Friday, April 15, 2016

It isn't either/or

I have been reading (and enjoying) Anders Ericsson’s new book, Peak. Ericsson’s career has focused on researching how one achieves world class performance in competitive fields such as music or chess. His concept of “deliberate practice” has been written about widely in popular literature.

I was thinking of the concept of practice, and intelligence in the context of false choices recently. One of the tasks on the WISC (the intelligence test many children take when assessing for giftedness) features a test of working memory. The test giver reads numbers to you and you repeat them back (and repeat them backwards). The strings of numbers get longer.

Ericsson isn’t writing about children’s intelligence tests (and none of this should be construed that I am arguing with his points), but anyway, he opens his book with a discussion of such a working memory test. One of his early experiments was to turn a decent-but-not-top Carnegie Mellon student (where Ericsson was teaching) into the world random digit memory champ. Through diligent, deliberate practice, the student was able to repeat back 82 digits, which had not been done before. Now digit memorization is its own whole big competition, and the champions can repeat back hundreds of digits.

Getting this reasonably intelligent young man to 82 digits, then the world record, required about 200 hours. So it is reasonable to infer that a generally diligent young child might be coached to remember strings of 8, 9, 10 digits fairly easily. At least this subtest of the WISC would seem to be easily manipulated.

So...then what? Long time readers of this blog know that there have been a string of articles over the years pointing out that there is X, Y, or Z problem with intelligence testing, or the current state of gifted education, and therefore the idea of giftedness is itself a myth. Even if all these woes are accurate, though, therefore...what? What do you do with a bright child who is completely bored out of her mind in class, who teaches herself to read at a young age, who memorizes long strings of facts because she finds them fascinating, who pipes up from the backseat at age 5 with such interesting observations as “you know, multiplication is just a faster way to add?”

The point is, there can be facts that point in various directions that can be simultaneously true. Sure, certain elements of intelligence testing can probably be coached. It can also be true that there are extremely bright children whose educational needs are not being met in the regular classroom, and who need individualized instruction that challenges their frenetic brains. They need to be given an opportunity to work at the edge of their capacity, instead of being bored all the time. Few things in life are truly either/or, and this isn’t one of them either.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Standardized testing -- in or out?

My oldest child is now in 3rd grade, which in our state means it's time for the big No Child Left Behind-inspired assessments. There have been emails going around about the process of opting out, and my son even asked me about it. Some parents were having their children skip the tests, he said, so what about us?

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I know what the tests will show. He knows the third grade material. His school is full of above-average children. This is time that he will not be learning much new material, or reading novels, or inventing timelines for fictional characters, or playing outside in the lovely spring air.

On the other hand, it is test practice, and I have my suspicions that test-taking is not one of his strong suits. Given that there is a lot of test taking in life (SATs, etc.) this is not a bad thing to practice in years when it doesn't much matter.

I am also not opposed to testing and assessment at all. While there were many flaws with NCLB (the lack of national standards, the once-annual as opposed to value-added and no-ceiling approaches) I know that there were schools that simply weren't teaching kids, and then claimed that tests couldn't account for all they did. Well, maybe. My son has had amazing teachers, which any test would show. I had plenty of good teachers over the years, too, though I also had some lousy teachers that I feel more rigorous assessment could have sussed out. That at least is the basic idea of testing and accountability.

In any case, I know many readers of Gifted Exchange have dealt with NCLB grade-level tests for years. What did you do? Did your schools have a culture of opting out? Did lots of families opt out, or was there broad encouragement to stay in? (if not from administrators, from other parents at least).

I would be curious to hear your experiences.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

This doesn't make differences less noticeable

One of the arguments against self-contained gifted classes is that children who don't receive this label will feel inferior. While that would certainly be a sad outcome, an experiment in Baltimore raises the question of how, exactly, creating heterogeneous classes would change that.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun highlights changes in the area's gifted programs. In years past, all students were screened in 2nd grade, and students who met the criteria were put in advanced classes in reading and math. While some argue that second grade is a bit late, screening all children is definitely best practice (as opposed to having a secret program that parents have to ask about).

In any case, school officials decided that they wanted to move away from a so-called tracking approach, and do flexible, in-class groupings instead. Kids could move in and out of groups as they progressed.

There is nothing wrong with fluid grouping, and indeed, too many gifted programs have had no in or out, regardless of how life progressed. But the Sun article raised an interesting point, that "the new approach only makes differences among children of varying skill levels more noticeable, potentially harming those deemed not ready for more advanced material." In the words of one mother, "Children notice the differences. I think it calls more attention to the fact that children are reading in different groups."

When kids are in a different class down the hall learning something different, you're only vaguely aware of it at any given moment. If you are very obviously in the lower level group in a mixed class, the differences are right in your face.

So the problem isn't solved, and a new one is created: teachers have to adjust to multiple levels constantly. Even the best, most experienced teachers find this difficult. It's hard to see how this is a step forward.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How to work and homeschool too

I hope everyone had a great New Year!

I know from previous surveys that a high proportion (perhaps 50 percent) of families of profoundly gifted students wind up homeschooling at some point during their school years. These days there are a lot more options for online schooling and individualized instruction than in the past.

One thing that holds some families back is the assumption that one parent (likely Mom for a variety of reasons) will need to stop working in order to homeschool.

But it turns out that working and homeschooling aren't incompatible. I have a piece published over at Fast Company today on the ultimate second shift - "How These Parents Work and Homeschool Too."

To make it work, families need to embrace a few ideas.

First, work does not need to happen between 9 and 5, but even if it does, school does not need to happen between 9 and 3. Any of the 168 hours in a week can be in play! (well, probably not 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., but still).

Second, all working parents need childcare. For some parents, school serves this function, but the educational and custodial care functions of school can be unbundled. A number of homeschooling, working parents have nannies for some chunk of time. These caregivers might be able to supervise some aspects of schooling (e.g. trouble shooting for an elementary school student taking an online class).

Third, homeschooling parents can share the load. Two parents taking half the homeschooling means that the time load is cut in two. Many families belong to homeschooling co-ops or even district-run programs that offer electives or specialized instruction one day a week. This becomes time parents can work. Homeschooled kids might go to college classes, or do intense athletic or artistic endeavors, which fills some time too.

If the pieces of work can be moved around, then the math works. Someone could work 35-40 hours a week, and homeschool for 20, sleep 8 hours a night, and still have 52-57 waking hours per week left over. It would be a full life, but a doable one.

Do you or have you homeschooled? If so, did you maintain any professional involvements during this time?

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Acceleration, math, and college standards

California has long had issues with matching up its public K-12 school system with its system of public universities. When I was out there a few years ago doing some reporting, I learned that a number of schools had (until recently, people were trying to change this) not offered the classes that were necessary to attend one of California's 4-year public universities. In other words, young people with perfectly good high school diplomas would find themselves needing to do lots of extra course work in order to enroll, not because they didn't stretch in high school, but because apparently no one was thinking that children from those high schools might wish to earn 4-year degrees from one of the major universities. Talk about low expectations.

Anyway, I was thinking of this as I read an article in EdSource about how districts are choosing to accelerate students. There's been a bit of a rethink about how many 8th graders are taking algebra as it's become clear that many haven't been prepared. If you have trouble with algebra, most higher level math is going to be tough to understand. This impulse brushes up with a different issue, though, which is that in order to attend one of the flagship universities, you really need to have followed a sequence that includes something like calculus your senior year. It's hard to get there without doing algebra in 8th grade.

So this leads to the question: who gets accelerated? Ideally, everyone would be free to work at his/her own pace with no judgements. But if not taking algebra in 8th grade means you're probably not going to have the right classes for a top university 4 years later, it becomes a bit more fraught. You potentially have people making the choice of who seems like college material and who doesn't, quite early.

So, broadly, how should acceleration decisions get made?

The Ed Source article details efforts to make sure the criteria are fair. I remember years ago taking the Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test to see if I was ready for algebra in 6th grade (fun story: the teacher administering it had such a heavy southern accent I thought for a long time that it was the "Owl" Algebra test). Of course, tests have their problems too. So there are other options. Teachers can recommend people who didn't quite get the right scores, though teachers can't recommend against someone who did get the right score. And parents can elect to accelerate children too.

There are arguments for or against these options. Good teachers naturally teach to the middle of a class. They are constantly checking for understanding, and if most of the class isn't getting something, they'll stay there. This means that if enough children who aren't quite ready for accelerated math are in a class, it can get watered down.

On the other hand, questions of who's in/who's out sometimes become so big and fraught that schools decide it's better to have everyone do the same thing. And that's not a win either. So in general I think that if people are willing to try more advanced classes, it's OK to let them, especially if classes are then benchmarked to state or national tests so there's a force against watering them down (a la AP Classes).

What math sequence did your children take? If they took classes post-calculus in high school, what were those?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

More kids take calculus in high school. Is this a good thing?

I took AP Calculus (AB) my sophomore year in high school, and then a semester of the BC version my junior year. While this was certainly considered "advanced," it's not particularly rare to take at least the AB version in high school anymore. According to this article in The Conversation, the proportion of students sitting for an AP Calculus exam has risen from about 5 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent now. Author Kevin Knudson posits that it's unlikely that the talent bench has gotten three times deeper in the intervening years. Instead, he claims that in the rush to stand out for college admissions, more students are pushing to take calculus. However, when they take college calculus classes, they find that they would have been better served by having a deeper understanding of algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus concepts.

I have mixed feelings on this. It is possible that having more students take AP Calculus classes could dilute the class. Experienced teachers have a good sense of what students are grasping and not grasping, and they naturally tend toward the mean. They move on when the majority of the class "gets it." This means the class would move slower if it contained a broad group of students vs. the most mathematically advanced students.

Knudson also points out that the rise of AP classes may be a result of schools failing to offer gifted education to high school students. Advanced classes seem like something, and since they're broadly perceived as a metric of a high school's quality, administrators are happy to offer them.

On the other hand, AP classes are that -- something -- and they're benchmarked for quality and understanding in a way that many other courses are not. If all a teacher's students score 4s and 5s on the AP exam, she is at least covering the required topics. If they score 1s and 2s, something isn't working. That's apparent, even if the students all get A's.

Likewise, one of the things that has always made gifted education easy to cut is that it's seemed aimed at just a few kids. AP classes that enroll 10-15 percent of students are harder to cut. That's a much bigger constituency.

What do you think? Is the expansion of AP classes a good thing, or is the situation more complicated?

Friday, November 20, 2015

How to talk about your gifted kid

In the 10th anniversary post, I wrote that we'd be re-visiting some of the topics that sparked the most discussion over the years. One of those questions was how to talk about your gifted child.

Parents want and need to talk about their kids. I'm sure this is somewhat annoying for people who don't have kids, but parenting consumes a lot of time, and most of us want to do a good job at it. Consequently, kids becomes a frequent topic of conversation. Likewise, kids want to hear you talk about them. My 8-year-old was in a play last night (he delivered his one line with great enthusiasm). In the car on the way home, he said things like "Tell me more about my performance." I guess it's good to ask for what you need!

I was happy to tell him that I was proud of him, and that he'd done a good job remembering his line, and I was proud that he was not nervous in front of the crowd.

But that's a different matter from public conversations. For many parents of gifted children, I've heard from readers of this blog, conversations with other parents can become fraught. Parenting conversations on the playground or birthday parties or school pick-ups require some portion of shared issues. A parent whose kid is really struggling with math doesn't necessarily want to hear about how many grade levels ahead your kid is working. I never like the "misery Olympics" of some parenting conversations (over who has it worse) but even if everyone's talking about the wonderful things their kids did, a parent whose kid got his first B+ on a math test may not want to hear about another child's proof he dreamed up in his bedroom at night for fun.

So what do you do? Obviously, other people's comfort is not the only important consideration in life, but when you're in a community for the long haul, it helps to nurture connections. This is one reason that forums for parents of gifted kids are so important (I'll put a plug in for the Davidson Institute's programs here!) Such discussion groups can be safe spaces for parents to chat with other parents who understand. It lessens the weight of having only the people who are there in person.

Some parents go ahead and talk about their kids and figure if it's said from the perspective that you're proud of your kid -- because you are! -- and not implying that this is because you are better at this parenting thing than other people, then it's all good. Let the chips fall where they may. If other people have a problem, they have a problem. Other parents elect to talk more about extra-curricular activities, where everyone's into different things, and there's less straightforward academic competition. I'm curious what strategies Gifted Exchange readers use.