It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to have an old-fashioned bull-session with colleagues who are wrestling with issues related to acceleration to college. As you may know, the project on which I spend much of my time, the Early Entrance Program at the UW, provides not only acceleration but what most would term "radical acceleration"--since our oldest students are 14 when they enter the preparatory component of the program, 15 when they become full-time students (or "EEP'ers, for Early Entrance Program) after a year of intensive academic preparation. We've been in this business since 1977, so we've had some time to think up a lot of questions.
But before I begin, let me read you a statement by Terman and Oden, written nearly 50 years ago, that mirrors our questions--and yours--so closely that you may wonder why we still have so few answers--or, perhaps, have persuaded so few others that we have answers. I found, or re-found, this quotation last week while looking over that wonderful 1979 volume edited by William George, Sandy Cohn, and Julian Stanley that resulted from a 1978 conference held under the leadership of Julian Stanley, who has inspired so many of us to do what we do (Stanley, 1976; Stanley & Benbow, 1983; Stanley & McGill, 1986). Terman and Oden's chapter from their 1947 monograph was reprinted in the George, Cohen, and Stanley volume. To quote:
The only modification I'd make in that list of concerns is that we now don't look on earlier marriage as a plus, but rather, completion of graduate school before marriage as a considerably easier way to go. The questions are with us, and only some of the answers.
There is in fact quite a long history in the Western world of early entry to college, especially among people who later went on to eminent careers. I won't recite the litany of early enterers for whom biographical material exists (e.g., Radford, 1990; Stanley & Benbow, 1983; B\Stanley & McGill, 1986), but I will share with you my shock upon reading a 1957 article by our University of North Carolina colleague, Harold McCurdy, who documented not only how many eminent people had entered college very early, but--here was the shock--how few of them had ever attended common schools before that. This is worrisome.
A large proportion of Terman's subject group were accelerated by at least half a grade, comparing those who entered college by age 15 with a matched group of college graduates who entered later, substantiated the advantage conferred by acceleration at least during the mid-career years, and an absence of handicap later on (Janos, 1987; Terman & Oden, 1947).
A number of publications in the first third of this century (Daurio, 1979; Pressey, 1949) gave abundant evidence of successful early college entrance at a good many different colleges. Only a couple of those published studies used comparison groups, both reporting admirable academic progress but one (Keys, 1938) reporting more adjustment problems among the early entrants compared with less bright classmates.
Several of the college-acceleration programs during mid-century made a more concerted effort to evaluate their results. Some, but not all of these originated in an effort to preserve educational opportunities for young men about to be drafted and sent out to fight our wars. Pressey (1949) looked at students of varying ages at entry to Ohio State in 1936, finding favorable academic results for the 16 and 17-year-olds, particularly for those of high ability. The University of Illinois (Berg & Larsen, 1945) tried an accelerated program during World War II with generally favorable results as well, but two most famous programs of that era were the Program for Early Admission at the University of Chicago (Bloom & Ward, 1952), which accepted students after their sophomore high school year, and the Ford Foundation Program of Early Entrance to College (Fund for the Advancement of Education, 1957). The last of these, by far the
best documented project, emanated from the Korean War era. With Ford Foundation support, 1,350 "Fordlings" were given scholarships to attend 12 participating colleges and universities and, furthermore, comparison students were identified and followed as well. This study yielded considerable positive evidence that, despite what amounted to a wobble of adjustment for some students in the beginning, the experiment worked as intended; the students did very well academically and as well socially as their classmates. Anyone who wants a review of these programs is referred to Daurio (1979), in the same George, Cohn, and Stanley monograph.
To sum up the findings of these varied studies, it was clear that most early entrants met academic success, especially when they had been carefully selected to begin with, and that their social adjustment had been satisfactory after, in some instances, an initial period of getting into the swing of things. Boys may have had a somewhat harder time than girls, especially late-maturing boys. There's been remarkably little baseline information about the social adjustment of comparison non-accelerants who are equally bright, so this is still quite a fuzzy area. With respect to long-range effects, the evidence is very sketchy, but there does seem to be the expected advantage of acceleration at a relatively early stage in post-college careers.
So far as I can tell, although early entrance to college certainly characterized British and European movers and shakers of the past, most countries don't look on early entrance at all favorably. The most important exception with which I'm familiar is that of China (Robinson, 1992), in which there exist several programs of very entrance. These require, however, that the young entrants have passed the same extremely rigorous tests of knowledge (as opposed to aptitude) that other college entrants must pass.
Enough of history. We have a lot of history-making participants in this conference who will be reporting to you the results of their own research. Let me now turn to the issues related to radical acceleration about which we still need answers. And let me tell you, first of all, that I am terribly biased in favor of coherent and thoughtful programs that enable bright students to accelerate into college. I do not, however, believe they are the only options for bright students, especially not for poorly focused students or students who have competing agendas such as team sports, family conflicts to survive, or delayed puberty. Let us address ourselves today, rather, to evaluating radical acceleration as an option, as a nutritious dish on the smorgasbord of education.
Let me return now to several arguments for radical acceleration, entering college, say, by age 15. Recognizing that there are all sorts of ways a student could enter college early--from early kindergarten entry to grade-skipping or course skipping to summer credits to college credits earned by attending classes or by correspondence, let's limit our discussion today to students who enter college by leapfrogging over some or all of the coursework they would ordinarily have taken in high school as well as managing to do it very young, by age 14 or 15, or earlier.
The arguments for: (1) First of all, let's recall what Bill Durden had to say about the principle of the optimal Match. Essentially, children learn best what they're ready for, or almost ready for, and what gives them a bit of a stretch--not so much that they find it aversive, not so little that they're bored. An age-jump of a year or so for a young child may help create an optimal match, although acceleration by itself won't do it. But a year or so to a very bright teenager is a drop in the bucket. The older the child, the greater in years the absolute discrepancy in mental ability between the gifted child and average agemates. You know what the diverging gradients look like (gesture). Very bright students who enter college early are exposed to a wide range of intellectual options at a pace that is right for them. That they thrive academically under such circumstances is evidenced by the typical finding of high grades--the average of our students is, for example, about 3.5 as opposed to a student body average of 3.0.
(2) A second advantage afforded by radical acceleration is a release from the oppressive tyranny of age and the pressure for sameness that begin in late elementary school but break out full force during the middle school and early high school years. Gifted students whose abilities, interests, aspirations, language, and learning pace are not the same are under tremendous pressure to be the same, to dress alike, to laugh at the same jokes, to grow at the same pace. There are several ways a student can deal with this--few of them good. They can hide, or isolate themselves; they can try to be like everyone else and in the process turn off their minds; they can become "nerds" and suffer the teasing that goes along with that. There are ways to survive with values and energies intact, especially if the student can find a compatible group of friends with similar intellectual aspirations or interests, but students often find the costs very high. For girls, the costs can be even higher, as they struggle not only with their own identities but with what is "proper" for a girl. Our EEP'ers tell us that the release from the tyranny of being like everyone else is a major feature of their lives at the UW, and the young women tell us that they, in particular, feel empowered as never before to find their own identities and social roles (Noble & Drummond, 1992).
In my experience, one-year acceleration in elementary or secondary school often leaves a student looking immature but otherwise: not distinguished from classmates. With two years or more of acceleration, the age difference is differentiable, so that the student is more likely to be identified as "young" rather than "immature," seen on his or her own terms rather than by rigid age-grade expectations. It may help.
(3) What about motivation? Terman cited improved motivation at the top of his list of arguments for acceleration, and yet, hard evidence about this is slim. Our students report working with more interest and energy than ever before (and their parents confirm this), but we find there are real limits to what we, and probably to what radical acceleration can do for the really turned-off student. We've had success with students who have only recently become alienated from school, but our hearts ache every year for the enormously bright students we can't help because they have turned off their engines too long ago. We've tried, without success, with too many students, who are real casualties of an underchallenging educational system and whose families are not patterned in such a way that their children have learned to succeed in spite of the system.
(4) And social life--that inevitable question, what about the prom? In a situation like ours, we do have evidence that social life can be fully as satisfying, indeed, more so, than high school offers to many, not all, of our students. A few students maintain their isolation, but for the most part there is extremely close bonding within the program, especially within one's own class and the one above and below. I'm heartened to hear from alums, who almost always are still in close touch with friends from EEP. What we see is that, during the first year or two of full-time UW enrollment, most students turn up pretty often in our lounge to see one another, the girls for about a year, more of the boys for two. Some are integrated into the campus immediately, others take their time to add regular-age students to their circle of friends, generally as they gravitate toward a major. Their hormones certainly flow like other teenager, and we have our share of romances and broken romances. Around the Center, they act like the vigorous adolescents they are; in UW classes, they are indistinguishable from other good students. Their professors tell us that they seem better prepared and better able to use supportive resources (e.g., to seek out professors and teaching assistants during office hours) than other students. They are geographically scattered, but Seattle has a great bus system for which a pass costs them about $9 a month, so they are pretty mobile and able to handle their own social arrangements.
(5) And mental health? The issues we worry about are depression, stress-related illness, anxiety, and the like. Our students are not perfect, but here we do have some hard evidence that is reassuring. Back in the early 1980's we identified three comparison groups, two of which we have continued to follow. One group, matched for pre-entry test scores but about four years older than our students on average, turned out to be pretty ordinary UW students. We didn't find them interesting and they didn't find us interesting, so we dropped them after a while. We continued, however, to follow the two others: what we call QUALS, students who had qualified for our program but who elected in the end not to pursue it; and National Merit Scholarship finalists who entered the UW at ages 17 or 18. The QUALS turn out to be a little more happy-go-lucky than either the National Merit group or our group; many of the QUALS were doing pretty well where they are and plan to continue. But the mental health status, as shown by an early study using the MMPI and continuing questionnaires about happiness and adjustment, is equivalent across groups. None of the groups is perfect. Two of our 250 or so students have been briefly hospitalized for psychiatric illness, one of them among our handful of drop-outs. I might add, however, that it is our impression that smoking and the use of alcohol and other illicit drugs, while not absent from our program, are much less prevalent than in equivalent high school groups. So far as I know, not one of our students has had a long-term drug problem. I should add, however, that others have at times found more concerning evidence about the mental health of early entrants, though sometimes programmatic readjustments help the situation. (See the series of articles by Cornell, Callahan, & Lloyd, 1991-92; Stanley, 1991.)
Let me digress here for just a minute. Many of the students who apply to us are doing well psychologically, but some aren't. That's why they apply--they are unhappy, lonely, feeling quirky. They are looking for a solution to a problem. Should it be so surprising that, indeed, some aspects of their problems persist? While the peer group exerts a powerful socializing effect on many previously isolated or disaffected kids, we shouldn't be disheartened if they don't turn into the epitome of mental health. A number of our students have sought outside counseling at our urging--and we are not reluctant to so urge. Whatever the wobbles, some of these initially unhappy students may still be happier with us than they would have been otherwise.
Let us now proceed to issues about radical acceleration that call for continued discussion.
(1) What can be accomplished by part-time programs that enable students to continue in secondary school while beginning their college studies? Of course, this is an appropriate compromise in many situations, but our experience with part-time enrollment prior to beginning the Transition School was that students didn't quite know who they were, and participated in no campus activities other than classes. They did not want their college classmates to know that they were actually middle-school students" and they certainly didn't want their middle-school classmates to know they were "nerdy" enough to be college students. There were logistical problems as well, working out transportation and scheduling and limiting participants to those residing very close to the UW campus. Our state has a "Running Start" program that enables high school juniors and seniors to enroll concurrently at nearby community colleges, and the experience seems to be similar, although there are usually sufficient numbers of such students to make identities less problematic.
(2) How much radical acceleration is called for? The students in our program, for example, generally haven't attended high school at all; some come to us from seventh grade. This is the first dimension to consider--how much of a leap? An optimal Match answer would dictate that the right degree of acceleration is the degree the student can handle, with a bit of a stretch.
(3) As most of you know, you can find on almost any campus these days one or a handful of very young students, usually residing locally, on whom someone in the admissions office has taken pity because they so clearly needed to be there. Lots of colleges 120 early admission.
Then the question becomes: What sort of program do students enter? Is there, indeed, any program in place at all? Do they make their way onto a college campus, by themselves, right into college courses, into campus life (potentially, anyway), into independence and self-management? Do they live in dorms -- together? Alone? Have they the possibility of a meaningful peer group? What efforts are expended to make sure that students are academically prepared, indeed, actively to prepare them, to cope with excellence with what will come at them in college? Are they given skills to deal with bureaucracies? At studying, note-taking, organizing their lives? Is their knowledge base sufficiently broad and deep to cope with college-level courses?
As you can see from what I've told you so far, the UW program is designed to deal with all these issues. But it is clearly a labor-intensive program. How much less intensive could it be, and still protect but not over-protect students who are so young? A number of different models are represented at this conference. We need to listen carefully to the variations on these themes.
(4) What criteria shall we use for selection? Some of the students who haven't done well in the past clearly haven't been I very carefully selected in terms of aptitude and/or personal I maturity (Daurio, 1979). At the UW, we screen students with the Washington PreCollege Test or the SAT, looking for patterns at least comparable to those of entering UW freshpersons; we often give the Stanford-Binet, the Calculation subtest of the Woodcock-Johnson, Revised, and/or a 20-minute essay as well. Students need not be evenly balanced, but they must show enough ability in both verbal and math/science reasoning to cope with UW classes. We listen, very carefully to what at least two teachers tell us over the phone; we have the student and parents visit for a day and listen carefully to them. We've learned to value not only high intellect but a history of high achievement in school and in an outside activity in which the student has reached a high standard; we look for a student who is searching, not just escaping; we look for readers; we look for supportive families; above all, we look for personal organization.
(5) What role do the parents of such children play? (Most of us, I'm sure, recently saw on TV the picture of a 10-year-old college graduate whose mother attended class and took his notes because he couldn't write fast enough. That's one end of the continuum.) Our own students live with parents or other family members through at least the first year of college. In other settings, students move right into college dorms. There are many issues to consider here, including local mores. You Easterners often send your kids off to boarding school; we Westerners don't. Some parents expect to be involved with supervising homework all through grammar school and high school; others make themselves available but expect the kids to take responsibility. What sorts of family configurations best prepare students for college and support them if they go early? I strongly suspect that the same configurations that Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues
(Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993) identify as encouraging the talented student--essentially, families who provide both challenge and high expectations on the one hand, and warm support on the other--hold for radical accelerants as well.
(6) What about the physical health of young students? Our concern is not actually health--they're pretty healthy and plenty energetic--but fitness. We provide some PE, and some of our students do neighborhood soccer, swim, dance (folk or ballet), or continue to do sports at their former schools. College level contact sports are out, of course. We've had intramural crew members (crew is very big at UW) and a volleyball star. One early EEP'er even won an Olympic Gold Medal. But we have our share of non-athletes, too.
(7) Holes in the knowledge base needed for college work? We haven't found this to be a problem, given the preparation in English, history, math, and physics our students get in our Transition School. In college, they tackle foreign languages well without prior preparation, and the UW offers introductory options in each science that don't presuppose a high-school course. Prior to the Transition School, which wasn't instituted until 1980, some students needed help with math (although some coped with calculus after only a year of algebra and a weekend with a trig book); many needed help with writing skills; and physics was a problem. We learned that students whose prior achievement levels had been far below their potential--as was true for almost all of them--needed a short-term academic boost in order to cope with appropriate challenges.
(8) And, finally, what about long-term outcomes? First, what will radical acceleration do to the eventual academic progress of young students? I believe that Camilla Benbow will have more to say about this on the basis of her surveys. Terman's data are reassuring. All we can tell you on the basis of our last study is that a very high percentage of our students do proceed to graduate or professional school, a greater percentage than the comparison National Merit finalists. Our next survey should tell us more about their careers--some of which are already quite stunning. We are looking forward to rich and generous alumni! It's going to take pretty large numbers of students to tell whether we and colleagues in other programs have accomplished the trick of getting students well enough educated, soon enough, that they have the intellectual energy and rambunctiousness to make real breakthroughs--the Nobel Prize kind. I hope some of us live long enough to find that out.
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Permission to reprint this article was granted by the author, Nancy M. Robinson, Ph.D.
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