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?

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.”
 

 

Richard Cash sighs when he talks about elitism. Cash is the director of gifted programs in the Bloomington school district, and was the first such director in the state when he was hired nine years ago. He has plenty of thoughts on why people look askance at giftedness, particularly in an egalitarian culture where every kid is said to be “above average.”

“People think it’s a privilege,” Cash says of gifted programs. “No! It’s a learning need! Gifted kids won’t achieve just because they’re smart.”

Across the country, gifted children have been slow to win even a fraction of the same support as children with other learning needs. At 2.5 percent of the population (or more, depending on how you count), they number the same as the intellectually disabled at the other end of the spectrum. Yet there is no federal mandate or funding for gifted ed, as there is for other learning needs, and state support varies wildly. In 1977, the Minnesota Legislature categorically eliminated special funding for gifted ed and didn’t resume it until 2004. Even now, while the amount compares favorably with other states, it’s just $11.4 million—a tiny part of the state’s $14 billion K-12 education budget and, as gifted-ed supporters have wryly observed, less than the Minneapolis district alone spends every year on hot lunches. While advocates are generally reluctant to compare gifted ed to special ed, the dichotomy is useful for demonstrating social attitudes. “It’s always an uphill battle for gifted ed,” Cash says. “If you roll a kid in a wheelchair in front of legislators, then bring in a gifted kid, for whom do you think their hearts will bleed?”

The predominant argument against strengthening gifted education, as with most issues in public life, is cost: Why should taxpayers foot the bill for geniuses? Yet acceleration, the easiest way of dealing with gifted kids, costs nothing. And schools-within-schools, the most lauded new solution, are generally cost-neutral, thanks to Minnesota’s policy of open enrollment. The 20-year-old rule allows students to attend any public school they want, with state funding following them; over the years, gifted programs such as Elements and Dimensions in Bloomington have shown that they can draw more than enough out-of-district students to break even.

The belief that helping gifted kids is elitist may flow directly from the democratic spirit of the American educational system, which argues that everyone deserves the same start—without acknowledging that everyone has different starting points. “We create a nurturing environment based on the assumption that all 5-year-olds are the same,” observes Deborah Ruf, a nationally known speaker on gifted issues who counsels parents in her Golden Valley home. New immigrants, she notes, are sometimes shocked that American schools don’t track young children into certain programs according to their potential, as is the case in many other countries. “Ours is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t track by grade five,” notes Ruf.

Admittedly, the common argument for gifted ed—that gifted kids are our future leaders; that we need them to save the rest of us from ourselves—can sound presumptuous at best. Shortly before Cash was hired to direct gifted education in Bloomington, parents of gifted kids would show up at school-board meetings and shout that these kids would be treating cancer and mediating world crises someday, if they didn’t bomb out of school first, a gambit that struck some people, including fellow advocates, as untactful. “I felt myself cringing every time people would talk about the loss of human potential,” says one mother. “Society does need innovators and creative thinkers. But I’m not coming at this from the perspective that kids are going to figure out how to build colonies on Mars. I’m coming from the perspective of a parent who doesn’t want to waste my kid’s time. I think we’re worried as advocates that if we simply talk about the needs of our children we’ll look self-centered.”

Since 2001, when Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the idea that schools should focus equally on gifted kids—for any reason—has officially become a much harder sell. The legislation, which remains the law of the land, aims to narrow the achievement gap among students, largely by penalizing schools for failing to move low-achieving students toward proficiency. As a 2008 Brookings report points out, however, schools face no consequences for failing to boost the learning of already proficient students. A national teacher survey, concurrent with the Brookings report, reveals that most teachers—77 percent—now say NCLB has pulled their attention away from higher-achieving students and that “the needs of advanced students take a back seat.”

Cash, like many others working in gifted education, sees a clear cause and effect between the focus of schools on the lower end of learners and the growing flood of disenfranchised parents at the other end. “Narrowing the achievement gap really means bringing the ceiling down,” he says. “Gifted ed is kind of a throwaway now.”

The decision to move their kids out of regular classrooms has not been easy for many parents, who worry about elitism from a different point of view—that of their kids. “You want to be humble as a parent,” says the father of one profoundly gifted boy. “I drill it into him: These other kids are your friends and equals. Yet, if you have a horse that just loves to run, it seems a shame not to see what he can do.”

What gifted kids can do, in classrooms like Elements and Dimensions, is remarkable—occasional improvements of 250 percent on standardized tests over the course of a year are not unheard of. With results like that, the exodus from schools with weaker gifted programs, or none at all, is unlikely to slow anytime soon. Especially since the Minnesota district with the most kids to lose, Minneapolis, has bigger leaks to plug. The city is losing so many kids through open-enrollment—some 12,000 students in 2008 alone—and largely from the other end of the achievement gap, poorly performing students from poorly performing schools, that the departure of gifted kids is a drop in the bucket.

Yet the future of gifted programs is difficult to predict, as the recent boom has arguably been fueled by money, more than a burning concern for gifted kids. It’s no coincidence that the newest Minnesota programs are largely in districts that border each other within the south metro, competing for parents who might easily hop between them. When the gifted market is saturated, or schools no longer feel the need to compete, will gifted kids no longer be prized?

Dave Eisenstadt, who recently retired after years of teaching at Atheneum Gifted Magnet in Inver Grove Heights, has seen enthusiasm for gifted programs ebb and flow. School boards, he says, go through phases of saying, “All of our kids are gifted.” And in fact, Atheneum’s gifted students at the middle-school level began to be grouped with so-called “able learners” in 2005, in classes described as honors rather than gifted. Eisenstadt predicts more such chipping away in the near future: “There is a move from parents to say, ‘If you want to be honors, you should get to be honors.’ ”

Eisenstadt chooses his words carefully when countering the idea that all kids are somehow gifted. “They’re all deserving of our attention and our respect,” he says. “But they’re not all gifted.” And he’s adamant that honors classes, in which good grades are the sole goal, are no substitute for gifted ed. “You end up with a class full of teacher-pleasers,” he says. Being gifted isn’t about meeting some arbitrary goal, he says, or passing whatever test is put in front of you. It’s about seeing what you can do when there are no limits at all.

“Our whole society is focused on getting everyone up to a minimum—and leaving them there,” Eisenstadt says. “But we need people way beyond average. We need leaders. It’s criminal to leave them behind.”

Tim Gihring is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.

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