The Right Kind of Renaissance?

Are We Doing Enough to Support the Untapped Potential of Gifted Children Who Are Not at the Top of the Socio-Economic Curve?

By Tom Clynes

Just in time for summer vacation, the Acceleration Institute at the University of Iowa has released A Nation Empowered, the 10-year follow-up to the influential report titled A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students. As the new title suggests, academics see clear signs of a budding renaissance in gifted education. Taking advantage of expanded options, many bright students will spend at least a part of this summer in intensive, university-based programs, gorging themselves on a year’s worth of math or science or literature in a few weeks.
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And yet, one has to wonder if it’s the right kind of renaissance. As gifted children’s needs creep back into the national consciousness after decades of neglect, support for the top end of the talent curve is still a privilege enjoyed mostly by students who are also at the top end of the socioeconomic curve. Good schools and a booming talent-development industry boost affluent children’s chances of success, with legions of tutors, test-prep entrepreneurs, and admissions consultants (one of whom promises to return his sixty-thousand-dollar fee if a student isn’t accepted to an Ivy League university).

Recent research shows that high-ability students who don’t receive educational enrichment are far less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores, and often become bored and frustrated. These studies underscore the tremendous amount of missed potential. “We’re not coming close to identifying all of this population,” says Vanderbilt’s David Lubinski, who co-directs the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, “so many of the country’s smartest kids thus don’t get what they need to develop their capabilities.” Given that giftedness can spring from anywhere—from the blue blood of Boston’s Back Bay or from a back bayou in Louisiana—it’s worth pondering how many Salks, Gateses, or Curies we’re missing, and the implications of that for our economy and society.

A Nation Empowered makes clear that we know how to confidently predict which adolescents are likely to go on to be high performers. We also know the most effective ways to nurture their talents—often in ways that are not particularly resource-intensive. And yet, we are not making society-wide efforts to do so.

By Tom Clynes, author of The Boy Who Played With Fusion