Higher aims for gifted underachievers

Conference to focus on specialized field that centers on students who are not living up to their potential

Caroline Cohen is an underachiever and proud of it. As a youth in New Rochelle, Cohen remembers the refrain on her elementary school report cards. “It always had the same phrase. ‘Caroline is not working up to her potential’ My mother said, ‘Why don't they get a rubber stamp?’” recalled Cohen, 51. As it turned out, Cohen registered an IQ of more than 130. And while she had trouble memorizing, say, state capitals or verb tenses, she had an expansive vocabulary. Cohen, who now lives in Connecticut, went on to earn a doctorate in gifted education and is a consultant in the nascent field of helping underachieving gifted students reach their potential. She, along with Capital Region consultant Pat Schuler and others, is hosting a conference Friday and Saturday on teaching gifted underachieving students.

In addition to regional and national experts in this growing field, the conference at the University at Albany's East Campus in Rensselaer will host Temple Grandin, a well-known author and successful designer of livestock equipment. Grandin describes how she overcame autism in her popular book, “Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life in Autism.”

Studying underachievers is not something taken from an episode of “The Simpsons,” the TV cartoon series in which Bart Simpson declares that he's an underachiever and proud of it. While there are no hard and fast numbers, educators such as Schuler say they are seeing more and more kids who could be considered gifted but who aren't performing. “We specialize in working with a lot of bright kids and a lot of them are underachievers for a lot of reasons,” said Schuler, a former public school teacher who operates a consulting practice in Rensselaer.

“The parents are concerned. They see that their kids are unhappy. They are sad, they are depressed and they don't know what to do,” Schuler said.

There is even an organization, Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students, that follows this issue and is sponsoring the conference. The term underachiever predates “The Simpsons” by several decades. Kids who weren't hitting their stride used to be deemed lazy. Or, Cohen said, they would be classified under what she joked was the highly technical term “dumb as a post.”

While Cohen said there may be kids who are simply dull-minded or slothful, a better appreciation for varied learning styles, as well as how the brain works, has given parents and teachers a new understanding of why a child may be underachieving. “Some can't achieve because of the way school is done,” said Cohen, explaining that schools have yet to adjust their programs to the different ways in which youngsters learn. There are any number of problems that could be holding kids back, added Schuler. Some may suffer from depression and anxiety, while others may have dyslexia, poor vision or hearing.

Some kids are such perfectionists that they become paralyzed, while others stumble in their reading skills, even though they may be talented in math or other fields. A typical scenario for Schuler might work like this: a youngster has trouble reading and writing but has a knack for designing mechanical devices or structures. Schuler might give the child a set of Lego blocks and have the child start building a small house or machine, while narrating what he is thinking and doing. “While they are building they are talking, because these kids learn by touching,” Schuler said.

Such a youth may be dyslexic or he may simply tend to organize his thoughts in terms of pictures in his mind. Grandin, the designer of stockyards and livestock pens, is an extreme example of someone who sees concepts in terms of drawings or schematics in her head.

Other students may have emotional problems that cause them to act defiantly. Or perhaps they coast or ignore their school work as a way of registering their unhappiness, added Schuler.

While underachieving students have always been with us, helping such kids is particularly challenging these days due to the recent emphasis on standardized tests, such as the fourth- and eighth-grade English and math assessments and the high school Regents exams given in New York. Preparing for such tests makes it doubly difficult for teachers and schools to adapt their instruction to meet the varied learning styles of students, said Schuler. However, others say that adapting programs to individual learning styles shouldn't come at the expense of academic standards.

Without some external measurement such as standardized tests, the very concept of academic achievement could become so fuzzy that it would be meaningless, suggested Justin Torres, research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C., educational think tank that supports many back-to-basics ideas. Torres believes that too many students in the United States aren't reaching basic academic standards, as evidenced by test scores that show the nation lagging behind foreign competitors such as South Korea and Singapore. “There is a tendency to view underachievement in terms of what each person is capable of doing,” said Torres, who believes that can serve as an excuse for low scores.

Educators like Schuler and Cohen, though, say acknowledging the existence of underachievers can help teachers better tailor their methods to help such kids.

By Rick Karlin
23 April 2004

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