Inessa on a plight of gifted children:
I want to tell you about one of my great students at Russian School of Mathematics. We’ll call her Elizabeth. Liz is 11 years old. She is in my pre-calculus honor class. She took her SAT when she was 10 and scored 800/800. Half a year ago she took her SAT II IC — this is the test that is usually taken by 11 graders — and scored 800/800. Elizabeth came to Russian School of Mathematics when she was in fourth grade. Her parents wanted her to take AMC 8 (American Mathematics Contest 8). When Elizabeth’s father googled school’s with top AMC 8 results, RSM came up among top schools. Once parents discovered that, in addition to results, RSM is an after school program, they decided to enroll.
Liz is extraordinary bright and not only in math. On top of it she is physically tall and big. She looks as 16 year old, and she is smarter than an average 16 year old. But her emotional maturity is exactly that of an 11 year old. I teach her now with 16 year old students and I had to explain to all of them how proud they must be for such a wonderful student to be in their class. Of course sometimes she acts silly. She does not let boys sit next to her. She never goes to the board, and if somebody would jokingly tease her, she could punch them. After all she is still a little kid in a big body with this unbelievable IQ.
To me all of that is a small challenge compared to the unbelievable joy of teaching such a gifted child!
In a public school it’s a different story. Here is how Elizabeth’ father described me the situation.
“During the second half of last school year other students in Liz grade started to tease her; the situation had gotten worse during the first few months of the current school year. It became clear that some of other students didn’t like the fact hat Liz was “different”. In addition last school year, we got a lot of pressure from teachers and staff of the school for Elizabeth to conform to other students (with respect to things such as clothes and topics she should be discussing with them). “
The father told me that the main problem that he sees with the system is that:
“school teachers do not let our daughter learn and function at the level she is capable of and where she is challenged. Sometimes that happens simply because teachers expect student work to be at a certain level and when it does not meet their preconceived “formula” it is deemed inadequate.
He continued that:
“In situations when Elizabeth has trouble relating to the other kids in her grade as a result of different interests, the teachers and the administrators always blame it all on Elizabeth and tell her that they expect her to adapt to the profile of the other girls in her grade. And the pressure applied is usually not subtle.”
Liz’s father feels that teachers have no idea what kind of child Elizabeth is and what to do with her and, consequently, try to force her into the mold they do understand.
One the problems Elizabeth parents see with most schools and US culture in general is that doing well academically is not viewed as a good or “cool” thing.
Elizabeth father adds that:
“Strangely enough, this also applies to teachers and school administrators, the US culture idolizes sports instead of academics and that being good academically is often viewed as threatening by others, often including teachers. Primary and secondary school teachers also frequently view academically advanced children as troublesome because they have no desire to assemble a lesson plan appropriate for them and because those children will (sometimes) want to contribute their knowledge.”
When I asked him about the impact on his daughter, he said:
“All of that, of course, could have a negative impact on a child. In Elizabeth’s case it makes her feel lonely when she has difficulty relating to and connecting with other kids of her age. The trouble she has with the teachers is difficult for her to understand. She gets along very well with teachers who appreciate her for who she is. She gets along very well with children who are on her academic level.”
Elizabeth’s father has these observations to share with other parents of gifted children:
“The first dilemma parents face is whether to go along with a system that the primary and secondary schools have (and try to impose) or, instead, to buck the system. Parents can also try to find schools that cater to the needs of their child. When doing the latter, the decision is whether to try to find ways to meet their child’s needs within the school system or to look for education options outside of school. We decided to look for options outside of the regular school system; because we lost confidence in it.”
And finally he had warm words for Russian School of Mathematics and its teachers:
“When researching RSM we were very impressed with the approach to teaching math (aside from the results that this method of teaching produces for its students). In particular, I refer to the approach that understanding is better than learning by rote. We were also grateful that RSM allowed Elizabeth to take the AMC 10 that year. We were very pleasantly surprised when Elizabeth’s teacher suggested after a few weeks that she join the 8th Grade class. That decision by RSM was, in our view huge, because thus far our experience with the US educational system (both public and private) was that children needed to be age-grouped and learn in lockstep with that group. You cannot imagine our gratitude and relief when it was RSM that suggested placing Elizabeth in a higher grade. Our experience, or rather Elizabeth’s experience with RSM has been wonderful.”
I want to end this blog post with a question to all my readers: “What happened to the US system of education? Did we, while pursuing NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, turn into a nation where NO CHILD GETS AHEAD?
Did America stop being a country of equal opportunity and turned into a country of equal (usually mediocre) outcomes?
Please share your opinions on this topic. This is a conversation that we need to have as a society, and as a country.