Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Historical Perspective on Skipping Grades

Close to 9 years ago, I wrote a column for USA Today called "Some Can Sail Over High School." The piece dealt with the phenomenon of early college enrollment, and suggested that it was a good idea for gifted kids. That was actually the column that led to my working with Jan and Bob Davidson on Genius Denied!

So I was fascinated to learn recently that my grandfather didn't go to high school, but did go to college. The story is a little less tidy than in these modern days of early college programs. He'd left school after 8th grade to work -- a far more common phenomenon in years past than now (and something I remember when someone extols the virtues of small scale farming. Sure it's fun to grow your own tomatoes, but small scale farming consumed a massive amount of human capital and potential before our economy became more specialized). But his minister saw that he was extremely bright, and tutored him. As a result, he was able to go to college and later to seminary to become a minister.

I wonder how many other stories there are like that? I was recently reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book is full of tales of people who are incredibly successful in business, despite not having more than (say) a 6th grade education. Plenty of smart people used to be forced to leave school for economic reasons, and had to learn on their own.

Now, one wonders, has the pendulum swung the other way? We force children to stay in school in lockstep for a certain number of years -- whether they're getting anything out of it or not. Skipping grades is a good way to zoom along to a point in school where one is actually challenged. It's fascinating to see that that is what happened with my grandfather -- even if the circumstances aren't so rosy.


Anonymous said...

I also recently learned about grade skipping "in the old days" - my grandfather graduated from a one-room schoolhouse and went to high school at age 11 before lying about his age to join the army at age 16 to fight in WWII. Because he was a HS graduate, they believed him. Schools seem much less flexible now.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather also did this, graduating as a fully-licensed medical doctor at the age of 20 (in 1939).

It all started because his mom boarded the town school teacher, and when he was sitting on the steps looking forlorn because he wasn't old enough to go to school, she took him with her.

Anonymous said...

Laura, I loved that you mentioned your grandfather (my father) in you post. I also remember mention of the principal of his grade school providing him with a HS curriculum which he finished in 2 years after working all day. When my siblings and I were in HS he often commented with sadness on all he had missed by not attending HS.

'Nother Barb said...

My mother's school in North Dakota had half-grades, and pupils were allowed to skip a half-grade. It made the age gap increments of "skippers" smaller, and allowed kids who were beyond, say, the first half of the curriculum but not really ready for the next grade, a chance to move on to what they were ready for.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Great stories! I think there are many things we can learn about how people approached education in days past. It was definitely more piecemeal, which had upsides (flexibility, including to skip grades) but also downsides -- with kids missing out on school because of the need to work. What is great to know is that many of these young people were able to continue in their educations in other forms. That is definitely inspirational.

JoanO said...

A few years after my son skipped two grades (much to the chagrin of many family members)my father mentioned in conversation that his mother had skipped an early grade (would have been about 1905)because she knew all the capitals of the countries in South America (she lived in Philadelphia, mind you.) I, myself, graduated at 17 in 1984 purely because of the kindergarten entrance cut off dates. Yet people are still flabergasted that my son can go to college at 16! As if it's a new concept...

Anonymous said...

Hi there!

It is interesting to think about how skipping has been used over time.

I thought I'd share my (fairly recent) experience. It goes against the grain here, I'm afraid.

My son is currently entering 7th grade. When he was in the middle of 1st grade, his classroom teacher and the enrichment teacher very actively encouraged us to skip him to the middle of 2nd. This is very, very unusual in our school district, and we heeded their advice. It did help somewhat in the very short term to bring him a little bit more in line with his classmates, but not really. The classes still move at the same typical pace, so once you fill in any gaps, etc, I didn't find that that is a solution to creating a more challenging, deeper curriculum, etc. But it was definitely fine, so we really had no regrets.

Fast forward to middle school. He still is very advanced for his school, and while it could be far more challenging if it was perfectly tailored to him, I see so many benefits to the social part of regular school, so I would never personally consider homeschooling (although he learns an awful lot in his time at home). However, I'm starting to see that the other boys are hitting puberty sooner, and there is the potential for some confidence issues in terms of physical stuff and sports that I really wasn't thinking about in 1st grade.

I am now having a few regrets--I am not totally certain if it was a mistake or not. But I do urge people who are considering a skip to think long-term. Walk around a middle school and imagine being on the younger end, etc.

Although skipping is free to the school systems, so potentially an easy sell, I definitely would prefer to see options for building in deeper/faster curriculums within the traditional age-based grade system.

I know this goes against the current thinking in gifted circles, which is why I thought I'd share my story. I see it as neither a success or a failure story...I think the jury is still out. Fortunately, he has great friends, and everything is fine so far. But I'm not in such a hurry to have him grow up socially a year (or more) early. Not sure it was worth it!

Thanks for all your posts. I enjoy your blog.

Anonymous said...

We also have the history of skipping grades. My dad skipped 9th grade. Mom was in a program that started college with junior year high school. That was in the 40s. It does seem strange that school is so much more age oriented than content oriented now.
My own daughter skipped one grade early on, and started going stir crazy in 4th grade so she had to skip again, but socially it's not ideal. For kids who are competent socially, there is a compromise to be made academic vs social. We are keeping it flexible, introducing her to more academically advanced kids as well as age peers, sometimes offering academics at her level, and sometimes choosing social level.