What Works: Research About Teacher Beliefs and Student Achievement in Practice

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CONTRIBUTORS

Melanie S. Meyer

Educators are pulled in many different directions as they try to address mandated standards, accountability testing requirements, and local curriculum, all in a limited amount of time each school year. As a result, there can be a disconnect between what the research says and what teachers feel equipped to implement within the constraints of their classroom teaching duties. Teachers who want to keep up with the latest research may find it difficult to access some of those resources behind paywalls and although formal professional learning can bridge the gap between research and practice, the quality and content of professional learning opportunities can vary widely. Educators have a difficult task, but that task may be more manageable when they have accurate information about research-based best practices, time to implement those practices, and the flexibility to adapt them to their classroom contexts. This article examines how six teachers in Texas are reflecting on their beliefs (e.g., self-efficacy, best practices) and engaging in formal and informal professional learning to effectively support the academic achievement of their gifted and academically advanced students.

Teacher Beliefs

Teaching is a complex profession and teaching effectiveness, often measured by student achievement, is related to individual teachers’ beliefs and actions, but also to the environmental supports available to them. Several individual (teacher self-efficacy, instructional strategies) and environmental (professional learning) factors interact to help educators move toward the goal of maximizing student learning.

Teacher Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy (see Bandura, 1977) is a self-belief that refers to “a judgment of the confidence one has in one’s abilities” (Rinn, 2020, p. 120). Self-efficacy has been linked to career selection and performance within a professional domain (Rinn, 2020). As teachers perform their job duties, self-efficacy may play a critical role in decision-making processes (e.g., instructional strategies, grouping configurations, assessment methods). An educator’s professional self-efficacy may also be related to the belief that they can positively impact student achievement and contribute to their professional learning community. However, they may need additional support to put those beliefs into action. There is some indication that teachers’ positive beliefs about their abilities and the instructional strategies they select are related to increased levels of student academic achievement (e.g., Shahzad & Naureen, 2017; Schmid, 2018). There is also evidence to suggest that professional learning and opportunities to apply that learning can have a positive impact on teacher self-efficacy, and in turn, student achievement (e.g., Missett et al., 2014; Park & Datnow, 2017). The six teachers on this panel discussed how they reflect on their beliefs and actions so they can better support students with advanced learning needs.

Instructional Strategies

The beliefs teachers hold are directly related to the actions they take in the classroom. For example, there is clear empirical support for using formative assessments to guide acceleration and ability grouping practices in the classroom (e.g., Missett et al., 2014; Plucker & Callahan, 2020). However, teachers’ beliefs about themselves, their students, and instructional practices influence whether or not they use research-supported strategies with gifted and academically advanced learners. Missett et al. (2014) noted that the teachers in their sample who had an “individual student orientation” (p. 256) were more likely to personalize instruction (e.g., pre-testing, acceleration, ability grouping), whereas teachers who had a “group orientation” (p. 257) were more likely to slow the pace of instruction for all students, rather than using within-class ability grouping to differentiate (e.g., pacing, depth, complexity) for the needs of individual learners. A comparative case study that examined how teachers make sense of ability grouping and differentiated instruction in their classrooms found that although district-level policies and professional learning may support best practices for teaching students with advanced learning needs, professional learning communities (PLCs) and individual teachers still have a great deal of autonomy to choose whether or not they use those practices (Park & Datnow, 2017). The teachers on this panel described the student-centered instructional strategies they use in their classrooms.

Strengths-Based Approaches

Another common practice reinforced by state accountability testing is to focus on student weaknesses before allowing them to work in areas of strength. There is a strong research base to suggest that student strengths should be prioritized and used as a vehicle to work on areas that need strengthening (e.g., Baum et al., 2014; Proyer et al., 2017). Strengths-based approaches have been linked to increases in students’ motivation to learn and their willingness to take on increasingly more challenging tasks. However, if teachers are not supported in the use of strengths-based interventions, they may have fewer opportunities to implement them consistently. These studies suggest that teachers’ beliefs about the utility and effectiveness of instructional strategies are related to whether or not they employ them in their classrooms. The teachers on this panel described several ways they support academic and socioemotional growth.

Professional Learning

Teacher professional learning is one way to support educators as they work to meet the needs of the students they serve. However, professional learning may be more beneficial if teachers perceive that the content is relevant and they have opportunities to apply new learning and adapt it to their classrooms. Spoon et al. (2020) explored a model of professional learning that emphasizes human-centered, action-oriented, collaborative, process-driven learning opportunities that incorporate the design thinking model (e.g., empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test). This Instruct to Innovate model empowered educators in the sample to identify students’ advanced learning needs and design classroom interventions grounded in research. Similarly, an equity-driven professional learning framework highlighted the fact that job-related training should allow teachers to learn, reflect, apply that learning, and incorporate feedback as part of a culturally responsive, systematic learning process (e.g., pulse-taking, establishing safe zones, individualizing professional learning plans, cultural training beyond surface-level, school/home connections, identifying grows and glows, and engaging in courageous conversations; Novak et al., 2020). When using case studies as part of that equity-driven professional learning framework, one study noted that not only were educators able to identify system-level changes that needed to be made, but they also reported a shift in their beliefs about student abilities (e.g., empathy, cultural awareness; Lewis et al., 2020). These findings suggest that professional learning can support teachers who serve students with advanced learning needs by instilling the belief that they can create change that promotes equity and academic excellence at the classroom level and beyond. The six gifted and talented teachers on this panel explained how they engage in formal and informal professional learning opportunities to sharpen their skills as educators.

Classroom Application

In May 2021, six gifted and talented teachers from three different school districts across the state of Texas joined in a conversation about the relationship between teacher beliefs and student achievement. These educators described multifaceted, student-centered approaches that address academic, social, and emotional growth. They also emphasized their ongoing personal commitment to reflect on their beliefs, adapt their teaching practice in response to new learning, and remain open to new ideas. These teachers are bridging the gap between research and practice for gifted and talented students in Texas public schools.

Meet the Teachers

Sarah and Jessica: Clear Creek ISD

The Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD) is a large suburban school system in the Houston metropolitan area that serves more than 42,000 students on 46 campuses (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2021). In CCISD, elementary students identified for gifted and talented (G/T) services are clustered and placed with G/T-trained educators who differentiate learning experiences to explore the depth and complexity within and beyond the grade-level curriculum. Identified students in K-3 also work with a campus G/T specialist to explore advanced academic content and develop critical learning skills (e.g., research, communication, problem-solving, creativity; Clear Creek Independent School District, 2018a). Sarah Orozco is a third-grade math and science teacher at Campbell Elementary. In her classroom, Orozco focuses on creating “a learning environment that is conducive to risk-taking, cultivates problem-solving skills, and celebrates the freedom to be oneself.” At the intermediate level, sixth through eighth-grade students are served in the Webster Academy Visions in Education (WAVE) magnet program that is offered on two campuses. The WAVE curriculum focuses on real-world issues and allows students to take on interest-based, inquiry-driven learning projects (Clear Creek Independent School District, 2018b). Dr. Jessica Collins teaches WAVE Basics, an academic skills course with embedded social and emotional learning content for sixth graders transitioning from elementary school to intermediate school. Her class functions as a “home base” for her students as they adjust to a “fast-paced, rigorous secondary curriculum.” Sarah and Jessica shared several ways they apply research-based principles in their classroom teaching.

Rico, Rachel, and Erin: McKinney ISD

The McKinney Independent School District (MISD) is a mid-size suburban school system in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex that serves nearly 25,000 students on 32 campuses (NCES, 2021). Elementary students in third through fifth grade who have been identified for G/T services spend one (third graders) or two (fourth and fifth graders) instructional days per week away from their home campus for advanced academic instruction (e.g., critical thinking skills, depth and complexity) with G/T-trained content-area specialists (McKinney Independent School District, 2021). Rico Sneller teaches math and science to third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students in MISD’s ALPHA program. One of his goals as a teacher is to help his students “understand more about what it means to be gifted.” In middle and high school, MISD students who have been identified for services may receive instruction in designated G/T subject area courses or they may be clustered in advanced academic course sections (McKinney Independent School District, 2021). Rachel Jenson teaches GT English, Language Arts, and Reading (ELAR) to eighth-graders at Scott Johnson Middle School. Jenson noted that her objectives each school year include trying to “figure out what is exceptional about each of my students” and creating “an environment in my classroom and in my interactions that allows each student to feel nurtured and safe to share what makes them exceptional.” Erin Bull teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Human Geography and the Interdisciplinary Studies and Mentorship (ISM) elective at McKinney Boyd High School. Bull explained that ISM students “spend a year researching, conducting interviews, acquiring a mentor, and creating an original project in their chosen field.” Rico, Rachel, and Erin described the ways they intentionally reflect on their beliefs to create quality learning experiences for their gifted and academically advanced students.

Brandi: Richardson ISD

The Richardson Independent School District (RISD) is a large urban school system in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that serves nearly 40,000 students on 55 different campuses (NCES, 2021). In RISD, the total school cluster grouping model is used to pair students identified for gifted services with G/T-trained teachers. Identified students in K-6 also spend time focused on critical and creative thinking with a pull-out teacher (Richardson Independent School District, 2020). Brandi Jackson is an Advanced Learning Teacher (ALT) who works with students from kindergarten through sixth grade at Arapaho Classical Magnet Elementary School. Jackson believes one of her most important roles as a pull-out teacher is to help her students “become critical thinkers who seek multiple perspectives and solve problems creatively.” Brandi explained how she applies principles from gifted education research to her work with students on her campus.

Research in Practice

The teachers on the panel answered questions about their beliefs related to achievement, how they maintain a reflective practice, what reading and professional learning they have chosen recently, and how they address equity and excellence for the students they teach. These conversations highlighted the use of student-centered approaches and strong personal commitments to implement evidence-based strategies in their gifted and academically advanced classrooms.

Beliefs About Student Achievement

Question 1: How would you describe your role in gifted or academically advanced learners’ achievement?

The six educators on this panel noted that their main roles were to identify student strengths and help students develop the skills to engage in increasingly complex advanced academic learning contexts. Sarah explained her strengths-based approach to teaching elementary math and science. She noted, “It is my responsibility to play to the student’s strengths while nurturing areas they may struggle in.” Brandi also emphasized the importance of using instructional time to identify strengths and highlighted the importance of explicitly teaching self-assessment and goal-setting strategies. She explained, “As a gifted pullout teacher, I regularly assess students’ strengths in independent study, communication, leadership, metacognition, creative thinking, critical thinking, and research so we can set growth goals in one or more of these areas.” Erin explained the importance of recognizing and anticipating where her students might need extra support. She emphasized that “many of my students, especially my freshman, are just beginning to reflect and evaluate themselves as people and students. Many of them are being truly challenged for the first time in their educational journey.” Her goal is for students to come out of her classes “with an expanded view of the world” and to “feel comfortable asking questions, discussing information, and analyzing data on their own” because “regardless of what courses, colleges, or careers they choose in the future, those skills will be useful to them.” These educators agree that by recognizing student strengths, they can build trust, develop collaborative partnerships that allow them to challenge students with more complex material, and guide individual students to address areas (e.g., academic, psychosocial) that need strengthening. These teachers understand the value of prioritizing student strengths and allowing them to work in areas of interest as a way to support motivation, self-beliefs, and academic achievement (e.g., Baum et al, 2014; Proyer et al., 2017; Rinn, 2020).

Reflective Practice

Question 2: How do you intentionally reflect on your beliefs as a teacher to ensure that students with advanced learning needs are able to grow as a result of their instructional time with you?

Each of the educators on the panel noted that they actively seek feedback from a variety of sources (e.g., self, students, colleagues, parents), objectively evaluate that feedback, and incorporate it into their teaching practice. As Rico teaches elementary math and science to several different cohorts of students, he challenges himself with the same question every school day. He asks, “Would I want to be a student in my class today?” He explained that this recurring question “helps me make sure the time my students spend in my class is meaningful for them. Forming relationships and learning about their interests and personalities is crucial to making sure they are able to grow.” Rachel actively looks for ways to enhance student learning within her district’s advanced curriculum units. She explained, “if we are reading a novel and I see an interest in a topic, then we spend some time on that topic.” She emphasized the importance of flexibility and asking open-ended questions to get real-time feedback from the students in her gifted and advanced academic middle school ELAR classes. Jessica keeps a reflective journal that she writes in weekly or when she wants to capture a memorable teaching moment with her sixth graders. She explained that “at the end of each school year, I revisit my reflections with a bit more objectivity than I am capable of in the moment. This helps me understand how my perspective impacts my classroom and my students.” These veteran educators make reflection and feedback an integral part of their teaching practice by evaluating input from multiple sources and adapting their instructional strategies to better serve their academically advanced students. The reflective practices these teachers described allow them to implement research-based best practices, such as individualized instruction (e.g., acceleration, ability grouping), and maximize learning for each of the academically advanced students they serve (e.g., Dixson et al., 2020; Plucker & Callahan, 2020).

Professional Reading

Question 3: What have you read (e.g., books, research studies, blogs, articles) recently that has caused you to reflect on your beliefs about giftedness and talent? Have you made any changes to your teaching practice as a result?

These teachers found inspiration from a wide variety of texts on academic content, instructional strategies, and developmental psychology. Rico read A Mathematician’s Lament (2009) by Paul Lockhart. He explained, “its central point is that students are kept from the beautiful and creative parts of math until they pursue them at the collegiate level, and by then, understandably so, any passion or interest for math has usually disappeared.” In their work with gifted and talented elementary math and science students, Rico and his colleagues intentionally invite students to experience the beauty and creativity of math. Erin read Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (2018) by Matthew R. Kay. She explained the emphasis on listening in the book, “Listening seems like a pretty straightforward endeavor and something we often ask our students to do. However, I have found it to be a more difficult task, both for myself and my students, than one would think.” This book caused Erin to evaluate the dynamics of discussion in her classroom.

Brandi mentioned a KQED.org article titled “How Can Students Self-Assess When Teachers Do All the Grading and Work?” (Sung, 2019). She shared, “I now believe self-assessment helps build student agency because they take ownership of their work and better understand the ultimate rating.” For Brandi, this article fundamentally changed how she facilitated learning and monitored individual growth with the students she serves. Sarah noted that she actively explored the ideas of affective, cognitive, and behavioral engagement by reading John Spencer, A. J. Juliani, and Philip Schlechty’s work. She explained, “My teaching practices grew in the areas of student daily reflections, student learning empowerment, and the development of digital tools that foster student engagement.”

Rachel read Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (2012) by Andrew Solomon. She noted, “It looks at the idea that being exceptional is the norm and normal is not what we think it is. I love this idea. I can’t help but apply this concept in all of my classes.” This book and other philosophical readings have encouraged Rachel to create a learning environment that is safe for students to share what makes them unique. Jessica described one book she returns to again and again, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (2009) by Judith Rich Harris. She explained, “it provides some interesting information regarding how our environment does or does not impact our success in life.” This and other readings help Jessica address the social and emotional needs of the students in her classes. The teachers in this panel found reading books, articles, and blogs helpful in evaluating their professional practice and adapting their thinking and teaching strategies.

Professional Learning Experiences

Question 4: What professional development has been the most helpful to you in evaluating your beliefs about giftedness and talent and adjusting your classroom practice to incorporate new learning?

Rico, Rachel, and Sarah all noted the positive impact of attending TAGT giftED conferences each year. Rachel explained, “Being around like-minded people and hearing about gifted education topics is so valuable. To know that I am not alone has changed my approach to every single thing I do in my G/T classes and my general education classes.” Rico emphasized that he always walks away from the conference with a reminder of “how important it is for our gifted learners to make meaningful decisions about their learning and to have real opportunities to release their amazing creativity.” One session that stood out to Sarah was hearing Bertie Kingore talk about differentiation. She recalled that Kingore, “spoke about tiering in such an easy way that it forever changed my teaching philosophy.”

Jessica emphasized the importance of weekly meetings with her sixth-grade Professional Learning Community (PLC). These collaborative meetings give her “insight into how students are performing in their other classes, and what needs are not being met so that I can adjust what I’m teaching to make sure they are getting the most out of their time with me.” Brandi recalled a book study of Daniel H. Pink’s A Whole New Mind (2005). This study sparked her interest in gathering the stories of veteran educators in her district. She explained, “Understanding the past has helped me shape the present as I incorporate strategies that have helped students learn and grow. Analyzing the patterns in their stories led me to develop new strategies based on my deeper understanding of giftedness and talent.” Erin benefited from training in restorative practices and cultural responsiveness. She said, “I feel like my students, for the most part, have a desire to learn, but I think often they want to feel understood in that process. All of these practices help facilitate learning in a more individualized way.”

One key theme across the teacher responses about professional learning is that the most valuable experiences were followed by opportunities to apply that learning and adapt it to their own school and classroom contexts. The high-quality learning experiences these teachers described emphasize the importance of allowing educators to choose relevant and meaningful professional learning options that empower them to create positive change for their students with advanced learning needs (e.g., Lewis et al., 2020; Novak et al., 2020; Spoon et al., 2020).

Addressing Equity and Excellence

Question 5: In your classroom practice, how do you address equity and excellence for students who are currently in gifted or advanced academic programming? How do you address equity and excellence for students you teach who have not yet been identified for those services?

The teachers on this panel explained how they address equity in their individual classrooms and how they are working to ensure that their school systems’ policies support equitable access to gifted and advanced academic programming. Rico and his team make sure to consider the materials and resources their students have on the ALPHA campus, their home school campus, and at home, as they design lessons and projects. He described the process as “making sure all resources are available to all students, whether they are resources we gather at school or deliver to virtual students.” This approach acknowledges that reducing excellence gaps requires access to equitable advanced learning opportunities that keep student needs (e.g., resources, materials) in mind during the planning and assessment phases of instruction (Plucker & Peters, 2016).

Erin described how she addresses equity by building trusting relationships with her students. She explained,

Creating relationships allows you to understand your students better . . . how they learn, what they are interested in, and anything they may be struggling through. This in turn allows you to differentiate your instruction, extend your lessons to include student interests for a deeper understanding of the content, and shore up any areas they may need help with. All of this leads to equity in the classroom and more achievement for students.

Similarly, Sarah gives her students choices about how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning by providing tiered lessons. She described the process in her classroom:

The students decide the next step in their learning based on interests and goals. They analyze their own learning and behaviors through daily reflections. Then they take these reflections and create a weekly goal. I check in with each student during the week to see how they are progressing towards their goal.

Erin and Sarah both approach teaching academically advanced students by identifying individual needs and adapting classroom instruction through culturally responsive strategies (e.g., active listening, reflection, goal setting, ability grouping) for increasing students’ sense of belonging and their academic achievement (e.g., Lewis et al., 2020; Novak et al., 2020; Plucker & Peters, 2016).

Brandi recognized that while she was addressing equity and excellence in her classroom, she could also play a role in influencing policy work at the district level by serving on several evaluation committees. She said, “We have been evaluating processes, curriculum, and policies as well as writing new ones to create equity for and excellence in traditionally underserved subpopulations, and I have proudly been a part of that work.” Her motivation to support student learning by providing input and feedback on district-level accountability policy is another way to bridge the divide that sometimes exists between research, policy, and practice in advanced academics (e.g., Plucker & Callahan, 2020; Plucker & Peters, 2016).

Conclusion

These teachers’ experiences echo many of the best practices recommended by gifted education researchers. Through school district and campus support, opportunities to collaborate with other dedicated educators, and their own initiative to seek out professional learning opportunities, these teachers are putting research into practice to foster the academic achievement of gifted and academically advanced learners in Texas. Dixson et al. (2020) suggested that education for students with advanced learning needs should be reframed as “maximizing learning” (p. 25). The authors suggest a model that is proactive (e.g., frontloading), locally focused (e.g., universal screening, local norms), and addresses students’ current, domain-specific learning needs (e.g., multiple pathways, flexible placement, ability grouping). They urged educators to “rethink old assumptions about what it means to be gifted, how to identify and serve students who need gifted programming, what those programs are supposed to accomplish, and how to measure their success” (Dixson et al., 2020, p. 25). As the field of gifted education shifts to address the compatible goals of equity and excellence, it is critical for teachers to understand the research basis behind best practice recommendations (see Plucker & Callahan, 2020), to evaluate their beliefs, and to examine how those beliefs impact student achievement (Meyer & Plucker, 2021; Plucker & Peters, 2016). The teachers on this panel all share the goal of maximizing student achievement and they prioritize evidence-based practices, including focusing on student strengths, regularly reflecting to incorporate new learning, and adapting teaching practices to meet students’ advanced learning needs.

References

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Clear Creek Independent School District. (2018a). Gifted and talented. https://www.ccisd.net/departments/gifted_and_talented

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About the Author

Melanie S. Meyer is a Lecturer at Baylor University. She served as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology with a concentration in Gifted and Talented Education from the University of North Texas. She has been a classroom teacher in Texas for over 20 years, with experience in analytical reading and writing development in gifted and advanced academics settings. Her research focuses on identity development, school-based talent development, the postsecondary choices (e.g., college, career, military service) of talented students, education policy, and highly mobile (e.g., military-connected) students.

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