I was recently sent an interesting article about a gifted preschool program called the ECAP Academy in Wichita, Kansas. Kids as young as three are tested for giftedness and, if admitted, introduced to a preschool curriculum designed to stretch their little brains.
I can't comment on the school specifically, or the test (which was developed by the school's leaders), but the existence of a few gifted preschool programs like this around the country raise some interesting questions.
Since the mainstream recognition of gifted children and gifted education a few decades ago, schools have generally screened for giftedness in second or third grade. This is also the age in which schools tend to start any gifted programming they may offer. But many parents of highly gifted children have known since very early on that there was something different about their kids. So why do schools wait so long to identify and intervene?
There are a few potential explanations, some of which show good faith toward the whole concept of giftedness, and some which do not. In the "good faith" category, there's the explanation that schools often use IQ tests to identify giftedness, and such tests can be unreliable when used with very young children. Though there are preschool admissions tests (which we hear about a lot here in New York!), and some IQ tests are normed for young children, anyone who's spent much time with a 2-3 year old knows there are a lot of other things that can affect performance. The kid may not want to spend time with a stranger. The kid may want a snack, want a nap, etc. But good preschool programs already take this into account. And there's a big difference between testing a child at 2 or 3, and testing him or her at age 5 (which is when, incidentally, the Davidson Institute recommends testing potentially highly gifted children).
The other potential explanation is the more negative one. Many a parent has been told that kids all even out by third grade. Hence, this is when you can tell if a child is actually gifted, as opposed to, I don't know, faking it. So schools only identify and offer programming in third grade or later.
Aside from not being true, I hardly think the argument that kids all move toward the median is an argument against testing for giftedness earlier. Why not screen multiple times? Maybe more kids will be identified as needing intervention in third grade than in first. That's fine. There's no reason identification has to be a one-shot deal.
But beyond that, if you think about it, this comment shows a fundamental distrust of parents.
The unstated message is that privileged or neurotic parents have been hot-housing their toddlers, and any sign of early giftedness is just evidence that these parents have been shoving flashcards in their tots' faces since they exited the womb. Once the professional educators take over when the kids are 5 or 6, this will all be sorted out.
There are a few problems with this attitude. First, you don't actually have to know how to read to be screened for giftedness (see the tests for 2-3 year olds). Kids who have no exposure to formal education can certainly show signs of extreme intelligence. So it isn't a necessary first step to get all kids up to speed on reading in order to figure out who needs more challenging work.
And second, third grade is actually way too late for many highly gifted children to be identified and served. As the Davidson Institute notes, "Profoundly gifted children often have very difficult early school experiences, which could have been ameliorated or prevented entirely if parents and teachers had had accurate information about their abilities, academic instructional levels, and social/emotional needs. Gifted girls may 'go underground' by age eight, unwilling to demonstrate their precocious abilities in public for fear of making others feel inadequate. Extremely gifted children can also reach the ceilings of various test instruments if you wait until they are older to test them (some profoundly gifted children even reach the ceiling of the Stanford-Binet LM by the age of eight or nine). With any other exceptionality, we would not deliberately wait until several years of elementary school have passed in order to identify the exceptionality."
The last sentence hints at the big problem. Many people see gifted education as some kind of reward. So you wait until all kids have been adequately introduced to formal schooling, and then reward the kids who get good grades with pull-outs that highlight bugs, Robin Hood, the culture of Japan, etc. Done right, gifted education should, instead, be an intervention for kids who need it. Kids are screened for hearing issues at birth because we know that failure to identify such a problem will stunt their learning for life. Likewise, failure to identify and accommodate extreme intelligence can stunt children, too.