Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Problem of Achievement (part 349...)

I've been getting emails from various blog readers about this topic, namely, the problem with pushing for gifted education on the basis that "these children will be our future Nobel Prize winning scientists, literary novelists, composers, etc."

It's not a bad argument in the sense that movers and shapers of our society do generally come from people in the top 1-3% of intelligence.

The problem is that many programs that recognize gifted students for their early achievements don't wind up choosing the ones who actually will shape the culture.

I was reminded of this by a story in today's USA Today on the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the paper's All-USA High School Academic Team.

Since the late 1980's, USA Today has been choosing a handful of high school stars to profile every year. I have my own beefs with the selection process (community service, geographic diversity, an athletic side and some sleek marketing will get you on the list faster than pure smarts will). But regardless, these are the folks USA Today says are the best of the best. Now it's looking at the best of the best from twenty years ago.

The paper takes great care to say all these men and women, now in their late thirties, are successful. And by most definitions they are. They're doctors, scientists, writers, moms, moms who are doctors, scientists and writers, etc.

You also haven't heard of almost any of them. The paper surveyed the winners from 1987-1996. One, David Liu, is a Harvard chemistry prof who was recently named to the Popular Science "Brilliant 10" for his research. Another, Brooke Ellison, has continued to garner headlines for her disability advocacy (paralyzed in the seventh grade, Ellison went on to graduate from Harvard. Christopher Reeve directed a cable TV movie about her life, and Ellison and her mom wrote a book about living with disabilities).

Many of the others no doubt have the potential to do great things. But by age 38, we're getting out of the "potential" age and into the years where truly influential people start showing results. The All-USA team is presented as the best of the crop. The twenty years after high school are enough time to start a billion dollar company, or get elected to Congress, write a best-selling novel, compose a symphony that every orchestra in the country is itching to play.

If these All Stars had done that, USA Today would have written about it. And they didn't.

But unlike the Prodigy Puzzle article from the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago, I don't think that means we should throw up our hands and say, well, let's forget programs for gifted kids since we don't know who will do great things with their lives. I view the issues as entirely separate.

As a society, we don't devote a huge chunk of our educational resources to meeting the needs of special education students because we expect them to win Nobel Prizes. We simply view it as inhumane not to develop potential, however much is there. We think society is better off if people find learning to be an enjoyable thing, however much they are able to learn.

Gifted students deserve no less. No matter what they do with their lives.


Catana said...

As long as identification is considered predictive, nothing will change. If all children were educated to their fullest capacity, the whole frustrating morass that is gifted education would go away. Of course, that will never happen.

Jackie said...

I suppose your comments and our cultural thinking sort of take for granted that we will "know about" the many amazing things that people will/do accomplish in their lives. There are many ways to "move and shake" without actually being recorded in history or noted in the media.

On the other hand, isn't it common for the best acedemic achievement to correlate with the moderately to gifted range and not the more extreme IQs? Acedemic success is not necessarily a predicter of high IQ and vice versa. I suppose the same applies in life??

Will said...

Forget about predicting the future leaders. The reason schools need to challenge top students is the same reason schools need to challenge average students or learning impaired students... To make sure every child is educated to their fullest potential. The movement right now to eliminate or reduce Honors and AP classes will have a terrible future impact.

I would not label our children "gifted" or "talented". However, they achieve in school WAY beyond their grade level and our two oldest take Honors and AP classes in high school. This is because at a young age, they discovered that learning can be fun, have developed a good work ethic and have a very well developed sense of good behavior. Our oldest goes off to college next year very well prepared because of her interactions with the teachers and students in her AP and Honors classes and her feeling that she can challenge herself and still be very successful.

The kids that benefit the most from gifted classes are not the truly gifted, but the above average student that discovers that by working hard in these challenging classes, they can achieve beyond what was thought possible.

If these classes for the high achievers are removed from our Medford, Oregon, high schools, our youngest, now in 5th grade, will be severely short changed. Without these classes and the teachers that teach them, many of the top students will be forced to find another way to get their high school education.

That the public school administrators are puzzled by declining enrollments and achievement is comic. Who do they think are being homeschooled or sent to private schools? Right now it is mainly elementary and middle school age children. With changes like the ones being implemented now, it will soon include a lot more of the brightest high school age children.

jason smith said...

For those interested in legitimate academic outcome studies on this issue see the following link

When looked at in a larger group precocious performance is a strong predictor of future achievement. Furthermore there are significant differences between the top quartile and bottom quartile of even the top 1% in achievement and creativity:

The popular articles that have claimed there is no advantage even in intellectually demanding fields for IQs over 120 are based mainly on hearsay (has anyone ever actually cited an original reference for this claim?).

The only evidence I have found for this claim was one study by Terman that compared the outcome of his subjects with childhood IQs over 180 with the average outcome of his group and a similar study of hunter college elementary school students. Neither found a difference. However both studies were flawed because

1) The IQ test used by Terman primarily weighted verbal ability and was inaccurate above an IQ of 150. Modern tests (e.g. the new SB V) give a much better measure of theoretical IQ (g) because they assess a broader range of aptitudes. The SAT approach pioneered by Stanley effectively did the same by providing a very high end test (for 8th graders) that measures broad abilities.

2) Very early IQ measures (the Hunter students were measured before the age of 4) do not accurately predict profound giftedness later in life. In contrast tests given after the age of 8 are highly accurate.

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