Meeting the needs of the gifted in rural areas through acceleration
Benbow, C., Argo, T. & Glass, L.
Gifted Child Today
Prufrock Press
18 (2)
March/April 1992

This article discusses different ways rural areas can educate their gifted students. Acceleration is suggested as an option that rural schools can easily use. Options and explanations are offered throughout the article. Authored by Camilla Benbow, Teresa Argo and Lynn Glass.

One of the most challenging groups of gifted students to reach in terms of educational programming are those living in rural areas. The main source of difficulty is that any one rural school contains only a few gifted students. The population is just not large enough to produce more. For example, in Iowa there are 327 school districts out of a total of 430 (i.e., 76%) with K-12 enrollment of less than 1,000 students, which translates into approximately 75 students per grade level. Thus, one would expect, depending upon one's definition of giftedness, that only about two to three students per grade would be classified as gifted. With only a handful of gifted students and perhaps none of them in the same grade, how can appropriate programming be provided? Consequently, gifted students in rural areas are frequently underserved and, thus, at great risk for underachievement. This need not be the case, however. This article provides research-based suggestions for developing educational options that are sensitive to the special needs and circumstances of gifted students living in rural areas. These suggestions draw on the philosophy of acceleration, because it has been shown to be an optimal method for serving gifted students in rural or sparsely populated areas (e.g., Howley, 1989). This presentation will also illustrate how accelerative options can be delivered through the home school and through universities.

Curricular Flexibility
Educational provisions for gifted students usually involve some form of homogeneous or ability grouping, enrichment, or acceleration (Feldhusen, 1989). Among them acceleration is the most time-honored program adaptation; its use date back to the one-room schoolhouse. Yet even though acceleration has a long history and has been thoroughly researched, what acceleration entails is frequently misunderstood.

Most view acceleration to be synonymous with grade skipping, but acceleration is much more than that. A better name for acceleration might be curricular flexibility or flexible pacing. As Feldhusen (1989) pointed out,

    Acceleration is a misnomer, the process is really one of bringing gifted and talented youth up to a suitable level of instruction commensurate with their achievement levels and readiness so that they are properly challenged to learn new material" (p. 8).

Basically, it involves using the curriculum or resources designed for older students with young but academically advanced students. It is placement according to competence rather than age, a principle readily accepted in the arts and in athletics. Why should the principle or placement according to competence not work for academics? After all giftedness is a talent, just as is superior artistic or athletic abilities.

Some of the educational provisions that would fall under the acceleration label are early admission to school, grade skipping, entering college early with or without a diploma. International Baccalaureate, taking a course 1 or 2 years earlier than typical, going up to a higher grade for instruction in an area of talent, taking a college course on a part-time basis before graduating from high school, taking special fast-paced courses during the summer or academic year, completing 2 years of a subject in 1 year, compressing curricula, taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses and examinations, and individual tutoring in advanced subject matter (Benbow, in press).

Any combination of the above is possible. Moreover, acceleration can be used in conjunction with other program alternatives (e.g., cooperative learning, enrichment) to meet the learning needs of highly gifted students. If, for example, cooperative learning programs are to be used in a school, a direction towards which many schools are heading, it is very important that gifted students are accelerated first so that they too have the opportunity to learn (Slavin, 1990; Robinson, 1990). Thus, gifted students in rural areas should be given access to curricula, programs, or resources that are designed for older students. In so doing, schools would begin meeting the students' special learning needs.

Unfortunately, when it comes to acceleration, misgivings abound and skepticism from teachers and administrators is frequently voiced (Southern, Jones, & Fiscus, 1989). Yet acceleration is widely endorsed (Benbow, in press). In a recent review of the literature on acceleration (Benbow, in press), it was concluded that

    Acceleration as an educational option for the intellectually precocious is a viable alternative on both academic and psychosocial grounds. It improves the motivation, confidence, and scholarship of gifted students. Acceleration can be justified on both theoretical and empirical grounds. 'Of all the interventions schools provide for the gifted, acceleration is best supported by research' (Van Tassel-Baska, 1989, p. 15). Moreover, students who have been accelerated and their parents view acceleration as positive. Acceleration is something that 'works' (U.S. Department of Education, 1986).

    It is puzzling, then, that most school districts reserve acceleration for a very few students, which usually means virtually no one. Educators often appear to be skeptical about use of acceleration for reasons ranging from administrative inconvenience to fears of negative psychosocial consequences. This review, as all previous reviews of the effects of acceleration on social and emotional development, did not uncover any evidence that support the concern about deleterious effects on social and emotional development....

    In conclusion, not a single study has shown acceleration to cause long-term damage to gifted students. In contrast, students who are not given the opportunity to accelerate exhibit lower achievement and behavior problems, feel less comfortable in school, and have poor attitudes, (pp. 2122)

Because of the flexibility that acceleration offers and because it uses already available resources, gifted students living in Iowa, certainly a rural state by any criterion, rely on accelerative opportunities. The various options described above are used to adapt local schooling circumstances to create the best possible match with individual learning needs, keeping in mind that as little disruption as possible should occur. Curricular flexibility is a powerful technique for meeting the needs of gifted students, and perhaps the only alternative for students growing up in rural America. The two case histories in the sidebars give a better understanding of how curricular flexibility actually works in practice.

University Sponsored Programs
In providing services to gifted youth living in rural areas, the local universities or colleges also can play a significant role. Not only can they open up their curriculum to talented high school students (i.e., curricular flexibility) or provide mentorship opportunities with their faculty and staff, they can offer various residential programs during summers and during the academic year. Residential programs are a necessity when serving gifted students who live scattered across a wide geographic area. By inviting gifted students into their classrooms and dormitories, universities can provide a significant opportunity to stimulate the minds of gifted students living in rural communities and to enhance their social development. Being able to meet and interact with individuals who are like themselves is extremely beneficial to gifted students.

How could a university plan a curriculum and a program for talented youth? If the students served are high school students, they could be enrolled in regular college classes. Younger students, however, could also be accommodated. As long as the college limits itself to serving precocious youth who as seventh or eighth graders reason at the level of college-bound high school seniors, a university-based program could still draw on its existing freshman curriculum. Some adaptation of the curriculum would be recommended, however. Moreover, an important component in any successful program is to have a strong residential/recreational program that complements the academics. Students thrive in an environment where learning is combined with fun. The CY-TAG program illustrates how this concept can work in real life.

In 1987, CY-TAG opened its doors on the Iowa State University (ISU) campus with the philosophy that academically talented students who seek to stretch their abilities and add new dimensions to their lives deserve the opportunity to be challenged, motivated, and intellectually stimulated. Beginning small, with 72 students and three classes (writing, mathematics, and biotechnology), it now has grown to serving 220 students and offering eight classes and individual research mentorships this past summer. The classes offered are all at the college freshman level.

For example, in writing and Latin, students cover the equivalent of a one semester college course during the 3-week program that encompasses 99 hours of instructional time. Courses are not exact duplicates of regularly scheduled college courses, however; they only draw on that curriculum. The extent to which a course is adapted depends partly on the commitment and judgment of the instructor. Sometimes very little adaptation is needed, sometimes much.

An example of what is possible for a college to provide is the probability and statistics class, which was piloted by the CY-TAG program but now is offered as part of the Iowa Governor's Summer Institute for Gifted and Talented at ISU. The basic content covered in a typical one semester college course, which would be considered content acceleration, is used for that class. Yet that was not seen as sufficient. It was also desirable to make the course consistent with the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (National Council for Teachers of Mathematics [NCTM], 1989).

    [The] standards articulate five goals for all students: (1) that they learn to value mathematics, (2) that they become confident in their ability to do mathematics, (3) that they become mathematical problem solvers, (4) that they learn to communicate mathematically, and (5) that they learn to reason mathematically (NCTM. 1989, p. 5).

Moreover, it is noted by NCTM that "what a student learns depends to a great degree on how he or she has learned it" (NCTM, 1989, p. 5). It was proposed that knowledge emerges through experience with problems.

With this in mind, an emphasis was placed on the application aspect of probability and statistics. Students were challenged to use their critical thinking abilities and to learn by doing. They were asked to make predictions and then to test and evaluate them through the use of statistics. Student projects and calculator and computer usage were integrated throughout the class. Students worked individually and in groups when completing assignments. They also had the opportunity to use statistical software in analyzing their data. Significant time also was set aside for students to work individually or in pairs with a faculty member at Iowa State University or the Ames Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy. Such "mentorships" have been found to be an effective way to challenge and to stimulate interest of gifted students in science (Beck, 1989).

During the mentorship aspect of the class, students worked in the laboratory as part of a research team. Thereby, students learned not only investigative techniques, they were also given the opportunity to apply mathematical concepts taught in the classroom. They actually learned by "doing." Students were also afforded the opportunity to use and learn about state-of-the-art equipment, such as electron microscopes. Through the mentorship experience, the learning of science was approached through highly recommended means. In 1981, the Board of Directors of the National Science Teachers Association unanimously endorsed the necessity of laboratory experiences for teaching and learning science.

In addition to being a member of a research team for several hours each week, each student worked on an individual project supervised by his or her professor and the probability and statistics instructor. The project was designed so that the application of statistical concepts was a critical component of the methodology. The research project is included in the mentorship experience in order to provide the students with a coordinated perspective of how research and mathematics are used to solve problems. Each mentor-ship project culminated in a paper, which was developed during the daily writing workshop. The writing workshop was incorporated into the curriculum to improve students' communication skills.

This 3-week university-sponsored summer program provided content acceleration through a hands-on approach to learning that drew on students' critical thinking abilities. It attempted to combine the best practices of several fields (gifted, mathematics education, and science education). This is one type of innovative program that a university can offer to challenge gifted children living in a rural area. Other approaches, such as having gifted high school students live on campus while they take regular courses or participate in a summer internship, are other possibilities. Both would be considered accelerative because they draw on resources or program options designed for older students.

A university could also host a residential, academic year program. The Texas Academy for Mathematics and Science (TAMS) at the University of North Texas is an excellent example (see Stanley, in press). Students who in 10th grade already reason at the level of a college-bound senior enter TAMS in llth grade. Students live in college dormitories, segregated from other college students, and attend regular college classes, primarily honors classes. After 2 years, the students receive their high school diploma and they have garnered 2 years of college credit. Such an approach is especially useful in a rural area, where a residential program is in greater need because of the scattering of gifted students across a wide geographic area. Since it uses an existing resource, it is also cost-effective.

Although academic-year commuter programs work less well in a rural area, they can be effective if they are properly structured. The Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted at Iowa State University, for example, offers commuter programs in mathematics and writing -- the SMPY Math and Writing Clinics. These classes, some of which are conducted in computer labs, meet every other Saturday for 3 hours each to make it easier for students-who live far away to attend them. Moreover, the math and writing courses are offered on the same Saturday, in morning and afternoon, so that a motivated student could attend both if desired. In order to assure a maximal amount of progress, a large amount of homework is assigned between sessions, half of which is mailed to the instructors one week before the next class. The assignments are then immediately corrected, mailed back to the student, and worked over by the student in time for the next class. To assist students having difficulty, a phone-in conference hour is also provided.

Another possibility that demonstrates how the college community can join educators in providing challenge to gifted students in its surrounding area is to offer career day experiences. Career days can take many forms, ranging from lectures to hands-on activities conducted by university faculty or graduate students; but they all allow gifted students to explore a variety of fields of study and careers and help them narrow their options. Because gifted students have the potential to enter a wide variety of careers (i.e., they have multipotentiality), it may be especially difficult for them to complete the career decision making process. This can be especially true for gifted females.

Several ways in which a university could reach out and help meet the needs of gifted students have been listed here. However, this list was not meant to be exhaustive. For example, not mentioned was the possibility of extension or satellite programs or working through telecommunications. The possibilities are numerous, limited only by the creativity of the individuals involved.

Long-Term Effects of Educational Programming
Many wonder if all the work on behalf of the gifted is truly worth the effort. Does educational programming directed at gifted children help such children bring their talents to fruition? The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) at Iowa State University is conducting a 50 year longitudinal study to provide answers to just such questions.

It is documenting the process and the factors that have an impact on the process whereby childhood potential develops and grows into adult achievement. What factors seem to be related to the proper utilization of talent? Indeed, educational opportunity seems to be among those most importantly related to this process. Seemingly, SMPY's findings illustrate that most influential in sparking high achievement of gifted students were those programs designed specifically for advanced students. That is, it was quality, not quantity, of educational experiences in high school that could predict subsequent educational achievement (e.g., Benbow & Arjmand, 1990; Benbow, Arjmand, & Walberg, in press). Acceleration is one of the educational options identified as being capable of enhancing academic achievement while not detracting from social and emotional development (Brody & Benbow, 1987; Kulik & Kulik, 1984; Swiatek & Benbow, 1990, 1991).

In conclusion, many gifted students achieve below the level of their potential if not provided with an appropriate education. Because providing an appropriate education to gifted students living in rural areas is especially difficult, they tend to be underserved. Such students are, therefore, at greater risk for not being able to take full advantage of their potential. This situation could be easily remedied, however, if curricular flexibility was practiced and resources designed for older students -- the universities or colleges located in rural America -- were drawn on. Acceleration might be the optimal means of meeting the needs of gifted students in rural areas, just as it was the trusted option relied upon by the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse to challenge his or her gifted students.

During the initial year of the CY-TAG program (i.e., in 1987), one student stood out who was not only strong verbally (SAT-Verbal of 480) but also extremely motivated. She attended the Expository Writing course in 1987 and then that fall began her ninth-grade year in a Nebraska high school of 1,211 students (grades 9-12). Mindy was able to skip Freshman English because of her CY-TAG experience, and took a sophomore level journalism class instead. During that ninth-grade year, she was also able to put her talent for writing to good use by working on the yearbook staff during the spring semester. Then, during the summer of 1988, she returned to CY-TAG and completed a second course in Expository English.

Mindy's sophomore year began by being appointed Yearbook Editor (a spot usually reserved for seniors). She was also given the opportunity to complete an AP English composition course. During that year, Mindy also made a very significant decision. She decided that she would like to complete high school in 3 years rather than 4. With the help of her school counselor, she was able to schedule her classes to double up her junior and senior years into one year of school. She had received high school credit from her CY-TAG courses and that, combined with attending class through the lunch hour for two semesters and her impressive performance in her course work, allowed Mindy to accomplish her goal. In addition, she completed during that very busy year an AP English literature course, continued with the Yearbook Editor position, and was awarded the position of Newspaper Editor, as well. Moreover, Mindy was traveling throughout Nebraska, speaking of her experiences from her 3-week trip to the Soviet Union with the People to People Friendship Caravan. Thus, through curricular flexibility, she was able to bring her talents to fruition.

While in the eighth grade and living in a small Iowa town where the total school enrollment (K-12) is 773 students, Jess took the College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and scored 550 on the math portion. At that time, Jess decided to jumpstart his mathematics education by trying to master new concepts at an accelerated pace. To do so, he enrolled in the SMPY Math Clinic, which offers precalculus mathematics in a self-paced, individualized study approach. Thus, beginning in ninth-grade, he traveled 45 minutes to Iowa State University every other Saturday to attend the Math Clinic. Jess completed Algebra I during that fall semester. He then had the opportunity to re-take the SAT and discovered that he had managed to raise his math score to 690. Realizing that he wanted to keep up the accelerated pace of learning mathematics, Jess attended the CY-TAG summer residential program. There he completed Algebra II and Algebra III, using the SMPY Model for learning mathematics. During the next 2 years, he studied the remainder of the precalculus mathematics sequence (Geometry, Trigonometry, and Analytic Geometry) through the ISU Math Clinic and the CY-TAG program. The local high school allowed Jess to skip its math sequence, but required him to complete the final semester tests of each course that he completed to secure a grade for that course. This allowed him to complete his math sequence by the end of his junior year in high school.

Jess is currently a senior who played center for his high school in the state football tournament. Because participating in football was important to him, he decided not to go on to college early even though he was academically ready to do so. Instead, he is completing independent study courses in Calculus I and Physics. Because AP courses are not available at his school, the school agreed to let him work one on one with instructors. This seems to have been a satisfactory arrangement for both Jess and his school. It enabled Jess to be academically challenged and to participate in his valued high school activities.

Just recently, Jess received notification that he is a National Merit Scholarship finalist -- quite an honor, indeed. He is looking forward to starting at University of Arizona (Tucson) in the fall, double majoring in Nuclear and Aerospace Engineering. This seems to be a good fit with his talents and interests. In addition, due possibly in part to Jess's experiences and his active campaigning in this area, this is the first year for a gifted program in his school. Thus, an increased number of opportunities for academically gifted students now will be available in that community. This is certainly good news.


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