Hop, Skip, and a Jump: A Close Look at Grade Acceleration

The case surrounds the issues of socio-emotional development in gifted learners. The staff at Bethany Elementary School is faced with the challenge of providing the best educational environment to a very bright first-grader. When the option of grade acceleration comes up, many of the staff reveal typical myths and stereotypes about the social or emotional development of gifted learners.

One of Aggie’s new first-graders presents her with instructional challenges.

Aggie Huller spotted Ian’s empty desk with the completed worksheet resting on top. She quickly looked around the room. There was Ian in the reading corner, nose buried in a book. She walked over and crouched beside his beanbag. ” Ian” she asked. “What are you reading?

He showed her the cover: Harry Potter.

“Wow, Ian,” she said. “That’s a hard book. Are you a Harry Potter fan?

“I love his books!” Ian grinned. “I read the first Harry Potter over the summer and now I want to read them all.”

“I’m a fan, too,” Aggie smiled back. “What do you like about them?”

“Fantasy!” Ian said without hesitation. “I love fantasy books!”

“Hmmm…” Aggie said, flipping through Ian’s copy of The Chamber of Secrets. “Where are you?”

“Right now, Harry is desperately trying to get back to Hogwarts to start his second year of wizard school, but he missed the train!” Ian spoke quickly and seemed excited about talking with her. “So, he uses this magical flying car, but unfortunately the car crashed right into this crazy willow tree that can talk and has special powers. J.K. Rowlings always has really strange creatures as characters.”

“Wow!” Aggie was impressed. “That sounds really exciting!” She glanced around the room, checking on her other students. “It looks like everyone’s still working on their word-sorts. You can keep reading here until we start our math work, okay?”

As the year progresses, Aggie begins to explore ways to meet the diverse needs in her class.

Every year, the academic gap between Aggie’s highest and lowest students seems wider. This year, she has 3 identified gifted students in the classroom and 4 special education students struggling to learn to read. The rest of the students fall somewhere in-between.

Aggie teaches at one of six elementary schools in a small college town. Its 545 or so students are economically and ethnically diverse, and Aggie enjoys this mixture. She’s participated in many of the school’s reform models, including language immersion, looping, team-teaching, and multi-age classrooms. So far, teaming with Robin Shelar has proven the most successful approach for her and her students. Between the two of them they can usually tackle whatever comes along, and their different teaching styles help them reach different learners.

See a description and floorplan of Bethany Elementary School below:

She sits down with Robin to plan their week and discuss student concerns. ” I keep thinking about Ian and how he fits—or doesn’t—with the rest of the class. I mean, they’re all over the place, but Ian’s way out there. I feel like I’ve almost abandoned him to teach himself, especially in reading.”

“I think he’s gifted,” Robin smiled.

“I don’t know,”Aggie shrugs. “Sometimes he seems so bright! It’s really a struggle to keep him challenged. You should look at the vocab in that narrative I recorded last week! And then there’s Kapil. He’s shown some language growth, but he’s still really struggling.”

See student narratives below:

Aggie continues, “But, gifted? I don’t know. His writing is pretty weak. And then I worry because he doesn’t have many friends.”

“The friend issue isn’t really about whether or not he’s gifted, is it?”

“I don’t know,” Aggie said. “Everything’s interrelated at this age.”

“Maybe you should talk to Lillian about him,” Robin suggests.

Later that day Aggie stops by the gifted education teacher’s room. “Lillian, do you have a few minutes?” she asks. “I want to talk to you about one of my students.”

Lillian looks up from the manipulatives she’s sorting. “Sure.”

As Aggie finishes describing Ian’s progress, she asks, “How can you tell if a child is truly gifted? I mean, Ian’s so young. Maybe his parents just really push reading.”

“Well, developmentally, gifted kids are different from other kids their age,” Lillian explains. “It sounds like Ian shows some very typical gifted behavior. First, there’s his advanced language aptitude. Then there’s the fact that he learns more quickly than other students. And many bright kids turn to reading as a coping mechanism.” Lilian caught Aggie’s questioning look. “Think about it. They select the content, the reading level, and the pace. They control the environment, they make it suit their needs!”

See definitions of two types of Human Development below:

The gifted education resource teacher arranges a meeting of school staff and Ian’s parents in order to discuss Ian’s educational placement. In particular, the acceleration option is presented.

As a result of conversations with Aggie, Lillian has observed Ian and arranged a meeting with his parents, his teachers, and the principal, Mr. Harkin.

After introductions and Lillian’s summary of teachers’ observations, Mr. Kline, Ian’s father, responds. “Ian was so excited when he started school, but now, he seems kind of bored.” He glanced at Aggie and Robin. “Don’t get me wrong, he likes you and he likes school, but he just finds everything pretty easy. I don’t want him to give up on school in the first grade!”

“Of course not,” Lillian replies. “Ian displays exceptional ability. He completes work early and you’re right, he’s really not challenged by grade-level work. His reading and language skills are incredibly advanced. ”

“But in other subjects he’s average,” Aggie interjects. “His reading is so much better than his writing!”

“Well, gifted behaviors aren’t always consistent. The development of a child’s advanced abilities doesn’t always happen consistently or at the same time.”

Robin comments, “I’m more worried about his social skills. He works alone, he reads alone, and he hardly ever plays with other children. Is that because he’s gifted?”

“Oh, no!” Lillian jumps in. “I bet Ian’s isolation probably isn’t a preference at all, but more of a necessity. No other child reads what he does, finishes work as quickly, or talks about the same things he’s interested in. So he buries himself in a book to cope.”

Mrs. Kline adds, “You might be right. Ian plays chess with our 10 year-old neighbor, and they have a great time together. But he also loves hanging out with his Cub Scouts buddies—and they’re all the same age.”

Mr. Harkin asks, “So, what are we going to do to better meet Ian’s needs?”

Lillian answers without hesitation. “I suggest we accelerate his education and provide Ian with an older peer group. He needs a more rigorous curriculum and more appropriate mental peers. I think he should move to second grade.”

“Now?” Aggie asks, trying to hide her dismay. “You want him to go now?”

“Well,” Lillian concedes. “We could move him after winter break.”

“That’s only two weeks away,” Mrs. Kline says. “Can’t he get more of a challenge in Aggie’s class?”

“I have to admit,” Aggie replies, “it’s hard to create learning activities that challenge him on a daily basis, especially in reading. There’s just nobody else reading on his level. I don’t have anyone to group him with. That’s why I went to Lillian in the first place.”

“What would advancing him a grade do to him emotionally?” Mr. Kline asks. “He’s a small kid; he’d really stand out in a second-grade classroom.”

See academic acceleration issues below:

One way to assess academic acceleration decisions

“Well,” says Lillian, “His self-esteem might drop temporarily when he moves up. That’s to be expected. But self-esteem is related to the learning and living environments and putting Ian in the right setting is key. The bottom-line is—most gifted learners have very positive self-concepts.”

The meeting draws to a close. Mr. Harkin suggests that everyone think about the acceleration option over the next week and then make a decision.

Mr. Harkin makes a decision regarding Ian’s class placement and leaves Lillian at a crossroads.

Mr. Harkin finds Lillian in the teachers’ lounge. “I talked to Janice Ryan about Ian moving to her class in January and she made a good point. She thinks Ian will have deficits from missing parts of first and second grades. She doesn’t want to have to teach from two curricula for him.”

“I guess Janice isn’t doing much differentiation.” Lillian says.

“Well,” replies Mr. Harkin, “she does an excellent job of teaching the curriculum and making sure every student masters the second grade standards. Her students always do well in third grade.”

Lillian decides it’s better to focus on Ian and deal with the lack of differentiation later. “Why don’t we place Ian in Joseph Burns’ multiage 1-2 class?” she suggests. “That would address the gap issue. Of course, Joseph will still need to differentiate lessons for Ian, but it should be easier in the 1-2 class.”

See more about differentiation below:

“Will you contact Joseph and get him on board?” Mr. Harkin asks.

Lillian shrugs. “I guess. What about the Klines.”

“Well, I spoke with them yesterday,” Mr. Harkin says. “They’re clear on wanting Ian to be challenged. If our best solution is acceleration, they’re on board. So I think we have to go with it this time, but there have to be better solutions than switching midyear. I don’t wasnt to go through this again!”