The Smartest Kid in the Room

C.J. was a 7th grader who happened to be a computer whiz; he worshipped Bill Gates and all things Microsoft. This was 1995—before Gates and his company became part of every facet of American life—and when the internet was still referred to by the more cumbersome “World Wide Web.” When he was my student, I researched in the library—the bound Encyclopedias have always been a comfort to me—and then, reluctantly, with a clunky search engine called Dogpile. When C.J. spoke with me about computers—always with passion, animation and fascination—I rejoiced in his knowledge and enthusiasm, but could not truly nurture that significant aspect of his intelligence. I needed a specialist in gifted education. There were numerous experts in my building I could call on for assistance with my students’ learning disabilities or their emotional distress, but there was no one to help me meet C.J.’s needs.

Educators across the country struggle with this. There is no federal or state mandate for gifted education or enrichment opportunities. It’s true that Vermont state statutes acknowledge there are children “who, when compared to other of their age, experience, or environment exhibit capacity of high performance in intellectual, creative or artistic areas, possess unusual capacity for leadership or excel in specific academic areas.” But this statute later spells out the reality: there will be no specific money attached to the statute, and the recognition of these students does not “create an additional entitlement to educational or other services.” Lawmakers know that these students inherently need different things in order to reach their full potential, but it is a hollow acknowledgement; parents and teachers must make do.

In this country, we believe that gifted children will “figure it out” and “find their way”—even if their schools do not address their academic needs. The already small resources allocated for the education of gifted and talented (G/T) students have steadily eroded due to costs related to No Child Left Behind implementation. The year after NCLB was made law, Illinois cut $16 million from G/T education; Michigan’s support dropped from $5 million to $500,000. In the current recession, Congress has not funded the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Educational Program—the only Washington initiative to meet the needs of G/T students.

In a provocative 2007 article in Time magazine—Are We Failing Our Geniuses?—senior writer John Cloud argues that we should not spend 10 times as much trying “to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.” He notes that gifted students drop out at the same rates as non-gifted students, and suffer from isolation and underachievement when they languish in classes that hold them back. Cloud also asserts that this “radical egalitarianism”—and its focus on identifying deficiencies instead of fostering gifts—ignores that “prodigious intellectual talents are a threatened resource.”  Our best and brightest math students, for example, significantly underperform when stacked up against math stars from other countries.

Teachers and parents both struggle with how best to educate gifted students.  Andrew Solomon—author of Far From the Tree and a recent New York Times magazine feature on raising prodigies—argues that the American push for the “well-rounded student” has produced a “cult of the average”, which has been a “disaster for gifted children.” He explains: “Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension.” They need resources and support to shepherd their children through an educational system that is not designed to meet their needs.

There are many reasons why we underfund enrichment and G/T programs. Susan Goodkin, an advocate for G/T education, argues in a Washington Post Op-Ed, “While administrators and teachers can lose their jobs for failing to improve the test scores of low-performing students, they face no penalties for failing to meet the needs of high-scoring students.” She highlights that there are no consequences for schools when students with “advanced” math scores early in elementary school regress to merely “proficient” several years later. Although Goodkin’s argument seems to have an unfair subtext of suspicion of public educators, her underlying point is a valid one; we must shift how we define a school’s success. Are schools successful when 20% of high school dropouts are the students with the most intellectual potential?

Advocating for enrichment opportunities for G/T students makes many people uncomfortable. We are a society keenly focused on issues of academic fairness, and—of course—parents do not want their children to miss out on valuable education opportunities. But we readily accept that there are athletic and musical prodigies, while steadfastly resisting the notion that really smart students need special educational opportunities. When Olympic champ Gabby Douglas won her gold medals, our collective conscience didn’t question what it took for her to achieve excellence. Columbia University education professor Abraham Tannenbaum encourages us to think similarly about gifted students: “Giftedness requires social context that enables it.” He likens raw intelligence to muscles that must be exercised in order to strengthen.

We absolutely have a moral duty to adequately educate all children. But we also have a comparable economic and cultural imperative to enrich and support gifted students like C.J.  The smartest kids in the room are a key component of our economic hopes for the future. And their creativity and ingenuity mirrors the intellectual dynamism that continues to draw students to our nation from all over the world. It is not elitist to foster their imagination; it’s cultural survival.

2 thoughts on “The Smartest Kid in the Room

  1. You have written a very informative article on the need to address the other “special needs” kids, those who excel, who need constant opportunities and challenges for learning. It is sad that we equate excellence with elitism. I don’t suggest that we blindly follow another country’s model, but my experience as a child in Germany’s school system when I was growing up might be illustrative.

    Third grade was the preparation for the all-important fourth grade, during which much of the rest of your life in Germany is determined. At that time, in the fourth grade your teacher made a decision about whether or not to write a recommendation to allow you to take the admissions test for the Gymnasium. No recommendation – No test. No test – No Gymnasium. No Gymnasium – No University, but rather apprenticeship in a trade. Simple – no appeal, no maybe later, no late bloomers.

    This is the way the system was then. Once you get your teacher’s recommendation, you apply to take the test for a specific Gymnasium, of which there were several in my home town of Mannheim. Think long and hard about your choice, because you may only take the exam once. There is no practice, or do-over, or let me try for another school. In my case it was the Lessing Gymnasium that my mother had chosen, at the time an all boy’s school that was qualitatively or prestige wise between a Realschuhle, a kind of secondary school whose emphasis was more on preparation for business and modern languages, and at the other extreme the more demanding Humanistische Gymnasium, which was basically for geeks and braniacs who would eventually concentrate on engineering in their university studies or become Latin or Greek classicists.

    So, once I was admitted to take the examination, I was allowed to take a three day written and oral examination Just to remind you: those taking the test are probably not yet ten years old? The process is as follows – there are a given number of seats for the entering class. I don’t really remember how many, but let’s agree on 60, just so we have a number. So given that the number of available seats is 60, if your score falls between having the first place score and having the sixtieth best score, of those taking the exam, you’re in. If your number is 61 or beyond, welcome to four more years in elementary school followed by apprenticeship. No muss, no fuss, no appeal. I haven’t been quite truthful, you were allowed to take the exam only once, but at either the end of the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, although I did not know of anyone who got into the school who took the exam later than the fourth grade. Also, no matter at the end of which year you took the exam, you still started in the first year of the Gymnasium – in other words, you would be one or two years behind your age contemporaries. The options for later years were hypothetical in my mind.

    Ok, so now you’re in Gymnasium, and you’re ten or eleven years old. You get to choose whether to start with an ancient language, Latin or Greek, or a modern language, English or French. You are “highly encouraged” to start with an ancient language, in my case Latin. Or to put it bluntly, nobody who has any notion of hoping to succeed chooses a modern language to start with. Only dummies start with a modern language, and dummies don’t stay in the Gymnasium. It may at first glance (or second and third glance, even) appear to be a bit elitist on the surface, and I suppose it is.

    The first year was probationary. Any failure in any subject – do not pass goal, do not collect any money, never mind two hundred Marks, Dollars, or now Euros; go directly back to Volksschuhle (elementary school) for four more years and get apprenticed.

    Assuming you get through the first year, the Sexta (sixth form), and you are passed to the second year, the Quinta (fifth form), you get to make another choice. Which modern language would you like to take up, English or French, while of course continuing with Latin. I chose English. Let’s say you make it to year three, the Quarta (fourth form), you get to choose another language that you haven’t yet taken that you will add to your program. In my case it was French. There are six more years to go after this, the Untertertia (lower third form), Obertertia (upper third form), Untersecunda (lower second form), Obersecunda (upper second form), Unterprima (lower first form), and Oberprima (upper first form). Students in the Oberprima are gods. They survived the winnowing process, they have arrived, they are the elite. They are nervous gods to be sure, but gods nonetheless. I’ll tell you why they are nervous shortly.

    At the time I went there, once you got to the fourth year (Untertertia), teachers started calling you formally by your last name and address you with the formal pronoun “Sie” (Thou), rather than the familiar Du (you). Perhaps we can think of this rite of passage as a kind of a Teutonic Bar Mitzvah. Here’s an example of how this new more formal mode of address might be used: “Herr Balint, Sie sind aber ein blöder Esel“, “Mr. Balint, my, what a dumb ass thou are”. This formality did not however mean that you could no longer be called up in front of the class to receive a hard slap across your cheek for missing an answer, or for being inattentive.

    Back to the program. During the last three years, Greek was offered. Did I say offered? I meant mandatory. Not, you may wish to take Greek, or you may consider taking Greek, or it is suggested you take Greek. Of course while all this was going on, one also studied mathematics, science, German, history, geography, art, and music. There were no electives. There was also physical education which included gymnastics (who doesn’t like to fall off the high bar?), soccer, track and field, and my favorite – boxing.

    About half of those fortunate enough to have gained entrance into the Gymnasium washed out during the first year. Only about one fourth will make it all the way through for nine years and pass the Abitur (Abi for short), the comprehensive final examination which you get to take only once. It can encompass all you have learned in the last nine years. There is no make-up exam. Remember that I told you above that the lads in the Oberprima were gods, although nervous gods? Here’s why. You must pass the Abi. No Abitur – No University. Your nine year investment can all be lost on this final examination. Some people leave with kind of a pre-graduation at the end of their seventh year in the Gymnasium and perhaps enter some kind of business school or take an entry level administrative job.

    Yes, one can view this as elitism, but it does create a cultured, informed, critically thinking, well-rounded group of students who strive for excellence, and who are ready for the university without having to take remedial courses. That’s our competition. Time to think about this while we discuss buying new uniforms and equipment for the football team, and cutting programs for the scholars.

  2. I see this at my community college all the time. Many of the brightest and most creative students that we have are isolated. They are unchallenged. I have one student in particular who needs desperately to be in a group of his intellectual peers where his own ideas will be met with others that are equally interesting. Right now, it’s a recipe for both arrogance and loneliness. We need to do better. It is “culural survival.”

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