Polly Breland, the admissions director at Hunter College's public elementary school for gifted and talented kids in Manhattan, is buried beneath 3,000 applications from preschoolers vying for the 48 available spots each fall. At Quest Academy, a Chicago-area private school for gifted kids that accepts children as young as 3 and charges as much as many colleges, there's a waiting list of 40 to 50 kids at any given time. And in monied enclaves like Beverly Hills, weary preschoolers are drilled in their ABCs by tutors to gain entrance into elite kindergartens.
Call it a deep concern for children's education, or call it parental hysteria over getting kids labeled "exceptional" and placed in special programs. But whatever the phrasing, more children are classified as gifted today than ever before. In the United States, gifted kids now make up 5% to 7% of the school-age population, or about 3 to 4 million kids. In certain districts in some states, such as Maryland, up to 22% of schoolchildren may fall into this category. These statistics are a dramatic increase from 3% three decades ago, when only those with IQs above 145 made the cut.
No wonder the word gifted seems to be on every parent's lips. So what gives? Have we been magically transformed into a Lake Wobegon nation, where all children are above average? Or is the determination of a child's giftedness viewed as a validation of a parent's own intelligence -- so that being the mother of a little Einstein entitles you to bragging rights at the supermarket and the office? Is there some fissure in our collective psyche that compels us to establish our children's giftedness as a way to compensate for our own shortcomings? The answer, say the experts, is complicated.