Monday, December 19, 2005

Update on the Bomkamp Story

Two months ago, I wrote about 5-year-old Alison Bomkamp's saga with the Kenton County Schools in Kentucky. Since Alison had already mastered the kindergarten curriculum, her parents placed her in first grade. But since Kentucky only reimburses districts for half-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds, the school district sent the Bomkamps a bill for $3,000 to cover the difference.

This blog pointed out how ridiculous this was (young Alison is actually saving Kentucky taxpayers money -- she'll take 12 years, not 13 to go through school. If she skips more grades along the way, that's an even bigger savings).

Fortunately, Alison's mom, Shauna, reports that saner heads have prevailed. State Sen. Jack Westwood and State Rep. Jon Draud have introduced bills clarifying that school districts will be reimbursed the full-day school fee for 5-year-olds who place out of half-day kindergarten. The school district has stopped sending their bills to the Bomkamps. And Alison is doing great in first grade. She's in the most advanced math group, has been awarded for excellent behavior and has made lots of friends. "She is truly with her peers," Shauna says -- even if she doesn't turn that magical first grade age of six until March.

The Kentucky Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer have both run stories on this battle.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Gifted Girls and Legos

This story about an all-girls team of 6th graders winning a Lego robot-building contest just made me smile. Read the report from Pocatello, Idaho here.

Legos make great holiday gifts for kids because you can approach them at any level, and they require you to dream up ideas and then build them. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be a lot of toys on the hot-lists these days that encourage that sort of creativity. I experienced the joy of shopping in a crowded Toys R Us the other day for my niece and nephews and was struck by how many toys involved licensed cartoon or movie characters. Don't get me wrong, I love Dora the Explorer. But now instead of a kitchen set where you have to dream up the story line, you get a Dora kitchen set, with Dora's world already attached. I'm curious how people reading this blog go about choosing toys for their kids that don't take the imagination part out of play.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Obsessing with Outcomes

Last week's Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating story about an academically rigorous kindergarten program in North Carolina called "Einsteins at Five."

For the most part, the piece is balanced. Still, the author is a bit obsessed with waxing nostalgic for a time when kindergarten was about graham crackers and eating paste. That's disingenuous. All of us know kids who read The Chronicles of Narnia, or the Little House on the Prairie books in kindergarten and were horribly frustrated with the naps and counting lessons their teachers pushed.

But it's this paragraph that got me thinking:

"...while it's clear that young children have a large capacity for learning - research shows they learn faster at 5 than any other age - it's less certain whether all this early erudition has an impact in later years. The French have universal preschool starting at age 3, but Swedish children don't begin academic work until 6, sometimes 7. Studies show that both populations end up doing just as well."

This is the same issue that the Prodigy Puzzle in the New York Times hammered at for 10,000 words a few weeks ago. Yes, it's true that adult outcomes (however they are measured -- I have no idea how he's comparing the Swedish and French) are not necessarily dependent on what kind of enrichment bright children receive. We can't guarantee that a kid in a gifted program, or a kid allowed to skip 2 grades, will win a Nobel Prize while the unenriched child will not. There is a lot of luck (and other things) involved in achieving fame, or breaking new ground later in life.

But so what? You can't tell, looking at a group of babies, which will be professional athletes based on how fast they all crawl at 8 months. But that doesn't mean anyone should grip the ankles of the quick ones to keep them from scooting ahead.

Bright kindergartners want to learn as much as possible. They teach themselves to read better because they want to read better things than the tedious counting books on the kindergarten shelves. Keeping them in kindergarten programs that aren't academic, because of someone's notion of what the unhurried childhood should be, is like gripping a baby's ankles. I'm glad brainy five-year-olds are getting the chance to use their heads. Whether they become Einsteins later in life or not.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Small schools… small gains for gifted kids?

Bill Gates, by all accounts, was a very gifted young man. So it’s unclear why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is choosing to fund school projects that eliminate the classes bright children need most.

The Gates Foundation gave $11 million to the New Schools Project to develop 75 small high schools of no more than 400 students. Since this isn’t a capital building grant, these high schools tend to result from dividing existing schools into 3-4 schools.

By design, these split schools don’t have one school of faster learners, one of medium-speed learners, etc. Each school of 400 is supposed to encompass the whole range of learning speeds. Since that means there usually aren’t enough students to create full honors programs, many classes wind up containing all ability levels. You can read about some North Carolina schools’ experiences with this model here.

As the article starts out, “The days of the brightest high school students taking their own classes could be ending in the interest of helping slower students succeed.”

The consequences of mixed-ability grouping for quick learners are clear. As the article notes:

“If you want easy credit from an honors class, it's good,” said Lauren Hopton, 17, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High School. “But if you want a challenge, it’s not.”

Gifted children learn best in classes tailored to their speed of learning. It’s na├»ve to think even a very skilled teacher won’t slow down the class pace when children who are not capable of learning as quickly are added to the mix. In fact, skilled teachers may be more likely to slow down, as they are most aware of every member of the class’s progress.

Consequently, gifted children wind up with extra time on their hands as they wait for their classmates to catch up. Some enterprising teachers try to accommodate their gifted kids’ extra time by using them as teacher’s assistants.

This is exactly what’s happened in these new small schools. From the article: “Another benefit, Southeast Raleigh High Principal Beulah Wright said, is that the usual honors students are put in leadership positions as they help their classmates learn the harder material. ‘You learn more when you're teaching it yourself,’ Wright said.”

This is just not true. If both students are relatively unfamiliar with the material, the quicker kid may learn a bit more by teaching it to the slower one. But there’s only so many times a gifted kid needs to see the difference between “its” and “it’s” before she knows it. Explaining it three more times to other students won’t help her. It will bore her.

The saddest thing about these mixed-ability classes, though, is that for all the talk of raising the floor, de-tracking doesn’t help slower learners either. A major review of 23 ability grouping studies by James Kulik of the University of Michigan found that grouping students by ability in subject matter classes helps slower learners learn more. In Success for All reading program groupings, for instance, low-achieving fourth graders gained as much as two-thirds of an academic year over control groups in mixed ability classes.

If the Gates Foundation wants to fund small schools, how about funding schools that are grouped by ability? That will help slower and quicker learners a lot more.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Math vs. Verbal prodigies

The Siemens Westinghouse competition just announced its 2005-2006 math, science and technology winners, and the projects are stunning as always. You can read about them here.

One of the winners is a young man named Michael Viscardi, a mathematically gifted student who is also homeschooled. The press release says:

“Michael Viscardi’s project, entitled On the Solution of the Dirichlet Problem with Rational Boundary Data, develops exciting new approaches to a mathematical problem first formulated in the 19th century by the French mathematician, Lejeune Dirichlet. His research, in an area of mathematics called complex analysis, shows solutions to the Dirichlet problem which are, in many important cases, what mathematicians call ‘rational functions.’ Elegant, simple and useful, ‘rational functions’ are particularly amenable to computer implementation. …

"‘Mr. Viscardi dazzled us with his creative use of the mathematical language,’ said judge, Dr. Steven Krantz, Professor of Mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. ‘His research is profound, substantial and complete, with potentially important practical applications ….’”

The phrase “creative use of the mathematical language” stuck with me.

You see, while mathematical prodigies making creative use of the language are rare, language prodigies are even more rare. Plenty of gifted kids learn to read young. But almost no new, widely available literature is created by people under age 20. I was struck by Davidson Fellow Laureate Heidi Kaloustian’s comment in The Prodigy Puzzle (NY Times magazine) on whether she hoped to publish her work:

“I wouldn’t dream of trying” she said. “I have so much more to learn.”

I can think of a few practical reasons for this dearth.

New research in science and math often happens within the academic world. Sure, universities have their politics, but a proof is a proof, a result is a result. A real world implication is great, but not absolutely required.

Literature, on the other hand, is a commercial business. Books are published not just because they are good, but because acquiring editors could see a market and thought the author had a good “platform.”

Second, more people view themselves as qualified to produce literature than new mathematical or scientific findings. Few people would send in an article to a peer-reviewed science journal without being a working scientist in the field. But scores of folks are typing away on what they believe to be the next great American novel, even if they’ve never published a thing in their lives. This volume means the publishing industry has set up a more intimidating process of agents as gatekeepers. A gifted child is unlikely to have the connections to get an agent to read a manuscript, and a manuscript sent unsolicited to a publisher will not be read.

But there’s a matter of skill, too. Literature deals with the scope of human experience, and even a very imaginative gifted child will have trouble writing about the disappointments and wisdom that come with age. Stories by children often feature the most dramatic of life events – deaths, usually. It is the one thing they know to be momentous enough to justify a story. But this lends a melodramatic tone to student writing. Audiences prefer true tension to deaths.

I also think young children with writing talent aren’t nurtured the way mathematicians are. Sure, few gifted kids are nurtured. But on the margins, we recognize math to be a “tough” field, and so a child with talent there is more likely to be recognized as precocious and sent to higher levels. What are higher levels of writing? Because we believe math and science are “tougher,” winners of those contests get more press. We believe that anyone can write. So young writers are simply encouraged to be creative.

To make a living as a writer, though, that creativity needs to be honed and trained. Given how infrequently it is, and the commercial savvy a young writer would need to navigate the publishing world, it’s no wonder you read of so few literature prodigies.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Prodigy Puzzle, redux.

The NY Times magazine printed a number of letters on the Prodigy Puzzle (the cover story on "The Rise of The Gifted Child Industry") in their Dec. 4 issue. See the letters here.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Gender and Giftedness

Charles Murray wades into the waters Harvard president Larry Summers stirred last spring with a fascinating piece on the American Enterprise Institute’s website called Where are the Female Einsteins?

His thesis: For evolutionary reasons, men’s brains developed neurological pathways that elevate their abstract spatial reasoning capacities, relative to women. Consequently, men are more represented on the extreme ends of the spectrum in abstract fields. Math is abstract, hence there are more eminent male mathematicians. Musical composition is more abstract, hence there are more imminent male composers. Literature, on the other hand, is less abstract, and so even in times much more patriarchal than our own, women writers have been decently represented among important authors of the day.

He also hints at social reasons for the lack of women at the top of many fields, of course. As he says, “To put it in a way that most readers with children will recognize, a father can go to work and forget about his children for the whole day. Hardly any mother can do this, no matter how good her day-care arrangement or full-time nanny may be. My point is not that women must choose between a career and children, but that accomplishment at the extremes commonly comes from a single-minded focus that leaves no room for anything but the task at hand.”

I like much of Murray’s writing. It’s usually thought-provoking. But this is rather a dreary explanation. For starters, writing fiction is quite abstract. You have to imagine a world that doesn’t exist; why this involves such different abilities than imagining a sonata that doesn’t exist isn’t clear. And second, Murray is basically saying that extremely accomplished men must, by definition, be lousy fathers.

But there’s another way of looking at gifted girls’ choices that doesn’t even go into the abstraction or motherhood bit.

Gifted girls are finally pretty much free these days, encouraged even, to go into mathematical and scientific fields if they so desire. And they are. But the funny thing is, they’re going into “biophysics” over physics, biostatistics over statistics, etc.

Gifted girls are more likely to be talented in many areas than “spiky” in one. They also tend to rank “helping people” and being around other people as high on their priority lists. As these girls become women, they seek careers that use all their gifts. Since the cultural image we have of an abstract mathematician is a man sitting by himself in a turret dreaming up stuff that is of no use to humanity, it’s no wonder that highly gifted girls prefer to choose other jobs. Biophysics sounds like it’s the human side of physics, and may involve more than just mathematical talent.

This is a personal interest of mine… I scored an 800 on the SAT math section in 8th grade, and thought maybe I should be a mathematician. But it later occurred to me that while I liked math, I always felt if I chose that as a career I’d be missing out on something. I preferred writing – especially since it allowed me to dabble in many interests (writing about science, medicine, engineering and math is thrilling to me). That has little to do with my spatial reasoning abilities or any plans for future children. I just like the varied life.