On skipping grades

A bit of a change from my other recent posts, but a worthy subject: should smart kids skip grades?

Yesterday, an old friend asked me for an opinion about this, since his daughter is excelling in her classes (probably to the point of exhausting them), and the district is considering skipping her. In my case, I started kindergarten at age four, skipped sixth grade, and ended up graduating from Stanford at 20.

It was a mistake to skip a grade; there were few benefits and a lot of drawbacks. On the off-chance that other students or parents are Googling this issue, looking for opinions, here’s what I can report.

Socially, skipping a grade is a disaster. The child has to build a whole new set of friendships, overcoming the fact that skipping marks them as different, even freakish. I’m a pretty big person, so I wasn’t dwarfed by my classmates, but age matters greatly to children, especially once they reach puberty and start exploring the world of romance and sex. I was accustomed to trying to think my way past any significant problem, and so even though there was absolutely nothing I could do about the uncoolness of being everyone’s precocious little brother, I kept trying to solve it in any way I could. In the short-term, this meant feeling like I had to become a novelty act. In the long-term, it left me often fighting my own inclination to become cynically analytical and detached about how to “win” what seemed like social and romantic “games.” That’s the residue of the loneliness.

On a happier note, I was already surrounded by brilliant people in my own grade. Their parents hadn’t pursued skipping them, and when I skipped, those friendships became more difficult for simple practical reasons. Over the past two decades, I’ve gotten as much from those relationships as I have from my schooling, and those friends have ended up arguing cases for the Sierra Club, teaching history at UT, and writing for the New York Times, among other pursuits. The friendships I made among my new classmates were, with a few wonderful exceptions, planted on thinner soil, and have not lasted.

Often, parents and educators will try to determine whether a child is “mature” enough to skip a grade. This is really the wrong question. Is the student body used to it? Is the community mature enough? Do the teachers support it? These are the important questions, because skipping isn’t something the child herself feels except in terms of other people’s reactions.

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Ironically, concerned adults usually want to advance students in order to make the student’s classes “challenging” for them, when in fact skipping does very little to achieve this goal, because the change is just too incremental. With apologies to the Mendocino Middle School, sixth grade was such a colossal waste of everyone’s time that about half the class could have skipped it with no problem.

Students who can handle accelerated material need individualized curricula, or at least a “gifted and talented” program that creates a peer group and isn’t as directly tied to the mainstream curriculum. I still suffered, along with everyone else in my school, from a whole list of comical obsessions and baseline problems:

having English students create HyperCard stacks (Remember HyperCard? Oh well, whatever, nevermind.)
having English students create film montages (Because analog editing equipment will never be obsolete)
turning every math assignment into groupwork with panel displays
politically-motivated science curricula (AKA “Diet For America”)
lack of books (AKA Who Wants To Read Cuckoo’s Nest Again? No? Shall We Go With Huxley Then?)
math wars (“IMP” vs. “We Stand Upon Ancient Traditions”)
cult of personality (who needs books when you can take your whole school on a shamanic retreat?)
cult of dioramas (“Can I get this diorama in cornflower blue?”)
effects of burnout (absurd spring break trips, “Yes, playing a Tracy Chapman record as your final project is fine”)
those weird, sequential, color-coded reading curricula (“Now you know that Bobby kicked the ball. Turn to Indigo #5.6 to see whether the ball went into Mr. Gallagher’s yard!”)
Phys Ed as America’s #1 priority (“Allotted PE hours will increase until somebody besides Dylan can do a single pullup!”)

…and so on. Skipping changed nothing.

The reality is that most schools don’t want to expend the effort figuring out how to shake up a student’s schedule, by mixing regular classes with advanced instruction, even though this is often what would be best for the child. From an administrative point of view, keeping track of a child who’s flitting from here to there is difficult, while skipping her and leaving it at that is comparatively easy. To give just one example, advanced students are often hard to fit in to the “credit” system that the school uses to determine progress toward graduation.

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Obviously, there are cases where skipping isn’t terrible. If it’s something that happens fairly often, if the school district is fairly large, and if the child is about to start bombing assignments out of boredom, then it can be a passable stop-gap solution. But it will never be more than that; it will still be up to educators and parents to design an individualized, unstandard course of study for the child, one that answers to all of their gifts. It should go without saying that this works well for students who are being considered for advancement because, simply put, it is the right way to handle all children, whether their gifts are immediately apparent or not.

Sure, if you want more information on this subject, you could read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, specifically the chapter on IQ and “Terman’s Termites.” But, let’s face it, you probably already have. So I’d recommend these two sociology classics:

Ender’s Game: A Study of Advancement in the Context of Conflict with the Buggers (Card: Press of the Laser Tag Suits, 2009)
Matilda: Investigating the Possibility of Telekinesis As An Adaptation to Boredom (Dahl: Giant Peach Press, 1955)

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