AMERICANS DON'T SEEM TO HAVE any problem with teenagers who show genius in sports (LeBron James) or entertainment (Hilary Duff). But we have a deeply ambivalent relationship with intellectually gifted kids. For every lovable Doogie Howser, M.D., we fear there's also a William James Sidis. Little William was born in 1898 to an experimentally minded psychologist, Boris Sidis. He trotted William through school so quickly that the boy was enrolled at Harvard by age 11. William graduated with a math degree at 16, but soon after he lost interest in math and spent much of his life working at clerical jobs and writing esoteric books. Boris Sidis had offered his prodigy to the public as proof that young children can learn prodigiously; reporters would hound William Sidis as a failure for the rest of his life. He came to resent his parents for driving him and died alone at 46.
Dickensian tales like Sidis' may help explain why most educators mistrust the whole idea of grade skipping. We catch a whiff of élitism around parents who want their kid to leapfrog others. What's called radical acceleration--finishing high school at 15 or younger--is viewed with particular skepticism, since one suspects today's striving parents may be no less aggressive in pursuit of their child's glory than Boris Sidis was. Judith Roseberry, president of the California Association for the Gifted, says several couples a year approach her seeking to have their fetus identified as gifted. "They say, 'We're positive he is. I'm playing him music ... I'm telling him about art when I go to the museum,'" says Roseberry.
What gifted means hasn't always been clear. Older definitions, for instance, wrongly exclude the artistically talented. But most experts define the term as the top 3% to 5% of scorers on IQ and other standardized tests. For the smartest of these kids, those who quickly overpower schoolwork that flummoxes peers, skipping a grade isn't about showing off. Rather, according to a new report from the University of Iowa, it can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out from sheer tedium. "If the work is not challenging for these high-ability kids, they will become invisible," says the lead author of the report, Iowa education professor Nicholas Colangelo. "We will lose them. We already are."
Since it was signed in 2002, the No Child Left Behind law has focused attention on the kids who can't keep up, but research shows that gifted kids are also at risk. In a 2000 study for Gifted Child Quarterly, Joseph Renzulli and Sunghee Park found that 5% of the 3,520 gifted students they followed dropped out after eighth grade. Astonishingly, that's almost as high as the 5.2% of nongifted kids who dropped out. Untold numbers of other highly intelligent kids stay in school but tune out. "When we ask exceptional children about their main obstacle, they almost always say it's their school," says Jan Davidson, a co-author of the new book Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds. "Their school makes them put in seat time, and they can't learn at their own ability level."