Education Funding Opinion

What Ever Happened to Grade Skipping?

By Laura Vanderkam & Richard Whitmire — August 11, 2009 4 min read
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Even in the best of times, gifted education is controversial. Why your child and not my child? When the economy and school budgets get tight, the gifted conversation only heats up more, with parents anxious to hang on to any advantage their child might garner, and budget hawks eager to ax programs some see as expendable.

That phenomenon is playing out across the country. In Washington state recently, Gov. Christine Gregoire vetoed part of an education reform package that would have required the state to step in when cash-strapped districts couldn’t fund gifted education; her veto note questioned the idea of giving priority to gifted education over other needs. In Montgomery County, Md., the debate is more existential, with the district considering abandoning its practice of labeling 2nd graders as gifted or not gifted.

We sympathize that when funds are scarce, and some kids are failing, spending money on top achievers seems hard to justify. But nurturing gifted students and saving money don’t have to be at odds. Districts such as Montgomery County are overlooking an obvious, easy, inexpensive solution: acceleration, also known as old-fashioned grade (or subject-matter) skipping. There is no better way to give gifted kids what they need.

Acceleration has been well studied over the years. A 2004 University of Iowa report called “A Nation Deceived” found that most of the evidence was positive. “Interviewed years later, an overwhelming majority of accelerated students say that acceleration was an excellent experience for them,” wrote authors Nicholas Colangelo, Susan G. Assouline, and Miraca U.M. Gross. “Accelerated students feel academically challenged and socially accepted, and they do not fall prey to the boredom that plagues many highly capable students who are forced to follow the curriculum for their age-peers.”

Acceleration is also cheap. It costs nothing to send a 1st grader to 3rd grade for reading, or to have a 4-year-old who is already reading start kindergarten early. If a student moves through grades K-12 in 11 or 12 years, rather than 13, taxpayers save money.

And yet, very few schools use this intervention widely. A 2008 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that 63 percent of teachers opposed grade skipping, and 46 percent said their schools didn’t allow it. Another 27 percent said they weren’t sure what their schools’ policies were, which means that it probably doesn’t happen too often. We called districts all over the country to ask if they accelerated their gifted students. Few did.

Many schools, instead, give gifted kids 90 minutes of “pull out” each week in which students do enrichment activities like learning about insects, or myths, or going on special field trips. While these programs are fun for gifted learners, you don’t have to be gifted to enjoy enrichment activities, and they don’t give gifted kids what they really need, which is academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities.

But we did find a few schools that have embraced acceleration, not just for one or two off-the-charts kids, but as an effective way to challenge a slightly broader gifted population. For instance, at Zuni Elementary School in Scottsdale, Ariz., all the math classes meet during the first hour of the day, so kids can go to whichever class tests show they’re ready for. About 25 students at this school are accelerated two grades or more.

As Kim Lansdowne, the district’s director of gifted education, says: “If we see a student getting 100s on pretests, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to leave them in that class.” Zuni Elementary teachers have discussed doing this for other subjects, too, though they are still ironing out the issues of how best to deploy art, music, and physical education teachers during those times.

For schools in economically depressed regions, grade or subject acceleration challenges kids and avoids some of the problems with the “gifted” label. After all, you’re not being pulled out for special field trips. You’re being given tougher work because that’s what you’ve shown you’re ready for.

In Lebanon, Pa., about 25 miles northeast of Harrisburg, the schools serve a community devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. Nearly 70 percent of the students there qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly a third arrive or leave each school year.

Children in Lebanon are screened by subject competency. Those capable of handling far more challenging math work, for example, are given the option of taking math classes in the upper grades. In some cases, that means getting transported from an elementary school to the middle school, from the middle school to the high school, or even to college.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, middle schooler Laura Cramer rides a school bus to nearby Lebanon Valley College to take Spanish. Then, the district buses her to the high school, where she takes honors chemistry and honors 10th grade English, and works online on an Algebra 2 class. For lunch, she is bused back to her middle school, where she takes history and competes on the middle school track team.

“We are extremely pleased at how flexible our district is,” says her father, Kevin Cramer, who has a younger son on a similar trajectory. “We just can’t say enough good things about this. The district rose to the challenge.”

Acceleration by subject or grade may not have the same cachet as seeing 2nd graders labeled “gifted.” But it serves the needs of children in an uncontroversial, straightforward, and relatively inexpensive way. The only puzzle surrounding acceleration is why more districts don’t embrace it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as What Ever Happened to Grade Skipping?


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