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Why Don't Schools Accelerate More Students?


Curriculum. It has to be covered. There are standards to teach and minutes to cover for ELA, math, social studies and science. Most teachers can do this without little issue, although time is always a challenge to doing this effectively.

Unfortunately, when the pressure from leaders is to cover curriculum; pace at the same time as grade level peers, and make sure that each subject has been offered in the appropriate number of minutes, other teachers become highly stressed or fold under the pressure. This can lead to a low level of self-efficacy, which Bandura (1986) says can lead to teachers feeling like they don't have an impact on student learning.

With all of this pressure to get things done, there can become less of a focus on learning. Or the learning that does take place in the classroom becomes more compliant learning instead of authentic learning. The difference is that students sit back and learn what they feel they have to as opposed to what they want to. It's the difference between active engagement and the risk of disengagement.

When we are too concerned about covering curriculum, instead of seeing students as individuals with strengths and weaknesses, we are more at risk of putting them in a box instead of thinking outside of it. And one group of our students that need our best thinking are students who may no longer need to be in our classrooms at all, and those are the students who need to be accelerated.

The National Association For Gifted Children defines acceleration as,

Acceleration occurs when students move through traditional curriculum at rates faster than typical. Among the many forms of acceleration are grade-skipping, early entrance to kindergarten or college, dual-credit courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and subject-based acceleration (e.g., when a fifth-grade student takes a middle school math course).

The association goes on to report,

  • In a study of high-ability children who had been accelerated, 71% reported satisfaction with their acceleration experience.
  • Some argue that acceleration can be harmful to students' self-concept, ability to fit in with older peers, or other social-emotional needs. However, research on acceleration has demonstrated multiple academic benefits to students and suggests that acceleration does not harm students.
  • In one study, students who were allowed early entrance to elementary school averaged 6 months ahead in achievement when compared to their age peers during the same year.
  • In another study, researchers noted that a sample of students who had participated in whole-grade acceleration were not noticeably different in their perceived interpersonal competence (including interacting with others and their ability to form friendships) when compared to a heterogeneous group of students in the norming sample.
  • Accelerated students have also been shown to outperform non-accelerated peers academically in the long term.
  • Acceleration is a cost-effective intervention. Grade-based forms cost little to implement, and yield societal benefits in that students complete schooling ahead of schedule and become productive adults earlier in their lives.

Why Don't Schools Do It?
Some school officials are hesitant to accelerate students because of things that might happen, as opposed to things that have happened. I know that sounds odd, but they are concerned because they don't have crystal ball and cannot anticipate the hardships the students may go through in the future, which is somewhat odd because we can't do that for any student...regardless of whether they are in need of acceleration or not.

School leaders worry that the students who are accelerated will be smaller than their grade level peers, and therefore may not fit in nor will they have friends. It may be important for these leaders to look to the National Association of Gifted Children's study where they found that, "researchers noted that a sample of students who had participated in whole-grade acceleration were not noticeably different in their perceived interpersonal competence."

Other times there is enormous pressure to make sure that if these students are accelerated they can handle the pressures of the next level of curriculum and learning, or the teachers in that classroom will feel set up that they classroom data, and therefore their yearly evaluations, may not look as good as they could. Yes, teacher evaluations and how they are completed play a small role in these decisions as well.

In the End
Acceleration is difficult to do without parental support. There are times when parents are the ones pushing for acceleration, while other times the teachers and leaders see it and need parents to help support the decision. Parents are clearly important, not just to help make the acceleration successful, but also because the learning taking place doesn't just happen in the classroom.

An accelerated child needs to be challenged at home as well as in school. It's not all up to the teacher. Yes, that is the case for all students, regardless of ability level, but teachers can't be the only ones expected to meet the needs of the students. It's a partnership approach with parents, teachers and the student.

Additionally, classroom acceleration is really interesting because we always seem to think students need to be retained because they aren't learning important concepts, but never seem to think that students need to be accelerated because they have already mastered important concepts.

In John Hattie's research that involves more than 250 million students, he found that acceleration has an effect size of .68, which is well over the hinge point of .40 where students are experiencing a year's worth of growth for a year's input. Remembering that the effect sizes that Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, has with each influence is an average, it's important to realize that acceleration works better in some cases than others.

...and retention has a -.13 effect size, which means in many cases it's harmful to the learning process...and yet we do that more than acceleration.

In the times we accelerated, it was a partnership decision between school staff, parents and the student. In one case it was clear that the student could benefit from being accelerated because they already mastered the learning taking place in one grade level, but the other most important component in the decision were the parents. Our committee that looked through date and had multiple conversations knew that the parents played a very important part in the decision because they were knowledgeable and supportive.

However, we also want to make sure we don't just plop a student in the next grade level without any support whatsoever. Acceleration is much more complicated than just putting a student in the next grade level. It's making sure that that students is challenged academically and supported emotionally, and unfortunately, that is one of the other reasons why schools don't do it, because that means extra time and support that they may not have or unwilling to give. 


Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn't Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Klimkin

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