Joyce VanTassel-Baska has spent a career making sure that tomorrow's Mozarts and Einsteins get what they need today.
Joyce VanTassel-Baska is not a person who is afraid of trying new things. As a high school teacher with no basketball experience, she decided to coach the girls' basketball team because she thought it wasn't fair that the girls not have a team due to the lack of a coach. In two years, her team became city champions.
Joyce VanTassel-Baska also is not a person who has a long, slow learning curve. When she stepped onto the court, she had no basketball experience; two years later, her team became city champions. That same chutzpah and drive to address unfair situations led the English and Latin teacher to become interested in the 1970s grassroots movement to do more for gifted students.
Now, nearly four decades later, VanTassel-Baska, the Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Education, is preparing to retire from her position as executive director of William & Mary's Center for Gifted Education. She is recognized as a pioneer in the field of gifted education, and her research has directly affected students and educators around the world.
"I recognize that it's a small pond, but it's been my niche for a long time, and I think that once you find your niche, you are able to do things at ever-increasing levels and produce more because you know the field deeply and well," she said.
Before coming to William & Mary's School of Education in 1987, VanTassel-Baska served as the state director of gifted programs for Illinois, as a regional director of a gifted service center in the Chicago area, as coordinator of gifted programs for the Toledo public schools and as a teacher of gifted high school students in English and Latin. She also initiated and directed the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. At William & Mary, VanTassel-Baska developed a master's program and a doctoral program with emphasis in gifted education. Most importantly, she founded the Center for Gifted Education in 1988.
Creation and implementation
With VanTassel-Baska at the helm, the Center for Gifted Education has supported the needs of gifted and talented people by not only creating services and special programs, but by also providing those same innovative programs for educators, graduate students, policy makers, researchers, parents and K-12 students. The center is known internationally for its research-based curricula, which were developed for high-ability learners. Curricular materials developed by the center are currently used in all 50 states and 28 countries.
Most of VanTassel-Baska's work at William & Mary has been through the Center for Gifted Education. Throughout her career, her research has concentrated on four major areas:
- curriculum effectiveness
- gifted students from low-income and minority backgrounds
- teacher effectiveness
- talent development in eminent individuals.
She began researching gifted students from low-income and minority backgrounds around 1982 while she was still at Northwestern University. She said the emphasis in this research has been concentrated on finding appropriate measurements to assess the abilities of these learners and on discovering the best mechanisms for nurturing these students during different stages of development.
The most important research that she and her fellow researchers at the Center for Gifted Education have done in this area was conducted in South Carolina over the last eight years.
"Our center researchers built a series of performance-based assessments that were used for identification by the state of South Carolina and eventually adopted as their mechanism for identifying students," VanTassel-Baska said. "As a result of using those assessments, anywhere from 14 to 20 percent more low-income and minority students are identified now in South Carolina for gifted programs."
Center researchers tracked that pattern for six years, and the results held true each year. The researchers also did follow-up studies to find out what worked-and what didn't-when these students were placed in traditional gifted programs with students from more advantaged backgrounds.
"What we know from that study is that participants benefited tremendously in two areas from being in gifted programs," VanTassel-Baska said. "First, it's an amazing confidence-builder for them. They begin to see themselves with new eyes, and they are able to mobilize their own abilities."
Building communication skills
"If you stand up and talk in front of people, that's a confidence builder. If you can write well and get positive feedback on your writing, that's a confidence builder," she explained. "So they were developing some very important skills as a result of having the access to gifted programs."
Center researchers also tracked the students' performance on the high-stakes test in South Carolina in those academic areas in which individual students were identified as gifted.
"It took these students two years to come up to the level of their more advantaged counterparts-but in two years they did. It took a little longer, but they were able to meet the same standard that the others met." said VanTassel-Baska. "Those findings were quite gratifying: To know that you're identifying these students for gifted programs, placing them-and then being able to talk to their parents, their teachers and themselves about what it's meant to be in the program, and to track results of participation on outcome measures."
VanTassel-Baska is most well known for her research into curriculum effectiveness, work she began around 1990. In gifted education, not many researchers were focused on curriculum or its effectiveness. Because it is applied research, it is not something that many researchers were interested in doing.
"It's very difficult research to do, because it's research that's done in schools-where you're collecting data in classrooms on students and teachers," said VanTassel-Baska.
The major finding from the work is that gifted students can grow significantly within subject-matter areas that are based on critical thinking-language arts, for instance-if they're given a high-powered curriculum and are taught to move to higher levels. What was surprising about this finding, VanTassel-Baska said, was that the researchers saw amazing growth gains from the combination of accelerative and enriched learning models. They found growth from students using the accelerated model, which moves students through an advanced curriculum more quickly, as well as from an enriched model, which exposes students to greater depth of learning and complex activities. These results supported the use of the Integrated Curriculum Model (ICM) that she had been working on for 20 years. Results also suggested that different forms of grouping the gifted produced strong results whether it was cluster, pullout or self-contained. VanTassel-Baska and her collaborating researchers also found that "gifted curriculum" isn't necessarily just for the gifted: A curriculum designed for gifted learners can be used for a broader band of students "who can benefit from it in powerful ways," she said.
"The results are intuitively what you would expect," she explained. "Gifted kids start higher, and they show significant and important gains. More typical learners start lower, but they still show significant and important gains by being exposed to the same kind of curricular emphasis-and that emphasis is very much focused on higher-level thinking and particularly, critical thinking."
An outgrowth of the research on curriculum effectiveness has been research into teacher effectiveness, which began around 2000. The researchers concentrated on differentiation-a concept in which teachers use a variety of strategies and materials found effective with the gifted with other students as well. VanTassel-Baska and her collaborating researchers have investigated how to ensure that teachers have the differentiation strategies that they need in order to work effectively at high levels-with the gifted students or with anyone else.
"The research suggests that all students should have access to high-level thinking, and that teachers can use those strategies effectively," said VanTassel-Baska.
In order to determine how teachers are doing, center researchers came up with a measurement tool to assess teachers' capacity to differentiate. Using that measurement tool across different populations of teachers, the researchers were able to understand patterns of differentiation, the frequency of differentiation use and its effectiveness.
Differentiation is a powerful educational tool, but mastery of the techniques is not always easily attained. VanTassel-Baska's studies have suggested that it takes two years with five days or so of professional development in each year-with follow-up in the classroom-to impact teachers' use of differentiation at a significant and important level.
"What we saw was that the teachers in those schools were all using good differentiated strategies, but Singapore teachers outperformed American teachers in terms of the effective use of those strategies over time," said VanTassel-Baska. "Again, my explanation for that would be that we don't insist that our secondary teachers be trained in gifted education in this country, and in Singapore they do. Moreover, Ministry of Education specialists in content and gifted education follow-up in the classroom to help further the use of the strategies. It's an interesting contrast to the United States where we lack resources to provide that kind of follow-up support."
VanTassel-Baska's favorite area of research is in talent development. It grew out of her personal interest in reading biography. In 1993, she received research leave from the College and went to England to study the lives of Charlotte Bronte and Virginia Woolf, focusing on their talent development processes.
She has many fond memories of the trip, such as her visit to the Bronte parsonage. She read Charlotte's letters while her daughter, then 11 years old, sat next to her and read Jane Eyre for the first time. She also fondly recalls attending a seminar on Virginia Woolf at Cambridge in the same room where Woolf gave the lecture that became the essay "A Room of One's Own."
"There is something about handling artifacts from the lives of eminent people in the past, people whose works you have read, whose works you admire and whose minds you have been fascinated with," she said. "To pick up letters they have written or photographs of their families or original editions of their work...that's very thrilling for me."
VanTassel-Baska found that early experiences-both educational and relational-greatly impacted the talent development of many people who went on to be notably high achievers. Additionally, the influence of family can play an important part of the process.
"I think that internal characteristics are also very powerful in the lives of these individuals," said VanTassel-Baska. "They had tremendous motivation. They had tremendous capacity for hard work. They had the zeal that Darwin was talking about, the enthusiasm to keep going in the face of failure. Those characteristics matter a lot. Passion matters a lot. It isn't just that they're interested in things; they're passionate about things."
She also found that the lifestyles of the accomplished and famous often include a capacity to work on something for long periods of time, getting so engrossed in it that they lose track of time.
"That's probably where the ‘absent-minded professor' label came from," she said. "A lot of professors engage in their work that way. It's indicative of the mental state necessary to do important work."
VanTassel-Baska said that there is a general rule that says that it takes an individual 10 years of very hard work in a field in order to make a breakthrough.
"So this notion of learning, training and practice in a talent development area is critical in order to produce something of worth in any area," she said.
Although VanTassel-Baska enjoys the archival research, she hasn't pursued it as much as the other strands of her research because she thought the other areas would be more useful to people, and she received federal grants to support the school-based research efforts.
"There is this pragmatic streak in me that research ought to mean something, and in particular, research in education ought to mean something, to be able to help people in schools do a better job. That's my research ethic. If you work in a field like education-which is applied-then your research should in fact benefit that profession," she said.
However, now that she is retiring, she plans to more thoroughly pursue her interest in archival research and talent development. Right now, she is interested particularly in the life of Sir Francis Galton, who is considered by many to be the father of gifted education. He was also an accomplished explorer, a pioneer in the field of statistics and the cousin of Charles Darwin. VanTassel-Baska travelled to the University of London last year to conduct research in the Galton archive.
The importance of gifted education
Although gifted education has come a long way from where it was when VanTassel-Baska started her career, it still has significant strides to take, she said.
"Unlike when I came into the field in the 1970s, we have a much more systematized field than we had before," she said. "But even within that systematized area, we still have what I call a ‘patchwork quilt' of opportunities."
For example, the services available to a child depends on the state-and in many cases the school district-the gifted child calls home. VanTassel-Baska advocates a more uniform availability of services.
"I think there is a real need to provide a much more systematic guarantee that no matter where you live, no matter how much money your family makes, if you're bright, you will have opportunities to grow and develop in ways that are appropriate for your needs," said VanTassel-Baska.
She suggests a model which is based around a university's gifted-ed program. K-12 districts could work with the university program in cooperative arrangements, developing programs and services, creating a sustainable, systematic training mechanism for teachers and establishing a source of ongoing professional development.
"My wish there would be that in every state, there would be at least two universities offering coursework in the education of the gifted and running centers like this one to be sure that there were good opportunities for students at all age levels," said VanTassel-Baska. "Gifted students have many unmet needs."
However, in the country's current financial situation, many critics of gifted education question the need for it and accuse it of merely taking the smart kids out of the classroom. But VanTassel-Baska said that putting gifted children together in these programs is vital.
"I think schools have to think about what are the best kinds of opportunities that they can offer students who are so promising intellectually or academically or in the arts or leadership," she said. "What are the opportunities that we can provide in any given context that can optimize those abilities? Once you can answer that question, the second question becomes how can you best deliver that? The reality is that if you want to optimize the abilities of students in specific domains, then you have to put students together with others who share their level of learning, their interest and their passion."
Benefits of peer grouping
"There's never a question about putting the best basketball players together to make a team or never any question about the development of musical talent and putting the best players together and giving them first chairs in orchestras or first soprano in a chorus because we understand and accept that it is necessary to have the strongest performances," she said. "And yet when it comes to academics, we become much more skittish about putting the best students together to work to their optimal capacity. Yet, peer grouping is absolutely essential to the development of high-level talent. In the absence of that, these students will not prosper."
VanTassel-Baska said that not having strong gifted education programs is to our detriment.
"We have other societies around the world who now see this as a national priority. Korea sees it as a national priority, Singapore, China-many societies are willing to put their resources into the best and the brightest, and the United States so far has not been willing to do that, providing less than a penny per student in funding at the federal level," she said.
VanTassel-Baska said that it is often hard for people to understand what not having gifted programs would do.
"But 30 years down the road, we will know that we have made a mistake by not developing our best minds," she said. "We will know it because we will no longer be preeminent in the world. We will know it as we don't enjoy the quality of life that we have enjoyed over the past 30 years. We will know it in the fact that certain breakthroughs in medicines have not been made, certain social problems have not been solved; we will know it as life becomes ever-more complex and we don't have sufficient numbers of people who are able to meet the challenge of those complexities and solve problems in important ways. The lack of attention to gifted and talented students as a group will cause us to suffer in the long run as a society for not nurturing the new Toni Morrisons, the new Newtons, the new Hawkings who could be making huge contributions to future generations. But can we at the moment see it? No, because we're not looking for the right outcomes from schools which should be differentially calibrated to the capacities of students. We should be raising the mean for all learners and increasing the variance for our top learners, not closing the achievement gap by holding them in place. Our instructional approaches must be based on the talent development processes of higher level thinking and problem solving, not the lower level skills currently drilled on for performance on state tests."
Legacy, personal and professional
VanTassel-Baska said that what she is most proud of from her career are her doctoral students: "They are out around the world starting gifted education centers of their own at different higher education institutions or doing good work in other educational contexts for gifted students."
She is also very proud of her daughter, a William & Mary alumna who, following in her mother's footsteps, is a Latin teacher pursuing a master's degree in gifted education at George Mason.
"In the final analysis, it's the people I've influenced that matter the most to me," VanTassel-Baska said. "They give me the greatest satisfaction that they have gone on, or are going on, to do good work in gifted education. I know in the case of many of them, these career opportunities would not have happened had William & Mary not been here, had the program not been here, had I not been here."