Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth looks at children who took the SAT and scored well at a young age (13 or younger). In the first year, they looked only at math scores. When they broadened their scope, they kept the original name.

Today, many of these precocious youths have grown up to become CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons, successful novelists, etc.

Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start—they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores. Other research has shown that under-stimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated—especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.

Tax dollars disproportionately go to help kids with learning disabilities and other disadvantages:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

Helping gifted kids isn’t expensive, and it gets results:

Two recent papers based on data from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that, among young people with off-the-charts ability, those who had been given special accommodations—even modest ones, like being allowed to skip a grade, enroll in special classes, or take college-level courses in high school—went on to publish more academic papers, earn more patents, and pursue higher-level careers than their equally smart peers who didn’t have these opportunities. In one of the studies, the Vanderbilt researchers matched students who skipped a grade with a control group of similarly smart kids who didn’t. The grade-skippers, it turned out, were 60 percent more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in science, math, or engineering.

“If you look at the control group” in the grade-skipping study, says Lubinski, “they’ll say, ‘The curriculum was moving too slow, I felt bored, I was frustrated.’ Those kids still do better than the norm, but the ones who have their developmental needs met, they do much better.”

But providing these smart kids with an education that matches their abilities is not as straightforward as it sounds. Politically, it raises the fraught question of whether our education system should be in the business of identifying and segregating elite students—an idea that has been tried and rejected before, for good reasons.

For good reasons? Oh, right, for good reasons. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Leave a Reply