Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Prodigies become performers when work is play

The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” package about child prodigies this week. The question: is it a blessing or a curse? I enjoyed reading Jordan Ellenberg’s take on this. A math prodigy as a kid, he became a mathematician as an adult, a transition that isn’t always easy.

Why is that? “A large body of research shows that when you’re great at something as a kid, you’re likely to be, at least, pretty good at it as an adult. But if the potential becomes a duty, the fun drains out of the enterprise,” he writes. “In my experience, you simply can’t grow from a precocious child into a grown-up researcher unless you can maintain your sense that math is play. When you forget how to play, you're lost. Math is just too hard to be done non-playfully. You'd get tired and resentful, and grow cold to its joys.”

Motivations matter. If someone is performing at a prodigious level because of external forces -- demanding parents and teachers, the desire to improve one’s economic status -- one can achieve a lot. These are legitimate reasons. But they are harder to sustain in the long haul. You might make decent money. You might change teachers and coaches.

But if you find the substance of the work fascinating in its own right, that’s a different matter. You keep experimenting. And that means you can break new ground beyond mastering what’s been done before.

Friday, May 15, 2015

LA and exact proportionality

One common criticism of gifted programs is the over- or under-representation of certain groups. Smart programs try to screen everyone rather than relying on parent or teacher nominations (which may not be entirely objective). To be sure, tests aren't perfect either. But does a program need to have exactly proportional representation compared with a district at large to be acceptable? Who is hurt when such programs are deemed not acceptable?

Those were my questions after reading a recent report about Los Angeles's gifted programs. According to a report in LA School Report, despite Gov. Jerry Brown restoring funding for various programs, "district officials suggested more cuts may be on the horizon for the Gifted and Talented Enrichment (GATE) program, which serves 68,000 children." The worry is that these cuts would cut the ability of the district to test all second graders.

The reason the district did widespread testing was to get services to a diverse group of children, including those with parents who might not know to ask for it. But this broad net did not net perfect representation: "Although Latinos make up 74 percent of the LA Unified population, they only account for 63 percent of GATE students. Similarly, African Americans are 9 percent of the district, but only 6 percent are identified as gifted. Meanwhile, Asians, who make up only four percent of students, represent 10 percent of GATE enrollment, and white children, who account for 10 percent of the total student body, are 16 percent of the gifted program."

My thought while reading this is that while 63 percent isn't 74 percent, it's not completely out of the ball park either. If the LA gifted program were only 5 percent Latino in a district that is majority Latino, that would suggest a major problem. But these numbers are much closer.

It makes me wonder, even if there were perfect representation, would the program be acceptable? For whatever reason, many educators don't like the idea of gifted programs. They're always offered up to the chopping block in tight times. The problem is that when they go, if the LA program is 63 percent Latino, my math suggests that there will be more than 42,000 gifted Latino students who won't be served. That hardly sounds like a victory for these children.

Friday, April 24, 2015

More evidence that skipping grades is OK

When advocates for gifted kids bring up the idea of "whole grade acceleration" -- better known as skipping a grade -- some chunk of people get very concerned. They mention knowing "one child" who skipped a grade, and that kid was screwed up for life.

So it's always good to know that if one kid was screwed up for life, he's in the statistical minority. Gifted kids who skip grades appear less likely to be screwed up than gifted kids who don't.

That's the conclusion from research done by Katie McClarty, and presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting recently.

McClarty compared career outcomes for accelerated and non-accelerated kids of similar abilities 12 years after 8th grade (so roughly in their mid 20s). Per the press release, "The study concludes that students who skipped a grade are more successful, have higher productivity rates, more prestigious occupations and they earn more and increase their income faster compared to older, similar-ability, non-accelerated peers."

To be sure, there are many other considerations in this. Many people in academic and professional careers are still in school in their mid-20s (though the good thing about being accelerated is you can get through all those years quicker!) One could also think of other factors that might contribute to the difference. Perhaps kids who are accelerated had families who were more aggressive in advocating for them. This could affect what children wind up doing later in life as well.

But even so, this does provide evidence that grade skipping does not lead to disproportionately bad effects. Readers of Gifted Exchange know that, but the broader world still does not. It's good to get more evidence of that.

In other news: I've been running a series on my personal blog on the secrets of happier parenting, which might be of interest to some readers. Check out for more.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Student Affluence Test?

Many elite colleges send notice of acceptances right around April 1st. Back when I was applying to college, this was a postal mail phenomenon. Joy came in fat envelopes; tragedy in thin. Now, much is done electronically. Accepted students can join private Facebook groups to get to know each other (and, colleges hope, increase the chances that these admitted students will enroll).

One thing hasn't changed in the intervening 18 (!) years. Colleges use the SAT for part of their decision-making process. While "SAT" used to stand for scholastic aptitude test, of late it hasn't officially stood for anything. Critics charge that it stands for "student affluence test" because scores tend to rise with family income. This then becomes a way that economic inequality replicates itself.

Charles Murray wrote an op-ed about this in the Wall Street Journal last week claiming that it wasn't affluence itself that was causing the effect. (The op-ed requires a subscription to read, so I'll try to describe it). According to Murray, the dominant factor is parental IQ. Smart parents usually have smart children. This no doubt happens through some combination of nature and nurture, but the result is that given a constant maternal IQ, SAT scores don't rise particularly from (relatively) middle class incomes to very high ones. The issue, Murray notes, is that higher IQ people also tend to earn more. "The more strictly that elite colleges admit students purely on the basis of academic accomplishment, the more their student bodies will be populated with the offspring of the upper-middle class and wealthy -- not because their parents are rich, but because they are smart. No improvement in the SAT can do away with this underlying reality."

There are, of course, problems with this argument. There's plenty of evidence that kids with good academic records from schools that don't send a whole lot of people to elite colleges don't know to aim there. Such schools seem expensive, or far away, or unwelcoming. While it's become fashionable to wonder if too many people are going to college, there are still people who could succeed who don't know to go. I've written before of the bizarreness of mismatches between high school graduation requirements and college standards. (In CA, for instance, a reasonable number of children graduate from high school lacking just 1-2 of the courses required for admission to one of the state's 4-year universities. That's what happens when you go to schools where no one is really paying attention).

But there is something to be said for Murray's assertion that "Merit has nothing to do with possessing a high IQ." This has ramifications for gifted education too. One of the reasons gifted programs face on uphill battle in schools is this idea that having a higher IQ means the child is somehow "better" than other kids, and is already destined for success. So why help any more now? "What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well," Murray writes. "What we need is a society that has valued places for people with all combinations of assets and deficits." Children with high IQs learn differently and have needs that often must be met outside the traditional classroom. At the same time, education for those not in the gifted range should be much better and more challenging, and it should be possible to earn a good living with the skills learned as part of that education. These are not mutually exclusive statements.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Oh, the humanities

It's the rare district that has decided to create a gifted program in the past few years if it doesn't have one already. Generally it goes the other direction: a gifted program is changed to "serve more children," which is a euphemism for replacing self-contained classes with in-class differentiation.

Because of this tendency, though, I'm always interested to see in what format gifted programs become palatable. One approach? Take the message that STEM is the wave of the future, and use it to create some more advanced and accelerated classes than children would have access to otherwise.

For instance, I came across this article in the Hudson Reporter about North Bergen, New Jersey, where a group of 8th grade students was just inducted into the new STEM Academy. "Designed to provide a rigorous curriculum to select students in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM Academy will take on a new class each year," the article notes.

The chair of the program noted that “The goal of the STEM Academy is to provide our most talented students with a true challenge in our high school in a specialized program that will help them gain admittance to top colleges and acquire the skills necessary for the careers of the future.”

The caveat? “STEM Academy students will still take humanities classes, electives and extracurriculars with the rest of the school, but they will receive a more advanced level of instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math with a goal of guiding them into a high-paying and successful career.”

I'm happy that these students are getting an opportunity to study more advanced science and math. But it always seems harder for people to get their heads around the idea that gifted kids might need and want accelerated instruction in the humanities, too. Perhaps because there are less objective standards, or recognizable levels (as there is with pre-calculus, calculus, etc.) people assume that it will all work out. But there are massive differences in what people are ready for in these subjects too.

That said, many young people who do have profound gifts in the humanities are pretty good at science and math too. So if districts are willing to offer programs for STEM, then it might behoove such children to sign up for these, and then trust that because of the way school schedules tend to work, they'll wind up in classes with more advanced students for the humanities, too. But wouldn't it be nice if advanced instruction didn't have to only rest on the assumption that STEM careers are the careers of the future?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Common Core and gifted ed

About two years ago, I interviewed several education observers who were amazed at how far the Common Core idea had gone. The vast majority of states had signed on to this set of higher standards, and agreed to teach students according to objectives that would make them "college and career ready."

As with much in education, however, politics eventually reared its head, and now a number of states are backtracking. The Common Core has become an enemy for those on both the left (who've not been as excited about the testing and accountability movements) and the right (who've decided that the Common Core is a threat to local control of education).

Well, now it seems there might be another problem. According to a new paper from the Fordham Institute, some districts are using the adoption of the Common Core as a reason to jettison gifted education.

The idea is pretty straightforward: Common Core is raising standards, so gifted education is no longer necessary! Others use a secondary argument: implementing the Common Core is expensive, so funds must be transferred from non-essential services such as gifted education.

Both arguments are problematic. Raising the floor on American education does little for people who were already well above it. As the Fordham paper points out, the math standards are only fully developed through Algebra 2, while many gifted young people make it through calculus years before age 18.

As for costs, this argument only works if you view gifted education as one of those nice-but-needless expenses, which gets a little closer to the problem with all this. Many districts view gifted education as something extra and special for kids who already have a lot. They don't view it as an educational intervention for kids who really need it.

The reality is that many people in education don't like the idea of gifted education. The Common Core becomes an easy excuse to attack it, but if it wasn't the Common Core, it would be something else. The Common Core may have its merits and drawbacks, but it's an entirely separate issue from gifted education, and should be treated as such.

Monday, February 23, 2015


My 7-year-old has a love-hate relationship with this online math program he’s been doing. It’s just extra practice -- drilling on arithmetic -- and he zoomed through addition and subtraction. Multiplication has been a bit more challenging. The goal is to help him memorize his times tables, and to do that, the program asks you to figure out each problem in less than 3 seconds. Unfortunately, this has been making him rather flustered. He’ll get one wrong, then that will set him off. He’ll hit wrong numbers on the keyboard which, on at least one occasion, led to a massive fit about “I’m so bad at this!”

I’ve been debating how to deal with this. One option is to encourage a bit of a break from the program while he figures out a different way of practicing. The program is supposed to help him memorize times tables, but he can memorize on his own and come back to it, particularly if part of the problem is trouble with the keyboard (more number keys are in play than in single digit addition and subtraction). Since I’m not that big a fan of giving in to fits, though, I’ve also tried to have conversations about how part of practicing is making -- and recovering from -- mistakes. Think about how many times he fell off various tracks in Mario Kart on the Wii, and now he wins most races!

What’s actually seemed to work best, though, was his own suggestion. He wanted me to log into the parent portal and tell him how far he’d gone in the multiplication section. For some reason, learning that his placement score was 24, and he’s now up in the 30s, made him happy. He’s making progress! He’s making mistakes, but that number is going up.

How do you deal with children hating to make mistakes?