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Editorial: Even Gifted Students Can’t Keep Up
In a post-smokestack age, there is only one way for the United States to avoid a declining standard of living, and that is through innovation. Advancements in science and engineering have extended life, employed millions and accounted formore than half of American economic growth since World War II, but they are slowing. The nation has to enlarge its pool of the best and brightest science and math students and encourage them to pursue careers that will keep the country competitive.
But that isn’t happening. Not only do average American students perform poorly compared with those in other countries, but so do the best students, languishing in the middle of the pack as measured by the two leading tests used in international comparisons.
On the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test, the most recent, 34 of 65 countries and school systems had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds scoring at the advanced levels in mathematics than the United States did. The Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland all had at least twice the proportion of mathematically advanced students as the United States, and many Asian countries had far more than that.
Other tests have shown that America’s younger students fare better in global comparisons than its older students do, which suggests a disturbing failure of educators to nurture good students as they progress to higher grades. Over all, the United States is largely holding still while foreign competitors are improving rapidly.
Federal, state and local governments and school districts have put little effort into identifying and developing students of all racial and economic backgrounds, both in terms of intelligence and the sheer grit needed to succeed. There are an estimated three million gifted children in K-12 in the United States, about 6 percent of the student population. Some schools have a challenging curriculum for them, but most do not.
With money tight at all levels of government, schools have focused on the average and below-average students who make up the bulk of their enrollments, not on the smaller number of students at the top. It is vital that students in the middle get increased attention, as the new Common Core standards are designed to do, but when the brightest students are not challenged academically, they lose steam and check out.
Analysts and scholars have studied international trends and identified the familiar ingredients of a high-performing educational system: high standards and expectations; creative and well-designed coursework; enhanced status, development and pay of teachers; and a culture where academic achievement is valued, parents are deeply involved and school leaders insist on excellence.
But raising the performance of the best students will require the country to do far more. Here are a few recommendations:
The federal and state governments should support education of the gifted more aggressively. The federal government provides very little money to educate gifted students and state financing is spotty, with many states leaving it to local school districts. The states face a loss of federal funds if students don’t reach minimum proficiency levels, but they are given no such incentive to propel top students to defined standards of excellence. The federal government should require schools to monitor and improve the performance of their gifted students, backed up with financial incentives. Only eight states track the academic performance of gifted students as a separate group.
More money could help create a corps of teachers trained in identifying and teaching highly talented students. Many such students are never identified because of assumptions that overlook minority and low-income students.Currently, only three states require their general education teachers to have some type of training in gifted education and only 17 states require teachers in programs for the gifted and talented to have a credential for gifted education.
Fewer than 45 percent of the nation’s public secondary schools offer Advanced Placement courses, which inject extra rigor and are intended to prepare students for more challenging work in the first year of college. That’s not enough, especially because the courses are increasingly popular when they are offered. At the same time, a disturbing number of the exams taken by A.P. students received failing scores in May — from 38 to 43 percent in biology, physics B, calculus AB, statistics and chemistry — suggesting that too many students are not being prepared adequately and taught well.
In past years, the College Board, which administers the program and the exams, has been justifiably criticized for requiring too much rote learning of a broad range of facts, and too little time for in-depth study, lab work or creative ventures. But now the board is beginning a drastic revision of its courses and exams, which will focus on the most important core concepts of a subject and leave more room for students and teachers to become more creative.
These courses are often missing in rural areas, which lack enough talented students and qualified teachers. It’s a perfect opportunity to take advantage of high-speed Internet service, making use of online materials and video learning to bring expertise to the most distant schoolhouses.
Early College Admission
The ultimate form of radical acceleration is to let extremely gifted students enter college at a young age. The University of Washington has long allowed a select group of seventh and eighth graders, none older than 14, to skip high school entirely and enter a one-year “transition school” in which they live at home to ease the social adjustment while taking courses on campus taught by an experienced faculty. The courses include physics and precalculus along with English, history and ethics. In the following year, transition-school graduates become regular full-time students.
Follow-up surveys have found that these early-entrance students do well academically and socially compared with regular students and with other talented students who have not skipped high school. Most acquire graduate degrees and some found their own start-up companies. A more modest approach used in some communities allows gifted students to take some courses in nearby colleges while still in high school.
In addition, SAT tests that are typically used as college entrance exams could be administered to some students before age 13 to identify who might easily jump ahead to a high school class in a particular subject. A few of these precocious students might be what researchers call the “scary smart,” whose reasoning ability, as measured by math or verbal SAT scores, puts them in the top 1 in 10,000 for their age group.
A pioneering study has followed a cohort of those extremely smart students for 25 years. It found that they have made outstanding contributions to advancing scientific and medical knowledge, earning tenured professorships, developing software, receiving patents, and serving in leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies and in technology, law and medicine. Such students could easily do the academic work in a high school class while remaining with their age peers in other subjects, or could explore real-world learning through internships and apprenticeships, potentially for school credit. The cost would be minimal. No need to hire or train new teachers or write new curriculums. Just add another student to an existing classroom
Rena Subotnik, director of the Center for Psychology in the Schools and Education at the American Psychological Association, along with several colleagues,has suggested that gifted students receive psychological coaching from well-trained teachers and from mentors outside the school system, to strengthen their ability to handle stress, cope with setbacks and criticism, take risks to achieve a goal, and compete or cooperate with others as needed. Such skills are often as important as brain power to achieve success. She has also proposed that the main goal of gifted education should be to produce not just experts but individuals who will make pathbreaking, field-altering discoveries and products that shake up the status quo.
There is little reliable evidence on the best ways to educate gifted students; much of what exists was produced by programs promoting their own success. Federal agencies should finance careful, unbiased studies of many of the programs in use: specialized schools for science, engineering and math students; courses for gifted students within a regular high school; enrichment programs in the community; after-school mentoring by local scientists; summer programs for high school students at leading universities; and in-depth research projects under the guidance of outstanding high school or professional mentors. There is no shortage of good ideas, but proof that they work — along with the money and will to back them up — remains lacking, a disservice to the students on whom the future depends.