News and Tribune

December 3, 2013

Freedom is more likely to stimulate potential geniuses than gifted programs

By Jay Mathews
The Washington Post

— The father of one of my high school friends was part of Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman's famous Genetic Studies of Genius project. This dad had been one of 1,528 California children with very high IQs who were followed for decades to see if they were as successful in life as they were smart on tests.

He was a nice man. He did well at his job. But he made no great discoveries as far as I know. There were more successful people with bigger salaries despite lower IQs in our town. Most of Terman's other geniuses were much the same. After decades of data gathering, Terman concluded that "intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated."

 If high IQ scores are not reliable indicators of genius, what are? Advocates of gifted children hope schools can be designed to turn intellectual promise into world-changing creativity. Many of those experts admit that a lot of our gifted programs at the moment don't add much. What those children get in an occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents' bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet.

Talking to the experts leads me to think we should not be putting our faith in public schools to meet this need. Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don't know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

Like any journalist, I have interviewed many bona fide geniuses, because they tend to make news. Their life stories suggest that such people are best left alone to educate themselves, as long as we make sure that they can get to all the riches of our culture and science and that we don't require them to take grade-level courses that hold them back. Most geniuses, such as megabillionaire Warren Buffett (Wilson High School in Washington) or Beach Boy Brian Wilson (Hawthorne High School in California), appear to have gone to fairly ordinary schools like the rest of us.

There are exceptions. In her 1977 book, "Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas," Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim. He was in an ambitious public school's gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school's teachers. He loved the school's small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas. I read about Ray and her subject, Tim, in Brad Stone's new book, "The Everything Store." Tim's real name was Jeffrey Bezos.

The future founder of Amazon.com and owner of this newspaper later graduated from a typical big American high school, Miami Palmetto. He found lots to do there without the help of a gifted program. That suggests that potential geniuses are getting as much useful stimulation in, say, regular high schools in Fairfax County (Va.) as they are getting in Fairfax's famous magnet, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

I pray for a 21st-century Terman to do another genius study on kids like that. Take a sample of very bright Fairfax teens at Jefferson and similarly smart students at other Fairfax schools, then follow both groups for a few decades. Will they turn out differently? I don't think so. Geniuses are made mostly by themselves. All schools can do is give them what they ask for and get out of the way.