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Achievement Versus Ability

June 7, 2009

Nicholas D. Kristof does a disservice to gifted education in this country in his recent column: “Rising Above I.Q.” in the New York Times. He begins with a statement that certain ethnicities are unusually successful – and he uses the examples of Asian-Americans currently enrolled in Harvard, Jews that received Nobel Prizes in science and West Indian blacks graduation rates as his yardsticks for success.

He adds that the success of these ethnic groups may be due to nurture as well as to nature – which I do agree with – but then posits that I.Q. may be due to nurture as well as to nature (arguing against genetic disposition to high I.Q.) and that the solution to ending poverty in America, therefore, is to focus on education.


First of all, Kristof is confusing ability (I.Q.) with achievement. Secondly, no amount of persuasion can convince me that merely having superior intellect is a ticket to success. I know that it is not. Finally, to conclude that we can all have high I.Q.s with just a little more practice and encouragement is simply bunk. Higher achievement levels – yes. Higher I.Q.s – no.  Evidence may suggest that there is no genetic link to having a higher I.Q. – and to that I say, so what?

The dedication of individuals to the democratization of ability has gotten way out of hand. It has hamstrung school districts and paralyzed any effort to meet the needs of the high ability learner. High Ability – an I.Q. in the Superior Cognitive range – cuts across all demographics. Does it matter if the color or ethnicity of the child doesn’t fit into neatly segregated columns? Isn’t that beside the point? Shouldn’t we simply identify (using any number of ability test instruments) and then serve the needs of these students regardless of whether they are rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Jew?

From research analysis by Karen Rogers, PhD and author of “Re-Forming Gifted Education”

-the learning rate of children above 130 IQ is approximately 8 times faster than for children below 70 IQ
-Gifted students are significantly more likely to retain science and mathematics content accurately when taught 2-3 times faster than “normal” class pace
-Gifted students are significantly more likely to forget or mislearn science and mathematics content when they must drill and review it more than 2-3 times
-Gifted students are decontextualists in their processing, rather than constructivists; therefore it is difficult to reconstruct “how” they came to an answer

A high I.Q. simply means that you process information differently, more quickly.  In America we seek to educate everyone to the same level.  The disastrous consequence of that is typically the slowing down of the pace in the classroom to meet the needs of lower ability students.  The high ability child is left to languish. Democratization, indeed.  The Davidson Institute estimates that nearly 20 percent of all high school dropouts test in the gifted range.  

If we really want to improve achievement levels in this country then please, by all means, go about the task.  Start with encouraging students to be successful and smart, build upon their strengths, introduce new and relevant role models, give as much effort to their academic education as you do to their athletic training.  If you want to improve the number of high I.Q. students and their opportunities for success – do a better job of identifying them (a mandated national ability test would do nicely) and then serve their needs for a faster paced curriculum so they can remain engaged in school and have an opportunity to fulfill their potential.

But let’s stop having this ridiculous conversation about genetics.  You have a test.  Use it.  Then serve the students who need faster pacing in the classroom.

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