Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Julian Stanley charted the course of acceleration that has challenged a generation of gifted children.
Opening photo:
"Bright kids," says Stanley, "are getting turned off by material at school that's not at the right level for them."
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

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What Brillian Kids
Are Hungering For

By Dale Keiger

Oh, is Julian Stanley glad he met Joseph Louis Bates.

Joe Bates was 12 years old in 1968 when he attended a summer computer science program at Hopkins. An instructor in the program, Doris Lidtke, noticed he was doing a lot better than well--he was amusing himself by teaching the FORTRAN programming language to some graduate students. Lidtke called Stanley and said, in effect, "We've got to do something with this kid."

As a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University, Stanley was then a stats-and measurement man, so he had Bates take the Scholastic Achievement Test familiar to high school students. The kid scored so high that Stanley began looking for a high school that would let Bates take upper-level math and science courses. When no school responded affirmatively, Stanley took a real leap: He convinced Bates's parents to let their son enroll at Hopkins. Joe was 13 when he started college. By age 17 he had completed his master's degree in computer science.

Stanley soon was hooked on the idea of identifying and educating precocious youths. In 1971, he secured $266,100 from the newly created Spencer Foundation to establish a five-year program to find seventh- and eighth-graders who were unusually talented in math and science, and to accelerate their learning. His talent search in 1972 established what has become the standard of measurement for most similar programs: a score of 500 or more on the math section of the SAT before the age of 13--a score that places boys of that age in the top 1 percent nationally, girls in the top .5 percent.

The initial search attracted 450 respondents. From that foundation has grown the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), a 50-year longitudinal survey now headquartered at Vanderbilt University. Stanley's work also led to the creation in 1979 of the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), a program founded at Hopkins that last year enrolled 8,093 very bright kids in its academic sessions at 16 sites throughout the country.

Today, there are regional talent-search centers at Hopkins, Duke, Northwestern, and the University of Denver. Every summer, thousands of kids in floppy T-shirts flex their intellectual muscles on college campuses after scoring high on the standardized tests. At a typical session, they take accelerated, intensive courses in mathematics, science, writing, and other fields. Perhaps for the first time they're challenged by school. Says Stanley, "Bright kids have a hunger for academics. They're getting turned off by material in school that's not at the right level for them." They also discover a social life with kids just like them, which for many is another first.

SMPY, the 50-year longitudinal study, continues at Vanderbilt, directed by David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow, a Stanley protˇgˇ. It's now tracking 5,000 people in five cohorts, to see how they fare over the course of their life. Lubinski notes that follow-up surveys of about 2,000 students tracked since the 1970s have found that 25 percent have earned doctoral degrees. The rate among the general population is around 1 percent.

When Stanley began arranging for kids to start college at such a young age, people questioned the social effects. Would a 14-year-old be miserable, lonely, and isolated at a university, even if he commuted from home? "We didn't have too many sad cases," Stanley says. "We had a boy who entered college out of the seventh grade, went to graduate school at 15, and got a PhD at 20 in math, and he couldn't use it! He just didn't have any social skills. He couldn't be a teacher, and he was too unhappy to be a researcher. It depends a lot on the parents--whether or not they get the kids motivated and involved and encourage independence, and if they're facilitative, not exploitative. That is, they're not trying to 'create' brilliant kids. They have brilliant kids, and they're trying to help the kids use that brilliance."

Colin Camerer is a professor of business economics at Caltech. Identified through a talent search, he entered Hopkins when he was 14 and recalls, "At times it was socially awkward but this was more a function of my being a very studious, introverted person. Being 14 in college was not as odd as it might sound because students who are 20 or 23 cannot tell the difference between 14 and 17, and I was quite earnest and I guess didn't look my age."

He endorses Stanley's work. "I think the key to Julian's insight is that 'enrichment' or extra work is actually frustrating to kids who can sop up material like sponges. Better to accelerate them and let them go at their natural pace."

Stanley says that experience has influenced his views on how to work with the youthful prodigies identified by talent searches. For a lack of alternatives, he used to push them to skip grades, or enter college before most of their peers were even entering high school. Now he's less enamored of that sort of acceleration, preferring programs that allow the students to do advanced work in specific subjects such as math while they complete an otherwise typical honors progression through school, taking regular courses in other subjects.

Critics have gone after programs like CTY for being elitist. Lea Ybarra, CTY's executive director, says, "Schools moved away from [gifted-child programs] because when you have limited resources, the programs geared to help certain students fall by the wayside. People had this myth that if students were bright they didn't need any additional help to make it. Now we're realizing that if bright students don't get the assistance to reach their potential, then we all lose. All young people need to reach their potential, including the very bright."

She concedes that programs like hers are expensive for many families; you might be exceptionally bright, but if your parents don't have $2,200 for tuition, you may be out of luck. There aren't enough financial aid dollars to meet the need. "We're committed to reach out to all children who are highly talented, regardless of economic circumstance," she says. In February, the just-created Goldman Sachs Foundation came through with $1 million to launch a pilot project that will identify 100 gifted children from underrepresented communities (principally in New York City but also three others) and get them into CTY. Part of the money will be used to plan a broader national program.

Stanley, who is 81, still comes to his Hopkins office two or three days a week. Says Ybarra, "What's most dramatic to me is when I think that what we're doing now started with him--one man with one idea working with one student. Now, 30 years later, which is not that long of a time, we have worked with more than half a million students. That's an extraordinary mark."