By the time Colin Camerer reached kindergarten his parents suspected he was actually reading the books he constantly had open in front of him. His kindergarten teacher confirmed their suspicions. But when he entered first grade he earned the tag ''problem learner'' by refusing to go to music and gym class. Finally he resisted going to school altogether.
What could have turned into an unfortunate situation did not. When he reached fifth grade, Colin's public-school teacher recognized he wasn't a problem learner, but a ''gifted'' student, who wasn't being challenged and had become bored. He was enrolled in a special program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he earned his undergraduate degree at age 17.
When he was 21 he received a PhD in behavioral science and finance from the University of Chicago. Today, at age 22, he is an assistant professor of corporate strategy at Northwestern University.
Mr. Camerer's early success story is one which, until recently, had little chance of being repeated elsewhere. Today, following a steady increase in interest over the years, the problems and potential of gifted and talented students - usually defined as those who score better than 98 percent of their peers on standardized IQ tests - are capturing the attention of educators and administrators nationwide.
But how to properly identify gifted and talented children is one of the foremost challenges facing educators today, and few are satisfied with using achievement tests for that purpose.
Gordon M. Ambach, president of the State University of New York, says he believes there are problems inherent in current methods of identifying giftedness. He advocates federal support of ''research to develop better ways of identifying gifted and talented students.''
''This is especially true in relation to several groups which are underrepresented at present in programs for the gifted and talented,'' he says. ''These groups include economically disadvantaged students, minority groups, culturally different students, and handicapped students.''
''It may be that if we were forced to choose a single criterion for giftedness, IQ would not be a bad choice,'' says David Feldman, an associate professor in the department of child study at Tufts University. But he suggests there are a number of other factors which, together, would be a better indicator of giftedness - measurements such as teacher interviews with students, or a series of tests to gauge skills as artistic talent.
Because the absence of challenging subject matter and other factors have turned them off to learning, 54 percent of all gifted children in America are functioning below average for their age group, and 17 percent are high-school dropouts, according to research studies cited by Armand Batastini Jr.,UFquote54 percent of all gifted children function below average for their age group, and 17 percent are high-school dropouts.
vice-chairman of a Rhode Island commission on gifted students.
''There is definitely an increase in interest in the development of gifted and talented youngsters,'' says Patty Bruce Mitchell, director of the National Consortium for State Leadership in the Education of Gifted and Talented Children. She works with state legislators on designing programs for the gifted. ''Legislators are now asking how they can develop programs, not whether or not they should.''
In fact, it is from public schools and state legislatures that much of the impetus has come. In the past two years and in the face of declining state revenues, Rhode Island has increased its budget for gifted and talented students from virtually zero to more than $500,000; Montana, from zero to $200,000; Ohio from $100,000 to $3.2 million; and Texas from near zero to $2.5 million. The money is being spent on the development of special programs for the gifted and the training of teachers.
While interest in gifted and talented students is increasing nationwide, the federal role is diminishing. This year, the Office for Gifted and Talented Education in the Department of Education was phased out. But the federal outlay for gifted and talented programs, which peaked several years ago at a little over $6 million annually, has never equaled the commitment of the states, whose total budget for those programs exceeds $160 million.
Nevertheless, the federal government may be having second thoughts. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in August 1981, recently held a field hearing at Harvard University to solicit advice from experts on how to meet the needs of gifted and talented students.
In a 1971 report to Congress, then-US Commissioner of Education Sidney Marland laid the groundwork for the surge of interest in programs for the gifted and talented. At that time, only 4 percent of gifted students were in special programs. In 1979, the figure had risen to 35 percent, and now stands at over 50 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Department of Education.
Despite the new attention being given the gifted, there are voices of dissent. Some educators assert that, in these budget cutting times, it is unfair to single out the gifted at the expense of the bulk of the student population.
''The basic concept that gifted and talented children have special educational needs has traditionally been hampered by the widespread misconception that gifted children will do well in any case, and their talents will be self-evident,'' says Rhode Islander David Laux, the parent of a gifted child.
Melissa Lawton, a student in a special Rhode Island program for the gifted and talented, defends such programs: ''Gifted and talented programs will not only benefit people like myself, but in years to come, this country will be repaid by a new generation of adults with a high degree of motivation and commitment.''