The Problem of Giftedness

The Problem of Giftedness

Lacey Chylack

Four boys and ten girls pile out of vans at Duke’s Lemur Center and rally quickly in a mobile trailer, leaving an impression of braces, acne, and plaid. Most have a limegreen badge holder identifying them as students in Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP); a few sport electric-orange badges, signifying longevity in the program. The youngest is fourteen; all are considered gifted according to their performances on standardized tests normally reserved for much older kids. “How was your weekend?” demands instructor Erin Ehmke, a primatologist. “We ate a Vermonster in four minutes—that’s twenty scoops of ice cream,” explains a girl proudly.

In short order, their written hypotheses and conclusions from last week’s research are returned. Feet are jiggling. Uh-oh. “Okay,” Ehmke says briskly, “Tell me about scan sampling. How does it differ from focal sampling and ad lib sampling?” Hands shoot up, voice tumbling over voice. “Great,” she continues. “Today we’ll be using a combination of these techniques to assess inter-observer reliability. Pick a new partner.”

Class has been meeting six days a week to study primate biology by doing what primate biologists do. A week into living and studying together day in and day out, this cadre of students knows one another well. Yet they have to be prodded into switching partners, which is relevant when you’re going to test inter-observer reliability, a measure of how well two scientists’ research data jive in the field. And if such a concept seems advanced for eighthgraders— well, you haven’t met these kids.

Armed with clipboards, off they troop to the lemur cages in teams of two, ungainly primates at an awkward adolescent threshold. Now they stand rapt, the icecream eater with one bare leg akimbo, foot on knee in a gesture familiar to flamingos and homo sapiens juveniles. With perfect balance, she remains motionless, silently jotting notes while before her a graceful adult lemur cavorts and leaps half a dozen body lengths to get food. Around her, cicadas rise to a slow crescendo, then relax, and the North Carolina heat begins its inexorable climb. She stands almost beyond time, concentrated, intense, perched.

Over on East Campus, economist John Kane watches half a dozen small groups of teens hammer out the pricing implications of supply and demand curves. One kid with an orange lanyard (it’s his fourth summer at TIP) explains a graph to two companions with the help of much gesticulation and a chalkboard; another group discusses Frisbee grips and technique; a smattering of individuals write quietly alone.

Shortly, Kane rounds them up. “Now let’s talk about diminishing returns,” he says. Soon he has a gangly guy racing across the room’s diagonal to see how many balls can be moved from one box to another in thirty seconds. Kane adds a second runner, then a third, keeping track of their totals as the crowd shouts out advice. One of the runners trips and sprawls on the floor, getting in the way of the other two. Everybody cracks up. After a certain point, it transpires, more runners don’t help the totals. They need more baskets, not more people. Voilà: the law of diminishing returns.

The class will go on to use its new analytical tools to examine the problem of scarce resources as it plays out in minimum- wage laws, farm subsidies, rent controls, trade protectionism, pollution, and welfare programs. One of TIP’s articles of faith is that its students can soak up an entire semester’s worth of college-level material in three weeks. During a break in the action, I ask Kane if he really covers that much. “Actually,” he laughs, “we cover more.” A professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, he has spent every summer at TIP since 1987 and has the T-shirts to prove it.

Meanwhile, in a class called “Big Screen, Little Screen,” students are using improv to generate ideas for movies. A girl wraps a boy’s head in a sweater, and a costume is born. “I feel like doing an interpretive dance!” exclaims another, and off she goes. As the groups review their scenarios, screenwriter Rick Dillwood, their “producer,” laughs aloud: “The number of skits that end in mass death is a concern.” This group is mastering idea development, experimenting with story, character, dialogue, and setting as they work on their scripts. Soon the class will vote on which to cast, shoot, edit, and screen at the end of its three weeks.

Do you see what I see?


Do you see what I see?: During a Nasher Museum excursion, TIP students paired off for visual-exploration exercise. Dr. J Caldwell


Through its residential program at Duke and related programs at eight other sites, TIP offers dozens of courses, spanning topics from the molecular biology of cancer to how material properties change at the nanoscale. The material is tough and edgy, representing some of the trendiest fields in higher education. And the kids are up to the challenge, eighth-graders ready for college material. These campers have emerged from a region-wide talent search that began with a pool of some 70,000 students who accepted an invitation to take the SAT or ACT as seventhgraders. TIP annually honors the 25,000 highest scorers in state and regional ceremonies and invites an even more select group of about 2,000 for a special recognition ceremony on Duke’s campus. It’s this group—the top 3 percent of the top 3 percent—that receives an invitation to TIP’s three-week summer programs.

Experiences targeting the gifted are important in ways that many people don’t think about. As intellectually robust as these students may be, at some level every fourteen-year-old is delicate, and the precocious, talented, and brilliant are no exception. In fact, they may have it worse. As long ago as 1926, when Columbia University’s Leta Hollingworth codified her pioneering research in the book Gifted Children, educators have known that in mainstream school settings extremely bright students can fall idle. According to a 2003 study by Case Western Reserve University psychiatrist Sylvia Rimm, children testing as gifted comprise 10 to 20 percent of high-school dropouts—who may be bored, hypersensitive, depressed, misunderstood, ridiculed, frustrated, isolated, unpopular, or socially inept.

There is contemporary research on adolescent substance abuse and giftedness, underachievement and giftedness, aggression and giftedness, depression and giftedness. And yet barely half of America’s gifted learners are getting the services they need to stay engaged in the classroom, according to a 2002 report by former teachers James Delisle and Judy Galbraith.

Part of the problem is that giftedness remains a controversial subject. Battles have raged over whether to test children for achievement or potential (e.g., SATs vs. IQ tests); over whether to test them against a body of knowledge or against each other; over “treatments” favoring enrichment or acceleration (e.g., field trips vs. skipping grades); and over performance gaps in gender, race, native language, and socioeconomic status.

Case study


Case study: TIP instructor Don Donelson leads students through an exploration of clinical-trial advocacy.
Megan Morr


TIP was founded thirty years ago with a bias toward action. The program was conceived by then-provost Bill Bevan A.M. ’43, Ph.D. ’48, Hon. ’72; Bob Sawyer, then director of Duke Summer Programs; and educational psychologist Julian Stanley, whose research project on mathematically precocious youth had led to the formation of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth in the 1970s. The inchoate TIP had modest expectations, aiming to secure a regional talent-search monopoly in the Southeast, while leaving most of the country to Johns Hopkins, Northwestern University, and others. In its first year, the program attracted fewer than 8,700 participants, ultimately admitting 151 students to its summer program.

One of those pioneering teenagers was Chris Imershein ’90, who ended up using his TIP courses to place out of Trinity College’s distribution and major requirements in math, Pascal programming, computer science, and English. Yet Imershein credits TIP with something that in retrospect he sees as more important: “the whole social aspect of it—the feeling of acceptance, not feeling so weird or out of place.” At the same time it was, he says, the first time he can remember having to struggle with academic work.

This year, 71,203 seventh-graders took the SAT or ACT under TIP’s auspices, with 3,183 enrolling in summer programs. “All of the talent-search numbers for the rest of the country combined don’t equal ours,” points out TIP executive director Martha Putallaz, now in her eighth year running the program. Despite declines in education funding nationally, TIP increased its budget by 37 percent since the financial crisis, as federal and state budget cuts precipitated a flood of private investment by anxious parents and foundations. TIP’s own innovations didn’t hurt either: In 2010, 36,000 fourth- and fifth-graders received advice, support, and (for some) face-to-face “Academic Adventure” and independentlearning programs developed by TIP specifically to reach younger kids.

Although TIP receives no money directly from Duke, its affiliation with the university helps in other ways, Putallaz notes. Duke’s international connections were critical in launching a pilot program in India, and programs in Singapore and China will debut in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Despite its rapid expansion, TIP’s fundamentals have changed little in the past three decades. It all starts with the talent search: TIP analyzes scores on standardized tests from sixteen states to identify seventh- graders with high academic achievement and invites them to take either the SAT or the ACT. “Once upon a time, the talent search was a game-changer for a lot of families,” says Mark DeLong A.M. ’81, Ph.D. ’87, TIP’s director of operations from 1988 to 1994, “because at last they had evidence they could leverage” with school systems, principals, teachers—and even within the family. Even today, the of ficial notice from TIP is sometimes the first credible acknowledgement parents receive that their child is special and that they are not necessarily pushy, overbearing, doting, or just plain nuts.

Thus the Grand Recognition ceremony, held in Cameron Indoor Stadium, remains a big deal. Scott Greenwood, who served as TIP’s chief operating officer for the last ten years, puts it bluntly: “In a society where everybody gets a ribbon for participating, sometimes it’s good to celebrate real achievement.” This year, some 500 students received their medals on a hot Saturday in May, the bleachers abuzz with the conversation of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings, while on the gym floor, the honorees sat in contemplative silence. Most were dressed up, the boys in ties, the girls in party dresses. Several were too shy—or too unsure of why they were there—to articulate their feelings at their auspicious moment.

Traditional end-of-grade assessment tests aren’t very useful for identifying this group, either. “End-of-grade tests do a good job of measuring a student’s performance on those skills at that grade level. But the ceiling is very low,” says Courtright. “It doesn’t give that fifth-grader who’s ten years old the chance to show he’s ready for pre-algebra.”

Educators of the gifted call it a lack of “headroom”: If 1,000 kids in 10,000 achieve a perfect score on an end-of-grade test, how do you differentiate among those 1,000? Which one child in that group is intellectually five years ahead of her classmates?

And when you do find that one, what do you do with her?

Well-meaning educators of yore might have tried to keep gifted students busy by assigning them extra problem sets of the same homework they had already mastered, or asking them to tutor slower students in the classroom. In 1988, TIP cofounder Bob Sawyer complained in an article for the Journal for the Education of the Gifted that gifted-education curricula were often trivialized, even embarrassingly so. In some ways, that battle has been won. Schools of education now offer master’s degrees in gifted education, and public and private secondary schools nationwide have adopted gifted curricula, hired or appointed Academically or Intellectually Gifted (AIG) liaisons (as in North Carolina), extended teacher certification to include mastery of how to teach the gifted (as in New York), and provided a steady and ever-growing stream of willing participants to the talent searches of TIP and its peers. The resulting programs tend to be not just advanced but experiential.

Dusting for prints


Dusting for prints: Thomas Patterson, left, and Joseph Zuckerman work on a fingerprint identification activity during a forensics class.
Megan Morr


Meanwhile, the first generation of TIPsters, now in their forties and at the peak of their careers, has returned to campus with stories, praise—and sometimes even their children. Each year, TIP honors several alumni at the Grand Recognition, making sure future campers take note of the enticing possibilities before them.

Take Ben Greenman, a pop-culture editor at The New Yorker and author of several books, including the short-story collection Superbad and the “novel-within-storieswithin- a-novel” Superworse. One of the driest wits in the business, Greenman grew up in Miami and studied writing at TIP in 1983-84, returning as a TA, and graduating from high school at sixteen. Describing fourteen-year olds as “larvae—the good kind of larvae,” he credits TIP with giving him early confidence to pursue his dreams of writing professionally. “As I got older, the thing that always struck me was how generous the faculty was. They gave a lot of time to little kids, and a lot of energy, in helping us to discipline our thought and make sense of this welter in our heads.”

Or take Bethany Henderson, a TIPster from 1988-91 and former trial lawyer who left her practice to found City Hall Fellows, a national service corps preparing bright college graduates for careers in local public service. Interns who receive her fellowships get 300 hours of hands-on training in the realpolitik of their home city, helping them figure out who the players are and how policy gets made. Then they take on an ambitious real-world project—using GIS data to get rid of potholes; helping juvenile delinquents reenter the mainstream; increasing local government transparency—and make it happen.

For Henderson, TIP was not just about empowering herself but about networking. Fellow TIPsters Ben Farkas, Mackenzie Kaplan Sandler, and Brett Lasher M.B.A. ’04 attended the University of Pennsylvania with Henderson and still keep in touch; TIPster Marni Karlin, counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, nominated her for this year’s TIP alumni award; TIPster Jennifer Chen Hopkins invited her to crash on her couch while Henderson was setting up the Houston branch of the City Hall Fellows; TIPster Sunny Gettinger, a senior manager at Google, reached out to Henderson to offer help when she read about the City Hall Fellows in Florida; and TIPster Andrew Samwick, now a Dartmouth College professor of economics, brought Henderson to his campus in February for student meetings, class visits, and lectures about engaging Millenials in local governance.

Or take Amy Abernethy M.D. ’94, who attended TIP in 1983 and 1984. Now a medical oncologist and cancer researcher who serves as associate director of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, she has written more than 130 publications, twenty book chapters, and two textbooks. Until TIP she felt out of place because “the things that interested me just weren’t the same as [what interested] my middleschool friends back in Orlando.” Suddenly it was okay to like science, and suddenly she was in charge of “making sure that I ate my veggies.” Abernethy still keeps a faded photo from her TIP days hanging on her office wall.

As TIPsters who eventually took a Duke degree, Abernethy and Chris Imershein are unusual. Although nearly a quarter of first-year Duke students between 2008 and 2011 had participated in the TIP talent search, most TIP kids never return to Duke. Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, is quick to point out that while TIP is a great way for young teens to be introduced to Duke, more simply, it’s a way for students to be introduced to qualities that schools like Duke look for.

“There are always going to be students who participate in TIP that we’re not going to admit,” he says. “Nor does participation automatically mean we’re going to send them an application, even if they’ve been affiliated for a number of years.” In any case, he says, “the degree to which TIP was seen as a recruitment arm of the university would affect its ability to be an enrichment program.”

Ben Greenman’s experience in the 1980s bears out Guttentag’s point. “There were other kinds of programs my friends went to where kids ended up getting a sense that there was something amiss. They were pawns in someone else’s game. I wouldn’t have gone back if I had thought that.”

But there is one ulterior motive for nurturing the hyper-smart: Scholars and policymakers are hungry for new research on gifted-child education, and programs like TIP can provide a wealth of data, following the gifted out into the world.

“We have demographic and test-score data on over two million kids,” says TIP director Putallaz, “including information from many of them on what college they attended, what they did in college, and what they went on to do [for a living]. Everyone in the gifted world has dreamed of having access to such data.” With research scientists and specialists on staff, she says, “we’re present at conferences in a way we weren’t before. We’re publishing. We’re becoming players in the research field.”

This spring, former TIP researcher Kristen Foster Peairs received the National Association of Gifted Children Dissertation Award for work on how peer relationships can shed light on the socioemotional development of gifted youth, and she returns to the program this fall for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. TIP research scientist Jonathan Wai won a 2010 Mensa Award for Excellence in Research on the role of spatial ability in the development of gifted children and adults. And another paper still under review reveals some compelling results— such as that, compared to gifted kids who did not attend a TIP summer program, TIP attendees were more likely to wind up with a National Merit Scholarship or attend a top university, three times more likely to earn a doctorate, and five times more likely to work as an academic scientist. (They also reported working eight or more hours over the weekly average compared to other gifted adults.)

Primate biologists in training


Primate biologists in training: Jessie Feng, left, instructor Erin Ehmke, and Mary Clarke Worthington compare field observations collected during Lemur Center trip.
Megan Morr


Still, for all TIP’s success—cutting-edge research, famous alumni, impressive new ventures, and promising growth—in some ways administrators are disappointed: TIP struggles to keep up with demand.

For one thing, despite endowments and gifts that enable TIP to award more than $2 million in grants and scholarships— some merit-based and some need-based— their means are insufficient to meet every student’s needs. That is, the difference in services and support provided to the haves and have-nots, even among the gifted, is worsening. Seven of TIP’s sixty-six employees are assigned to the Next Generation Venture Fund, a flagship program run in tandem with Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth and supported by The Goldman Sachs Foundation. The fund, which targets gifted youth in disadvantaged minority groups, faces an uncertain future when its current funding runs out in three years.

And despite expanding internationally and adding partner institutions, TIP can’t serve everybody who can afford it, much less everybody who needs it. For all their extreme selectivity, TIP courses—wherever they are offered—can fill within hours of opening registration, and the waiting list for summer programs, already over 1,000 students, gets longer every year.

As each cohort of gifted junior-high and high-school students ages out, larger numbers replace them. “There’s population growth in this region, so more gifted kids are identified than in the past; besides, our brand is stronger so more parents know of us,” explains departing TIP chief operating officer Scott Greenwood.

Not a bad problem to have.

Back at the Duke Lemur Center, the intensely concentrating homo sapiens juveniles are wrapping up their written observations of fellow primates. They circumnavigate cages for a final view, then at a prearranged signal from their leader reconvene in a tight circle. “We had two self-groomings and a scent-marking at 9:38,” offers Girl- Who-Ate-Twenty-Scoops-of-Ice-Cream. Others vocalize, chiming in. “Any mating behaviors?” asks the instructor.

Fourteen adolescents eye each other sidewise. No mating behaviors. “Okay,” the teacher says. “Now go calculate a coefficient of reliability.”

They head for the trailer at a trot.

– Baerman M.B.A. ’90, whose gifts manifested late, is a North Carolina playwright and essayist.


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