Just as the United States Department of Education was closing its Office for Gifted and Talented Children last July, the Republic of Singapore was putting the finishing touches on a program of its own for gifted students.
A one-time British colony, Singapore has been an independent nation for less than 20 years. In that brief time, and despite its small size (230 square miles) , Singapore has achieved such economic and technological success that its 2.5 million people now enjoy Asia's second highest per capita income. The city-state has emerged as the economic, banking, and medical center of Southeast Asia.
By most international standards Singapore provides children with a first-class public education system.
In deference to its multiracial population, which includes Chinese, Malays, Tamils, and others, the government recognizes four official languages. The schools require students to master two of these, one of which must be English, the language of business and government.
The school system is designed so that parents may choose any one of the four as their children's language of instruction.
Although a tracking system is in use whereby pupils are assigned to classes that progress at different rates, it is Singapore's perception that it cannot afford to neglect even a small number of its potential future leaders.
The Ministry of Education is well aware that all over the developed world, gifted children become bored and frustrated with regular teaching and standard classroom fare, and that some become underachievers, disruptive, and may even drop out of school.
Hence, the program for the gifted and talented. It was announced to the nation last September, and testing for the pilot group was completed before the end of the year. The first 200 students entered the program last month, at the start of the school year.
The philosophy of this undertaking is quite simply to cater to the needs of gifted children and to help them develop their potential to the fullest. Classes are limited to 25 pupils.
According to Singapore's Minister of State for Education, Dr. Tay Eng Soon, gifted students will tackle the same curriculum and take the same exams as other students, but will study more subjects and cover more ground in each one.
For example, in secondary school a gifted science student will take an extra humanities subject, an arts pupil a science course. Many will be encouraged to study a third language.
Also at the secondary level, the gifted will be asked to act as mentors to younger children who need help.
Identification and selection of talented and gifted students require several steps.
The process begins with comprehensive testing. All third graders take a common test in math and in their first language. Those scoring in the top 5 percent then are given a rigorous intelligence test designed to evaluate their abstract and quantitative reasoning ability. Reading and vocabulary tests are also given.
Sixth graders who score in the top 4 percent of any three subjects in the ''primary school leaving examination'' (primary school ends in the sixth grade) are also given the intelligence tests that are pitched to a higher level.
Those who score at the very top of these special tests are considered for the gifted program. Admission is not automatic at this point, however.
So that those finally admitted stand the best chance of success, parents are interviewed to ensure that they understand the implications of being parents of bright children and to obtain their commitment to the program. Only then are the children extended invitations to join.
Interestingly, teacher recommendations are not considered. The ministry feels that teachers tend to prefer well-behaved children who are not critical and who do not challenge their instruction.
As the program matures, selection will be carried out annually in each grade to identify giftedness as it emerges. When the project is fully operational, over 5,000 of Singapore's 460,000 primary and secondary students will participate.
Some Singaporeans have doubts about the program. They speculate that the wealthy will be favored, and they worry about elitism.
The government counters that it has anticipated such problems and will take measures to avoid them.
''Gifted children,'' explains a ministry spokesman, ''are found at all levels of society, rich and poor. This is not elitism based on wealth, which is wrong, but on merit, which is fair. An equitable education system gives each child an appropriate education, not necessarily an equal one.''
Since the program does not begin until the fourth grade, the ministry explains that inequities caused by family background will not hinder the chances of underprivileged children to participate. During their first three school years, all children will have been exposed to the same opportunities.
An additional precaution has been taken. All gifted children must receive ''moral education lessons so they do not become snobs.'' The government does not want to single gifted students out socially, only academically. It believes these students should return something to their society after graduation and hopes to ''instill a sense of reality, wholesome humility, self-respect, and respect for others,'' in them.
In recent years, the Asian press has taken note of student suicides in Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore as extreme examples of the stress generated by the importance attached to national examinations and their influence on students' continued progress up the education ladder.
Singapore officials hope that the benefits of discovering and encouraging talented and gifted children will offset the disadvantages resulting from increased competition.