Why Are We Failing Our Gifted Children?

Sadly, when it comes to how we treat our gifted youth, the United States gets a below-passing grade. According to a recent Newsweek article, “America hates its gifted kids,” the United States in most recent global tests “scored on a 1,000-point scale—the U.S. scored a 481 in math, 497 in science, and 498 in reading comprehension.” In comparison, international averages were 494, 501, and 496. With this said, the U.S. lags far behind the world’s leaders, such as China, Japan and the Netherlands. Many attribute much of this to the fact that a large majority of the educational focus is on those students who fall below average. What this leaves behind are the gifted students, who simply get pushed aside.

“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” said David Lubinski, a professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, in a recent news release. “They are the future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate, and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics].”

In 1971, Lubinski was responsible for tracking some of the nation’s brightest students through the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) at John Hopkins. Those in the program, which focused on pushing only those who fell within the above-average realm, have had success in a wide range of careers, “from law and medicine to arts and humanities, and to engineering, business and pedagogy.” Of the 320 participants, 203 earned at least a Master’s degree.

Yet, why are we not now treating those gifted students with the same methods that Lubinski did in the 1970s? Some point the blame to the controversial “No Child Left Behind” act. “A 2008 report found that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 indeed helped low-achieving students rise to meet a more rigorous course load, but shifted teachers’ sights away from the gifted kids, who seemed capable of helping themselves stay on track.”

Why is our educational system not focusing their sights on this group? According to the blog, “The Cabinet Report: Trusted Source for What’s News in Education,” much of this is due to a variety of factors. “While a majority of states have laws or policies requiring districts to identify and serve high-ability students, programs for the gifted across the U.S. are hampered by a lack of demographic data, adequate funding and appropriately trained teachers,” the blog reports. “While the majority of states have laws and policies that require districts to identify and/or serve their high-ability students, most of the policies are partially or totally not funded, with only four states fully funding their gifted education obligations in 2012-13,” stated the 2012-2013 State of the States in Gifted Education survey.

How can we shift our attention back to the gifted youth? While it is very difficult for educators to teach those students who are light-years ahead of others, there are a few ways for the school system to help this population. One solution would be to group children by their rate of learning, rather than chronological age. For example, a gifted 8-year-old may share a geometry class with high school freshmen. A talented 14-year-old may be better challenged at the local community college rather than attend Advanced Placement classes at the traditional high school. “The key is to personalize an individual’s education, even in preschool: If someone is a whiz at differential calculus, but can’t discern between her pronouns and her prepositions, maybe moving her out of the 11th grade entirely isn’t the best move,” the article explained.

While it is vital to challenge our gifted children, we need to specify how. If a student excels in mathematics, but not in English, it wouldn’t be wise to move him or her up a few grades, where they would fail in other subjects like English. In other words, both educators and parents absolutely need to raise expectations—just making sure that those they raise are the correct ones. Through steps like these, we can avoid ignoring our future leaders.