In 1971, researchers at Johns Hopkins University embarked on an ambitious effort to identify brilliant 12-year-olds and track their education and careers through the rest of their lives. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which now includes 5,000 people, would eventually become the world’s longest-running longitudinal survey of what happens to intellectually talented children (in math and other areas) as they grow up. It has generated seven books, more than 300 papers, and a lot of what we know about early aptitude.
David Lubinski is a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, where the project has been based since the 1990s. He and his wife and fellow Vanderbilt professor, Camilla Benbow, codirect the study and have dedicated their careers to learning about this exceptional population.
“This is like putting a magnifying glass on the tippy, tippy top of the distribution,” he says.
In a recent paper, Lubinski and his colleagues caught up with one cohort of 320 people now in their late 30s. At 12, their SAT math or verbal scores had placed them among the top one-100th of 1 percent. Today, many are CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons, and successful novelists.
That outcome sounds like exactly what you’d imagine should happen: Top young people grow into high-achieving adults. In the education world, the study has provided important new evidence that it really is possible to identify the kids who are likely to become exceptional achievers in the future, something previous research has not always found to be the case. But for that reason, perhaps surprisingly, it has also triggered a new round of worry.
Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start—they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores. Other research has shown that under-stimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated—especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.
“What the study underscored is the tremendous amount of potential here—they’re a national resource,” Lubinski says. “But it’s hard to separate the findings of this study from what we know about gifted kids in general. The genuine concern is, we know we’re not identifying all of this population. We’re not getting nearly enough, and we’re losing them.”
To people more worried about kids who are falling through the cracks altogether, doing slightly less than we could for the most gifted might not seem like a pressing problem. But if the study is right that exceptional youthful ability really does correlate directly with exceptional adult achievement, then these talented young kids aren’t just a challenge for schools and parents: they’re also demonstrably important to America’s future. And it means that if, in education, we focus on steering all extra money and attention toward kids who are struggling academically, or even just to the average student, we risk shortchanging the country in a different way.
“We are in a talent war, and we’re living in a global economy now,” Lubinski says. “These are the people who are going to figure out all the riddles. Schizophrenia, cancer—they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re going to create patents and the scientific innovations that drive our economy. But they are not given a lot of opportunities in schools that are designed for typically developing kids.”
Given all the pressures our education system faces, it seems almost indecent to worry about the travails of a small minority of very smart children. Understandably, federal and state education policy has long focused on more obvious problems that education can help address—problems such as the yawning gaps between the test scores of rich and poor students and between different racial groups. Tax dollars disproportionately go to help kids with learning disabilities and other disadvantages, because society generally agrees that they are most in need of help.
In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.
The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.
Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding. The Javits Act, the only federal law aimed at gifted students, pays for research and pilot education programs and is currently funded at $5 million, down from a peak of $11 million several years ago.
Gifted students do have their own advocacy group, the National Association for Gifted Children. This coalition of parents and educators is currently pushing a bipartisan bill called the Talent Act, which would require states and school districts to set policies for gifted education and report on the performance of advanced students. (In a concession to reality, the act does not seek any new funding.) The group’s former president, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, says that in an ideal world the federal government would require that gifted students be identified early and would fund schools’ efforts to train teachers and provide enrichment or accelerated learning programs.
Olszewski-Kubilius, an education professor at Northwestern University, considers the latest Vanderbilt finding important to the cause. “It’s probably the best research we have that connects childhood giftedness with adult achievement,” she says. She chalks up the current disparity to an otherwise well-intentioned attitude, one that seems to be ingrained in American culture.
“There’s a fundamental belief, not just among educators but in general in our society—and the word ‘gifted’ doesn’t help—that, well, they lucked out by virtue of genetics. They’ve got something other people don’t have, and so they should just be satisfied with that. They don’t need any more.”
Research, however, suggests that they do—or at least that they benefit from extra investment. Two recent papers based on data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that, among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations—even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school—went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities. In one of the studies, the Vanderbilt researchers matched students who skipped a grade with a control group of similarly smart kids who didn’t. The grade-skippers, it turned out, were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in science, math, or engineering.
“If you look at the control group” in the grade-skipping study, says Lubinski, “they’ll say, ‘The curriculum was moving too slow, I felt bored, I was frustrated.’ Those kids still do better than the norm, but the ones who have their developmental needs met, they do much better.”
But providing these smart kids with an education that matches their abilities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Politically, it raises the fraught question of whether our education system should be in the business of identifying and segregating elite students—an idea that has been tried and rejected before, for good reasons.
For most of the 20th century, schools routinely divided students into advanced, average, and remedial categories, a practice called “tracking” that was largely discredited by research showing it only exacerbated inequality, especially inequality linked to race and class.
“The original basis was the idea that some people are born to lead and others are born to follow, so you identify the leaders early and train them to lead,” says Samuel Lucas, a Berkeley sociologist whose research has focused on inequality in education. Those who were groomed to be followers, he notes, consistently wound up with worse teachers, scarcer supplies, and a weaker curriculum than their more advanced peers.
“It’s difficult to introduce stratification into the system without introducing inequality in how people get into those stratifications,” Lucas says. “Students at the bottom should be getting the best of resources so they can catch up. They certainly shouldn’t be getting worse resources, and the research shows that this is what happens.”
While he is not opposed to programs that identify and serve gifted children, Lucas warns that any such effort will be gamed by more well-to-do parents, angling to get their children in, then fighting to ensure the gifted group gets better teachers, newer technology, and other advantages. Great care would be required, he says, so as not to “end up with another system for those at the top to reinforce that they belong there.”
While equity at the classroom level is important, Lubinski and others who study the gifted say that the issue goes beyond education to national competitiveness. “We’re living in a global economy now,” Lubinski says, “and there are only very few people of any discipline who push the frontiers of knowledge forward. This is the population who you’d do well to bet on.”
Other countries are already making that bet. Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore have national laws requiring that children be screened for giftedness, with top scorers funneled into special programs. China is midway through a 10-year “National Talent Development Plan” to steer bright young people into science, technology, and other in-demand fields. In a 2010 speech announcing the scheme, former President Hu Jintao called talent “the most important resource and...a key issue that concerns the development of the Party and country.”
In a democracy, such central planning may be as distasteful as the notion of shifting resources away from kids who need them. Advocates for the gifted, aware of those concerns, are trying to find ways for us to develop our own native talent without exacerbating inequality.
One fix they tend to focus on is investing in early childhood education for all: Olszewski-Kubilius points out that expanding access to preschool would allow teachers to identify kids with the most potential before they even get to kindergarten. Requiring regular screening of all kids from elementary to high school would catch those whose talents emerge later than their peers’, as well as smart kids whose parents aren’t savvy enough to advocate for them.
Other education researchers propose gearing the entire curriculum toward the highest-achieving students, with extra time outside of class for their less-talented peers to catch up. It’s an idea that Adam Gamoran, president of the youth-focused William T. Grant Foundation and a former University of Wisconsin sociologist, says could address the issue of inequality without holding back high achievers.
Regardless of how we choose to deal with the gifted, it’s a challenge that seems more acute as we learn more about this population.
“How many people can become an astrophysicist or a PhD in chemistry?” Lubinski says, comparing it to playing in the NFL or playing at Carnegie Hall. “We really have to look for the best—that’s what we do in the Olympics, that’s what we do in music, and that’s what we need to with intellectual capital.”
Amy Crawford has written for Boston Magazine, Smithsonian, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.