Jay Mathews writes in the Washington Post about a gifted student whose public school teachers have so far doubted or dismissed her intellectual capacity at school.
The girl was rushing home to read Kipling by first grade and graduated from high school at age 15, scoring a 2200 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT.
Yet her early elementary teachers claimed she was “intellectually backwards,” and her junior high teachers said her high scores were achieved because she had found a way to “decode tests,” Mr Mathews wrote.
From personal experience, I can attest to the dismal state of stimulation received by intellectually gifted students in our schools. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, but it brings consequences that could build character or produce classic underachievers.
When I was in first grade, my IQ was tested at 162. That’s pretty smart, and my parents had the choice of skipping me to second grade right then. “He’s bored,” school officials would tell them.
But at the time, not enough information was available about the side-effects of keeping “the smartest kid in the room” with his age-group peers rather than placing him with his intellectual peers. On the other hand, doing so may have been impractical for a 7-year-old boy, who knows?
Two things happen to kids who are working in school at a level below their abilities: (1) they quickly learn they don’t have to work very hard to get the top score on all the homework, quizzes, and tests; and (2) they become the subject of resentment from age-group peers.
Programs exist but may be inadequate
Today we have programs that work with schools for gifted students, such as community colleges or universities that offer courses for credit to these students. The girl in Mr Mathews’s article was enrolled during her junior year of high school in a second-year biology course at the University of Maryland. Several students in all 50 states take dual-credit courses at community colleges near their high schools.
But the lessons I’m talking about are learned in early childhood, not in high school being replaced by college courses.
There’s still time, since many psychologists believe it’s your first job out of university that establishes a pattern for the rest of your life. But the lessons of not working hard to achieve and of being resented by peers have already been taught.
Schools aren’t really set up to deal with gifted kids, by the way. There are reasons for this, and again, I’m completely unable to say whether these are good or bad reasons: Schools are worried about accountability, which under No Child Left Behind, required a certain percentage of students at the school each year to be above a threshold point known as “proficiency.” If kids were going to test as being proficient on what were watered-down tests, encouraging those kids to succeed or even strive for higher levels of achievement didn’t do the school any good. As a result, the staff devoted to teaching those gifted kids had to be scrapped in favor of budget money being spent on kids who had a chance of crossing over the threshold at some point.
Schools also have to devote great resources to special education. That’s because special education students were one of the defined subgroups under NCLB. Each subgroup, the law required, including boys and girls, different races, different disabilities, etc., had to show improvement from year to year under the law.
This produced a great mediocrity in our schools: it forced schools to ignore gifted students, and it moved special ed kids toward the middle, at least on standardized tests that may or may not have been valid measures of their ability.
The future could take a turn for the worse
Something happens to these kids when they become adults. Assuming they learned that intelligence only gets you so far, that everybody else who works with you is just as intelligent as you are, and that what really counts is how hard you work, they’ll be fine. They will get scholarships in college, build successful careers, and make friends with people who don’t resent the idea of people talking about intellectual ideas at dinner.
Or, they will fall into a mode of being great underachievers. These are the high school valedictorians (which I wasn’t by the way) who, given that life brings challenges that require hard work, which these folks never learned to put forth, and uncomfortable risks, which these people don’t take for fear of appearing less-than-gifted, who end up in dead-end careers without advancement.
Gail Post, PhD, writes about underachievement in gifted students:
Three tips for helping gifted underachievers
1. Improve their education
This might seem obvious, as it serves to both prevent and remedy the problem. But given the philosophical and financial constraints present in many school districts, the needs of gifted children are frequently overlooked. Gifted underachievers under-the-radar benefit from learning that incorporates depth, complexity, and an accelerated pace, where they feel free to express their creativity, where they are not embarrassed to be themselves, and where they are grouped with like-minded peers. As Siegle and McCoach have noted, gifted underachievers need to trust the academic environment and expect that they can succeed within it.
2. Enlist their sense of integrity
Gifted children are idealistic, with a highly developed sense of fairness and justice. They care about those who are less fortunate, and struggle with existential concerns related to life’s meaning. Sometimes their idealism results in discomfort with their talents or guilt about having choices that are unavailable to others. While their integrity is admirable, it can unnecessarily limit their options. Encourage them to appreciate that they can better position themselves to help those in need if they apply themselves academically. Help them recognize that ignoring their talents benefits no one.
3. Engage their passions and interests
Remind them that even if school has been a bore, they can direct their energy toward what they most enjoy learning. Whatever intrigued them as young children can be transformed into a variation of the original activity. If they loved Legos, for example, they could pursue robotics or architectural design. If their interests cannot be met at school, help them find extracurricular activities in the community or online. Once they discover a meaningful, engaging activity, they might be willing to challenge themselves, take on a new and difficult skill, or develop some of the self-regulatory strategies that previously seemed unnecessary.