Lock-step learning stymies bright kids

April 17, 2000|By Thomas Sowell

THEY SAY a mind is a terrible thing to waste -- but they don't mean it, at least not in most American schools today. Wasting minds is one of the principal activities of our "educators." That is because they have completely different goals and priorities than the intellectual development of the children entrusted to them.

Make-believe "equality" is high on the list of school goals. Students who differ grossly in their interests, abilities and behavior are lumped together in the same classrooms, regardless of whether the pace of the class may be hard to keep up with for some and so slow that it bores other students to death.

A high IQ is a major handicap in too many American schools. Studies have shown high-IQ students to have more social problems and more alienation from their teachers than average students.

While there are special programs for students of various ethnic backgrounds, mental handicaps or even different sexual orientations, teachers and school administrators bitterly resist creating programs for students whose "problem" is that they are too smart for the dumbed-down education being spoon-fed to all.

In my research on bright children who talk late, I have been struck by how many of them have had great difficulties in school, long after their speech had developed to normal or above-normal levels. While these children often outgrow their early speech problems, they may never outgrow the bigger problem of having outstanding minds that get wasted.

The man with the highest IQ in the group studied -- 180, so rare that it is found in no more than one person in 10,000 -- has no college degree. Another very bright man with no degree sailed through schools with effortless A's, but hated these schools so much that he literally kept count of the number of days remaining before he could leave for good.

Others have gone on to college and flunked out or dropped out. One man who flunked out of two colleges was lucky enough to finally find something that engaged his interest -- economics -- and luckier still to find a woman he fell in love with, who said that she would marry him only if he finished college. He went through college with straight A's and earned a postgraduate fellowship to Yale, where he received a Ph.D. Then he went on to a very distinguished career as a professor and dean at prestigious universities. But his was a mind that could easily have been wasted, except for the happenstance of encountering a particular woman and a particular subject.

A young man who recently graduated from law school -- also a late-talker -- was thought by his early teachers to be mentally substandard, as evidenced by his failure to show any interest in the school work. They were very surprised and resistant when his father urged that his son be put into a program for gifted children -- and absolutely astonished when the boy took an IQ test and was found to qualify.

Many of the problems of high-IQ students did not come to light -- and were thought to be myths -- because of the way the most famous study of such people was conducted. Back in the 1920s, when Lewis Terman of Stanford University began a monumental study of children with IQs of 140 and up, following them throughout their lives, he got his sample from teacher recommendations.

Although Terman then tested the children who were brought to his attention, that is very different from testing everybody and then selecting the ones with IQ scores of 140 and up. Teachers are notoriously biased toward nice, compliant children, and have overlooked many very bright kids who were neither. Later studies found lots of problems among high-IQ students chosen at random.

Among bright children in general -- regardless of whether or not they talk late -- many are behavior problems and develop very negative attitudes toward teachers and administrators, which can spill over into negative attitudes toward people in authority in general, sometimes including their parents. A mind is a terrible thing to embitter.

None of this makes a dent on the tenured "educators" in our schools or the tenured professors of education who teach them. Their reigning dogma is equality -- even if it is only the make-believe equality of lock-step education geared to the lowest common denominator. This may not do the students any good, but it makes these "educators" feel good about themselves and morally superior to a society so crass that it values development of the skills and talents in which we are all different.

Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is a syndicated columnist.

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