Are We Failing Our Geniuses?

Claire Evans, 12, attends Reno's Davidson Academy.
Nancy Newberry for TIME
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Any sensible culture would know what to do with Annalisee Brasil. The 14-year-old not only has the looks of a South American model but is also one of the brightest kids of her generation. When Annalisee was 3, her mother Angi Brasil noticed that she was stringing together word cards composed not simply into short phrases but into complete, grammatically correct sentences. After the girl turned 6, her mother took her for an IQ test. Annalisee found the exercises so easy that she played jokes on the testers--in one case she not only put blocks in the correct order but did it backward too. Angi doesn't want her daughter's IQ published, but it is comfortably above 145, placing the girl in the top 0.1% of the population. Annalisee is also a gifted singer: last year, although just 13, she won a regional high school competition conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

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Annalisee should be the star pupil at a school in her hometown of Longview, Texas. While it would be too much to ask for a smart kid to be popular too, Annalisee is witty and pretty, and it's easy to imagine she would get along well at school. But until last year, Annalisee's parents--Angi, a 53-year-old university assistant, and Marcelo, 63, who recently retired from his job at a Caterpillar dealership--couldn't find a school willing to take their daughter unless she enrolled with her age-mates. None of the schools in Longview--and even as far away as the Dallas area--were willing to let Annalisee skip more than two grades. She needed to skip at least three--she was doing sixth-grade work at age 7. Many school systems are wary of grade skipping even though research shows that it usually works well both academically and socially for gifted students--and that holding them back can lead to isolation and underachievement. So Angi home schooled Annalisee.

But Angi felt something was missing in her daughter's life. Annalisee, whose three siblings are grown, didn't have a rich social network of other kids. By 13, she had moved beyond her mother's ability to meaningfully teach her. The family talked about sending her to college, but everyone was hesitant. Annalisee needed to mature socially. By the time I met her in February, she had been having trouble getting along with others. "People are, I must admit it, a lot of times intimidated by me," she told me; modesty isn't among her many talents. She described herself as "perfectionistic" and said other students sometimes had "jealousy issues" regarding her.

The system failed Annalisee, but could any system be designed to accommodate her rare gifts? Actually, it would have been fairly simple (and virtually cost-free) to let her skip grades, but the lack of awareness about the benefits of grade skipping is emblematic of a larger problem: our education system has little idea how to cultivate its most promising students. Since well before the Bush Administration began using the impossibly sunny term "no child left behind," those who write education policy in the U.S. have worried most about kids at the bottom, stragglers of impoverished means or IQs. But surprisingly, gifted students drop out at the same rates as nongifted kids--about 5% of both populations leave school early. Later in life, according to the scholarly Handbook of Gifted Education, up to one-fifth of dropouts test in the gifted range. Earlier this year, Patrick Gonzales of the U.S. Department of Education presented a paper showing that the highest-achieving students in six other countries, including Japan, Hungary and Singapore, scored significantly higher in math than their bright U.S. counterparts, who scored about the same as the Estonians. Which all suggests we may be squandering a national resource: our best young minds.

In 2004-05, the most recent academic year for which the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has data, U.S. universities awarded 43,354 doctorates--more than ever during the 50 years NORC has gathered the data. But the rate of increase in the number of U.S. doctorates has fallen dramatically since 1970, when it hit nearly 15% for the year; for more than a decade, the number of doctorates has grown less than 3.5% a year. The staggering late-1960s growth in Ph.D.s followed a period of increased attention on gifted kids after Sputnik. Now we're coasting.

To some extent, complacency is built into the system. American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn't even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can't make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential.

We take for granted that those with IQs at least three standard deviations below the mean (those who score 55 or lower on IQ tests) require "special" education. But students with IQs that are at least three standard deviations above the mean (145 or higher) often have just as much trouble interacting with average kids and learning at an average pace. Shouldn't we do something special for them as well? True, these are IQs at the extremes. Of the 62 million school-age kids in the U.S., only about 62,000 have IQs above 145. (A similar number have IQs below 55.) That's a small number, but they appear in every demographic, in every community. What to do with them? Squandered potential is always unfortunate, but presumably it is these powerful young minds that, if nourished, could one day cure leukemia or stop global warming or become the next James Joyce--or at least J.K. Rowling.

In a no-child-left-behind conception of public education, lifting everyone up to a minimum level is more important than allowing students to excel to their limit. It has become more important for schools to identify deficiencies than to cultivate gifts. Odd though it seems for a law written and enacted during a Republican Administration, the social impulse behind No Child Left Behind is radically egalitarian. It has forced schools to deeply subsidize the education of the least gifted, and gifted programs have suffered. The year after the President signed the law in 2002, Illinois cut $16 million from gifted education; Michigan cut funding from $5 million to $500,000. Federal spending declined from $11.3 million in 2002 to $7.6 million this year.