Your smart kid is making it harder for my kid to learn

The U.S. may be wasting billions teaching students things they already know.
The U.S. may be wasting billions teaching students things they already know. Ilmicrofono Oggiono/Creative Commons

The kid who’s constantly whispering, texting or throwing things around the classroom distracts the teacher and disrupts the class. But a new study shows that those troublemakers could be acting out because they are too far ahead of everyone else, not because they are struggling to keep up.

It has long been acknowledged that students who are behind can jeopardize the rest of the kids in their class, but a new report found that in some cases nearly half of all school children were learning above grade level. This complicates even further a teacher’s job of effectively meeting the needs of every student in the American education system where children are sorted into grades by age, rather than ability level. It can cause both children who are ahead of grade level and those who are behind to suffer.

“The current K-12 education system essentially ignores the learning needs of a huge percentage of its students,” found the report conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy. “Millions of American K-12 students are performing above grade level and are not being appropriately challenged, putting their intellectual development and the country’s future prosperity at risk.”

The report looked at data from several different statewide tests of grade school and high school students and found that a “staggering” amount of students were ahead of their grade, many more than previously thought. Testing statistics from Wisconsin, California, Florida and two tests administered in multiple states show that 20 to 40 percent of students are at least one grade level ahead in reading, and 11 to 30 percent are ahead in math.

"Regardless of the instructional level, it is far more likely that teachers will be highly effective when they have a narrower range of ability to address in their classroom," said Michael Matthews, professor University of North Carolina at Charlotte and one of the study authors. "It is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to design effective instruction at an appropriate level for all of these learners within the constraints of a 24-hour day.”

The researchers estimate that the U.S. wastes “tens of billions of dollars each year in efforts to teach students content they already know.” The study identified large numbers of students who in the fall tested at levels that would be expected by the end of that grade level in the spring, as well as students who were an entire year or more ahead of their current grade.

“In a single recent year, there were more students in the U.S. already working four years above grade level than the entire population of Rhode Island,” the study found, noting that in 2015, more than a million fourth-grade students would have outscored the same number of eight-grade students in math.

The report was not a peer-reviewed study published in an academic journal, and its authors recommended several ways for research in the area to continue, including better tracking of how many students are over performing and in what subjects.

“Clearly, either something is wrong with how grade-level performance is determined, or the K-12 educational system should be providing a different educational environment to meet the learning needs of many American students,” the report said. “Our findings suggest that a great many students could benefit from whole-grade or single-subject acceleration.”