Post No.: 0451
We looked at the pros and cons of preschool and home-schooling in Post No.: 0422. We’ll now look at academic acceleration, which could be an option for schoolchildren whose academic performances are substantially higher than their peers. (Note that this is not the same thing as a ‘gifted and talented’ education program, where students continue at the normal pace through the regular curriculum but are also given additional materials not normally delivered in that curriculum at any grade/year.)
For those who learn faster than most others in particular subjects, their progress through an existing curriculum could be supplemented with more advanced materials from the same curriculum. This would be content-based acceleration (e.g. allowing a Year 5 pupil to take a Year 6 mathematics class, or taking a small group of Primary/Elementary school pupils to the local Secondary/High school for an arts class). Or for those who perform well beyond grade level in all or most subjects, skipping an entire grade/year could be an option for them. This would be grade-based acceleration (e.g. early acceptance into college). So acceleration is taken on a case-by-case basis, with different strategies working better for different students.
In terms of the evidence for whether such acceleration programs work, it’s hard to judge because of the inherent sampling bias – exceptional students selected for these programs are necessarily unusual and therefore what we can learn about them may not be applicable to a typical child. Another problem is that the decision to accelerate a student or not, and then what to do with them if so, is highly individualised, with different schools, teachers and parents making different decisions, and so there’s no standardised criteria or route for selecting or dealing with advanced learners; hence there’s quite a messy dataset. And since it’s so individualised, a problem is that it’s impossible to compare a child taking one route to that very same child taking a different route without a parallel universe to play out both scenarios as a comparison i.e. we cannot know for sure what would’ve happened had the opposite choice been made; hence any research would need to somehow carefully select an appropriate control group.
With all of these caveats in mind, what the data tentatively shows us is that there are (unsurprisingly) positive short-term effects in mathematics and reading test scores for fast-learning students who complete two years of material within a single year (telescoping curriculum), compared to fast-learning students who turned down the offer to accelerate and completed only one year of material in that same timeframe. (Well one obvious reason why is because the latter group won’t have seen some of the material introduced in that second year to be able to answer those problems in a test yet!)
But this doesn’t tell us whether the former group learnt the material better or if they would’ve been better off overall learning the material more slowly and possibly more deeply? (This is potentially related to the problem of how ineffective cramming is for forming durable long-term memories, if the acceleration program in question involved cramming.) So do these advantages last once the non-accelerated students catch up and complete all of their own years of education too?
From a study of early-entrance kindergarten-accelerated pupils – pupils who started kindergarten early, on average, exhibit higher test scores than non-accelerated pupils and can eventually fit in academically or even outpace other pupils in the year they’ve been accelerated into after a few years. This suggests that children who participate in acceleration programs, at this age at least, seem to perform at least as well as, if not better than, their non-accelerated peers – bearing in mind the above caveats such as the sampling bias i.e. we’re not sure if it’s just down to the precocious children themselves, who perhaps have the type of unusual zeal, willingness to take risks and confidence in their own abilities to wish to skip a grade in the first place, or down to the acceleration programs themselves that make the difference?
But again, if everyone ends up with Secondary/High school knowledge at the end of it all then who cares if it takes a year less to complete it? Does acceleration make students learn better, and make them more optimally challenged, engaged and curious, rather than just learn faster? Well one study revealed that a group of accelerated mathematically-precocious students were more likely to earn an advanced degree, author a scientific publication or even register a patent, and at a younger furry age on average too, than a group of mathematically-precocious students who did not skip a grade. So this tentative evidence suggests that there’s probably no harm in accelerating the 1 or 2% of children who are fast-learning, and some potential short and long-term benefits for doing so too.
To truly help anyone, at any age, to achieve their full intellectual potential though, one needs not so much to accelerate their learning but to encourage them to be a life-long learner i.e. to never stop learning. It’s not so much about trying to reach some end goal sooner than other people because, for learning and knowledge, there is no end goal! No single person can learn everything in the world in his/her own lifetime. Even if one just specialises in one field for one’s entire life, no single person will get to learn everything possible about that field because, if it’s a vibrant field, there’ll always be something new, there’ll always be updates, refinements or even potential shifts in understanding, and there’ll therefore always be something new to learn. So if you learn fast and skip a year but eventually stop learning, perhaps at the age of 21, then you’ll be eventually overtaken by someone who didn’t skip a year but just kept on learning, perhaps at the age of 23, never mind 30, 50 or 90!
A common concern regarding acceleration is taking students away from peers their own age, thereby impeding their social and emotional development and well-being, and increasing the risk of them getting bullied or ostracised. However, it could be the best option if these students are bored, lose motivation, act out or distract other students when the curriculum is too slow for them. (So note that disruptive pupils may be trying to hide the fact they’re either struggling with the lessons because they’re too difficult for them, or are conversely bored with the lessons because they’re too easy for them. It’s not fair if the education of other classmates is being brought down or interrupted if a disruptive pupil is struggling or bored, but a constantly disruptive pupil is communicating something too.) Early-entrance kindergarten-accelerated pupils and grade-skipping students generally seem to adjust and fit well with their new peers – possibly especially those students who are most gifted (IQ >160) and otherwise would’ve fitted in less with their original year group.
Pupils who partake in after-school, weekend or summer acceleration programs also self-report positive effects on their social and emotional well-being. Not every adult who was accelerated as a child reports positive experiences; although overall, only about 3% said it was negative for them. There tends to be some short-term negative effects when a child is trying to adjust to a new grade – including anxiety and depression – but for most children this generally quickly subsides. Some also feel embarrassment for receiving lower grades than they’re used to for facing the more challenging material. Some also feel down for feeling ‘average’ and as no one special once they’re amongst intellectually-equivalent peers. But on the whole, children tend to experience similar social and emotional outcomes as their age-matched peers on average.
Rather than rely on our intuitions, we can test to see if a child is suitable for acceleration by taking into account their IQ (>115, or more commonly >125), whether they’ve demonstrated high achievements at their current grade level (≥95th percentile), and whether their performance at tests two or more grades above their current grade level are satisfactory (≥50th percentile). These tests should be subject specific i.e. if the child demonstrates high levels all-round then they may skip a grade (grade skipping), or if they only demonstrate it for certain subjects then accelerating them for just those subjects may be more appropriate (subject acceleration). A test might also assess more nebulous constructs like interpersonal skills and attitudes.
Also crucially, any test should consider how the child feels about acceleration – it’s recommended that the child should remain if he/she wants to. Based on an initiative that uses the above set of criteria, most students will adapt well to their new academic level, but about a quarter may not adapt well socially and so may regret it. The upshot is that any decision to accelerate should be done cautiously – if they’re happy right now where they are then it might not make sense to roll the dice on acceleration, but if they’re currently bored and unhappy where they are then it may be worth the change.
Another important thing to consider when schools segregate pupils according to their abilities, or single out individual pupils for their relatively advanced abilities so that they’re given special treatment, especially when too young, is that if the smartest pupils get pushed further to academically excel or the most athletic pupils get pushed further to physically excel, then the smartest or most athletic pupils will just get even smarter or more athletic relative to the rest of their peers according to the Matthew effect. This seems fair enough to not hold back those who seem to have the most potential – but the ‘potential’ of these pupils will be judged at an unequal point in each of their lives because they’re at different chronological and biological ages despite being in the same school grade/year.
Pupils who are 12 months apart in age can be in the same school grade/year, which is a long time developmentally when children are young. It’s therefore critical not to have ideas or jump to conclusions about who is innately smarter or more athletic than another when they’re too young.
More environmentally-privileged children (e.g. those who were born into wealthy households full of books and stimulating toys) may also appear to be faster learners than their less environmentally-privileged peers (e.g. those who have first-generation immigrant parents who aren’t totally fluent with the local language so can’t help them with their homework). And so if the former receive special treatment then that will only compound these early disparities that aren’t innate but environmental.
Thus we should arguably give special treatment to those pupils who seem a bit behind, instead or as well (in a different way), if any differential treatment should be given to anyone at all – at least whilst children are at Primary/Elementary school age. We need to somehow balance ‘leaving no child behind’ with ‘allowing those who can excel to excel’.
Woof. Grade skipping or subject acceleration may not require additional teacher time or other resources because the pupil just moves from one class or year to another, but other forms of acceleration will, such as curriculum compacting or mentoring. When resources are the bottleneck, which they frequently are, then which group should get priority for special treatment – those who seem like they’re being held back or those who might need extra help because they’re falling behind? Please tell us what you think about this conundrum by using the Twitter comment button below.