Academic acceleration is the advancement of gifted students in subjects at a rate that places them ahead of where they would be in the regular school curriculum.
Years ago, it was generally agreed that “accelerating” gifted children meant “grade-skipping,” a practice that amounted to sending kids on a journey away from their peers, where they would be scoffed at by more mature classmates a grade or two above them. Conventional wisdom also held that accelerating a gifted student to an advanced level would surely create tremendous academic pressure, and the resulting stress would be the ultimate un-doing of the child.
Parents asked: if my 5th grader starts school next year as a 7th grader, will my child be able to relate to the older kids in the class, or will the move leave my child without friends?
Public schools asked: is grade-skipping necessary if we can keep gifted students engaged with extra-curricular assignments alongside their age-peers?
In 2004, Nicholas Colangelo, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Education at the University of Iowa, home to the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, set out to gather definitive, comprehensive analyses of acceleration to address these concerns and others. Using a Templeton Foundation grant, Colangelo and co-editors Susan G. Assouline, Ph.D., and Miraca U. M. Gross, Ph. D., highlighted disparities between the research on acceleration and the educational beliefs and practices that often run contrary to the research.
The result was a watershed publication in gifted education
“A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students” was a compendium of research from world-renowned researchers, each writing in their area of expertise. In addition to describing the difference between enrichment and acceleration, the volume outlines eighteen different forms of acceleration, from single subject advancement to grade-skipping (now called “radical acceleration” or “whole-grade acceleration”). The publication also assuages another concern frequently voiced by parents and educators alike by describing the significant social-emotional benefits of acceleration for exceptionally bright children.
Evidence clearly shows that when gifted students are not accelerated, keeping these students engaged in learning becomes a challenge. The report warns:
“Excellence can lose its vibrancy. It can become complacence. It can become apathy. What it always becomes, if it’s ignored, is less than it could be.”
The findings in A Nation Deceived were compiled to offer educators an array of research-backed, proven options for acceleration other than grade-skipping, in hopes that schools would proactively seek out students who would benefit.
Why then, so many years later, are schools still resisting offering gifted children an accelerated education that can both challenge them and keep their interest?
It’s not for lack of evidence
In 2015, Colangelo, co-editors Susan G. Assouline, Ph.D., and Ann Shoplik-Lupkowsi, Ph.D. — all Grayson Research Advisory Board members today — and Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Ph.D., published a follow-up volume, “A Nation Empowered: Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students.” The report covers more than 20 researched-based acceleration methods with video case studies highlighting students’ success stories. These narratives profile gifted children who were advanced during their primary and secondary educations and went on to satisfying careers. And perhaps just as importantly, these students thrived socially, as well.
Aware of schools’ discomfort with exploring acceleration, the updated report also offers guiding questions schools can use to focus their efforts and navigate through the creation of accelerative options, such as:
- Essential Question #1: Have we assessed the student’s ability correctly so that we know this child is really ready for an advanced, fast-paced curriculum?
- Essential Question #2: Given the results of our assessment, what might be the best form of acceleration for this student?
- Essential Question #3: In a few cases, acceleration has not been effective. What can we do as a school to ensure a successful acceleration of this student?
In the end, research shows that academically gifted students may lose interest in school, or not do their work and otherwise disengage because they are struggling with boredom. By ensuring that the level and complexity of their curriculum challenges their intellect, however, our brightest children can find success beyond the classroom and into their adult lives.
Now that the research is in (and has been, for a decade), there’s no reason for schools to claim that accelerative techniques are unknown, controversial, or untested. So why are we still fighting this fight?
The Acceleration Institute, a project of The Belin-Blank Center and The University of Iowa, launched this video in March 2016. It was produced for both parents and educators to better understand academic acceleration, and how it is much more than just “grade-skipping.”