In 1971, researchers at Johns Hopkins University embarked on an ambitious effort to identify brilliant 12-year-olds and track their education and careers through the rest of their lives and address the issue of gifted students being overlooked. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, which now includes 5,000 people, eventually became the world’s longest-running longitudinal survey of what
happens to intellectually talented children (in math and other areas) as they grow up. It has generated seven books, more than 300 papers, and a lot of what we know about early aptitude.
David Lubinski is a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, where the project has been based since the 1990s. He and his wife, fellow Vanderbilt professor Camilla Benbow, co-direct the study and have dedicated their careers to learning about this exceptional population.
“This is like putting a magnifying glass on the tippy, tippy top of the distribution,” he says.
In a recent paper, Lubinski and his colleagues caught up with one cohort of 320 people now in their late 30s. At 12, their SAT math or verbal scores had placed them among the top 1/100th of 1 percent. Today, many are CEOs, professors at top research universities, transplant surgeons and successful novelists.
That outcome sounds like exactly what you’d imagine should happen: Top young people grow into high-achieving adults. In the education world, the study has provided important new evidence that it really is possible to identify the kids who are likely to become exceptional achievers in the future, something previous research has not always found to be the case. For that reason, perhaps surprisingly, it has also triggered a new round of worry.
Lubinski’s unusually successful cohort was also a lucky group from the start — they participated in the study in the first place because their parents or teachers encouraged them to take the SAT at age 12. Previous research into gifted children has shown that many, or even most of them, aren’t so lucky: They aren’t identified early, and they don’t necessarily get special attention from their schools. Even among Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth participants, the Vanderbilt researchers have previously found that those who weren’t challenged in school were less likely to live up to the potential indicated by their test scores. Other research has shown that understimulated gifted students quickly become bored and frustrated — especially if they come from low-income families that are not equipped to provide them with enrichment outside of school.
“What the study underscored is the tremendous amount of potential here — they’re a national resource,” Lubinski says. “But it’s hard to separate the findings of this study from what we know about gifted kids in general. The genuine concern is, we know we’re not identifying all of this population. We’re not getting nearly enough, and we’re losing them.”
A version of this essay first appeared in the Boston Globe.
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