Nation of lost children
The No Child Left Behind program actually disregards a 5 percent chunk our country’s youth: the smart kids. The Davidson Institute is working toward a solution.
Jessica Cook, 13, is a precocious child. A student at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in Gardnerville, she is one of many children who has taken advantage of the services offered by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a foundation committed to supporting and nurturing gifted children.
Jessica’s story lacks the trauma that some gifted students across the United States have encountered as a result of being more intellectually advanced than other kids their age. Jessica skipped the fourth grade, without much resistance from the school. Her parents were merely required to sign several forms and receive a letter of recommendation from Jessica’s Gifted and Talented teacher.
Since Jessica’s mother, Carolyn, is a teacher, facilitating her acceleration was possibly easier than it would be for other families with gifted children. Since skipping a grade, Jessica has accelerated an additional year in math, and she has been lucky enough to have teachers who work with her.
In particular, Jessica mentions an English teacher who gave her intstruction that was different than what other students received.
“She’d send me out to do research in the library,” Jessica says.
Since she still sometimes feels under-challenged, Jessica has found the services offered by the Davidson Institute beneficial. She has contributed “stories and ramblings” to a chat room, participated in an online computer graphics colloquium, and has tutored, all activities made available through the Davidson Institute.
This summer she’ll participate in the THINK Summer Institute, a program that enables students in the seventh through ninth grades to take college level courses at UNR.
“It’s been really good,” she says of her experiences with the institute.
As for social consequences, Jessica has faced some teasing and, because of skipping a grade, won’t be driving until her senior year in high school. But Carolyn says, “Academic happiness is more important [than any social concerns].”
Jan Davidson began her career as an educational entrepreneur at the young age of 13, tutoring for pay out of her parents’ basement. She continued tutoring through college and graduate school, and after years of teaching English courses at various colleges and universities, she started Davidson & Associates Inc. with her husband, businessman Bob Davidson. In 1983, Davidson & Associates released Math Blaster, an educational computer game program. Reading Blaster followed, and Davidson & Associates grew to a multi-million dollar company. The Davidsons sold the company in 1997 and started the Reno-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development. The couple lives at Lake Tahoe.
The support offered by the Davidson Institute comes in two forms—the Davidson Fellows, a scholarship program, and The Davidson Young Scholars, which provides financial assistance and free online support and seminars. Jessica is a Davidson Scholar.
A manifesto of the Davidson Institute’s position, Jan and Bob’s new book with Laura Vanderkam, Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds, offers a critique of the current practices of educating exceedingly intelligent children. A polemic against current gifted education practices, or lack thereof, the book offers potential solutions to alleviate the “quiet crisis” afflicting exceptional students.
Since educational practices vary from state to state and district to district, it’s almost impossible to say what gifted education consists of. The Davidsons attempt a general criticism of the not-easily-defined system of gifted education.
A fairly typical case the Davidsons encounter when working with gifted youth is that of Eric.
An obviously bright child, Eric could read individual words before his third birthday and was reading newspapers at age 4. When he first enrolled in public school, the school administrators refused to make any special accommodations for him. Quickly becoming frustrated with the slow pace of the schoolwork he was given, he began quarreling with his teacher and fellow students. Eric’s mother, Jane, found a personal tutor to help Eric learn science and homeschooled him while scraping by doing various odd jobs such as painting lighthouses on Christmas tree ornaments. Eventually, Eric was enrolled in a progressive charter school, a school that gave him the freedom to learn at his own quick pace and make friends.
The Davidsons say gifted education, when it is offered at all, typically takes the form of “pull-out” programs, where children identified as gifted are removed from their regular classes for 90 minutes to a few hours each week for alternative activities. Activities often take the form of puzzles or games.
These programs are one of the educational conventions the Davidsons target, another is chronological grouping of students.
“Early in the 1920s,” says Jan, “schools evolved an age-based, one-size-fits-all type of schooling in which children enter kindergarten at the age of 5, and everyone learns the same thing at the same time as everyone else in their age group for 180 days each year for 13 years, at the conclusion of which they are considered educated … Schools often resist the acceleration of bright students on the basis that it might harm the student socially, even though the research proves that the opposite is true.”
The Davidsons don’t sufficiently address the fact that there are entire schools that actually exist for the sake of providing stimulating and educationally flexible environments for gifted children.
The Davidsons write that gifted children, who account for 5 percent of the student population, may account for 20 percent of dropouts, but that percentage isn’t verified. They imply, without specific data to back them up, that highly intelligent students drop out in disproportionately large numbers because they feel under-served by the schools they attend.
Though the names and circumstances are different, the stories in Genius Denied all follow a similar pattern to Eric’s: A bright child chafes at the dullness of an education beneath his capabilities, but through luck and the perseverance of involved parents or sympathetic educators, alternative arrangements are made, and the child flourishes. Genius Denied advocates sweeping educational reform, but the success stories it relates all include the rather simple ingredients of involved parents and flexible educators— ingredients that were also present in Jessica’s schooling.
Carolyn credits the Davidson Institute with being a valuable resource for parents of gifted children.
“It’s great,” she says. “They’re there when you need them, and you can take advantage of the opportunity as much as you like.”
It is difficult to advocate for gifted children without seeming elitist, but the Davidsons make the argument that investing in gifted children benefits everyone.
“It is the gifted children of today who will make the future scientific and medical contributions that will someday improve lives,” they say.
They contrast the neglect of bright, modern American students with the supposed support given to Shakespeare, da Vinci, Euripides and other historical icons about whose upbringings we, ironically, know very, very little, comparing something with nothing. The Davidson Institute has only been operating for five years, so it is not yet known how many of the students who have used their programs will pay back society by becoming modern-day da Vincis; their first students are only now of college age.
But the Davidson Institute reports that the accomplishments of recent recipients of scholarships range from conducting a symphony orchestra, to developing processes that slow the spread of malignant tumors, to, most curiously, “writing a novella based on string-theory and canoeing.”
With that kind of record, can the future look anything but bright?