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  • Writer's pictureThe Knox School of Santa Barbara

What's So Threatening About Academic Acceleration?

By Gail Post

If a simple, proven and cost-effective option could help gifted children receive the academic services they need, wouldn't most schools rush to offer it?

Not necessarily.

Despite readily available alternatives, too many gifted children battle boredom every single day. They wait while others catch up, endure instruction offered at a snail's pace, and coast through class assignments. They read, doodle, daydream, and play on their phones. They cause trouble by talking to peers, fidgeting, and asking too many questions. They don't learn study skills, avoid taking academic risks, and may become underachievers.

Academic acceleration: A proven alternative

We know that the trend toward differentiated instruction and the elimination of ability grouping has deprived gifted students of a challenging learning environment in many classrooms. Yet one simple and cost-effective option is academic acceleration. Full-grade, or even single subject acceleration, not only enhances gifted students' education, but alleviates some of the burden teachers face trying to differentiate instruction. Early entrance into kindergarten, dual-enrollment in college classes, and online programming are other forms of acceleration. And most research (see references below) has documented the benefits of acceleration, and refuted the widely held belief that it is socially or emotionally harmful. Gifted children who accelerate thrive both academically and socially.

Yet when parents or a brave teacher suggest acceleration, they are often met with resistance. We can't do that. It wouldn't be fair to the other kids. Your child might not fit in. He/she would miss out on important curriculum. And so on...

There is something threatening about academic acceleration.

When a child with a learning disability or another challenge is evaluated, most schools go to great lengths to find accommodations. Why is there such resistance to addressing the needs of a gifted child? Here are some possible reasons:

1. There will be chaos!

Far removed from the one-room schoolhouse, there are strict rules today for assignment to specific grades and classes. Age cut-off dates for kindergarten vary from state to state, and sometimes town to town, and children are expected to fulfill specific curricular requirements based on their year in school. Once parents or teachers "break" these rules, fear of chaos ensues.

2. Curriculum reigns supreme

School policy often requires that teachers adhere to the curriculum. Each chapter and section must be covered - learning be damned! If a child accelerates, he misses out on some of that material. Yet, we know that much of what is taught, especially in elementary school, is not necessarily crucial information that won't be assimilated at a later time. When gifted children bypass some of the curriculum rather than languishing in classrooms unsuited to their learning needs, they may be more likely to maintain their intrinsic interest in learning. As Peter DeWitt recently noted:

"When we are too concerned about covering curriculum, instead of seeing students as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, we are more at risk of putting them in a box instead of thinking outside of it. And one group of our students that need our best thinking are students who may no longer need to be in our classrooms at all, and those are the students who need to be accelerated."

3. It is elitist

If a child is permitted to enter kindergarten early or accelerate to another grade, school administrators often fear a backlash of criticism from district parents claiming elitism. Acceleration is viewed by some as a special privilege or a badge of honor, resulting in anger and defensiveness. School officials are left to explain that acceleration is critical and necessary for a particular child's educational needs; it is not a reward for good behavior or excellent grades. This can be tiresome. Administrators need to pick their battles...and this may not be a cause they wish to champion.

4. Who are these gifted you speak of?

Some school districts or teachers lack training or even basic knowledge about gifted children. They may not fully grasp the extent to which these students learn with more depth and intensity, and grasp material at a much quicker pace. They may equate ability with grades and achievement and refuse to consider the underachieving gifted or gifted students who act out due to boredom. They may hold stereotypical images of what a gifted child looks like, and overlook children who don't fit the mold. They may assume that gifted children's needs can be met reasonably well in a regular classroom and that differentiated instruction is sufficient. Some may even believe that gifted students' needs can be sacrificed for the overall good, and that resources should be tailored to struggling or average students.

5. What makes them so special?

Teachers are people just like everyone else. Despite their training, they carry their personal beliefs, emotional impressions from childhood, and unconscious prejudices along with them. Some may have had negative experiences with gifted children in the past. Some may not understand giftedness and may hold negative stereotypes about gifted children or their families. Some may have endured uncomfortable interactions with parents who have pressured them to provide special accommodations. These resentments may color their professional judgment when decisions regarding acceleration are needed, and result in withholding what is perceived as special treatment.

How academic acceleration can help gifted children

Academic acceleration is not the right answer for every gifted child; but it always should be an available option. With research showing that up to 45% of students in upper elementary grades perform at least one year above their grade level, it appears that many students - not just the gifted - are receiving an education lacking sufficient challenge. A 45-year follow-up study of gifted children found that those who skipped a grade were 60% more likely to earn a Ph.D. or have a patent than those who did not accelerate, and twice as likely to have a Ph.D. in a STEM field. And recent meta-analytic findings from studies of academic acceleration confirmed its benefits - both academically and socially. Researchers Steenburgen-Hu and Moon concluded that:

"...accelerated students tend to outperform students who are not accelerated in their performance on standardized achievement tests, college grades, degrees obtained, status of universities or colleges attended, and career status. Accelerants equal or surpass non-accelerants in self-concept, self-esteem, self-confidence, social relationships, participation in extracurricular activities, and life satisfaction."

It is time to put the false assumptions and misconceptions to rest. Acceleration can enhance learning, and has a positive impact on long-term achievement and social and emotional well-being. If your school district is unaware of the benefits of acceleration, you might consider sharing information from NAGC, SENG, or tip.Duke. Any child who might benefit from academic acceleration deserves this powerful and well-researched opportunity.

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