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Meeting the Needs of Able Learners through Flexible Pacing

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
E-mail: webmaster@hoagiesgifted.org
Internet: http://eric.hoagiesgifted.org
ERIC EC Digest #E464
Author: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children, Reston, Va.
1989 ED314916
This digest is based on information presented in Flexible Pacing for Able Learners (1988) by Neil Daniel and June Cox. This CEC-ERIC book includes descriptions and anecdotal information from 32 successful programs in 18 states. Highlights and case studies provide a composite picture of how flexible pacing is managed and how it works.

What Is Flexible Pacing?

Flexible pacing includes any program in which students are taught material that is appropriately challenging for their ability and allows them to move forward in the curriculum as they master content and skills. For able or gifted learners, flexible pacing generally means some form of acceleration, accomplished by moving the student up to advanced content or by moving advanced content down to the student. The rate of progress can be varied in either direction. With flexible pacing all students can progress through school at a pace that provides a steady challenge without crippling frustration or unreasonable pressure.

Methods to Achieve Flexible Pacing

In practice, flexible pacing can be achieved by a variety of methods:

  • Continuous progress. Students receive appropriate instruction daily and move ahead as they master content and skills. The purest form of flexible pacing, continuous progress breaks the age-in-grade lockstep.
  • Compacted course. Two or more courses, usually scheduled for a semester each, are compacted into an abbreviated time.
  • Advanced level course. Students are enrolled in courses normally taught at a higher grade level.
  • Grade skipping. Students move ahead 1 or more years, skipping levels in the normal sequence of promotion.
  • Early entrance. Students enter elementary school, middle school, high school, or college earlier than the age usually prescribed.
  • Concurrent or dual enrollment. Students at any grade level take classes in two school levels. For example, elementary school students take some classes at junior high; junior high students take some high school classes; high school students enroll for some courses at a college or university.
  • Credit by examination. Students enter an advanced-level course or receive credit upon satisfactory completion of a comprehensive examination or upon certification of mastery. The best known examples are the College Board's advanced placement and college-level examination programs.

How Can Schools or Districts Begin to Implement a Flexible Pacing Program?

Flexible pacing will not occur systematically or to any significant extent unless the school or district has a policy that strongly encourages the practice and provides the necessary inservice support and planning time for teachers. It is often best to introduce the program gradually, with a carefully targeted student population. Some districts have selected a single subject area, often mathematics, as a starting place. Other school districts have successfully introduced continuous progress programs for students of all abilities at selected school sites. This approach works best when the principal and teachers choose to work in that setting.

Flexible pacing entails not only flexible instruction but also flexible management systems. Today, in many schools, computerized storage of records and schedules makes flexible pacing options easier to use, whereas the recordkeeping alone would have been overwhelming just a few years ago. Attention to individual needs for every student or selected groups of students can be developed piece by piece. Planners should start wherever appropriate: with a single subject, a single set of students, or a single school.

Teacher Changes Needed to Promote Flexible Pacing

Allowing students to move through the school curriculum at their own pace requires a special commitment from every teacher. First, the teacher must agree that the best way to serve students is to allow them to progress in key subject areas as they master content and skills. The teacher must recognize that as a consequence students will be placed for instruction with other students at the same achievement level, not necessarily with those of the same age.

A shift to flexible pacing normally requires training or retraining in teaching methods and classroom management that support some form of continuous progress. Inservice instruction may include conferences and workshops on methods of grouping, team teaching, curriculum sequencing, and a variety of topics specific to the subject of pacing. Teachers may also need training in more advanced or broader content within specialty areas. At the secondary level, summer institutes that prepare teachers for the College Board's advanced placement courses or the International Baccalaureate are well established. These cooperative programs contribute by helping teachers address the needs of advanced high school students undertaking college-level coursework on their high school campuses.

What Are the Benefits of Flexible Pacing?

The educational benefit of flexible pacing is individualization of instruction and learning to a higher degree than is possible when students all move in lockstep. Students have found curriculum more challenging and less repetitious. Arranging school-wide scheduling in blocks (e.g., mathematics from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m., reading and language from 10:00 to 11:00) permits an easy flow in which all students are studying the same subject at the same time but at different levels. Once grade labels are removed from achievement levels and disassociated from chronological age, students of all abilities appear to thrive.

The desired outcome of sound teaching and learning, whatever the pace, is mastery of concepts and skills. In a school with continuous progress, students can move ahead naturally as they are ready. They are not forced to choose between remaining in grade level, where they may be bored, or skipping ahead, where they may miss learning critical skills or information.

How Are People Reacting to Flexible Pacing Programs?

Typically, teachers, administrators, and parents of children in schools with flexible pacing are excited by the progress of their children. Although flexible pacing is too new to have established a strong database in research, most schools using it have found that it allows highly able learners to move ahead rapidly in all aspects of learning and skill development.

One survey of students in the Las Cruces Public Schools (Daniel & Cox, 1988) showed that students welcomed the opportunity for early entry into a more complex curriculum. They viewed their years in accelerated classes as productive and challenging. All of the 37 students in the program said that if they had the choice to make over again, they would still choose the accelerated curriculum. For each of them, the advantages far outweighed any disadvantages.

Flexible Pacing for Able Learners is available from The Council for Exceptional Children, 1920 Association Drive, Reston, VA 22091.


Cox, J., Daniel, N., & Boston, B. O. (1985). Educating able learners: Programs and promising practices. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Daniel, N., & Cox, J. (1988). Flexible pacing for able learners. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children. (ED 298 725)

Gallagher, J. J. (1985). Educational strategies for gifted students in secondary schools. NASSP Bulletin, 69(482), 17-24.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Goodlad, J., & Anderson, R. (1959). The nongraded elementary school. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1984). Synthesis of research on effects of accelerated instruction. Educational Leadership, 42, 84-89.

Robinson, N. M., & Robinson, H. B. (1982). The optimal match: Devising the best compromise for the highly gifted student. In D. Feldman (Ed.), Developmental approaches to giftedness and creativity (pp. 79-94). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Slavin, R. E. (1987). Grouping for instruction in the elementary school. Educational Psychologist, 22, 109-127.

Snow, R. E. (1986). Individual differences and the design of educational programs. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1029-1039.

Stanley, J. C. (1979). Educational non-acceleration: An international tragedy. In J. J. Gallagher (Ed.), Gifted children: Reaching their potential (pp. 16-43). Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Gifted Children. Jerusalem, Israel: Kollek & Son.

Van Tassel-Baska, J. (1986). Acceleration. In C. J. Maker (Ed.), Critical issues in gifted education: Defensible programs for the gifted (pp. 179-196). Rockville, MD: Aspen.

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ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under Contract no. RI88062207. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education.

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