Mar. 1st, 2015

A number of years ago, I attended a lecture given by the late Dr. Ted Sizer. For those of you who don't recognize the name, he was the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, one of the more established educational reform movements. At that point, he was Dean of Brown University's School of Education, but previously he'd held the same title at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and still earlier he'd been headmaster of Phillipss Academy Andover.

Sizer enjoyed startling his audiences and this speech was no exception.

"I believe in tracking," he declared. Then he paused to let his words sink in.

"...so long as there is one track for every student." The other shoe had dropped and the audience felt much better!

In a subsequent conversation, I hearkened back to that speech, which he recalled with a chuckle. "But Ted, doesn't that imply that fully individualized education is the way to go?"

While he did not initially get my point, after a bit he conceded that perhaps that was the logical extension of his comment, but he did not concede that it was necessarily what was actually best.



But what does that have to do with acceleration or physics? Bear with me briefly. We'll get there.

In educationese, for more than 100 years, acceleration has usually meant skipping a grade (1). Radical acceleration has been defined by Miraca Gross for at least a decade as resulting in high school graduation 3 or more years (2). More recently, acceleration has included a variety of techniques including subject-only acceleration - techniques that are almost as old as grade skipping.

Physics, on the other hand, says Acceleration is defined as the rate of change of velocity. Acceleration is inherently a vector quantity, and an object will have non-zero acceleration if its speed and/or direction is changing (3). (Velocity = speed and direction, both.)

To my mind, grade skipping barely deserves the label of acceleration at all. Imagine, if you will, a car going 60 miles per hour along a straight highway. No acceleration, right? Now, a beam of light appears around the car; the car disappears; then the beam places the car two miles ahead on the same highway going in the same direction.

The car has only been displaced - everything else remains the same: speed and direction.

This is almost a perfect metaphor for grade skipping. The student finishes a particular grade or even a particular day of a particular grade and then is a year removed forward from there without a change in the pace of the school or the direction of the student.

The thing that makes this not a perfect metaphor is that the first month or two in the accelerated school often involves some scrambling on the part of the student to acquire the full academic year of material that has been skipped past - it is often the most exciting time in the student's academic life! And it is sufficient for many if not most skippers. But for some of them (hg? pg? who knows!), the return to the regular pace after that burst of excitement is just as stultifying as the original grade was and all the student's reasons for being skipped return in spades, often to the thorough frustration of the school and/or parents, who thought they had dealt with the student's needs.

This is why we have radical acceleration.

From the physics perspective, though, there is more than a bit of irony in the resistance that so many teachers, principals, schools and districts give to acceleration.

It is not just that as educational interventions go that acceleration is among the most studied and best proven, though those are true and I am sure other bloggers have written about it and linked to A Nation Deceived among other documents that support this position.

It is that acceleration is an active standard tool actively used in almost every public school in America. I can imagine a few raised eyebrows, but remember that change in velocity is the definition of acceleration I am using, which means a change in speed and/or direction.

Our slower students and our SPED students get the benefit of acceleration regularly. (Or not the benefit in the case of grade retention!) Change in curriculum, extra time, adjusted curriculum or assignments or testing. Change in room for part of the time to get more support.

All of this is acceleration. And all of it would and does benefit the gifted student who gets it, too. Change the pace. Change the type of delivery. More or less time on a topic. adjusted curriculum or assignments or assessment.

I don't know that this is astonishing news. I don't claim that it is a new perspective. It's just the only thing I thought I had to say on the topic of acceleration. Hmmm... not quite.

In those times 100 years ago, they were conscious of having as much as 5 levels of knowledge (current year minus 2 through current year plus 2) in their cities' 4th grades, for example. They were conscious that as many as 25% of the students were one or more years accelerated in their knowledge, even when they were not accelerated by grade, let alone those who were accelerated by grade.

(1) For example, Annual report of the School Committee and of the superintendent of schools of the City of Chicopee for the year ending November 30th, 1914 (<http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?num=1&u=1&seq=16&view=plaintext&size=100&id=uiug.30112088234122&q1=accelerated>)
(2) http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10349.aspx
(3) http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/acca.html

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philobiblius

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