[Paleopsych] NYT: It Pays to Have a Smart Child, but It Can Cost, Too

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It Pays to Have a Smart Child, but It Can Cost, Too


    WHEN Reed Molbak was 7 years old and living in Kansas City, Mo., his
    parents took him to hear a visiting Columbia physics professor lecture
    about string theory. Reed listened with interest. If space is like
    fabric, he wondered, can it tear? Even in preschool, he was the one
    doing the tearing - through books on how things worked - and now, at
    13, he enjoys theoretical physics. Along the way, his family has spent
    more than $100,000 on testing, counseling, science experiments and
    software - and on enrolling him in a variety of schools and learning

    "Intellectually gifted" may have a variety of definitions. But
    assuming that people scoring in the top 10 percent of intelligence
    tests meet the criteria, the country has millions of gifted children -
    and many opportunities for them, especially if parents are willing to
    pay the bill.

    At the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of
    Washington, psychologists meet with parents about educational goals
    and test a child's intelligence for fees of up to $756. Students in
    5th through 10th grade who score in the top 3 percent on standardized
    tests may, for $700, attend a challenging summer course with their
    intellectual peers.

    At Stanford, the Education Program for Gifted Youth offers classes via
    computer; students work at home, communicating with a tutor, for $350
    to $700 a course each quarter. Children in these kinds of specialized
    programs sometimes become excited about learning "at a level their
    parents have never seen before," said Ray Ravaglia, the program's
    deputy director.

    "They really hit their stride," he added.

    Some parents find these programs enriching for smart children who are
    bored with their usual schoolwork. Other parents may sign them up for
    the chess club, the debate team or another extracurricular activity at
    their regular schools, in part to find other parents with whom they
    can discuss educational and social issues. Or the parents may simply
    want to find playmates who will understand their child's jokes.

    Whatever their motivation, parents can find that the cost of the care
    and feeding of a prodigy, starting with testing, may quickly run into
    the thousands of dollars.

    Dr. Deborah L. Ruf, author of "Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left
    Behind," found that the first expense for some families of gifted
    children may be for an assessment to discover what is "wrong" with a
    child who, teachers complain, has been disruptive or not focused in
    class. "The parents often find out the child isn't paying attention,"
    she said, "because they already know everything that is being taught."

    The students may take a combination of achievement tests, measuring
    what they know, and aptitude tests, measuring verbal and numerical
    ability. The bill for such tests generally goes to the parents.
    "There's lots of funding for kids who aren't keeping up in school,"
    Dr. Ruf said, "but if you have a bright child you just get a pat on
    the head." She said she had seen "families at all economic levels
    prioritize their budgets to pay for testing, enrichment and learning

    Charles Beckman, director of communications for the Johns Hopkins
    Center for Talented Youth, has noted an uptick in applications to its
    programs in the last few years, as well as an increase in the number
    of colleges and for-profit institutions that offer course work for
    gifted children.

    "The No Child Left Behind Act has forced many states to redirect money
    from gifted education to bringing other kids up to a minimally
    acceptable skill level," he said. "Cutting the education dollars of
    tomorrow's leaders, thinkers and doers means more families are looking
    for ways to have their kids' intellectual needs met outside of

    Some 77,000 children in grades 2 through 7 last year paid a $25 to $35
    application fee and $29 to $75 to take a test that would qualify them
    for the Hopkins programs. Ultimately, more than 10,000 of them
    attended a Hopkins summer course, offered at 23 sites around the

    A typical sleepaway program for a seventh grader costs $2,900 for
    three weeks, including room and board. Students choose programs that
    range from genomics to etymology to music theory.

    Eric Viola, a high school freshman in Basking Ridge, N.J., whose
    family sacrificed other vacation opportunities to finance his Hopkins
    educational travel program to Montana, said, "You get to see how stuff
    actually works instead of reading about it - like how the physics of
    water pressure and heat create the geysers at Yellowstone."

    Some parents also pay air fare, hotel and entry fees to attend
    conferences (without their children) like the one organized by the
    California Association for the Gifted. It expects nearly 3,000 at its
    event in March in Palm Springs; participants will share strategies for
    gifted education and join a supportive network.

    Reed's mother, Heidi Molbak, tried home schooling her little string
    theorist one year, and once enrolled him in language-immersion school
    to keep him occupied. In fourth grade, he took an online course in
    expository writing through the Stanford program, which taught concepts
    typical of a ninth-grade writing course.

    Reed sent his work electronically to his tutor, who held seminars once
    a week via headphones and the Internet. "Distance learning," Dr. Ruf
    said, "is a great option for kids who are self-motivated and want to
    go at their own speed." Reed has completed his computerized tutoring
    and now attends a private school.

    Parents of gifted children manage their budgets in different ways.
    Barbara Poyneer of Renton, Wash., realized that her daughters were
    gifted when they started playing around with fractions before entering
    kindergarten. She and her husband chose travel abroad over private
    school, "because they could soak up so much," she said. Today one
    daughter, who is 32, holds a B.A. in physics from Johns Hopkins, and
    the other, 30, a Rhodes scholar who attended Oxford and M.I.T., is
    earning her Ph.D.

    TO be sure, some in the education field say they believe that private
    programs for gifted children are unnecessary. Nancy Siegel, head
    guidance counselor at Millburn High School in Millburn, N.J., advises
    parents to resist overprogramming children. If a high school does not
    offer many advanced-placement classes, "the student can look for a
    great internship or writing contest or independent project to show
    their stuff," she said. "There is no need to enroll in expensive
    programs hoping it will get your child into a top college."

    Others go so far as to doubt that gifted programs are beneficial for
    children. "It's important to give kids normal experiences that are
    typical for children of that age," said Prof. Perry Prestholdt, who
    taught psychology at Louisiana State University before retiring last
    month. "Unique and expensive opportunities can imbue these kids with a
    false sense of privilege."

    According to Dr. Ruf, gifted programs may make a child feel
    advantaged, but they also offer the challenge and competition of the
    real world, so that youngsters "realize they aren't always going to be
    the smartest one in the room."

    And parents of gifted children can find some resources that won't take
    a big bite out of a retirement plan. American Mensa, a nonprofit
    organization of adults scoring in the top 2 percent of standardized
    intelligence tests, is seeking to attract "Young Mensans." If a family
    lives near an active chapter, a $30 application fee and yearly dues of
    $52 will provide it with national and local newsletters that list

    Adult Mensans are often eager to help younger ones, said Laura Loos,
    children's program coordinator for the greater New York chapter, whose
    members helped to plan free backstage trips to theaters and to a zoo
    to see how displays are created.

    "We want to expand the horizons of gifted children because schools
    aren't doing it for them anymore," she said. "Our country is going to
    fall behind because we are ignoring our future scientists,
    entrepreneurs and leaders."

    Other free resources include Web sites like HoagiesGifted.org, for the
    Hoagies' Gifted Education Page; it offers connections to mailing
    lists, message boards and Web logs as well as other information for
    parents, educators and children.

    Whatever resources they use, Ms. Molbak encourages parents to make a
    serious commitment. "We try to have as normal a life as possible," she
    said, "but at the same time, it's important to take charge of your
    child's education." She added that "if the schools can't challenge
    your child, you need to figure out how to do it."

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