Precocious kids do seem to become high-achieving adults. Why that makes some educators worried about America’s future
By Amy Crawford
IN 1971, researchers at Johns Hopkins University embarked on an ambitious effort to identify brilliant 12-year-olds and track their education and careers through the rest of their lives. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which now includes 5,000 people, would eventually become the world’s longest-running longitudinal survey of what happens to intellectually talented children (in math and other areas) as they grow up. It has generated seven books, more than 300 papers, and a lot of what we know about early aptitude.
David Lubinski is a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, where the project has been based since the 1990s. He and his wife and fellow Vanderbilt professor, Camilla Benbow, codirect the study and have dedicated their careers to learning about this exceptional population.
In a recent paper, Lubinski and his colleagues caught up with one cohort of 320 people now in their late 30s. At 12, their SAT math or verbal scores had placed them among the top one-100th of 1 percent. Today, many are CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons, and successful novelists.
That outcome sounds like exactly what you’d imagine should happen: Top young people grow into high-achieving adults. In the education world, the study has provided important new evidence that it really is possible to identify the kids who are likely to become exceptional achievers in the future, something previous research has not always found to be the case. But for that reason, perhaps surprisingly, it has also triggered a new round of worry.
Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start—they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores.
Other research has shown that under-stimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated—especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.
I wonder if there are diagnostic tests that identify smart kids at risk of zoning out. Personally, I grew up about 400 feet from a public library, so I was never lacking in books to keep me interested. But then I wasn't very mathematically gifted. It's probably easier for a kid with strong reading skills who likes knowing stuff, whereas high end math and science skills may simply be more exotic.
“What the study underscored is the tremendous amount of potential here—they’re a national resource,” Lubinski says. “But it’s hard to separate the findings of this study from what we know about gifted kids in general. The genuine concern is, we know we’re not identifying all of this population. We’re not getting nearly enough, and we’re losing them.”
In the middle of the 20th Century, progressive thinkers like Harvard president James Conant and sci-fi author Robert Heinlein were obsessed with pushing society to come up with objective ways to find talent, especially among rural boys. After Sputnik in 1957, that became a national obsession for about a decade. And then people got bored, civil rights clashed with objectivity, the need to outcompete the Sovs declined, and so forth. So who is interested in finding smart nowheresville boys today? Caroline Hoxby, I guess.
... GIVEN ALL THE PRESSURES our education system faces, it seems almost indecent to worry about the travails of a small minority of very smart children. Understandably, federal and state education policy has long focused on more obvious problems that education can help address—problems such as the yawning gaps between the test scores of rich and poor students and between different racial groups.
Assuming education can help address those problems, which remains murky after a half-century of federal effort. In contrast, we do know that education really does work pretty well on extremely intelligent youths.
Tax dollars disproportionately go to help kids with learning disabilities and other disadvantages, because society generally agrees that they are most in need of help.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.
The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.
Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding. The Javits Act, the only federal law aimed at gifted students, pays for research and pilot education programs and is currently funded at $5 million, down from a peak of $11 million several years ago.
... Olszewski-Kubilius, an education professor at Northwestern University, considers the latest Vanderbilt finding important to the cause. “It’s probably the best research we have that connects childhood giftedness with adult achievement,” she says. She chalks up the current disparity to an otherwise well-intentioned attitude, one that seems to be ingrained in American culture.
“There’s a fundamental belief, not just among educators but in general in our society—and the word ‘gifted’ doesn’t help—that, well, they lucked out by virtue of genetics. They’ve got something other people don’t have, and so they should just be satisfied with that. They don’t need any more.”
Research, however, suggests that they do—or at least that they benefit from extra investment. Two recent papers based on data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that, among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations—even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school—went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities. In one of the studies, the Vanderbilt researchers matched students who skipped a grade with a control group of similarly smart kids who didn’t. The grade-skippers, it turned out, were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in science, math, or engineering.
“If you look at the control group” in the grade-skipping study, says Lubinski, “they’ll say, ‘The curriculum was moving too slow, I felt bored, I was frustrated.’ Those kids still do better than the norm, but the ones who have their developmental needs met, they do much better.”
But providing these smart kids with an education that matches their abilities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Politically, it raises the fraught question of whether our education system should be in the business of identifying and segregating elite students—an idea that has been tried and rejected before, for good reasons.
For most of the 20th century, schools routinely divided students into advanced, average, and remedial categories, a practice called “tracking” that was largely discredited by research showing it only exacerbated inequality, especially inequality linked to race and class.
Actually, we have more than a little tracking, you are just not supposed to call it that. Also, it helps if you are in New York City, because civil rights concepts seem to mostly apply to hicks (although the new mayor claims he'll do something about that). For example, last week the top public science high school in New York, Stuyvesant, accepted 7 blacks, 21 Hispanics, 164 whites, and 680 Asians.
... WHILE EQUITY at the classroom level is important, Lubinski and others who study the gifted say that the issue goes beyond education to national competitiveness. “We’re living in a global economy now,” Lubinski says, “and there are only very few people of any discipline who push the frontiers of knowledge forward. This is the population who you’d do well to bet on.”
Other countries are already making that bet. Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have national laws requiring that children be screened for giftedness, with top scorers funneled into special programs. China is midway through a 10-year “National Talent Development Plan” to steer bright young people into science, technology, and other in-demand fields.