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Dangerous Minds

By Jay Mathews

Sunday, December 5, 1999; Page W08

John Hoven's brother had been slow to read in school, so his mother pulled him out for a while and taught him herself. Hoven and his wife, Sue, conscientious Silver Spring parents, decided to avoid such disruption by starting early with their son, Niels.

When the dark-haired toddler wandered around the kitchen making sounds like duh or mm, his parents pointed out the appropriate magnetized letters on the refrigerator door. To keep him on the pot during toilet training, they handed him the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham. By age 3 he was ordering from restaurant menus and doing arithmetic in board games.

Then, uh-oh, he had to start school. The Hovens felt a system as good as Montgomery County's could handle one more bright child. But some administrators wanted Niels to adjust to elementary school, not vice versa. That was a mistake. John Hoven became co-president of the county's Gifted and Talented Association and has been bedeviling educators on behalf of precocious children ever since.

It's hard to fault a parent who wants more for a child impatient with standard schoolroom fare. But public school educators often read this as an attack on them and their schools. They don't think they have enough teachers to cater to such students and in any case they suspect the parents are pushing too hard. Some yield to the sad but sound bureaucratic rule that doing anything out of the ordinary can mean trouble.

American culture fortifies them with folk tales about the perils of being too smart. Unusually bright children in television sitcoms are portrayed as social outcasts. Films like "Phenomenon" and "Charly" suggest that superintelligence is at best a mixed blessing. And one best-selling book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, has helped push all these fears deep into psyches of parents and teachers.

The Hurried Child was published in 1981, the year Niels Hoven was born. It has only one paragraph on gifted education, but leaves the impression that many social ills, such as teen homicide and suicide and low SAT scores, are the result of accelerating kids. Recent history and research suggest otherwise, but the book has had a lasting impact. One teacher opposed to skipping 6-year-old Niels ahead of his grade told his mother he would probably commit suicide by age 16.

John Hoven thinks that if his school district were serious about achievement, it would let at least one-third of sixth-graders take algebra. Keith Jones, the Montgomery County coordinator of elementary mathematics, says he doubts that many would be ready. The county is enriching and accelerating math instruction, he says, but it takes time and patience.

Educators often tell ambitious parents that an academic leap is not "developmentally appropriate" for their child. That may be so in some cases, but we also know that most of us are descended from farmers who, a few centuries ago, were told by the elite of their day that they would never be capable of learning to read and write.

Educators might save themselves time and stomach acid by opening the doors that parents bang on. Some teachers think they know and care more about a child than the parents do, but often they are wrong. And in the end, children themselves are going to make the important decisions.

Niels Hoven, grown tall and reedy like his father, is an example. Montgomery County educators, despite their doubts, decided not to put their bodies in front of that speeding bullet. Some helped him go even faster. He finished algebra by fourth grade, got the maximum score on the Advanced Placement calculus test in eighth grade and by the middle of 11th grade had completed every high-level math class in the Montgomery Blair High School catalogue.

He stopped taking math for a while and dabbled in what he considered fun sciences like marine biology. He amused himself swimming, playing the clarinet and petitioning to have his 11th-grade history teacher fired. He won prizes in The Washington Post's Style Invitational humor contest. (One Niels entry in the "Signs for Local Institutions" category -- "Washington National Cathedral: We Practice Safe Sects.")

Niels's friend Scott Safranek, similarly accelerated, found joy in seeing how close he could come to flunking 12th-grade English. Safranek became a legend in college admissions offices last spring when he became a national finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search while having a 2.8 grade point average at Blair. Despite his undistinguished grades, four of the seven Ivies he applied to took him, and he is now at Columbia.

Niels, studying engineering at Rice, remembers his school days not as a 100-yard dash but a series of interesting choices that kept ennui at bay. Some children may be hurried, but polls indicate most teenagers think high school is too often a snooze. The only times they feel suicidal is when they have to endure another lecture on the three branches of government. Niels sums up for his generation: "Being bored sucks."

Jay Mathews's e-mail address is mathewsj@washpost.com.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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