceleration, for example, gifted student growth is likely to remain stagnant.

  5. Administrators and teachers need professional development to meet the needs of gifted learners in the general classroom. Authors of the latest State of the States survey from the National Association for Gifted Children report that 17 states require teachers in gifted and talented programs to have a gifted education credential and only 3 states require general education teachers to have training in gifted education (see State of States, 2012-2013, NAGC). Professional development regarding how to meet the needs of gifted learners as part of Common Core is essential, as teachers are not typically prepared to meet the unique needs of this population.

What kinds of differentiated tasks can teachers prepare for gifted students in the classroom?

Differentiation for the gifted must occur at all levels of instruction: resources and materials, strategies/approaches, pacing, assessments, and task demands/questions/products. Teachers can create tasks that are more rigorous by asking students to conduct original research about a topic, examine topics through overarching concepts, consider multiple variables to study, or add other disciplines for study (VanTassel-Baska & Stambaugh, 2006).

For example, in reading, if the Common Core standard requires students to compare and contrast two different stories based on the setting, gifted students could compare and contrast two more complex stories and discuss how the setting impacts the theme of redemption. This task uses more advanced resources and asks students to consider multiple variables and a concept at the same time.

In math, a sample Common Core standard from grade 2 asks students to draw a picture and a bar graph to represent a data set. Sample activities on grade level might include allowing students to survey their friends about favorite foods and graph the results. Gifted students who already know or could quickly master representing data through bar graphs could determine how the scale of a bar graph impacts the representation and interpretation. This task adds more complex variables to study around the concept of scale.

To successfully implement this type of differentiation requires thoughtful planning, an understanding of the intent of the standards for the grade level and how this plays into what students need to know in more advanced grade levels, a knowledge of content, and management and pedagogical strategies.

How will the Common Core impact college admissions, especially for gifted students?

This is yet to be seen. According to the college board website, the SAT will be redesigned to better match the Common Core standards by 2016 and the ACT has been aligned to Common Core. We will have to see how this will play out and how universities will respond. Some universities have already adopted “test-optional” policies but this is not prevalent among elite universities.

I believe the most concerning issue related to assessment and placement, in general, continues to be the ceiling effect on assessments. Will the newly designed assessments have a high enough ceiling to identify gifted student knowledge and understanding or will the test limit or suppress their scores due to insufficient design for our gifted learners? We already see this occurring to a certain extent with our highest achieving students who take the SAT or ACT as seventh graders and score in the top ranges of the assessment well before they have even entered high school. We need assessments with sufficient ceiling to understand what our top students really know so we can better support their learning, tailor instruction, provide appropriate placements for their learning, and best develop their talents.

For more details about the Common Core, view Dr. Stambaugh's PowerPoint - Gifted Students and the Common Core: Implications from Practice (PDF).

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