She sits in the front row, her chin propped up on her hand, mindlessly doodling over her notebook. She isn’t slacking off. She’s just waiting for the other kids to finish. The boy staring out the window, into the empty spaces of the clouds — he isn’t daydreaming. He’s tracking imaginary differential curves in his mind.

Like the pockets of gifted children around the country, these students face a curriculum that moves too slowly for them. They aren’t disengaged with the work because it’s too hard, but because it’s too easy. They devour lesson plans in minutes where other kids take weeks. And though many of them go on to enjoy wild success, their intellects guiding them to professions of their choice, researchers have now discovered, through the largest longitudinal study of so-called “profoundly gifted” children — those in the top 0.01 percent of intelligence — that many had to rely on their own strengths to excel, in spite of an education system designed to hold them back.

Shoot For The Moon

When Americans talk about education reform, they talk about federal policies to give public schools more funding, better textbooks. They want to help the stragglers join their peers at the head of the class. It’s an ethos couched in teaching to the middle of the pack. But the lower fringe receives far more attention than the super high-achievers, according to a new study from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of education and human development.

“Gifted children are a precious human-capital resource,” remarked study leader Professor David Lubinski, who has spent four decades analyzing the relationship between early SAT scores and future achievement. Lubinski’s main focuses are a child’s verbal and mathematical reasoning skills. These, he says, do a good job of forecasting how kids who are exceptionally bright will fare later in life. “This population represents future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics),” he continued. “Our study provides new insight into the potential of these children.”

To carry out their study, which began when the 320 subjects were 13 and concluded at age 38, Lubinski and his colleagues drew from a pool of children who demonstrated incredible proficiency on the SAT at or before age 13, scoring in the top 0.01 percentile on the test. (To put it another way, they were smarter than 99.99 percent of their peers.) The research team used these initial measures and correlated them with each child’s trajectory, checking back to see how far they matriculated through college, which professions they entered, how much they earned, and the like. Many grew up to be senior leaders at Fortune 500 companies; some became leading software engineers; others took a fondness for politics, as one subject even became a top advisor for the president of the United States.

But there was a problem. These successes were belied by years of educational setbacks and systemic pitfalls. Lubinski and his team discovered teachers weren’t finding time to challenge the gifted students in nearly the same capacity as they were for the students with learning disabilities, something Lubinski looked upon with disappointment.

“Ability, motivation, and opportunity all play roles in developing exceptional human capacity and providing the support needed to cultivate it throughout life,” he said.

Raising And Lowering The Bar

This raises the obvious question: Aren’t the gifted kids already ready, willing, and able to develop “exceptional human capacity”? (That is, if they don’t already possess it.) To which postdoctoral research fellow and co-researcher, Harrison Kell, seems to offer an answer.

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help,” Kell said in the release. “This study shows that’s not the case. These people with very high IQs — what some have called the ‘scary smart’— will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless they’re given access to accelerated coursework, AP classes, and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers.”

What Kell is implying isn’t new. The social sciences have known for some time that kids underperform when they are surrounded by kids who tend to underperform themselves. Likewise, kids who struggle with reading comprehension and math see their test scores skyrocket when they’re placed in reading and math groups with kids who generally do well. In both cases, the effect is the same. Peer groups leave lasting impacts on children’s overall cognitive skills and, what’s more, boost their appreciation for cultivating new ones. It’s not just the case that kids in the low-achieving groups don’t do well; often, they don’t want to do well, and usually because they have learned to expect failure when they try.

The kids in Lubinski’s study are a different breed altogether. They like learning. Why wouldn’t they? They’re good at it. People enjoy the tasks in which they excel, or at the very least, those in which they see room for growth. Indeed, the child learning to read The Odyssey in its original Greek needs motivation as much as the girl next to her, who’s only beginning to read without the aid of a guiding finger. But to what extent that role should be the responsibility of the teacher remains a point of contention. As Kell points out, many gifted children find pleasure in learning within the structure of high school-oriented university programs — an alternative to simply throwing a gawky 13-year-old into the lion’s den of sophomore or junior year just because he’s brainy.

As for working solutions to the problem of acceleration versus accommodation, Lubinski leaves it open, though he finds success in the study’s metrics. “The higher the intellectual ability, the more difficult it may be to match a student with appropriate educational opportunities and curricula,” he concludes. “Our study shows what kinds of measures you need to pinpoint the extraordinarily gifted among the gifted students.”

Source: Kell H, Lubinski D, Benbow C. Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators. Psychological Science. 2013.