The state of North Carolina defines academically gifted thus: "Academically gifted students in North Carolina are defined as those who “perform or show the potential to perform at substantially high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment."1 The key word in this sentence is accomplishment. The academically gifted see the rewards that come from working for grades and meeting teachers’ expectations. They stay up late doing homework, get up early to complete assignments, come in during lunch hours for tutoring, even ask for extra assignments to raise their averages. They monitor their own grades, stress about A-s, and occasionally successfully lobby teachers to raise poor grades. They know their class rank--who is above them and who is slipping in the rankings.
While many academically gifted students also qualify as intellectually gifted, many are not. I knew two girls growing up who were academically very gifted, both of whom graduated at the top of our class of over 400. Both performed well in school and had the grades to back up their achievements. Neither of them scored above a 20 on the ACT.2 One of these young women didn’t even break 15. This was the first time in my life I remember being aware that all school-smart people weren’t SMART smart. Although they had proven their academic ability, neither of these young women would fit into the category of the intellectually gifted.
This is the definition used by the state of Tennessee for intellectually gifted: “Intellectually gifted means a child whose intellectual abilities and potential for achievement are so outstanding that the child’s educational performance is adversely affected. Adverse affect means the general curriculum alone is inadequate to appropriately meet the student’s educational needs." Key words used in this definition are potential, as I will address in a moment, and adverse affect—regular school can’t provide for their needs.
Intellectually gifted individuals see things others don’t see, understand equations others can’t comprehend, imagine solutions to problems the world deems unsolvable. Words flow from their minds and through their mouths that belie their age. Puzzle pieces magically unite in their hands. Stories leap from their minds and fill blank pages. Miles of equations crumble into four simple, indecipherable symbols. Often, these individuals are categorized as quirky, their “outside-the-box” thinking refusing any other label. And even more often, intellectually gifted children refuse to perform in school, classifying the rote learning taught in schools today as too repetitious and tedious to warrant their best efforts. If the correct motivation is unavailable to them, they will find ways around assignments, even sometimes generating so little effort that they fail in academic situations.
I have firsthand experience with parenting an intellectually gifted child. Tucker showed aptitude for logic and puzzles at an early age. He could do fifty-piece puzzles before he was two, correctly identified every dinosaur before he was three, and taught himself math facts before kindergarten. He fit many of the criteria of gifted kids--caught on quickly, loved by adults, emotionally and socially a little backward. I tried many different teachers and schools and educational approaches. Nothing really clicked with him, and what I mean by that is that nothing really motivated him to do his best. In sixth grade, he attended regular class at one school, an extended learning program (PC code for gifted program) at another, and math at the junior high, with me shuttling him between teachers and schools with the hope that something or someone would bring out the best in him. Tucker completed high school geometry the summer before seventh grade and was attending math classes at the high school before he was thirteen. If he were to complete the trajectory he was on, he would have completed the second year of calculus--highest level of math offered in our public schools--after his sophomore year, a class completed by less than one percent of all graduating seniors.
So where was the problem? The problem was that he never received grades commensurate with his abilities because no math teacher could motivate him to care about his grade. During his second semester of Calculus AB during his freshman year, Tucker was required to complete a three-dimensional shape project using some formula to calculate each two-dimensional sliver of the shape, then assembling all of the slivers into the 3D version. This project was intended to take weeks and demanded exactness to reflect their work. His project was slapstick and messy and inaccurate because he couldn't care about the project itself, even though the calculations to render the shape were simple for him. His final grade for that semester definitely did not reflect his aptitude, but it did reflect his meager efforts. I was frustrated, disappointed, and almost hopeless at this point.
The Calculus AP test is legendary for its difficulty, and here he was, taking it at the conclusion of his sophomore year. Could I get him to go to any review sessions or study at all for it? No. Even without any of the standard preparation put in by most students, Tucker passed the AP test with a 3--a score equal to or better than many students' scores--and they had studied for weeks.
He was enrolled in Calculus BC his sophomore year with the same teacher he'd had the year before. This class was a small, elite group of mathematicians who lived and breathed math. Four weeks into the school year my carefully constructed dam broke--this fragile structure that I had hoped would hold together long enough for him to recognize what he was capable of and to perform at that level. How many of you have had conferences with high school teachers? I bet not very many of you. Let me tell you, high school teachers don't like conferences, especially AP-level teachers who only accept the best and brightest into their classrooms in the first place. I talked with his teacher many times, trying to figure out how we could pull this genius-level skill out of him and have it reflected in his grade. I went into the classroom, only to hear these words that I will never forget: "Your son is one of the most brilliant math minds I've ever encountered. And he is one of the laziest people I've ever met." He then
What do you do with that as the parent? No matter how hard we both pushed him, encouraged him, bribed him, grounded him, or shadowed him,3 we could not force him to perform. I spent many hours worrying, talking with teachers of the gifted, crying, praying, yelling. All it did was disintegrate my relationship with my son. My gifted son. My brilliant, wonderful, capable, stubborn son. Somehow, I and public school had failed him.4
After having read these definitions and examples, if you can classify you or your child as both academically and intellectually gifted--one of that very small, select group that achieves marks reflecting their gifts--consider yourself blessed, because you are in the minority. I firmly believe that most intellectually gifted kids develop lazy habits in their school experience because the challenge to their abilities disappears in early elementary school.
Tomorrow: How Public School Is Failing Our Gifted Kids
1 Use of North Carolina's and Tennessee's definitions of these terms reflects which definitions appeared in my research first, and I have no ulterior motivation or reason for their use other than their availability.
2Scores pre-1989 use a scale that is now outdated. In 1990, ACT “recentered” their scores, and average scores jumped from 18.6 to 20.6 in a year. For more information, click here. Most recent median ACT score statistic available for the state of Idaho is 21.6 in 2012.
3yes, I actually attended calculus with my sixteen-year-old son and yes, it humiliated us both but did nothing to change his grade.
4Tucker is currently completing an LDS mission in NYC, due home in eight days (in case you hadn't heard). I asked him in a letter since he's been gone what I could have done differently during that period of his life, and his reply was comforting. He wrote that he knew I had done the best I could and that he knows he could have done things differently. We both regret how this time in his life brought so much strife into our relationship and drove us to warring corners of the ring.