Whiz Kids and Prodigies

What do you picture when you think of a “gifted” student?

Maybe one of the trivia whiz kids who appeared on popular 1950s programs like Quiz Kids (and parodied as washups like Donnie Smith, played by William H. Macy, in 1999’s Magnolia)?

Game Show Quiz Kids 1951 - Vintage Game Shows Full Episodes

Maybe the modern-day Doogie Howsers who entered Arizona State with 4 associate degrees at 15, or Elliott Tanner, who at 13, is going to begin a doctorate in Physics this fall?

Or does it have to be tied to academics at all? Is it someone who excels young in a specific field — perhaps Augustin Hadelich on the violin or the up-and-coming track star Jordynn West?

13-Year-Old FASTEST Track Star | Future Olympic Gold Medalist?

One comment on the latter might sum up how many of us feel about the dichotomy between “gifted” kids, however we define them, and the rest of us:

Her at 13: Literally expected to be a gold medalist
Me at 13: Liking my own comment

It’s a self-deprecating joke, yes, but it harbors a deeper truth — in a world obsessed with sorting people by ability from an early age, and setting them on a “track” as real as the one Jordynn sprints around, the entire concept of giftedness has found pushback.

Who gets overlooked?

Think of it as the risk of committing a Type I statistical error:

A type I error (false-positive) occurs if an investigator rejects a null hypothesis that is actually true in the population; a type II error (false-negative) occurs if the investigator fails to reject a null hypothesis that is actually false in the population.

If the null hypothesis is that a given student is developmentally and academically “normal” — literally, near the middle of the bell curve for their age group, there’s some evidence that in academic terms, some students who are in fact academically gifted in this country do not receive the support they need. 

There’s also the issue of what exactly to do with a child once their parents/violin teachers/trivia coaches (paging Ken Jennings!) identify a kid with an unusual talent. Let’s look at the state of gifted programs in the United States; why nerds cornered the market on the “gifted” label; and what we can do to serve promising young people in the future.

A tale of the teacher’s pet (kinda)

First off, being gifted — having a high I.Q., say — does not in any way predict that you’ll be accelerated in any other area of life. 

Take your author as one anecdotal example. I attended a small private school that valued obedience, minding your manners, and good penmanship. While by no means a poorly-behaved kid, I was pretty hyperactive and not challenged by my grade-level work. The school administrators got together and decided to have me skip a grade in the middle of third grade. From above, the school I attended was shaped like a letter “H” – one day I was in the East Wing; the next I was in the West Wing, and my third grade classmates pretty much thought I’d been nefariously disappeared. (In their defense, they were 8.) 

In my new cohort, I kept up just fine academically — in fact, I was at the top of my class through high school. However, being already a late bloomer physically made the year-plus difference pronounced as an adolescent — on my first day of ninth grade, I was directed towards the elementary building. Overall, I think the pros of skipping a single grade outweighed the cons — being bored by school is a risk factor in being disengaged and I found my tribe by my sophomore year. However, the thought of still being a literal child and starting, say, college, is where I think the line was for me — I needed to, well, grow up, and I was 25 when I was finally emotionally mature enough to earn my bachelor’s degree and start a “real” career. 

I went to the West Wing of my school a couple years before the debut of the fast-talking Sorkin series — 1997. The year before, this report showed how far G&T programs (Gifted and Talented, not gin & tonic cocktails for you yacht-sailors) had spread since the alarm was first raised by A Nation at Risk, a rather panicked report put out about the present and future of U.S. K-12 education the year I was born.

A Nation at Risk of What?

According to a retrospective, my earliest years were a time of panic about students in the U.S. falling behind — behind their own parents at a similar age, behind other nations in a rapidly globalizing world, and behind our cherished ideal of #1.

First misconception to debunk: the U.S. was never the top scorer in education. Let’s take data from the mid-’60s, the era when my parents were born:

In 1965, the Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted a study of mathematical achievement in 12 countries. Students were asked to solve 70 problems. Among math students, the top scoring countries were Israel (a mean score of 36.4 correct items), England (35.2), Belgium (34.6), and France (33.4). U.S. students placed last, with a mean score of 13.8.

The American Boomers were dead last! So the nation was “at risk” in mathematics education long before we Millennials appeared on the scene.

PISA began collecting cross-country data on performance in math and reading tests in 2000. Did the various educational reforms of the past 35 years amount to us rising to number 1?

Spoiler alert: no.

According to a 2010 report by Eric A. Hanushek, the U.S. is not creating a notable number of students who score highly in mathematics:

Unfortunately, the percentage of students in the U.S. Class of 2009 who were highly accomplished in math is well below that of most countries with which the U.S. generally compares itself. No [fewer] than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

A somewhat unpredictable collection of states, however, do perform well above the average when isolated. 

“Vermont is just ahead of Iceland! Utah closing in on Italy, which Wyoming has inched ahead of! New York and the United Kingdom are neck and neck!”

Gifted education, almost by definition, focuses on students like these who are advanced in a subject — in this case, mathematics. It’s not necessarily realistic to uproot your life and move to another state to take advantage of accelerated programs — at Socratica, we believe that geography should be no barrier to access to challenging STEM material.

But what misconceptions might be hobbling students who are capable of great things?

False dichotomies and insidious preconceptions

A barrier to accessing gifted academic programs could simply be a matter of temperament — call it conscientiousness, call it people-pleasing syndrome, call it being a try-hard, but the type of children who are often put into the “smart kid” track are the type who fit the stereotype of being a good student, in more ways than one.

This article examines the types of students who might get overlooked for G&T programs:

David Mog, later a physics and chemistry teacher at Sidwell Friends School in the District, remembered his working-class parents couldn’t figure out how to deal with his high school. It would not put him in the accelerated chemistry class even though he was shining in accelerated math — and later got a doctorate in chemistry at Caltech.

Oof. My mother, although by her own admission not unusually academically brilliant and a dropout of State U., did have the social capital and free time to carefully monitor every aspect of her children’s K12 education before her unfortunate death from cancer. I bring this point up not to score sympathy points, but to illustrate the kind of barriers that an otherwise middle-class, college-track family can encounter unexpectedly. 

Navigating the healthcare system and cancer treatments with two children still in school (including my brother, who quite easily got recruited into the accelerated chem program) was clearly a huge stressor for my stay-at-home suburban mother — so just imagine the roadblocks for other parents, whether they’re single parents, working class, not native English speakers, or worst of all, a net negative in their children’s lives through neglect or abuse. 

When you picture a gifted student, do you picture someone in prison?

Students from low-income neighborhoods already face stress from their circumstances. Turns out, although academically gifted students are found among every group and income level, those who don’t happen to be well-off suburban kids face huge barriers to obtaining the kind of challenging coursework that will keep them engaged and on track, both in school and in their life outcomes. Unfortunately, that can include jail time.

Furthermore, high ability students from low-income backgrounds, as compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Dropping out triples the likelihood of incarceration later in life.

This bundle of stereotypes — that students from low-income or urban school districts aren’t likely to be academically gifted, leads to a negative feedback loop; these districts cut their funding for accelerated programs, the brightest kids get bored, may drop out, and then become more likely to have trouble with the law; those who harbor stereotypes point fingers and fail to see the potential of students who come from the “wrong” side of the tracks, and affluent districts continue to get their privately funded robotics labs and immersive college prep summer camps. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened this gap in education.

Federal funding disparities and twice-exceptional students

Unlike most other economically developed nations, the United States has a patchwork of parallel educational systems, with a mix of federal funding, state funding, and private education.

Special education — aimed at students with disabilities that necessitate tailored instruction — has seen a continuous increase in federal funding. Compared to the funding for gifted/accelerated programs, the latter is a drop in the bucket: $11.5 billion with a B for special education, versus $5 million for gifted programs. That’s four-tenths of one percent for you whiz kids doing the mental math.

Scott Barry Kaufman is a prolific author and creativity researcher — I loved his book Wired to Create.

Little did I know that he was what’s called twice exceptional: he was both academically gifted and had struggles with auditory information and anxiety. He debunks the idea that students are either “gifted” or “losers:”

Society still has this false dichotomy of, you're a superior human being or a weak loser with bad genes. -Scott Barry Kaufman

Students can be gifted in one area but on the other end of the bell curve in another — students on the autism spectrum (formerly known as Asperger’s syndrome ) might be predisposed to becoming inventors but flunk out on other aspects of the school experience. The successful actor and podcaster Dax Shephard has pronounced dyslexia — and very much felt like the “dumb” kid because of it. Perfectionists, as I’ve seen in my own family, have higher suicide rates — one doesn’t directly cause the other, necessarily, but rather, perfectionism can increase the negative effects of the underlying neuroticism in a high pressure environment. Challenging a student shouldn’t tip over into unrelenting parental or societal pressure to succeed at all costs:

Such expectations send a message to the child that whatever he or she does is never quite good enough, and that the child must be flawless in order to win approval and love.

Gifted programs should be designed like those described by Tricia Levy above: ​​encouraging exploration, creative thinking, and yes, even failure or not knowing the “right” answer. If you’re in a truly demanding field, whether you’re on stage at Carnegie Hall or the Olympic racetrack in Milan, it’s important to have a wellspring of true confidence that doesn’t come from external validation. 

One gets the sense in the presence of true greatness — watching Hilary Hahn in performance, Leslie Odom. Jr. as Aaron Burr, Betty White nailing the punchline as one of the first comediennes in television, Michael Jordan being Michael Jordan — that they enjoy their gifts.  It’s important to remember what Donnie says in Magnolia, that not enough gifted children hear when they’re young:

I won't punish you if you get the answer wrong.

About the Author


Charly Kuecks

Charly Forrester Kuecks is a writer, test prep tutor, and marketer. She works as an educational consultant for Socratica.