Leaders' Sensemaking and Sensegiving for Equity and Excellence in K-6 Title I Advanced Academic Programs

Maloney, Kirsten, Administration and Supervision - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Eddy Spicer, David, ED-EDLF, University of Virginia

Nationally, students attending schools that serve higher percentages of economically vulnerable families have less access to talent development opportunities and advanced academic services (Yaluma & Tyner, 2018). Despite decades of research in the field of gifted education concerned with equity issues and historically underrepresented populations in gifted identification (Briggs et al., 2008; Bruch, 1975; Castellano & Chandler, 2022; Ford & Harmon, 2001), there has been a lag in the field of practice with varying and sporadic attention to updating policies and practices. Noted challenges to leading change in this area include: varying paradigms which all fall under the same term of “gifted” (Dai & Chen, 2013), seemingly paradoxical goals for standardization and equality versus honoring variable student strengths, interests, and needs (Peters et al., 2017), and the politicization of this area of public education (Colangelo et al., 2004). Further, there is also rarely professional learning in teacher or leader preparation around developing talent or serving students with advanced learning needs that might improve the current state (Rinn et al., 2018). The combined effect of incoherence in the overall field, longstanding inattention to gifted education in the field of practice, and institutional barriers to change is a disconnect between the field of research and field of practice that continues to result in excellence gaps that mirror the achievement gaps on which most districts focus school improvement efforts (Ford, 2012; Plucker & Peters, 2016; Wai & Worrell, 2020; Yoon & Gentry, 2009).

As districts have recently increased awareness and action to abolish inequity, this lag in educational practice has been highlighted and has resulted in some districts considering the elimination of gifted programming; however researchers caution such moves would merely hide inequities in opportunity and would be most detrimental to historically underrepresented student groups (Dixson & Peters, 2020; Dixson et al., 2020). Instead, they call for districts to enact practices that are more aligned with current research from the last several decades. Literature related to strategies for equity and excellence can be categorized into three focal areas: 1) recognizing and correcting inequities in systems (Lohman, 2005; Pfeiffer, 2012; Renzulli, 2012), 2) reframing gifted education around services to match needs rather than labels (Adelson et al., 2012; Peters et al., 2014), and 3) accountability measures that go beyond identification numbers (Frazier-Goatley et al., 2022; Plucker and Peters, 2016).

This study attempted to understand how leaders at three positive outlier Title I schools in one district advanced the goals of equity and excellence through the advanced academic program opportunities in their individual schools. The study proposed a conceptual framework using the body of theory that looks at how leaders make sense of ambiguous contexts (Johnson & Kruse 2019; Weick, 2020) and support change in the organization through types of sensegiving (Maitlis & Lawrence, 2007; Vlaar et al., 2008). Through interviews with multiple leaders at each site and analysis of three years of related school documents, the comparative case study describes how leaders integrate advanced academics within the broader instructional program at the school, what influences their individual sensemaking, and under what circumstances and how they provide opportunities for collective sensemaking with various constituent groups (e.g. families, teachers, the instructional leader team).

Major themes from the study suggest successful leaders in elementary Title I schools balanced equity and excellence in advanced academic programs through a "both/and" approach. Leaders focused on providing access to rigorous instruction, implementing multifaceted programming, and setting high expectations for teachers to provide talent development opportunities and differentiate beyond minimum proficiency standards based on students’ needs. The study highlights the persistent commitment and effort required by school leaders to shift mindsets and practices in gifted education, suggesting a need for broader field-wide support to overcome resistance and political challenges. Overall, the research contributes to the understanding of leadership in gifted education and emphasizes the importance of collective sensemaking to maximize student outcomes through the interdependence of equity and excellence in advanced academic programming, particularly in high-poverty schools.

Based on these themes, this study proposes five recommendations. The first three recommendations suggest field building involving multiple stakeholder groups (organizations, researchers, districts), working in collaboration to:

• Develop an organized framework of program types aligned to respective goals and practices that could support districts in connecting purpose to outcomes and communicating with families about updated conceptualizations of gifted education.

• Focus research efforts on defining excellence and high leverage accountability practices to move from a focus on identification to a focus on equity in student outcomes.

• Include content related to equity and excellence in advanced academics in teacher and leader preparation programs so that districts alone are not left to prepare educators to serve the diverse needs of special populations of students in today’s inclusive classrooms.

The second category proposes two recommendations for districts:

• Use tools for school accountability, sustainability, and improvement related to the three focal areas of leading for equity and excellence in advanced academic programs.

• Create incentives to increase staff stability in Title I schools to increase the likelihood that students who are economically-vulnerable will benefit from a staff prepared to nurture cultures of deeper learning.

The last category proposes one recommendation for school-based leaders:

• Plan for distributed expertise to increase collective sensemaking opportunities across school staff. Until educator preparation programs do better to prepare teachers to develop student talent and provide advanced differentiation, staff will require frequent opportunities for sensemaking and scaffolding from the work of their professional learning communities (PLCs) so that they are ready to provide rigorous instruction for students.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
advanced academics, gifted education, sensemaking, sensegiving, leadership, gifted education paradigms, talent development, differentiation, Title I
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: