Last Sunday's NYTimes Magazine features an article on gifted children. Although not the angle I would have taken (I'd have focused on the pushy moms), it is very interesting.
One exasperating thing about the article, and the field in general, is that no one defines what gifted is: is it the merely smart (say the top 1%, a group I'd consider myself a member of) or the truly gifted (say IQ>180, which I'm not even close to). This makes a big difference in the number of folks you are talking about. There are approximately 4 million births in the US each year. The top 1% represents ~40,000 kids/year. According to this site only 1/3.5 million people have an IQ > 180, about 1 per year. Obviously this makes a difference when you are talking about public policy.
To illustrate, at one point the article talks about Lewis Terman's studies of those with IQs greater than 135, which is about the top 1% of the population, actually a few more. Later the article talks about "the more mundane variety of Ivy League-aspiring kids". But given 8 Ivys with say 1500 students/class, we get 12,000 kids/year. Making some assumptions about the number of similar schools (Stanford, MIT, etc) and how well Ivies and similar schools attract the most talented students, I'd say the Ivy League does represents about this top 1%. Maybe not exactly, but pretty close.
So point one is that you have to define who you are talking about. One thing you find if you look into gifted programs (which I've done as the father of a child who'd meet at least some definitions of gifted) is the idea that gifted kids aren't just smart, they are somehow different. That is, they don't just represent the extreme right end of a normal distribution, but they are truly distinct. This idea makes no intuitive sense and while the article doesn't directly address it, it's overall take is that this is not the case. I suspect that this idea is mostly put forth by pushy moms demanding special services for THEIR child (I think of these moms as the equivalent of dads who are obsessed with their son's sports careers).
The focus of the article is questioning how useful programs to identify and provide services for the gifted are. Do such efforts help or would the kids do fine on their own? The data on this is at best mixed and in some ways suggest no benefit.
Lewis Terman tried to collect the brightest school children in Northern California:
Terman emerged with an overwhelmingly white and middle-class sample of roughly 1,500 students whose average age was 11 and whose I.Q.'s ranged between 135 and 200, about the top 1 percent.Not surprisingly, Terman's group didn't yield any Nobel Prize winners. But incredibly it missed two Nobel Laureates in physics: William Shockley and Luis Alvarez! Not only did his screen fail to pick up two Laureates, both might be considered unique even among the select company of physics Nobel winners. Shockley helped develop the transistor, an incredibly important advance, and went on to make a name for himself (unfortunately a bad one) in an unrelated field, eugenics. Alvarez not only won the prize for insights on particle physics, but went on to theorize that the impact of a large asteroid killed off the dinosaurs, a theory that seemed crazy at the time but is now widely accepted. Aren't these exactly the kind of creative geniuses a gifted program would be looking for? Of course, at least these two did alright, even without whatever help Terman's programs might have given them.
One thing I find incredible is that neither Shockley or Alvarez had an IQ high enough to gain entry into Terman's program. The story say Shockley has an IQ of 129, but doesn't mention any score for Shockley. If true Schockley's score would undercut the value of IQ in predicting achievement. I mean The Bell Curve (which I actually liked) told us how important general intelligence is in predicting success in life, and one of the most important physicists of the last 50 years (look at this list of Nobel Laureates in physics and see how many since 1950 you recognize) has an IQ that puts him all the way into the top 3% of the population. That says to me IQ may be necessary and useful (there aren't a lot of laureates with IQs in the 80s) but luck, hard work, and determination are much more important.
Going back to the usefulness of programs to identify and provide services to the gifted, no one has every done a controlled study to show the programs help. I don't find in at all suprising that kids selected for high intelligence are succesful. Check the IQs of succesful people and you'll find they high. But I see no evidence that early identification and providing special services contributes to this. One could certainly imagine ways in which it might even hurt: too much pressure early, discouraging hard work by making them feel above it, etc.
The one exception to this would probably be gifted kids from disadvantaged environments. Middle class kids with smart parents in good schools are probably going to do fine; poor kids in bad schools and tough social situations might benefit from extra stimulation and from being among a group of similarly bright peers. Unfortunatley, all the "gifted" kids profiled in the article (and my guess is the kids in most gifted programs) seem to come from the former group
Well, this is a long post, but my take home from the story is that lots of people worry about what we do for our smartest kids, but there is little evidence that early identification makes any difference. In fact, early programs seem to have missed some of the kids with the most potential.
UPDATE: I've gotten a lot of good responses to this post, most of them emailed to me, not posted as comments. I think people are hesitant to admit they were "gifted" even anonymously. I wonder if they feel bad they haven't achieved as much as they think they should.
The concensus is that hard work is equally important as a determinant of success.
One more point I wanted to make was about pushing kids ahead. I am ambivalent about this in any case since it puts a kid's intellectual needs ahead of social and emotional needs. I think in many cases trying to work out an enrichment program would be much better
What drives me nuts is when kids are pushed ahead when they aren't even ready. If you can enter Harvard at 14 and get A's I can see the argument for doing so. But if you are getting Bs and Cs at a community college at 14, that is child abuse. What is the point of pushing someone ahead so they can struggle?
There was a kid when I was in grad school who had graduated from college (University of Chicago) at 17. His options at that point were limited, since professional schools are unlikely to take someone so young and not many employers are likely to hire someone that age for a typical entry level position for college grads.
So he enrolled in graduate school in biology and failed all his classes the first year due to some personal issues. So now he is a 17 year old college grad who failed out of grad school. What exactly is he supposed to do next?
UPDATE 2: I highly recommend this book