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[Comments] (12) Skipping Grades: I went to DC to see Sumana's sister and parents, and at one point during the weekend we were talking about a similar experience Sumana and I had when we were kids: we both really wanted to skip ahead one or more grades so we could get out of school earlier, and our respective parents did not want this to happen.

I believe Sumana did end up skipping a grade, and I may have mentioned somewhere in this weblog's archives that I stuffed four years of classes into three years to get out of high school a year early. So we both got what we wanted, kind of. But I also remembered something I hadn't thought of for a long time.

I had second grade in LA with a teacher (Mrs. Rosenstiel) who was simultaneously teaching a second and a third grade class. I don't know how she did this, whether this was because of budget cuts or small class sizes or what, but I remember that the second graders sat on one side and the third graders on the other side. I sat with the third graders and did the third grade work. Although I didn't think of it in these terms, I effectively skipped the second grade. Then we moved to Arvin and I was put in a third-graders-only classroom, where I effectively repeated the third grade.

It's fortunate for my parents that I didn't detect this sleight-of-hand until a couple days ago, because realizing it at the time would have really made me mad. To younger-Leonard's way of thinking, the purpose of this whole schooling thing was to make sure you knew things. Period. If you learned things faster, you shouldn't have to do as much time in school.

This underlay my (and, presumably, Sumana's) constant nagging of our parents to let us skip a grade or two. What underlay our parents' constant refusals was the belief that schooling had two other purposes: keeping the kids out of your hair until they're old enough to leave home, and socialization.

My parents always told me that skipping grades would stunt my social development and leave me miserable. But here's the thing: I was stunted and miserable anyway. If school is supposed to be a big social club where you just have fun with your peer group, then sure, wake me up when I turn eighteen. But we all know it ain't that. I hated school the whole way through, and I was fairly popular and well-liked (though I wouldn't have thought so at the time). Sumana had it a lot worse.

For a long time I thought my parents were simply wrong about this. But I'm writing this where people can read it and comment on it because I'm starting to think they were not entirely wrong. What happens to a smart kid who's allowed to go through the public school system as fast as his/her talents can take him/her? Do you know any such kids? Are you one? Did such kids exist in the past and end up broken wrecks, cautionary tales to future generations of parents?

I'm not talking about the wunderkind who gets a Harvard scholarship at age 12; that kid is now Harvard's problem. I'm talking about a random lower- or middle-class kid from the 99th percentile. What are this person's parents supposed to do when he/she graduates at 14 or 15? Send him/her to college? College is full of kids from the 99th percentile who also have a 2-3 year age advantage. Put him/her to work for a couple years? Doing what? Set up some kind of independent study? With what time/money?

I'm imagining my parents thinking along those lines. Am I wrong? What is the deal? It seems unfair to withhold this seemingly universal parental secret from me, a grown man. I can see not wanting your kid to leave home at fourteen protected only by their ability to dissect fetal pigs and write essays about Jack London, but an additional two years of school won't provide much additional protection.


Posted by John at Mon Nov 02 2009 19:21

I could be wrong on this, as I have only my frame of reference to go on here, but it seems that kids don't skip grades as much these days.

It seems the system has opted for the pull-out programs, ie GATE in CA, ALPS in UT, et al.

I was in the pull-out program at my school growing up, and really didn't enjoy it and got out of it. I thought the kids were mean and certain learning opportunities were glossed over in the name of kindling creativity. I hated that creative junk at the time, but I can see value to it now in the workforce, with limits. Now the popular thing seems to be pull-out programs at one central school for all the pull-out kids from the other schools. That was only for elementary and middle school. By high school, the popular option became the AP credits and the concurrent enrollment (that BYU refused to accept, with good reason).

Seems that, with rising costs of post-secondary education, a lot of parents and kids see the value of sticking in school and getting a jump start on college with a huge discount. This is what I did, and I'm sure it made my high school experience different than the norm. I hardly even dealt with the politics at all, cuz my nose was always to the grindstone. It helped me get my Master's in 5 years.

Posted by Zack at Mon Nov 02 2009 21:15

I skipped the first grade. This was just fine in grades two through six, although in retrospect I might not have been so epicly bad at sports if I had been with my age group rather than my grade. It was awful in grades seven through nine, because everyone else was going through puberty and I wasn't. It didn't matter again in high school, and at age seventeen I was ecstatic to be done living with my parents. (See also: distance from Los Angeles being a critical consideration in college choice. Part of me still wonders if I could've gotten into the University of Aberdeen.)

Years and years later, I realized that I'd gotten to college missing some essential social skills, that most people pick up in high school. I wasn't really aware of it at the time, but it had serious negative consequences - not for my education, but there's a reason I'm not still friends with most of the people I knew then. If I had the entire thing to do over again I might like to take a year or two before college and do some sort of Peace Corps type thing, as long as this also got me out of my parents' house forever.

I don't know what parents should do with 99th percentile elementary school kids. I'm inclined to think that better elementary education and a non-dysfunctional home life (such that the child does not *need* out of the house at 17) will make more of a difference.

Posted by Cody at Mon Nov 02 2009 23:11

I was advanced in math in grade 4, refused to go to school at the beginning of grade 5, and was subsequently "homeschooled" for the rest of my grades. I put that in quotes because there was no schooling to speak of, it was basically just an endless summer break.

I think it worked out fine, I wouldn't say I'm socially undeveloped or anything. I do find most people incredibly boring, but I don't actively hate them, and if I had been forced to go to school for another eight years, I probably would.

If you want social development, hang out with some friends. If you want to learn something, use wikipedia. If you want to be happy, I can't help you. But whatever your needs, school is a farce.

Posted by Bod at Tue Nov 03 2009 07:01

You might be interested in this question and the ensuing discussion at Paul Graham's Ycombinator News.

"Ask HN: I'm in 10th grade and I hate school. Any suggestions?"

It has a community that tends towards the very bright and very young. Some of them turned to drugs to combat the boredom of school, others found creative ways to learn within the system.

On a personal note I skipped my last year of high school (what we call secondary) and found myself at University at age 16. I can't say it's had a drastic impact, but I'd probably not recommend it to my son. I'd rather he took a year (or two) out and followed a dream or even just got a job as he'd probably appreciate it more.

The reason I skipped the last year was that I was denied the opportunity to expand into areas like music and art and being forced to take the rough equivalent of AP courses, though these courses wouldn't let me skip the equivalent courses in University. I was in effect forced to choose between skipping a year socially or repeating a year academically.

Posted by Leonard at Tue Nov 03 2009 07:59

Cody, I have a couple questions:

1. When did this happen? Was it after the invention of Wikipedia, or are you mentioning Wikipedia as an option for kids today?

2. Where did you live? Big city, suburbs, rural area?

3. Did you spend much time with your parents during your "homeschooling", or were you alone most of the day?

4. When did you leave home?

Posted by rachel at Tue Nov 03 2009 08:29

I was never academically bored in school but I imagine I would have been if I hadn't spent so much time running around with friends and agonizing over who would get parts in the next play. So maybe the solution is to distract smart kids with other shiny things, but that's not a solution if there is a lack of resources for the parents and/or school (both would have been the case for you)

Posted by Fafner at Tue Nov 03 2009 23:03

I started kindergarten a year early, did the once-a-week pull-out program starting in third grade (which I thought was pretty fun), and did a complicated thing in middle school where I was allowed to use the 8th grade English textbook for independent study in 6th grade, did 7th grade English in 7th grade because the teacher didn't believe in special treatment (and also once gave me detention because I wore wellingtons to school; wellingtons are not ladylike), and then took a bus to the high school during my 8th grade English class hour for a junior-year Shakespeare elective class. I mostly really liked school, and I doubt whether my being a year younger really affected my socialization one way or the other. I was going to be a weirdo and a loner no matter what. But my main regret is about the ever-widening gap between my English skills and my math skills, which started becoming evident around fourth grade and got worse and worse in middle school and high school until I started routinely failing math and physics classes. I think this was largely due to my only enjoying things I was good at and not wanting to work at things that didn't come easily, but I don't know how much of that can be attributed to age-related immaturity or being given approval cookies or what. It definitely shut some doors for me, though I was eventually able to get into the college I wanted. I don't like how flabby my brain is in the math department, but I don't see it changing, since it's been this way so long. I wish I had done things differently; I'm just not sure what variables should have been tweaked, by me or my minders, along the way.

Posted by Brendan at Tue Nov 03 2009 23:11

I had a pretty similar experience, Rachel; children's theater, and later drama club and Latin club, served as the spillway for my frustrated energy. I didn't skip any grades, although I got pulled out for the one-level-up classes several times from middle school on up.

I'm on record as another person who had a pretty successful school experience and still considers it harmful. I'm hoping Andy Holloway shows up in this thread; I'd be curious to see his take on it.

Posted by Holly at Fri Nov 06 2009 12:59

I was always extremely envious of children who had skipped a year (Australia has years rather than grades), but at the same time I was (and am) very lazy, and I really really liked the fact that school was easy. (There was the usual gifted-and-talented-extension stuff, but this mostly involved museum trips and funny maths and mah jongg games and so on, recreational rather than academic).

But I don't think anything would have been gained by skipping a year, in retrospect. It might not have been worse had I done so - I was about as socially incompetent and bad at sport as it's possible to get, so being younger than everyone else wouldn't have made much difference there - but I think it was probably good to have plenty of time to read interesting things and write incredibly bad half-novels and all the rest of it.

University wasn't better than school, for me; in fact it was a fair bit worse (though with more sleeping in). I wasn't too bad with contexts where social interactions are necessary rather than optional - shared bus journeys, buiding sets, talking while waiting for lessons to begin. There were quite a few of these at school and none at uni, so once school ended I pretty much didn't talk to anyone for four years. I don't think arranging those years differently would have helped, for me; I just needed time (also, the internet, which I came to quite late).

So in summary: even if there was something for grade-skipping kids to do after finishing school, it might not be better than what they had.

Posted by Cody at Sun Nov 08 2009 04:37

1. It must have been the mid to late 90s. Wikipedia had not yet been invented, nor had youtube.

2. Remote suburbs, from which one could access by means of walking or biking (not that I've ridden a bike more than two or three times I can recall) the woods, more woods, and if you walked really really far, another, slightly nicer suburb which also had nothing in it. There were apparently no children my age for miles and miles.

3. I mostly had the house to myself. Even more so when I started sleeping during the day and staying up at night, though my parents were strongly opposed to this behavior.

4. At age 21, I think. My parents were divorced by then and we all moved around a lot in the transition period, so it's hard to remember exactly.

Posted by RichM at Mon Nov 09 2009 22:35

I went to public school too, skipped fourth and eighth grades in California in the 1970s, went away to college when I was sixteen and grad school at twenty. It really wasn't too bad, and I don't think I was any more pressured or any more unhappy than I would have been going through the system at the normal pace. It helped that I went to an academic high school, wasn't much into sports, was eager to leave home behind, and turned out to be lucky.

I made some good friends in college I still maintain ties with today, though clearly I was never as social as my classmates then.

After I was done with school, I found that life wasn't quite as easy to sail through, and as for setiing the world on its ear: still waiting.

Posted by Elise at Tue Nov 17 2009 15:58

Well, I left high school after 10th grade and started college when I was 16. I went to Simon's Rock College which is specifically designed to allow one to skip 11th & 12th or just 12th grade, and enter college 1 - 2 years early. Because of this, almost all of the college freshmen are 16. This is great, because you are in class with your social peers, but you are all doing college work. The college is well designed to handle the angst of adolescence, as well as teach students how to learn (forever).

I never felt like I missed anything from skipping 2 years of high school, and I never felt out of place in college.


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