By Not Challenging Gifted Kids, What Do We Risk Losing?

| April 25, 2014 | 28 Comments
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It’s easy to assume that for extremely bright young pupils, life in the classroom is a snap. But when conventional school curricula fail to stimulate their hungry young brains, leaving them bored and stymied, these kids may get lost in the system. Some end up with C averages and slip into truancy, and many may never blossom to their full potential. It’s a big loss for lots of reasons, including the fact that these precocious kids represent a unique pool of talent for generating new ideas and innovations. And because of inadequate policies, we may be losing opportunities to nurture the Henry Fords and Marie Curies of the future.

Intellectually talented kids “don’t get the attention of policymakers,” said psychology professor David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University. “But if you’re trying to solve problems in the world like climate change and terrorism and STEM innovation, and transportation and managing our healthcare, you want intellectually precocious youth who have had their intellectual needs met.”

Lubinski calls gifted kids — the U.S. has an estimated 3 million academically gifted K-12 students — a “precious human-capital resource.” He and colleague Camilla Benbow co-direct the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), a decades-long project tracking more than 5,000 gifted individuals, mostly identified through talent search programs that put them through SAT testing at age 12 or 13. Founded in 1971 at Johns Hopkins University by talent-search pioneer Julian Stanley, SMPY has yielded a trove of insights into who gifted children are and what they need from schools.

Some recruits were rare “scary smart” kids ranking in the top 1 in 10,000 in math or verbal reasoning skills. In a report last year, Vanderbilt postdoctoral researcher Harrison Kell, Lubinski, and Benbow checked up on 320 of these profoundly gifted people at age 38. About 44 percent had earned an M.D., Ph.D., or law degree, in contrast to the 2 percent of the U.S. population that holds a doctoral degree. Many had high-powered careers, ranging from doctors and software engineers to artists and leaders of Fortune 500 companies.

Gifted students who miss out on accelerated learning opportunities still do well above average, but don’t accomplish as much later in life, Lubinski said. That’s a “huge waste of talent,” he said.

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the accomplishments, even for the top 1 in 10,000,” Lubinski said.  “We had no idea that over 7 percent would have tenure at a major research university. We had no idea that so many would be well supported by grants or be CEOs of major organizations, partners in major law firms.”

Not all was smooth sailing, though. Profoundly gifted students were able to rapidly master new information, but schools often couldn’t accommodate their pace, the researchers noted; teachers often focused on helping the slow learners in the classroom instead. That’s a potential recipe for frustration and underachievement. Other analyses from SMPY suggest that intellectually talented kids don’t live up to their full promise unless challenged with more difficult course material.

For instance, gifted students who got a high “dose” of advanced and enriched learning activities in STEM areas (such as AP classes, taking college courses in high school, science fairs) were roughly twice as likely to earn a Ph.D. and tenure in a STEM field by their early 30s than those who got a low dose. Meanwhile, in another study published last year, Lubinski’s team tracked 1,020 young students  who were advanced in math and compared those who skipped a grade with those who had not. “In every comparison, in every cohort, a greater proportion of grade skippers earned doctoral degrees, STEM Ph.D.s, STEM publications, and patents” — and at an earlier age, the researchers write.

Gifted students who miss out on accelerated learning opportunities still do well above average, but don’t accomplish as much later in life, Lubinski said. That’s a “huge waste of talent,” he said.

A LESSON FOR ALL SCHOOLS

SMPY holds important lessons not just for the exceptionally bright, but for all students: Kids learn optimally from “a curriculum that moves at their pace and is at the appropriate depth for their rate of learning,” Lubinski said. “If it goes too fast, they’re going to be frustrated. If it goes too slow, they’re going to be bored…. One size does not fit all.” Individual students vary widely in how fast they learn, even among the top 1 percent of intellectual talent, he said.

Public school systems generally haven’t embraced accelerated learning strategies. Grade skipping is not always ideal partly because of concerns that a budding young genius may not be socially or emotionally ready for an older classroom. Some worry about the lasting harm if a child gets picked on a lot or has trouble making friends. However, in a survey of SMPY participants at age 33, they reported having no regrets about skipping grades in high school or engaging in other activities to speed up their education, Lubinski said. Grade-skipping is good for certain bright kids who are gifted across all academic subjects and mature enough to handle it, he said; but if a child is super-smart at math and average in other areas, other options for acceleration are more ideal.

Accelerated learning opportunities have been “a real salvation” for some gifted students who were so bored in school, they had nothing to look forward to, said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, education professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. For example, fast-paced residential summer programs for bright kids are often places where “for the first time they found friends, for the first time they had a challenge in terms of their academic diet,” she said.

But government support for gifted education programs has been scarce in the U.S. Education funding understandably goes to kids with learning disabilities, and while special ed programs deserve every penny they get, VanTassel-Baska said, in many places “gifted students are being cheated out of an appropriate education.” By failing to identify and support these very high-potential students, “we are shooting ourselves in the foot.” Other countries, such as in East Asia, have a clear vision for providing programs for gifted children as part of their national mission, she said.

As Lubinski pointed out, in today’s competitive global economy, “we have to develop our exceptional human capital.” Even though SMPY shows it’s possible to find the young math and verbal whizzes who are most likely to achieve great works, he noted, the U.S. does poorly at identifying kids with a knack for visualizing objects in the mind’s eye — a skill important for inventors, architects, dentists, and orthopedic surgeons. Such “spatially talented” children gravitate to metal shop or home economics classes, but they aren’t getting the robotics or advanced lab courses they need to take off. As a result, Lubinski said, “We are missing modern-day Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords.”

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  • Odette Holweg

    True… But only academically gifted… There is so much more to lose than just the academic potential! All gifts need to be nurtured – just ask Sir Ken.

  • Lauren K. B. Matlach

    A great piece! Thanks for posting!

  • Caroline Holko

    This is a wonderful article – but can we please stop using the expression “scary smart?” Our gifted kids are othered enough in the school system, and this phrase does nothing to further opportunities for the gifted.

  • SophiePA

    People confuse smart kids, or kids that love learning with “gifted” kids. In my experience working with many gifted kids, they have never been gifted across the board. There has always been a big deficit in one or more other areas of intelligence. For these kids, skipping grades should be a last resort.

    • David

      One of my sons is PG in pretty much every academic area. Our district doesn’t skip kids, and if they did it wouldn’t work too well for him. He is emotionally immature for his age (not gifted there!) so for now we’re making do with grade level stuff and things like summer camps.

      One of his teachers hates him. Literally hates him. Reminds me of me, my fifth and sixth grade teachers actually hated me. Then I got skipped and teachers never hated me again.

      With outside (esp. onine) learning opportunities available now, it should be possible to allow kids to do each subject at their best level. This will work well in math. In some like social studies it’s hard to know what one’s level is. One is just supposed to sit thru a certain sequence of instruction, do the seat time. This brings into question whether social studies is a legitimate subject at all, in my thinking.

    • Simon

      True that smart is not gifted, but not true (albeit common misconception) that there is some cosmic balancing scale such that there must be a corresponding deficit in one area, to offset giftedness in another. Very sorry if your experience with gifted kids has never placed you in contact with ones who are gifted across all measures (though not necessarily in equal measures). There is no cosmic balancing scale that ensures that talent may only be doled out in certain quantities, such that a greater amount in one area, necessitates a smaller amount in another, to make it fair to everyone else. DNE.

  • kyleenga

    My daughter is PG, has been grade skipped and it has literally saved her from a doomed education. She has an innate mathematical ability and love of science, but also excels in language arts as well.
    Our educational system is failing our gifted children. Without researching and providing Extra-curricuricular programs (Gifted) she would have been bored, always feeling different, and not having consistent challenges year to year.

    Her grade skip has been a tremendous success. Even now, she is a 9th grader, many of her friends are in 10th and 11th grade, so to dispel the belief that accelerated students won’t fit in – YES they do! They tend to gravitate to “older more mature” classmates when in a mixed setting based on mutual preferences. Parents, educators and policymakers need to step back and actually watch what happens when a Gifted child is truly engaged in a mixed age environment. (Let go o your pre conceived notions and you may see some amazing, wonderful things happening!)

    As for funding, why we do not provide for better Gifted education is a mystery. These students fall at the far end of the learning spectrum, just the opposite end of those with learning challenges. Their futures are critical to the US’ future in innovation in medicine, business, policy, research, and all fields. Yet, we provide little to no funding for educational programs for this group. Another counterintuitive approach to America’s future.

    • DFCain

      Good for her, although my 9-year-old son, who taught himself to read at three and has read at a post-high-school level for two years, is still an immature, and quite normal, child.

      His school’s answer was to grade skip him from first to second grade, as if that would help–one grade level? How about six or seven? We struggle with his teachers each year as they try to engage him with things that he does not yet know, and then when he learns it the next five minutes, they resort to having him do it again or teach the other students. Predictably, they call and report his behavior and disorganization–who needs external organization when he can recall the entire periodic table?

      As educator parents, we know that school is about much more than academics, and those are the skills he needs most, but his gift should be accommodated within his school day, amongst his emotional peers.

  • mvrentchler

    I experience this every day at either of my two Title 1 schools. The emphasis/money is on the lower/lowest performing students and the potentially- and qualified- “gifted and talented” receive no enrichment of any sort since there’s no money left for them. Most of the standard enrichment like a full range of educational courses including visual and performing arts, science, health, physical education, field trips to museums and musical venues, chorus, band, glee club, chamber orchestra, and vocational shops have been eradicated for all. Sometimes, however, the most hyperactive, and high-expectations teachers are tracked to teach a classroom of the highest performers of a school. These teachers are not necessarily AVID trained or certified as those type of teachers have been moved into secondary school positions during the great recession. These highest performing students would be considered “normal” students in a non Title 1 school. But this is as good as it gets. The best course of action for truly GATE is flight away from Title 1 schools which are typically inner city and low socioeconomic areas. Parents should take note: if your child is tested GATE, get them out so they can thrive and be challenged with real GATE kids like themselves, or at least what is “normal” in a non Title 1 school.

    • lizlem

      This is where I am with my 5th grader, who has spent all of her formal Ed at a Title I City school. She has been identified G&T and despite receiving iffy-at-best gifted services at her school since 2nd grade, wasn’t assessed as a match/prepared for another district’s full time gifted-only environment for middle school, where many kids and friends of ours have been accelerated since kindergarten. It’s tough, extremely competitive and intense – many burn out by high school. So while I’m torn about the deficits of her K-5 background…at the same time, she’s truly had a marvelous experience of community and diversity that lacks in those programs. She is bright and has perspective, and enjoyed a nurturing environment where her gifts were appreciated and shared if not always well-fed… Even if her most obsessive intellectual and creative pursuits are self-motivated and home bound…I worried if I well-rounded her giftedness away and ruined her future! But if the biggest consequence of not accelerating her immediately is that her adolescent achievement-anxiety is lowered and she waits a bit longer to get a PhD…(not unlike her mom and dad)…I think I am okay with her being “just an honors student”

      • David

        I am sure your daughters gifts were not extinguished. In fact a lot of G&T programs are for very mildly gifted kids and they involve more of the same sort of work, or more project work. In STEM fields the schools are still limited by the ability of the teachers to deliver a high powered curriculum. For example you really have to understand math to teach it to kids who are “getting it”, and those who really understand math rarely teach school at all let alone K-5.

        Since you say you and your husband have PhDs yourselves, you can provide better gifted enrichment at home than she would get at most any school.

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  • Kiwi

    I’m reminded that Thomas Edison did most of his learning outside of school. Our current education system drives many gifted kids, just like Edison, into homeschooling or ‘street schooling’ where they do their learning in the world outside school – more authentic, personally relevant and at their own pace.

  • guest

    “Grade-skipping is good for certain bright kids who are gifted across all academic subjects and mature enough to handle it”

    From personal experience, I would actually argue against grade skipping MOST of the time (unless that is something that the child really really understands and wants to do – which can’t really be properly estimated at young ages). Taking them from one class and putting them in another, no matter what the age, can have a lasting effect on social-emotional well-being for a variety of reasons.

    • Quest Guest

      Guest – I suggest that you look beyond your “personal experience” and actually look at the real outcomes that arise MOST of the time. Over the last 60years there are countless studies that dispel what you have written not just as incorrect but as actually MYTH! This myth continues to be pervasive even amongst professionals.

      The IOWA Acceleration Scale is a useful too for assessing whether the child is suited to acceleration or not. And then it has to be done properly. We have the scientific method for a reason – it’s so that we don’t have to rely on just one person’s positive, or one other person’s opposing negative experience.

    • Pat

      There is a lot of opposition to grade-skipping based on that argument. But results don’t lie. Yes, grade-skipping would probably be bad for kids in the normal spectrum, but when a kid’s friends-by-choice are all 3-5 years older than that kid, being stuck in an environment with only other age-mates is alienating, boring, and depressing. They tend to either isolate, or play a role to fit in, but still feel the lack of true camaraderie on the inside. Putting them with their psychosocial and intellectual peers instead of assuming that age dictates that, is beneficial, not harmful.

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  • solexy

    NEWSFLASH…schools aren’t making the decisions people. GOVT. is. None of the working teachers favor standardized testing or Common Core. This is the downfall of public education, and EXACTLY what these ignorant politicians want. Then they can make money off of education by privatizing and segregating. Makes it “easier” for them. Not to mention the hundreds of millions (if not billions) being paid out to their cronies for writing the standardized test. If you want children to get what they deserve, a quality education, start supporting your local teachers and empower educators to have a voice again. STOP MAKING TEACHERS THE ONLY ONE’S RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS MESS.

  • Thom Markham

    And who is ‘gifted?’ Those students identified in 2nd grade through an IQ test, and then given support and encouragement for the next 10 years for their outstanding intellect? The research into neuroplasticity and the growth mindset, plus the abysmal failure of IQ testing to predict anything other than SAT scores, should alert us to the fact that ‘gifted’ is an outdated term. The goal is to challenge every single student at the appropriate level through a personalized system that reveals the diverse gifts of each. Otherwise, we’re back to ‘sort and select.’

    • SophiePA

      No, Thom, those kids are not necessarily gifted. The higher IQ kids can be the smarter or more developed kids. In my opinion, you can not always quantify giftedness. It involves the ability for deeper thinking, higher reasoning and motivation, greater creativity and the ability to combine all of those.

    • meliorist

      You’re wrong on all points. First. IQ tests predict a lot more than just SAT scores. They predict job performance, for instance. They even predict how likely a person is to suffer a fatal accident. Second, while encouragement and a “growth mindset” do produce better performance in school, this is not sufficient to close the gap between the gifted and the rest. Third, the idea that teachers focus their support and encouragement on the gifted kids is wrong. Because of policies such as “No Child Left Behind”, they actually focus more of their efforts on the kids who are struggling. Bright kids are often left to fend for themselves, since they are guaranteed to get good grades, so they are of little concern to the teachers. Fourth, the gap between the most and least academically able children opens up long before they start school. Tests of reasoning, vocabulary, etc. at age three predict school performance years later. Fifth, the gap is bigger than most people think. The most able kids are already more than a year ahead when they start school, and the gap just steadily gets wider. Children learn at different speeds, so even if everyone receives ample encouragement, the gap grows wider over time, so that by high school, the quickest learners are several years ahead of the average, and the slowest learners are several years behind. Mere encouragement can’t fix that. Finally, there is ample evidence that IQ and academic performance are to a substantial degree genetic.

      This notion that children are equally brilliant, but in different, individual ways, is just wishful thinking. Its popularity is based solely on the thought that it would be nice if it were true. There is no evidence at all to support it. The idea that you can turn average children into geniuses just by giving them a “growth mindset” is nothing but a pipe-dream. If it were that easy, someone would have done it by now.

  • John Hall

    Creative achievements and breakthrough discoveries of gifted students later in their careers are not solely dependent on academic acceleration and an accumulation of AP courses. Accelerated learning shows a love of learning; but curiosity, tenacity, and self-discipline are also necessary for full expression of giftnedness.

    • David

      Certainly true. These are the make-or-break attributes of those who do well professionally. Acceleration may have these three goals:
      (1) Accelerate learning and enable the student to learn as much as possible while the mind is most plastic.
      (2) Keep the kid engaged and out of trouble caused by boredom.
      (3) Teach the kid good habits of work by providing material that will engage good work habits and expose weaknesses. We must all overcome such weaknesses on the way to becoming competent professionals, and if the kid can get good habits early, it can only be beneficial.

  • Deborah Flory Maedke

    My gifted students are a lot of fun to teach. They say so many “out of the box” things … I am often laughing at their witty comments in class. :-)

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  • ncmathsadist

    They learn a breezy contempt for the fact that learning real stuff is real work. This is a disaster, and it results in a lot of young people who wind up underachieving. No, gifted kids do not “take care of themselves,” as the tired shibboleth goes.