My response to an article about gifted children.
I am somewhat familiar with the issue of very gifted students and I mostly agree with the points raised in the article. Mainly, that society as a whole will benefit from the contributions of those rare students who show unique promise, and that we should not pay less attention to them merely because they are such a tiny constituency who in any case doesn't cause much trouble if ignored.
The article points out one of the problems of programs directed towards the exceptionally gifted - the 1 in 10 thousand, or 1 in 100 thousand, not the mere 1% of us who end up getting PhDs in rocket science like everybody else. Such programs are vulnerable to hijacking by the constituency of the 1% (or 1% wannabes), who are 100 times more numerous. Worse, this group is likely to be self defined by family status and income as much as by truly unusual talent.
But I think the problem with such programs goes deeper. Acceleration for the sake of competition - the aim of those who aspire to be among the 1% most successful - is as likely to harm as to help the truly unique. The reason why it is difficult to design programs for the uniquely gifted is that they are smarter than the people who design the programs. It is the same reason why it is almost impossible to coach an exceptional soccer player - they play better than the coach. (Things may be different in sports where players have rigidly defined roles, or in planned economies where workers have centrally assigned tasks to perform - I am not familiar with such sports or organizations nor do I wish to become.)
It is the nature of unique talent that it doesn't allow itself to be identified by standardized testing. The truly brilliant will benefit from the kindness and encouragement of a good teacher, the sympathy and admiration of the peers who do not necessarily share their talents, and from a school environment that protects their eccentricities and doesn't impede their investigations, much more than they could ever benefit from ambitious efforts to identify brilliance or national laws that screen for giftedness.
For disclosure, I believe that Brookline does a nice job in encouraging truly exceptional talent, that it could perhaps do more, but that we first should do no harm.
OFF TOPIC from now on: Having given my opinion, I cannot resist the temptation to point out a fatal flaw in the Lubinsky study cited in the article. It claims to have studied "a cohort of 320 people now in their late 30s... among the top one-100th of 1 percent". There are roughly 20 million people aged 35-39 in the US. One-100th of 1 percent of them are 2000, of which the Vanderbilt researcher claims to have studied 15%. I think you will agree that identifying 1/6 of such a difficult to define group is completely impossible. Therefore the group tracked must have included not the top 1/10 thousand, perhaps not even the 1/thousand, but more likely the top 1%.
That says that the research conclusions do not reflect the group that it claims to reflect, and reinforces my argument that researchers, who even at top institutions are often not equipped to correctly understand or present the results of their own research, cannot be entrusted to devise programs that benefit the unusually talented. My confidence in the study is not enhanced by the juxtaposition of a quote by the author to one by the head of the Chinese Communist Party.
Alright, I wrote enough already!