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Paula Olszewski-Kubilius on the Benefits of Accelerated Education

Though gifted education advocates encourage the use of acceleration, a longstanding barrier has been the belief that while programs for gifted students may benefit them academically, the risk of stress and self-esteem issues that might come with a more challenging learning environment outweighs the academic benefits.  

Recently, however, a longitudinal study from Vanderbilt University’s Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, found that these fears have little basis. 

The study, titled “Academic Acceleration in Gifted Youth and Fruitless Concerns Regarding Psychological Well-Being: A 35-year Longitudinal Study”, tracked the psychosocial wellbeing of students who took part in accelerated programs over the course of three and a half decades. The study found no significant long-term negative impacts to the participants either psychologically or socially because of their accelerated coursework as children and teenagers. 

To better understand the impact of this study, CTD Director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius sat down for an interview to explain the findings of this study along with her own similar experiences in the field of gifted education.

Q: To begin, when you hear parents express negative opinions of gifted educational programs, acceleration in particular, out of fear of overburdening their children how do you respond?  

Paula: I do not blame parents for worrying about their children. Part of the problem is that parents have heard a lot of negative information about acceleration, and unfortunately, many of them have heard this information from teachers and administrators. They may have been told that accelerated programs may not be developmentally appropriate for their child, or that they can cause a significant amount of stress in a child.  As someone who has studied the research and done some of the research, acceleration is one of the most well-researched interventions to accommodate gifted children. We have a lot of research to draw on, and the research is overwhelmingly positive. It shows that children are not harmed by acceleration, they do not experience peer-rejection, they do not suffer socially or emotionally, and they often do well academically, and that is what this study from Vanderbilt shows. It is a longitudinal study that has been going on for over thirty years, and it includes kids who took the SAT as middle schoolers. These were kids who took part in talent searches, like NUMATS (Northwestern University’s Midwest Academic Talent Search) here at CTD. What makes this study so unique is that it tracks these students far into adulthood, and as such it has yielded a lot of data, and that data speaks to the efficacy of acceleration.Of course, its key that acceleration is done well. That includes that the receiving teacher is on board with it, able and willing to deal with any skills gaps, and prepared to support the student socially, emotionally an academically.

Q: In the publication from Vanderbilt, the “big fish, little pond” phenomenon was mentioned as a widespread belief among parents and gifted education skeptics to justify keeping children out of gifted programs. How long has this theory been at your attention and how has your own research and experience shaped your attitude toward this theory? 

Paula: The “big fish, little pond” phenomenon occurs when you have a child who is at the top of their class, but that class is too easy for them, so they are placed in a new accelerated class. There is some evidence that suggests than when this transition to a new accelerated or gifted class occurs, the child’s self-esteem takes a hit. In other words, they are no longer at the top. This is a very well-known phenomenon. Take Northwestern for example: You may have a freshman coming in who was her high school’s valedictorian, but now she is in a class full of valedictorians from other high schools. When this student, and others like her, are exposed to this kind of academic rigor, they might feel that they are not as smart or not as gifted as they thought they were.  
The most important question regarding big fish little pond, is what are the repercussions that students experience. Our own research on students who take our summer programs at CTD, which we did in conjunction with Duke University, shows that while many students do experience an initial drop in their self-esteem, it is temporary and they recover. The issue that this raises is if it is better to put a child in an environment where they are at the top of their class but without academic challenge that’s appropriate for their abilities or to put them in a class where they’re among peers and in an environment that offers appropriate and challenging work.  
At different points in our lives, everyone experiences the big fish phenomenon. It might be in high school, college, graduate school, but at some point, you are going to be in a challenging environment where you are not the star of the show. What we at CTD look to do is give gifted students the opportunity and skills to cope when they are faced with that challenge. 

Q: The longitudinal study from Vanderbilt found students who were enrolled in gifted or accelerated programs early in their academic careers showed no decline in their psychological well-being related to their experience in these programs. How conclusive do you find these results, if at all, and what more needs to be done to end stigmas around perceived “burnout” in gifted programs? 

Paula: One of my frustrations as someone in this field is that there has been so much work on advocacy for accelerated programs that just does not seem to trickle down into the larger educational community. One of the projects we worked on with the Illinois Association for Gifted Children was the Accelerated Placement Act in Illinois. This was a bill that was passed and required every district in the state to have an acceleration policy. This was a major accomplishment, and while many other states have policies like this one in Illinois, many others still do not. The Vanderbilt study has been invaluable to the field in showing that acceleration is helpful, that it shows results, and that it does not harm students’ well-being as they age.  

Q: Researchers from Vanderbilt suggested that undesired consequences of withholding a child from gifted or accelerated programs should be taken into consideration by parents who are aiding their students in their academic careers. What are some of the consequences of denying students the opportunity to take part in an accelerated program that you would  stress to undecided or skeptical parents? 

Paula: For parents, the benefit of gifted programming is that it meets their child at the level that they are currently at. These programs help them to grow. It all goes back to the issue of the big fish phenomenon, the question of comfort versus growth. It is so critical to learn how to deal with challenges, be they personal, academic, or otherwise. It is something that everyone experiences. The point of gifted programs is to give gifted students the self-efficacy to solve problems and deal with challenges. These programs not only help them academically, but they instill key psycho-social skills that students will need later in life and into adulthood.  

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