What geniuses need

Genius kids don’t need acceleration — taking the same old classes faster — writes Richard Rusczyk on Britannica Blog. Rusczyk, who specializes in identifying and educating ultra-talented math students, is responding to the Time story on genius students.

Our top students nowadays usually are accelerated in school. And they’re still bored and underserved.

The problem our students face in their regular schools is that the standard curriculum is not designed for high-performing students, just as PE classes are not designed for our best athletes. The classes are too slow and too easy. And skipping grades or going to community college doesn’t address the core issue either. It puts these students in yet another class that isn’t designed for them, only now the other students in the class are many years older, which creates its own social problems. A better solution is to create a specialized curriculum for honors-level students, just as there’s specialized training for the basketball team and the band. I don’t mean honors classes – these are usually taught from the same books and with the same material as the regular classes. I mean books and classes developed specifically for our future mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

My daughter’s half-sister enrolled in college this month at the age of 14, skipping high school entirely. She took some college classes last year, when she was in eighth grade, and did very well. It seems to be a good option for her. And it’s hard to imagine a high school with enough students like her to offer the Latin, Greek and religious studies classes that interest her. Even if she were a math-science genius, which she’s not, would there be enough geniuses to create separate classes?

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  1. This gap in the curriculum is a place where I can see private educational services stepping in and providing a service. A company — large and incorporated like Sylvan or just a one-person startup — could create on-demand courses in advanced subjects that cater to the needs of individual students, led by content area experts. If there were some way to earn credit in some form or another — high school or college — attached to this opportunity, then top students could either work on subjects independently or band together in a cohort and “buy” a class through which they work as a group.

    It’s not exactly a charter school approach (although charters could have something to contribute here as well) but it gets around the “critical mass” problem inherent in traditional public schools.

  2. Well, he doesn’t use the word “genius”. He calls them “honors-level” students or “high-performing”.

    I know that there was a group of about 25-30 students in my high school class (of about 600 all told) that would probably fit the mold he’s talking about here. We all took all of the math and science that our school offered (which was math through calculus and two years of physics, chemistry and biology).

    There would have been enough of us for a specially-taught section of classes, but who would have taught it? We had an excellent math teacher that could have gone a lot further with us, but our physics teacher was out of his depth even in the second-year class (he was a math major who got stuck with physics) and our chemistry teacher was no great shakes either – she was great at what she knew, but what she knew was high school chemistry.

    I think you would be best off encouraging these kinds of kids to pursue their own self-study, whether that is a mentored seminar within the high school or classes at a college.

  3. I mention again the highly-gifted magnet schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District — perhaps the only thing that the LAUSD does right. The entry criterion is an IQ of 145 or more, on a test administered by a LAUSD psychometrist. The curricula at the highly-gifted magnets, though based on the standard curricula, are tailored for “genius-level” students, and the faculty (particularly at the single high school, the HGM at North Hollywood High) are able to not only deal with, but truly challenge, the students.

    Of course, LAUSD, in its wisdom (doubtless based on the perceived lack of “equality” that the highly-gifted magnets exemplify), is now trying to dumb down the program. For example, the English teachers at the HGM at North Hollywood were recently told that they will have to start following the district-imposed curriculum, which mandates that every class at every high school must be doing the same thing during every week during the year. Part and parcel of this is that 10th-grade students will read only one novel (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) during the entire school year, even though (a) 10th graders at the HGM read it in their 8th grade classes, and (b) as nice a book as it is, it is a simplistic piece of junk in comparison with the novels that the HGM teachers normally assign. Ahh, progress … and no child left behind.

  4. There are a lot of excellent summer programs that meet the needs of children who are excelling in math. These include the program at Hampshire College, PROMYS at BU, the program at Ohio State, etc. Not only do they teach excellent math (usually number theory), but they introduce kids to other kids who are truly exceptional in math–and show them what hard work really looks like, and how you can’t rest on your brains if you’re surrounded by people as smart or smarter than you. I do not know if there are equivalent caliber programs in physics or chemistry; I’ve never seen such. But the math programs really are exceptional at teaching them how to work problems, think creatively, and challenging these students, often for the first time in their lives.

    Maybe there need to be more of those summer programs. Maybe they need to be adapted to be year around programs. Maybe they just need more advertising, as now those slots go to kids who are the kids of college profs or the extremely talented students at extremely talented schools–the bronx sci/brooklyn tech/gw math teachers funnel the right kids to apply to these programs.

    Here in the Twin Cities, the U of Minnesota offers honors math to high school or junior high school students who test above a certain level. The curricula does 4 years of high schoo math in two years, and then moves on from there, and I believe it does that more deeply as well.This solves the problem of “not enough students”, because they take from across the twin cities, and if I understand correctly, these classes satisfy the public school math requirements.

    Other colleges could do the same, create special curricula for special students. The question really is: why don’t they do that more often?

  5. btw, such math programs are often referred to as “math camp”.

  6. You would think that a guy who teaches gifted kids would know the meaning of the term “accelerated”.

    Acceleration should mean to progress quicker… i.e. a year of math in six months.

    What he is referring to is “advanced placement”.

  7. I thought that gifted students were given enrichment not acceleration. The former is busy work to keep the kids in line. The latter is actually beneficial. How can you get these confused?

  8. A friend of mine has worked with Rusczyk, and says that Rusczyk does know what he’s talking about. My friend has a PhD in math from Stanford, and taught at Duke before deciding to become a programmer, sort of retired to tutor “profoundly gifted” kids, and has experience with the kind of kids that go to college early. Rusczyk’s books are excellent, by the way.

    I would agree that just pushing really smart kids through the crap that passes for math in U.S. schools isn’t ideal, but the alternative is a problem, as people point out. The smart teachers and students are at the big name universities, so sufficiently smart kids aren’t going to be helped unless they are with other smart kids and teachers. The Ross Program at Ohio State is a way of helping these kids, and it does help them, but they often find going back to high school pretty agonizing after a summer of really being pushed, too. Watching my youngest try to learn algebra from the awful book they use is painful, but she wants to spend as little time as possible on the subject, so trying to teach her something more substantial (but less boring) isn’t working at the moment.

  9. Here’s the real mathcamp: Canada/USA Mathcamp (I taught there 3 years – 5 weeks of the largest concentration of math freaks you’ll ever find).

    In the age of distance learning, it’s easier to get the number of students you need for accelerated subjects. I had the benefit of being in the right place at the right time – my county in Maryland had countywide classes for those accelerated beyond the normal levels in math. We did algebra 1 & 2 and geometry in 7th and 8th grade, having a class that met for 2 hours on Saturday mornings. During the regular school week, I just sat in the highest level math class (theoretically doing my math homework, but that was done by Sunday, so I mainly read sci-fi…. the regular middle school math teacher thought this looked bad and got me to participate in her class for a couple days, but then decided my participation made things look even worse. So she let me read quietly in the back.) Then, we moved to North Carolina at the right time for me to be able to go to NCSSM, which pulls from the entire state.

    I’m glad my parents never had me skip a grade, because that wouldn’t have helped matters. If you go ahead one level and are still working faster than the other students – you’re still not served. I was liked well enough by teachers that I convinced them to do what I wanted, which was mainly read. Because I wasn’t spending my time going too far ahead in the regular math curriculum, I was reading books like Mrtin Gardner’s Mathematical Games, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, Raymond Smullyan’s logic books — I learned a lot more math orthogonal to the regular precalculus arc kids are pushed through. So whenever I find a kid advanced in math, I recommend they go sideways in learning math as opposed to trying to speed up on the prescribed path. It causes fewer problems in dealing with school admins (still had some trouble), and you learn a lot more math than you would otherwise.

  10. People have been talking about addressing the needs of gifted children for years, maybe decades. I agree that it is very important. It is wrong to not help them develop their potential.

    But sadly I don’t believe that public schools are going to fundamentally improve in the next five to ten years.