Skipping a grade is rare, but it might just save the world

March 2

When Linda Mc­Veigh began second grade at Kit Carson Elementary School in Lawndale, Calif., her teacher saw she was far ahead. She had learned to read at age four from her 12-year-old aunt. The blonde 7-year-old from a rural Oklahoma family was funny and talkative. Her math scores were very high.

The school recommended she skip ahead to third grade. Her parents, aircraft factory workers who had not gone to college, were surprised by the suggestion but agreed. The promotion went smoothly, her lively personality and athletic talent making up for the age gap. She was co-valedictorian of her high school class and the first female managing editor of her college’s daily newspaper. The day after graduating with honors, she married the newspaper’s features editor — me.

Such grade skipping still happens, but school administrators are rarely as comfortable with it as Linda’s teachers were. This frustrates advocates of gifted children. They can’t understand why school districts won’t embrace the cheapest and easiest way to enrich a bright child’s day. Those kids can make the social adjustment, they argue. Why leave them bored and frustrated, making do with just a few gifted classes each week?

A Vanderbilt University study of the long-term effects of grade skipping has given that argument a boost as the emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education grows. Using 40 years of data from 3,467 mathematically precocious students, Gregory Park, David Lubinski and Camilla P. Benbow concluded that such students, when allowed to skip a grade, “were more likely to pursue advanced degrees and secure STEM accomplishments, reached these outcomes earlier, and accrued more citations and highly cited publications in STEM fields than their matched and retained intellectual peers.”

Many educators and scientists emphasize the discoveries of young scientists. Albert Einstein published his paper on special relativity when he was 26. The more quickly such intellects master their fields, the argument goes, the more time they will have to invent a faster-than-light drive or arrest global warming.

The hoped-for result of such acceleration is lampooned, but also celebrated, by television’s highest-rated (and my favorite) comedy, “The Big Bang Theory.” Its central character, Caltech theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper as played by Jim Parsons, is an irritating, immature egotist. But a Nobel Prize for him seems likely. He started college at 11 and earned his doctorate from M.I.T. at 16.

Faced with children like that, gifted-student advocates say, American schools worry more about acceleration stunting their emotional growth than enhancing their genius. University of Iowa researchers have designed an Acceleration Scale to help schools decide on grade skipping, but bias against acceleration endures.

The Vanderbilt study offers hope to bright students who prefer sticking with their own age group. The control group of precocious non-skipper students did not accomplish as much as those who skipped, but their STEM achievements also were exceptional.

Some differences between the two groups, such as the age at which they first published, have narrowed in recent years. The authors said: “this may reflect the increased availability of alternative forms of acceleration, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses, college courses in high school, summer programs and research and writing opportunities.”

The authors noticed that the differences were not as great between skipping and non-skipping females, who had a greater tendency to pursue advanced degrees in medicine or law.

Linda decided against a career in math. She majored in government and eventually graduated from law school. But like her husband, she decided on journalism as a career and pursued that for four decades. It isn’t STEM, but it needs smart people, too.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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