Fighting the War Against Intelligence

Let’s try out a couple phrases:

Elite Athlete
Elite Model
Elite Entertainers
Elite Vacations
Military Elite
Elite Smart People

Recently Rick Santorum made headlines with his statement that the “elite smart people” would never support the Republican party. According to Wikipedia, “An elite in political and sociological theory, is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power.”  Clearly under that definition, many of the elite are supporters of Republican candidates just as some are supporters of Democratic candidates.

Mr. Santorum’s disdain is not for the elite. His derogatory comment was a slam against smart people.

United States society and our governmental policies have been waging a war against intelligence for over a decade. Formally codified as No Child Left Behind, our nation’s educational policies have specifically focused on and funded initiatives for low achievers while deliberately neglecting students at the upper end of the curve. This neglect disproportionately hurts gifted and talented students from low-income and middle class families. High potential students from families with means have numerous options from tutors, to moving to districts with better public schools, to sending their kids to exclusive private schools. Students from less affluent families are not so lucky. Congress has chosen not to fund the only U.S. Department of Education program aimed at finding and nurturing gifted and talented students, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

Across our nation, the policies and funding that define public education are deliberately ravaging programs, initiatives, and even standards that can help our smart students thrive. Quality public education is under attack from Texas where the Republican Party opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills, to science classes countrywide that teach creationism alongside evolution. Regardless of people’s personal beliefs, one of the main benefits of science classes is teaching students how to take a hypothesis, break it down, and thoughtfully and systematically examine supporting and non-supporting evidence. Schools need to teach students how to use their intelligence to make sense of the world. More than ever before, science and reason are a force in the global economy. The major issues of our time from global warming to natural resource depletion, to mass population expansion and world hunger, are problems that will be addressed through a smart combination of science and public policies.

Around the world, nations are nurturing their gifted and talented youth, supporting rather than denigrating their elite smart people. Due to the war against intelligence in the U.S., our high-potential students are being left behind. Just consider two of many statistics cited by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development:

  • The United States has among the smallest proportion of 15-year-olds performing at the highest levels of proficiency in math. Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and the Czech Republic have at least five times the proportion of top performers as the United States. (McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools; April 2009)
  • About one-third of all jobs in the United States require science or technology competency, but currently only 17 percent of Americans graduate with science or technology majors … in China, fully 52 percent of college degrees awarded are in science and technology. (William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, Congressional testimony July 2005)

Chester E. Finn Jr., an expert in public gifted education in the U.S. has documented how we are systematically neglecting our high-ability students. He calls for an end to the “bias against gifted and talented education.”

Where do we start? How do we change the cultural tide to make it okay, even revered to be a thinking intellectual?
We can begin with some basic initiatives.

  1. First our news media needs to stop pretending that an argument fully supported by documented, proven facts, is no more valid than an opinion that the opposite is true. They need to demonstrate their support of intelligence by publicly weighing the proof behind statements and showing, by example, that it is okay to be critically thinking, smart people.
  2. We need to demand that our national government fully and increasingly fund science programs and education for our elite, smart people.
  3. Parents should stop hiding the sacrifices they make to support their exceptionally gifted children. Too often we conceal a child’s giftedness to avoid embarrassing social situations. This public denial of the challenges associated with raising children on the high end of the curve is similar to the way physically and mentally handicapped children once were invisible in society, and it is just as unacceptable.
  4. Schools need to stop pretending that all students have equal intellectual potential and should start providing real educational opportunities for high-potential students.
  5. Communities should be as publicly proud of their elite smart people as they are of their elite athletes.

We need to embrace the reality that we, all Americans, will be better off if we fully support and educate our future scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. It is time to call out anyone who uses the terms “smart” and “intellectual” as put downs and label the speakers what they really are, un-American.

Loving School Again

My second grader started at a new, to him, school this week. The school is an alternative, public school for gifted kids.  The school is small with a combined student body, 1st through 12th grade, of just over 100 students. It is not in our district which means in order for my kids to attend the program I get to spend 2+ hours a day driving them to and from school. This gives me time, lots of it, to ponder, “Is it worth it?”

Right now the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

Yesterday when I picked up the kids, the seven-year-old bounced with excitement and enthusiasm. He wanted to know if he would be able to work on his Rosetta Stone Spanish at home that night. He was more confident than I have seen in a long time. In fact, earlier in the day I had commented to another parent that he used used to be the most positive child but that over the last year or so he had become increasingly pessimistic.

So I asked him if he was enjoying the new school and how it compared to his old school. He was emphatic that the new school was “way” better. Now, keep in mind, his old school was no slouch. It is a very high performing, blue ribbon school in a well-funded suburban school district. The K-6 student body of 1,000 has many high performers. The building is well-maintained and the school has new technology, dedicated teachers, and highly involved parents who value education and donate their time and money to support the teachers, students, and school. We chose to live here in part because the schools are so good. Yet, our kids did not thrive in the local schools.

In the words of a second grader here is why the school for gifted kids is better than the high-quality, local school.

  1. No Bullying.
  2. Everybody is nice.
  3. You need to get work done.
  4. You get a couple of breaks.
  5. You get to have a snack whenever you want.

Taking each of the above points one at a time shows why significantly gifted kids have a better chance of thriving when they are able to enroll in full-time programs with similar kids, designed for the special needs of the population.

No Bullying. Like it or not, kids on the playground are frequently mean. Especially at a big school, like his old school. During after lunch recess there are over 100 students on the playground and only a couple of adults supervising. My son, who is small for his age, was teased constantly. He was called names and physically bullied. Because he views the world a bit differently than a regular kid, he could not navigate the huge social pecking order. Due to lack of numbers and lack of understanding, no adult had his back. He was on his own and he spent a great deal of time obsessing about how he could defend himself.

At the smaller gifted school there is a better ratio of adults to kids on the playground but that isn’t the only improvement. Being smart isn’t a social negative. The kids value intellect as much or more than athletic prowess and the hockey/soccer/football stars do not rule the playground. This allows him to be himself without automatically becoming a target.

Everybody is nice. While this may sound like a rephrasing of the first point, it goes beyond that. It is one thing to not get picked on, it is another to connect. He is having good conversations and making friends with kids of all ages. He is finding common ground and gaining confidence because the other kids accept him.

You need to get work done. This statement struck me as a bit funny. Of course he got work done in his old school as well. The new school includes a heavy component of self-directed learning and personal responsibility. I think he is starting to take more ownership of his education. He feels like his is working and learning, instead of merely following the teacher’s directions.

You get a couple of breaks. In their quest to maximize test scores, his old elementary school structured the school day to maximize seat time. Although studies do not bear this out, there is a feeling that school days need to be crammed full of academics to maximize student success. The only “break” time allowed in his old first grade classroom was recess right after lunch. The new school divides the school day into work blocks interspersed with break times. Different people need different types of breaks. Introverts may need to go read a book in a corner, extroverts may need to catch up with friends. Different days you may feel like walking outside or just playing a mindless game of solitaire. The new school allows for this. Within reason and weather permitting, students can use their break times however they wish. This leaves students feeling like they have really had a break and they then tackle the next work block with renewed focus and energy.

You get to have a snack whenever you want. This is so basic. Regular elementary schools and classrooms only allow students to eat at specific times. Many students, and especially, many significantly gifted students, have cranked up brain metabolisms. They may need a more steady stream of food, especially protein, throughout the day. If they can’t eat when their bodies and brains need nourishment, their thinking can get foggy and they lose emotional resilience. The new school recognizes that hunger and nutritional needs are not dictated by a clock. Allowing students to eat when they are hungry makes the students more aware of, and in tune with, their bodies. It also makes them more productive during work blocks.

Could some of these changes be implemented at the local school? Perhaps, although in a school with 1,000 students it is difficult to meet the needs of a small group that march to the beat of a different drummer. Full-time programs dedicated to highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students fulfill a huge need that even the best neighborhood schools fail to meet. The need to get these kids together with each other. They know they are different and can have a difficult time finding meaningful connections with regular kids in regular schools. In gifted programs they discover that they are not alone. As one student put it coming back to (the gifted) school after summer break, he is once again with “his people.”