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Intelligence: not enough to succeed in school

By Steve Broe

My son is bright, above average in many ways. He's more than a 100-watt bulb in a galley of dim candles. But you'd never know it from his grades in school.

I'll grant that my own life in seventh grade was only shouting distance from Dante's outer rings of the inferno. My junior high school years were marked by turbulence, sexual pressure (those who had sexual charisma versus geeks like me who didn't) and the worst academic performance scores of my life. While I later enjoyed continuous placement on the Honor Roll, my junior high school years brought me C's and anguish.

With all my heart, I'm convinced that the bright kids give us the most trouble. My first-borne pride and joy has verified test results placing him in at least the top 10 percent of the population on a standardized scale. Doesn't matter. As one regretful parent to many others, I report that my son may be retained in his grade this year. We're expecting a required summer school schedule of the core coursework for him, at the very least.

I might compare my son's middle-school achievement to a Rolling Stones interpretation of Handel's Messiah. Picture the Rolling Stones on stage at Symphony Hall. You can imagine Mick's in-your-face, driven energy, his swagger and the intensity of the interpretation. Powerful drums, unkempt potential in the band. That's my son. He's an actor. When he gets on stage, he commands attention. He steals scenes with his comic interpretation of the civilized world. He can mimic a broad range of celebrity voices with only a modest sampling of the real article. He loves the attention of the stage, and he shows leadership amongst his peers when he is in a dramatic situation.

But a Rolling Stones performance of the Messiah would be dreadful. A rock-action interpretation of this courtly work of Anglican majesty would fail utterly. The 'Stones vibrate with too much intensity. Handel requires precision, focus and coordination amongst a full orchestra and chorus — dozens of performers. The beat is not open to interpretation; it must be there, precisely. School for my son seems to demand the same kind of precision, focus and coordination, which goes against his talented nature. My son, like Jagger, insists on being the Star. At school he'll receive applause only if he sits still for an entire semester and follows direction for weeks on end. In math, he must continuously drill with new concepts to earn his mastery. He understands a concept all too quickly in class; the teacher explains a point, and he'll get it. But he hates to work through the learning on paper with sample problems. And without those hours of drill, following the model, scratching out answers and solving the problem, he can't show what he knows on a test.

That's exactly what school demands from him.

Some of the ways that my son excels include having a positive nature, creative thinking, dramatic timing, good oral communication, exceptional use of the spoken language, spontaneity, quick insight, musical talent (he's the best string bass player in his middle school), lots of original ideas and skillful negotiation. That's a good list of valuable talents, many of which can help him get a satisfying career.

However, school demands different skills from him: math skills + language skills + reasoning skills + social skills + science skills + persistence. If you've got these, it doesn't matter how creative you are, or how artistic you are. You can pass high school.

A bright kid can survive for years in an elementary classroom just by showing up. Doesn't matter if he or she will do the homework. If he or she pays at least middling attention, the student will catch enough to be able to cinch the test grade. This is the pattern my son showed up to grade 6. But at the middle-school level, the teacher doesn't have time to give the student. With only partial understanding and poor completion of homework, the bright child will fall further and further behind.


I believe that the middle-school years are a necessary but terribly angst-ridden transition period for many students. The grades 6-8 are a process best endured with sympathy but with firm direction for our kids.

Teach your child study skills. My son needs a lot of help getting organized. Help your student learn even the smallest lessons of organization. For example, I've seen my son use a pencil with no noticeable eraser. When he needs to correct a mistake, he'll either erase a hole into the page or leave an ugly erase-stain on his paper. I bought him a pack of "pink pearl" eraser tips and insisted that he use them. (Sometimes he does, too!)

Know the student's homework assignments, and review them. I'm fortunate; my son's school keeps a homework hotline by phone voicemail. I can select his teacher's codes and get my son's assignments for the week. Here's my nightly drill:

"What's your homework tonight?"
"I already did it."
"So what did you do?"

He tells me, and I call the hotline to confirm. Lying about homework has been a factor in my son's case, so I've adopted an Arab proverb: "Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel."

If your bright child/problem student has problems with homework, review it with him or her frequently. Perhaps the homework list is posted on the Internet. If you can't get the information, speak to the school counselor. You've got to get this information to help your child.

Be firm about homework policies — but strive always to be a relaxed, supportive parent. Set policies that make sense for your bright child. Tell him or her when homework should be done, for example, "Your homework needs to be started right after dinner." Offer help when needed but back off when the student shows initiative and understanding.

Bright children have very special needs. Raw, native intelligence isn't enough to succeed in school. Persistence, study skills and discipline are necessary to "make the grade." Parents of all bright children have my sympathy. With my own son, I need to fight the battle for excellence all the time. May all parents of bright children be up to the challenge.

Steve Broe, a Mensan since 1995, is the father of two children and the Founder of American Grade Schools, a K-6 system chartered by the Arizona State Board of Education.