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How America is losing its next Einsteins
By David Fetterman
BY THE time he entered high school, a kid known to his friends as “Einstein”, was actually quite bright, even brilliant, and a series of standardized tests he took near the end of his sophomore year confirmed as much. His math scores were especially phenomenal. And, as it was later determined, he also had unusual artistic talent.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to figure out what happened to Einstein. Bored by his classes, totally unchallenged, he grew increasingly alienated with the system and that alienation led to a lot of misconduct.
Just how many of these Einsteins are there in the world? Too many, I’m afraid. But unlike this Einstein, too few of them are being discovered. That represents a terrible loss of brainpower. It’s also, given the loss of American’s competitive edge, nothing short of a scandal.
I’ve been doing research on gifted kids for more than a decade. I’ve met youngsters who work with nuclear physicists, conduct research on obscure diseases and construct their own double-beam transmission holograms. Not all gifted kids are quite so exotic, though. In fact, as most often defined, intellectually gifted children constitute the top 3 percent of the population, with IQs averaging in the 130 to 140 range. This is not exactly the genius level, but it’s still very bright, and classes that cater to the average student often do a poor job of meeting their needs.
I met Einstein shortly before he was taken out of his regular classes and placed in a more appropriate program – a program specifically designed for gifted students. He hardly fit the mold of a model pupil.
How America is losing some of its best minds
Einstein wore a black leather jacket without any shirt underneath. His feet were bare. And the sunglasses he wore in class made it impossible to see his eyes. Still, I couldn’t help but notice how articulate he was.
“Everybody was talking in the class and walking around,” he told me, recounting an incident that occurred before school officials realized how smart he was. “I couldn’t get any work done, so I decided to leave to go to the library. The teacher told me to stop. I said, “What for? Everybody else is just walking around talking.” And he said, “Just sit in your seat.” I decided to walk out anyway. He said I would get a detention slip. I just said. “If you can’t run your class without pulling this authoritarian insecurity thing, then you are no teacher. Call me when you start to change.” The next week, I was transferred to a lower-level math class.”
Of course, for a kid like Einstein, that was the worst possible thing that could have been done.
Gifted have special needs
The moral here should be obvious: Gifted kids have special needs, and to deny those needs is to waste their potential. Unfortunately, many policy makers do not seem to understand this. They assume that because the gifted are so bright they need no special help. But as research dating back to the early 1940s shows, nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1942, psychologist Leta Hollingworth conducted one of the first systematic studies of gifted children in the United States and found a distinct tendency among them to hide their intelligence in order to avoid ridicule and rejection from peers. Others, meanwhile, are just like Einstein. They become in her words, “contentious, and stubborn to an ex¬tent which renders than difficult and disagreeable in all human re¬lations, i nvolving subordina¬tion.” Hollingworth also noted that teachers, by resenting the chal¬lengi ng questions that the gifted pose, are themselves often part of the problem, informing kids in sub¬tle, though by no means uncertain terms, "that their brightness, quickness is not as acceptable as the behavior of the less bright, more normal student."
In addition to the "If they're so smart they’ll do just fine on their own" myth, there's a second misconception that conspires against the gifted. It's the myth that educational programs specifically designed for them are inherently elitist. This, as many social commentators have observed, is a peculiar American notion.
"We might as well admit that it is not easy for us as believers in democracy to dwell on the differences in capacity between men," says John Gardner, who founded Common Cause and is now a professor at Stanford. "Democratic philosophy has tended to ignore such differences where possible, and to belittle them where it could not ignore them. ... But extreme egalitarianism or, as I would prefer to say, Egalitarianism wrongly conceived which ignores differences in native capacity and achievement, has not served democracy well. ... It means the end of that striving for excellence which has produced mankind's greatest achievements."
The gifted are needed, yet in a country that puts a premium on conformity they are also resented, and just how those mixed feelings have played out over time is itself a fascinating, albeit sobering story.
We should provide free education to only the best and the brightest of the nation’s poor Thomas Jefferson once urged, so that “20 of the best geniuses could be raked from the rubbish anually.” That was the prevailing thinking before free education for all children came along. However, by the time Andrew Jackson was swept into office on a wave of populist sentiment, public education was seen as the “great leveler,” providing a common, cohesive base from which America could avoid the class distinctions that plagued Europe. More recently, interest in gifted education peaked during the late 1950s and early '60s -–after the Soviets launched Sputnik – and ebbed during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when national attention shifted toward the plight of the disadvantaged.
Today, once again, the pendulum appears to be shifting in favor of the gifted as the economic success of the Japanese, the Germans and other Europeans makes us increasingly nervous. As one manifestation of this concern, plans are now under way to establish a National Gifted and Talented Education Research Center this year. It’s a center that will, among other things, focus on finding gifted children who have traditionally been neglected – among them, the economically disadvantaged, individuals with disabilities, women, and those who have only limited English speaking abilities.
Still, even with such a center there is much more that needs to be done, and even in the midst of our growing concern there is every reason to believe that the gifted continue to get short shrift when it comes to actual funds. The figures that came out during the early 1980s were the first to underscore this point. In 1983, the state of California spent $16.8 million on 200,000 students enrolled in gifted programs. By contrast, the state spent nine times as much ($153 million) in schools for the students with disabilities (who make up roughly the same percentage of the population as gifted kids do). And four times as much money ($63 million) was spent on migrant students.
Of course, no one with an ounce of sensitivity would argue that either students with disabilities or migrant students should be getting less. In fact, if anything, they should be getting more. But given the funds that are available, shouldn’t gifted kids be getting their fair share? As of 1981, state education agencies across the country committed a total of $150 million to gifted education. This served an estimated 900,000 students. But more than 600,000 gifted students received no special support. And over the intervening years, this situation hasn’t improved very much, if at all.
In its best sense gifted education serves intellectual needs that would otherwise go unserved. There are two basic components to a no-nonsense, high quality program. One is enrichment, the depth with which a given subject is pursued. The other is acceleration, the pace at which material is presented. In gifted education, it’s enrichment plus acceleration (with special attention paid to critical thinking and problem solving skills) that equals a worthwhile environment.
Great contributions, to be sure, come from all levels of society. And we should do a better job of nurturing the gifts of all our students. But at the same time it needs to be acknowledged that the gifted have a unique and critical role to play – whether it’s to find a the cure to a fatal disease or to meet the economic challenges posed by stiff global competition.
Einstein serves as a case in point. In terms of dress or demeanor, he never did quite make it as a model of classroom propriety. Oh sure, there were subtle improvements. For example, he started wearing a T-shirt under his leather jacket.
But in terms of academics, the change was dramatic. After only a couple months in a special program for gifted kids, he went from being a C student to getting straight A’s and when it came time to think about college, Einstein applied to two Ivy League schools – both of which accepted him.
By any measure, it was remarkable turnaround.
-- David Fetterman, an administrator and Consulting Professor of Education at Stanford University and Sierra Nevada College, is the author of five books, including Excellence and Equality: a Qualitatively Different Perspective on Gifted and Talented Education. He wrote this article for Stanford Magazine.