Failing Our Geniuses
Time magazine covers the Davidson Academy, and the issue of gifted education, in depth this week. You can read the article here.
Reporter John Cloud spent a week at the Academy meeting the kids (and apparently gawking at Bob's Ferrari, but anyway...) He reached many apt conclusions. Namely, that our schools are just not set up to handle highly gifted children. It's not because they don't know what to do. Acceleration, dual-enrollment, and other such accommodations are well-studied and known to be effective. It's just that we don't like doing them. Such accommodations hint at the idea that some children are -- and will always be -- smarter than others. And in the egalitarian world of education, that is simply not acceptable.
"At the academy, the battered concept of IQ--complicated in recent years by the idea of multiple intelligences, including artistic and emotional acuity--is accepted there without the encumbrances of politics," he writes. "The school is a rejection of the thoroughly American notion that if most just try hard enough, we could all be talented. Many school administrators oppose ability grouping on the theory that it can perpetuate social inequalities, but at the Davidson Academy, even the 45 élite students are grouped by ability into easier and harder English, math and science classes. The school poses blunt questions about American education: Has the drive to ensure equity over excellence gone too far? If so, is the answer to segregate the brightest kids?"
That's certainly one answer -- to congregate such students in a place like the Davidson Academy -- since schools have been so unwilling to do simple things like acceleration. Of course, as Cloud points out, it's a harsh choice for these students to have to move to Reno in order to find kindred spirits. It would be nicer if their home schools could figure out a way to challenge them. But instead, gifted programs wind up being about enrichment. Kids get 90 minutes a week of pull-out on topics such as bugs, or ancient Egypt, or forensics, or what have you, and these programs wind up being open to kids who may not be gifted, but who work hard and get good grades. Why not? Enrichment seems like a reward, not an intervention for kids who desperately need it. So why not reward kids with gumption and determination, regardless of IQ? We cling to egalitarianism and the hard work concept in intelligence even as we recognize that it's only part of the equation elsewhere. I run many hours and miles a week. If I ran more, and had a professional coach, I'd probably be able to run faster. But I would never run as fast as Paula Radcliffe. I simply don't have the physical ability.
Likewise, a child with an IQ of 155 is simply wired differently than a child of average intelligence. We can quibble over how meaningful individual IQ points are, and how high the scale can go, and whether our tests can actually test such a concept accurately, but no one who's been around children of average and extreme intelligence can deny a difference. Cloud talks about listening to the Davidson Academy children speak and realizing how different they sound than others their age (even as he notes that modesty is not a virtue of some).
He uses the standard line that these children will be the ones most likely to solve great problems in the future. Perhaps. That's a difficult argument to make, because plenty of gifted kids turn out to be very normal adults who don't move the world. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given an education that meets their needs. That's a right we deserve simply for being human. I'm glad to see Time magazine feels the same way.