Commentary: Latin American schools are expelling gifted students

The Miami HeraldSeptember 10, 2011 

Andrew Almazán, the 16-year-old Mexican who has just received his psychology degree and is scheduled to finish medical school in two years, told me something in an interview last week that I wasn’t aware of: Millions of exceptionally talented youngsters in Latin America are being pushed out of public schools for lack of gifted-student programs.

In an interview from his home in Mexico City, Andrew told me that when he was in elementary school, he was bored in the classroom, and got into trouble with teachers for challenging what they were saying in class. His teachers saw him as a troublemaker, and diagnosed him with attention-deficit disorder, although he had an IQ of 162, higher than Albert Einstein’s.

In general, the World Health Organization and most psychologists consider anybody with an IQ above 130 as “gifted.”

“Sometimes, the teachers would send me to the principal’s office, saying that I was not respecting their authority,” Andrew told me.

When Andrew was 9, his father — a surgeon — removed him from the school system and schooled him at home. He finished high school at 12, and started studying psychology and medicine simultaneously at that age. He’s now completing medical school, and is working on a research paper on a cure for diabetes. He is scheduled to present the paper Saturday at Mexico’s National Congress of Physiological Sciences.

Citing World Health Organization estimates, Andrew told me that an estimated 2.3 percent of the youth population of every country is highly gifted. That would amount to nearly 800,000 youths in Mexico alone, he said.

“But here in Mexico, about 95 percent of highly gifted minds are wasted because they are not identified as such,” Andrew said. “We are losing that intellectual capacity, because of a tendency to adjust everybody [downward] to the average.”

Apparently, this is not happening just in Mexico, but in most Latin American countries. In Argentina, where another exceptionally intelligent youngster — Kouichi Cruz, who is pursuing three college degrees at the University of Cordoba at age 14 — made headlines a few weeks ago, there is no special treatment for gifted students in public schools, the head of a private foundation for the gifted told me.

“On the contrary, schools psychologically expel the gifted,” said Maria del Carmen Maggio, president of Argentina’s Foundation for the Evolution of Talent and Creativity. “Sometimes they even beat them. We have a case of an 8-year-old who was slapped in the face so hard by his teacher that the child landed on the floor.”

Teachers don’t want to study harder to give gifted students special attention, and authorities don’t want to come across as supporting those with the biggest talents, she said.

Much like Maggio’s foundation, which has about 30 students, there are several private schools that provide specialized attention to the gifted in several Latin American countries, such as the Fontán Schools in Colombia, and others sponsored by the Educate Foundation in Ecuador, but few countries’ public school systems make any provision for gifted students, experts say.

Eugenio Severin, a leading education expert with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, says that contrary to what happens in the United States, Europe and many Asian countries, where public schools provide special classes for gifted students, “there is no systematic approach to giving differential teaching to talented students in Latin America’s education systems.”

My opinion: While China, India and other rapidly growing developing countries have created an educational meritocracy, which rewards the most brilliant minds, most Latin American countries have special programs for the intellectually handicapped, but not for the gifted.

In their commendable efforts to expand education for the underprivileged and learning disabled, they have banned student rankings or any other tool to identify and provide special attention to their most brilliant students.

At the end of my interview with Andrew, I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened to this young man if his father hadn’t been a doctor with the wisdom and financial means to provide him with schooling at home.

Andrew would probably have ended up like many other exceptionally talented kids who are diagnosed with ADD and expelled from their schools, joining the millions of wasted minds in the region.

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