by Julian C. Stanley
This talk was presented by Dr. Stanley in Chicago on 24 August 2002 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association as the annual Esther Katz Rosen (invited) Lecture.
I see in this room leaders of the gifted-child movement in the United States and the world. Some of them know more about most aspects of giftedness than I do. Some have been my esteemed associates and colleagues over the years. Some know the details of my work in this field. I ask their indulgence as I outline for the rest of the audience the background and current status of a few ideas and projects developed at Johns Hopkins University during the past 31 years by me and a host of gifted researchers and developers.
There is so much that could be told that I must be highly selective. We have published hundreds of articles and a number of books about our work. In 1986 in China, I conducted a well-attended training class for math teachers of gifted students six hours a day for three days and still did not exhaust the subject.
Let me begin with a familiar quotation from the poet Thomas Gray's famous "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" long before there was a formal gifted-child movement:
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."
We specialists in intellectual talent are devoted to preventing such loss among youth. As the poet John Greenleaf Whittier said, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: it might have been." Our goal is maximum utilization of talent.
With that prologue, let me launch into the main themes of my presentation.
This is a tale of serendipity, the Zeitgeist being right, good luck, and the satisfaction of an urgent need. It began for me in 1937, when as a college senior in the library needing to do my homework for a rural sociology course, I happened instead upon a huge book about human intelligence. That, combined with a psychology course using Woodworth's classic textbook, set me on a latent path that culminated 34 years later in my partially leaving my flourishing career as a research methodologist to devote much time to finding and helping boys and girls who reason far better mathematically than most of their age-mates. But that is getting ahead of my story.
For 31 years, I had shown sporadic interest in what are called the intellectually gifted, but not until the summer of 1968 did I awaken fully to their urgent educational needs. A local boy who had recently completed the seventh grade was taking a computer course for kids at Johns Hopkins, but was observed to be helping graduate students with Fortran-language computer programming. His teacher told me about him. I was busy and therefore did not get around to interviewing him until January of 1969. He proved so well versed in computer science, mathematics, and physics that I had him take the College Board Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and also College Board math and physics achievement tests. Even though he had no practice or coaching for these, his scores were so phenomenally high, far above those of average 12th-graders (he was an 8th-grader in a public middle school), that I began casting around for the special educational opportunities he obviously needed.
It seemed to me that he should be with 11th- and 12th-graders in College Board Advanced Placement courses. I found, however, that this suggestion appeared ridiculous to the high school principals I consulted. In 1969 there were few other educationally supplemental possibilities, so, in desperation, Joe and his parents and I decided that I should try to enroll him as a regular student in Johns Hopkins. He would, however, take only courses that seemed likely to be manageable by this intellectually brilliant 13-year-old eighth-grade graduate: computer science, calculus, and physics. We weren't optimistic about his probable grades.
I approached the Johns Hopkins Dean of Arts and Sciences, a renowned cell biologist named Carl Swanson, telling him the boy's level of achievement but not his age or educational background. Then I asked Dean Swanson, "Would you admit such an applicant if he were only 13 years old and had completed just the eighth grade?" To his great credit, Carl turned not a hair in surprise but instead said, "Tell Brinkley [the director of undergraduate admissions] I said let him in."
Well, Joe enrolled, made two A's and a B-plus his first semester, and was on his way to receiving a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in computer science at age 17. After those degrees from Johns Hopkins, he transferred to another great university and earned a Ph.D. degree. Today Joe is an outstanding researcher in the field of virtual reality as applied to entertainment.
Truly remarkable, yes, but I knew that one swallow does not make a spring. Perhaps Joe was the ablest such person alive, or nearly so. Fortunately, a boy's mother who played bridge with Joe's mother came to me and insisted that her son was at least as bright and knowledgeable as Joe and should therefore also become a "radical accelerant" at Johns Hopkins after he completed the 8th grade. Knowing that mothers might overestimate the intellectual precocity of their children, I was cautious and made Jonathan prove himself that summer by taking college courses at a local state college. He did well, and enrolled at Hopkins as a full-time student in the fall of 1970. His academic record was as excellent as Joe's. Jonathan went on to become an outstanding, prosperous computer specialist working with banks.
Then Jeff came to me, an extremely able 10th-grader terribly bored with the low academic level of his public high school classes. I got him into Johns Hopkins as a regular freshman majoring in mathematics. After earning 40 semester-hour credits with all A grades, he transferred to one of the Ivy League colleges and graduated summa cum laude at age 20. After two years of highly successful graduate work in mathematics at another outstanding university, Jeff suddenly decided to become a physician. For 22 years he has been a skilled cardiac surgeon, most of that time in a university school of medicine.
These successes with local boys set me thinking, so when the newly created Spencer Foundation came into being, I was ready to apply to it for a sizable grant to do something, I hardly knew what, to find and help such prodigies. Fortunately for me, the foundation had few applicants. I was acquainted with its director. Also, as a graduate student, I had asked the woman now its executive secretary for a date. She was engaged then but remembered me favorably. Thus, with a hastily prepared double-spaced four and a half-page proposal I was awarded $256,100 for a five-year period. In September of 1971 that was lots of flexible funding. It enabled me to "buy" from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychology's applicant pool two highly able beginning doctoral students, Lynn Fox and Daniel Keating. They and I (already 53 years old), along with recent Hopkins graduate William George, went to work developing our Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). We conducted our first talent search with 450 mathematically bright students seven months later, in March of 1972, and set up our first fast-paced mathematics class three months after that.
During the 1970's we experimented constantly with ways to conduct our annual talent search for boys and girls who reason exceptionally well mathematically. Also, we devised various methods for accelerating the learning of mathematics by boys and girls in grades four through eight. This enabled us to undergird SMPY with what have proved to be sound theory, principles, and practices.
All of our efforts, including those with Joe, Jonathan, and Jeff, were on a commuting, nonresidential basis. This became increasingly difficult for those students who lived far from Baltimore, one of them 200 miles away, so in 1979 I chose to "give the shop away" by helping others at Johns Hopkins set up a regional talent search (now the Center for Talented Youth, CTY) and offer compressed, academic summer courses. These were, and still are, located on many college campuses across the country. There for three or six weeks intellectually talented youth live together, study a single subject intensively, and socialize together. That has enormously enhanced value as compared with the mainly academic facilitation of the commuter courses.
The emphasis of what is now the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) immediately became as much on verbal reasoning ability as on mathematical reasoning ability. Many courses besides mathematics are offered. All SAT testing is done for CTY in regular testing sessions by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) across CTY's "territory" from Maine to Virginia, West Virginia, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii.
In 1980 I helped Duke University set up its own Talent Identification Program (TIP) for the South and Southwest. In 1981 Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska and I collaborated for her to found the Center for Talent Development (CTD) at Northwestern University to serve the Midwest. Soon thereafter the Rocky Mountain Talent Search (now CBK) was formed at the University of Denver.
These four regional centers, all of which are still flourishing, cover the entire United States and involve a number of foreign countries. In addition, there are many local and state- based efforts. We estimate that now about a quarter of a million youngsters participate in the annual SAT- and ACT-based talent searches. At least twenty thousand take academic summer courses. The dearth of special, supplemental, accelerative educational opportunities we encountered prior to 1971 has given way to a wealth of facilitative options, thanks also to the remarkably fast growth of the College Board's Advanced Placement Program, distance learning via computer, and other special programs.
Although the news media have recently written approvingly about kids who become full-time college students at astonishingly early ages, in our opinion it is no longer necessary nor desirable to begin, as Joe and Jonathan did, before about age 16. The ablest students we have ever found, one of whom became a full professor of mathematics at a great university at age 25 and the other a five-year postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, chose accelerative ways that gave them richer educational and social experiences than becoming a regular college student too early would have done.
Upon what principles is this highly successful, robustly persistent, widespread set of programs based? One, which first dawned on me in 1937 when, as a 19-year-old chemistry major, I taught commercial arithmetic in high school, is that some excellent learners of rote material such as facts and algorithms aren't able reasoners when required to decide how to use those facts and algorithms. Intuitively, it seemed to me that only the excellent reasoners were likely candidates for fast-paced instruction. In our first accelerated mathematics class this proved to be true. Those superb rote learners who did not reason exceptionally well failed to keep up with the pace of instruction.
Secondly, Leta Hollingworth, the brilliant co-founder of the gifted-child movement (along with Lewis Terman, of course) showed long ago that the brightest boys and girls could score well on intellectual tasks far above their school-grade level. I published an article about this in 1954, 17 years before creating SMPY.
Having chaired the aptitude-test committee of the College Board for several years in the 1960's and also having served on ETS's research committee, I was intimately familiar with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the famed and, for some critics, infamous SAT I now under attack. I had tried it with Joe, Jonathan, and Jeff. For young students it was found to have especially strong predictive value because they did well on it only with great "brain power," not by having been taught or coached at length. For 31 years, the SAT has remained the linchpin of the annual talent searches, supplemented in some regions by the American College Testing Program's ACT. A few kids as young as age 7 have scored high on the mathematics part of SAT (540, 580, and 670) and gone on to earn top-flight Ph.D. degrees in mathematics or physics quickly.
Thirdly, only students who had scored in the top 3 percent of their grade in mathematics or on verbal subtests, or on the total score of an in-school, grade-level achievement test battery, are permitted to enter the talent search. Just those are able enough to handle such a difficult above-grade-level examination.
Fourthly, only those 7th-graders who on the SAT or ACT score as well mathematically or verbally as the average college-bound 12th-grader are permitted to enroll in fast-paced summer courses. They cannot cross-enroll: for math and science courses a high SAT-M or ACT-M score is required, and for verbal courses a high SAT-V or ACT-Verbal score. The combination of tested mathematical or verbal reasoning ability and the student's choice of one course to concentrate on six or more hours per day for three intensive weeks has proved highly effective.
Our approach has, to coin an oxymoron, been benignly insidious. In effect, we have burrowed up somewhat subversively under the school system, not approaching school boards but instead sending scores directly to the student. Then the student and his parents must devise ways consistent with their finances and local school situation to get the curricular flexibility needed and, if accelerative courses outside the school are taken, effective articulation with in-school courses. For example, some students need to take beginning algebra in school a year or more earlier than usual. Also, those who complete Algebra I well in three summer weeks need to be allowed to enter Algebra II that fall.
Parents who get the necessary flexibility and/or articulation for their own child set precedents that make it easier for the parents of other bright children in that school to demand similar treatment. From the school's standpoint, this might be considered somewhat insidious, but for the student and parents it is helpfully "benign."
Across the country, in SMPY-inspired programs and others, a huge variety of academic courses is available each summer. These supplement distance-learning, Advanced Placement, and part-time college courses.
As I noted earlier, we decry a youth's becoming a full-time college student, especially a residential one, before about age 16. It is neither necessary nor educationally desirable for all but a tiny number of intellectually brilliant students to do so. We want the brightest to get a broad, deep education. With 34 Advanced Placement Program exams available, there is no need to rush into college full-time. In school or with a tutor or mentor a considerable percentage of those AP courses can be mastered.
Yet there is an innovative, relatively new exception. Since 1986 I have helped pioneer the development of residential early-entrance-to-college programs at state universities to supplement the much more expensive ones already available in a few private colleges. The oldest and largest of the state-based ones is the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS), located in Denton at the University of North Texas. Approximately 200 highly qualified boys and girls enter it each fall after completing the 10th grade. Mostly, they take required regular college courses for credit, thus completing four years in two. About 185 graduate each spring. Some 400 live together in a large, well-supervised residence hall on campus, with full access to all of the academic opportunities of that university. Their social and emotional needs are well taken care of in their residence hall. Graduates of this program are avidly recruited by the top universities and colleges and are notably successful therein. For example, more than 30 have enrolled as juniors at Johns Hopkins and achieved well in pre-medicine, engineering, and other fields.
TAMS admits only Texans. The Advanced Academy of Georgia (AAG) and the Georgia Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science (GAMES) admit out-of-staters, as do the several private programs. From Maine to Oklahoma to Alabama there exist about a dozen academically selective residential state-supported special high schools (grades 10 or 11 through 12) for the academically gifted. Although their offerings tend to be quite advanced, they cannot systematically offer college credit. Also, they are considerably more expensive to run than the early-entrance programs, which can be grafted rather economically onto a university. Nevertheless, such special state-supported two- or three-year high schools seem preferable for certain highly able students not yet ready for the academic rigors of college life.
Often overlooked are the educationally accelerative and socially facilitative benefits of participation in a variety of local, regional, national, and international competitions. There one's mind is stretched as one associates with like-minded boys and girls who are both age-mates and intellectual peers. SMPY's prodigy who had scored 800 twice on SAT-M at age 10 made such participation a major part of his life all the way through college. That, along with taking college courses part-time and Advanced Placement examinations, kept him intellectually stimulated and challenged. One does not, however, have to be at his mental level in order to find appropriate competitions of many kinds: mathematics, science, Latin, writing, etc.
Our goal 31 years ago, to provide supplemental, accelerative, and enriching academic facilitation for boys and girls who reason exceptionally well mathematically or verbally, has proved robustly attainable. On the huge scale the centers now conduct talent searches and compressed courses, however, of course implementation isn't perfect. Neither is political democracy, which most Americans consider superior to any of its alternatives. We do not believe that ours is the only helpful approach for finding and aiding intellectually talented youth. They need many available alternatives.
Julian C. Stanley is professor emeritus of psychology and the Director of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which he founded at Johns Hopkins University in 1971. His research, development, and service since then have involved finding boys and girls who reason exceptionally well mathematically and/or verbally, and helping them get the special supplemental, accelerative opportunities they sorely need. SMPY has sparked the creation of large regional talent searches and residential academic summer programs across the country. Dr. Stanley, a Fellow of six American Psychological Association (APA) divisions, is a former president of the American Educational Research Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, and the APA Divisions of Educational Psychology and of Evaluation, Measurement, and Statistics. He is also a Fellow of the American Statistical Association.
Read more about Dr. Stanley's life work in this announcement from the Mensa Education & Research Foundation (MERF), which chose Dr. Stanley as the winner of its first Lifetime Achievement Award.