What Is Holding Back America's Brightest Students?

What Is Holding Back America's Brightest Students?

What Is Holding Back America's Brightest Students?

As a nation, how can we best empower our gifted kids? I talk with the editors of A Nation Empowered, a new volume reviewing the evidence on the academic and socio-emotional impact of educational acceleration for gifted kids.

Should your child move ahead to that advanced math class? Should they skip a grade? Should they enter college early? What impact will that have on their educational and social/emotional trajectory? What does the research evidence tell us?

Educational acceleration is when a student chooses to move through the traditional curriculum at a pace that is faster than normal. A decade ago, a landmark report titled A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students laid out the research evidence showing that students who want to educationally accelerate and are ready for it should be allowed to do so.

Now a new report titled A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students edited by gifted education leaders Susan G. Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, Joyce VanTassel-Baska, and Ann Lupkowski-Shoplik, provides a follow up to the original report. As the editors note, “A Nation Deceived informed us of research-based practices for challenging academically talented youth. A Nation Empowered tells the story of how well we have applied what we have learned.”

I had the opportunity to ask each of the editors of the new volume about why educational acceleration is important, what influence it has on social/emotional development, why in this case the research evidence supporting the intervention appears to conflict with strongly held concerns or beliefs about moving a child ahead educationally, and also what the role of the Common Core Standards are in the context of gifted education.

Why should a student choose to accelerate their education?

SUSAN ASSOULINE: There are two sides to every coin. One side reveals that acceleration is the most effective intervention for students who are ready for challenge and advanced curriculum. The flip side isn't as shiny. Students who are not challenged become disengaged from school and their joy of learning goes away. Skeptics would have us believe that acceleration is not good for students—they will have gaps in their knowledge, they won’t make any friends, they won't be able to keep up, or it's a very costly intervention. None of these reasons are substantiated by research; they are nothing more than excuses.

There are more than 20 forms of acceleration and some are extraordinarily effective, in particular grade-skipping and single-subject acceleration. The long-term benefits, especially in the STEM areas, are documented and extend beyond school into careers. When accelerated students are asked if they have any regrets, the answer is: “I wish I had done more and sooner.”

Despite its effectiveness, policy and practice have not kept pace with the research evidence. Today, we face new issues related to acceleration that also merit our attention: the impact of the Common Core State Standards, the renewed concern about economically-vulnerable children, and lack of professional development for teachers of gifted and talented students at all levels.

Acceleration actually benefits many gifted kids socially. Skipping a grade might mean that a talented kid finally makes friends.

ANN SHOPLIK: Acceleration actually benefits gifted children socially. Academically talented children may complain because they feel “different” or socially isolated from other students in their grade. Moving them ahead actually helps them to fit in better, because they share similar interests with the older students who are closer to their intellectual level. Skipping a grade might mean that a talented student finally makes friends. Research with tens of thousands of students documents that the vast majority of accelerated students make a good adjustment socially and emotionally, and there are no ill effects.

Important issues come up when we talk about moving a student ahead a grade; these issues include being too young to drive, dating, and other privileges adolescents earn as they get older. It’s certainly important for families to think about these issues if they are considering a grade-skip, but they can be reassured by the research that informs us that older students who had been accelerated consider these issues as temporary inconveniences. The previously accelerated students view these inconveniences as “worth it,” because they were able to be more challenged academically. The vast majority of students who were accelerated look back at their acceleration as a positive experience, and many of them say they wish they had accelerated more.

Acceleration doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” decision. There are many other types of acceleration besides skipping a grade. For example, a student might move ahead in only one subject, such as math, and that student could remain with age-peers for most of the day.

Academic acceleration has tremendous research support. Why isn’t it used more? Because of strong beliefs that are not supported by evidence.

NICHOLAS COLANGELO: This is a good question and a basis for A Nation Deceived as well as A Nation Empowered. We have evidence from science and medicine that even when there is strong research evidence, people will not necessarily accept the findings as a basis for decisions. Recent discussions on measles vaccinations of children is an example. Beliefs are powerful and not necessarily replaced by research evidence. This sounds unreasonable but it exists even in the 21st century. Education is a field where people have especially strong beliefs that may not be backed by evidence.

Acceleration of gifted students is one of the areas in education where there is considerable research evidence and the evidence is consistently positive. This is not always true in education, that is, the amount of research evidence and the consistency of that evidence in support of an intervention. Educators and the general public have been hesitant about acceleration because it is seen as a radical departure from the typical school experience of children. Moving ahead and taking more difficult coursework has been questioned because it simply is not for everyone.  Acceleration demands an unambiguous acceptance of differential ability and readiness and highlights these differences.

As acceleration becomes more prominent, those who hold beliefs contrary to acceleration rely mostly on questions about social and emotional issues. Beliefs that acceleration may cause social issues is powerful and while there is evidence that this is not so, the beliefs can be very strong. In my own experience in dealing with acceleration over the last several years, concerns regarding ability to handle academic work is practically never raised. Any hesitation involves the social issues, acceptance by classmates, and happiness in school. There are many students who could benefit from acceleration but who are not provided acceleration options or encouraged to take such options. It is the beliefs of educators, parents, and sometimes the general public which are contrary to evidence that minimize the use.

The Common Core State Standards cannot replace gifted education programs.

JOYCE VANTASSEL-BASKA: There is a misconception that the standards may represent a gifted education program in their emphasis on higher level thinking and problem-solving, thus eliminating the need for specialized gifted programs. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Jerome Bruner was fond of saying, “all of education is about appropriate translation.” In order for the standards to meet the needs of the gifted, they must be accelerated in respect to task demands that are challenging, advanced, complex, and creative. While doing literary analysis constitutes higher level work, the level of thinking is dependent on the level of texts used. Consequently, advanced level text is a prerequisite for challenging gifted students in the English Language Arts standards. In math, the use of diagnostic prescriptive approaches to find the appropriate level of student readiness to engage in math study is a critical starting point for instruction in the new standards. Moreover, the nature and extent of problems employed must be appropriately complex in order for gifted students to be challenged.

The new standards hold much promise for use with gifted students if accelerated translations are employed. In the absence of such effort, however, they may prove to be as ineffectual as other standards that have preceded them. For gifted students, their time for learning is now. They deserve an appropriate level of education every year, regardless of the standards base from which that level is determined.

© 2015 by Jonathan Wai

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