For many parents, convincing school administrators to accelerate their gifted child is no easy task. While there are twenty different kinds of types of acceleration for gifted students (Colangelo, Assouline, & Gross, 2004), each of which has a raft of research supporting its effectiveness (Assouline, Colangelo, VanTassel-Baska, & Lupkowski-Shoplik, 2015), it is often an uphill struggle to convince educators that a gifted child’s educational needs are not being met in their classrooms to the degree to which some form of acceleration is warranted.
This post will focus primarily on one of the more common types of acceleration, single-subject. Single-subject acceleration, which limits the intervention to just one class, is most often deployed in mathematics. It is not without its challenges. Moving one child for one class can be very difficult logistically, especially in lower grades, in which the students in each grade proceed like fish swimming in the same river, in the same direction, together. School schedules are not often modular enough to accommodate a radically different kind of creature splashing around in the water, regardless of grade level.
If a family is successful in placing the child in a more advanced class, however, parents and teachers alike may discover something unexpected: it’s not enough. Specifically, the student may find the material in the advanced class easy too. What is exciting and challenging in the first weeks or months of the year becomes yet another class in which the student is bored. Having gone to all the “trouble” of assessing what the student’s new placement should be and how scheduling and logistics will work, etcetera, the teachers and administrators of the school are unlikely to be happy when they hear that their efforts were insufficient. It’s even easy to sympathize with their position: “Didn’t we just do this?!”
The problem is that the administrators and teachers, for all their good intentions, may ignore a crucial piece of the equation: the speed at which children learn, or what educators call their rate of acquisition.
MINDING THE ACCELERATION GAP
Even when a school is open to acceleration for a gifted student, especially one many years ahead of grade level, it’s a complicated undertaking. A student’s placement needs to be relative to the school’s overall curriculum and available faculty, and to the student’s own age-peers. The process is made more complex because administrators and teachers alike can be distracted from the student’s rate of acceleration by the size of the gap between their current grade and the math class they need to be in.
A real-life example from our own students’ MAP scores makes this dynamic clearer: we have a few 2nd-grade students with a MAP mathematics test score of 218 and above, which is very close to the mean for 7th graders at the beginning of the year. Such a large gap between them and their age-peers renders it difficult for schools to organize a placement that works for only one or two students.
NAVIGATING MAPS AND FORKS IN THE ROAD
Because the path towards single-subject acceleration is so fraught, the Pre-Algebra/Algebra inflection point is often the first time that a school that has not previously grouped students by ability does so. This bifurcated math path actually self solves the problems described above, as the students in the advanced math class are likely also the students with higher rates of acquisition. However, what may constitute acceleration for some gifted students, for others, this typical Middle School track is often late.
This happens because being directed into Bucket 1 or Bucket 2 is a rather simplistic kind of differentiation, more of a gross screening than a surgical intervention. Creating these two groups does not address the very real “ceiling effect” that flattens, or even hides, the differences between the students at the top.
So at our Pre-Algebra/Algebra fork in the road, there could very well be 3 students ready for Calculus placed in the more advanced math group; if the screening question is, “Who’s the most ready for algebra?” then those 3 students are swept into that bucket, and their additional abilities are functionally ignored.
Of course, a student who has tested out of Pre-Algebra and into a more accelerated Algebra class will, indeed, experience the thrill of learning something new. However, that feeling is not likely to last for long if the student also has a very high rate of acquisition. Acceleration for a gifted student to the right placement is great, but can it really be called an optimal placement when their classmates (who are pretty smart, by the way) require more repetition and practice than they do?
To (ab)use a sports metaphor, students with a faster rate of acquisition are not simply starting the year much farther down the field than the other students in their class. They are also running far faster and cannot help but pull ahead. It may not be by much after a few weeks of school, but after a half-year of class, their position on the field looks much like it did before: acres and acres of daylight between them and their classmates.
Every time there is a new topic, they are briefly learning new things… but then, they must wait at another starting line for everyone to meet them there.
ACCELERATION FOR GIFTED STUDENTS IS MULTI-DIMENSIONAL
The ceiling effect can, in part, be avoided by giving candidates for acceleration a test with no ceiling, like the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). This kind of test shows what a student knows how to do in a way that a proficiency test, the typical catalyst for single-subject acceleration, cannot. The former asks, “how much can you do?”, while the latter asks, “can you do these things?” (By itself, the MAP is not enough information about what the student really knows how to do; a curriculum-specific assessment should also be administered, as we explain in a different post.)
In the classroom, it helps to consider that gifted children don’t always think in linear, sequential terms: A, then B, then C, then D. Sometimes, their brains seemingly “skip” from A to D to G and then all the way ahead to T, reflecting intuitive leaps, unique connections, and insights. (Note: they are likely not actually skipping B and C but may also not be aware of how they got to D; it is the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that they know B and C are there.)
On any given day of learning, that may look like this: the teacher introduces a brand-new topic, A, and five hands shoot into the air, asking questions like, “Wait, so does that mean B?” and, “Oh! Then C!” Because so much of mathematics is sequential and requires mastery of one concept before proceeding to the next, it is imperative that the teacher make sure everyone understands B and C before moving on to D, but the class can likely spend minimal time on B and C and progress more quickly, and spend additional time on, the more interesting material of D and E and F and everything beyond that.
Acceleration for gifted students, therefore, must include attention to an appropriate starting point or placement, while also reflecting the individual student’s learning speed. Even in an all-gifted environment, there can be “faster” and “slower” sections of an advanced geometry class — and both of them can be full of 11- and 12-year-olds rather than the 15- and 16-year-olds in the mixed-ability classrooms of the school down the street.
Parents, teachers, and administrators alike must remember that giftedness — especially profound giftedness — is multi-dimensional in nature, and requires multi-dimensional intervention.
A dynamic, responsive environment is where genuine engagement and energetic thinking live. Gifted students who experience the right amount of challenge — in the company of intellectual peers running at the same speed — can truly lean in to their education and take full advantage of their tremendous potential.
Assouline, S. G., Colangelo, N., VanTassel-Baska, J. & Lupkowski-Shoplik, A. (2015). Evidence Trumps the Excuses Holding Back America’s Brightest Students. Iowa City, Iowa: The Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, University of Iowa.
Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. M. (2004). A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. Iowa City, Iowa: The Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, University of Iowa.