On Advanced Learning

Talking about advanced learning is difficult, in the way that talking about any kind of difference is difficult in an egalitarian society like ours.  But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  And just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that students in need of advanced learning don’t exist, or don’t face challenges.  These students are real, and the challenges they face are real. They come from every ethnicity, race, and socio-economic background, and they are in all of our Cambridge Public Schools, in every grade, right now.

About the Terminology

When we look at the history of the language used to talk about special education, we see how generic the terminology has become.  Terms like “Special Education” and “Individual Education Program” are not very descriptive of the learners they serve, and yet we use these terms because they have become accepted over time, because we know what they mean, and because they are so neutral in meaning, that they do less harm than older, more descriptive, but more biased terms. These generic but well-understood terms help educators and parents serve the needs of students.

Similarly, in talking about students in need of advanced learning in the Cambridge Public Schools, we need neutral language which does no harm, and which allows us to talk about these students and how we can meet their needs.  Parent members of CALA have settled on the term “advanced learning”, which is shorthand for a student who is learning beyond grade level in one or more subjects at any given time, and whose academic needs in those subjects fall outside the needs of most of the students in their classroom.

About Identifying Advanced Learners

Just as it’s difficult to talk about difference, it’s also difficult to assess for difference.  Which students need special instruction and which don’t?  The same questions get asked about students who have a  learning delay or disability.  The students who have the hardest time, in some ways, are the students who are right near — just above or just below — the threshold of being eligible for a given intervention. Maybe these students would be better served by that intervention.  Maybe not.  That is for the teacher, parent and student to decide, according to district-wide policy structured on evidence-based best practices.  A description of some of these practices is on our page about assessment of advanced learners.

The current US Federal definition of advanced learners, which is located in the US Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is:

Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities

The Massachusetts Department of Education, in it’s Massachusetts Tiered System of Support, defines these students as “students who are academically advanced” and “students who have already demonstrated mastery of the concept and skills being taught”:

Massachusetts has developed a blueprint outlining a single system of supports that is responsive to the academic and non-academic needs of all students.  This blueprint, the Massachusetts Tiered System of Support (MTSS), provides a framework for school improvement that focuses on system level change across the classroom, school, and district to meet the academic and non-academic needs of all students, including students with disabilities, English language learners, and students who are academically advanced.  It guides both the provision of high-quality core educational experiences in a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and academic and/or non-academic targeted interventions/supports for students who experience difficulties and for students who have already demonstrated mastery of the concept and skills being taught.

The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that approximately 6% of the total US student population are in need of advanced learning.  This is using a federal whole-child assessment from the 1970s.  Cambridge Public School’s Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk, at a School Committee meeting in 2012, has estimated the number of students in need of advanced learning in our district as 8%.

If, however we assess students who are significantly advanced in their learning of single subjects, the percentage may be closer to 15%.

In the US, 30 states have a state-wide legislative mandate, to insure that every school district is appropriately educating students in need of advanced learning.  Massachusetts is not one of these states, yet dozens of public school districts in towns across Massachusetts have made the effort and secured the funding to create explicit policies and programs to support these students.

From 2006 – 2011, the Cambridge Public Schools had no specific policy or program to support students with advanced learning needs in grades JK-8.  Due to work by CALA parents and other members of the Cambridge education community, starting in school year 2012-13, the CPS District will hire an Academic Challenge and Enrichment Support Program Manager, to develop and oversee services and interventions for these students.

A summary of what the Cambridge Public Schools’ currently provides to students with advanced learning needs is here.

CALA parents encourage you to contact our state legislators, urging them to pass a state mandate on advanced learning.  This page on the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education website tells you how.

Some traits common to advanced learners are described here.