Fear our future philosopher kings
March 24, 2018 6:16 AM   Subscribe

How and why to search for young Einsteins Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), founded in 1971 ... recruited 5,000 precocious children, each of whom had intelligence-test scores in early adolescence high enough to gain entry to university. Research into how these children did in adulthood has emerged over the past two decades. Of the SMPY participants who scored among the top 0.5% for their age-group in maths and verbal tests, 30% went on to earn a doctorate, versus 1% of Americans as a whole. These children were also much more likely to have high incomes and to file patents.
posted by sammyo (28 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's an equity story: "the potential of poor bright children is often wasted."

Noted:

It helps when schools test every child, rather than rely on parents to put children forward. In a paper from 2015, economists David Card and Laura Giuliano found that when a school district in Florida introduced universal screening for its gifted-education scheme, admissions increased by 180% among poor children, 130% among Hispanics and 80% for black pupils. (Admissions among white children fell.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on March 24 [36 favorites]


paywall and can't read this article but i can't help but notice the "high incomes and patent filing." seems to me it's a particular type of intelligence that benefits the global industrial system... not an emotional intelligence or ecological intelligence... not a make-do-with-less spirit. haha. now that would be something to screen for. and when you score high you get a free job in the mines.
posted by danjo at 6:31 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]


Patents are a proxy for Stem productivity outside academia. Given it’s a math test it seems like a reasonable metric to track. That said I’m guessing given that graph of SAT scores the headline numbers aren’t tremendously statistically meaningful. Never mind when you try to answer what the impact is of telling kids they are literally the smartest in the room.
posted by JPD at 7:02 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Of the top 0.01% of children, 50% went on to earn a PhD, medical or law degree.

That's not meaningful?
posted by Miko at 7:19 AM on March 24 [6 favorites]


Maybe not when 20% of kids self selected to take the sats 3 years early and who get average ish scores get phds

It mostly says the children of parents who make their kids take these tests are much more likely to get a PhD. And that trait itself I would guess loads very heavily on parental education and wealth.
posted by JPD at 7:29 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


It mostly says the children of parents who make their kids take these tests are much more likely to get a PhD. And that trait itself I would guess loads very heavily on parental education and wealth.

I think that's precisely what it is. Why do you take the SAT at age 13? To qualify for CTY and similar programs, which skew white and wealthy. Lo and behold, American PhD students also skew white and wealthy.

It's undeniably a very bright population, but we're kidding ourselves if we think our privilege doesn't play a huge role in the fact we ended up with PhDs. I mean, the fact I know about CTY without having gone is itself telling. But just like math PhD students have a lot of connections that go back to Budapest (one of the two main study abroad programs for math majors) or REUs (NSF-funded summer research programs for undergrads), people have connections that go back to CTY.

(I happened to go to a gifted summer program that did have more diverse participation. The obvious differences were a) being a day camp, b) not requiring test scores and c) busing.)
posted by hoyland at 7:48 AM on March 24 [9 favorites]


Archive link to avoid paywall.

Of course the Metafilter discussion immediately jumps to "this can't possibly be statistically true" and "really this is class privilege reified". Perhaps it is both true that some children have higher intelligence and economic privilege has a huge effect on the outcomes for those kids? If so why not focus on finding the bright kids and helping them achieve their intellectual potential? Half the article talks about various efforts to do exactly that. They're interesting.

The really uncomfortable part of this article is the idea that higher intelligence is partly genetic, heritable. I don't see why that wouldn't be true. But it can also be true that while intelligence is genetic at a population statistics level, individual outcomes vary widely. Also that environment has a huge influence. I also liked the section on "the power of persistence", the importance of teaching kids to focus their effort.
posted by Nelson at 8:03 AM on March 24 [11 favorites]


Perhaps it is both true that some children have higher intelligence and economic privilege has a huge effect on the outcomes for those kids?

I wrote a sentence saying exactly that.
posted by hoyland at 8:18 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


5,000 precocious children, each of whom had intelligence-test scores in early adolescence high enough to gain entry to university.
That's not how university admission works, in any institution I've met. And, the idea that it might be is incompatible with the claim that IQ is a measure of ability rather than skill. (Which deserves skepticism, but seems to be central to the rest of the article.) I've not yet read an actual paper on the study, which may be great, but the article doesn't inspire confidence.

As a working class, first-gen college kid who's now a career STEM academic, I'm immensely grateful that I did well on early math tests and had the social skills to make elementary school teachers like me enough to put me up for such tests. But, claiming the success that people like me have achieved is due to some intrinsic quality and not simply the result of access to extra resources - money for school programs, emotional support, mentoring - is really challenging. Without a control group, the study of 5000 selected students seems like it would face a real challenge in distinguishing between ability and opportunity. If the goal is to prove that if you take high-performing students and give them extra resources, they do better than most, that's a pretty solid and unsurprising claim. But that's a long way from demonstrating that it's the best way to allocate resources or that you've selected the most promising group at the outset.
posted by eotvos at 8:26 AM on March 24 [11 favorites]


Maybe not when 20% of kids self selected to take the sats 3 years early and who get average ish scores get phds

It mostly says the children of parents who make their kids take these tests are much more likely to get a PhD. And that trait itself I would guess loads very heavily on parental education and wealth.


Can that explain entirely the within-group variation in outcomes here? Conditional on a kid being in this group, if they have higher IQ they are more likely to have these measured outcomes. That seems to be not entirely attributable to the selection effect.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:20 AM on March 24


I think that's precisely what it is. Why do you take the SAT at age 13? To qualify for CTY and similar programs, which skew white and wealthy. Lo and behold, American PhD students also skew white and wealthy.

Well that really demolishes the straw man argument that the students who qualified for this program were randomly selected from the population.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:21 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I was at the lower end of SMPY, with 710 math SATs at 13 years 1 month and some change. Participated in the early days of CTY (when it was called OTID). It was an interesting experience. I wasn't as aware of inequality back then... The way I usually thought of the cohort was that we were selected by potential. I'd think of that word more than the word ability, not that either has an objective measure! Later I went to a science camp where those taking part had been selected, partly on the basis of science fair achievement, which made for a qualitatively different group. The kids at CTY hadn't been admitted on the basis of, say, their hard and effective work, and that could have been for many of them, because they hadn't really been challenged by their school systems yet. Some had lopsided abilities, some were adept in math but not things verbal, or vice-versa.

There were some kids who were in both CTY and SMPY who we looked up to. Sometimes it was a shallow admiration based on test scores and early achievement. Then there was Chi-Bin Chein who died early of cancer at 46, after being a rising star in both physics and neuroscience. An early start and early end. Joe Bates was the very first CTY/SMPY student.

One irony of the use of testing as the main criterion for SMPY is that these kinds of standardized tests had originally been touted as a way to reduce inequality and find those of unusual talent among the poor. James B. Conant was one of the architects of modern meritocratic testing and appears to have been motivated by egalitarianism, but he was blind to test-coaching, stereotype threat, the filter that not all kids will take the SATs early, and that not every family has the means to enrich their kids' education outside of school. That he spends half that speech praising Jefferson indicates some of his mental blind spots.
posted by Schmucko at 9:25 AM on March 24 [8 favorites]


It mostly says the children of parents who make their kids take these tests are much more likely to get a PhD.

For a short piece, TFA does a pretty good job of noting all of these conditions. I'd recommend everyone read it in full before commenting. Everyone has opinions on these sensitive issues, but the article is basically about the implications for justice and social contribution of missing high intelligence among poorer student popuations.
posted by Miko at 10:02 AM on March 24 [4 favorites]


One irony of the use of testing as the main criterion for SMPY is that these kinds of standardized tests had originally been touted as a way to reduce inequality and find those of unusual talent among the poor.

A lot of the history of standardized testing seems to have this elitist-egalitarian mission, which I find interesting. Actually I'm still not completely sure that it's a bad idea, but I think it has to be put in a broader context for admissions - and per the first comment in this thread, it's obviously incompatible with the idea that the tests should be opt-in and cost money.
posted by atoxyl at 10:04 AM on March 24


Personally, I was testing/performing highly enough after 4th grade to be 'allowed' by the L.A. Public Schools to skip 5th grade and go directly to 6th... where being the youngest kid in class, AND starting to struggle with what I'd missed AND my already 'natural tendency' to be bullied, combined to a nightmare year that I have mostly blocked from my memory, but prompting my parents to transfer me to a Private ("Rotten Rich Kids") School where I repeated 6th, was bored with the repeat curriculum and encountered what I have previously referred to as "a much higher socioeconomic class of bully". But I was in an Honors Class (with also a higher intellectual class of bullies), as I continued until graduating High School, which did me no favors in the skills needed to survive College (where my GPA crept downward from 3.9 to 2.9 while I drifted into a Vanilla Business Degree while mostly learning that Libertarian Cultists ruled the Business/Economics Departments even back then). So I was almost uniformly disappointed in my educational experience in the '60s and '70s, but I know "Doogie Howser" was as realistic a TV show as "My Mother the Car", and have zero belief that a Betty DeVos Inc. Charter School would have been better for me or any "advanced kid". End rant.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:23 AM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Interesting. I was a part of this at Johns Hopkins when I was a kid. I found all of the information and certificates and books when I was cleaning out my parents' house last year. I'm clearly not doing my part, though, lacking a doctorate, high income, or any patents.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:06 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


SATs and standardized testing were mostly implemented by eugenicists and bigots trying to prove the superiority of northern Europeans and keep Jews out of the Ivies.
posted by JPD at 1:11 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


This program embodies, in highly refined form, one of the great blunders of American education at least since Sputnik, in that it substitutes competition for learning, and confuses winning with actual understanding and creativity.

An academic competition stigmatizes all save one as 'loser', and heaps the winner, temporarily, with praise and rewards for something that has almost no relation to grappling with difficult concepts, and tends to actively stifle the kind of tentative and exploratory thinking that leads to real breakthroughs.

And it occurs to me as I write that all this winnowing of the student population for the best of the best and to hell with the rest bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the damned and elect theology of Puritan founders, right down to a conviction that God's favor cannot be attained through good works, but is predestined at birth.

I won de facto and formal competitions in junior high and high school, but what I could never find were other kids willing to hang out and talk about the things we were supposedly studying with a view to really understanding them and being able to create for ourselves new understanding that went beyond the textbook or the classroom.

It wasn't that they didn't want to, some of them at least -- they simply couldn't afford to break ranks and ignore the relentless drumbeat of competition to prove themselves worthy at the next great division between those who would be Chosen, and those who would be Left Behind.

And it's absurd and amusing to invoke Einstein for such an enterprise, since he was notoriously a slow and backward student even up through university.
posted by jamjam at 2:40 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


SATs and standardized testing were mostly implemented by eugenicists and bigots trying to prove the superiority of northern Europeans and keep Jews out of the Ivies.

What I mean when I talk about this curious "elitist-egalitarianism" of the movement for standardized testing is the idea that they were going to identify a "natural" elite, but to do so by drawing from a wider pool than the elite had traditionally been drawn from. If I recall that was also the idea behind Mensa - that there's no boundary of nationality or class, all you need is a test score. At the time this absolutely still meant "mostly white people," (as noted in that same article) and wasn't separable from the eugenics movement, but in some ways I think it ended up being part of a cultural momentum whereby the bounds of whiteness were expanded - to include, for example (European) Jews (note the date). To what extent that ultimately counts as a positive development versus a solidification of a fundamentally unjust system I can't answer.
posted by atoxyl at 3:47 PM on March 24


And it's absurd and amusing to invoke Einstein for such an enterprise, since he was notoriously a slow and backward student even up through university.

you know this isn't exactly true, right? He was unenthusiastic about most other subjects (or the regimented way they were taught) but regarded as a promising student in math from when he was quite young.
posted by atoxyl at 3:54 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]


What I mean when I talk about this curious "elitist-egalitarianism" of the movement for standardized testing is the idea that they were going to identify a "natural" elite, but to do so by drawing from a wider pool than the elite had traditionally been drawn from.

Well articulated. I find this an interesting tension. On the one hand, if you agree that there is such a thing as "raw" intelligence, then it is likely evenly distributed throughout the human population, and the task then is to develop better tools for identifying and cultivating it.

However, at the same time we are talking about reifying an elite - an elite class of individuals who have the capacity for high academic achievement - and that can't both maintain its academic standard and be made non-elite no matter what population comprises it. Any more than, for instance, the world's elite athletes can take in people of lesser athletic abilities and still remain the world's elite athletes.

This is where you have to dig into the difference between equity and equality. Though it's true that our conceptions of intelligence are painfully constrained and narrow, it's also true at the same time that human beings exist across a spectrum of intellectual attitudes and that they aren't all the same. I personally don't believe they should be educated all in the same way, either, and that people should be able to receive education that addresses their particular interests and aptitudes no matter where they fall on the spectrum.

But, as we always see when the topic comes up, because we attach a lot of cultural baggage to high academic achievement, and because historically it correlates with privileged classes of people, it is sometimes incendiary to say that it might make sense for people with the demonstrated potential to pursue advanced academic or creative work be offered specialized training early in their educational lives - even though the basic notion that individualized instruction is good is pretty well supported in educational theory.

That's not to sidestep the fact that even where a "gifted" program exists in a public school, that doesn't make up for mainstream educational programs often lacking in challenge, opportunity, and range. I resist blaming that on the existence of "gifted" programs and think the problem is really that it's such a binary (or trinary - currently the de facto situation is that there are "gifted" programs, "mainstream" programs, and "remedial/supportive" programs - a structure that assumes a linear continuum of academic capability that is probably much too simplistic). Instead of arguing against the existence of programs to support students with the capacity for and interest in academic challenge, we should ask why mainstream and remedial education aren't equally well-thought out, exciting, and rich, or why we don't have a wider and more interesting range of choices of educational models that might meet the needs of many more students, rather than just throwing them into the default "general education" category.
posted by Miko at 4:13 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]




And it's absurd and amusing to invoke Einstein for such an enterprise, since he was notoriously a slow and backward student even up through university.

you know this isn't exactly true, right? He was unenthusiastic about most other subjects (or the regimented way they were taught) but regarded as a promising student in math from when he was quite young.


Hermann Minkowski:
The mathematical education of the young physicist [Albert Einstein] was not very solid, which I am in a good position to evaluate since he obtained it from me in Zurich some time ago.
Minkowski was apparently amazed that such a seemingly mediocre student had come up with the theory of relativity.
posted by jamjam at 4:52 PM on March 24


The mathematical education of the young physicist [Albert Einstein] was not very solid, which I am in a good position to evaluate since he obtained it from me in Zurich some time ago.

Oh - I thought you were referring to the old legend about Einstein being thought a slow student as a child. Among mathematicians I don't know that he was expected to be anything extraordinary - but I believe he had a bit of a rivalry with Minkowski so I wouldn't take those comments entirely at face value either.
posted by atoxyl at 6:00 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


And it's absurd and amusing to invoke Einstein for such an enterprise, since he was notoriously a slow and backward student even up through university.

The NY Times got hold of his school records back in the 80s, he got the highest possible marks in math through high school. He did poorly in French. Once he got to college, he had some personality clashes with some of his professors which influenced how he was perceived -- this last part I'm remembering from The Making of the Atomic Bomb, sorry not to source it. But probably the most interesting part of that Times piece is this:

"The more recent acquisitions also document, as never before, the scope of the electrical manufacturing activity of Einstein's father Hermann and of his more scientifically minded Uncle Jakob. It now appears that the Einstein enterprise was internationally recognized and considerably more innovative than previously suspected. Technical journals in Britain, France, Italy and Germany reveal that one of its devices, an electric meter, was patented in the United States, and that the Einstein company built the central power station for a Munich suburb.
This has led Dr. Stachel to suspect that Einstein's upbringing in a home where manipulations of electricity and magnetism were a daily preoccupation helped set him on a road that led to his first relativity theory. "

So as ever it is nature + nurture, even for Einstein.
posted by mrmurbles at 6:03 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]


it's a particular type of intelligence that benefits the global industrial system

Well, this is an article in The Economist.
posted by bq at 9:42 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


My oldest son was in this program. He is a self taught computer programmer from back in the days when one could get a job that way, he had one year of college then went to work. No Ph.D. but he works with those who are, and is an environmental activist. I am very proud of him.
posted by mermayd at 11:29 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Urgh. My parents pushed me to take the test for this when I was 12, and I only scored about 550 on math, so my parents decided I was "bad at math" and strongly discouraged me from doing anything STEM-y.

I didn't get into the district's "gifted" program (which was only for the top 1% or so) and ended up going to a horrible high school where there was essentially no actual teaching (example: the only biology teacher killed himself so there was just no more biology, for all 4 years of school). I was deeply angry and resentful for a long, long time.

I guess I do have a couple CS publications and patents though and started a PhD (never finished), so maybe I fit the mold after all.
posted by miyabo at 4:29 PM on March 25


Although one of the kids I knew growing up was much much smarter than me -- he scored PERFECTLY on the test in middle school. He is now a very successful internationally-renowned porn star. I wonder what the study authors would say about that.
posted by miyabo at 4:56 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


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