In response to social-political demands, education has embarked on a course of school reform that affects organizational and curricular structures for all students. Calls for higher achievement levels, increased capacity of students to think, and greater emphasis on accommodating to cultural and social diversity have led educational personnel to make at least surface changes in how schools are organized. These changes have been most notable in the areas of grouping and classroom strategies.
How does gifted education fit into this scheme? One direction that gifted education has explored in the current climate of school reform is that of blending in with the movement for heterogeneous grouping and cooperative learning. One such example is the thrust toward redefining the role of teachers for the gifted as cooperative teachers in the regular classroom; they often demonstrate lessons and assist the regular classroom teacher in planning for gifted children (VanTassel-Baska, Landrum, & Peterson, in press). This blending strategy may be appeasing in the local context, but the overall impact of such diffused efforts on gifted education may well be detrimental. This strategy may detract from achieving what is basic to a quality gifted program, namely acceleration and ability grouping. These approaches are fundamental and must be attended to in some form in order to ensure that programs are meaningful for this special group of learners. A major thesis of this paper is, therefore, that acceleration and grouping are the lightning rod issues that test the level of acceptance that gifted programs enjoy in a local school district. The greater the commitment to serving gifted students, the greater the acceptance of advancing and grouping them appropriately.
Acceleration and Grouping: Definitions and Controversy
Educators and parents have a fallacious conception of what acceleration means. Too frequently it is perceived as an intervention visited upon children to speed up their program and drive them to graduate from various levels of schooling earlier. Acceleration should refer to the rapid rate of a child's cognitive development, not the educational intervention provided. What we provide in the name of acceleration is appropriate curriculum and services at a level commensurate with a gifted child's demonstrated readiness and need. Elkind (1988) has noted the importance of changing the term better to reflect the intent of this intervention practice (matching learners to appropriate curriculum), thereby avoiding the common connotation of speeding up a student's rate of progress. Unfortunately, many people deny the fundamental role of acceleration in a program for the gifted. In so doing, they are in effect denying who and what defines the gifted at any stage of development--children who exhibit advanced intellectual development in one or more areas.
Ability grouping, on the other hand, should be defined as the organizational mechanism by which students at proximate ability levels within a school curriculum are put together for instruction. Ability grouping allows for individual and group needs to be addressed in a way that honors individual differences. Without grouping in some form, differentiated curriculum is difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Thus, to reject the practice of ability grouping is tantamount to denying the special instructional needs of gifted children.
Both acceleration and grouping are integral components of a program designed to meet adequately the learning needs of gifted students. Ironically, in the current educational climate acceleration and grouping are being pitted against each other in absurd ways. Grouping of the gifted is under virulent attack, which has led some writers to stress acceleration (Slavin, 1990). It is considered the one acceptable strategy to use with the gifted. Yet we have little reason to believe that less grouping of the gifted will increase the likelihood of more accelerative opportunities (see Jones & Southern, 1992). Less grouping will more likely promote a unitary approach to program intervention that is predominantly classroom-based and dominated by grade-level outcomes. It might also produce, as Slavin (1986) hypothesized, a "Robin Hood" effect for heterogeneous grouping, wherein the gifted can serve others less fortunate in the learning process. The benefits gifted students accrue from such an approach are not clear.
Learning Theory Issues
What is the rationale for using accelerative and grouping strategies with gifted students? Acceleration and grouping of the gifted fits well with our understanding of learning and developmental theories and research. Csikszentmihalyi (1988) found that high IQ students were able to handle about twice as many challenging tasks as average IQ students. Bloom (1985) observed that high-level talent development is nurtured through exposure to progressively more complex tasks in a prestructured continuum of learning experiences based upon mastery and readiness. This model for talent development was found effective regardless of talent domain. Dweck and Elliot (1983) also demonstrated the relationship between positive achievement motivation and task difficulty at a challenging level. For gifted students to be sufficiently motivated to achieve and ultimately be capable of achieving at very high levels, acceleration or grouping that is flexible, based on individual student need, and carefully organized is a necessary aspect of gifted programming.
However, principles of learning theory that we painstakingly apply to other segments of the school population still are not applied equally to the gifted. Concepts such as learning readiness, continuous progress, and challenge levels for learning are seen as important when designing curriculum for typical students. Yet they are in danger of becoming empty concepts unless they develop meaning for the gifted as well. The gifted cannot be served appropriately until schools are willing to accelerate learning as needed by individuals and groups of gifted children. The gifted also cannot be served well without some form of grouping that provides for appropriate level activities. Whether the design be cross-grade cluster grouping, instructional grouping, or cooperative grouping, the opportunity for socialization of the gifted with other gifted students for at least part of the school day must be provided. This provision is critical for social as well as cognitive development. To do less is to continue to deny relevant educational services for this population.
Acceleration: An Overview of Research and Practice
Perhaps more has been written about the efficacy of accelerative practices with the gifted than about any other single educational intervention with any population. Reviews of the literature on acceleration have appeared with some regularity over the last 25 years (Benbow, 1991; Daurio, 1979; Gallagher, 1969; Kulik & Kulik, 1984; Reynolds, Birch, & Tuseth, 1962; VanTassel-Baska, 1986). Each review has carefully noted the overall positive impact of acceleration on gifted individuals at various stages in the life span. Successful programs of acceleration, most notably offshoots of the basic talent search model developed by Stanley and others in the 1970s, have demonstrated significant positive impact on the learning of students (Benbow & Stanley, 1983; Kulik & Kulik, 1992; Swiatek & Benbow, 1991a, 1991b). Moreover, a broad-based research agenda has emerged in the field of gifted education, dedicated to understanding the long-term effects of educational acceleration of the gifted (Brody, Assouline, & Stanley, 1990; Brody & Benbow, 1987; Brody & Stanley, 1991; Robinson & Janos, 1986; Swiatek & Benbow, 1991a, 1991b). These recent studies continue to show positive results in cognitive development from acceleration and no negative effects on social emotional development. Brody and Benbow (1987) reported no harmful effects of various forms of acceleration, including grade skipping and advanced course-taking, among SMPY students subsequent to high school graduation. Accelerated students generally earned more overall honors and attended more prestigious colleges. Richardson and Benbow (1990) and Swiatek and Benbow (1991b) subsequently reported no harmful effects of acceleration on social and emotional development or academic achievement after college graduation. Janos et al. (1988) reported no detrimental effects of acceleration on young entrants to college. In another study, Robinson and Janos (1986) found similar adjustment patterns for early entrants in comparison to three equally able nonaccelerated comparison groups, noting only unconventionality as a distinguishing characteristic of the early entrants. In another study of female-only early college entrants, positive personality growth during the accelerated first year of the program was found (Cornell, Callahan, & Lloyd, 1991). Finally, Brody et al. (1990) found that among accelerated students the best predictor of college achievement was early and continued Advanced Placement course-taking, suggesting that advanced challenging work on an ongoing basis is a powerful inducement to achievement later.
The theoretical rationale and empirical support would lead one to expect that the world of educational practice would wholeheartedly embrace the concept of acceleration and find diverse ways to employ it effectively in many educational settings. Regrettably, this has not been the case. Instead we have seen a deliberate shunning of this approach by the educational establishment (e.g., Jones & Southern, 1992). Some insight was gained into the dynamics of this situation when the majority of gifted program coordinators themselves were found to be philosophically against the practice (Southern & Jones, 1991). A recent survey of program interventions used with the at-risk gifted (VanTassel-Baska, Patton, & Prillaman, 1991) revealed that acceleration in some form finished fifth behind such approaches as independent study, college coursework, and various enrichment strategies. This relatively low status, coupled with the findings of Jones and Southern (1992), suggest that acceleration is not a routine strategy in gifted programs despite positive research evidence in support of its effectiveness.
Grouping: An Overview of Research and Practice
Although there is a strong research base for accelerating gifted learners, the evidence favoring grouping of gifted learners is less clear-cut. Interpretations of reviews of research on ability grouping at best see grouping as having modest positive effects on the gifted. Yet so few grouping studies actually focus on the grouping of the gifted that valid conclusions are not easily forthcoming. Even though the reviews of research have limited emphasis on gifted learners (Kulik & Kulik, 1987), the field of gifted education has recently articulated a clear response to the attack on grouping (e.g., Slavin, 1990) through a paper that carefully examines various types of studies on ability grouping (Rogers, 1991). This response clearly supports its use.
Studies suggest that:
1) The achievement of gifted students at both elementary and secondary levels is enhanced by a variety of forms of ability grouping, including instructional grouping in core academic areas, cross-grade grouping, and special interest grouping (Slavin, 1986). Moreover, the achievement of other groups of learners appears to be unaffected by grouping the gifted in such ways (Kulik & Kulik, 1987, 1992).
2) Grouping by ability produces no significant effect on the self-esteem or general school attitude of any group of students either at elementary or secondary levels. Yet grouping by ability produces a positive attitude toward subject matter for all groups of learners (Kulik & Kulik, 1982, 1984).
3) Ability grouping without curriculum and instructional provisions has no effect on any group of learners (Slavin, 1986). Yet students enrolled full-time in programs for the gifted have shown marked academic gains (Rogers, 1991; Vaughn, Feldhusen, & Asher, 1991). Thus, the benefits of ability grouping appear to be activated through a differentiated instructional plan based on student level of readiness.
4) Cooperative learning models do not enhance the achievement of the gifted unless some form of ability grouping is employed. Mixing low-ability and high-ability students together typically results in no growth for the high-ability group (Slavin, 1986).
5) Low-ability students do not model their behavior on gifted students (Shunk, 1987). Thus, the argument that "mixing" ability groups provides important learning models for less able children cannot be supported.
6) Although the direct effects of grouping may not be discernible, the indirect effects are somewhat convincing. High-ability students are more likely to plan for college and actually attend than other groups (Gamoran & Berends, 1987). Grouping thus demonstrates a positive developmental path for secondary students.
Although ability grouping may have been overused in many school settings, the belief that doing away with it can positively affect either the achievement level or self-concept of any student is highly questionable. To suggest that there is evidence to support the elimination of grouping gifted students is to ignore the existing body of research (see Kulik & Kulik, 1992).
The findings revealed by the above review of studies evaluating acceleration and grouping and their rationale have not been ignored by educational and political groups who have a strong stake in educational reform. For example, the 1990 National Governor's Report of the Task Force on Education, while challenging educators to eliminate widespread ability grouping and tracking, specifically states that "eliminating these practices does not require ending special opportunities for students such as the gifted and talented or special education students or Advanced Placement classes" (p. 3). Thus, the current and highly visible educational movement to reduce the practice of ability grouping should not be construed to mean that gifted students should not be grouped in various ways or that programming for gifted and talented learners is inappropriate.
Moreover, educators in responsible positions should not naively believe that anyone would benefit from dismantling grouping practices necessary to provide gifted and talented programs Educational reform is not about allowing able learners to stagnate in age-grade lock-step classrooms. If schools were willing to adopt flexible models of grouping that allowed student needs rather than administrative fiat or the fashions of the time to dictate practice the needs of all children might be better met. If schools were as willing to alter instruction based on need as they are willing to move children around administratively, the needs of all children might also be better met. The problem is not ability grouping but rather a lack of flexibility and imagination in the application of educational principles in practice.
Improving the quality of education for all requires that we be sensitive to the needs of all and plan educational experiences accordingly. Equality of opportunity and equality of treatment in education, however, are not the same, nor should they be. In any profession, the needs of the client dictate the nature of the prescription. High-quality services should be available to all, but the nature and organization of those services should vary based on diagnosed need, just as in the medical profession. Education can ill afford to level its services lest the bitter pill of mediocrity be absorbed into the bloodstream of all our students.
Acceleration and Grouping: Minority Students
The relationship of acceleration and grouping to minority students needs to be addressed because implicit in the argument against ability grouping is the implication that gifted and talented programming takes away from or negatively affects minority achievement. Gifted students come from all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups. African-American writers have eloquently spoken to the need for developing what they called "the talented tenth," the most promising group of students within the culture to carry out leadership roles. Minority achievement programs would do well to heed this advice and focus some of their resources on enhancing the development of high-achieving minority students as gifted education has recently done. The current federal allocation of money for gifted has targeted the identification and programming of underrepresented groups, such as minority students, low-income students, and the handicapped, as a priority need. In fact, developing the potential of gifted students from diverse cultural groups should be a major priority for education in general since these students will become the leaders of the next generation. In this context, it should be noted that national survey data have demonstrated that when socioeconomic status and prior achievement are controlled for, minority students have at least an equal chance of participating in high-track classes at secondary levels (Gamoran, 1990).
The interests of minority students are and can be well served in the context of gifted education. Serving these students effectively, however, requires more attention to individual differences and needs, not less. It also requires more acceleration and grouping, not less.
Responsible School Decision Making: Recommendations
It should be evident that the central thesis of this paper is that educating our most able learners in appropriate ways is a challenge that this society must take seriously. We can ill afford to foster underachievement, disaffection, and alienation among these students. Even now, international comparisons on achievement, drop-out rates, and delinquency data suggest that a disproportionately high percentage of our most capable learners are not maximizing their abilities.
What decisions should schools be making at this time regarding acceleration and grouping of gifted learners? The following list of recommendations is made in the hope that policies and procedures on acceleration and ability grouping might be adopted by local boards of education sensitive to the nature and needs of the gifted in their communities.
Acceleration policies for the gifted learner
1. Each learner is entitled to experience learning at a level of challenge, defined as task difficulty level slightly above skill mastery. For gifted learners, this implies the opportunity for continuous progress through the basic curriculum based on demonstrated mastery of prior material. In all planned curriculum experiences for the gifted care must be taken to ensure that students are placed at their instructional level. This level may be determined by diagnostic testing, observation of mastery, or performance-based assessments.
2. Gifted learners should be afforded the opportunity to begin school-based experiences based on readiness and to exit them based on proficiency. Thus, both early entrance and early exit options should be provided. The gifted learner requires a school system to be flexible about when and where learning takes place. Optimally, some students can be best served by a prereading program at age 4: other students may be well served by college opportunities at age 16. Individual variables must be honored in an overall flexible system of implementation.
3. Some gifted learners may profit from telescoping 2 years of education into one or by-passing a particular grade level. Provision for such advanced placement should be made based on individual student demonstration of capacity, readiness, and motivation. Placement in actual grade levels should be determined by many factors beyond age. Tailoring learning levels, as well as by-passing them, is another important way to ensure implementation of this policy (Elkind, 1988).
Grouping policies for the gifted learner
1. Grouping of the gifted should be viewed as a fundamental approach to serving them appropriately rather than merely as an organizational arrangement. Grouping gifted students is a basic program provision that should be used in tandem with other provisions, such as curriculum modification, alternative choice of materials, and learning centers.
2. Grouping strategies for the gifted should remain flexible, based on individual needs of both identified and nonidentified learners. Dyads, small instructional groups, cooperative learning groups, and the seminar model all provide important alternatives for teachers to employ depending on the learning task and the readiness of the learner to engage in it.
3. Gifted learners should have the opportunity to interact with others at their instructional level in all relevant core areas of learning in the school curriculum. Usually, this would imply at least instructional grouping in reading and mathematics at the elementary level and special subject area classes and Advanced Placement classes at the secondary level in available course areas. Recommended grouping for science and social studies instruction is also advocated.
4. Gifted learners should be grouped according to special interest areas with other learners who share those interests. Opportunities for small group project work should involve students interested in the same topics or problems. Students then need instruction in the process to be employed in their investigation or a model for constructing their own line of investigation.
5. Gifted learners should have the opportunity for independent learning based on both capacity and interest. Not all work with gifted learners need be carried out in group settings. Their preference for working alone and their capacity to carry out independent work should also be honored and provided for in school settings.
This paper has laid out an argument for the use of both acceleration and grouping practices to meet the needs of gifted children. It has also explored school-based policy initiatives necessary to ensure the continuation of gifted programs over the next several years. Although the field of gifted education should continue to participate in ongoing educational reform initiatives, it needs to be clear and vocal about issues that undergird the operational aspects of successful program initiatives. Acceleration and grouping constitute two such areas.
Benbow, C. P. (1991), Meeting the needs of gifted students through use of acceleration. In M. Wang, M. Reynolds, & H. Walberg (Eds.), Handbook of special education: Research and practice (pp. 23-36), New York: Pergamon Press.
Benbow, C. P., & Stanley, J. C. (Eds.), (1983), Academic precocity: Aspects of its development, Baltimore, MD; Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bloom, B. (1985), Developing talent in young people, New York: Ballantine Books.
Brody, L., Assouline, S., & Stanley, J. (1990), Five years of early entrants: Predicting successful achievement in college, Gifted Child Quarterly, 34, 138-142.
Brody, L. E., & Benbow, C. P. (1987), Accelerative strategies: How effective are they for the gifted? Gifted Child Quarterly 3 (3), 105-110.
Brody, L. E., & Stanley, J. C. (1991), Young college students: Assessing factors that contribute to success. In W. T. Southern & E. D. Jones (Eds.), Academic acceleration of gifted children (pp. 102-132), New York; Teachers College Press.
Cornell, D., Callahan, C., & Loyd, B. (1991), Personality growth of female early college entrants: A controlled prospective study, Gifted Child Quarterly, 35 (3), 135-143.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (Ed.), (1988), Optimal experience, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Daurio, S. P. (1979), Educational enrichment versus acceleration: A review of the literature. In W. C. George, S. J. Cohn, & S. J. Stanley (Eds.), Educating the gifted, acceleration and enrichment (pp. 13-53), Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Dweck, C., & Elliot, E. S. (1983), Achievement motivation. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (4th ed.) (Vol. 4. pp. 643-691), New York: Wiley.
Elkind, D. (1988), Mental acceleration, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 2 (4), 19-31.
Gallagher, J. (1969), Gifted children, In R. L. Ebel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of education research (4th ed.) (pp. 537-544), New York: Macmillan.
Gamoran, A. (1990), How tracking affects achievement; Research recommendations, Madison, WI: Newsletter, National Center for Effective Secondary Schools, 5 (1), 2-6.
Gamoran, A., & Berends, M. (1987), The effects of stratification in secondary schools: Synthesis of survey and ethnographic research, Review of Educational Research, 57, 415-435.
Janos, P. M., Robinson, N. M., Carter, C., Chapel, A., Cofley, R., Corland, M., Dally, M., Guilland, M., Heinzig, M., Kehl, H., Lu, D., Sherry, D., Stolloff, J., & Wise, A. (1988), A cross-sectional developmental study of the social relations of students who enter college early, Gifted Child Quarterly, 32(1), 210-215.
Jones, E., & Southern, T. (1992), Programming, grouping, and acceleration in rural school districts: A survey of attitudes and practices, Gifted Child Quarterly, 36, 111-116.
Kulik, C. C., & Kulik, J. A. (1982), Effects of ability grouping on secondary school students: A meta-analysis of evaluation findings, American Educational Research Journal, 19 (3), 415-428.
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1987), Effects of ability grouping on student achievement, Equity and Excellence, 23 (1-2), 22-30.
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1984), Synthesis of research on effects of accelerated instruction, Educational Leadership, 42 (2), 84-89.
Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1992), Meta-analytic findings on grouping programs, Gifted Child Quarterly, 72-76.
Reynolds, M., Birch, J., & Tuseth, A. (1962), Review of research on early admission, In M. Reynolds (Ed.), Early school admission for mentally advanced children (pp. 7-18), Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
Richardson, T. M., & Benbow, C. P. (1990), Long-term effects of acceleration on the social-emotional adjustment of mathematically precocious youth, Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 464-470.
Robinson, N., & Janos, P. (1986), Psychological adjustment in a college-level program of marked academic acceleration, Journal of Youth and Adolescence 15(1), 51-60.
Rogers, K. (1991), The relationship of grouping practices to the education of the gifted and talented learner, Storrs, CT: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.
Shunk, D. H. (1987), Peer models and children's behavioral change, Review of Educational Research, 52 (2), 149-174.
Slavin, R. W. (1986), Best-evidence synthesis: An alternative to meta-analytic and traditional reviews, Educational Researcher, 15(9), 5-11.
Slavin, R. W. (1990), Ability grouping, cooperative learning, and the gifted, Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 14, 3-8.
Southern, W. T. & Jones, E. D. (Eds.), (1991), Academic acceleration of gifted children, New York: Teachers College Press.
Swiatek, M. A., & Benbow, C. P. (1991a), Effects of fast-paced mathematics courses on the development of mathematically precocious students, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22, 139-150.
Swiatek, M. A., & Benbow, C. P. (1991b), Ten-year longitudinal follow-up of ability-matched accelerated and unaccelerated gifted students, Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 528-538.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (1986), Acceleration, In J. Maker (Ed.). Critical issues in gifted education (pp. 179-196), Rockville, MD: Aspen Publications.
VanTassel-Baska, J., Landrum, M., & Peterson, K. (in press), Cooperative learning for the gifted, Journal of Behavioral Education.
VanTassel-Baska, J., Patton, J., & Prillaman, D. (1991), Gifted youth at-risk, Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
Vaughn, V., Feldhusen, J., & Asher, W. (1991), Meta-analysis and review of research on pull-out programs in gifted education, Gifted Child Quarterly, 35 (2), 92-98.
Permission to reprint this article was granted by Gifted Child Quarterly, a publication of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). This material may not be reproduced without permission from NAGC.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.