Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Art and Science of Asking Questions

The response to "Against Accelerating the Gifted Child" in the New York Times' Motherlode blog has been overwhelming and gratifying, and I feel the need to write about to some of the main points that have come up in the comments section. There are over 200 comments at this writing, and while many have been quite supportive, many have been angry and critical, as they should be. If there were easy answers to the question of how to best educate gifted students, there would have been about 12 lukewarm comments responding to my post. The emails and comments I have received may have been contradictory, but at least they highlight the issues we must address in order to advance the cause of education for gifted kids. However, as Motherlode is not my personal forum, I have had to retreat here, to my turf, in order to adequately respond.

1. I am not actually against accelerating the gifted child. I teach many gifted students who have been accelerated, and many of them are quite happy and fulfilled. However, some are not, so what I am against is accelerating a child because the parents are so wrapped up in the mystique of having a gifted child that they never take the eventual emotional and social fallout into account. I have received quite a few emails from people who have thanked me for bringing up this aforementioned emotional fallout, and I stand by my thesis. While academic acceleration may be a good - nay, ideal - solution for some gifted children, parents may want to think ahead to middle school and beyond when making the decision to skip a child ahead in first or second grade.

2. Of course I am aware of the Iowa Acceleration Scale. I have experience with it; my current school uses it as a resource. I have been in on meetings where we have used it in order to decide whether or not to accelerate students. I have also read just about everything published on the subject of academic acceleration since 1972. What kind of idiot woud publish in the New York Times without reading every scrap of research on a given topic? I specifically stated that the research does not indicate that academic acceleration causes negative social or emotional fallout, but I confirmed with a statistician my sense that the subjective, retrospective reporting used in most research studies on accelerated students is a blunt research tool. So is anecdotal evidence, but when it comes to my own observations gathered over a decade of teaching, that's what I've got to fall back on. After reading reams of studies, I could have stated that the existing data are the gold standard, the be-all, end-all of the discussion on the state of grade acceleration, but instead, I found intriguing but imperfect data that begs further discussion and further inquiry.

3. "The gift of time." Okay, it may be trite, but it's a real factor. "Time" is a metaphor, an umbrella concept that stands in for so much more than chronological time. It represents time for emotional development, social development, physical growth, and about a hundred other factors that are conducive to happiness. The ability to control one's emotions. The ability to organize one's materials for class. The ability to defer gratification. The ability to filter information. The ability to filter out ambient distraction. These skills get developed during middle and high school, and the difference between a sixth grader and an eighth grader is about as vast as the difference between a pink marshmallow Peep and a well-tempered piece of dark chocolate.

4. I actually enjoy teaching way more than seeing my name in print. It has always been thus, and will always be so.

I'd keep going, but I have papers to grade and algebra homework to complete. I appreciate each and every one of the nearly 200 comments on my post, as it ensures that I will be invited back in order to write about some other topic that at least fifty people will assert I am completely unqualified to write about.


  1. I have read many of the 200 comments now. Nearly every one claims to have a brilliant child on his or her hands. In a news cycle of dire political wrangling and little progress, it's heartening to know that such a bounteous crop of geniuses is upcoming in this country.


    1. I wonder how much of that is due to the dumbing-down of the educational system that people say has occurred in recent decades. Or worse, the even more recent cheating culture we've been hearing about...

  2. Hi Jess, great piece in the NYT and great response to those comments. I went through something similar when I spoke out against kindergarten redshirting. It's a great thing for a writer to touch such a nerve; it means we need to look at this subject harder, and better. So, in a way, congratulations! We all aim for this :)

    All the best,

  3. Thanks, Sarah and Holly...I don't usually respond to commenters in such a specific way, but the fallout has been...interesting, and begged for elaboration.

  4. Keep writing the things that need to be written... and as I like to say in the face of adult bullying, "don't let the terrorists win!"

  5. Jess,

    I think the gift of time is anything but trite. When considering whether to accelerate a child it is very hard to imagine what their organizational abilities will be like at, say 16, or their athletic or social capabilities. A parent cannot know what will be important to that child when they are a teen and therefore the repercussions of changing grades. Not least of all, they are with us, and their siblings for such a brief window in their lives. It is our chance to help form their values and character, to create a closeness that will last a lifetime, why shorten that?
    Great piece,


  6. What, there's a "test" (so to speak) for acceleration potential? I really wish somebody had told my parents about that back in elementary or middle school when it was suggested for me. They declined on what was basically a gut feeling, and the funny thing is, I've had the opposite experience from a lot of your supportive commenters. I've never felt like I either fit in or wanted to with my age group--I'm not going to call them my "peer group"--and to this day, I still envy people I meet who either entered school early or did skip grades. I had to find my intellectual challenge outside of class, at least until high school when we were finally allowed to choose our own classes. (I should also toss in that skipping a grade would have gotten me out of my unhappy home situation, via college, one year sooner.) I'll freely admit that maybe my experience would have been worse or my body of learning less if I had skipped a grade, but I would feel much better about the choice that was made if it had at least been based on whatever science was available at the time.