So Smart It Hurts
We call them lucky. We think they have all the answers. But what if Minnesota’s most intelligent kids are actually among our most at-risk?
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Henry and Charlie. Charlie and Henry. They’re twins, the Weismann boys. Eight years old, with ropy limbs and golden mops of hair. They like the usual things—Star Wars and Harry Potter and Harry Potter knockoffs. They like to ride bicycles and their clothes have the usual stains in the usual places.
But the way their minds work is rather unusual. The boys attend Ridgeview Elementary School in Bloomington, a prototypical public school right down to the red-brick exterior—but the boys’ classroom has a sign outside that says, “Caution: Brains at Work.” During science hour, the students are bent over experiments involving ice cubes with grapes frozen inside and Peeps dissolving in vinegar. Between observations, Charlie researches Mexico on the Internet, just for something to do. Henry reads a book by physicist Stephen Hawking, the middle-school version of A Brief History of Time. Henry often reads eight or 10 books at once, preferring stories “in which the good guys don’t always win,” he says. “That’s more realistic.”
The classroom is called Elements, a sort of school within a school, where all the students have IQs of at least 130 or have scored in the 95th percentile or higher on standardized tests. An average IQ is 100. Which means, in the parlance of educators, that Henry, Charlie, and their classmates are gifted and talented. These are the kids who comprehend physics but still believe in Santa Claus. Who, by the time they are fifth-graders, have long been smarter than most adults.
Elements, a pilot program this past school year, will expand into two classrooms starting this month and has a waiting list in the double digits. Bloomington’s Dimensions program, which has catered to gifted fourth- and fifth-graders, will expand to middle school. These programs aren’t like gifted classes of years past, pull-out programs that gathered the super-smart for a few hours a week to produce plays or enter math competitions. They’re all day, every day, recognizing that these kids “aren’t gifted just at 10 a.m. on a Thursday,” as one teacher puts it. And they’re catching on: New gifted programs are opening this month, or have opened within the past couple of years, in the districts serving Minnetonka, Lake-ville, Prior Lake, Savage, Burnsville, Eagan, Rosemount, and Apple Valley—a “tsunami” of gifted classes, says one coordinator of such programs.
The wave is washing all across the country, a reaction not to a sudden influx of smarties but to a sudden shift in educational priorities that may be leaving America’s 3 million gifted kids behind. “It’s a policy failure that will cost us dearly in the years to come,” argues Ann Robinson, president of the National Association for Gifted Children. For as lucky as gifted kids would appear to be—destined to cure cancer, cap oil spills, and succeed Bill Gates at Microsoft—they have special needs, say their parents and advocates. And if those needs are neglected, we may soon be facing a crisis of leadership. The boom in special classes for gifted kids may be a symptom, as much as a cure, that gifted education has become increasingly scarce everywhere else. “Schools may as well have a sign,” says one parent: “Gifted kids not wanted here.”
The Weismanns live in southwest Minneapolis, in a modest bungalow filled with toys and the detritus of forgetful boys. Dolls scattered about belong to the boys’ 3-year-old sister, Mabel, who is already showing signs of giftedness herself. When it comes to giftedness, the apple generally doesn’t fall far from the tree—a hereditary head start that no amount of Baby Mozart or academic “pushing” accounts for. “This isn’t because of anything we did,” says the boys’ father, Joe, observing Henry and Charlie curl up with thick books.
Nor is giftedness always the boon it may appear to be. Think of the brain as a funnel, in which a certain amount of information about the world is pouring in. If the average funnel is, say, two feet across, a gifted kid’s funnel may be five or six feet across. The gifted kid is perceiving a lot, and all that processing can be constantly distracting. Henry, says Joe, is “sometimes overwhelmed by all that he’s taking in,” to the point that he shuts down. Charlie, he says, is often so distracted by his thoughts that he “wouldn’t notice if you shaved off your mustache.”
Gifted kids are surprisingly not always top students. They tend to hyper-focus on their own interests—think of Einstein, who excelled at math and physics while failing almost everything else. “These aren’t simply bright kids who always get an A- on their reports,” says Joe. “The gifted kid forgot his report at home because he was too busy with his rock collection.”
If the movies haven’t been kind to gifted kids, portraying them as nerds, geeks, and misfits just begging to have their tightie-whities run up the flagpole, they’ve mostly been right: Gifted kids often struggle socially. They tend to be more introverted than other people, and, naturally, they have few peers. On the IQ bell curve, gifted people comprise 2.5 percent of the population, though many educators, along with the National Association for Gifted Children, broaden the definition of gifted to mean anyone who would benefit from a specialized gifted education, encompassing 5 to 7 percent. In order to fit in, gifted kids often feel pressure to seem less intelligent, and well-meaning teachers don’t help by using gifted kids to tutor classmates, setting them above other students. Pull-out programs, favored by many schools, yank gifted kids out of their typical classes for several hours of advanced study with another teacher, widening the social gulf. By eighth grade, one study found, some two-thirds of gifted kids have been subjected to severe bullying.
The greatest challenge with gifted kids, however, may be that they’re not challenged enough. If the goal of education is to help every child reach his or her potential, then gifted kids—whose potential far exceeds educational standards—are America’s greatest underachievers. The Weismann boys spent kindergarten at Lake Harriet Elementary, where it’s doubtful they learned anything. While other kids were memorizing the alphabet, Henry and Charlie were reading chapter books, and Henry, utterly unengaged, would sometimes disrupt his classes. In one study of gifted children, half had been written up for bad behavior.
Gifted kids may not be challenged until college—where they often have no idea how to cope with the workload, says Theresa Boatman, a Plymouth-based psychologist who specializes in counseling gifted kids. As many as 60 percent of gifted kids drop out of college, studies suggest, and not just to form their own companies, as Harvard dropout Bill Gates did. “They drop like rocks,” says Dave Eisenstadt, who recently retired from teaching at Atheneum Magnet School for gifted kids in Inver Grove Heights. “They’re pushed to the point that they can’t do the work. It’s like being born with any other handicap.”
Wendy Behrens, Minnesota’s gifted-and-talented education specialist, is sympathetic while suggesting that things could be worse. “We are very, very fortunate” in Minnesota, she says, citing the state’s generally high quality of schools. “Many teachers are well-trained and capable of differentiating”—giving different assignments to different students—“within the classroom,” she says. Minnesota schools are also mandated to have procedures for accelerating gifted learners (bumping them up a grade). And recent changes in teacher education, she notes, will promote even more differentiated instruction in classrooms.
A capacity for differentiation, however, is not the same as a willingness to act on it. Phil Rader, who helps run a support group for Twin Cities parents of gifted kids, says he frequently hears from parents who have asked teachers for more appropriate assignments—even a simple rephrasing of an essay question to make it more challenging—only to be frustrated by teachers’ responses. “Oftentimes,” he says, “the teachers take it personally when you tell them your kid isn’t being challenged.”
The bottom line, says Ande Nesmith, who helps run the support group with Rader, is fairness. “If a kid spends seven hours a day at school and doesn’t learn a thing,” she asserts, “that’s not fair.” Yet teachers and principals have bluntly told parents of gifted kids that if they aren’t satisfied with public schools they should seek private schooling. In fact, of the minority of parents who can afford them, some parents have tried private schools and found them only slightly more challenging than public schools and even less accommodating, more interested in students who fit their brand and style of learning than educating everyone who applies. “There is a very low tolerance for outliers,” says Kathryn Johnson, who now home-schools her son in Minneapolis. “We just got tired of being the square pegs being pounded into round holes.”
The Weismanns opted for home-schooling after Henry and Charlie struggled in kindergarten. Joe and his wife, Jennifer, were surprised when other parents didn’t understand. “They were like, ‘Oh, you’re too good for us now?’ ” Joe says. “People often don’t believe you when you say your kid is gifted, that he has different needs. If kids are good at soccer, you can see that, and we encourage them to join special leagues and such. But if you say your kid is gifted, people are like, prove it. They think you’re elitist. They get defensive, like you’re questioning their parenting. A lot of people think you’re calling their kid dumb.”