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Gifted students need more attention

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on January 9, 2014)

In December, The New York Times published a lengthy editorial encouraging more attention to the needs of gifted students. The paper linked the nation’s need for innovation with a requirement for more high-achieving math and science students.

Education writers also have focused recently on the lackluster performance of U.S. 15-year-olds on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment. Other nations are propelling ahead of us in math as we remain essentially stuck in the middle of the pack. Even America’s most advanced students lag behind their counterparts in other countries on the PISA and other such tests.

The Times called for more government support for gifted education, greater access to accelerated learning (including available Advanced Placement courses), early admission to college for students who can do the work, psychological coaching to help gifted students succeed, and more federal research into what works best in gifted education.

Gifted education is dear to my heart since the focus of my own academic research has long been on talent identification and talent development. In its editorial, the Times referenced the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which I co-direct with Peabody professor David Lubinski.

For more than 35 years, we have been tracking several cohorts of extremely intelligent individuals whose talents were identified at the age of 13. Our study has shown that it is possible to spot the most likely future innovators by that age. If we also provide them with the rich learning experiences — and challenges — they need to flourish, we can expand the nation’s talent pool.

Our study participants have earned doctorates, registered patents, written novels, taught in universities, founded major companies and racked up many other accomplishments across an array of professions. Those who benefited from educational experiences that went beyond the norm achieved even more.

In 2010, the National Science Board issued a report based on work by a task group I led on nurturing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) innovators. We made three keystone recommendations. First, we must provide opportunities for students to develop their potential at a pace that matches their abilities. Access to accelerated coursework is critical if we don’t want gifted students to become bored or turned off by school.

Second, we must cast a wide net to develop many kinds of talents among many types of students. Far too often, minority students are overlooked in efforts to identify gifted students.

We also miss an important pool of talent by ignoring spatial ability — the ability to think about and work with mental and physical objects in three dimensions. Many of these students can become designers, engineers or architects.

Third, we need to foster and celebrate excellence. Our celebrity-saturated culture idolizes superficial beauty and mediocre talent. Students need elevated standards and role models in fields that make a positive difference. Parents, teachers and community leaders alike should not accept math or science phobia as an excuse for not making an effort to learn challenging subjects.

As a community, we can set high standards even as we support and encourage students to build confidence and meet those standards. Now that is a resolution for the new year.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.