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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

No Child Gets Ahead? by Matt McGann '00

There was an article in the New York Times yesterday about a topic that is very interesting to me (and you, I suspect): gifted education. You can read it: Some New Help for the Extremely Gifted (registration required).

The article has two components. One half talked about the newly established Davidson Academy, coming to Nevada residents courtesy of the folks at the Davidson Institute (check them out). The Academy itself is not anything earth-shattering — it draws from models established previously by some of the nation’s most successful magnet schools — but I am glad that the news of its opening gave the Times an excuse to write about gifted education. The state of gifted education is the other half of the article, the interesting half.

Here’s an excerpt from that half of the article:

Education experts familiar with the needs of the most gifted students say there are scarcely enough programs to serve them.

“We are undercutting the research and development people of this nation,” said Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, at the University of Connecticut. “No one would ever argue against No Child Left Behind, but when you ignore kids who will create new jobs, new therapies and new medicines, we’re selling them down the river.”

Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, said that state and local efforts were admirable but that their inconsistency reflected lost opportunities. A new survey by her association found that among 39 states that responded, 24 spent as much as $10 million on programs for gifted children but 7 spent less than $1 million and 8 spent nothing.

“For a nation, I’m not sure why we value equity over excellence,” Ms. Green said. “All kids are entitled to an appropriate education for their ability, not just those we’re teaching to a minimum standard.”

A 2004 report by the International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Iowa charges American schools with impeding the development of the country’s brightest children and calls the lack of more programs for them “a national scandal.” It warns, “The price may be the slow but steady erosion of American excellence.”

This is a topic we could talk about for hours on end…

27 responses to “No Child Gets Ahead?”

  1. Mollie says:

    I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have thrived in middle school without my school’s gifted program.

    It’s very hard to be a bookwork in the fifth grade…

  2. Jessie says:

    Eric: Based on my experience with the issue, it’s a matter of political ideology. There’s a fixation in America with bringing everyone to a certain standard rather than having all reach their full potential, and under that logic any special treatment for gifted kids is considered elitist and a drain on resources that could be used to help the struggling ones – because why, they say, should we focus on the ones who are already doing well?

    I think it’s because of people like that that I went through a phase of fascination with Ayn Rand during my freshman year of high school, until I decided that just because she said a few things that I agreed with philisophically didn’t mean that I ever could or should bring myself to accept her philosophy as a whole. Interestingly, a huge proportion of the intellectually gifted kids I know went through a similar phase.

  3. errhode says:

    Every time this topic comes up, I like to recommend the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. (It can be found in “Welcome to the Monkey House”.) Actually, as a general rule, I always like to recommend anything by Kurt Vonnegut, but in this case it’s actually relevant to the topic at hand.

    It’s also been an American ideology for some time now to try and spend as little as possible on public education. Why – probably because as a country we’re cheap and don’t understand the concept of investing in the future. So, what do you cut in this case? Well, start with the arts — what’s the point of music anyway? Should we cut athletics instead? Heavens, no! Football teaches you all about the American way of beating each other up to get to the end zone.

    Okay, so arts are gone. Now what? Well, let’s cut the gifted programs because the smart kids are still going to be smart — they don’t need any extra help. Nevermind that they’re going to be bored to tears and start finding more creative uses for their time and intelligence. (And, hey, that might involve explosives, but that just means they can be a good defense contractor later, right? Right!) Or maybe they’ll lose all ambition and just deteriorate until they’re another cog in the corporate machine. But that’s good — one thing upper management hates is an intelligent underling to point out their faults.

    But like in all things, if you’re rich you can get around all of this by going to private school. Heck, even if you’re not smart, if your father is important enough, we’ll send you to Yale, let you slide through to graduation, and maybe one day you can be president! But if you’re poor and gifted? *shrug*

  4. Hi Mr. McGann!


    Here in sunny San Diego, there was a big flurry of controversy when the Vista school district decided to eliminate gifted programs (like Honors and so forth) in order to provide more funding for students that were falling behind. I believe, however, that they did indeed cut funding for the gifted programs. Isn’t that terrible?

  5. Anna Kotova says:

    Interestingly, the educational system in my school is organized in such a way, that children from the very beginning of their school education are distributed for two distinct programs, according to their talents, which are determined before admitting a child to school. The first program is of general education, the second is based on the same commonly used programm, but has concentrations (and therefore compulsory advanced courses) and more strict requirements. It really helps children to use their talents smile Unfortunately, this second, more serious program no more for free.

    P.S I am living in Russia.

  6. Anna Kotova says:



    the smart kids are still going to be smart — they don’t need any extra help.

    But if you’re poor and gifted?


    That’s a test for those smart though poor smile

  7. Brian Burg says:

    I’d have to strongly agree with most comments above, which have covered the bulk of my experience through middle school and high school in a West Michigan (supposedly highly-rated) public school. Most attention seems to be drawn to athletics spending, special education, and getting good standardized test scores. Music and the arts have gotten staff cuts or pay reductions, and as a result many fine arts programs have lost their luster. There are no district gifted/talented (I hate that phrase!) programs, with the exception of carting off some kids to local college for accelerated math/english classes (which costs extra, mind you!).

    The attention seems more on making everyone mediocre, than on empowering people to reach their intellectual potential. Should I have to wait until senior year to be seriously challenged by my coursework? I don’t think that’s the right approach. Just the fact that only 9 AP’s are offered, and NO honors at all says a lot about the mentality of the community and the school board. When a math class is stuck with the same horrible textbook (Chicago Math, you guessed it!) for over 8 years and yet 10 miles away new buildings are being constructed in the same school district, there is something amiss in the air.

  8. nehalita says:

    “Harrison Bergeron” is, in fact, an excellently related story, I was about to recommend it myself (well I am actually…).

    The way I see it, everyone needs help. The talented should be cultivated, the ignored should be attended to, the average should be de-averaged, the perfect should be further perfected. This doesn’t mean “throw your hands up, give up, and go to a bar to wash the problems away” because the problems still exist. But it’s a fragile issue.

    I attended an EXCELLENT program in 4th and 5th grade — we engaged in irregular projects, field trips everywhere, and we learned (can you imagine?). Then in middle school… I was in “gifted” classes but really it was more like “let’s round up all the gifted students together in one class and just teach them…” — the same thing has happened for high school. In fact, 11th and 12th graders don’t even have anything for the gifted students (except for EP meetings where we either determine “wow you need to do work” or “you’re fine we don’t really need this meeting.”).

    It would be nice to have atleast some support for the inclined. We have magnet programs down here but even then, it’s not the same thing. I’ve taken so many online classes just because I couldn’t stand the slow pace we engaged in during school and wanted to work on my own pace instead. Is that what we all have to resort to? I don’t think so. Why is it that the studious are punished to slow down their learning because 75% of the class doesn’t want to work or didn’t do their homework?

    It looks like every group needs work and that just means we need to “jump on it.” And quick.

  9. Doesn’t sound too good to cut the funding for kids who have special abilities in arts, music, math, sciences, or even linguistics. Then again, is there a real cause as to why such a thing is happening?

    In Singapore, we’ve got a few special programs for those who have special talents. AEP (Art Elective Program), for those who are especially good with visual arts. MEP (Music), for those who are good with music. LEP (Language), for those who are good with different languages (there’s LEP Chinese, German, Japanese and French, if I’m not mistaken). There’s also the broader GEP (Gifted), for those whose academics are stellar. However, everybody is still expected to manage a core set of subjects well, which kind of stretches us a bit, that if we want to be good, we have to be good in the core before we try to be good in the other programs. (It’s due to some societal expectations – that music, art, or language “won’t get you anywhere”.)

    Pity, though, that there’s no LEP (English), otherwise I’d definitely take it. wink English is one of my better subjects here. Chinese isn’t comparable, though; I’ve not taken it for two years now, so it’s tough to say where my standard is. But that’s another story.

    Back to the article… Are there other budget concerns that are probably holding back states from spending more on gifted education? And if we examine the states that spend nothing on gifted education, is there some trend? Do they have other, more pressing problems? Or do they have a lack of political will to do it? Or a lack of momentum to keep existing programs going (in reference to Victoria’s post)? That’s probably some of the questions to raise to figure out how to solve the problem.

  10. Leon Liu says:

    Hi, Matt

    I support the special programs for “gifted children”. As I had attended many years of schools in China, I have many good memories of the numerous special programs I participated in. In China, there were programs for “gifted children” in as early as the first couple years of elementary school. For me, I participated in most of the programs in advanced math problem solving. Not only did those special programs helped me to foster my interest in math early on, but they also put me among others who shared my interest and passion, and who were at about the same level as me in that field. In that competitive environment, I was motivated early on to develop myself and establish a good foundation in math. After I moved to the United States, I first attended a “normal” public high school. Although I quickly climbed to the top, I was not satisfied because I felt that I had not fully developed my latent skills and abilities. It was only after I enrolled in Whitney, one of the top special public schools in the state that requires an entrance exam, I found myself to be among many competitive peers who shared my interest and passions. At Whitney, I enjoyed both the educational opportunities(more AP classes and special programs available for me), as well as the overall atmosphere that was conducive to learning. Thus, from my own example, I can say that I had benefited a lot from these programs designed for motivated kids. Nevertheless, I also observed that even for those who are not part of the special programs, they would still be under the influence of these programs and try hard. If one would argue that these special programs provide unfair advantages to the few and neglect the rest, my response would be that these special programs provide equality of opportunities, instead of equality of results. Equality of results discourages competition and kills motivation. But equality of opportunities, which is probably what this country is all about, gives everybody an equal chance to strive for the same goals. People who are born with superhuman talents and gifts are rare, but I do think that 99% of every success is indeed perspiration. As long as people have the passion and strive hard toward the goal, almost EVERYBODY is capable of being a part of these special programs.

  11. Edit:

    Yes, there probably are other concerns. Like… being voted in again because you reduced taxes. Sorry, I’m cynical today.

    But if we could only solve that economic problem of limited resources and unlimited wants, we could all get everything done! Maybe with more philanthropy and volunteerism… I mean, I tutor struggling students at my school for free AND join movements to add extracurricular programs and AP classes at my school. The principal got irritated at me once and told me that I had to pick one out of several, since the school couldn’t provide funding for all of them.

    Mollie, I was a bookworm by kindergarten. I’ll admit it was hard, though. I think I was the only bookworm in my class until I hit middle school… and then there were only a couple. And I went to big schools.

    If only our culture fixated more on intelligence than prettiness… I mean, if we worked on a pure merit system, like China used to (not anymore, but the influence still remains), and if we rewarded intelligence more than beauty, wouldn’t we have more people with more motivation to succeed? I mean, we pay models more than professors. I think something is wrong with society when we do that. I’m a function over form kind of person. But if we did that, then we’d have people paying for education rather than cosmetics. And athletics is part of the problem. I mean, how smart can you be (sorry to all of you football players out there) when someone’s bashing you on the head every day? Just a thought.

    But again, I think it’s part of the cult of beauty. Since the American ideal of male desirability revolves largely around muscle mass, we fund that and not neuron mass.

    Then again, we can train for muscle, but less so for brainpower. But if only the geeks reproduced faster than the unintelligent people…

    Maybe we’d have a solution to the population problem.

    If you’re poor and gifted, you should be gifted enough to figure out a solution. Maybe you can figure out a way to create money or something, I don’t know.

    My public school is supposedly high-ranking (Mr. McGann, I’m sure you know), and we have a lot of AP classes, but the one teacher that openly supported an IB program got fired the next year.

    Also, we have leaky roofs, lots of portable buildings that are sort of anchored to the ground, and almost no school music instruments in a working condition, but we just dug up the football field and replaced it with Astroturf, which needs lots of care to keep in bright and shiny, and cost two hundred fifty thousand dollars or some ridiculous amount like that, for which all the athletic teams and the band had to pay. The Band.

    School support for the arts is a joke… I’m quite convinced that the only reason we get (nominal) funding is because we are compelled to march at home football games, even though we have no money for uniforms and such.

    We do have a lot of APs, but less than would be expected in a district with some of the highest property values in the county. Plus the teachers are totally overworked… assigning nearly two hundred AP students to a single teacher is a Bad Idea.

    New buildings are nice though… I would appreciate not having chunks of the ceiling fall on my head during Physics.

    (I managed to see them in time)

  12. Hm… In response to those who mentioned the word “elitism” above… (And to provide a counterpoint to some of these views =))

    We all talk about how developing one group of people above the other averages would lead to the creation of elitism. This could be elitism of the aristocrats, elitism of the beauty, or elitism of strength. All of these have happened before, that’s why we keep discouraging it – for we’ve seen the bad effects of these.

    HOWEVER, has anybody considered what may happen if we created an academic elite? Would this elite then feel ‘compelled’ to ‘rule’ over the others simply because of their better academics? Others would then question, does better academics translate into anything else being better? Is academics a translation of a person’s true abilities?

    Actually, I find that we don’t genuinely look up to those who can cope with, say, 14 APs, or those with a billion dollars of investments in the stock market (okay, that sounds crazy). Or whatever. You get the point – we don’t look at an individual person. We look more at the circumstances that the individual managed his success.

    We look at Bill Gates, not because of his weatlh but because he dropped out of university but still made big dollars. We look to Donald Trump, because of his poor background. We look to Arno Penzias, not because he discovered background radiation, but because he had this extraordinary history of escape from the Nazis that drove him to spur on to become a physicist. The true heroes in our hearts are those who overcame hard circumstances to achieve the *big* things in life.

    Back to the question about the gifted programs and elitism. Some have objections to the gifted programs, for they *feel* it would promote elitism in schools – the music/athletic/art/academic elite. That would promote division and demote unity.

    The person’s post I agree with the most here is Nehalita’s. What’s needed is a massive overhaul. But then again, you’ll need a massive trigger – a massive injustice served, or a massive mistake made – to get the system revamped. Essentially, the message is, if you want to change one, change all to help everybody. Here, the change is keeping the gifted programs to help the gifted students reach their potential. That’s probably why the rest of the students and their parents expect to be helped too – it’s an awful feeling to be left hanging in the middle (like Malcolm in the middle =P). Nobody wants to be suppressed by an elite, but neither does anybody want to be left ignored in the middle.



  13. Yes, in fact, China was ruled by a system of academic elites (okay, so it was fueled by some economic elitism… really poor, rural people wouldn’t have had the exposure to the literature needed to pass the exams needed for a high governmental post, but whatever) during much of the dynastic age. Yes, academics may not measure an individual’s true abilities, but isn’t the ability to critically reason much more important in governing than, say, beauty, or the ability to hide corruption? Just a thought. I agree that no one wants to be left alone, though.

  14. Shikhar says:

    yes!!! I have got an MIT EC assigned to me. Its Mr. Vinay Rai.

  15. Shikhar says:


    I wouldl like you to address one question I asked in July. I really want to know the exact feelings of an admission officer on this.

    “Well gap years can be really good at times or really crappy (depends on what you plan to do). I don’t think I’l take one if I get into class of MIT 2010..but then my decisions often change by the elventh hour.

    I was curious whether people applying after a gap year have the same chance of getting admitted to college as their high school counterparts.

    Shikhar Saxena”

    and yeah no one knows the suffering of a lack of a ‘gifted education’ environment than we in India. I mean atleast in the US students have the choice to select some different course if they finish their course..but here I finished my C++ course in 11th summers and I still have to study that for 1 1/2 years more. (sheesh). So basically thats 6 classes (per week) I am wasting in which I could have some other subject which interests me (like economics). I mean the way the subjects get segregated into Science and Arts and Commerce here in India right from High school really sucks.

  16. I like the Harrison Bergeron story too. It is also found in an anthology edited by Clifton Fadiman, if I’m not mistaken. I should go back into my room of books (which includes textbooks for courses I intend to take… in college… as well as light reading and philosophical stuff. Like sci-fi or spec-fic or whatever you want to call it. Go MITSFS!)

  17. Shikhar, for you guys in India, doesn’t it meant that you all specialize pretty early?

  18. Shikhar says:

    well who said we weren’t proud of the rigor of our education system… We are only saying that if we do finish off with even this rigorous work early we should be given an opportunity to take extra subjects.. I think the lack of this is really an ignorance on the Education ministries part.

  19. Congrats, Shikhar!

    Oh, wow, that’s not good.

  20. "tokenadult" says:

    In actual fact, taxpayer-subsidized school spending has been steadily rising in real terms throughout the past several decades. A good economist to read about education policy issues is Mark Blaug, who examines why money is poorly spent by the school systems of most countries. The reason for lousy gifted education in the United States is most definitely NOT lack of money–some other countries do better while spending less money per student–but rather an ideology of schooling to equalize outcomes rather than schooling to develop talent.

    I have been visiting various schools in my town to see if they would offer a challenging, positive environment for my children, who thus far have been homeschooled. They spend a lot more per student than I can afford to, but they spend much of their budgets on things that don’t pertain at all to developing talented young people who make a positive difference in society. So far it looks like we will stick with homeschooling. Our homeschooling support group has been able to arrange AP classes for learners who are mostly of middle-school age, and all our children are self-motivated learners who learn for fun and “push” themselves to get better at something. That’s a better environment than I had in a pretty well funded public school district in this same town when I was young.

  21. Ankit G says:


    Being an Indian student, I take the liberty to reply to a question you posted to Shikhar. Yes, we may specialize early, but the fact remains that Indian students then have the knowledge of only a limited field. Had the knowledge been in-depth, it would have been fine. But, the education system over here gives anything but in-depth knowledge. The end result is that even though Indian students have specialized in their fields, they niether have practical knowledge, nor do they have the capability to appreciate the finer points of life. I sometimes feel suffocated here. Even though I want to have a carrer in science, I would love to study subjects like music, or poilitical science or maybe even South Asian Studies. The setup here offers me no opportunity to do so.


    A question to you. Is it ok if my short essay contains 124 words instead of the stipulated 100?


  22. Shikhar says:


    For my MIT interview are their specific things that I have to carry with me.

  23. Chris Dancy says:

    It would be great if my high school had more gifted programs…..we have no orchestra (elementry through middle school)…no band…and we dont even have a high english class anymore (we had academic english and reg. english now its just academic english everywhere) so im stuck in english class LEARNING ABOUT COMPOUND SENTENCES…..theres ten friggin people in my calc class out of like 350 seniors, so adv. class in math is out….it’s just sad how the smart in my school don’t really have many options…

  24. Ankit,

    Don’t worry about the essay length. I also overshot, but not by much.

    Ben’s blog has a post by leftcoastmom that quotes Ben himself.

    “In my blog I did say ’50 words over the limit isn’t a big deal, don’t worry about it. People who totally ignore the limit and submit 1000 words, however, are telling us something about their ability to write a concise essay…’ In other words, it’s not a strict limit, but don’t abuse that policy – the reader(s) won’t appreciate it if you do.”

    Yeah, hope this helps you!

    And thanks for your info on the Indian education system. It kinda matches what some of my other Indian friends say, but at the same time, it contradicts what others feel, because they’re totally proud of their education system.



  25. Robb Carr says:

    I just had to comment…from your…second? blog post.

    Matt Wrote: “First, the word “factor,” which is something I like to do to numbers. You could not imagine my joy when earlier this summer I realized that my nine-digit social security number is prime. I don’t quite recall how the topic came up, but as we were talking, I was applying various divisibility tests. I wasn’t certain, though, until I got to a factoring program, since I didn’t know the divisibility tests for larger primes (if you can factor nine-digit composite numbers in your head — and I’m not talking about easy ones like 10^8 or 2^27 here — you should totally list that as a talent on your application). Number theory is fun stuff. If you haven’t read a biography of mathematician Paul Erdos, I’d recommend that as fun end-of-summer reading.”

    Having a prime social security number is so awesome…Yay factoring! I have actually done alot of work lately on a more…geometrically oriented approach for factoring large pseudo primes (Neccesary to break RSA encryption [Developed by three MIT professors incidentally]) but im going to stop myself now before I ramble for a page or two…*cough* *cough* …

  26. Speaking of encryption… I’m waiting to see what the effects of quantum encryption will do for computing. Finally I understand how it works. Gonna blog that on my own blogs. It’s just soooooo cool.

  27. Robb Carr says:

    It is very interesting, one of my big projects in cryptology which is more or less completed at this point is very similar to the idea of quantum cryptology…but based off the idea of matrices (i.e. its a method for key exchange of a one time use pad cipher which should gurantee perfect security following the Bob sends Alice guesses type of routine but different in the mathematics of it) eh…it is kind of depressing to think that once we have quantum cryptography perfected cryptanalysis as it is today will really cease to exist (beyond a hobby) as it really fascinates me…it is a very direct application of number theory.