P.O. BOX 1586







Dr. James Delisle -- Professor and Co-Director of SENG, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

Dr. Jerry Flack --Univ. Of Colorado-Colorado Springs

Dr. Howard Gardner -- Professor, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ms. Diane D. Grybek -- Supervisor of Secondary Gifted Programs (Retired), Hillsborough County Schools, Tampa, Florida

Ms. Dorothy Knopper -- Publisher, Open Space Communications, Boulder, Colorado

Mr. James LoGiudice -- Director, Program and Staff Development, Bucks County, Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit No. 22 and Past President of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education

Dr. Mary Meeker -- President of SOI Systems, Vida, Oregon

Dr. Adrienne O'Neill - Johnson & Wales University, Providence, Rhode Island

Dr. Stephen Schroeder-Davis -- Coordinator of Gifted Programs, Elk River, Minnesota Schools and Past President of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented

Dr. Bruce Shore -- Professor and Director, Giftedness Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Ms. Joan Smutny -- Professor and Director, Center for Gifted, National-Louis University, Evanston, Illinois

Dr. Virgil S. Ward -- Emeritus Professor of Gifted Education, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia

Ms. Susan Winebrenner -- Consultant, Brooklyn, Michigan

Dr. Ellen Winner - Professor, Boston College

Happy New Year!  Shortly before our thirteenth year of publishing this quarterly, I reviewed the topics covered in previous issues to remind myself of where we have been.  ("If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past." Baruch Spinoza). During these previous years, our authors have addressed many recurring problems in the gifted field that still need further refinement to have a significant impact on the identification and education of gifted children. The most frequently occurring problem examined in GEPQ articles, beginning with Vol. 1, No. 1 in April 1987, has concentrated on  designing a proper curriculum for the gifted. Several authors have stressed the design of a rigorous humanities curriculum involving the integration of subjects into comprehensive studies of literature, philosophy, history, languages, mathematics, the sciences, the arts and music.  Obviously, the curriculum issue is still vital to gifted education programs, and there is considerably more work ahead in fulfilling the promise of a differentiated curriculum as originally proposed by Virgil Ward and Harry Passow in the 1960's and 1970's.

Another important topic that has been addressed in this quarterly many times over the last several years has been concerned with identifying children for gifted education programs.  The problems of testing children to determine whether they are gifted was most recently discussed by Linda Silverman in two issues of Vol. 12, and Howard Gardner discussed the importance of studying Multiple Intelligences in two issues of Vol. 11.  I believe that significant progress in identifying and educating the gifted will be  made by using an MI approach.  But "the culture of identification" has been locked into the seventy year old Terman concept of a single IQ score, and is currently reinforced by teacher training programs, multi-billion dollar testing companies, state regulations for identifying the gifted and school district testing programs.  Ironically, the gifted education community seems to be the most difficult group to change from viewing children as having a single ability (the "g" factor based on the IQ score) to viewing them as having several different abilities (e.g., verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial or naturalist).

Other recurring topics our authors have written about during the last decade are: (1) the education of young gifted children; (2) parent advocacy for improving gifted education programs; (3) studies of discrimination against the gifted; (4) identifying minority children who are gifted; (5) analysis of potentially harmful educational approaches such as cooperative learning and inclusion; and (6) biographical studies of giftedness and sensibility.

After re-reading approximately 500 pages of essays  and  commentaries published in GEPQ during the last twelve years, it is clear that the arguments for identifying and educating gifted children are strong, convincing and valid.  

What then needs to be done that is crucial to the future success of this educational field?  One of the biggest problems is that we have been mainly "preaching to the choir" rather than presenting our case for gifted education to average Americans who pay most of the taxes for operating the public schools.  This is a major challenge that must be addressed if gifted students and their education programs are to survive and thrive.

The current issue contains an analysis of the problem of why so few gifted females choose careers in mathematics, science and technology fields. Lynn H. Fox is a professor in the School of Education at American University.  Her research interest in mathematically gifted girls dates back to the early 1970s when she helped Julian Stanley create the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at The Johns Hopkins University.  Janet F. Soller is a doctoral candidate at American University.  Formerly a college administrator and musician, she is currently studying the impact of college on first generation female college graduates.

The article by Vivian Owens examines the problem of underachievement in gifted students.  She has taught many gifted adolescents, as is a veteran high school chemistry teacher.  She also writes parent-helper books and African American children’s literature for ages 7 and up.  Her newest works are Chemistry Quickies (1998) and twin motivational novels, I Met A Great Lady (1998) and I Met A Great Man (1998).  Nadanda, The Wordmaker (1994), her first novel, won a Writer’s Digest Award. In addition to teaching and writing, Owens develops Parenting for Education workshops.

Michael Walters continues his studies of the humanities with a discussion of the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

                                                                                        Maurice D. Fisher, Ph.D., Publisher




In a study of mathematically gifted students begun in 1971, gender differences loomed large (Astin, 1974; Fox & Cohn, 1980).  Not only were there far more boys than girls identified as mathematically gifted, those girls who were identified were more reluctant than the boys to move ahead in mathematics, and less likely to want a scientific career (Fox, 1977; 1982).  Even relatively high-scoring girls in a mathematics talent search expressed lower levels of self-esteem with respect to mathematics than their male counterparts.  Some of the girls who did attempt to accelerate reported low levels of support from teachers (Fox, 1982).  But that was then and this is now. After all, it has been over 25 years since the passage of Title IX, legislation aimed at eliminating gender discrimination in education. As we move into the new millenium can we say that the gender gap in gifted education has been bridged?   In this article we will examine the status of the gender gap in achievement in mathematics, science, and technology among the gifted, particularly the mathematically gifted, and consider the direction for research and interventions.

Is There a Gender Gap?

Today the gender gap in employment in science and technology is so great that legislation has been proposed that would create a commission to study the "crisis."  This gender gap cuts across all levels of employment, most areas of science and technology, and all ethnic groups.  A few basic statistics cited in H.R. 3007 (1998) are as follows:

●  Women represent approximately 50 percent of the workforce but only 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce.

●  The percentage of women in engineering is less than 10%.

●  There has been a 50 percent decrease in the numbers of women pursuing computer science degrees between 1986 and 1994. Percentages of women employed in selected careers in 1983 and 1996 as shown in Table 1 illustrate the disparity in employment.  While there has been some change, there are still enormous differences in engineering and computer sciences. Those women who are employed in technical fields are still clustered in the lower levels within fields.  For example, the percentages of women entering the medical professions has risen, but the increase is greater for physician assistants than for physicians, and nursing remains a largely female field.  Female dental hygienists are numerous but female dentists are rare. Women are more readily found in careers in drafting than in engineering.


Exactly why so few women choose careers in technical areas, especially why gifted women avoid the peak demand professions, is not clear. Hanson (1996) looked at several different longitudinal studies that followed young women’s course taking, attitudes, and career choices from high school through college into careers.  One reason some young women gave for dropping out of the science and mathematics pipeline was their perception of the workplaces in science and technology as hostile environments for women. Some students commented on the lack of mentors and role models.  A professor of biology explained to us how these two barriers operate together to discourage women:  first, most of the professors are male and many are reluctant to mentor a female student, (especially if that means meeting with her at all hours of the day and night to check on the progress of experiments), and second, professors worry that it is dangerous for young women to walk around campus late at night to check on their lab experiments.

Balancing Career and Family

Some young women expressed concern about balancing the role of parent with a career in mathematics and science (Hanson, 1996).  Subotinik and Arnold (1996) studied very gifted women in science and concluded that many chose careers in medicine over other science careers because of the belief that they could combine family and their career more easily that way.  In a study of gifted middle school students medicine was the top career choice for girls while boys were more likely to choose other science careers over medicine. Interestingly in that study gifted girls said they expected to have careers while married with children, whereas the gifted boys expected their wives would stay at home once they had children (Ries, Callahan, & Goldsmith, 1996).

Gifted girls’ concern with a balanced life surfaces in other ways.  In a study of gifted students who attended special schools for mathematics, science, and technology, almost every girl reported having some concerns about the program to the extent of wanting to leave.  The reasons given were the limited options for female sports and the lack of choices for outside of school recreational activities (Callahan et al., 1996). Measures of values and vocational interest given to mathematically gifted youth revealed that more boys had an overwhelming commitment to investigative occupations and theoretical values, whereas the girls had a broad mixture of investigative, social, and artistic interests (Fox, 1982).

Course-taking Patterns

One thing is clear, the pattern of choices that take girls out of the mathematics, technology and science pipeline begins in high school (or even earlier) and continues throughout undergraduate and graduate training.  Course taking, specifically advanced mathematics and physics in high school, is the ultimate gatekeeper.  Once students chose to opt out of the “fast track” the doors to engineering and science careers close.   One study found a fourth of the boys but only a tenth of the girls expressed an interest in science by the sophomore year of high school (Shakhashire, 1990). While the gender gap in course taking for the gifted has been narrowing, there are some  remaining concerns: courses in technology and physics, especially Advanced Placement Physics (Condition of Education, 1995).

The fact that the course-taking gap in high school has been almost eradicated would be cause for some celebration if it were not for some puzzling differences among the gifted student population. First, gifted males still outperform gifted females on achievement tests.  Secondly, females are not choosing science and technology majors in college in proportion to the males. Can we explain the test score gap?

Data on achievement test scores, more readily available for the general population, than for gifted per se, show mixed results. The National Assessment of Educational Progress in the United States reports a decrease in the gender gap from previous years,  but girls still score lower in science by seventh grade and the gender gap is largest among the high scorers (NCES, 1997). The most persistent and puzzling gaps seem to be among students at the high school and college level where scores on the SAT and GRE continue to show large differences in favor of males (NCES, 1997).  Related to this problem are the continuing differences in the numbers of males identified as mathematically precocious in grades seven through national talent searches (Stanley, 1988).

It has been suggested that these test performance differences are somehow artifacts of the either the tests themselves or girls' test taking strategies rather than evidence of true achievement differences.  The test results underestimate females' true knowledge due to factors such as lower levels of self-confidence that in turn inhibits their performance.  For example, girls are less likely to guess on the basis of partial knowledge.  A few studies of college students report that the SAT under-predicts women's success in mathematics courses ( Wainer & Steinberg, 1992   Stricker, Rock, & Burton, 1993).

A more serious charge is that differential test performance bespeaks differences in learning in the classroom. Becker (1990) reported that on a mathematics test gifted boys performed better than gifted girls on problems which required knowledge of specific algorithms from Algebra while gifted girls actually performed better on mathematical reasoning problems that were unrelated to the curriculum.  Similar results were reported by Mills, Ablard, and Stumpf (1993) for young gifted children where the girls scored higher on the more generic mathematical reasoning problems while the boys did better on the problems using algorithms taught in school.

Sadker and Sadker (1994) summarized a large number of studies that point to differential treatment of boys and girls in school. Two studies undertaken by the American Association of University Woman (AAUW) further demonstrated the differences in educational experiences of boys and girls in the United States (AAUW, 1992;1995).  In brief, there is compelling evidence that teachers interact more with boys than with girls and that there are qualitative differences in the interactions in favor of boys. For example, Fox (1996) described a seventh grade accelerated mathematics class where all the boys sat on one side of the room and the teacher inadvertently taught to that side only.  Ironically gifted boys are more likely to notice the bias against girls than the gifted girls themselves (Feldhusen & Willard-Holt 1993).

It has also been suggested that the performance gap on standardized tests is a result of differential learning of mathematics and science outside of school.  For example, when courses are optional as they are in most summer enrichment programs for gifted children, boys are more likely than girls to select the mathematics, physical science and computer options (Stocking & Goldstein, 1992).  Even though girls are participating more in science fairs than in the past, they are less likely than boys to do projects in mathematics or physical sciences (Greenfield, 1995).  A comparison of gifted boys and girls as early as grades 3 and 4 in the United States and Japan shows differences in leisure time pursuit with boys more likely to be involved with sports and with computers than girls at this age (Fox & Paek, in preparation).  Exactly how these outside of school experiences prepare boys for tests has not been explicitly documented.

Attrition by Degrees

In 1977 more men than women earned post-secondary degrees at every level. By 1992 more women than men earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.  Men, however, continue to earn more doctoral and professional degrees in law and medicine  (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1997).  Women are still the majority among education majors, but men earn far more degrees in mathematics, physical sciences, computer sciences, and engineering.  At the graduate level men are six times as likely than women to get a master’s degree in engineering and three times as likely to get a master’s in computer science.

Among mathematically gifted girls, preferences for mathematical or scientific careers decreased dramatically between the high school and college years. Longitudinal studies of mathematically precocious youth found that while as many as 59 percent of the girls in high school were thinking about majoring in mathematics or science in college, only 37 percent of the girls actually did so.  For the gifted boys the decline was from 71 percent to 59 percent (Eccles & Harold, 1992).  The gap was greatest for those planning versus actually majoring in physics, computer science, or engineering.

Research on social factors that influence the career and college choices of gifted women suggest several factors that encourage gifted women to stay in the science pipeline.  Parental support and encouragement are important (Fox, 1982). Girls who had fathers employed in technical areas were more likely to persist as were girls who felt they had strong encouragement from both parents (Montgomery & Benbow, 1992). Female mathematicians often point to encouragement from parents and teachers (Helson 1980; Luchins & Luchins, 1980).  Arnold (1995) noted that access to role models was a critical factor in the pursuit of science careers by female high school valedictorians.  Alas, gifted girls report less contact with female role models from science and computer science fields than their male counterparts (Fox, 1982).  

Can the Tide be Turned?

Role Models

In the late seventies the National Science Foundation funded a number of projects aimed at encouraging more female participation in science. An evaluation across all the different types of interventions concluded that the most powerful programs were those that focused on access to role models (Lantz, West & Elliot, 1976).  One of the few experimental studies ever conducted with mathematically gifted girls found that a three week summer career exploration program for eighth-graders was highly successful in promoting the girls’ choice of and persistence in science-related college majors and careers as late as their junior year of college  (Fox, Benbow & Perkins, 1983).

Teaching Methods

There are many other recommendations for encouraging girls to pursue more mathematics and science, the results of which are less well-documented than access to role modes.  For example the use of cooperative learning strategies has been recommended as beneficial for girls (Dillow, Flack & Peterman, 1994).  Studies show that both boys and girls are likely to do well with this teaching approach, but the group dynamics need to be monitored (Holden, 1993).  Unfortunately these techniques are more likely to be employed in remedial science classes than in advanced courses for the gifted (Burkham, Lee & Smerdon, 1997).

Studies of teachers’ uses of computers in the classroom show great diversity.  Some teachers keep the machines for optional use much like a book nook for free choice time.  In these classrooms girls are less likely than boys to use the computers. When everyone is required to work with computers few gender differences are found in proficiency or interest (Lockheed, 1985).  Creating a non-sexist classroom may be critical for girls in science, mathematics, and technology courses where girls feel more intimidated.  

Single-Sex Schooling

Does the single-sex environment help bridge the gender gap for mathematically gifted girls?  Riordan (1994) found those private all-girls Catholic schools in the United States foster academic success as well as high self-confidence.  The success of segregation may be a function of subject matter.  Girls in all-girl mathematics and science classes identify these subjects as “less masculine” thereby avoiding traditional sex stereotyping.  (Haag, 1998).

In many cases single-sex education not only separates the sexes but it often employs different teaching methods and more reliance on cooperative learning groups than coeducational classes. It could be that teaching methods more than segregation of the sexes accounts for the differences in performance.  One study of a physics class suggests that this may be the case (citation).  When the physics teacher transferred his methods from an all-girl class to a co-ed class, he had the same success with the girls without any decrease in success for boys.

The most compelling research in favor of single-sex education is in undergraduate college education.  Women are more likely to graduate, more likely to pursue graduate studies (Tidball, 1980), more likely to experience student leadership (Mael, 1998), more likely to have higher career aspirations, and more likely to be listed in Who’s Who of American Women than their counterparts from coed colleges (Riordan, 1994).

Not all studies conclude that single-sex environments result in positive outcomes for girls.  Clearly some of the studies find negative outcomes for boys (Haag, 1998).   Arguments against single-sex schools from feminists maintain that separate is not equal and history has taught us that there is a risk of water-downed curriculum, or less well-trained teachers for girls (Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

Is More Research Needed?

Although there are many different types of programs for gifted students, few have been studied explicitly in terms of their impact on the career outcomes for gifted girls.  As Reis and Callahan (1989) noted studies of gender differences among the gifted have too  often focused on the characteristics of the girls rather than the factors in their environments that have impacted their achievement and interests.  Unfortunately most efforts to improve female performance and interest in mathematics and science are one-shot efforts or efforts with weak evaluation components.  Clearly there is a need to determine the types of interventions that are necessary to encourage women to pursue careers in science and technology.  Research may also be needed to determine how to restructure some work environments to make them more accessible to gifted women.  Employers may need to offer more flexible career options and on-site daycare in order to recruit more gifted women.

More research on single-sex education, especially pre-college programs for gifted girls, is certainly needed.  There are numerous problems in studying this issue. For example, it has been argued that self-selection may play a part so that more academically motivated girls choose single sex colleges.  Other variables that may confound results are type of school, socioeconomic status, educational background of the mother, methods of pedagogy in the classroom, and differences in curriculum to name a few (Smith, 1995). It is also difficult to summarize across current studies because of the differences in measures of impact from one study to the next.  More systematic research controlling for a large variety of variables is needed to sort out the true impact of single-sex education. Conclusions

Society is becoming increasingly technologically complex.  The "best and the brightest" minds today will be facing enormous challenges as they grapple with cloning and genetic manipulations.  Engineering and information systems design and management are in need of talent.  Science and mathematics classrooms at every grade level are calling for qualified teachers.  Roughly half of the work force in the United States, half of the brightest, are women.  Yet these women are choosing not to pursue the study of these technical fields.  Some say they are being driven away from these pursuits long before they graduate from high school.  There is a clear need for gifted and talented programs designed to actively recruit women to the world of science and technology.  Although there are some unresolved issues, a few successful program models have been implemented that point the way for change.

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Table 1: Percentages of Women by Employment Field and Year

Figure I: INTERNET Sites of Interest for Educators Working with Gifted Girls


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On Thursday, May 7, Matt stood before his chemistry class and reported the results of an experiment on determining the molal boiling point of a solution.  Confident and assured of his understanding of colligative properties, he showed graphs from the computer and pointed out the steepening curve related to additions of salt to the solution.  Before closing, he asked for questions and answered with the thoroughness of an old pro.

Fifteen year-old Matt smiled with pleasure as the class clapped for his presentation.  An outsider looking in would not have recognized him as an underachiever.  Nonetheless, one month earlier Matt slid on the down slope drive to failure, known well by most underachievers.

Today, moments before class started, Matt walked in and showed the teacher his neatly typed report.  She feigned surprise but quickly showed pleasure as she voiced approval for the calculations and text of his report.  One month earlier on a Friday, the teacher had kept him after class to issue this ultimatum:  “Get your notebook organized this weekend.  It’s affecting your total output in class.  You have no notes for reference.  You don’t know where anything is.  Matt, you’re too bright to continue this poor work you do every day.  If things don’t change, I’m taking some drastic steps.”

When he arrived the following Monday, Matt showed off the newly organized notebook.  He had made a strong attempt to begin improvement.  Having studied his behavior and performance throughout the course, his teacher knew any improvement could become short-lived.  What could sustain his upward spiral?  With certainty, she knew that Matt took deep pleasure in performing labs, and she used this to bring him to fuller intellectual growth, as she encouraged his consistent attention to all requirements for the class.

During the month prior to his presentation, Matt often butted heads with the teacher.  He resented her watchful eye and her insistence on completing former assignments.  Why couldn’t she just give him the “F”, he wondered.  Slowly, he made changes—shifts in his own attitude toward his own abilities.

Matt is not alone as an underachiever in his chemistry classroom, and he’s not alone among any group of young people anywhere.  His tendencies  toward lower performance than natural ability began in elementary or middle school, and simply magnified during high school.

Parents sigh and sometimes weep over failing grades made by their gifted children.  Tests suggested great things lay ahead, but instead the tide only ebbs away, leaving these learners further and further behind.  They clash with the norms in society; they clash with their parents’ high hopes, and quite often they clash with their own hopes and dreams.  They are labeled “underachievers,” because low grades reflect the work of less capable students.  However, IQ and aptitude scores are higher than these grades indicate.

Often, gifted children experience conflicts with others’ expectations of them along with a pace or style of existence not suited to their liking.  For example, look at Raena.

Raena said she enjoyed being around people and socializing frequently.  From an early age, she preferred a late start to the day; she wanted to take her time and linger over a meal or over a puzzle.  Reading should not be rushes, if it were to weave its magic upon her imagination.  Tinkering with old radios, repairing them to work properly needed an hourless clock.

In the classroom, Raena was given one half hour to an hour to take a test, just as everyone else.  On a history project, she required one week in addition to the allotted two days.  Demands and competitiveness of academic courses taxed her free time, limiting breezy interludes with her fun-loving friends.

‘That’s why I’m taking lower level classes,” said Raena.  “Let the geeks labor after class on homework.  I don’t want to spend my free time studying and chasing high grades for hard classes.”

Having managed to wriggle her way out of academic, college-bound courses, Raena said she was able to work steadily in class, make good grades, and never worry about school matters beyond school walls.  This felt like happiness to her.  Unfortunately, her parents held different hopes and dreams for her.  Their expectations clashed with hers.

Is there a method of reconciling Raena’s parents’ expectations with her own?  Is there a schemata schools can adopt to allow for the full blossoming of the Raenas of the world?

“ I want to think about this…I want to test this…I want to create…”

Creative intellectuals sometimes travel in a time frame out of synch with the rest of the world.  The story goes that Thomas Edison stopped his “invention time “ for a few hours nap daily, then resumed.  Apparently, he viewed time the same as Raena.  He wanted no stop watches to end or to begin activities.  Could a Raena-like perception of time possibly have been the cause of Edison’s failure in school?

One of the marks of many gifted learners is their tenacity in discovering through trial and error.  They are problem solvers and can stay put for long periods of time, as they go through the process.  Hourless clocks.

Reconciliation for a Raena may come by selectively choosing courses having requirements which permit some flexibility in time completion.  With emphasis placed on career paths and higher standards of learning, schools will probably offer more options in achieving goals.  Perhaps Raena can negotiate a contract with teachers when she feels an assignment is bias to her pace and lifestyle.

When Raena’s parents appeal to her for higher expectations, they owe her a listening ear.  Through listening they will find out what kinds of schedules present the least anxiety, and they will also better judge how much farther Raena can stretch at this time in her life.  consultation with guidance counselors may enlighten them on whether Raena’s choice of courses will deny her future opportunities.

An evaluation of a school’s curricula through the lens of a child’s eye-approach to life lead some parents to recognize  that the continued development of their gifted child may require a less stressful schedule and a slowed-down pace suited to the child’s natural tendencies or biorhythms.  Contrary to popular thought this does not doom failure.  Rather, it can produce a more mentally and emotionally healthy child who will proclaim success at twenty-nine instead of at twenty-three.  Is that so bad?

Many parents sitting across from a teacher on parent conference day would say, “Yes.  It is bad to not proclaim early success.”  Sometimes, real anxiety permeates through every thought about underachievers.

Sometimes, the real problem is not knowing how to cope with the underachiever.  We can not burrow beneath the construction of his performance-product ability and interpret it correctly for the preconceived designs set up by society’s norms.  We repeatedly attempt to shape him to fit these designs, ignoring his own gifts.

All underachievers are not alike.

“Sara only told me about the 95s and 100s she received in math,” one mother said, “but she completely ignored the 47 and 64.”  Indeed!  Sara balled up the test papers with grades below B’s.  She chose to see what she wanted, deceiving herself and her mother in the process.  Perhaps she expected a magic wand to wave away her bad grades.

During elementary school Sara became accustomed to A’s on her report cards.  Her success seemed guaranteed for life. Unfortunately, Sara was so much attuned to interpreting signs of success, she could not /would not recognize the danger signs of failure.

The “Unaware Optimist” is a category of underachievers who are not aware when they’re in trouble.  Try to catch them before they suffer serious set-back.  Usually, their problem stems from not studying thoroughly, not preparing sufficiently for quizzes or test, not managing their time and efforts efficiently, and overestimating their knowledge.

Parents of the “Unaware Optimist” have experienced numerous let-downs, thinking Sara was going to make the honor roll, only to find she’s barely hanging on by the skin of her teeth. To steer Sara in the right direction, insist on her recording every grade she makes in every subject.  Help her acquire the habit of reviewing and analyzing previous quizzes or tests from each subject; this shows her the teacher’s style of questioning and where and how emphasis is placed.  Monitor Sara’s performance on a daily basis, forcing her to admit that work toward grades takes place every day she’s in class.

Some experts ask, “How much time does Sara spend outside of the classroom?  Does she  listen in class, afterward feeling she has understood, and decides she doesn’t need to study or do anything extra?”

When parents of the “Unaware Optimist” answer those questions, they often tap the spring of Sara’s deception.

For a great number of African American students, problems of underachievement become more complicated.  Bliss, an African American child in a 97% white school complained, “I hate  my history class.  I feel totally isolated when slavery is discussed and portrayed as having been a legitimate enterprise, because it sustained a good livelihood for white farmers.  It’s hard for me to keep my anger in check…”

If there is no one available in this school for Bliss to open a door for honest exchange, difficulties lie ahead.  It would be very easy and very natural to relegate courses, like history, to lesser importance and accept failure.  Naturally, Bliss confronts all the other problems normally faced by every teenager.

When students find themselves in such defeating circumstances, the parents’ role becomes more crucial.  Here, the parents may need to take an action to relieve a child’s hurt  or a child’s burden.  This may take place through a parent-teacher conference to discuss course content and the negative effects its presentation is having on Bliss.

With Bliss present, negotiations may take place which would allow her a means to disagree or refute any course material, if she felt comfortable doing so.  Another option is for Bliss to take the course under a different teacher or at a nearby community college or arrange an independent study.

Not only do students, like Bliss, fight emotional wars through history or sociology courses, they struggle to simply be recognized as gifted by a system  that is determined to classify them by views obtained from the evening news.  Consequently, they are not called upon in class; their projects are scrutinized unfavorably, and they are patronized beyond comfort.  Little credence is given to their culture or experiences.

Too many gifted African American children crawl away to non-academic priorities in order to survive the school experience, as that experience fails to affirm their intellect.  Often, they are unaware of having made a choice to underachieve, for this choice was really the only one presented to them.

Alert parents will oversee Bliss’ education.  They will encourage, support, and affirm all of her gifts.  They will use external resources to compliment her knowledge, but they will also intervene to assist her school in educating her properly and fairly.

One has to feel uneasy about the large number of African American students who will underachieve, for they  do not all have Bliss’ parents.  This group of learners might be called “Apathetic Underachievers.”

Consider Kenny Peterson, another apathetic underachiever.

Kenny Peterson had been knocked down so many times he didn’t know how to stand.  In fact, he had lost the desire to stand. No, he was not knocked down in a boxing match or a wrestling match, and he was not in a gang fight.  Grading systems and other forms of evaluation had knocked down Kenny.

According to IQ tests, Kenny is far above average.  His reading and math skills were complimented with good grades until he reached ninth grade.  About that time, things started going downhill, due to moving to a new home and family problems.  Kenny forgot to turn in his English homework twice; that  earned him a “D” the first nine weeks.  The second nine weeks, he received “D’s” in English, math, and science.  His tenth grade year added one more notch in the failure belt-he made a “D” in history as well as in English, math, and science.

By this time, Kenny felt ready to throw in the towel.  “What’s the use of trying?” he asked his counselor.  “I get dumber every year.  No matter how hard I try, ‘D’s’ tag me.”

Luckily, Kenny’s dad kept faith in him.  The problem Kenny’s dad solved was: How do I encourage him and show him that he can achieve?

Dad was aware that Kenny’s self confidence had eroded.  Kenny felt overwhelmed by circumstances he did not know how to control.

“Remember the ‘A’s’ you used to  get in math?” Dad reminded Kenny.  “I always thought you were a natural with numbers.”

“Yes!  I remember,” Kenny replied.

Over and over again, Kenny’s dad reminded him of former successes, and over and over again Kenny remembered. Together, Dad and Kenny looked at the reasons for low grades.  In many cases, low grades resulted because Kenny had not turned in homework or completed a project.  His basic skills were still upper region.

Apathetic Kenny changed into energetic, optimistic Kenny.  Look at your underachiever.  Does he resemble Kenny?

Underachievement knows no racial boundary.  Unique situations spawn the growth of particular behaviors that will characterize certain types of underachievers, and this leaves all parents wondering where to go after recognizing  that your child is an underachiever.  You wonder how to help, and you also wonder how to encourage the underachiever to hip herself or himself.

Following are some help initiatives which may be considered for a range of underachievers.

Identify areas where intrinsic motivations may be weak in your child.

Determine the amount of effort necessary to perform at a desired level.

Discuss self expectations with your learner.

Prevent blind-sighted underachievement by working with the learner to recognize the signs of things gone wrong.  Poor grades would be an immediate signal, but changed performance will occur before grades.

Provide a  sense of direction.

Show the learner how to chart his/her persistence in obtaining a goal.

Sit down together and outline goals for each course your child is taking.  Discuss the course requirements and discuss the best ways to meet these goals.  Keep communications open and helpful.

Set up a timetable for completion of learning tasks, on the way to a major goal.  See goals as made up of small, manageable parts or of small learning tasks.

Offer comments of encouragement.  Compliment positive actions.  Speak uplifting words as your urge continued progress.

Read along with your child several days a week.  Ask for an oral discussion afterward.

Invest in tutorial services.  Often, bright, lazy kids fall behind deadlines.  They have failed to take notes and failed to prepare in any form.  They are lost in the course and see failure as the only option.  A good tutor can sometimes mend holes and dash problems, if children cooperate wholeheartedly.

Improve a deficient knowledge storage tank.  Improve the pathway of general information your child needs to function properly in his academic environment.  For example: Give her a subscription to an age appropriate magazine, encouraging her to read widely and frequently.

Negotiate a contract with your child in which he provides a daily report to you, showing learning goals met.

Brainstorm on ways to clear up particular problems facing the learner.

Pull the plug on ineffective, inefficient, handicapping practices.

Study your child.  Early learning habits might require rerouting, if they show evidence of being nonproductive or hindering. For example, if you have an eight year old who writes by holding his pencil in an awkward, laborious manner, and you reposition the pencil showing how to handle with greater ease, and he insists, “No. My way is better,” you need to pull the plug on this behavior.

If a child is young, you can simply say, “Try this new way for three weeks.  See how it goes.”  Take a stand on seeing the new practice turn into habit.

Diversify interests. Often diverging lines converge to a common point.  A child expose to a wide interest base is more likely to draw these together for his academic benefit than the child who only experiences one set of culture.

When you discipline, include a sense of nurturance.

Consider the individual.  Align a child’s self expectations with outer expectations through means of lowest stress.

Underachievers clash with the norms of society as they plummet toward failure, whether they bear the tell-tale  signs shown by Matt, Raena, Sara, Bliss, or Kenny.  Their weak methods of performance disappoint parents, teachers, and themselves.  If we want to help them, it is not enough to simply tag all underachievers through a wash of low grades, low performance, and high IQ.  Individuals must be studied, having particular behaviors identified within unique situations.  From the vantage point of parents, help can be offered through nurturing, caring actions which may minimize the failure of a learner close to you.

Vivian Owens wrote the new book, CHEMISTRY QUICKIES ($15.95), available from ESCHAR PUBLICATIONS, P.O. Box 1196, Waynesboro, VA 22980.  She is also the author of parent-helper books and young adult novels.





I am presently working as a mentor for new teachers in the New York City Public Schools. As part of my work, I recently assisted a teacher in conducting an enrichment class for gifted children at the third and fourth grade levels.  (The school is located in the South Bronx and has been placed on probation by the New York State Department of Education.)  I worked with them on poetry exercises.  A few weeks ago they viewed the PBS performance of the Broadway musical, Cats.  They were so excited by the show that I chose the book of poems by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) that the musical was based on – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939.

The monthly theme of this school’s reading program concerns holidays. In order to help students understand the origins of Veterans Day, I also read them lines from “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).  For the lessons on the seasons of the year, I used his nature poems.  Their response to these works by Eliot and Emerson are indicative of certain traits of giftedness.

They were impressed that an adult (T.S. Eliot) could relate to the life and environment of cats, and that his cats were from the city.  The London of T.S. Eliot’s time had aspects of its daily life that resembled inner city America.  In the neighborhood where this school is located, there is a major problem with rodents -- almost every household has a cat as a necessity.  These children do not view cats as sweet little pets, but as tough working animals that serve an important social role.  At the same time they react to cats in a mythic childlike manner as represented by cartoon characters such as Felix the cat, Tom and Jerry and Sylvester the cat. It is these qualities of toughness, street-wiseness and comical behavior that Eliot captured in his cats – qualities which these students can easily comprehend.

The students eagerly wrote about their experiences with cats, and created booklets, drawings and poems about them. Many words in Eliot’s poems were used in the vocabulary lesson such as “quorum” and “profound.”  Because the subject matter was so engaging, they independently searched their dictionaries for the meanings of these and other words from Eliot’s cat poems.  Afterwards, they wrote paragraphs using the new vocabulary words.  It is clear that the students were stimulated cognitively and esthetically by these poems.

Many of the students in this school are from areas of the world that do not have autumn, e.g., the Carribean region and Africa. Also, they do not see large numbers of trees in their inner city environment.  However, there are numerous parks in New York City, and teachers take their students to these areas.  The students discovered in the nature poems of Emerson a sense of wonderment, awe and reverence for nature. The following lines from “Woodnotes: I” demonstrate this sense of enjoyment from observing nature: “Lover of all things alive, /Wonderer at all he meets,/Wonderer chiefly at himself, /Who can tell him what he is?. . . .”

In “Concord Hymn” (July 4, 1837) by Emerson they thought about the role of individuals performing tasks for the benefit of future generations.  The following lines from this poem show why it is important to remember the past: “On this green bank, by this soft stream,/We set today a votive stone;/That memory may their deed redeem,/When, like our sires our sons are gone. . . .”

Emerson’s poems stimulated further interest in American history.  For example, many of the streets surrounding the school are named after individuals who were involved in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.  As the result of reading these poems, students went to their public library to study the origins of their neighborhood street names such as Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.  As my recent experiences at this school demonstrate, poetry and great poets are a major way to enrich the sensibility of giftedness.


Book Review -- Condensed from Gifted Education News-Page - Vol. 8, No. 1 – Oct.-Nov. 1998


Edward O. Wilson, a world renowned evolutionary biologist, has written a book that has significant bearing on the education of gifted students.  The primary focus of his narrative is on the problem of identifying procedures and principles for unifying all major fields of human knowledge – physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.  

He defines consilience as “. . . .a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” (Chapter 2, p. 8).  Although the immediate importance of this concept for educating the gifted is not apparent in the early chapters of this book, the later chapters show how Wilson’s search for relevant information bearing on the unity of knowledge in different fields can positively affect the learning and perceptions of intellectually advanced students. Individuals concerned with developing a curriculum for these students such as Harry Passow and Virgil Ward stressed (beginning in the 1960's and 1970's) the importance of designing a unified curriculum that concentrates on the interrelation between different subject areas through identifying common concepts and principles.  It appears that this commendable goal has been long forgotten (or possibly never learned) by many individuals currently involved in designing differentiated curricula.  

E.O. Wilson’s book will help to alleviate this memory loss by providing the historical, philosophical and scientific reasons for concentrating on the unity of all subjects through consilience.  First, he explains how this idea was rooted in the French Enlightenment (17th-18th centuries) through such philosophers and encyclopedists as Condorcet (1743-94), who believed that general laws could be developed which predict the historical progress of human knowledge and culture.  The Enlightenment was sparked by two great thinkers, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in England who designed an empirical method (the “scientific method”) for investigating natural phenomena, and René Descartes (1596-1650) in France who introduced the powerful mathematical-reductionist method for studying the physical world.  Bacon and Descartes wanted to develop a system of knowledge that linked different fields through empirically based knowledge and mathematical proofs.  Their influence on the scientists of the Enlightenment such as Sir Issac Newton was in two areas – the discovery of general laws to explain apparently disparate physical phenomena (e.g., Newton’s laws of physics), and a pervasive optimism that science can solve all of humanity’s problems and lead to constant progress.  Wilson, of course, follows in this Enlightenment tradition; he is opposed to the anti-science viewpoints of  postmodern pessimists and deconstructionists. He has written a thoughtful book on the problem of synthesizing enormous amounts of knowledge from different fields of study.  He is optimistic that this task can be accomplished for the benefit of all nations and cultures. Gifted students can play a major role in achieving consilience through their advanced analytic skills and ability to see beyond the trees into a more enlightened future.