The high price of easy schoolwork

Special to The Times

Two weeks ago, Kerry and Lee Schmelzer left their Montana dream home and relocated to a rental in Reno. Pulling up stakes wasn’t easy, but, they ultimately decided, it had to be done. Their 13-year-old daughter, Emma, needed a new school.

For years, the Schmelzers had struggled to challenge Emma academically at their local public schools. Although some years were better than others, they believed Emma wasn’t getting what she needed. “She learned a lot of things,” says her mom, Kerry. “But she learned them really, really quickly. She spent most of her time waiting around for her classmates to catch up.” In spite of skipping two grades by the ninth grade, Emma remained well ahead of her peers at school, and the family agreed that they needed to make a change.

Last week, Emma began attending the Davidson Academy, a school for profoundly gifted students.

In many respects, Emma’s story is not unusual. The needs of many gifted children are largely overlooked, some educational experts say. Not only does this practice prevent these students from reaching their full academic potential, but it has other surprisingly serious consequences for them as well.


“There is a pervasive myth that gifted kids will be fine on their own,” says Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at the National Assn. for Gifted Children. “I think it’s simply an excuse not to deliver the necessary services.”

The association estimates that there are about 3 million academically gifted students in the United States. Most of these children spend at least 80% of their time in regular education classrooms, according to the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Many already know as much as half of the material being covered at school, and the majority of their teachers have no specialized training in education for the gifted, the research center says.

“Being in the classroom is punishment for these kids,” Clarenbach says. “These are really bright kids who are incredibly bored in school.”

Boredom, however, can be the least of their problems.


“The most common problem is that they don’t learn to work,” says Maureen Neihart, a clinical child psychologist and coauthor of the book “The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children.” Children who earn good grades and high praise with relative ease may not learn how to try hard and to persevere when things are difficult. They can come to equate their academic success with innate intelligence and fail to understand the role that effort plays in achievement. When school work finally becomes demanding, they are often in for a rude awakening and may lack the determination and self-confidence to succeed, Neihart says.

Underachievement also can become a problem for these children. Some refuse to do the work that is asked of them; others wholeheartedly rebel against school. Boys are two to three times more likely to underachieve than girls, and the problem seems to be more serious for less affluent children who lack access to stimulating extracurricular activities and programs.

“They see nothing ahead that looks better,” says Nancy Robinson, former director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington. “Their future in school looks bleak.”

Some students act out to make things more interesting, including becoming hostile toward their teachers and peers. Others melt into the woodwork in an attempt not to be noticed. In the most severe cases, children can develop school phobias, anxiety or depression.

“The best learning takes place when you have to reach -- and have the supports to make the grab. We improve when we work at the edge of our competence, not when we stay in our comfort zone,” Neihart says.

Parents who suspect that their child is gifted should trust their judgment about their child’s abilities and approach the school to determine specifically what the child’s needs are and how they can be met. It is best to start by talking to the child’s teachers and move on to the principal if necessary. As a last resort, the school district can assist in the process.

But, as education experts point out, there is no federal mandate requiring school districts to provide special educational services to their gifted students and no federal funding for these types of programs. “Our federal education policy is not about encouraging excellence,” Clarenbach says. “It is simply about establishing proficiency.”

Decisions about gifted programming are made at the state and local levels. Although California allocates about $50 million each year to the education of gifted students, the money is distributed only to school districts that apply for it. There is no statewide requirement that school districts identify and serve gifted students.


As a result, parents must be willing to be unpopular -- to be perceived as just another set of parents who have an inflated view of their child’s capabilities. They should also be prepared to learn that their child is not as high-performing as they think.

Emma was lucky. She remained a happy, hardworking student during most of her years in Montana. “As long as she had a book or something to write with, she was all right,” Kerry says. But her parents agree that the move came just in the nick of time. “In the year before we moved, there were some signs of some complacency setting in.”

The Schmelzers believe the move was well worth it. Their dream home was leased -- not sold -- and it may only be two or three years before they return to it. At the pace Emma is moving, she may be on to college by then.

Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles. She can be reached at The M.D. appears the first Monday of the month.