[The Big Bang Theory's] central character, Caltech theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper as played by Jim Parsons, is an irritating, immature egotist. But a Nobel Prize for him seems likely. He started college at 11 and earned his doctorate from M.I.T. at 16.University of Wisconsin mathematician Jordan Ellenberg elaborates.
Faced with children like that, gifted-student advocates say, American schools worry more about acceleration stunting their emotional growth than enhancing their genius.
When I was a child, I was a "genius"—the kind you sometimes see profiled on the local news. I started reading at 2. I could multiply two-digit numbers in my head when I was 5. One of my earliest memories is working out a way to generate Pythagorean triples. In third grade, I commuted to the local junior high to take geometry. Kids on the playground would sometimes test me by asking what a million times a million was—and were delighted when I knew the answer.Been there, did some of that, suffered the opprobrium. Mr Ellenberg suggests that education policy makers not overdo the grade-skipping, or the celebration of genius. I concur.
Many advocates for gifted education are similarly delighted by kids like me, seeing us as a kind of natural resource, one we risk squandering as surely as we do fossil fuels. Some educators rebrand child prodigies as "exceptional human capital" and hold us to be the drivers of global economic competitiveness. "These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles," the Vanderbilt University psychologist David Lubinski said in a recent interview. "Schizophrenia, cancer—they're going to fight terrorism, they're going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy. But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids."
Those of us who managed sky-high SAT scores at 13 were 20 times as likely as the average American to get a doctorate; let's say, being charitable, that we're 100 times as likely to make a significant scientific advance. Since we're only 1 in 10,000 of the U.S. population, that still leaves 99% of scientific advances to be made by all those other kids who didn't get an early ticket to the genius club. We geniuses aren't going to solve all the riddles. Most child prodigies are highly successful—but most highly successful people weren't child prodigies.That's the kind of mathematical Fingerspitzengefühl he'd like to see in more of the general population.
One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius. That cult tells students that it's not worth doing math unless you're the best at math—because those special few are the only ones whose contributions really count. We don't treat any other subject that way. I've never heard a student say, "I like 'Hamlet,' but I don't really belong in AP English—that child who sits in the front row knows half the plays by heart, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was 7!" Basketball players don't quit just because one of their teammates outshines them. But I see promising young mathematicians quit every year because someone in their range of vision is "ahead" of them.And there's likely to be more productive work done by identifying and nurturing those young people who don't stand out, or don't get the opportunity to stand out, as prodigies.
And losing mathematicians isn't the only problem. We need more math majors who don't become mathematicians—more math-major doctors, more math-major high-school teachers, more math-major CEOs, more math-major senators. But we won't get there until we dump the stereotype that math is worthwhile only for child geniuses.
It is incumbent upon those who care about social mobility and racial inclusion to come up with alternatives [to affirmative action] that implicitly recognize that race matters in American society—and that, today, class matters even more.There is a straightforward generalization to cultivating the gifted children, developed by Chester Finn and Brandon Wright with an assist by Eric Hanushek.
The second big reason to attend to the schooling of high-ability youngsters is a version of the familiar equity argument: these kids also deserve an education that meets their needs and enhances their futures, just like children with other distinctions and problems. They have their own legitimate claim on our conscience, our sense of fair- ness, our policy priorities, and our education budgets. What’s more, many of them also face such challenges as disability, poverty, ill-educated parents, non-English-speaking homes, and tough neighborhoods.And some mix of grade-skipping and exposure to the life-management skills of the middle class seems helpful.
Those kids depend more than upper-middle-class youngsters on the public education system to do right by them. Some will manage to overcome the constraints of their upbringing, but many will fall by the wayside, destined by circumstances beyond their control never to realize their full potential. As Ford Foundation president Darren Walker recently remarked, “[E]ven though talent is spread evenly across America, opportunity is not.” That’s why our failure to extend such opportunities to more high-ability kids from disadvantaged backgrounds is, as the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation team recently put it, “both unacceptable and incompatible with America’s long-term prosperity.”
Plenty more poor kids have the ability, but lots of them lack the supports from home and family that middle-class children enjoy, and many attend schools awash in low achievement, places where all the incentives and pressures on teachers and administrators are to equip weak pupils with basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such schools understandably invest their resources in boosting low achievers. They’re also most apt to judge teachers by their success in doing that and least apt to have much to spare—energy or time, incentive or money—for students already above the proficiency bar. These might fairly be termed the kids that [No Child Left Behind] forgot.Although there are children no longer as far behind, the lost potential is still significant.
We are by no means the first to flag this problem. As the authors of that 1993 report declared: “The United States is squandering one of its most precious resources—the gifts, talents, and high interests of many of its students. . . . This problem is especially severe among economically disadvantaged and minority students, who have access to fewer advanced educational opportunities and whose talents often go unnoticed.” (Emphasis added.)
It’s true that not all upper-middle-class kids with strong ability can count on having education-maximizing parents—some are content for their children to be well-adjusted and popular—and some youngsters themselves lack motivation. Yet the odds are hugely better that such girls and boys will get an education that does a decent job of capitalizing on their potential, beginning in their earliest months on earth. For they are all but certain to have adults in their lives who read to them, ask them questions that don’t have simple answers, show them intriguing things, and take them to interesting places—adults with the knowledge and capacity to navigate our complicated education system in pursuit of suitable options for their daughters and sons, and to press for access to the best of those options. These are adults who possess resources that enable them to shift to better options when necessary, whether that means changing neighbor- hoods, purchasing supplemental education offerings, even sending their children to private schools.None of the above is likely to sit well with the so-called progressives and all their feel-good fads that do nothing to inculcate bourgeois habits in feral youth, whilst killing ambition among young people not yet feral.
Equally able youngsters from poor families, on the other hand, depend mainly on their local public education system to supply them with suitable learning opportunities. Many start school behind the eight ball because they haven’t learned as many words or been asked to think about as many complicated things or seen as many informative places as their more-advantaged classmates. Many also enter schools that have a weak record of academic achievement and are staffed by less experienced teachers.
All of this puts at further risk those youngsters who were disadvantaged to begin with, compared with their middle-class peers, and makes it less likely that they will receive an education that nurtures their ability to the max. Able as they may be, they face a double whammy because their schools are beset by more urgent problems: poor attendance, children arriving hungry or sick, discipline challenges, language issues, and more. Such schools may also be strapped for resources—money, expert instructors, materials, and so on. Maximizing the potential of their high-ability, high-achieving pupils may be something that principals and teachers yearn to do but are simply too swamped to devote the energy and resources it requires.