Acceleration: A Case Study of Home Schooling

Gifted children often will not be challenged intellectually in a regular classroom setting, their needs usually taking second place to the needs of the regular program and requirements of mandated curriculum. The teacher’s differentiation dilemma — “What do I do with them?” — may be too difficult a question for the teacher with gifted children in the classroom to deal with, given restraints of time, resources, and money. Curricula which are differentiated in complexity, in pace, in depth of detail, insights or creative outlets, or in individualized formats, require well-trained educators who understand the needs of gifted children. Differentiation, when attempted by well-meaning teachers, may not be appropriate for the gifted students who differ greatly from the norm in a classroom. As well, while special withdrawal programs are usually broad-based in approach and allow students to leave their regular class for a specified amount of time for special instruction with a resource teacher, they may not meet the needs of an extremely gifted child or be relevant to his or her talent areas. Can home schooling provide the type of accelerated learning needed by some gifted students?

Review of Literature

One of the responses to the dilemma has been the advocacy of an acceleration program in the schools. In such a program intellectually gifted students move rapidly through grades or subject areas at a rate in line with their intellectual capacity regardless of chronological age. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) has strongly advocated subject-matter acceleration for students who are extremely talented in mathematics (Stanley & George, 1980). Many of their research studies show the benefits of such acceleration with few negative effects on participants (Benbow, 1991; Brody & Benbow, 1987; Brody, Lupkowski, & Stanley, 1988; Kulik, 1992).
Acceleration is not without its critics and detractors. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) position on vertical acceleration is as follows:
That vertical acceleration be considered only for a limited number of highly talented and mathematically creative students whose interest and attitudes clearly indicate that they have the ability and perseverance to complete a carefully designed sequential curriculum. For all but this select group, a strong, expanded program emphasizing mathematics enrichment is preferable. (Board of Directors, 1983, p. 4)
For the purposes of this paper, vertical acceleration will be defined as moving through curriculum materials at an accelerated rate by telescoping content, curriculum compacting, or receiving credit by examination (Clark, 1997).
The NCTM asserts that programs for the gifted student should be based on a sequential program of enrichment through ingenious problem-solving opportunities rather than through acceleration alone; that records of accelerated students clearly show that a significant number discontinue the study of mathematics until graduation, many experience extreme difficulty with the subject (House, 1987).
This last finding has been challenged by advocates of acceleration who question the validity of these statements given that good statistics for such a position are not available (Belcastro, 1990). Further, no reliable research exists that documents harm from acceleration (Kulik & Kulik, 1984; Pollins, 1983).
The controversy over acceleration for gifted students continues. Advocates of the approach cite its suitability for educating the gifted and the cost effectiveness of such a program. A study of the effectiveness of accelerative strategies (Brody & Benbow, 1987) found no negative effects on social and emotional adjustments of gifted, accelerated students. Yet it is precisely this area on which objectors to academic acceleration focus (Southern, Jones, & Fiscus, 1988). Practitioners’ (coordinators of gifted, school psychologists, principals, and teachers) objections to acceleration echo the NCTM’s objections (e.g., the loss of academic advantage in later school years) but concentrate mostly on the perceived difficulties in emotional and social development the accelerated students will experience.

Methods of Acceleration

There are several methods of acceleration open to the teacher and the school administrator at practically all levels of the education program. Early admission to kindergarten or first grade is an initial strategy that works well for children who are carefully screened for learning readiness. Grade skipping is a more traditional method of acceleration. This involves completing two or more grades in the time it would usually take to complete one grade. Crucial to this method is ensuring that the student has the necessary critical basic skills for later learning and the provision for a support system for the accelerated youngster (peer groups, supportive teachers, counselor).
Subject acceleration involves taking selected subjects and classes with students in higher grades. It works particularly well in sequential types of learning especially math and language arts. Subject skipping can be done at any stage of schooling. A discontinued program often strands the student and leaves the student to repeat already mastered concepts, leading to boredom and loss of interest in the subject. Other areas of acceleration include early admission to secondary school or university, summer reach-ahead courses, and correspondence courses.
Some parents, students, and school officials have serious concerns about acceleration. Southern and Jones (1992) divide these concerns into three categories: (a) those matters that arise from conservative attitudes and the hesitation about acceleration; (b) the increasing resistance of students who might be candidates as they proceed through school; and (c) the practical difficulties that arise from an administrative recognition and implementation. Given these concerns and the conservatism of those involved in the administration and coordination of an accelerated program, it is unlikely that acceleration is an option that will be employed frequently or casually in schools (Southern, Jones, & Fiscus, 1989).
Is there another alternative to acceleration in the school? Could a parent provide vertical acceleration for a gifted child in the home while the child still attends regular class and gifted withdrawal programs in the school? Any parent who takes on such a task must be prepared to take on opposition from the school system as well. It is essential that both parent and child are agreed upon the program and that mutual termination of the program remains an option to be invoked by either of the parties.

A Brief Case Study

Robert is an eleven-year-old grade 6 student attending a middle school (grades 6, 7, & 8) in a suburb of an Ontario (Canada) city. Robert is a tall boy who looks older than his age. He is currently enrolled in the gifted withdrawal program at the school and receives one-half day of gifted programming in a week. The gifted program consists of small group “cultural enrichment” (e.g., architecture and aesthetics). Academic acceleration is not an option for this program. Most of the schools in the system have similar programs and most teachers of the gifted also serve as special education resource teachers or teach in the regular classroom.
Robert’s parents first suspected he was gifted when he read at an early age and when it became obvious to them that he was fascinated by numbers. He could do simple mathematical operations in his head involving two and three digit numbers before he was enrolled in senior kindergarten in a French immersion program. He loved to play number games, and one of his favorites was “school.” Robert would organize his “school” according to the number of administrators, teachers, and students he decided should be in it, and then give totals for each category and class size depending upon the numbers involved in the game.
Robert was slow to walk (he has mild hip dysplasia) and his motor skills were also slow to develop. He was physically very timid and afraid to try new activities (e.g., riding a bicycle) because he could foresee the consequences of his falling off or otherwise hurting himself.
Robert’s parents are middle-class suburbanites now in their forties. Both came from relatively poor working class backgrounds where hard work and the benefits of a good education were emphasized. Both have studied at the graduate level and are continuing their education on a part-time basis. His father is an elementary school teacher, while his mother, who now works in the home, was in labor relations/personnel management with the federal government. Robert has a younger brother who is six years old.
Robert excelled in the French program at school and led his class in all academic areas in grades 1 and 2. He remained shy and withdrawn and found it extremely difficult to socialize and play with his classmates. He was frequently asked to help them with their academic work and when he advanced too far ahead of the class, he was given an “advanced” book to read while the teacher taught the rest of the pupils the regular curriculum. Report cards noted his fine academic skills, but always commented on his poor motor skills in drawing, printing, and writing.
Robert’s parents had asked to have him tested for giftedness in kindergarten, but were told that only older children who could read could take the test. When it was pointed out that Robert could already read at a grade 3 level, his parents were strongly advised to wait for the regular testing procedures of the board which would occur in three years.
In grade 1 his parents again asked to have him tested, knowing that the board guidelines allowed for students in grade 1 to be tested upon a parental request. The testing was done over the protests of the school principal and results showed Robert to be functioning at the 99%ile in math skills and at the 98%ile in language arts skills for his age. At a subsequent meeting to determine Robert’s suitability for the gifted program in the school, the principal tried to have Robert disqualified for it because of his low score in the social skills area of the test — 84%ile. The chairman of the review committee chastised the principal for his bias and declared Robert eligible for a gifted program.
Unfortunately, such a program did not mean Robert could take part in the gifted program of the school. The principal declared the French program in grades 1 and two to be Robert’s gifted program and instructed the teachers to provide Robert with more of the same activities he had been receiving in class up to that time. Robert’s parents withdrew him from the school after grade 2 and enrolled him in the English program of a smaller school within the same board in order to help him overcome his shyness and rapidly growing withdrawal in the classroom.
In his new school, Robert quickly blossomed under the care and tutelage of teachers and administrators who recognized his talents and abilities. He enthusiastically joined in the gifted withdrawal program and soon became a student leader in the school. At the end of grade 5 he graduated from the school having won the prize for Academic Excellence, acted in a televised puppet play which he helped to create, played on school sports teams, became a safety patroller, and developed a growing confidence in his ability to perform academically and socially.
His parents were offered the opportunity to academically accelerate Robert by skipping grade 4, but felt that the need to develop his self-esteem and social confidence outweighed the academic benefits at that time.
Upon entering grade 6, Robert was enrolled in the gifted withdrawal program offered by his new school. He was delighted to be in the program and felt positively about the school and his teachers. However, some of the patterns of his early schooling began to surface. Robert found much of the work routine and tedious, especially in mathematics. He had mastered most of the mathematics concepts for grade 6 much earlier and was losing interest in the subject. Discussions with the teacher of the gifted and the school principal indicated that because of resource and time limitations, the gifted program would continue to be an “enrichment” type rather than an academic acceleration type.
Robert’s parents had already decided, in the interest of keeping their son’s mathematical abilities challenged, that they would offer him some form of acceleration at home in the evenings. The school thought that would be a wonderful activity for Robert to be engaged in, but were reluctant to endorse any spill over effects such a program might have on the school. Their objections were not centered on Robert’s social and emotional development, but on the inconvenience the success of such a home program would have on Robert’s placement in a math class. Where would he go for regular Math instruction?
His parents did not give up. What if at the end of grade 6, Robert could be considered for enrollment in a grade 9 math class which several middle schools offer to their top grade 8 math students? There were two problems with that plan. First, such a program was offered only when there was a teacher willing to teach it. No one had come forward to offer to teach it and no one had been asked to consider it. Secondly, if such a program were offered, it wouldn’t be fair for Robert to be enrolled in it and take up a place usually offered to a grade 8 student. To be fair the principal and the teacher of the gifted, after some discussion they both agreed that in Robert’s case an exception could be made if the program was to be organized.
Robert’s family will be taking a sabbatical to travel during the year he would normally be in Grade 9. They will be responsible for teaching both Robert and his brother during their year away from regular schools. His parents wanted the boys to be academically challenged and so, in addition to accelerating Robert in a subject in school, they sought to discover if a program of acceleration could be done “on the road” without too much stress on family relationships along the way.
Before  beginning the home acceleration his parents wanted to know more about their son’s abilities. Inquiries at the school led to the discovery that no other tests had been done on Robert since the Grade 1 testing. Yearly reviews had only confirmed his standing as a gifted student without any further testing. Financial restraints imposed by the board of education on special education resources had made it difficult to have testing done for students at either end of the special education spectrum. Weschler Intelligence Scales for Children-Revised (WISC-R) testing for example, was only done by special, urgent request. In order to get quick results which would give a percentile, stanine, and age and grade equivalent ranking, Robert at age 11, took the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA). The results are shown in the Table.
The computation overall battery composite by grade was the 99%ile, 9th stanine, >18.9 years, and 12.9 grade equivalent.


Subtest

%ile

Stanine

Age
Grade Equivalent
Math Application 99 9 >18.9 >12.9
Reading Decoding 96 9 >18.9 >12.9
Spelling 98 9 >18.9 >12.9
Reading Comprehension 97 9 >18.9 >12.9
Mathematics 96 9 >15.9 >10.2

Table. Test results for Robert.

Most of Robert’s mistakes in computation, involved simple algebraic equations using a variable or unknown. After the test, when it was explained that the variable was simply taking the place of a number, he was able to go back and correct the questions involving algebra without prompts.
As an elementary school teacher, Robert’s father was aware of some of the pitfalls of a home acceleration project and that many of the poor educational strategies used on Robert in his first years at school (e.g., speeding through a series of textbooks) could recur as the easy way to provide a rapid acceleration at home. Stanley, Lupkowski, and Assouline (1990) had proposed considerations for mathematically talented youths who were enrolled in an accelerated program. It was decided these factors could apply to a home situation as well. There needed to be a mathematical maturity to study algebra – the background needed to be in place. Few elementary school students have the cognitive structures already well enough developed to do more abstract mathematics such as second and third year algebra. But Robert appeared to be an exception.
Acceleration would be carefully paced to match the student’s ability. There should be a balance in the student’s life. Math needed to be counterbalanced by other activities such as reading, music, and science.

Home Schooling Project

Mathematics was the area chosen for the home acceleration program, specifically Grade 9 algebra. In order to ensure that Robert had the necessary mathematical maturity, Grade 7 and 8 math curricula were reviewed as an initial step. Robert was able to demonstrate mastery in most of the concepts in less than three hours of instruction and to apply them correctly in various problem-solving exercises. This form of curriculum compacting and faster pace test-taking pleased Robert immensely and he was delighted to tackle new learning.
His interest in algebra had already been whetted by the K-TEA results and he eagerly began to study in earnest. Sessions were kept to a minimum of one hour, two to three times a week. At no time did Robert express a reluctance to go on, but rather viewed each new concept as a challenge worthy of his attention. Very few concepts needed to be repeated and many of the exercises from the grade 9 texts could be done orally. It was agreed that once Robert demonstrated mastery of any concept, he would be spared the tedium of doing endless questions which often drill a concept already learned.
The greatest difficulty involved in the whole experience turned out to be scheduling the time necessary to get a minimum two hours of study a week. Family and work demands always took precedence over the  program. For parents who undertake home schooling, the time sacrifices must be realistically considered and carefully planned.
Robert was excited to be studying algebra and spoke of it to his teachers (who had been alerted about the activity) and to his friends. He worked cooperatively with his father and could be left alone for periods of time to work. Often he would be so immersed in his exercises that he disliked having to stop for meal time at home. Ricca (1984) has shown that independent work is a favored style of the gifted and one that Robert readily demonstrated.
The study of algebra reinforced the concepts he had already mastered in school and he was able to transfer them to an entirely different system. Yet even he was aware that all of the study might not amount to any appreciable advanced placement in school. He was doing the work because he loved mathematics and was delighted when concepts worked out for him.
Sometimes he would discuss an advanced concept in his math class at school and tell his parents at home how good he felt making connections between school content and the interesting insights he had discovered through his home schooling. Finding new relevance for math concepts seemed to fuel his motivation and increase his personal sense of achievement.
After one year the experiment was a success. Robert was unable to write official board exams since he was not allowed to register in a grade 9 level course. However, end of units tests were easily completed and scores averaged more than 90% for all units of study. Mistakes were quickly corrected and were not repeated in subsequent tests. Home teaching strategies based on his needs and pace, created a sense of mastery and belief in his own ability so that learning became an end in itself for Robert. External exams were extraneous and of little importance to him. He was learning what he loved and didn’t waste any energy on fulfilling the expectations of others (in the school system).
Working at home with Robert was a constant process of expanding parameters for Robert’s father. He spoke of “gearing up” his own knowledge in order to stay ahead of his son’s inquiring mind. Many times they would get into discussions that ranged far beyond the math concepts of the particular day, launched into ethical problems in physics, or the relevance of mathematics in everyday life and careers. Through home schooling the two of them discovered new challenges which were stimulating problem-solving skills in a variety of areas.
Because of the deeper interaction between the two, Robert’s father observed a growing commitment to, and responsibility for learning in his son. Robert had spoken of the frustrations of “always having simple assignments to do in school” and how he had learned to “be adept at avoiding things” there. Through home schooling in his area of strength and “passion,” however, he recognized that it was not he who was “out of place,” but rather an age-grade, lock-step system of education that was unsuitable for some students with high ability. Robert was taking pride in his recognized abilities. He was working intensely in mathematics at home and his achievements contributed to a growing sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1995; Herskovits & Gefferth, 1995; Karnes & D’Ilio, 1990).
Both Robert and his father agreed to continue the course of study in algebra regardless of the availability of vertical acceleration in the school. Their agreement of mutual termination of the program is still in effect and progress will be closely monitored by an interested third party – Robert’s mother. As long as Robert continues to be stimulated by advanced achievement in mathematics, his father will continue to teach him at home.

Implications and Concerns

There are several major concerns raised by this program of home acceleration. Schools and school boards still seem to be fixated on the negative effects that acceleration will have on the student, but school officials remain ignorant of research that for years has shown the beneficial effects of acceleration.
Teachers and administrators are opposed to acceleration, while parents and students who have experienced it are in favor (Clark, 1997). Lock-step grades and chronological placement are too convenient for administrators, and fitting an accelerated program into already established timetables and routines is additional work for school personnel. Successful acceleration must be available, must be continuous, and must be scheduled into a daily timetable if it is to be viable as an alternative program for the gifted.
Feldhusen, Proctor, and Black (1986) presented a set of guidelines for making grade advancement decisions. The underlying principle was that all grade advancement decisions be made based on a comprehensive individual assessment. Callahan and Hunsaker (1992) asserted that such an assessment must include noncognitive factors, such as social-emotional adjustment, health and environment, as well as the intellectual factors such as aptitude and achievement. It is clear from this case study that such in-depth assessments are not always done regularly for students in a gifted program. Perhaps it is lack of more case studies that has led to negative viewpoints on gifted programs in general and acceleration in particular.
Robert’s parents discovered that by pushing gifted practitioners in the school to look beyond what has “always been done” it was possible to change minds and formulate alternative strategies. The key was to ensure that such alternative strategies were given a fair trial and not discontinued because staff, time, and money were not allotted to them. Advocacy groups for acceleration need to be more vocal and united cooperatively with school officials in order to ensure different alternatives within the school program, for both gifted students (Stanley, 1980) and those with other demonstrated exceptionalities.
Vertical acceleration beyond the primary/junior years will remain an infrequently used option until more parents, students, and school administrators become convinced of its efficacy and cost effectiveness in programming for the gifted. Proponents must continue to work hard to bring about changes in attitude so that this option will be available more extensively in schools.
The home is the real cradle of eminence that can ensure the continued growth and healthy development of young minds. This case study of Robert shows how home  schooling can provide independent study in ways that challenge a child’s mind and at the same time build a stronger self-concept. By providing a responsive learning environment, Robert’s parents shared their love of learning, helped him sustain his excitement and wider exploration in mathematics, and continue to expand his natural striving for growth.
Schooling a highly able child at home may have moments of tension due to need for different pacing of lessons or the child’s difficulty dealing with conformity or perfectionism in his or her work. The sensitive parent will be flexible, allow the child to make decisions, strive for realistic standards of achievement and become a collaborator in planning curriculum goals. The reward of home schooling is the knowledge that the parents have been  intimately involved with the development of such marvelous people, their children.

References

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