Gifted and At-Risk

06/04/2010 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If things had gone as they should, in 2016, Charlie Miller would have found a way to reduce the battery in an electronic car to one tenth of its current size and weight while quadrupling its storage capacity. In 2018, Jenny Rodriguez would have developed a compound that binds to cancer cells and deprives them of the nourishment they need to grow, paving the way for a powerful new therapy. In 2025, Martin Pradeep would have written an innovative and entertaining first novel, nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

But Charlie, Jenny, and Martin will do none of these things because in 2010 all three of them dropped out of high school.

Although their names are invented, Charlie, Jenny, and Martin represent real present-day teenagers. Of course we can't really know what these young people might have accomplished if they had stayed in school, gone on to college and then gone on to productive lives in their chosen fields. What we do know is that all three of them are gifted individuals. And, although it might seem surprising, as it did to me, what we also know is that some of our very brightest, most talented kids have great difficulty in school, and many actually drop out, some even living dysfunctional lives on the edge of society.

How is that even possible? Aren't bright kids capable of rising above adverse circumstances, finding ways to succeed? I had always thought so. I was wrong.

Everyone is aware of the dire straights in which our school systems currently operate, but as bad as things are generally, they are sometimes even worse for our students with the greatest potential. It turns out that this population, the very people our society will most need in the future to be competitive with other countries and to solve our toughest problems, is one of the most underserved. Less than 1 percent of the funds for special programs in our schools goes to meet the needs of gifted kids.

But these kids do need help, just like other kids -- sometimes more. In fact, unless you believe that gifted kids somehow are only born into middle class or upper class families, it should be obvious that gifted children need financial support, guidance and mentoring in the same degree as other children. What may be less obvious is that gifted children often have a tougher time in school specifically as a consequence of their intelligence or talent or unique way of seeing the world.

In our schools, which are presently struggling to educate so many children to a basic low standard of knowledge and skills, the curriculum can be so boring and inane for bright kids that they become restless, occasionally disruptive but more often tuning out or not even showing up. A gifted kid who comes from a family living in poverty, or from a discriminated against minority, or who is burdened with other social disadvantages, faces a double dose of adversity. And yet, despite facing these difficulties but precisely because gifted kids are capable of understanding the material and keeping up with the work, they frequently receive less attention than their peers.

I only learned about this state of affairs after getting to know a group called the Institute for Educational Advancement, which is dedicated to improving conditions for gifted kids (full disclosure: I am presently a member of the Board of Directors of IEA). I am not going to describe IEA's programs in detail here -- full descriptions can be found at But before becoming aware of this issue through IEA, I shared the cultural assumption that bright or gifted young people will almost always find ways to navigate a dull, unchallenging, regimented system and use their special talents to succeed despite their circumstances. Perhaps some will, but unfortunately many won't.

On the bright side, thanks to IEA and the other organizations working in this field, Troy, who is a kid a lot like Charlie, will be in a program this summer where he will be working as an apprentice alongside professional physicists at the National Science Foundation Center for the Science and Engineering of Materials. Gabriela, a middle school student much like Jenny, will be getting a scholarship to a top private high school where her talents, and her pre-med aspirations, will be nourished. And Max, a kid who is similar in many ways to Martin, will be attending a camp this summer where he will be with other kids like himself and where he will feel, possibly for the first time in his life, fully understood and accepted.

However, for every Troy, Gabriela, and Max, there are a hundred Charlie's, Jenny's and Martin's. It is a tragic situation for these kids. It may be an even greater tragedy for our country's future.