Evidence that student acceleration works

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By Nicholas Colangelo


"Belief trumps evidence" is a phrase that seems suited for a car bumper. Unfortunately, it is a phrase that drives some educational policies and practices.

Take acceleration, for example, which is the process of students progressing through a school system at rates faster or ages younger than is typical or advanced material is presented to a student earlier in school than is typical. Acceleration is both about faster pace and more complex material.

Acceleration also has a history of disparity between what is known (evidence) and what is believed.

As the University of Iowa College of Education’s Belin-Blank Center celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, it’s the perfect time to assess where progress has been made in the field of gifted education and talent development, and where work still needs to be done. Acceleration is one of those areas where we’ve made substantial strides, but still have a long way to go.

Education is a highly complex enterprise. Figuring out what interventions and practices work best with which students under which conditions is complex and nuanced to say the least. In education, in the absence of evidence, belief takes over.

It seems simple that where there is evidence for an aspect of education, then that evidence should guide our decisions. Where there is no evidence, then our beliefs about a situation make a sensible guide. Were it this simple.

A question I want to pose: Is there an aspect of education where the evidence is so robust and so consistent yet the beliefs are strong and contradictory to such evidence?

Yes. It is the curious phenomenon between the highly positive evidence regarding acceleration and the beliefs regarding acceleration as a curricular intervention for high-ability students — those students (also referred to as gifted, talented) who indicate exceptional potential or achievement in the academics.

An example of acceleration is whole-grade acceleration (grade-skipping) or early entrance to college. Both of these examples provide a student opportunity to complete school in less that the typical time. The rationale here is that some students are so ahead of their classmates in readiness to learn that staying in the same grade would be more like treading water. Other forms of acceleration focus on opportunities for more advanced material yet the student remains with classmates.

Acceleration practices are basically simple to provide and cost effective. What does it cost a school to allow a boy to go directly from 4th grade to 6th grade? Or for a girl in 2nd grade to take math with 4th graders?

Most of the cost is in the willingness to allow such exceptions, not an investment in resource rooms, materials, or new teachers.

In 2004 I co-authored (Colangelo, Susan Assouline, and Miraca Gross) a publication titled “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students.” This publication summarizes the findings on acceleration over a 60-year period, describes different forms of acceleration, and indicates the cognitive and social benefits for students who are ready. It is available at no cost at www.accelerationinstitute.org

Although there is an abundance of evidence on the positive benefits of acceleration both in term of learning and social development, it triggers wariness and negative reactions from educators and the general public. Why?

One reason is that many in education and the general public do not know the evidence about acceleration.

However, acceleration also highlights individual differences and demands attention to learning needs regardless of age or grade. Recognition of individual differences runs counter to some people’s notion of egalitarianism. Acceleration does run counter to the belief that students of the same age and grade should essentially receive the same curriculum.

Are there costs involved in not providing acceleration when needed? Yes. That student is vulnerable to disengagement and boredom. What can be the possible gain with such outcomes?

Acceleration is about assessing student readiness and then providing for that readiness. It is about tapping into passion, inspiration, and motivation.

There are many questions regarding learning effectiveness that will require considerable research and effort before we can make any pronunciations regarding best practice. When we do have evidence that an intervention works very well, then that evidence should trump belief.

Nicholas Colangelo is Interim Dean, College of Education, and Director Emeritus of the University of Iowa College of Education Belin-Blank Center. Comments: nick-colangelo@uiowa.edu

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