The Best Bad Idea We Have

We went to see Argo this past weekend and loved it. They really don’t make movies like Argo anymore, and I can see why it was tough to get the film green-lit – especially considering the masterful within-film skewering of the movie industry itself. The dialogue is fantastic. At one point in the movie, the protagonist and his boss are presenting the idea of a fake movie production as a cover to rescue six Iranian hostages, and the two gentlemen they’re presenting to wince and ask, “do you have any better bad ideas?”

“This,” our protagonist  replies, “is the best bad idea we have.”

That exchange was fresh on my mind as I read Jessica Lahey’s post in the New York Times, entitled ‘Against Accelerating the Gifted Child.’  I suppose that if an acceleration ‘debate’ exists, somebody has to take the con position; it’s 2012, after all, and no pro position can exist long in a vacuum without someone emerging from the blogosphere to oppose it. Lahey’s intent is to tell us, once and for all, that accelerating children cripples their social development and leaves them crying out for meaningful interaction.

There’s at least two fundamental flaws with her argument. The first is that Lahey seems to live in a universe where children are accelerated willy-nilly, on the basis of topping out the weekly spelling test for a month or two or growing bored with doing factor trees. She even warns against this very, um, ‘menace,’ specifically noting that:

My concerns about grade accelerations are best articulated by the recommendations for best practices published in Gifted Child Quarterly. Toward the end of the report, the author, Maureen Neihart, warns that acceleration “may be harmful to unselected students who are arbitrarily accelerated on the basis of I.Q., achievement, or social maturity.”



I call bullshit. Actually, wait; I call shibboleth on Lahey (and, to a lesser extent, on her cited GCQ author, Neihart). Unselected students? Arbitrarily accelerated? What the fuck does that mean? Has this woman really never heard of the Iowa Acceleration Scale? It exists for a reason – to objectively score and assess the goodness of fit of a child’s acceleration from one grade to the next, taking into account everything from intellectual capacity to social maturity to extracurricular involvement to household stability to siblings’ feelings. When we sat with our school’s administration to discuss the acceleration options for E, H, and A (in that chronological order), Iowa was the first book onto the table, and it was made clear to us that no one moves up without a rock-solid Iowa-scored recommendation – and that there is always a plan for a route back to the former grade. Iowa even includes a very black-and-white discontinue instruction if the child doesn’t want to be accelerated – so no one’s ever advanced who can’t honestly say that he or she wants to be. Lahey’s obvious lack of familiarity with the Iowa guidelines is a strong hint that she’s fighting out of her weight class in this article.

But the larger concern I have with ‘Against Accelerating the Gifted Child’ is the tired, populist journalism tack of taking a subpar outcome – given a choice of two paths- and declaring the other choice to be the obviously superior one. In the article, Lahey’s up in arms that 9-year-old Tanishq Abraham has been errantly accelerated into college, noting his mother’s concerns as:

“He is a happy child,” she said, “but once in a while, he does say, ‘Yeah, I wish I had friends.’”… “With my friends from kid classes, you get to play with them, and that kind of socialization, and this [college] it’s more, like, talking, and I guess I kind of miss having friends, I guess.”

I’ll bet he does. Tanishq is dealing with the same Hobson’s choice most PG kids are – namely, that learning with one’s agemates is an intellectual death sentence of boredom and depression, and learning with one’s intellectual peers is a social death sentence of isolation and condescension. We’re not talking about good ideas for these kids; we’re looking for the best bad idea we can find.

Somewhere, in an alternate universe, Tanishq isn’t at American River College; he’s eating tater tots and playing kickball in fourth grade, and while he’s bored out of his mind, he might have a thriving social life. Might. Most PG kids struggle to make friends easily, and when we’re talking about fourth grade, we’re talking about a couple of fifteen-minute recesses, a twenty-minute lunch, and beyond that, fourth grade is…well, it’s fourth grade. Lahey seems comfortable trading away something like six-sevenths of Tanishq’s educational day in favor of making sure he’s got someone to play tag with for thirty minutes a day. (By the way, I’d take any situation in which an obviously PG child like Tanishq is ‘happy’ and run with it. Happiness isn’t an easy thing to come by for PG children.)

Ability-grouping, Neihart’s other option, is another ‘good bad idea,’ but it’s the good bad idea nobody’s willing to do. There’s a smattering of schools in the country that have gone full-bore ability-grouped in their school day, but most haven’t; ours hasn’t, and that’s where our kids’ friends go to school. That’s how the logic tree goes for parents, and we’re not insensitive to their social needs. Our kids’ friends are at their school, so that school is the context within which we need to best try and meet their needs. Moving our kids to an ability-grouped school in another county would be just as disruptive to their lives as acceleration would be – and at least with acceleration, they still see friends, old and new, at recess.

In reality, if Lahey had (ahem) bothered to do her own homework, she would have found, via the excellent work of Miraca Gross, that most exceptionally gifted kids who underwent acceleration ended up more satisfied than their unaccelerated peers. That doesn’t mean that acceleration is right for every gifted kid – and I don’t think anyone’s ever taken that position; that’s what Iowa is for – and it doesn’t mean that accelerated kids end up giddily happy, foaming at the mouth over the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling joy present in their lives. It means that, given a hard choice, the acceleration path held more satisfaction for them in the long run.

It is, ripped from the script of Argo, the best bad idea we have.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Our old school in CO had full-school ability grouping and it was awesome. I didn’t realize how great it was until we moved to IL and it all hit the fan. Now homeschooling is awesome. 🙂
    Also? I’m not going to read the NYT article; I’m trying to lower my blood pressure. :/


  2. Posted by Barbara on October 15, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks for your great post. It’s a tough choice when you have a frustrated, miserable child. We tried to make things work for a long time and ended up homeschooling, which has its own frustrations of not getting to be with other kids very often. We knew it wasn’t a perfect solution going in, and it’s not. But as you said, it was the best bad idea.


  3. Posted by Katie Sterns on October 16, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Thank you for speaking this truth. This exactly captures my feeling on the subject and our own experience in doing a grade skip. I will share this with my circle and more broadly in our community to help bring some perspective to this issue that every body seems to have an opinion on and few truly understand.


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