With Britain planning a centre for gifted kids, Stephen Phillips reports on US models. Joan Freeman considers research on how such schemes affect children.
Princeton University first-year Stephanie Lester remembers feeling distinctly underwhelmed by lessons at her New Jersey public school. At age 15, she aced the verbal portion of the SAT 1 test, intended for 17 to 18-year-old would-be United States university entrants, with a perfect 800 and scored a lofty 720 in mathematics. "I wanted to quit and (learn at home) - classes were boring," recalls Lester, 18, on a scholarship to study liberal arts.
Not wanting to stand out from her peers, Lester says she found herself "dumbing down" answers to teachers' questions and not wanting to raise her hand in class.
Feeling discouraged, she jumped at the offer of a place at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth (CTY) in summer 1998. For three weeks, she took astronomy courses and mixed with similarly precocious youngsters from around the world.
"It was the first time I had been around intellectual people. The professors and graduate students were young and enthusiastic," says Lester, who hopes to specialise in the philosophy of science.
She is just one of more than 22,000 seven to 17-year-olds inducted into the CTY's summer programmes, distance-learning courses and weekend conferences every year.
The CTY, which is cited as a potential model for the soon-to-be confirmed British centre for gifted children, pioneered its hothouse for prodigies in 1979. Since then, a mini-industry has sprung up in the US, based on the notion that such children are not adequately served by normal schools.
Led by universities, so-called "talent search" programmes crisscross the country, hunting not only for academically gifted pupils but for children with exceptional creative and leadership abilities too.
The question of how to ensure gifted pupils fulfil their potential has fostered a distinct branch of study and its own research journal, while parents of gifted children have formed support groups.
At Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, CTY executive director Lea Ybarra describes her job as if it were a mission. "Highly gifted students will make a tremendous contribution to society. If we don't nurture them, will they make the great discoveries that could be made?" The CTY provides an exotic array of challenging courses straddling humanities, writing, maths and science. Recruitment is by recommendations from teachers, who are asked to identify the top 3 per cent of pupils. Candidates then sit above-age admission exams. About 12,000 schools participate in the programme.
The emphasis on residential campus-based courses offers pupils a chance to sample higher education and future opportunities, says Nicholas Colangelo, professor of gifted education at the University of Iowa. "It helps kids realise what they have going for them and what's ahead if they keep on."
Courses also offer universities an early opportunity to sink their hooks into promising students. Roughly 10 per cent of this year's Johns Hopkins freshmen are alumni of the CTY.
However, the greatest benefit students may derive is social. Many bright children are stigmatised at school, and tailored learning environments offer them the chance to feel less self-conscious, says psychotherapist Linda Krieger Silverman, director of the Gifted Children Education Center in Denver.
"Ask a gifted child what they want and it's not straight As. They say 'I want a friend, someone who understands me' - this is what you get when you put a gifted child in a gifted programme," says Silverman.
Ellen Rubenstein, 20, an English literature and East Asian studies student at Columbia University, met one of her best friends at a CTY summer course she attended in the mid-1990s, whereas she felt like an "anomaly" at her New York state high school.
Far from making able students conceited about their skills or increasing any sense of alienation from classmates, the programmes offer them perspective, Ybarra says.
"We have found that when students interact with other students who are equally smart, it is almost humbling, they feel part of a community."
Nevertheless, the accusation of elitism centres on the effect on those left behind - those not labelled gifted or talented.
Moreover, critics point to an under-representation of ethnic minorities and poor pupils on courses owing to an emphasis on test results said to favour children from wealthy backgrounds.
Ybarra says the CTY awarded scholarships, waiving its $2,150 fees, for 1,300 students this year. Meanwhile, it is recruiting in inner cities, using criteria other than SAT scores to target black and Hispanic students. As a result, such students accounted for 10 per cent of the roll call at this year's summer school, compared with just a handful in previous years. But this still falls short of the 17 per cent of the student population that blacks alone account for in the US.
Meanwhile, despite the sense of community among gifted education advocates, there is far from consensus in the field.
Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, is ambivalent about the importance of talent pools.
"It is helpful for people who have to have names on a list," he concedes. "But there is more to gifted behaviour than intellect." He is interested in exploring where ability comes together with task-commitment and creativity. For this to occur, he says, there needs to be a confluence of traits - courage, charisma, sense of destiny and optimism - as well as intelligence.
In his programme, Renzulli, whose centre is the only one of its kind to be funded by the US government, uses exam results to identify "lesson-learning school-house giftedness". But to uncover creative aptitudes, he solicits recommendations about exceptional pupils without academic credentials from teachers and children themselves.
Renzulli's denial of the exclusive importance of raw innate intelligence has drawn criticism from some, who complain he is diluting the effectiveness of gifted programmes. But he counters that the pure intellectual approach has not achieved its aims, citing Julian Stanley, the Johns Hopkins professor considered the father of gifted education.
Stanley's conception of the idea for the CTY is said to have come partly from his observation that students spent many of their most intellectually fertile years on curriculum-based study. If he could get them to complete their doctorate when they were 24 instead of 30, they would have more productive years for creative inquiry, he reasoned.
However, Renzulli recounts a conversation with Stanley in which he bemoaned how few alumni of gifted programmes had gone on to conduct leading-edge research - most entering worthy but ordinary professions, becoming doctors or lawyers, for instance.
The flaw of many programmes, Renzulli concludes, is a focus on accelerated learning that takes no account of pinpointing and developing students' personal interests where the chance of fostering a creative spark lies. To unlock this, Renzulli has an offbeat box of tricks. The so-called "interest-a-lyser," for instance, poses to pupils questions such as: "What role would you take in a movie shoot - writer, director, business manager or cameraman?" After students' interests are identified, they are taught related skills directed toward an end product.
The University of Iowa harnesses both the traditional and creative approach at its Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. Precocious maths and science students are given more and harder theorems to master. But the centre also puts students identified as talented leaders through their paces. Such students hear from leadership experts, learn about group dynamics and are taught to analyse their strengths and weaknesses.
As gifted education grows up, the quest to understand achievement is clearly leading US universities to re-cast traditional notions of talent.