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'TALENT Act' could assist best US students in math

An act before Congress, designed to help gifted students, could help when it comes to learning math.

Linda Sheffield has a unique perspective on how the United States compares with other nations in helping top math students reach their full potential. She's worked with students and educators in 20 countries during the past 30 years. A retired university professor of math education, she's vice president of the International Group for Mathematical Creativity and Giftedness, a professional society.

The neglect of gifted math students, she says, "has gotten worse in the United States [while] other countries are increasing their support ... to develop students' talents and creativity."

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In Eastern Europe, there's a tradition of after-school and weekend Math Circles where kids work with professors. "It's a much more culturally cool thing to do," Ms. Sheffield says. In Bulgaria, for example, winning International Mathematical Olympiad teams are celebrated the way sports teams are celebrated in the US.

And Singapore, which does well on international tests, identifies the top fraction of children tested at age 10, and sends them to special schools, largely based on their math skills. Teachers are specially chosen to work with the top 1 percent of students.

Sheffield knows a Harvard student who grew up in Singapore, where students are encouraged to take US Advanced Placement exams. The Singaporean took 23 and got the highest score, a 5, on all of them. Sheffield's son, by contrast, took only 13 as a Kentucky public school student.

In Finland, another top-scoring country on international tests, there's very little ability tracking. But, like Singapore, it devotes a lot of resources to educating teachers and giving them time to hone their skills.

In many nations, she says, "students know that if they do not do well in mathematics [at first], they just need to work harder.... In the US, the attitude is that if they do not do well, they must not have a mathematical mind, so they don't even try. We're about the only country that accepts this."

The TALENT Act, introduced in Congress in April to address the needs of gifted students, would help, she says, "if we hope to compete with what I see around the world."

Among other things, the law would boost teacher training in gifted education strategies and require that assessments measure ability beyond a student's grade level.