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Gifted Education Options: Partial Acceleration

June 28, 2011

States and Provinces and curricula around the world track students by age. This practice is so common that we do not think of it as tracking. With few exceptions, a six year old must go into first grade even if that six year old is not ready or was ready for the grade one year earlier. – Zalman Usiskin

This is the second in a series exploring gifted education options.  I will primarily focus on low-cost and no-cost options as we all understand that budgets are extremely tight right now.

What is partial acceleration?

Partial acceleration, or subject matter acceleration, is providing a student with higher-level material for part of the day.  This is either accomplished by the student physically traveling to a higher grade classroom for instruction or by providing the student the higher-level material and instruction in his own classroom.  Subject matter acceleration can also be implemented outside the typical instruction times through after-school or summer school programs.

What is the cost of partial acceleration?

There is very little cost for partial acceleration in most circumstances.  Testing may be needed to identify gifted students.  There can be additional costs when an elementary student is taking middle school classes or a middle school student is taking high school classes.  This may require textbook purchases and teacher training.

What are the benefits of partial acceleration?

Partial acceleration can benefit many gifted students who are ahead in one area but average or behind in another area.  Giftedness is often asynchronous where a student is gifted in one subject but not in another.  Subject-matter acceleration can also be a solution when a student lacks the maturity to skip a grade.  Partial acceleration allows students to take classes matched to their academic level instead of their grade level, leading to increased learning and a better classroom experience.

What are the drawbacks of partial acceleration?

Partial acceleration requires schedule coordination between teachers if the student will be heading to an upper grade for classes.   Subject matter acceleration in a school that does not practice curriculum compacting may leave some knowledge gaps, but research shows that these gaps are quickly filled.

Will this harm the education of other students in the classroom?

No!  In fact, by having children assigned to the grade level of their subject by academic ability, a teacher has more time to focus on the central group of students and their progress rather than spending time differentiating for the outliers.  Students who are accelerated usually continue to place in the top end of their new class and are not a burden on that teacher.  Having a class at the accelerated student’s level also engages them and leads to less disruption.

How can partial acceleration be implemented?

Teachers can identify which students in their classroom are gifted and would benefit from partial acceleration.  Usually, this would happen at the end of one year or near the beginning of the next.  Students are given a beginning-of-the-year exam assessing the skills that a student entering that class would be expected to know.  Typically, a score of 80% or above is a good target.  During the subject period, the student walks down the hall to the classroom.  When a student has advanced beyond what the school offers for that subject, cluster grouping can be used in conjunction with partial acceleration in their standard classroom or transportation provided if the schools are close enough.

Why is partial acceleration often not implemented?

Gifted education, particularly dividing students based on ability, is often seen as elitist because it implies some students are better than others.  However, it is no more elitist than moving a gifted athlete from junior varsity to varsity.  It is recognition that students of the same age do not always have the same level of abilities.  There are concerns about gaps in knowledge, but gifted students are quick learners and any gaps swiftly disappear.  Acceleration is also not taught in many Colleges of Education or people remember a student for whom acceleration did not work successfully.  Both lead to beliefs that acceleration is not a valid option, even though research shows otherwise.

What can I as a parent do?

Talk to your principal, your child’s current teachers, and the school’s learning consultant.  Ask for testing using the Iowa Acceleration Scale to determine whether your child would be eligible for subject matter acceleration or full grade acceleration (grade skipping).  Rochester Community Schools apparently administers these exams in August, so you have the summer to work with your child.

Where can I find out more about partial acceleration?

Most books about educating gifted and talented students have some information about partial acceleration.  There is a fantastic article at Education Week by Tamara Fisher.   Hoagies Gifted has a number of links to explore.  The Acceleration Institute’s report A Nation Deceived is also a great resource on acceleration and the research surrounding it.

My personal experience

In fifth grade, my teacher used curriculum compacting to cover fifth and sixth grade math in one year.  In sixth grade, four of us took seventh grade math by going down the hall to the seventh grade classroom.  In seventh grade, my father pushed to have the school allow me to skip pre-algebra.  Now two years accelerated in math, I went to the ninth grade classroom for algebra.  Both of these accelerations were very helpful in keeping me engaged in math.  I continued to achieve A’s in math even when two years ahead.

Were there any knowledge gaps?  I can remember only one.  I did not know how to do factorials until I faced a question on an exam.  Afterward, I asked the teacher and that gap was filled within minutes.

Partially accelerating in math did cause me to be the only one taking geometry in the school and they placed me in a classroom with the algebra students.  The teacher paid less attention to me and I learned less in that class than I had in previous math classes.  It is important that subject matter acceleration be under a teacher who will provide the complete course, even if it is for only one student.

Our partial acceleration came about because of our parents advocating and a teacher willing to try curriculum compacting and subject matter acceleration.  They worked together to provide us these academically appropriate classes.  Parental advocacy is necessary, particularly when it is a gifted education option not currently in use.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for gifted students!

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