By Connie Matthiessen
What do civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and poet T.S. Eliot have in common? All three skipped a grade (or more) in the course of their educational careers: King was just 15 when he graduated from high school, O'Connor graduated at 16, and Eliot earned an undergraduate degree in three years and a master's degree in one.
Even though many people — famous and obscure alike — skip grades in school, it's a highly charged issue. Few people are neutral on the subject — especially if they skipped a grade themselves.
Actor Ken Newman, who skipped a grade in elementary school, came to regret it when he got to high school. He sailed through his academic classes, but was picked on because he was smaller and younger-looking than his classmates. "Kids thought it was funny to grab me and stuff me into the trash can," he recalls.
When he went off to Cornell University at age 15, he still wore braces and wasn't shaving yet. He was emotionally unprepared as well: "For the first few weeks I was so homesick that I cried myself to sleep every night," he recalls. "I couldn't figure out why all the other kids were having such an easy transition. I was always on the sidelines — I didn't fit in. Now I'm in my 50s, and I still feel like I have to prove myself."
In contrast, Tara Lynne Groth doesn’t regret skipping her senior year in high school and heading straight for college at Johnson & Wales University. "I was really driven," she says. "I never had a problem doing the work: I was always surprised at the low effort other people were putting in." At 19 she was a college graduate; now she's 25 and runs a successful freelance writing business — no easy feat, given the tough economy.
There are no solid statistics on how many kids skip a grade each year, but education experts believe the practice was more common in the past than it is today.
One reason for the shift away from grade skipping is concern about potential social problems for kids like Ken Newman, who are advanced academically, but not physically or emotionally. Since social issues are likely to surface in middle and high school, it's difficult to predict if skipping an elementary school child ahead will create problems down the line. Many educators feel that keeping a child with her age group is the safest way to go. As one coworker, who always regretted skipping first grade, summed it up: "Childhood is short enough as it is. Why hurry kids any more than you need to?"
Those on the other side of the debate see a larger danger in letting kids languish in classes that are far too easy for them. Many high-ability, under-challenged kids float through school, growing accustomed to underachieving because they've never been encouraged to push themselves. "I think I would have been incredibly bored if I hadn't skipped ahead," says New Jersey copywriter Caryn Starr-Gates. "Even after skipping, I was always at the top of my class and in the honor society."
For parents of gifted children, the wide range of views on the plusses and minuses of grade skipping can be confusing. What should you do if your gifted child doesn't seem to be challenged at school? Is skipping a grade a good option for high-ability students? And if not, are there better alternatives?
Maureen Marron spends a lot of time thinking about how schools can meet the needs of high-ability students. An associate research scientist at the Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa, Marron sees grade skipping as just one option in an academic tool kit known as "acceleration."
"Skipping a grade isn't the answer for every gifted student," Marron says. "Acceleration means matching the curriculum to a student's abilities. For one student, that may mean grade skipping; for another, it may mean acceleration in a single subject, like math; for other students, enrichment-based activities in the classroom are all they need." Other acceleration options for high-performing children can include starting kindergarten early, taking AP courses in high school, or fast-tracking to college.
But Marron and her colleagues at the Belin-Blank Center say there are far too few acceleration opportunities for children in the U.S. today. It’s a situation they call "a national scandal" in their comprehensive and highly regarded report, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students. According to their findings, "America's school system keeps bright students in line by forcing them to learn in a lock-step manner with their classmates. Teachers and principals disregard students' desires to learn more — much more — than they are being taught."
The fallout? "Highly gifted students who are bored and act out as a result, or stop paying attention, or don't attain the skills they need to succeed in college and the workforce," Marron says. "We've heard that American students are falling behind students in other countries — what do we expect if we don't give these kids the tools they need to excel?"
A report by the National Association for Gifted Children echos this concern, warning that the lack of support for gifted children, "if left unchecked, will ultimately leave our nation ill-prepared to field the next generation of innovators and to compete in the global economy."
Experts suggest a number of reasons why acceleration programs are not more widely embraced by teachers and school administrators, including concern about the social impacts of moving a child ahead, and a lack of familiarity with acceleration on the part of teachers and administrators.
Government education policy may also play a role. A 2008 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that, since the introduction of No Child Left Behind, there have been achievement gains for low-performing students, but the performance of high-ability students has stagnated. Teachers reported feeling pressure to focus on their lowest-achieving students: 60 percent said low-achieving students were the top priority at their school; only 23 percent said that high-achieving students were a top priority. (Note: The report does not establish a definitive causal link between No Child Left Behind and the outcomes for low- and high-achieving students, but the timing of these trends implies a connection).
One step forward….
Marron and her colleagues at the Belin-Blank Center hope their research will encourage more schools to make acceleration programs available to gifted students. Along with A Nation Deceived, the Center also published Guidelines for Developing an Academic Acceleration Policy, which documents the effectiveness of acceleration programs and provides practical steps for implementation. If you think your child would benefit from acceleration, these reports are an excellent resource. They‘re full of acceleration options and programs geared specifically to gifted kids.
Unfortunately, many of the gifted programs that do exist at schools around the country are currently under fire: From California to Kentucky, these programs are a popular target when cash-strapped school districts are looking for places to cut.
It's impossible to calculate the long-term cost of cutting gifted programs for society as a whole, but a letter from an Ohio student underscores the individual toll: