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.

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8 Responses to No Child Gets Ahead

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  2. Elena says:

    I was thinking about this the same many times. “No child left behind” spoils educational system of America. But what we can do? We are minority.
    I have read also interesting experience of Airat Dimiev in his book “Классная Америка”. Similar ideas, terrible facts…
    I could only wish Elizabeth good luck! All the best from Russian teacher!

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  5. Yevgeny Ioffe says:

    I have observed exactly the same thing and distilled it in my article way back in 2005:

  6. Frustrated mom says:

    I have a daughter similar in many ways to Elizabeth. We live in Kentucky and things were so bad last year that 2 different psychologists that specialize in working with gifted kids said I have no option but to home school my 8 year old and should plan to do so at least through elementary school. And so, I am now home schooling a kid that scored in the 99.9th percentile on two different IQ tests. As you may be able to imagine, it is difficlt for me to keep her appropriately challenged in every subject.

    A friend recently recommended RSM. My daughter has been to 7 classes. It has been very difficult for her, not academically, but as you suggest, culturally.

    She wanted to quit because: “Everyone sees each other’s scores and I feel bad for those who do poorly?”. “They call on me every class even when I don’t want to talk.” And, here is my favorite, “they make everything a competition.”

    Didn’t they do any of this in her old expensive private school? What the heck were we paying them to teach her, how to be “cool”? Don’t they realize that there is nothing cool about being unprepared for life?

    On the way home from RSM today we had a discussion about why it is good that her teacher pointed out silly mistakes and let everyone see each others scores. I explained that when you have a job everyone will see your work. If it is not good, you will not get a bad grade, but you may get fired.

    She said, “but the teacher was mad because of silly mistakes.” I said, “if your uncle, an automotive engineer, had made a silly mistake with his numbers and not enough force was applied to car breaks when the pedal was applied it could have resulted in a person having a car accident and people being killed, would it still be a silly mistake then?”

    My daughter was silent for some time. She then said, “I think I will double check my work before I turn it in. Maybe I should tell my classmates to do the same.”

    With pride and appreciation for RSM I said, “that would be the cool thing to do.” She is finally looking forward to class next week. Thank you so much for starting this program. You have helped to save my little girl.

  7. KC says:

    I can completely relate to that. I live in MA.I have 2 very smart boys and so far the public school system has been unsupportive. The boys were tested by the school psychologist, are in the 99 % and all the teachers care about is to make them fit in the standard mold.
    I have met with the teachers, school principal, and the district super intendant assistant and it seems that I am at fault for not being able to make my kids fit in. The kids feel bored at school. What upsets me is that “no child left behind ” should also apply to those ahead of their grade so they are not sidelined.

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