Class Struggle

For gifted students, skipping a grade is a smart move

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, September 23, 2010

As the second month of the school year nears, some parents wonder whether their children are getting all they need. The lessons might seem too simple. Their kids are bored. If their children have been designated gifted, there might be occasional pullout lessons to enrich what they are learning, but that might not be enough.

I have seen no data to confirm this, but it seems to me that schools rarely consider skipping those students ahead anymore. I have talked to area administrators about this. They are uncomfortable with the approach. They think students who are above their grade level learn better, with some extras thrown in, if they stick with kids their age.

A generation or two ago, the attitude was different. I run into far more people who are my age and skipped a grade than friends of my children who did the same thing. My wife skipped second grade in the early 1950s. Her parents had nothing to do with it. Six weeks into the school year in California, after attending a hard-charging school in Kansas, she heard her teacher say, "You can already do this stuff. This is a waste." She was sent immediately to the third grade.

Parents these days appear reluctant to sanction such a jump. If anything, the fashionable move is to make sure your child is a bit old for her grade. People put their children in kindergarten a year late so their chances of academic and social success are enhanced. That is fine for kids who are late developers. But in the long-running debate over what to do with students ready for more, acceleration deserves another look.

In my experience, students are more ready to adjust to age differences in their classes than we give them credit for. A 2004 study by the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa found that "an overwhelming majority" of students who skipped a grade endorsed the move when surveyed years later. They said they had been both academically challenged and socially accepted.

It can be cheaper and more effective to move a child into a higher grade, compared to hiring an extra teacher to enrich his lessons where he is. Many parents have told me they can't count on public schools to do a very good job with gifted education. School administrators have difficulty finding well-trained teachers with that specialty. The gifted-ed teacher slot may be the first to go in a budget crunch. Acceleration might ease the problem.

Last year Laura Vanderkam, who runs the Gifted Exchange blog, and education author Richard Whitmire of Whyboysfail.com wrote about this topic in Education Week and tried to find school districts that embraced grade-skipping. There were very few, but the ones that did had good ideas. At Zumi Elementary School in Scottsdale, Ariz., all the math classes met in first period. Students went to whatever class they were ready for regardless of their age. In Lebanon, Pa., all children were screened for subject competency and offered a chance to take a higher-grade version of that class, even if it meant a bus ride to another school.

My mother would never have allowed that. She was concerned about my social backwardness, and she had a point. But most children are not as immature as I was. We have fine schools in the Washington area. Why can't they open the door to higher grades for kids ready for more than just an abridged version of the next logical step in their educations?


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