School & District Management

Report Urges Acceleration for Gifted Students

By Debra Viadero — October 01, 2004 3 min read
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A report by a group of experts on gifted education makes an impassioned plea for schools to allow exceptionally bright children to skip grades, start school early, or take other steps to push ahead their learning.

Read an executive summary of the report “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students.” The full report is also available.

“Those of us who do research in this field have been very aware of the fact that, despite the research on the positive effects of acceleration, it’s just not translating to practice,” said Nicholas Colangelo, a co-author of the report, “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students.”

The two-volume study, released on Sept. 20, includes a layman’s version and a more detailed research report that corrals evidence for the group’s assertions.

Mr. Colangelo and his two co-authors identify 18 different strategies schools can use to help speed up the usual learning progression for academically gifted learners. They range from relatively rare practices, such as grade skipping, to more popular strategies such as Advanced Placement courses for high school students.

Yet, for the most part, the report maintains, general educators often resist making adaptations for their smartest students, even though research suggests that doing so is effective.

“The most common refrain our parents and students hear is ‘wait,’ ” said Jane Clarenbach, the director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children, a Washington-based group that formally endorsed the report. “It’s either ‘Wait for their classmates to catch up,’ or ‘We’re going to cover that subject three weeks from now,’ or ‘Wait until next year.’ ”

Concern for Consequences

An estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of children nationwide are considered academically gifted, the report says, which is defined as having an IQ over 125. But the report says no data are available on how many such children are being denied accelerated learning opportunities.

Speaking for regular educators, Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va., said the report’s perception of the situation may be fairly accurate.

“Generally, there probably is some reluctance to accelerate,” he said.

In addition, he said, many educators are concerned about the social, as well as academic, consequences of accelerating students’ learning. “If you accelerate a kid two or three years past his peer group, does that create a problem in terms of social development or not?” he said.

Addressing the needs of the nation’s brightest students, Mr. Houston said, has as much to do with good teaching as anything else. That’s why he questions whether students need to leave their same-age classmates for special classes for the gifted in order to delve more deeply into learning.

“You can talk about the American Revolution fairly superficially,” Mr. Houston said, “or you can talk about the whole issue of what democracy is in a very deep way.”

Mr. Colangelo said some of educators’ reluctance to allow bright students to accelerate their learning beyond that of their peers comes from their philosophical beliefs about equity. And he said that is the case even when teachers are familiar with research findings that support acceleration.

“It’s one of those issues where attitude trumps evidence,” said Mr. Colangelo, who is also an education professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Education Law’s Impact

A prime example, Mr. Colangelo said, is the No Child Left Behind Act. In the federal education law’s quest to raise the achievement levels of the nation’s lowest-performing students, the law ignores the needs of top academic performers, Mr. Colangelo and other proponents of acceleration contend.

To make the case for expanding accelerated-learning opportunities, the study’s authors point to research showing that students who have been allowed to skip ahead in school outperform equally bright students who stay with their own age group. The average achievement difference, according to one review in the report of several such studies, amounts to almost a grade level.

The report was conducted with financial support from the Radnor, Pa.-based John Templeton Foundation.

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