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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Segregating Students by Age Is a Terrible Practice

It’s commonly believed by Americans that allowing students to skip grades is unhealthy for their social and emotional development.

It’s commonly believed by Americans that allowing students to skip grades is unhealthy for their social and emotional development.

However, an article in this month’s Scientific American suggests the opposite.

“Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth”(SMPY), which over the past 45 years has identified 5,000 gifted individuals and tracked their careers. As the article explains, the SMPY has founded that allowing gifted students to skip grades has benefitted them both intellectual and socially:

“The SMPY data supported the idea of accelerating fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades. In a comparison of children who bypassed a grade with a control group of similarly smart children who didn’t, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field. Acceleration is common in SMPY’s elite 1-in-10,000 cohort, whose intellectual diversity and rapid pace of learning make them among the most challenging to educate. Advancing these students costs little or nothing, and in some cases may save schools money, says Lubinski. ‘These kids often don’t need anything innovative or novel,’ he says, ‘they just need earlier access to what’s already available to older kids.’

Many educators and parents continue to believe that acceleration is bad for children—that it will hurt them socially, push them out of childhood or create knowledge gaps. But education researchers generally agree that acceleration benefits the vast majority of gifted children socially and emotionally, as well as academically and professionally.”

I’m glad to hear a bit of pushback from the academic community on the popular notion that children of varying intellectual abilities should be kept together purely based on when they were born. 

Personally, I think segregating students by age is a mistake. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of education—imported from Prussia to America in the mid-19th century—and I think it’s safe to say that the idea has been tried and found wanting. It assumes a uniform process of intellectual development that simply doesn’t exist in reality, and I believe keeping younger and older children away from each other actually stunts everyone’s maturity.     

I sometimes wonder if I would have benefitted from skipping a grade or two. By no means do I consider myself a genius. The description I usually give of myself—which I stole from my college professor John Boyle—is “average bright.”

What I do know is that—perhaps like many of you—I spent most of my time during primary education being bored. In kindergarten I was the only student who could read, and the teacher would put me in a corner by myself to read books during many of the lessons.

Grade school was mainly spent enduring the belaboring of concepts I already knew or was able to learn more quickly than most of the students. Largely because of the lack of challenging material, my intellectual curiosity waned, only to be revived when I enrolled in a more rigorous high school.

Would you support getting rid of age segregation in schools? Do you think you would have benefitted from being able to advance more quickly through school?   

This piece originally ran on IntellectualTakeout. See also “How Education Destroys Social Networks

  • Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at