[FoRK] additional New Yorker discussion of JHU's CTY camps

Lucas Gonze lgonze at panix.com
Mon Aug 23 13:28:30 PDT 2004

My one beef with the camp they describe is the emphasis on dominance 
hierarchies.  The value of these places is more about health and happiness 
than being competitive.

On Mon, 23 Aug 2004, Meltsner, Kenneth wrote:

> Thanks for forwarding this -- we have a fair amount of experience with
> "nerd camps" since our oldest went to programs at Northwestern and
> Wellesley (Explo).
> Happy to answer questions about those programs off or on-list.  I'd say
> that both programs were extraordinarily positive experiences for him,
> and he's lucky enough to attend a gifted school (50 kids, K-8) during
> the year.  The NU program was too academically intense for the older
> kids, in our opinion, and we preferred Explo's balance between fun and
> academics, and the wider range of subjects.
> In fact, this year (his first at Explo) may have gone too well, since we
> spent weeks trying to get him to stop acting like a typical teenager....
> As for the programs mentioned in the article: My wife's youngest sister
> went to the JHU program, and it was a major turning point for her.  She
> ended up with strong friendships that lasted past college.  IIRC, it
> certainly made high school much more bearable knowing that others didn't
> quite fit in.
> Most of us have been lucky enough to eventually find communities where
> being smart is considered a good thing; I found a few peers in high
> school (I was lucky) and Jewish summer camp is pretty close to a nerd
> camp..., my wife found acceptance in science fiction fandom, etc.  I'm
> just glad that our oldest had a lot of fun, learned more about being a
> regular teenager, and still had time for lab chemistry.
> Ken Meltsner
> -----Original Message-----
> From: fork-bounces at xent.com [mailto:fork-bounces at xent.com] On Behalf Of
> Rohit Khare
> Sent: Monday, August 23, 2004 2:23 PM
> To: FoRK Mailing List
> Cc: Smruti Jayant Vidwans
> Subject: [FoRK] additional New Yorker discussion of JHU's CTY camps
> The main article (not online) was quite good. Can't say what to make of
> the fact they *still* play American Pie every weekend :-) I found that
> song fairly depressing...
> http://www.newyorker.com/printable/?online/040726on_onlineonly01
> Kid Geniuses
> Burkhard Bilger and The New Yorker's Daniel Cappello discuss the social,
> educational, and recreational problems facing the very smartest
> students.
> Posted 2004-07-19
> This week in the magazine, in "Nerd Camp," Burkhard Bilger writes about
> a camp for gifted teen-agers. Here Bilger and The New Yorker's Daniel
> Cappello discuss the social, educational, and recreational problems
> facing the very smartest students.
> DANIEL CAPPELLO: Your article is about the Center for Talented Youth, a
> summer program for gifted children-"nerd camp," as many participants
> called it-at Johns Hopkins University. What is nerd camp?
> BURKHARD BILGER: Nerd camp is a lot like any other summer camp, only the
> kids spend most of their time studying instead of playing, and they have
> to be really, really smart to get in. There are nerd camps all over the
> country these days-about fifteen thousand students attend them every
> year, and thousands more attend day programs-in part because so many
> schools have dismantled their gifted programs. Only about two cents of
> every hundred dollars spent by the federal government is earmarked for
> the gifted, so a lot of these kids have been stranded.
> Most of them start the regular school year already knowing nearly half
> of the things they're going to be taught. So these camps are places
> where they can stretch their legs, intellectually-which is a pretty
> astonishing thing to see. It's not unusual for a student at one of these
> camps to cover a year of algebra in two weeks.
> The program at Johns Hopkins is kind of the granddaddy of them all. It
> was founded in 1972 by the psychologist Julian Stanley-a psychometrician
> of the old school who'd grown frustrated by "bare bones" statistical
> analysis, as he put it. When a couple of local parents complained that
> their children were too bright for their schools, Stanley verified the
> kids' abilities by giving them the S.A.T., then got them admitted to
> Johns Hopkins. Within a few years, he had enough students to fill an
> entire course, which then grew into a summer program. These days, about
> a quarter of a million students are tested every year to see if they
> qualify for a gifted camp. To get in, they have to score as well, at the
> age of thirteen or younger, as the average high-school senior.
> Is it a good idea to separate out gifted children, especially at a young
> age?
> This is one of the oldest, most bitter debates in education. The most
> influential critique of "tracking," as it's usually called, was written
> by Jeannie Oakes, a professor of urban schooling at the University of
> California at Los Angeles, in her 1985 book, "Keeping Track." Oakes
> interviewed students and teachers at twenty-five junior highs and high
> schools across the country, then ran a statistical study of their
> performance. Students in the gifted programs did no better than they did
> in regular classrooms, she found, and the kids in the other tracks did
> much worse. Those in the lowest tracks were saddled with the poorest
> teachers, were taught largely by rote, and were demoralized by their
> inferior status. In other words, if they failed, it wasn't a matter of
> lower intelligence; it was a matter of expectations.
> Or maybe not. Educational studies are so fraught with variables-from
> student to student, teacher to teacher, and school to school-that a
> statistical case can be made to confirm almost any thesis, it sometimes
> seems. James Kulik, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, pooled
> together the results of nearly a hundred studies of tracking programs in
> the United States, and found almost the opposite of what Oakes found: on
> average, bright students did significantly better in schools with gifted
> programs-they gained several months a year on those in schools without
> gifted programs. As for low-achieving students, they did no worse when
> grouped together, and their self-esteem, if anything, seemed to rise:
> once they competed on a level playing field, they tasted success for the
> first time.
> The debate over tracking is probably irreconcilable. Oakes says that
> Kulik's work "isn't very rigorous." Kulik writes that Oakes's work is
> "higher in rhetorical than scientific value." Yet both sides agree that
> the effort to "detrack" schools has largely failed. In 1998, researchers
> surveyed two hundred and fifty schools that had been nominated as "the
> most restructured" in the country. Only a fraction had truly eliminated
> tracking, they found, and those which had sometimes seemed to suffer for
> it academically. Oakes attributes this failure to racial politics and
> fear of change: "Frankly, whiter and wealthier families felt threatened
> that this would jeopardize their kids' opportunities." Kulik blames the
> reforms themselves: "Detracking brings no guarantee of high-quality
> instruction for everyone, but may instead lead all to a common level of
> educational mediocrity."
> What about advancing or skipping grades?
> Most schools practice grade acceleration in a fairly ham-fisted way. If
> a kid is bored in his class, and his parents complain enough, he might
> be allowed to move up a year. The problem is, if he's as bright as many
> of the kids at the Johns Hopkins camp, he'll soon be ready to move past
> those older kids as well. And, of course, being the smallest, brightest
> kid in a class has never been a recipe for popularity. When I talked to
> Camilla Benbow, the dean of education and human development at
> Vanderbilt University, she told me that schools simply use the wrong
> criterion-age-to divide students up. Rather than lumping all the
> seven-year-olds in one group and all the eight-year-olds in another,
> they should group all students by ability-regardless of their age.
> "When they're ready to take Algebra I, let them take Algebra I," she
> told me. "We don't buy shoes or piano books for children based on how
> old they are. Why is reading or math any different?"
> Since the nineteen-fifties, a number of schools have experimented with
> "cross-age grouping." The most popular approach is to pool together
> fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, divide them up by reading ability,
> then teach the groups at anywhere from the second-grade to the
> ninth-grade level. The results have been almost uniformly positive (a
> remarkable thing in the world of school reform), but cross-age grouping
> has never quite caught on. Only a tiny fraction of schools do it, and
> their numbers haven't grown much in fifty years. Benbow blames this on
> bureaucratic inertia, but age as an organizing principle has pretty deep
> psychological roots-any preschooler can tell you precisely how old she
> is, down to the month. Still, when Benbow interviewed the graduates of
> the Johns Hopkins camp, nearly all of them were glad that they'd gone to
> gifted programs, and some wished that their studies had accelerated even
> faster.
> At the nerd camps you visited, what was the social life like? How do the
> kids deal with normal adolescent rites of passage?
> I went to camps at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt, and both places were
> pretty lively. The kids went to movies and excursions and weekly dances,
> and the dorms were predictably raucous. Some psychologists have
> suggested that students who are intellectually gifted also tend to
> mature faster than average, but I didn't see much evidence of that.
> They had the same boy-girl problems, the same hormonal jitters. But
> there was a real giddiness in the campers-a sense of relief at finally
> getting to hang out with kids who were like them.
> Did you notice different kinds of parents? Like stage mothers and
> fathers, are there nerd parents who push their children too hard to
> achieve?
> Both the Johns Hopkins and the Vanderbilt programs are sleepaway camps,
> so there aren't that many parents around. Judging from my interviews
> with the kids, and with educators who work with the gifted, the parents
> of these kids follow the usual random distribution. Some of them are
> pushy, some indifferent, some wonderfully supportive. The Asian kids I
> spoke to seemed to agree that their parents were more focussed on
> education than most, but, again, that seems to be true across the board,
> not just with the gifted.
> I'm sure that some kids go to nerd camp just to please their parents.
> And for them the experience must be mind-numbingly boring: six hours a
> day in a classroom, in the glory days of summer, trying to cram a
> semester's worth of work into two weeks. But I didn't see many bored
> kids at Vanderbilt or Johns Hopkins. Most of them have what Ellen
> Winner, a psychologist at Boston College, calls a "rage to master."
> They were just naturally curious about the world and had an inner
> compulsion to use their minds. It's almost impossible to force that kind
> of focus and diligence on a kid-just try getting the average
> ten-year-old to practice piano for half an hour a day. But these kids
> did it, ironically, almost without thinking.
> What about "intelligence"-or giftedness-more broadly? You write about
> the different tests used to gauge intelligence, many of which have been
> criticized as socially or racially slanted. How do we measure
> intelligence today?
> Since the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test was developed, in 1916, intelligence
> tests have proliferated. You can now test a kid's math ability, verbal
> ability, visuospatial intelligence, and half a dozen other abilities.
> The most popular tests, like the S.A.T. and the A.C.T., have been
> rejiggered so as to be less culturally or racially biased. But, to
> critics of the tests, the whole notion of testing intelligence-of
> pinning down a trait so complex and subjective-is wrongheaded.
> Intelligence, they say, is largely a social construct: there are many
> different ways to be intelligent, and we arbitrarily focus on one or
> two.
>  Still, to me, there's something in that claim that doesn't quite ring
> true, that plays better in PTA meetings than among actual students. As
> much as we like to believe that everyone is created equal, our children
> remind us daily that they aren't. It's not just that Johnny is no
> Einstein and never can be, but that he can't seem to learn his
> multiplication tables, while Jane memorized them between breakfast and
> lunch. If rigid tracking sounds a lot like segregation-separate and
> therefore inherently unequal-throwing these brilliant kids into regular
> classrooms sounds dangerously close to the old saying "There is nothing
> so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal people."
> What about genius? How do we separate high intelligence from real
> genius, and how rare is it?
> I.Q. tests used to try to define genius as the upper range of
> intelligence. But really it's a whole different ball of wax. David Henry
> Feldman, a developmental psychologist at Tufts, who has studied and
> written about a number of child prodigies, calls it "an amazing
> concatenation of nature and culture-like a ballet that is perfectly
> synchronized." If Einstein had been born a century earlier, Feldman
> says, he might never have formulated the theory of relativity-the
> mathematics and cosmology just weren't sophisticated enough yet. On the
> other hand, if a mathematical genius like Ramanujan had been born fifty
> years earlier-or in a different country-he might have had a much greater
> impact on his field. Ramanujan grew up in India, far from the centers of
> mathematical thought, without a great deal of formal mathematical
> training. So a number of the mathematical conundrums that he solved had
> already been solved by other mathematicians.
> It's hard to know exactly what qualities are the most predictive of
> genius. Intelligence is important, obviously, but it's not nearly
> enough. In the nineteen-twenties, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman
> tried to find the most gifted kids in California by having teachers
> nominate candidates and then giving them the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test,
> which Terman had helped develop. He ended up with more than fifteen
> hundred exceptionally bright kids-people called them the "Termites"-and
> spent the rest of his life tracking their careers. Not one of them won a
> Nobel Prize. Ironically, though, two students who hadn't made the
> cut-the physicists William Shockley and Luis Alvarez-did win it. So it's
> hard to say if any of the prodigies at nerd camp will turn out to be the
> next Einstein. But, judging from the performance of other camp alumni,
> who have been tracked for more than twenty years, they're very likely to
> get advanced degrees and to excel in their fields.
> One of the students you describe in your article talks about how hard it
> is being smart, because "anti-intellectualism is really popular in
> America." Is it?
> Sure. The intelligence of a Bill Clinton is as much of a liability,
> politically, as an asset, while the poor grades of a George Bush don't
> seem to matter much to most voters. That wouldn't be the case in Europe.
> On the other hand, America has the greatest collection of research
> universities in the world, and it still tends to win a disproportionate
> number of Nobel Prizes (though many of the winners are foreign-born).
> Intellectual achievement is well rewarded in the workplace, but it's
> often a strike against you in schools or in social settings.
> What's the importance of intelligence, in the long run? Does it
> correlate with success?
> It depends on your definition of success. When Camilla Benbow and her
> husband, David Lubinski, tracked the top scorers from the gifted camps,
> they found that the very cream of the cream tended to become physicists,
> those in the middle gravitated toward medicine, and those at the bottom
> became lawyers and businessmen. If they had looked at their salaries,
> though, I suspect that the order would have been
> reversed: the businessmen and lawyers would have come out on top, the
> physicists on the bottom. Intelligence is a wonderful asset for any
> career, but the life of the mind has never been all that well paid.
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