Curriculum in most schools is grade based. That is, teachers and school administrators structure their programs around curriculum guides that have been carefully developed to ensure that students are presented with learning material that is meaningful and developmentally appropriate for most kids in a certain grade… not too easy and not too hard.

At each new grade level previously presented concepts may be briefly reviewed before students are moved into the more advanced material. Each year's curriculum supports and builds on what is presented in previous years. Within this model, teachers may use strategies such as flexible ability grouping, differentiated assignments, and project based learning to recognize and support the different learning needs of kids in their classrooms. Students who need more repetition or remediation in a certain area may be given extra instruction and practice, while those that have mastered the concept might be working independently on an extension activity, or encouraged to work on a long term project in a small group of similar learners.

This grade based curriculum model works well for most kids. However, even the best teachers and best school systems have a hard time meeting the needs of those whose learning needs fall far outside the norm. Public schools (and some private) have special education support personnel to help meet the needs of those with developmental delays or significant learning disabilities. And many schools or districts have gifted education or curriculum specialists and programs to help support students who need special programming to address their learning needs.


Still, some advanced learners are so outside the curve, so advanced in a particular area like math, reading, or science, that the usual grade level modifications and strategies aren't enough.

For this reason, some of the most advanced learners are enrolled by their parents in private after school tutoring, a talent search program such as that provided by through Johns Hopkins University, or a distance-learning program where they are working on advanced material that is not typically taught in their current grade level. Enrollment and progress in these programs is based on interest and ability, rather than on age or grade. For these kids, the replacement strategy can often be used with great success.

Teachers and parents can consider the replacement curriculum strategy if a student can show, through pretesting, that she has already mastered the grade level curriculum in the subject that she is studying outside of school. If so, the student is allowed to independently work on the outside curriculum, either in the classroom or in another part of the campus, during the time that the rest of the class is working the same curriculum area. The outside curriculum replaces the school curriculum. While the classroom teacher may (or may not) offer occasional support to the student, the teacher is not responsible for teaching the replacement curriculum, that's the job of the outside tutor, agency, and parent. The work done in school should be the independent practice component of the outside curriculum.

Depending on student needs, replacement curriculum can be used for short time periods throughout the school year to take the place of occasional chapters or units of study that have already been mastered, or the strategy can be used to replace an entire year's curriculum.

For example, a fourth grade student who has mastered the entire grade level math curriculum may be allowed to work on distance learning material studying seventh grade pre algebra during math time throughout the entire year. Another precocious math student who is involved in an outside advanced talent search math course may be allowed to work on that material only when the rest of the class is reviewing material chapters or units of study that he has clearly mastered—as determined by teacher assessment using end of chapter post tests or other assessment tools. This student then rejoins his class for math instruction when the teacher is reviewing areas where he needs more practice and guidance.

In both cases, the regular classroom teacher is responsible for making sure the student has already mastered the grade level curriculum being taught, but is not responsible for teaching, grading, or monitoring the replacement curriculum.

 When does the student work on the replacement curriculum?

During the same time that the other kids in the class are working in that subject area. For example, if a fourth grade student is enrolled in a distance learning program studying 7th grade pre-algebra, she would work on that material during the time that the rest of her class is working on math.

How many kids are likely to be candidates for replacement curriculum?

Not many. Probably less than 1 percent in most schools. Replacement curriculum is generally for kids who are already working at least 2 to 3 years above grade level in a particular subject, have already mastered most or all of the grade level curriculum that can be offered in their regular school program, and are already enrolled by their parents in tutoring or an outside program which covers the advanced curriculum they’ll be using. Not many kids fit this bill. But for those that do, replacement curriculum can be an ideal match.


About the Author

David Palmer, Ph.D.

David Palmer, Ph.D., is an educational psychologist specializing in giftedness assessment and consultation, and the author of Parents’ Guide to IQ Testing and Gifted Education.

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