Will Bright Kids Succeed Even if Not Challenged Enough?

The longstanding debate about whether to help gifted kids resurfaces.

Posted Jul 18, 2019

A recent article in EducationNext by Kathryn Baron titled “Serving the math whiz kids” resurfaced a longstanding debate about whether bright kids will succeed even if not challenged enough.

Jon Star says: “We’re obligated to do a good job for both” [referring to both students performing below standard and to whiz kids] but also that “high-achieving kids are going to succeed even if they’re not challenged enough.” I think Jon Star is saying we should help all kids, but that we should probably help those performing below standard more because they need it more.

In response, Jonathan Plucker says “the data don’t bear out the notion that bright kids will take care of themselves…the goal should be that every student continues to grow.” See this Twitter thread, where Jonathan greatly expands on his comment and discusses the broader context and additional research and makes a strong case for why gifted kids need to be challenged.

I understand where Jonathan is coming from because it is true that many neglected gifted kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are not developing their talent to their full potential. I have written extensively on this topic and even interviewed Jonathan and Scott J. Peters about their book on Excellence Gaps in Education.

However, I want to examine some evidence that might support the idea that bright kids are likely to succeed even if not challenged enough, because understanding where an argument is incorrect doesn’t just require rebutting it with other evidence or perspectives, it also requires understanding whether the initial statement is reasonably supported, and to what extent.

Intelligence or giftedness is a key variable in helping talented kids from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their social mobility. A large body of work by Brent Roberts and colleagues “discovered that intelligence was crucial to helping students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up to their more advantaged peers.” See my interview with Brent here about this large body of research evidence.

Gifted or intelligent kids end up as healthy adults in midlife. This is the finding of a large body of research longitudinally investigating how intelligence assessed when young predicts later-life health and aging. See this article reviewing work by Ian Deary and colleagues.

Gifted individuals, overall, end up as psychologically well-adjusted. A century of research on gifted kids shows that these kids end up academically and occupationally successful, as indicated by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth led by Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski.

This does not mean that gifted kids will not also grow with challenge (they will) or that an important group of whiz kids from disadvantaged backgrounds do not need our help (they do, like all other kids, but especially in comparison to advantaged gifted kids).

Overall, it is important to acknowledge that gifted kids from all backgrounds do have a head start in life. They are, after all, “gifted.” However, that does not mean we should neglect them or that they could not be much more successful if we helped them.

The debate among U.S. education scholars seems to be about which groups of kids have a larger head start than others within the gifted population (poverty can derail whiz kids too), and whether gifted kids as a whole will be “okay” relative to kids who are much more severely academically challenged from the start (those with lower academic ability).

As Chester Finn recently argued, gifted education faces “clear and present” problems. Based on a representative survey of the U.S. public by The Institute of Educational Advancement, Finn concludes about gifted education that “there’s widespread complacency about the enterprise in its present form.”

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