Although the call for educational reform is hardly new, the recent thrust seems to have been more powerful than ever, involving even the fifty governors and the then president in a statement of national goals for education (America 2000) and in several determined efforts to recast the methods of program evaluation and student assessment (Gallagher, 1991). Critics have demanded to know just what we do know about educational process, instruction, and curriculum design.
The Role of Educational Research Such calls have raised questions about the role of educational research in the educational enterprise. What do we really know about effective programs? Are current educational practices following proven knowledge and data from solid educational research efforts? If we believe the proposition that education is being driven by research findings, there are some rather strange events to be accounted for. (See chapter 5 below for a further discussion of this issue.)
Sometimes educational research is placed in a secondary position, where it operates to confirm decisions already made about how to organize school programs and practices at the local or state level. That is, research is brought in, after the fact, to support whatever "politically correct" wisdom is abroad at the time. Research that does not fit the current paradigm is ignored and must wait for a more favorable political climate in order to receive appropriate attention.
The evidence related to educational acceleration is a case in point. The notion that some students need not spend the entire time allotted to each segment of the educational process (elementary school, middle school, or secondary school) is not new. Educational acceleration has been used for two major purposes.
First, it has been used to place students with advanced ability and achievement with groups of individuals similar to themselves in order to challenge them adequately. If a student is performing at the eighth-grade level while in the fifth grade, then moving him or her to the sixth grade increases the likelihood that this advanced student will have some intellectual companionship, and will make it easier for the teacher to attend to the student's educational needs.
Student acceleration is also used to reduce the amount of time a student has to spend in the educational system. Gallagher and Gallagher (1994) point out that students committed to professional or graduate training could well be thirty years old or older before completing all aspects of their formal education (see table 3.1). Therefore, one goal of student acceleration is to allow students to complete the required work at an earlier age. By the end of the sequence noted in table 3.1, a student has been physiologically mature for as many as fifteen years, and many of that student's age-mates may have been gainfully employed for ten or more years. Many gifted students, however, remain dependent intellectually and financially through the most physically vigorous part of their adult lives.
To address these needs, there are various methods of acceleration for gifted children open to the teacher and the school administrator at practically all levels of the educational program. (See table 32) At the primary level, this includes admittance to kindergarten before the usual beginning age of five years. Another option at this early level is the ungraded primary program. This program enables a group of bright students to remain with one teacher, who will attempt to accomplish the goals of the primary years (K-3) in less than a four-year period. This technique allows slow learners more than four years to complete the primary level, if that seems desirable.
The junior high school years can be shortened by reducing the three-year program to two years; the senior high school program can be reduced either by early admittance to college or by inclusion of seminars in various subject areas that would qualify for college credit, as in the Advanced Placement program. Even in college, the student may take tests for course credit without having to sit through the course itself; this also represents a type of acceleration.
Table 3.1 Age of Completion of Educational Benchmarks for Medical Students
Source: Gallagher & Gallagher (1994)
Table 3.2 Most-Common Methods of Acceleration of Gifted Students
The Effects of Acceleration on Students Evidence concerning the effects of acceleration on students has been accumulating for more than fifty years. As early as the Terman longitudinal study (Terman & Oden, 1947), the conclusion was reached that "nearly all children of 135 IQ or higher should be promoted sufficiently to permit college entrance by the age of 17 at least, and that the majority of this group would be better off entering at 16" (p. 281).
One of the clear differences between educational policy and educational research data involves the date of entrance into school. There is no reason, based on what we know about individual differences and individual growth rates, why a single date, such as a birthday, should be chosen to determine when a person will enter the educational system.
Such a date is clearly set for administrative convenience. The provision that a child must have a birthday of October 1 or earlier is one that can be verified easily and will elicit little parental argument. However, a number of educators (see Worcester, 1956; Holson, 1963) have explored a different policy. What would happen if youngsters deemed to be intellectually and socially mature were allowed into kindergarten or first grade within a year of the usual date? Three decades ago Reynolds, Birch, and Tuseth (1962) reviewed the research on the effects of early-admittance programs and commented: "It may be concluded from the research ... that early admission to school of mentally advanced children who are within a year of the ordinary school entrance age and who are generally mature is to their advantage. There are few issues in education on which the research evidence now available is so clear and universally favorable to a particular solution" (p. 17).
Perhaps so, but early admittance to school is not a widespread practice, despite what the research says. The lack of availability of acceleration was pointed out in a nationwide survey (Cox, Daniel, & Boston, 1985), which found that only 28 percent of school districts offer any form of early-entrance programs. So, does this research drive educational policy? Not even around the block, in this instance.
A more recent study of early entrants into college found similar results (Brody, Assouline, & Stanley, 1990). Sixty-five students selected on the basis of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and previous academic performance entered Johns Hopkins University two years earlier than the typical entrant. A third of these students graduated in three and a half years or less. Forty-two percent of them graduated with general honors, 35 percent with departmental honors, and 26 percent with election to Phi Beta Kappa. Eight of the sixty-five students withdrew before graduating, which is a smaller percentage than that of the entire class entering the same year; four of these students transferred to other universities, where they all graduated--one with honors. (See also Brody & Stanley, 1991.)
Concerns about Acceleration There are legitimate concerns that teachers and parents have about the rapid acceleration of gifted students, but such results as are reported are presented as group data. Somewhere in those data there might be a boy or girl who has had a dramatically negative reaction to acceleration, and such a reaction can be vivid in the minds of those who observe it in an individual case.
Studies show that the attitude of teachers to the process of acceleration is still moderately negative. They either do not know about the research results or simply do not believe them. The teachers are still concerned that these students will have many social problems or will be subject to undue stress by such advancement. The potential gains from these programs (e.g., an extra year for the career or to start a family) are far from the immediate concerns of the teachers, who worry more about the current adjustment of the students (Southern, Jones, & Fiscus, 1989).
Weiss (1978) questioned 123 college professors who had been accelerated often through grade skipping. As a group, they said that such acceleration posed no difficulties academically, but there were social anxieties or problems noted by 40 percent of the group. The adolescent years were identified as the point of maximum social stress. Such concerns were rarely considered serious, and the majority of the professors were grateful for the time that had been saved.
The major concern of educators about the practice of educational acceleration focuses on the social and emotional development of the child. Cornell, Callahan, Bassin, and Ramsay (1991) name three reasons why educators hesitate to employ educational acceleration. First, the educators are not aware of the available research evidence; second, their policies are determined by tradition and personal sentiment; and third, they fear that the researchers may not sufficiently have taken into account the social and emotional problems that might have been experienced by the gifted students who were accelerated.
These reviewers point out that many of the studies have not done a careful analysis of the emotional and social adjustment of the accelerated students. They point to the study by the Fund for the Advancement of Education (1957), which found that the universities offering early admittance to college noted adjustment problems that they felt were minimized by the report itself. Nonetheless, apart from individual instances of poor adjustment, which may or may not have been caused by the acceleration process, there is little evidence to suggest that poor adjustment is a common finding and considerable evidence to suggest that the majority of students seem to have adjusted quite well. Although there may be concerns about the lack of hard data as opposed to subjective impressions, there is little or no doubt that the saving of a year or more represents a positive finding.
David Elkind, in his influential book The Hurried Child (1981), expressed his concern that acceleration would rob students of time and experience and place unwarranted stress on them at a time when they were not mature enough to react positively to it. Much of Elkind's concern seemed to stem from the school-readiness literature, which did not directly address the advanced development of gifted students. Indeed, Elkind later reversed his stand against acceleration of the gifted and is one now of its active promoters (Elkind 1988).
Other reviews of the literature investigate reasons for concern that focus on the social adjustment of the accelerated child (Daurio, 1979; Hedges, 1977; Obrzut, Nelson, & Obrzut, 1984; Pollins, 1983).
By far the most ambitious and widespread use of the process of acceleration was designed by Julian C. Stanley in his Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) at Johns Hopkins University. In 1971 he began a series of annual mathematics talent searches to discover how many exceptionally mathematically able students there were in a given locale. (See chapter 15 below.) A number of other universities (e.g., Duke, Northwestern, Denver) also established talent searches built on the Johns Hopkins model. By the mid-1980s, the combined searches were identifying 70,000 talented youth per year (Benbow & Stanley, 1983). Now they identify more than 140,000.
The goal of the SMPY was to provide educational opportunities to make it more likely that these gifted students would become effective, productive adults. A number of fast-paced, three-week summer classes were established in precalculus. Other such courses in calculus, chemistry, biology, and physics have shown successful outcomes (Mezynski, Stanley, & McCoart, 1983; Stanley & Stanley, 1986). Students who have done well in the fast-paced classes are apparently able to go on to the next course in the sequence without a perceptible loss.
Many fewer students have been involved in the process of radical acceleration, meaning that the youngsters begin full-time university work at the age of twelve, thirteen, or fourteen. These are obviously extremely unusual youngsters, chosen because of their highly advanced mastery of academic material in mathematics. This program represents an attempt on an individual basis to cope with that advanced development. The results of these experiences are usually reported in some form of case study such as the following by Robinson (1983):
Such individual adjustments seem appropriate and necessary to accommodate the special needs of specific students, but would hardly be of direct concern to educational administrators, since the odds are that children like C.F.C. and B.J.T. are not likely to appear in their schools.
Brody and Benbow (1987) tried to address the concerns of critics by following four groups of students. One group had skipped one or more grades or entered college early, a second group took AP courses in high school, another group reported taking part in special classes or accelerated course work in high school, and a final group reported no accelerative experiences. A special effort was made to check the social and emotional characteristics of the students, and no differences were found between the groups except that those who had been accelerated tended to take more risks. As the authors state, "no harmful social and emotional effects of acceleration were demonstrated" (p. 109).
The social-adjustment issue was explored further by Janos and his colleagues (Janos et al., 1988) by following sixty-three students who had entered college at age fourteen or younger. The researchers explored particularly their patterns of friendships and whether their unique age situation created special social problems for them within the university. The findings indicated that these young students formed friendships with each other, or others of a similar chronological age, in the first two years, but broadened their base to include older students when they reached their junior and senior years. Females in the study made headway sooner and achieved higher levels of interaction and intimacy with older university students. No major instances of social isolation were discovered in this study.
An attempt has been made to synthesize all the available research results of the effects of acceleration on the performance of gifted children. Kulik and Kulik (1984) found twenty-six studies that compared students who had been accelerated for a year with comparison groups of equivalent ability. The authors came to the following conclusions: "Talented youngsters who were accelerated into higher grades performed as well as the talented older pupils already in those grades. In the subjects in which they were accelerated, talented accelerates showed almost a year's advancement over talented same-age nonaccelerates."
Discussion It is entirely possible for acceleration to have an unhappy outcome, and there have been a number of individual cases brought forward to illustrate such unfavorable outcomes. On the other hand, there is no study of which I am aware that brings forth negative results where the subjects have been treated as a group and the data have been analyzed as a group. Certainly, many different educational strategies have received huge commitments in education (cooperative learning and site-based management, for example) with thin or nonexistent research bases compared to that of educational acceleration. We must conclude that educational decision making is influenced by many and diverse factors. How much it costs may be a more important question than how valid the research base is. How the parents feel about it may be mote important than a meta-analysis of program evaluation.
The decision making can be characterized by the following formula: D ® F(A)(B)(C)(D) ... (H), where A may be economic conditions, B may represent the political climate of the community, C may represent what we know about acceleration, and so forth. The researchers from their particular perspective must feel that all Sorts of bad things are happening if their results are ignored, as they are in the case of acceleration. Until these other variables return to a favorable mode, or the research is given greater visibility and priority, we can expect that educational research may be ignored again in this as in other cases.
One prime example of the influence of a particular political climate is the death grip that has been held on the social sciences for the past three decades by the priorities assigned to the environmental approach. Bad results implied bad environments, not bad genetics. The politically correct answer was to invest in attempted massive modifications of environments in the hopes of seeing more favorable results (thus, Head Start and Title I). Now that the political force of the 1960s has diminished, there is more of a willingness to consider, once again, the possible impact of inborn characteristics on our behavior--this time, in substantial interactions with the environment (Plomin, 1989). The research has long been available, but there is now more public willingness to consider it.
In conclusion, in setting policy more than one variable (financial or philosophical or administrative convenience, for example) may drown out research findings. Indeed, that seems to be what has happened to the research on educational acceleration. We can hope for a change in some of these other factors soon so that the full use of the strategy of acceleration, which seems to have substantial merit, can be realized.
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Reprinted with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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