It’s easy to assume that for extremely bright young pupils, life in the classroom is a snap. But when conventional school curricula fail to stimulate their hungry young brains, leaving them bored and stymied, these kids may get lost in the system. Some end up with C averages and slip into truancy, and many may never blossom to their full potential. It's a big loss for lots of reasons, including the fact that these precocious kids represent a unique pool of talent for generating new ideas and innovations. And because of inadequate policies, we may be losing opportunities to nurture the Henry Fords and Marie Curies of the future.
Intellectually talented kids “don’t get the attention of policymakers,” said psychology professor David Lubinski of Vanderbilt University. “But if you’re trying to solve problems in the world like climate change and terrorism and STEM innovation, and transportation and managing our healthcare, you want intellectually precocious youth who have had their intellectual needs met.”
Lubinski calls gifted kids -- the U.S. has an estimated 3 million academically gifted K-12 students -- a “precious human-capital resource.” He and colleague Camilla Benbow co-direct the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), a decades-long project tracking more than 5,000 gifted individuals, mostly identified through talent search programs that put them through SAT testing at age 12 or 13. Founded in 1971 at Johns Hopkins University by talent-search pioneer Julian Stanley, SMPY has yielded a trove of insights into who gifted children are and what they need from schools.
Some recruits were rare “scary smart” kids ranking in the top 1 in 10,000 in math or verbal reasoning skills. In a report last year, Vanderbilt postdoctoral researcher Harrison Kell, Lubinski, and Benbow checked up on 320 of these profoundly gifted people at age 38. About 44 percent had earned an M.D., Ph.D., or law degree, in contrast to the 2 percent of the U.S. population that holds a doctoral degree. Many had high-powered careers, ranging from doctors and software engineers to artists and leaders of Fortune 500 companies.
“We were surprised at the magnitude of the accomplishments, even for the top 1 in 10,000,” Lubinski said. “We had no idea that over 7 percent would have tenure at a major research university. We had no idea that so many would be well supported by grants or be CEOs of major organizations, partners in major law firms.”