The phrase ‘gifted student’ fits a wide range of children. Some people say, and with some justification, that all children have gifts. Usually, though, when people talk about gifted education they mean children with a range of gifts in academic areas. But, even with this more narrow definition, there is a huge range. This is important because lumping all these children together does them all a disservice.
Some children will be a little ahead of their peers in many subjects; some will be a lot ahead in one or two subjects, but only in those subjects; some will be far ahead in nearly all subjects. For example, there may be a child who is a gifted musician, but who reads, writes and does math at or near grade level; another child does all the work relatively easily, getting good grades, but is not multiple years ahead of his or her peers. And another child may be stunningly precocious. There are children who get near-perfect scores on the SAT (normally taken by 17 year olds) at the age of 12. One five year old taught himself Hebrew as a birthday gift for his mother. One boy taught himself to read, and then, in nursery school, taught himself to read upside-down, so he could read upside down so he could read to other children. Another child, in early elementary school, made a detailed chart (with species name in Latin, for example) of every bug in his parents’ yard.
Many of the arguments against accelerating students are based on the idea that accelerating children takes them away from their peers. With the first two types of students, this has merit. The gifted musician can be given extra or separate classes in music; the child who is a bit ahead in many subjects can have an ‘enrichment program’. But what of the truly exceptional children? These children do not really have peers. These are not 7 year olds who have the skills of 12 year olds; these are children who do things that most adults cannot do. Accelerating them through school does not take them away from their peers, because they have no peers.
We should look at each child as an individual, examining his or her strengths and weaknesses, and seeing what the advantages and disadvantages of acceleration would be for that particular child. Lumping children into groups may make it easier for the administration of a school, but it does not benefit the children.