Back to school: Are we leaving gifted students behind?
Gifted students in US public schools can be overlooked and unappreciated. Parents, looking for better options, have begun to find some.
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While improvement is needed at both the bottom and top of the spectrum, Hanushek and others say, the top may be more important because the US needs home-grown talent – creative innovators, particularly in the sciences – to keep up with global competitors.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Breaking the class ceiling
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Hanushek estimates that if the US improved its overall performance to match a country such as Germany, which is 15th for students scoring advanced, the US gross domestic product would increase by more than $40 trillion. (For perspective: That's at least four times the total US cost so far of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, according to researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I.)
Students who show a talent for math early in life are more likely to become inventors. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., identified 13-year-olds in the top 1 percent of quantitative ability, based on the math SAT. They tracked the students for at least 25 years. Nearly 9 percent earned one or more patents, compared with a rate of just 1 percent of the general population.
But educational opportunities also matter. The same research, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, found that 13-year-olds in the top 3 percent of math ability who took the project's fast-paced math classes were twice as likely to go into math or science careers than a similar group that didn't take the classes.
Too often, advocates for advanced students say, they lose interest in science and math – or even drop out of school because there's nothing to keep the spark alive. It's potential, they argue, that the US can't afford to waste.
Of the approximately 1 million school dropouts every year, nearly 1 out of 10 earned mostly A's. The biggest reason those A-students cite for quitting is boredom, notes "The Silent Epidemic," a landmark report in 2006 by Civic Enterprises.
A 2007 report by the same public policy firm identifies 3.4 million "strivers" in K-12 classrooms. These students are below the median income level, but they're in the top 25 percent academically, as measured by standardized tests. They're caught in an "achievement trap," the report says, because the education system pays little attention to them and many fall behind higher-income peers in school and college.
With a looming skills gap for high-wage jobs, "you could make an argument that [these strivers] merit the greatest investment, because they're going to be the greatest producers, based on their early academic achievement," says Mr. Bridgeland, of Civic Enterprises.
Jovan Mercado could have been a "striver" stuck under the ceiling. Instead, as a sixth-grader, he's already become an inventor.
Statistically speaking, Jovan falls into all kinds of categories that are underrepresented in gifted education programs. His first language is Spanish. His skin is not white. His family doesn't make a lot of money. And he lives in Hartford, Conn., where virtually all the students in the public schools share some of these disadvantages.
After kindergarten, he says, the school told his mother he was capable of sixth-grade work. She opted to skip him only to second grade. "She worried I would be bullied 'cause I was so tiny," says Jovan, whose sweet smile is as striking as his mohawk.