Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Parental chit-chat, and the PG kid

Kim Moldofsky, mom of two gifted children, sent me a link to an essay she has in Chicago Parent this week on Giving Up on Public Education.

Moldofsky highlights a side benefit she's found by sending her children to a school for the gifted: she now has fellow "refugee" parents to chit-chat with. Why is this important? Turns out, just as some gifted kids feel isolated in their regular schools, their parents can, too.

Talking about your kid, and how proud you are of her, comes with the territory of being a parent. But there's a quid pro quo. One dad waiting to pick his kid up from Girl Scouts can talk about his daughter's great grade in English, then the mom next to him can say what a great goal her daughter scored in soccer over the weekend. No one wants to hear that the next mom's daughter is taking college literature classes and has just translated a series of Italian sonnets into English.

It puts parents of gifted kids in a bind. You want to praise your kid, but our culture doesn't like praising people's intellectual gifts, particularly when they achieve things without difficulty at times.

At a school for the gifted, on the other hand, parents may nod and laugh when you say, throwing up your hands, that you had to enforce lights out last night when your daughter insisted on reading one more chapter in her math book. They won't think you're bragging -- they'll think you're parenting.

No wonder Moldofsky quotes another mom saying "This conversation feels like a hug!"

Monday, November 28, 2005

More Standardized Testing Troubles

Under No Child Left Behind, states are supposed to test their students every year, and show "adequate yearly progress." NCLB is federal, but in a nod to the states, the federal department of education said states could use their own tests. Since 100% of students are supposed to reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014, it doesn't take a genius to see the temptation states face.

Why not make a really easy test? One that doesn't require much heavy lifting to get 100% of students proficient in the next decade?

This appears to be exactly what most states are doing.

This article from the NY Times notes that 87% of Tennessee's 8th graders were "proficient" on Tennessee's math tests. Alas, only 21% of Tennessee's 8th graders were "proficient" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, the results of which were released last month.

Other states show similar gaps. In Mississippi, 89% of 4th graders were proficient in reading on the state tests; only 18% were proficient on national tests.

Of course, it's difficult to say what the right level of difficulty should be on a test (though having looked at NAEP questions, I'm not inclined to say that's a particularly difficult test either, which means Tennessee and Mississippi are probably merely asking students to count and identify letters).

That said, states do their citizens no favors by lowering the bar. South Carolina isn't -- that state's test produces similar (lowish) results to the NAEP. Making progress is difficult. But if SC achieves anywhere near 100% proficiency on that test by 2014, you will know something exciting has happened there. We'll be seeing every business in the country trying to relocate to Charleston twenty years from now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why be Well-Rounded?

The Rhodes Trust recently announced the 32 American winners of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. This award pays for American students to pursue post-graduate studies at Oxford University in the UK.

Biographies of the winners are listed here (follow link to press release). All these young people seem highly accomplished, or at least have a lot of potential. But one thing that struck me, reading the bios, is that the Rhodes Trust is very into the idea of well-rounded students. Think a physicist who plans to try out for the US Olympic ski team, a mathematician who plays volleyball… On one hand, this is good – it shows that brainy people can be brawny, or have wide interests.

On the other… there’s a lot of marketing that goes into marking oneself as Rhodes material, and I’m sure many of these winners have been coached to show some other, resume-worthy activity that the Rhodes committee can seize on. The pursuit of well-roundedness can become pretty zealous at times. What’s wrong with choosing the kid who’s published the most exciting mathematical papers during his undergraduate career, even if he doesn’t play squash or tutor underprivileged youth?

The truth is, we live in an anti-intellectual culture, and even the Rhodes scholarship, given to the brainy, is influenced by this. In an anti-intellectual culture, few groups are willing to choose winners based on intellectual or academic merits alone. Look at lists of USA Today’s top college students, for instance. The winners always have a lot of community service, side interests, and are chosen for geographic and ethnic diversity in a way the lists of the top high school basketball players never are. (The Rhodes Trust also guarantees geographic diversity by choosing candidates from different regions).

People can certainly choose recipients of scholarships as they wish. But there’s a problem with the pursuit of well-roundedness. I think of it as the Miss America problem. To be crowned Miss America, you have to compete in multiple areas. You are supposed to look decent, have a performing arts talent, have the ability to speak in front of groups, and have a significant community service interest.

Not surprisingly, it is very rare to find anyone who excels in all these areas and hasn’t gone professional (as a model, as a singer or dancer, etc.). So you get mediocre talent performances, forced answers to the questions on the TV program, and candidates who aren’t all that attractive, to boot. No wonder TV ratings dropped, vs., say, Miss USA, which is solely a looks-based contest. In other words, their candidates aren't well-rounded.

Something for the Rhodes people to keep in mind.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"The Prodigy Puzzle" puzzles me...

Sunday's New York Times magazine featured a cover story on The Prodigy Puzzle or "Can Genius Really Be Cultivated? The Rise of the Gifted-Child Industry." (Requires registration).

The piece was thought-provoking and, while quite long, eventually made a point we've discussed here. Intellectual potential, and even early prodigious works, do not guarantee that a child will grow up to advance human knowledge or shape the culture. You need more than IQ. You need discipline, creativity, endurance. And luck.

But calling what's going on in gifted education these days an "industry" is pushing it. A handful of groups give scholarships, and attempt to make rock stars for a few days out of kids whose works place them at the national or international vanguard of achievement. These children then return to schools where principals will throw pep rallies because the football team won a few games against local competition. I wish gifted education advocates had enough clout in the culture to create an "industry."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Increasing College Enrollment -- good or bad?

This is a follow-up to my post last week about Mary Catherine Swanson's Ed Week article on saving the middle quartiles of students. Her AVID program, I noted, had helped many bright but underachieving students go to college. Interestingly enough, the major education news this week is about kids going to college, then not graduating (see the AP story, "Focus On Getting Students Into College Shifts to Getting Them Out").

A recent study found that only 54% of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 (my cohort) had a degree 6 years later. This is a problem because higher education has a huge degree effect in terms of boosted job opportunities and income. Quitting a 4-year college after 2 years is not the same as getting a two-year associates degree. Indeed, if you borrow money to attend the 4-year school, you might wind up worse off.

Former Princeton president William Bowen has announced he'll be studying this reality, which is why the subject made headlines. He points out that at comparably prestigious state schools such as the University of Minnesota and Penn State, graduation rates vary widely. At Penn State, about 80% of students graduate in 6 years; at U-Minn it's about half.

Clearly, colleges have some effect on the matter. They can make signing up for necessary classes easier. They can encourage advisors to be more pro-active about pushing students to fulfill requirements. They can boost financial aid so students don't drop out for monetary reasons.

But they shouldn't dumb down their classes and make it easier to earn a degree. Already there's been a disturbing trend toward grade inflation and remedial classes at universities. More of the same will just dilute the value of a 4-year degree. Education experts often say that a college graduate earns $1 million more over her life than a non-graduate, but the premium is falling as more people pour into college. Unfortunately, if this continues, people will spend many years and much money chasing degrees they might not get and that could be devalued anyway.

So what's to be done? First, education leaders need to stop pushing 4-year degrees as a universal solution when most students lack the foundation. A full 66.7% of 2004 high school graduates enrolled in college that year, but one 2002 study found only 34% of high school students were "prepared" for college. So no wonder only 54% graduate. 34% is just about 54% of 66.7%...

More students should certainly be challenged to build that foundation. I've often complained about a 10th grade English class I took where all that was expected of students was the ability to read from a book outloud and answer trivia questions. This was a class for college-bound students. No wonder reality often hurts when it hits in college classes requiring in-depth analysis of literature, papers advancing new theses, etc.

But higher standards is a long-term solution. In the interim, two-year colleges need to promote themselves better. They are not about "settling" -- these degrees vastly boost job prospects and income levels. Local businesses should apprentice high school students and ease them through 1-2 years of post graduation training and into work. Schools should push vocational education more. Some very skilled trades require college degrees, but others don't. As anyone who's called a plumber knows, they make a lot more money than your average college drop-out.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Making "Pull-Out" Fair

I was interested to read a short note about Wake County (NC)'s efforts to tell parents about their magnet schools (a short item from a local TV news station).

I attended two magnet schools in this county, which includes Raleigh, from 1st to 6th grade (Washington Elementary and Ligon Middle). The more I've learned about how different educational systems work -- including having attended worse ones myself later on-- the smarter this system's moves seem.

First, Wake County put many of their magnet programs in schools located in not-so-nice areas of the city. Both my elementary school and middle school were across from housing projects. This was an easy way to desegregate schools -- put the good programs in schools that would have been segregated and boom! Middle class parents are willing to bus their children for an hour each way.

Second, both my elementary school and the middle school I attended for 6th grade had lots of "electives" for everyone. They also had gifted & talented programs. Instead of doing "pull-outs" though, for gifted kids, everyone went to fun electives for a few hours. Gifted kids could choose certain ones that were designed to fill that requirement, but anyone could take things like art, music, dance, sports, science & tech electives, etc. One of the things that bugs me so much about pull-out programs is that the classes tend to be outside core academic subjects (let's look at the story of Robin Hood!) and cover fun stuff that all kids would like to learn about. Consequently, they give gifted ed a bad name. Why can't all kids learn about Robin Hood, after all? And they don't give gifted kids what they really need, which is advanced academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities.

The way Washington and Ligon handled this, though, takes away the problem of giving gifted kids fun stuff and not other kids. Washington did not track so much for core academic subjects (outside math) but Ligon did. Sixth graders were split into four teams, based on academic performance, and then these four teams were subdivided even more, with the "apples" on the "Chell" team having all academic classes together, for instance. You took electives, though, with people throughout the school (tap, choir, writing and reading mystery stories). So the "pull-outs" were non-tracked, and academics were. Talk about a smarter way of doing things.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Forgotten Middle

Does making the case for challenging all students require making enemies of gifted ones?

That seems to be the opinion of Mary Catherine Swanson, creator of the Advancement Via Individual Determination system, which helps underachieving students prepare for college. She touts excellent results for this challenge-and-support method; 95% of students in her program go to college, vs. about a third for similar students not in the program. Her website is avidonline.org. She also has a commentary in the 11/2 issue of Education Week (www.edweek.org, requires subscription) called "It's Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle."

Her calls for school reform are common sense: our economy needs a lot more skilled workers in the future. Our schools, though, do not adequately prepare the middle quartiles of students for college. To do that, schools need to invest in individual instruction and challenge all students to the extent of their abilities. Here, here!

But then we get this salvo:

"Today, our school policies focus on the top and bottom quartiles to the exclusion of the huge middle. Federal programs are aimed at either gifted and talented students or special-needs and at-risk kids. The two ends of the spectrum understandably have demanding and costly needs, but they have gotten most of the attention and money."

Say what? The 2002 federal education budget allotted only $11 million for gifted programs, and these funds are almost entirely for research and demonstration projects, not classroom instruction. Programs for gifted students are either funded at the state or local level. But they're not exactly getting "most of the attention and money." America spends 143 times more on special education than gifted education. The fifty states, Washington D.C. and the federal government spent roughly $50 billion on special education in 1999-2000.

But for a progressive educator, saying the hard truth -- that special education eats up the funds that might otherwise have been available to provide individual support and challenge to children in the middle quartiles -- is very difficult. So reform efforts rope in gifted education as an equal offender -- as though the tiny fraction of a penny of the educational dollar spent on high achievers is as powerful as the 21 cents on the dollar spent for special ed.

Swanson is right that both ends of the spectrum have demanding needs. She's wrong in thinking this country does much about the top.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What to tell kids about gifted testing?

An interesting question came up from a mom the other day. If you think your child is gifted, having him/her tested is usually one of the first steps toward figuring out an appropriate educational plan. But few gifted children are satisfied to sit through a test, then be told "yes, you're bright." How bright? What did the numbers say? What sections did I do best on? Did I get any questions wrong? Do other kids have scores like that? Curious kids want to know. They can go to the library or Google and read up on IQ like anyone else -- probably faster than anyone else.

So this is a question for parents who've been through that. What did you tell your child about the tests they took for ID'ing them as gifted? How did you answer their questions?

Monday, November 07, 2005


Time magazine has a cover story this week on Ambition, why some people succeed and others don’t, and whether ambition can be taught. There’s a sidebar on how parents and schools can help kids learn ambition (sorry if this only allows subscribers to view. Some of Time content is premium).

I’m of the opinion that schools can do a lot more to teach ambition. Namely, they shouldn’t make work so easy for gifted kids. A lot of gifted kids coast through school, then arrive at adulthood and realize that the rules change. Grade 6 doesn’t necessarily follow Grade 5. Some people take risks and seek out opportunities that ignite rocket boosters under their careers. Others get stuck in the truth that there’s no crystal-clear path to, say, tenure, or getting big breaks in an artistic career, or starting your own business, or leaping out of middle management and into the top ranks. These people wind up back in graduate school in perpetuity to recapture the certainty they miss, or they switch careers or generally flounder. Gifted kids need to learn to stretch themselves. They need to learn to find questions that aren’t posed at the end of chapters, and then seek out the answers when there’s no certain right one. They need to try stuff so tough they risk failing. You can’t do that if your self-esteem is based solely on a “gifted” label -- with gifted kids being defined as those who never fail in their endeavors. Labels are worth nothing.

Time gropes toward that point but then, alas, the magazine misses the mark completely. Check out this stunner:

“Some experts say our education system, with its strong emphasis on testing and rigid separation of students into different levels of ability, also bears blame for the disappearance of drive in some kids. "These programs shut down the motivation of all kids who aren't considered gifted and talented. [They] destroy their confidence," says Jeff Howard, a social psychologist and president of the Efficacy Institute, a Boston-area organization that works with teachers and parents in school districts around the country to help improve children's academic performance.”

Oh dear. It’s because of ability grouping that children flounder? Hardly. It’s the absence of *enough* meaningful ability grouping -- with all children challenged to the extent of their abilities -- that causes the top students to flounder after school to start with!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Talent Development

As many readers of this blog know, Jan & Bob Davidson (with whom I co-wrote Genius Denied) are helping to open a new public school at the University of Reno called The Davidson Academy.

It has been getting a fair amount of press for being the first public school for profoundly gifted kids in this country. The school opens next year.

I would not be shocked to find families moving to Nevada to enroll their children. There are just not that many schools that aim to develop the talents of children with IQs of 160+. I've been thinking about this in the context of general talent development -- there are not that many schools or programs aimed at developing any kid's profound talents. If your kid is a profoundly talented musician, for instance, you'll probably need to live near a big city or a university with a great orchestra. Often, you hear of people moving to NYC for Juilliard.

Then these parents become known as "pushy." I've always thought this is unfair. Pushiness is necessary for some fields, because it's not an option to wait until the child is older or pursues such talents as an adult. I was recently reading about the English long bow, used in the middle ages against England's rival, France. British boys were trained since childhood on how to stretch the long bow, so their chest muscles grew in a way that enabled mastery. French children didn't develop those muscles, so even when the French got their hands on these weapons, they couldn't use them to full effect.

Likewise, almost no professional orchestral musicians picked up an instrument for the first time as an adult, or even late in their teens. Our brains develop in ways where pathways are forged early. If you do not learn the skills associated with many talents when you are young enough for them to become second nature, you will never develop the talent as you might.

Yet our culture is full of stories of pushy parents who forced a child to labor at a certain skill or talent when he really wanted to (fill in the blank) instead. We don't tell stories of the kid who would have been a great musician, but never became a professional musician, because his parents didn't want to push.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What Percent Gifted?

USA Today has a a feature piece on its website about Dana Kelly, one of the paper's 2005 All-USA Teacher Team members.

Kelly teaches gifted education in what sounds like a very fun program at Southwest Elementary in Lakeland, Florida. This post is not about that program's merits, though.

What stuck out for me in the piece is that 8% of the school's population participates in the gifted program. This is twice the level at other schools, Kelly explains, but she also chooses high-achievers who don't meet the "gifted" qualifications the district sets out.

It's a noble thought. There's just one catch. When the percentage of students participating in a school or district's gifted program starts creeping up, and the program consists of lots of fun extra-curriculars in addition to (or, alas, often in place of) advanced academic work, it starts becoming a prize.

Then, you have to justify keeping that prize from other kids. Why not the top 10%? Why not the top 20%? At some well-to-do districts, I've seen percentages as high as 25% in the gifted programs -- which at that level becomes more of a way of mollifying parents than meeting kids' needs.

But it's not like 4%, as this district chose, is inherently good, either. The old 130 IQ standard set the level at roughly 1% of the population. Children with IQs north of 130 are often too intellectually advanced to fit in around the margins of a grade level class (something children only one standard deviation above the norm can do with a good teacher). Of course, a child with a 130 IQ, and a child with a 160 IQ have very different needs.

So what is the right level for the gifted program? I can't necessarily answer that (though I usually do say top 1-2%). I can point out other ways of dealing with the problem.

One is to make sure the gifted program is no more "fun" than the classes other kids experience. Gifted kids need advanced academic work in all fields, not the pull-outs that have them learning about the pyramids and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes and what have you. There is no reason other kids can't do the activities in most pull-outs.

Second, schools can't start treating gifted education as a prize doled out to high achievers. Getting an A on a test is great-- but if you had to work hard to get that A, you might be in the right class already. Gifted kids get A's without trying in grade level classes. Or they get lousy grades because they're so bored they won't dignify the work by doing it. Schools need to treat gifted education as an intervention for students who need it. High achievement alone doesn't indicate that.

To ward off the prize mentality, schools could even call the program something other than gifted education. Maybe the "double homework" class ... :)