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Back to school: Are we leaving gifted students behind?

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While improvement is needed at both the bottom and top of the spectrum, Hanushek and others say, the top may be more important because the US needs home-grown talent – creative innovators, particularly in the sciences – to keep up with global competitors.

Hanushek estimates that if the US improved its overall performance to match a country such as Germany, which is 15th for students scoring advanced, the US gross domestic product would increase by more than $40 trillion. (For perspective: That's at least four times the total US cost so far of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, according to researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I.)

Students who show a talent for math early in life are more likely to become inventors. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., identified 13-year-olds in the top 1 percent of quantitative ability, based on the math SAT. They tracked the students for at least 25 years. Nearly 9 percent earned one or more patents, compared with a rate of just 1 percent of the general population.

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