‘Scary smart’ — and invisible

Exceptionally smart students “are often invisible in the classroom, lacking the curricula, teacher input and external motivation to reach full potential,” writes Science Daily, citing a Vanderbilt study that followed gifted students for 30 years.

 The 320 high-IQ students went on to become business leaders, software engineers, physicians, attorneys, and leaders in public policy, reports Who Rises to the Top?, published in Psychological Science.

Despite their remarkable success, researchers concluded that the profoundly gifted students had experienced roadblocks along the way that at times prevented them from achieving their full potential. Typical school settings were often unable to accommodate the rapid rate at which they learned and digested complex material. . . . This resulted in missed learning opportunities, frustration and underachievement, particularly for the exceptionally talented, the researchers suggest.

To reach their full potential, the “scary smart” need “accelerated coursework, AP classes and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers like Peabody’s Programs for Talented Youth” said Harrison Kell, who collaborated on the study.


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  1. The educational establishment has been ignoring the needs of the top kids (not just the top 2% but probably the top 20% at least – depending on locality) for essentially a century. When my late FIL started teaching HS, in the early ’30s), the phrase “those kids will do fine, anyway” had been in regular use since the oldest teachers had begun their careers. The same attitude regularly surfaces in the WaPo’s regular whines about the “elitism” and “lack of diversity” at the Thomas Jefferson Magnet HS.

    The same people who support spending up to $100k/year to “educate” the most severely handicapped kids, who can’t speak, feed themselves or take care of personal hygiene and who will always be dependent on government welfare, are often outraged at the idea of providing a “fair and appropriate education” to those kids upon whom government will be dependent for tax revenue.

    Some of the resentment may stem from the fact that the gifted kids are likely to be of higher ability than many (in some cases, most) of their teachers – especially in ES-MS – and unlikely to “buy-into” the artsy-crafty, touchy-feely, groupwork approach that in so common in today’s schools. Even worse, they can be forced to “peer tutor” those whose struggles they can’t begin to comprehendhey are also likely to be a poor fit, socially, since they are intellectually not like their agemates.

  2. What sort of parents signed their kids up to take part in a talent search in the early 1970s?

    How do these participants’ results compare to their classmates in their schools’ honors sections?

    How highly should we value the sorts of things university professors value? Does becoming a professor represent the ne plus ultra of human accomplishment, or does it represent a group of people ill-adjusted to life outside the academy?

    I worry that making the “scary smart” the image of giftedness lessens the need to improve conditions for high achievers in nearly every high school. Everyone needs peers, even if they’re only 1 in 1,000. Or 1 in 10.

    • Cranberry: You said it better than I did about the need for academic peers. It should also be noted that the number and level of “high-achievers” is different at different schools, but they still deserve to have their needs met. I remember the culture shock experienced when a junior transfer from a small OH HS entered a Potomac, MD high school with a very strong honors and AP program and discovered that his B+ average, without any honors or APs, put him in the bottom half of the class. At his last school, he’d been one of the top handful – but hadn’t had the opportunity for more challenging work.

    • I was part of the SMPY, the Search for Mathematically Precocious Youth, run by Julian Stanley at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1970s. My parents had run out of options for getting help. New York City had no programs for 5th graders who had learned the standard calculus sequence.

  3. Guy Fandango says:

    This the reason that charter schools like BASIS are thriving. These are schools that are continually accused of skimming the cream off the top of district schools. Well, if they kids are willing to be challenged at an accelerated rate, and the districts can’t do it, it makes sense that they will go somewhere that will.

  4. Linda Seebach says:

    There’s a two-standard-deviation gap between the special-ed threshold (roughly IQ 70) and average (IQ 100);
    a two S.D. gap between average and gifted (130; top 2 or 3 percent); and another two S.D. gap, at least, between the top and the bottom of the gifted range.

    Those are big enough gaps to require qualitatively different educations, but typically none is offered to the top group, only the bottom. (It’s not great for the middle two groups, either, or for the teachers who have to deal with a 4 S.D. spread in their classes.

    • A four standard deviation gap in a single classroom is insanity, impossible, overwhelming, unwieldly. I wonder what the IQs of the liberal education bereaurocrats that force such insanities on the rest of us are?

  5. Jerry Doctor says:

    Again and again and again we were told the most important goal in our district was to “reduce the gap between high and low level achievers.” There are two ways to do that. Raising the level at the bottom is very difficult. Much easier to lower the top.

  6. It is not reasonable to expect school systems to devote significant resources to catering to the “1 in 10,000” kid. By definition, many districts may never see such a child.

    There is also thought to be an optimal range of human intelligence, which begins somewhere around 120 (below the cutoff for many gifted programs.) Even though there are kids who post higher scores, it may not be in their best interests to box them up in little hothouses.

    A better use of political engagement would be to create a curriculum aimed for the top 10%,which begins according to this site at about 119-120: http://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/iqtable.aspx. Such a curriculum would be a godsend for any child who finds the work offered in his classroom to be too easy and uninteresting.

    The gifted movement should also find reason to include the very-smart-but-LD contingent as well. Many billionaires are dyslexic, for example. The group of “very successful” people is much larger than the tiny group of “scary smart.”

    I worry about the effect of a highly structured set of standards, tied to grade level, on the education of kids who are ahead of their peers. There must be a mechanism to allow kids to follow independent work. Requiring them to tutor their peers during class should not be allowed. I don’t object to the students volunteering to help friends, from the goodness of their hearts, but too many teachers these days opt to “differentiate” by turning students into upaid tutors. If a child has the capacity to advance, she should be permitted to advance.

    • Educationally Incorrect says:

      You don’t necessarily need to cater to the 1 in 10,000. It would be a great help not to require teachers to ensure that that the lowest performer in the class gets the magical 60%. The only ways to do this, in my experience are:

      1) ‘Curving’ (by far the best choice, but frowned upon in many circles)
      2) dumbing down so the village idiot get 60%
      3) mixing in a lot of fluff so the village idiot gets ‘points’ that way.

      You can help the smart students just by making the passing grade, say, 30%, and severely ramping up the difficulty.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    It is interesting that even “narrow the gap/tracking is evil” people believe in severe tracking past grade 12. Is there an ed school professor anywhere who wants her daughter to go to an open enrollment state college which has every student take a common program (but tells the professors to “differentiate instruction”)?

    Instead, doesn’t she do whatever she can to get that young woman into a “selective college”?

    • cranberry says:

      How many ed school professors have their children in public high schools that don’t track? Or public schools at all?

      • Educationally Incorrect says:

        Why wouldn’t they have their kids in public schools? First, ed school professors are not necessarily that well paid, and, second, many, I bet, believe in what they preach.

        • Public school teachers send their kids to private schools at a rate substantially higher then the population in general. Not much of a stretch to extend the motivation to ed school profs.

        • cranberry says:

          Well, I know two who had children in private schools. And their default public schools were the best in the state.

    • Educationally Incorrect says:

      Perhaps they no longer think of hs graduates as “children?”