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The right way to treat child geniuses-the case for gifted and talented education

U.S. President Barack Obama looks at the Ice Search and Rescue ROV project of Olivia Van Awsterdam and Katelyn Sweeney from Natick, Massachusetts during the 2014 White House Science Fair at the White House.
U.S. President Barack Obama looks at the Ice Search and Rescue ROV project of Olivia Van Awsterdam and Katelyn Sweeney from Natick, Massachusetts during the 2014 White House Science Fair at the White House.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

Jordan Ellenberg, author and mathematician, recently drew attention to a very select group of students who, “before the age of 13, scored at least 700 on the math SAT or 630 on the verbal—scores that only 1 in 10,000 children that age attain.” These children are the subject of longitudinal studies by both Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University. As Ellenberg wrote, “These kids don't flame bright and burn out; they start strong and keep going.” He goes on to acknowledge that “Some 44% of them have doctoral degrees (only 2% of the general population does); their median income was $80,000, about twice the U.S. average for people their age,” etc.

Linda Brody, of Johns Hopkins University wrote back in 2005 that “12 year olds who earn scores on SAT I at the level of high school seniors who are admitted to the most selective colleges and universities may find it difficult to be challenged for the next 4 or 5 years before they enroll full-time in college.”

Does public education have an obligation to support the needs of this small minority? Does society benefit by expending resources to educate these academic high-flyers?

The answer, even through the eyes of the likes of Ellenberg, is a resounding “yes.” Take note of a fact that Ellenberg asserts: “Most child prodigies are highly successful—but most highly successful people weren't child prodigies.” Yes, as he acknowledges, most child prodigies will become highly successful. In other words, these highly gifted students are a tangible pool of talent that breeds highly successful people. Surely, it makes sense to nurture and help develop this talent?

Public education has an admirable track record of helping struggling students succeed. In my neck of the woods, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), located in the shadow of the nation’s capital, devotes considerable resources to identifying students at risk of failing and potential dropouts. Shouldn’t we be equally concerned about supporting the needs of those students with a high probability of succeeding?

The fact that most highly successful people weren’t child prodigies by an academic measure is a straw man argument for deemphasizing gifted and talented education. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, regarded by many as a genius in his field, is highly unlikely to have been identified the academic measure utilized by Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins. Bill Gates may have also fallen through the cracks in this talent identification measure. The reality is that these geniuses had interests that were outside the net that is cast by SAT measure. If nothing else, Ellenberg’s essay argues for the creation of additional tools to discern a wider variety of talents.

This brings us to another popular belief about academic high flyers, one which is popularized by the likes of Washington Post’s Jay Mathews. The mantra goes that these high flyers, left on their own, will find their own way to success. It is true that many academic geniuses are eminently capable of directing their own education. However, one cannot lose sight of the fact that society must provide these students with adequate resources to pursue their interests. While Mathews’ assertion “It’s better to give super-bright kids a library card or a computer with a Web connection and get out of their way,” has a kernel of truth, its extension to claim “gifted education classes are usually a waste of time and money,” is patently wrong. Gifted education, when properly implemented, is fertile ground for “super-bright kids” to find their footing. How many children from a socioeconomically disadvantaged family will have access to a library or an internet connection?

Both Ellenberg and Mathews also fall victim to the pitfalls of their own privileged lives. According to his Wikipedia page, “Ellenberg was discovered by Eric Walstein, a teacher at the nearby Montgomery Blair High School. Walstein took Ellenberg under his wing and oversaw his mathematical development.” Eric Walstein, now retired, was a teacher (currently a “long-term substitute”) in the Montgomery Blair High School magnet program. Surely, we cannot say with certainty that Ellenberg would have achieved his success without the benefit of that magnet program. Mathews is a white male who has found a niche in a newspaper that is home to many from his own background. The promise of gifted and talented education, properly implemented, is that it gives talented individuals the opportunity to develop their talents, irrespective of race, color, or creed.

The idea that identifying and nurturing gifted students somehow devalues the contribution of hard work to academic success is not the Achilles heel of gifted and talented education. Instead, it is a manifestation personal belief, often conveyed to gifted students by their families and society, that high academic ability is a nothing more than a genetic predilection.

Society needs to pay more attention to developing gifted and talented students from all walks of life, all races, colors, and creeds, so that the names of the highly successful will better represent its diversity.

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