Monday, October 31, 2005

Davidson Institute on CBS News

The Davidson Institute's work with profoundly gifted children was profiled on CBS News this weekend. If you didn't get to see the program, check out the summary of the show here:

CBS NEWS Sunday Morning
The Other Epidemic: Bad Writing

Judging from the headlines, we're awfully concerned about a possible epidemic of avian flu these days. We should be concerned about that. But here's another epidemic we should spend a lot of air time and money dealing with: how badly Americans communicate with each other when we write instead of speak.

You know what I'm talking about -- business papers that rattle on in the passive voice about "processes that were implemented by stakeholders" and other such vagueness. College professors lament that only a few students show up -- at top universities -- able to construct papers that are coherent and engaging.

The College Board created the new SAT writing section in part to address this epidemic. The first students who took the new SAT last spring are applying to colleges right now. Several colleges, including Georgetown, have said they won't look too closely at the writing section scores. After all, these colleges already require essays for admission, and these essays test the actual writing process much better than the SAT does.

As a writer myself, I agree -- in part. The SAT writing section consists of a 25 minute essay. The grading scale, available on the College Board website, does not penalize for a few grammatical or spelling errors. One professor studied results and found that there was a bias toward longer essays scoring better. Given the number of needless words bobbing around out there, longer doesn't always mean better. Furthermore, the formulaic essays the SAT requires are infinitely coachable. Test prep companies have actually upped their score guarantees as a result.

But... the SAT does test the ability to crank out a first draft. So what if most first drafts are lousy. That's why the College Board doesn't expect perfection. And second, people ignore the other 35 minutes of the writing section in their critiques. Students spend those 35 minutes answering questions on improving word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure. That sounds like a test of editing skills to me.

The biggest benefit, in my mind, though, is not what's on the test. It's that the presence of a mandatory writing section on the SAT forces schools that care about student SAT scores to teach writing. This is a big benefit over what's existed many places up until now.

Schools don't teach writing well for two main reasons. The first is that many teachers attended education schools that laud the "processes were implemented by stakeholders" school of writing as much as any corporation.

Second (and this is the biggie), teaching writing takes a lot of time to do right. Teachers must assign multiple papers. They must then grade these long compositions, make comments, return the papers, ask students to rewrite them, grade them again, etc., through three-plus rounds of edits. If a teacher has 100 students (not uncommon at the high school level), spending a measly 10 minutes per paper is 1,000 minutes, or nearly 17 hours. Try fitting that into your weekend.

So, with the SAT writing section giving all this a sense of urgency, here's my 3-part plan for improving student writing. Teachers should:

1. Make all students read Strunk & White's "Elements of Style." There's a new illustrated version coming out next year if people find text tedious. The language of this grammar book, though, is never dull. A high school English teacher of mine once said it was the book most often stolen from the school's store room.

2. Up the volume of writing assigned. Students should be writing something -- be it an essay, a research paper, or a critique -- every week.

3. Outsource the grading. There are armies of under-employed writers and English graduate students in this country who would grade papers for cash if schools put the money there. When I wrote about improving writing in USA Today a year ago, I made a joke about outsourcing grading to India, but the more I think about it, it's possible. Families are already hiring Indian tutors to work with students over web connections. College educated Indian professionals who are fluent in English could certainly grade papers. This would free up English teachers for higher value work, such as explaining to students that papers need a thesis (really. I didn't know this until my sophomore year of college!)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Gifted kids and standardized tests

On October 19, the Department of Education released "The Nation's Report Card" -- results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This periodic exercise always gets a lot of attention as we look at how the nation's 4th and 8th graders are doing on reading and math.

There are two long term trends:

1. Since 1992, reading proficiency has been absolutely flat.
2. Since 1992, mathematics proficiency has risen, by 25 points on a 500 point scale for 4th graders, and by 16 points on a 500 point scale for 8th graders.

While the latter sounds impressive, looking at some of the sample questions that only 50-60% of students get right at the NAEP website (
is kind of depressing. The questions are dull, frankly, and so is the reading material. Which is what brings me to the matter of gifted kids and standardized tests.

Yes, I understand that NAEP results are useful and necessary to crafting educational policies. Results are less robust if they doesn't include all students -- including those working several years above grade level. And in theory, participation in NAEP is voluntary for students. You can call in sick. Or sit in a corner.

BUT... I remember taking many a bland standardized test as a student. If you don't have to stretch your brain to take a grade-level test (and few gifted kids do), it's an exercise in profound boredom. It's even worse if, as many a test requires, you can't read quietly at your seat if you finish before the allotted time. The allotted time being eons longer than a gifted kid needs to answer "Which number could go at this point on this line?" in a line with an arrow pointed at the third of three slot marks between 5.4 and 6.2, you get a lot of time to think. I started making doodles, cryptic comments, even writing poems in the margins of the scratch paper you're allowed. I later learned this is what prison inmates do during lockdown when their things are seized from them.

Anyway, reading the results, I can't help but feel for gifted kids drafted into producing this NAEP data. Thanks to their sacrifice of hours of time, we now know that reading scores have been ... absolutely flat for 13 years.

Has anyone tried to get their kids out of standardized testing?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Mandates

Speaking of what Illinois pays for... (see last post), one thing not on the list is state aid for gifted education. Three years ago, Illinois cut the funds it gave to districts to provide gifted education programs. While districts can still use their own general funds for this (and many do), others have chosen not to. See this article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

The most interesting issue raised, though, is highlighted in this quote:

"In education, there are so many things that are mandated, that have to be funded by law," said Mike Gray, superintendent of the East Alton Elementary district. "The last things you look at are the things that aren't mandated."

In general, I don't like big, broad and (even worse) underfunded mandates. In education, decisions are best made as close to the level of their implementation as possible. It's just more efficient for teachers and principals -- or maybe local school boards -- to choose what happens in a classroom than for the governor or president or congress to choose.

But... other education interests don't play by the same rules. Special education has been a mandate for decades. Schools have to fund it, often at amazingly high costs, even if local officials feel school dollars would be better distributed otherwise. Likewise, No Child Left Behind is a mandate. There's some flexibility -- states choose their tests -- but make no mistake. You have to follow that law.

So gifted education, which is not a mandate, doesn't happen in school districts that are strapped. It didn't necessarily happen well before the funding was cut -- the article talks about "pull-out" programs and such that are fun but seldom the kind of actual advanced academic work gifted kids need -- but it least it happened. Gifted education also doesn't happen in districts that are ideologically opposed to it.

Would the gifted education community be better served by trying to make gifted education a mandate? As parents of special education kids will tell you, the fact that it's a mandate doesn't mean programs are done well or meet children's needs. They can be very bureaucratic. A national gifted mandate could result in a lot of bad pull-out programs. It's also unclear that parents of gifted students would ever be able to convince legislators that gifted education deserves such treatment (and cash). As the article points out, people believe gifted kids can fend for themselves. I'm curious what people think about the mandate question.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

What should teachers earn?

Chris Wittle, the CEO of Edison Schools, has a new book out called "Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education." One of the most quoted sections in the book deals with teacher pay. Wittle calls for a performance-based pay system for teachers that would give the best teachers up to $130,000 a year; and would double the average teacher salary to $90,000.

Few people go into teaching to get rich, but what's interesting to me is that the $130,000 figure is presented as a reach. There are teachers making that much -- and more. I came across this list of the top teacher salaries in Illinois, topped by one Ronald Kniaz who is earning over $170,000 for 10 months work a year (and in districts like New Trier, Illinois, the average salary is already over $80,000):

Of course, if you click on these teachers' names for the profiles, you'll see that most have over 30 years experience. The difference between Wittle's approach, and the one some Illinois districts already have in place, is the merit vs. seniority system.

On its face, pay for seniority seems fair -- and generally, teachers get better the longer they teach. But not necessarily. I recall one awful teacher I had for social studies in 8th grade. He put lists of questions and answers on the board; we were to copy them, and then we were tested on them. The big learning process was that the first quarter we got 100% of the answers to the questions, the second quarter 75%, third quarter 50%... This man had been teaching for 30 years. Every year he earned more, and he was there for good, sitting at his desk doing nothing except policing the classroom as we copied whatever was on the board. That same year I had a charismatic English teacher who spent hours on nights and weekends reading and marking up the short stories he assigned us. He left teaching after a few years in part because he couldn't make any money in it. Frankly, if the school had fired the social studies teacher, doubled the English teacher's salary, and then let us watch film strips during the social studies hour, we would have learned more.

But judging merit, as teachers will tell you, isn't easy. It can be subjective. It takes a lot of time. That doesn't stop many companies from judging merit when determining bonuses, but it is true. How could school districts design a merit-based pay system that would be fair? Judging from my experience in 8th grade, the seniority system isn't fair -- to the kids.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Grades and Behavior

What happens when students don't receive grades? Grades are a near universal feature of education, but plenty of more progressive educators don't like them (Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" comes to mind). Grades create negative competition, they say, are always a bit arbitrary, and make learning about external rewards, not inherent value.

They have a point that grades affect behavior. But some data out of a few business schools shows that the behavioral costs of not having grades are pretty big too.

According to Sept. 12's Business Week, student grades at the University of Chicago's biz school, Wharton (UPenn), Stanford and Harvard are not dislosed to recruiters. Students can't make them available voluntarily, either. Since people generally go to business school in order to get better managerial jobs coming out, this in essence means that grades have no impact on student lives.

Nondisclosure policies were adopted to encourage teamwork and allow students to take harder classes without fear of the results.

But what is the result? Vice-Dean Anjani Jain of Wharton writes in a recent Wharton Journal article that the time students spend on academics has fallen 22% in the four years since the non-disclosure policy was adopted at his school. Professors have had to resort to near-primary school tactics to keep students engaged (Harvard Business School takes attendance).

It turns out that yes, grades are external rewards, but most people work for external rewards. Particularly motivated students may not need grades -- gifted students' independent studies come to mind -- but in general grades create a culture of accountability. And most students need that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Finding brilliant children in tough circumstances

SAIGON-- I'm writing this from a hotel in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where my husband Michael and I are on vacation. We just spent four days cycling around the Mekong delta with a Vietnamese guide named Hoc.

Hoc is from a small town in the central highlands of Vietnam. In his village, 30 young people graduated from high school with him, but he was the only one to go to university. Ten years ago, he said, if a young person from a small village went to college "he was a famous man." Now, higher education is increasing in Vietnam, but still, only 2 of 100 children have this opportunity.

Nearly 100% of children attend primary school here, though, so that is a start. We rode through several villages as school was letting out for lunch or in the afternoon -- you're immediately surrounded by dozens of children on bicycles shrieking down the road to their wood and sheet metal huts balanced on stilts over the Mekong river's canals or over the rice paddies. Poverty here is grinding -- average income is $200 a year. Though Vietnam's cities are growing and developing rapidly, malnourishment remains a problem in the provinces. According to the government, over a quarter of children are malnourished (and as a Communist government with little incentive to document problems on this front, you can bet the real number is higher).

So, here's the question I've been pondering. There are 20 million children under 18 years old in Vietnam. Let's think about the top 1%, or 200,000 children. Some of those children are in Saigon and Hanoi, where they can tap into international standards of education, internet access, books, museums and all that. But most of those children live in ramshackle huts, with parents who labor all day in the rice paddies or farm catfish on houseboats that get flooded out in severe rainy seasons. How can the government here, or international groups, or the multinational companies that do business in Vietnam, find the brightest children in these circumstances, and ensure that their talents are nurtured?

It's a question that matters for America too-- we have trouble finding and nurturing talent in inner city schools, or in impoverished rural areas too. What's the best approach to finding and polishing diamonds in the rough?

Friday, October 07, 2005

A Homeschooling Experiment

Families displaced by Hurricane Katrina are turning to that old-fashioned, albeit non-traditional, method of learning: homeschooling. See this AP article from Belle Chasse, LA.

From the article:

>>Nationally, about 1.1 million students are home-schooled, according to the U.S. Department of Education, a movement that's been growing steadily for decades. Usually, though, it's not a decision made under duress, since home-schooling demands patience and commitment from both parents and students.<<

This could be an interesting data point in homeschooling research (many parents of gifted children choose to homeschool at some point in their children's school careers).

All the studies of homeschooling contain a selection bias. The kinds of parents who choose to homeschool are often better educated and more committed to learning than those who don't. I have only come across one study that removed some of that bias. That study looked at rural Alaskan families who homeschooled out of necessity, not choice. The state would provide lessons by radio, and centrally located teachers would consult with parents on occasion. These students did as well as their conventionally schooled peers.

The Louisiana situation could provide a similar study, since parents are homeschooling "under duress" as the article says, not as a long-planned choice. We will see how these children fare when they return to their schools. My guess is they'll do pretty well.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How Kids Learn Science

I'm sure many of us, growing up, thought science was about memorizing facts and dealing with end-of-chapter questions (with the answers, conveniently, located in the back of the textbook).

I had the opportunity to interview Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Research Institute this week for another publication. As I was doing research for the interview, I came across this interview with him:

(bear with me, I'm still learning HTML)

My favorite section describes how he came to learn science was about questions that didn't have ready answers:

>>It was the 10th grade in high school, it was the first day of the chemistry course. Mr. House, this wonderful man who'd dedicated his life to getting high school students excited about science, came in and said, "We're going to do an experiment today. I'm going to give you this box, which is painted black, and it has an object inside it and I want you figure out all the ways that you might investigate this to figure out what the object is." And my initial reaction was, "What a dumb idea!" And then I started to try to come up with a list of the kinds of experiments one could do to determine what's inside this black box. And I got caught up in it. It was the first time I think that somebody had challenged me to come up with the ideas. I had some exposure to science in previous courses, but it was, "Here's the facts, learn them." This was, "Okay, I'm challenging you. Here's a problem, how would you solve it?" And I knew something was different here.<<

Has anyone else had such an "A-ha!" moment, or seen one in your children? - Laura

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The War Against Grade-Skipping

I came across two interesting news items in the past week about children who sail over the age-grade lockstep (i.e., who "accelerate" or skip grades).

First, 5-year-old Alison Bomkamp and the Kenton County School District in Kentucky are battling over a $3,000 bill the district sent her parents. Young Alison was doing fine reading and writing, so her parents put her in first grade, instead of her age-grade of kindergarten. One problem: Kentucky only pays for half-day kindergarten. Since Alison, as a 5-year-old, is now using a whole day's worth of schooling every day, when 5-year-olds are supposed to be using only a half-day, the district sent her parents a bill for $3,000. That amounts to half the cost of educating a student for a year in the district.

I'm serious. You can read about it here:

Leave aside the fact that this makes no sense (Alison is saving the school district money, in fact -- she'll only use 12 years of schooling, or grades 1-12, instead of 13, or K-12). It's part of a broader distrust of grade-skipping. Around the country, parents and teachers are being told that grade-skipping is undesirable. For instance, the second news item, from the Northwest Arkansas Times.

The school board in Elkins, Arkansas just approved an official acceleration policy. Read about it here:§ion=News&storyid=32508

I'm happy they approved a policy. But read the quotes in the article from Superintendent Allen:

>>While the district now has a policy in place to evaluate such requests, Allen said acceleration should probably be done only on rare occasions. It should not be a regular occurrence.

There are many advanced students who would be better served staying in the same grade, Allen said. Based on Elkins’ enrollment, Allen has estimated the district probably shouldn’t accelerate more than one or two students a year.

If it becomes much more common, they should revisit the policy, he said. "I think it would be worse to promote a child and then later put him back down," he said.

Years ago while working as a math teacher, Allen recalled, the school he worked for instituted an Algebra program for young math students. Several children who were placed in the program struggled because they weren’t ready for math at that level, and moving them up early turned out to not be in their best interests.<<

Ah, it's that "one child" or "several children" from "years ago." Sometime I would like to meet this one child who had such a horrible experience with grade acceleration that she's kept countless others from moving ahead at their own level. It must have been so horrible on this one child, that the Kenton County school district in Kentucky is charging the Bomkamps $3,000 lest they be tempted to put their daughter through such a horrible ordeal!

Nonsense. I am married to a man who is 10 years older than me. I work with people my age, people younger than me, people 25 years older than I am. I am happy to count among my friends people who are 20 and people who could be my parents. School is the only time in life you spend the majority of your time with people who have birthdates within 6 months of your own. So why are so many school districts, like these in Kentucky and Arkansas, so enamored with keeping students in their place?