Mathematics Commentary

Nurturing Talent: How the U.S. Succeeds

By Francis K. Schrag — March 16, 2010 6 min read

Commentators often complain that U.S. schools do too little to challenge the most gifted students, especially in the sciences and mathematics. But might the country be doing something right?

Consider that this year five of the 11 Nobel Prize winners in the natural sciences and economics were educated in the United States. Or consider that since 1970, six mathematicians from the United States—all educated here—have won the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, awarded only once every four years. (Russia holds the lead, with seven Fields medalists.)

Given our public schools’ historical reluctance to single out, segregate, and groom the most talented (except in sports), how have we managed to produce so many outstanding scientists and mathematicians? To understand that, we need to focus on a set of remarkable nonpublic institutions—highly visible to their participants, but largely invisible to those who study and comment on U.S. elementary and secondary schooling—dedicated to the discovery and nurture of the most talented young people for the highest levels of accomplishment. Consider the fields of natural sciences, mathematics, and music:

The Intel Science Talent Search recognizes remarkable talent early on, fostering individual growth for high school students who are willing to challenge themselves through science research. Formerly sponsored by Westinghouse, the program began in 1942. It was developed by Science Service, a nonprofit organization founded in 1921 by Edward W. Scripps, a renowned journalist, and William Emerson Ritter, a California zoologist, with the goal of generating interest in science among the public and luring young people to consider science as a career. Scripps funded the project, and Ritter served as the first scientific director.

Those who seek a complete picture of American education need to look beyond the school curriculum, and beyond the schools themselves."

Each year, the program selects 40 winners for honors and college scholarships from among numerous entries. In 2008, 1,600 students participated. These young people, who show strong ability and interest in science in middle and high school, are typically matched with professional investigators, often at research universities, who become their mentors and supervise their projects, sometimes taking up to two years. The winners frequently go on to become leading scientists. Seven prior winners have received Nobel prizes.

Turning to mathematics, Steve Olson’s book Count Down documents the story of the six-person U.S. team that tied (with Russia) for second place in the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad for high school students. To win a place on the team, candidates must engage in rigorous team competitions starting at the school level and ending at the national level. Many of the strongest competitors have attended accelerated mathematics summer programs on college campuses around the country.

The original impetus for these summer programs came from Johns Hopkins psychologist Julian Stanley, who founded the university’s Center for Talented Youth, focused on the needs of mathematically precocious young people, in the 1970s. The center’s summer programs, serving more than 9,000 students annually, are open to talented young mathematicians and scientists based on national tests, and provide advanced instruction by college professors.

A more recent form of intensive mathematical enrichment for children is the “math circle.” Math circles originated in Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, and immigrants from Eastern Europe are prominent in organizing them in the United States. Among the pioneers here were women such as the Berkeley, Calif., math-circle founder Zvezdelina Stankova-Frenkel, who in her native Bulgaria had experienced school cultures in which females who loved math and excelled in it were admired rather than derogated.

Dating from the late 1990s and located primarily on the West Coast, math circles provide opportunities for middle and high school students with a serious interest in mathematics to meet for a couple of hours on a weekday evening or weekend to interact with professional mathematicians. Some circles, such as the Berkeley Math Circle, are focused on grooming the most talented young people for prestigious competitions such as the international olympiad. Small grants to found math circles are available from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, which in turn receives funding from a variety of corporations and foundations.

These programs are only illustrations of a rich tapestry of opportunities available in fields as diverse as classical music, choral singing, ballet, chess, poetry, Latin, theater, moot court, problem-solving, biology, radio and television production, animation, computer science, and robotics. (It goes without saying that similar opportunities exist in sports from boxing to rowing.) Here is where, on weekends, after school, or during summer vacation, many future intellectual and cultural leaders get their start. Schools often play a role in identifying the most talented, sometimes in grooming them, but often the work goes on outside the school building and beyond the school day—during the summer, on weekends, or in the evening.

What accounts for the growth of these programs? Their existence is due in almost all cases to the efforts of successful professionals who become passionate social entrepreneurs, typically working closely with philanthropists. Many of the founders of these programs are immigrants seeking to replicate a tradition they grew up with. Indeed, many of the young stars who participate and compete at the highest levels are themselves immigrants.

While these programs are available only to those with talent, and though some cost money, almost all try to recruit from disadvantaged populations and to subsidize those in need. This is not to say that the playing field is level, because it is not. Participation is clearly easier for children whose families command cultural and financial capital—for private music lessons and instruments, for example, to say nothing of encouragement.

While formal schooling generally involves individual students working in isolation for grades, these programs require young people to collaborate with peers and adults. Most involve public performances or products. In other words, these activities are more like the world outside of school than like the classroom. Students develop not just expertise in mathematics or music, but also lessons in cooperation and sacrifice for the group.

Those who seek a complete picture of American education need to look beyond the school curriculum, and beyond the schools themselves. These extracurricular opportunities are characteristically American, the result of the initiative, energy, and dedication of private citizens who, for the most part, don’t work in schools. Participating in a math circle or a summer science program permits a young boy or girl blessed with talent to strive toward mastery of a demanding craft. This is the way we grow the mathematicians and biologists who may someday enrich all our lives.

Does this phenomenon, largely hidden from education researchers and policymakers, hold any implications for K-12 education policy? I believe it does.

Commentators and pundits who urge the public schools to raise their demands, lengthen the school day, hold year-round school, or intensify homework demands may not realize that if their wishes are granted, the United States could actually become less competitive in the international contest for economic and cultural leadership. What makes participation in a math circle, science fair, or youth orchestra possible is that talented kids still manage to eke out a bit of time after school, on weekends, and during the summer to devote themselves to pursuits their school classmates and even some of their teachers—would barely understand.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Nurturing Talent: How the U.S. Succeeds


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