Curriculum Compacting: Why not start school in January?
Sally Reis has an article in February's School Administrator magazine called No Child Left Bored. Her piece talks about the various options available for gifted kids. It's more or less a laundry list, though it's a good refresher for people stumped about what to try next.
Buried in the section on curriculum compacting, though, I found an interesting tidbit. According to Reis, "In a national study, we found that with only a few hours of training classroom teachers learned to eliminate between 40 and 50 percent of the previously mastered regular curriculum for both high-ability and gifted students. Interestingly, no differences were found between students whose work was compacted and students who did all the work in reading, math computation, social studies and spelling. In fact, in some content areas, scores were actually higher when this elimination of previously mastered content took place."
I searched for the study I believe she is referring to, and found a summary here. As the study title asks, puckishly, "Why not let high ability students start school in January?"
Aside from the obvious answer (parents have to work; where do you stash the kids for an extra 4 months a year?) it's a reasonable question when you look at the results. Reis and her fellow researchers found that after a bit of training, 95% of teachers were able to identify 1-2 high-achieving students in their classes, and most of these teachers were also able to identify what material these students had and hadn't mastered. Quickly trained teachers were also able to brainstorm ways for the students to show mastery. They identified about 40-50% of the regular classroom material that could be eliminated for gifted kids. Even when a full 50% of the classroom work was eliminated, these students did no worse on standardized tests (and out of level tests) given to them later.
In other words, high ability students are probably wasting about half the "teaching time" in their regular classrooms. That doesn't even include the time everyone wastes doing things like waiting for other students to be on task. While this is probably no surprise to any bright kid who's been bored in class, it is interesting to see it documented.
Unfortunately, in the Reis study, while teachers trained for only a few hours were able to successfully compact the curriculum, they were not able to come up with high quality replacement material to fill the time. While reading in the back of the room, going to the library or even just daydreaming may be better than doing mindless worksheets, it hits home that gifted kids are often in school just to mark time. And if that's the case, why not start in January? To truly blossom, gifted kids need teachers trained to meet their special needs. And unfortunately, that's harder to pull off in a few hours of staff development.