Though many of us are familiar with the term “the glass ceiling,” some have never heard of the class ceiling and yet it affects our students’ everyday. Much like the glass ceiling, it represents an unspoken, invisible barrier to progress, success and advancement. In the academic world, it refers to the barriers and limits that advanced students often encounter. It is typical in an education system that groups students by age thereby giving teachers little time to cater to individual needs.

The option for these students, is often to find a school that allows for growth and advancement beyond the perimeters of the scope and sequence of a traditional curriculum. It requires a curriculum that allows for individualized and differentiated instruction and crucial and analytical thinking. Public schools for the advanced student are few and far between. Twenty-five percent of states provide no funding for gifted education. When budget cuts are made, funding to gifted education is often the first to be cut, leaving many to turn to the private school sector.

The Traditional School

For students who learn quickly and are able to master new concepts at a faster pace, the traditional classroom work pace presents no challenge. Most are forced to simply wait until new material is presented. Most find themselves in the position of helping others or simply “zoning out.”

What keeps this ceiling firmly in place?

The answer? NCLB (No Child Left Behind). NCLB is the federal law put in place in 2002. NCLB was designed to address the achievement gap in public schools and bring all students up to math and reading proficiency regardless of race, income, and other factors. While these goals were commendable, it came at the cost of critical and analytical thinking and advancement.

The goal of NCLB is to ensure that all students are proficient and able to pass standardized tests. Since all students learn at different rates and in different ways, this leaves little room for advancement, creativity or differentiation. According to John Bridgeland, chief executive officer of Civic Enterprises, in Washington, D.C., this is because:

“…the accountability systems are so focused on the lowest-performing students, teachers see A’s and B’s and good standardized test scores and they say, ‘OK, they’re fine, we don’t have to focus attention on them,’…”

This is precisely where those students hit that class ceiling. And all of it comes at a high price:

“We have squeezed out of the curriculum the kinds of things that really contribute to the next generation of highly creative, productive, inventive, entrepreneurial people.” (Joseph Renzulli, Director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.)

A survey conducted in 2008 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, found that nearly eighty percent of teachers felt that needs of the advanced student were much less of a priority than having underachieving students reach proficiency. Unfortunately, there exists no national policy that requires that gifted children be identified or served by school districts. There’s no national definition of gifted.

The Ceiling Affects Us All

Looking at the big picture, some may feel our country’s focus should be on the employment rate, national security, economic growth etc. But we must remember that student success is directly linked to the success of the national economy.

According to Eric Hanushek, from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California:

“ (There’s an)…extraordinarily strong relationship between knowing math and science and how fast the country grows.”

Most economists agree. In order for it to flourish and prosper, the United States needs home-grown innovators. Otherwise, our global competitors will soon leave us behind.

According to Hanushek, if the US improved its overall performance, the United States’ gross domestic product could increase by more than $40 trillion!

How Do We Raise the Class Ceiling?

One million students drop out of school annually. 1 out of 10 of those dropouts were once straight A students. The numbers are so staggering and surprising it led a 2006 report by Civic Enterprises to label it: The Silent Epidemic. Even more surprising is the reason they drop out of school: boredom. Trying to bridge the achievement gap has led to the creation of an achievement trap.

Most American teachers agree that students are all at different points along the skills continuum and learn at different paces. But only five states require training in gifted education before they can begin teaching. Most teachers agree that a change in school culture and what is valued in schools is needed as well.

“We have no problem having (sports) and lavishing attention on those kids…. But we don’t do that for math … literature … science,”

(Tom Loveless, author of The Tracking Wars.)


Del Siegle, Ph.D., Professor in gifted education and Department Head of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education, has devised what he refers to as: The Five C’s to address the needs of the advanced student. These are:

  • Control: Students need to feel that have the power to change a situation if they are no longer learning

  • Choice: Students need to feel they have a voice in what they are learning in order to avoid repetition/boredom

  • Challenge: Students need to be continually challenged with new material

  • Complexity: Students want depth and complexity. They want to explore the layers of new material

  • CARING: Perhaps, the most crucial. Without, genuine, vested caring teachers, the other Cs simply won’t function

In conclusion, Dr. Siegle leaves us with these words of wisdom:

Learning and the paths to get there are different for different kids. It’s crazy that we organize schools by birthdays rather than by what students know and how they learn.”

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