Friday, December 22, 2006

Vacation Homework

Gifted Exchange readers with middle or high school children may be personally involved in one of the latest educational controversies: the idea of homework, especially over weekends and vacations. As schools close for the holidays today, many kids will come home with assignments to be completed before they return in January. Is that a good thing or bad thing?

Two books that hit shelves this year from respected education writers (Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth" and Sara Bennett's and Nancy Kalish's "The Case Against Homework") claim the latter. These books have gotten a lot of attention. Bennett and Kalish were on the Today Show, for instance. On national television, they told parents that the amount of time kids devote to homework has "skyrocketed," to the point where kids are losing out on quality time with family, educational play opportunities, etc.

I've long been suspicious of this claim, so I'm glad to see that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews has likewise poked some holes in this argument. In late November, his column, The Weak Case Against Homework, notes that the studies both sets of authors cite hardly show an oppressive load. In the past two decades or so, the time 6-8 year olds spend on homework has increased from 8 minutes a day to 22 minutes a day. As Matthews points out, that's less than the time it takes to watch one episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. For 15-17 year olds, the ones supposedly crushed by homework these days, the daily homework burn rate has increased from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003.

Maybe 22 minutes or 50 minutes is too much if such work takes time away from other edifying pursuits. But 15-17 year olds, by some estimates, spend about 2.5 hours each weekday on TV and other non-studying related screen time (ie, cruising MySpace and IM-ing friends). Matthews notes in amazement that Kalish and Bennett try to nuance this figure by claiming it's so cozy to cuddle up and watch Lost together as a family.

Matthews (and I) agree with the anti-homework crusaders that much of the homework kids get assigned is dumb. Worksheets may drill and kill. Far better to assign reading and ask kids to bring in comments to class for discussion. It amazes me how many teachers do not ask kids to read a chapter in a textbook, or a primary document, before the subject is first broached in class. Won't kids get more out of a lecture if they're not encountering the material for the first time? Extended research may also be best done at home, when kids can synthesize and delve into issues before being whipped over to the next subject by a bell 50 minutes later.

But... and here's the big "but." Spending two hours a day watching TV is pretty dumb, too. Why not devote more energy to calls for better homework and more academically rigorous schools instead of penning an ode to watching Lost together as a family? Bennett and Kalish got the idea to write their book because their own children were suffering under a high load of homework in a very upscale school. The average child, on the other hand, hardly suffers from this excess of expectations. I'm still reeling from a figure I cited on this blog last week (that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen graduate from a 2-year college within 7 years or a 4-year college within 10). Spending a few hours over Christmas vacation reading or studying hardly seems like a worse way to spend the time than playing video games.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ages 6 and Up?

I spent my weekend doing some Christmas shopping. There are a few children on my list. Some of them are extremely gifted. This raises the question that I'm sure many parents on this blog have encountered. What on earth do the age guidelines on toys mean when it comes to developmentally advanced kids?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates these little "Ages 9 through 12" messages found on toy boxes. If you want to read their reasoning on the different categories, you can find the PDF file here. The CPSC chooses the guidelines based on many different criteria. Some, such as motor control and choking hazards, apply to most kids. Others, such as complexity, role-playing, strategizing and other things, can lead to the same problems if you follow the guidelines as you get by putting a highly gifted 8-year-old in a regular 3rd grade classroom. Once, I was considering a toy labeled for 3-5 year olds that said it would help a kid learn her letters in a fun way. The 4-year-old in question, though, was already reading whole books and writing stories. If I'd chosen the alphabet game, she probably would have just made a castle out of the box (not that she wouldn't anyway... 5-7 year olds can really get into creative role-playing, and so do gifted 4-year-olds).

I'm curious how people get around this. How do you choose toys for bright toddlers that don't have small parts, but still involve a reasonable level of complexity? How do you choose toys for gifted preschoolers that don't involve high levels of motor control, but also won't bore the kid? Are there any particular toys you'd recommend for shoppers facing these dilemmas? We still have a few shopping days left...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Middle School Honors Classes Come to Grosse Pointe

Thanks to a Gifted Exchange reader for sending in this item. According to The Grosse Pointe News, the Grosse Pointe, Michigan school board recently approved a proposal to add honors science and social studies classes in middle schools. The board chose to do this in order to make the curriculum more rigorous. While many middle schools in Michigan and elsewhere have honors math or English classes, for some reason other subjects tend to not be viewed as needing such rigor. There's no real reason for this, but so it goes. Grosse Pointe decided to change this and do ability grouping (or "readiness grouping") for most subjects. For this they should be commended.

I also don't see why it's particularly controversial. Is math so different from science in a way that makes ability grouping OK for one and not the other? But true to form, some educators decided that they needed to protest. The Grosse Pointe News is subscription-only, but I thought I'd share a few choice quotes from recent articles.

For instance, Roger Hunwick, a social studies teacher, says that "separating diverse learners" is against teaching philosophy. Dissident board member Alice Kosinski says that "Tracking and segregating students is contradictory to our strategic plan." Strategic plan for what -- mediocrity?

And then there's the kicker from dissident board member Angela Kennedy. She notes, "I am concerned about the trend of high school academics demanding college level achievement. I cannot support the transformation of middle school into high school. I'm worried that we are raising a generation of uber children who can read early but never enjoy literature, who are challenged but not engaged (and) who burn out before graduate school."

Uber children? Graduate school? New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg mentioned a fascinating new study in a Wall Street Journal column the other day that found that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen will graduate from a 2-year-college within 7 years of starting high school, or a 4-year-college within 10 years. Kennedy's worries that rigorous classes will make children burn out before graduate school are a bit misplaced. Very few children even make it to the point where graduate school is an option under our current educational set-up.

On the other hand, some evidence does suggest that children who try accelerated classes, even if they don't do so well, are more likely to go to college than those who don't. So cheers to Grosse Pointe for taking the risk of adding honors classes for middle schoolers, despite the opposition.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


As a belated birthday present to myself, I went to a matinee performance of the Nutcracker today. New York City Ballet has been performing this Christmas masterpiece for over 50 years now, ever since George Balanchine stamped his vision on Tschaikovsky's music.

Starring several children, the Nutcracker is always a crowd pleaser. But it was watching the young adult principal dancers of the NYC Ballet company that really got me thinking. In fields like ballet, becoming a top-tier professional takes decades of practice. With dance, especially, you have to commit to training your body into the correct form and technique quite young -- often, younger than a child could rationally make a decision about wanting to be a professional dancer on her own (well, all of us probably did want to be professional ballerinas at some point -- but before a child could rationally size up the situation and decide it was feasible). Unless the child's parents make a decision that they will commit the child to that kind of intense training, the child will not become a principal ballet dancer years hence.

Other fields don't have quite the same unforgiving age elements as dance, but certainly it is easier to learn to play an instrument and read music when our brains are new enough to learn other languages easily. Early problem solving training also makes new mathematical leaps second nature. All of these issues raise the question for parents: When are you being a pushy parent when you allow or encourage a child to spend hours a day training in a subject, and when are you trying not to cut off a child's future career choice?

It's a tough question. Certainly if a child hates an activity, or is even indifferent, making big commitments of time, money or energy toward a future career is silly. Making a living as a musician or a dancer is almost impossible. If the child doesn't love it, he'll never survive. So following the child's interests is key. Asking for an evaluation from a trusted adult who's had a career in the field is important. Maybe 2 or 3 adults. Prodigies I've interviewed also recommend allowing "breaks" from time to time. If the child gets truly frustrated with her instrument or her arabesques (not just tempted by what's on TV), don't force it. If you force it, the kid will quit for good. Children who love what they're doing will eventually come back to their avocation, maybe with a different teacher or a different approach.

Beyond that, I guess it just has to be a gut decision -- and one with no guarantees. You can study ballet intensely for decades and still never wind up in the NYC Ballet program. But if you don't study intensely for decades, you definitely won't.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Gifted Adults (and Grindhopping)

This post will be both about a serious topic... and a shameless plug for my new book, which I just learned is now available at (not just for pre-order; they're actually shipping! You can order in time for Christmas, in case anyone on your list likes career books). It's called Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues, and is published by McGraw-Hill. The thesis is that if you're a young, ambitious person with out-of-the-box career aspirations, you don't have to pay your dues in the corporate grind to get anywhere. You can hop out of it, and build a micro-business or freelancing venture doing what you love, without much capital or experience. Indeed, thanks to technology, there's never been an easier time to do just that.

So what does this have to do with gifted education? Well, it turns out that Grindhoppers, as I call them, are often grown-up gifted children (gifted adults, in the official terminology.) Like gifted children, gifted adults tend to have certain characteristics that make them different from average. There's a list of some of the characteristics posted here.

Many of these characteristics make climbing up a typical corporate hierarchy difficult. For instance, gifted adults tend to be perfectionist, both toward themselves and others. There's little "go along to get along." They can also be very aware of slights and moral issues, all of which are part and parcel of group dynamics. They often feel out-of-sync with others, so they don't like to identify with groups. They question authority and rules. They have many interests and learn things rapidly -- far faster than a career track ("we promote people to senior account manager only after 3 years") says they can.

Of course, while all these characteristics make climbing a hierarchy unpleasant, they make gifted adults into great entrepreneurs. As anyone who's run a business knows, when you're in charge, and when it's your idea on the line, you have to learn to do everything. You have to learn to do it yesterday. And you have to be better than everyone else at what you do, which makes perfectionism a good thing. You can also run your business based on whatever morality you think is right. For instance, one of my Grindhoppers' new start-up ventures, GreenPrint, was profiled yesterday in Walter Mossberg's column in the Wall Street Journal. GreenPrint stops your printer from printing wasted pages, e.g., ones with just a line of text, like the copyright statement at the bottom of a webpage. This particular Grindhopper really values the environment, and so can run a company that exists both to make money and to save trees.

I certainly did not ask my subjects' IQs, nor did I ask if they'd been in gifted classes growing up. But I could certainly sense the same impatience that I'm sure many readers of this blog see in their children.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Anything but IQ

New York City's public schools, according to a news release from Florida State University, recently decided to switch from using IQ tests to identify gifted students, to using something called the Gifted Rating Scale. The GRS was developed by FSU prof Steven Pfeiffer, who was the head of Duke's TIP program for awhile, and has written about gifted educaion. You can read about it here.

According to the article, about 400 school districts use the rating scale (so I'd love to know if any of your children's districts are among them). The scale measures children in six areas: intellectual ability, academic ability, creativity, artistic talent, leadership and motivation. Teachers evaluate the children on these scales.

Since Pfeiffer has spent so much time around gifted kids, I'm sure his GRS is meant to make the concept of giftedness and gifted education more palatable to school systems, not to undermine gifted education.

However, I have to admit I'm wary of it. Given how few teachers have extensive training in gifted education, basing the criteria on teacher observations seems prone to problems. Also, a highly motivated child, or a child who motivates others (and hence, is gifted in the leadership category) will certainly be a successful child -- but that's not what giftedness has traditionally meant. The traditional thinking is that gifted children need more advanced work than even a good grade-level class can provide in order to stretch their brains. Motivated children who are good leaders may not. Also, the "academic" scale seems designed to mollify people who complain about students who get straight A's and yet are not labeled gifted. But giftedness and good grades are not the same thing. That's one of the reasons that just using teacher evaluations is a problem.

Of course, I have not seen the scale in practice. I'd love to be proven wrong if anyone has seen it used to great effect. Either way, I do have a question. What's so horrible about IQ anyway? IQ tests may try to put a precise number on something that's hard to measure precisely, but we don't know exactly how many calories the human body needs per day, either. Yet we know that a starving person should be fed. Quibbling about definitions of giftedness, and how to measure it and identify it, can keep us from meeting kids' needs if we're not careful.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

College Admission "Madness"

It's college admissions season again (with deadlines approaching!) That means we're in for another round of stories on how the college admissions process has become ever more insane. I always roll my eyes a little at these stories, because they've been repeated every year for the past decade. I remember a New York Times magazine cover story back in spring 1996 that followed four high-achieving seniors at a large high school who applied to Harvard. Only one got in. Harvard had an especially low admission rate that year because the SAT had been recentered, which raised most students' scores. Suddenly, people who hadn't been in the top buckets for colleges were, and decided to give it a whirl. Now, in 2006, we're getting stories like $15k to Get into Harvard: How to Stop the Madness about a young lady who's pondering spending $4500 to go volunteer in Thailand because it will look good on her applications.

The net result of all this furor is not positive. When Money/CNN runs a story talking about how one family is spending $15,000 to help get their kid into college, families who can't spend that kind of money start thinking maybe their child isn't college material. In reality, the vast majority of college-bound students wind up at one of their top choice schools. Most colleges actually admit most of their applicants.

The stories also mask another reality. Guess what? A lot of highly gifted kids actually enjoy the college application process (even as they fret about the very public nature of the outcome). Here's why:

1. College admissions is a Big Project involving multiple components that aren't simply handed to you in school. Essays, extra-curricular activities... Too many school assignments are one-off little projects. It's fun and mind-stretching to labor toward a big goal, where you have to figure out how all the pieces work together.
2. It's a Big Project with an obvious purpose. Why did I get graded on the coloring skills I used to shade in a map of all the former Soviet Socialist Republics in school once? I have no idea. But I knew exactly why I was putting a lot of effort into getting into a good college.
3. I learned about platform building. College counselors often talk about kids finding a 'hook' -- something that makes them stand out. What makes me a compelling candidate? What's my "story"? This is 100% the same question you need to ask when you're trying to sell a book proposal. It's a question you need to ask for any award, for landing some jobs, etc. It's also a question you rarely ask in school before the college application process.
4. College applications pit you against the best kids in the whole country (and world, sometimes). Gifted kids get a little bored being pitted against the same 2 other kids they've been in programs with since 3rd grade. New competition helps you sharpen the saw.

Are any families who read this blog going through the process right now? I'm curious if you find it stressful... or fun.

Monday, November 27, 2006

On Raising Mr. Smartypants -- A Parent's Perspective

I really appreciate all the blog topic suggestions Gifted Exchange readers have been sending me. I will try to get to all of them in the next few weeks, and please keep them coming! I wanted to share one fun and thought-provoking article that came over the transom from Kim Moldofsky, a regular reader of this blog. She wrote an essay for the Chicago Parent about "Mr. Smartypants," her son. You can read the essay here.

As she writes, on one hand, it's thrilling to have a six year old who likes to talk about Big Ideas from his booster seat. On the other hand, it's almost impossible to find a good school situation for such a child. Kim writes about her sadness as her first grader's essays devolved from his theories of the universe to "I like cars." Too often, gifted kids learn in school that curiosity only makes you miserable.

The essay still has its light moments, though. A favorite line: "I thank goodness I didn't breastfeed because those extra IQ points he might have gained would have put me over the edge. He already has so many ideas that seem way too big for his little head and questions that are too hard to answer. Even my husband, a veritable walking encyclopedia, gets exasperated at times. 'I can handle questions about sex, but this stuff about quantum physics is really awkward to address,' he says as he again attempts to hide our copy of Einstein for Beginners." I'm sure many readers will be able to relate.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom

One of the critiques levied against this blog when I asked a few months ago was that I'm impractical. I tend to have as utopian a vision of what gifted education should be as many educators who don't like gifted education have about schooling in general. In my world, all highly gifted kids should be in self-contained classes -- or even schools! -- that challenge them to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers.

Obviously, few gifted kids experience this. Most people, alas, are still required to live in the real world. The vast majority of gifted kids still attend regular classes in regular schools. They may be in the top math or reading group, but most of the day still features grade 3 curriculum if you're 8 in September, grade 4 if you're 9, and so on. Many parents and schools, for whatever reasons, don't feel comfortable with whole grade acceleration. Many parents don't feel they can homeschool effectively. So how can schools maximize outcomes for gifted kids in the regular classroom?

I've been reading the "orange bible" on the subject, Susan Winebrinner's "Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom." A perpetual best-seller among teachers, this book describes multiple ways of differentiating heterogeneous classrooms. It would make a great holiday gift for any educator.

One of my favorite suggestions is to allow kids to "buy back time" from the various lesson plans. If kids can show they already know how to do the most difficult work in any given unit at an 80% competence, they can buy the time to work on their own projects. The teacher should help the child set goals for this individual project (such as writing a book -- one chapter this week, one the next, etc., or working on geometry, covering spheres this week, angles the next, etc.) Then the kid keeps track of progress toward the goal (a way of learning self-discipline, by the way). This option is available to any kid in the classroom, but tends to work best for gifted kids. This eliminates the kid sitting around waiting for everyone to finish up. She already has permission to go play to her strengths in her "choice time" (not "free time").

Of course, I can't help remembering, reading this book, that systems are only as good as how they work when the average person implements them. Any teacher who can implement all the suggestions in the book -- who designs individual plans for the kids in her class, encourages them to write books or do other big projects and tracks progress toward a goal, and is willing to squeeze the curriculum into an hour a day for a kid if that's all she needs -- is already an outstanding, energetic teacher. Any student would be lucky to land in that classroom, gifted or not!

It's easier to teach roughly the same thing to everyone in a class. The beauty of ability grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we called it in the last post) is that it fails better. I wish all teachers were energetic and excellent, but a self-contained gifted class will still meet these students' needs to some extent even if the teacher is not so energetic or excellent. Heterogeneous classrooms led by mediocre teachers will not.

But anyway, I'm curious what other methods your children's teachers have used to differentiate within a regular classroom.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Readiness v. Ability

Blog reader Robin, the mom of a highly gifted sixth grader, sent me this link to the Duke Gifted Letter the other day. This particular issue has a two expert back-and-forth about abilty grouping.

While the evidence from various studies shows that ability grouping is the best option for gifted kids (kids learn best when they're challenged in an environment with their intellectual peers) it remains somewhat controversial. Schools usually tolerate different math groups, for instance, but won't differentiate for most other subjects until high school.

Anyway, one of the experts interviewed for the Duke letter said that "readiness" was a much more potent word than "ability." Reading into her words, I think she means that ability implies something set and unchanging -- it's a value judgement. But readiness is a simple statement of the facts. Some kids are ready for more advanced reading, and some aren't ready yet. That doesn't mean they won't ever be ready. They just aren't right now. "Readiness grouping" implies a correct match, at a particular point in time, for a kid's needs.

So I think it's a great phrase, one gifted advocates should consider using instead of "ability grouping." I'm curious what everyone else thinks.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

On Being "Well-Adjusted"

Please keep posting on the parenting books thread -- I really appreciate it! One of the comments, though, had me thinking about the concept of gifted kids being "well-adjusted," so I thought I'd do a separate post on the topic. All parents want this for their children -- for them to have a happy social life, be resilient, etc. Unfortunately, I think this is more possible for gifted children once they grow up than it is for them when they are children. That's because adults can set up their lives in ways that make them happy, fulfilled, etc. Children don't have this option -- mostly because that's part of being a kid.

For instance, I'm pretty happy with my life right now. What a reason to be grateful, right? I work from home, so my desk is as messy and disorganized as I wish. It's got bits and pieces of different projects scattered everywhere. No one let me get away with that in school! I work on projects when I want to work on them. And I choose my own projects. So naturally I gravitate towards ones I find fascinating. I always had a bit of trouble sitting still; fortunately, by running my own small business, I rarely get stuck in meetings that don't directly pertain to me. I have friends of all different ages, and I rarely spend too much time with people who aren't smart or inquisitive. Because the bulk of my social interactions are with such people, I can handle other interactions with a lot more patience than I had in 8th grade when the only conversation going on at the lunch table was about the mall. Nothing about my life looks much like the average kid's class in school, where you interact only with people your age, and only do assignments someone else tells you to do. So no wonder I'm much more relaxed and well-adjusted than I was as a kid!

I've been thinking about how some of these adult choices could have been put in place when I was a kid -- or if that's even possible. Some parts are. For starters, it's more possible for gifted kids to be well-adjusted in self-contained gifted classes than in mixed-ability classes. In mixed-ability classes, you are simply the "smart one," while in gifted classes, other sides of your personality can come out. Voila! You are magically more well-rounded and well-adjusted, just by changing classes. Gifted kids also magically become more well-adjusted when they're allowed to pursue their favorite topics in depth, and when they're challenged. Suddenly, your brain is more engaged. Smart people like it when their brains are engaged. Life is more fun!

But I do understand that it would be pretty hard to run a school where you come and go as you please, do all fascinating work and only interact with people you like. Maybe there are benefits that come with adulthood. I guess this is something to tell a gifted kid who's getting frustrated with school and the rules of being a kid. For all we romanticize childhood in our culture, if you've got an adult brain in a kid's body, it's often better to actually be an adult. So hang on... it'll get better as you get older.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Best Books on Parenting Gifted Kids?

Genius Denied was largely a policy book (about the sorry state of gifted education in this country). Occasionally, people ask me about good resources that focus more specifically on parenting gifted kids. I don't have a favorite book to recommend, so I'm curious if readers of this blog do. Have you found any handbook to be particularly handy? Have any specifically addressed the issue of talent development (helping your child navigate the transition from potential to accomplishment)? What would you like to see in a handbook on raising gifted kids? Thanks!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Specialized High Schools in the Humanities

About a dozen states across the country have created specialized residential high schools for gifted students (usually covering junior and senior years). Most focus on math and science. I've written about my own school, the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities, which also focuses on students with gifts for literature, history, religion and arts studies. At times I've wondered why none of the other schools made it clear that students with humanities gifts needed differentiation as well. I'm happy to report, however, that I was wrong. Texas has such a school as well.

The Texas Academy of Leadership in the Humanities, like the Texas Academy of Math and Science, offers students the opportunity to earn college credit as they also complete advanced high school course work during their junior and senior years. You can visit the school's website here.

I still think the Indiana Academy model is the best, since it combines top programs in math, science and the humanities on one campus. Where should a Texas young person with profound gifts in math and writing enroll? While I don't mind the idea of kids getting to specialize in high school, this seems like a rather arbitrary distinction.

But I'm glad that Texas recognizes that not all gifted kids express their gifts through being, say, math whizzes. I've always been amazed how little differentiation there is in humanities coursework in most schools. Granted, creative assignments (such as writing a paper) can differentiate themselves. But some students in a given grade may be able to focus on the deeper philosophical meanings behind a work, while some are still having trouble understanding the vocabulary words. Forcing all children to follow the exact same lesson plan bores the former and confuses the latter.

I've certainly experienced this in my own life. I know I'm a much better writer than I am a mathematician. Yet I had differentiated math curriculum since fourth grade. Only as a tenth grader did I wind up with an independent study in literature/writing (and that was because I'd enrolled in too "easy" a level of English to start with -- because that was the only course that kept my schedule open enough for me to take a math class with children two years older than me!). While I had a few quite good English teachers along the way -- interspersed with some rather wretched ones -- specialized, accelerated classes simply weren't as high a priority in this subject.

That's too bad, because children with gifts in the humanities, no less than those with gifts in math and science, need to have their creativity honed and trained. They need to be pushed to think deeper, to draw more insightful conclusions. While I wish Texas had combined its schools from the get-go, I'm happy that the Lone Star State recognizes that advances in our society may someday come from right brain types as well.

Friday, November 03, 2006

How "Equality" Hurt Bronx Kids

As many of you know, I live in New York City, which has the best and the worst in terms of public schools. High schools like Stuyvesant, a magnet school for gifted kids from all over New York, are as good as schools get in this country. On the other hand, many students come to Stuyvesant from the city's private elementary and middle schools, because the public options in the early grades are often wretched. That's not always the case. A city that created Stuyvesant certainly doesn't have a blanket hostility to gifted programs, and some isolated pockets of excellence exist. But unfortunately, all it takes is one bad district leader to plow these under in a misguided pursuit of "equality."

That's exactly what's happened in the Bronx. While the Bronx is one of the toughest boroughs in the city, it's got some rather middle-class sections up near the border with Westchester. Many parents of gifted kids in these neighborhoods -- and parents of bright kids in the grittier urban areas to the south -- kept their children in the public schools because of available gifted options. Then a few years ago, a superintendent for the district, Irma Zardoya, set about gutting them. You can read the tale and the aftermath in this article in the New York Sun. It's a rather chilling account of what ideology can do to schools.

As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, destroying urban schools' gifted programs hurts all kids, and gifted kids especially -- but it does not hurt all gifted kids equally. The wealthier Bronx parents chose to move across the county line out of city limits. Or they paid for private school. Less well-off kids? They're stuck with the lousier schools they get as a result. Indeed, Bronx test scores have been so-so, and the number of applicants admitted to schools like Stuyvesant is way down. How did that help anyone?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Zooming Ahead Down Under

In response to the many international readers of Gifted Exchange who asked me to be a bit less U.S.-centric, I'm proud to bring you this story from Australia.

In the land down under, there's a saying about "cutting down the tall poppies." Namely, you don't want to stick out, and if you do, others will soon cut you down to size. That's certainly not a universal Ozzie sentiment, but unfortunately, it turned out to be school district policy for a gifted girl named Gracia Malaxetxebarria. You can read her story here.

Gracia, 12, was bored in school and wanted to move ahead a few grade levels. As the article points out, there's some precedent for this in Australia. Terence Tao, who just won the Fields medal in mathematics, was able to skip ahead and start college while he was still a pre-teen. But Gracia's Brisbane school didn't want to allow it. So her family sued and won the right for their daughter to skip grades as necessary.

As with many court cases, there are a few oddities and over reaches involved. I came across another article on the case, here, which says Gracia's mother pushed the court to give her a new home, a car and $500,000 compensation for age discrimination. The court declined to agree to that. But Gracia will be allowed to zoom ahead.

Of course, alert readers may be asking what's the difference between this case and the Levi Clancy case I wrote about last week. Don't both involve using the courts to advance gifted kids' interest?

From my reading, I believe that in the Australian case, the courts were being asked to address the case of an individual who was not given due process and indeed was treated differently than other children because of her age. Gracia had transferred to a private school and accelerated a few years; the public school completely ignored the evidence that she was earning As and Bs in her new grade. Normally, a child would be allowed to transfer to a public school from a private school at the same grade she was currently attending. Her public school was essentially changing its own policies to avoid accelerating the child. The court said that wasn't fair. No one was asking the courts to decree what the Brisbane authorities should spend their public monies on, as the voucher case does in California. I believe that's a question best answered democratically.

But hopefully the ruling in the Gracia case will encourage Australian schools to be more open to acceleration. Tall poppies deserve to grow no less than any other flowers.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Levi Clancy story (and school vouchers)

Levi Clancy and his mom, Leila, are no strangers to political controversy. In 2002, they lobbied the California state legislature to pass a law allowing any student, of any age, to take the state's high school exit exam and be considered a graduate upon passing. The law authorized schools and districts to include community college classes in gifted kids' individual education plans (IEPs) and also to pay for these classes. The legislature passed the law unanimously, but then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it, saying it was too expensive (Levi was already attending community college classes by that time).

Four years later, the family is now taking a different approach to gifted advocacy. They are suing the state to create a mandate for vouchers to be offered to gifted students whose needs cannot be met in the normal K-12 schools. The case was argued before the California First District Court of Appeals in Sacramento yesterday. Leila's attorneys are arguing that she cannot afford to pay tuition at UCLA, and Levi Clancy needs the rigor of a 4-year college program. You can read a press release on the case here.

I have a lot of sympathy for the case. I'm in favor of school vouchers generally, not just for highly gifted kids. As a practical matter, even if California's taxpayers fully funded Levi Clancy's $9,000 UCLA education, they'd be saving money, as the per pupil attendance funding for the Los Angeles Unified School District is about $12,000. There's a good equal protection argument to be made that California residents are entitled to 13 years of education at public expense, wherever that education is obtained. Some California students with disabilities attend private schools at public expense because their local schools can't meet their needs. This case is also about a child with special needs.

On the other hand, I don't like the idea of using the courts to force issues that certainly can be decided democratically. Given how much support Leila Levi's lobbying efforts found in the California legislature a few years ago, going that route might be worth another try. California has a different governor these days, one who might be more amenable to a voucher plan for gifted kids. I understand the impulse to use the courts on both the left (witness the various cases about adequate school funding making their way through the courts) and the right (vouchers). It's clean and decisive (if not necessarily quick). But in my opinion -- and I realize a lot of blog readers will disagree -- solutions for gifted kids will enjoy broader support if they're obtained democratically than if they're forced on a state by the courts.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Better Approach to Multiple Intelligences

A few weeks ago, I complained about the overuse of the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in schools. MI identifies 9 main prisms through which children might learn. Traditional schooling, MI proponents say, focuses too much on logical and linguistic intelligences. While there's nothing wrong with the theory that every child can learn, and many children learn in different ways, MI has often been used as a Trojan Horse to bash gifted programs. After all, if there are multiple intelligences, then every child can be gifted in something. And if all children are gifted, what's the point of gifted education?

Today I came across a story about the Madison Simis Elementary School in Arizona that's attempting to address the idea of different gifts in a more thoughtful way. You can read the Arizona Republic story on the school here.

Principal Joyce Flowers told the AZ Republic that "Every child has a talent... Sometimes it's just a matter of discovering it." But rather than use this theory as an excuse to keep heterogeneous classes in all subjects, the school has actually hired additional gifted instructors, and created advanced classes in multiple different topics. Kids are screened for giftedness in each area individually. If the child shows promise, she's put in the accelerated class for that subject. At the same time, she can attend the regular level classes in other subjects if the tests show that's where she should be.

This careful screening comes a lot closer to the idea of matching the education to the child than either the heterogeneous classes many people champion, or the "130-IQ and up" globally gifted screen many gifted programs use. At Madison Simis Elementary School, it appears that a child who needs more challenge in a particular subject area gets it. While I've not observed the school in person to know if this works in reality (as opposed to in theory) it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Do any of your children attend schools that screen by different subject areas for giftedness?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Handwriting on the Wall

A recent Washington Post article chronicled the decline of cursive and penmanship instruction in schools.

Apparently, now that an essay is required on the SAT, only 15% of test takers wrote their samples in cursive. Everyone else used block print letters. Why? This is the first generation to grow up with computers available since birth. Most children now type even their early writing assignments. So while schools do a cursory look at cursive, they don't spend hours and hours on it the way they used to.

I have mixed feelings about this, particularly as it relates to gifted children. On one hand, typing requires a lot less fine motor coordination than cursive (and voice recognition software can type for people who can't master a keyboard -- an option not available with pen and paper). One of the things that holds many young gifted writers back is that their fine motor skills haven't developed as fast as their brains and their imaginations. You may have a great story in your head, but it's easy to get frustrated when your fingers make little chicken scratches on a piece of paper. Furthermore, as the Post article notes, studies show that people judge writing more harshly when the handwriting used is poor. Since this has absolutely nothing to do with the content, the widespread use of typing, even in the early grades, should level the playing field in a way that allows insight to triumph over coordination.

On the other hand... My family spent half a school year in California when I was in third grade. My elementary school class in North Carolina learned cursive while I was gone. My California class learned it right after I left. Consequently, I had to (mostly) teach myself the letters. I still am not sure why upper-case Qs look like 2s, but I did discover that I really like making those little squiggles. I write in my journal in cursive. The letters flow quickly in a way that they don't in printed block letters. Research backs this up. Free-flowing letters, the Post notes, correspond to simpler, shorter compositions (that's a good thing, as any teacher who's had to correct a windy, overwrought essay can tell you). Even if you ultimately intend to type, the quick nature of cursive writing has benefits for rough drafts. You can get your thoughts down quickly, then cross out and move sentences around with arrows as you wish.

I'm curious what other people think about the decline of cursive, and whether it's a good or bad thing for young writers. Are your children's schools teaching the topic?

Monday, October 16, 2006

What to do when your budget grows

Some districts in Arizona have recently been faced with the kind of problem educators love to have: The state legislature appropriated more money for gifted education, and all of their budgets are about to rise.

The districts and schools intend to do very different things with the money, however. Some will be more helpful for gifted kids than others. For instance, the Scottsdale Unified School District expects $81,000 for its budget this year, up from $37,000 last year. It plans to use the windfall on "supplemental material," according to this list which ran in the Arizona Republic. Perhaps these workbooks and curriculum packages will be helpful. But I'm inclined to give my thumbs up to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, which plans to spend its $105,000 (up from $44,000) on opening more separate classrooms for gifted students.

When James Kulik of the University of Michigan reviewed 23 major studies on ability grouping a few years ago, he found that gifted students placed in enriched classes gained 4-5 months academically on gifted students left in regular classrooms (over the course of a year). Gifted students placed in accelerated classes (which were trying to move ahead more quickly) gained as much as a whole year compared with comparable students left in regular classrooms.

In other words, we know that gifted kids benefit from self-contained classes. So creating them should be the first order of business for any school that doesn't have them and receives extra money. Hopefully the other Arizona districts will figure this out.
What to do when your budget grows

Some districts in Arizona have recently been faced with the kind of problem educators love to have: The state legislature appropriated more money for gifted education, and all of their budgets are about to rise.

The districts and schools intend to do very different things with the money, however. Some will be more helpful for gifted kids than others. For instance, the Scottsdale Unified School District expects $81,000 for its budget this year, up from $37,000 last year. It plans to use the windfall on "supplemental material," according to this list which ran in the Arizona Republic. Perhaps these workbooks and curriculum packages will be helpful. But I'm inclined to give my thumbs up to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, which plans to spend its $105,000 (up from $44,000) on opening more separate classrooms for gifted students.

When James Kulik of the University of Michigan reviewed 23 major studies on ability grouping a few years ago, he found that gifted students placed in enriched classes gained 4-5 months academically on gifted students left in regular classrooms (over the course of a year). Gifted students placed in accelerated classes (which were trying to move ahead more quickly) gained as much as a whole year compared with comparable students left in regular classrooms.

In other words, we know that gifted kids benefit from self-contained classes. So creating them should be the first order of business for any school that doesn't have them and receives extra money. Hopefully the other Arizona districts will figure this out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Gifted Exchange Turns One

About two weeks ago, Gifted Exchange celebrated its first birthday (it was a small ceremony, no cake!) I've been pleased with the steady levels of traffic the blog is drawing, and the number of posts from readers. Of course, I'd love to see this blog grow, too! So today's post is more of a plea for feedback from those of you who have checked in over the past year:

1. What would you like to see more of on Gifted Exchange?
2. What do you like? Don't like?
3. Did any posts cause you to do something differently or think about something differently? (Which one?)
4. How can I share Gifted Exchange with a broader audience?

I really appreciate any thoughts. You're welcome to email me privately as well: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thanks! Laura

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


This one will be short, as there are workmen apparently drilling 1,000 tiny holes in the apartment floor above me, then hammering them for good measure, and I'm going to go crazy from the noise if I don't get out of here soon.

But anyway... Time magazine had a fascinating Po Bronson back page essay a few weeks ago pointing out that there are two schools of parenting. There's the Baby Einstein school, and the Barbie school. The Baby Einstein parents get written about a lot in books like Hothouse Kids and the Overachievers. They're the ones allegedly hovering over their precious kids, scheduling every minute, trying to make sure that not one single potential IQ point goes down the drain. But of course, Baby Einstein racked up $200 million in sales last year. Barbie? $3 billion. Barbie represents the vast majority of parents, for whom the question is not whether they're spending too much time with their kids, but whether they're spending enough with both parents working, or in single parent situations. The question is not whether school is too rigorous and the college application process too crazy, but whether school is preparing kids for college at all.

Given the split, why do Hothouse kid parents get all the press? The answer is that journalists who write about parenting issues and education tend to come from the Baby Einstein camp. So it makes sense to them that all parents are seeing their kids get caught up in the AP rat race, the college admission crunch, etc. We all suffer from a bit of myopia from time to time. Now it appears that pediatricians are falling for this line as well (makes sense; they're upper income and highly educated too, just like journalists). The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report the other day calling for more unstructured play time for kids. The message? We need not be super parents, dragging kids to karate, scouts, music lessons, etc. Just playing is fine.

Which is true. But I read the report after re-reading a book called "American Dream" by Jason DeParle about the recent welfare reform bill's effect on a few families. There were some successes. The moms landed reasonable jobs in nursing homes and worked full time, often two shifts to earn some extra cash. But that left the children with hours and hours of unstructured free time after school, the supposed gold standard that the pediatricians are pushing. Trust me, it didn't turn out so well for the children involved.

The truth is, the vast majority of children are not spending their afternoons in karate, scouts and tutoring. And even the ones who are often don't have the 'pushy parent' problem. I heard from one mom recently that her little girl (who's very gifted) was in five after school activities in part because school wasn't challenging her. If the AAP is worried about children's development, meaningful school reform would be a better report topic than the supposed epidemic of super parenting.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Multiple Intelligences Trojan Horse

I've been doing some research on various educational texts online, and I keep coming back to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). For an explanation of this educational theory, proposed by Harvard prof Gardner in 1983, see this website. Originally there were seven different kinds of intelligence, from linguistic to interpersonal. I believe we're now up to nine different kinds of intelligence, from "naturalist" (being especially sensitive to nature) to existential (asking deep questions about the meaning of life). You can find a chart of all these intelligences here.

The idea is that traditional schooling has focused too much on kids with logical and linguistic talents. But everyone has some dominant intelligence; teachers just have to find the right way to reach the kids. So while some kids might get fractions from a demonstration on the chalkboard, others might prefer to stack blocks of different sizes, and still others might prefer to look at a snail shell.

As an idea, there's nothing wrong with this theory. Certainly, some children are absolutely brilliant when it comes to dealing with other people, or playing sports. These skills will serve you well in life. There's also nothing wrong with the implication that all kids can learn, we just need to figure out what makes them tick.

Unfortunately, though, in reality, the theory of MI has often been used to slam educators and others who focus on gifted education as close-minded. We focus too much on IQ, which largely measures logical and linguistic intelligences. If there are nine intelligences (and who knows, why not more?), then all children can be gifted. And if all children are gifted, what's the point of gifted education? Rather than sequester the highest IQ children off from others, where they'll learn math at an accelerated pace, classrooms should embrace MI, recognizing that all the kids are learning equally, just in their own ways.

This is a problem because gifted education isn't terribly popular among the educational powers that be. It doesn't take much for a school system to decide that gifted education doesn't fit the right philosophy. So MI has become a Trojan Horse for undermining gifted education. I guess theorizing from Harvard, it's easy to forget the boredom bright children feel when they're forced to learn about, say, the former Soviet Socialist Republics by coloring a map of them. Maybe that's nurturing artistic intelligence. Or maybe it's lazy teaching with a gloss of theory put on top. Sure, all kids can learn. But boring bright kids does nothing to help the others.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nobel Americans

Like all of us, I enjoy indulging in a bit of wailing about America losing her competitiveness in research fields. Certainly the school situation isn't good over all, and the conditions some bright young scientists must endure in their primary and secondary schools is inexplicable.

On the other hand, American researchers have been having a pretty good year on the Nobel Prize front. Indeed, they've swept the awards. Roger Kornberg of Stanford's School of Medicine won for chemistry, Craig Mello at U Mass Med school and Andrew Fire of Stanford won for medicine, and the physics winners, John C. Mather of NASA and George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were announced to the public yesterday. These physicists have done groundbreaking work on the small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background that fills our universe. The thinking is that this background is lingering evidence of the Big Bang. Studying it is like studying our universe's baby pictures.

Obviously, there's a lot of great research going on at America's universities, at NASA, and at the national labs. The question is how to translate this spirit of inquiry into science at the student level, so American scientists do Nobel quality work in the future. Equipment is expensive. Talented, well-trained teachers are in short supply. Even chemistry sets are under attack (see the Gifted Exchange post on that from a few months ago).

I believe that partnerships between universities and schools will need to be a big part of the solution. While there are a few good matches out there, unfortunately, they're few and far between. When I was growing up in South Bend, Indiana, my middle and high schools were approximately two miles from Notre Dame, one of the midwest's most prominent research institutions. Yet Notre Dame could have been part of the cosmic microwave background of Northern Indiana for all anyone knew except on football Saturdays. Each institution stays in its little space, like a stereotypical scientist working alone in a lab. But as the many number of pairs of scientists winning Nobel Prizes indicates, real discovery doesn't work that way. Neither should education. Apprenticing local kids to university labs would give the universities free extra hands for simple tasks, and a great education to the students.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Finding a Mentor

I just returned from Washington, D.C., where I attended the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony at the Library of Congress. This year's award winners are fascinating, and I strongly recommend reading their biographies here.

All the recipients spoke briefly, and thanked the grown-ups who had helped them develop their projects. I was struck by the number of non-parent mentors each had found along the way. According to the program, astrophysics whiz Adam Solomon "knocked on doors at Columbia University until he met his current mentor" who led him to study brown dwarfs. Anarghya Vardhana, a mathematician, stayed after school with a math teacher who had a PhD in number theory learning how to move from solving problems in text books to dreaming up new problems (a key shift in breaking new ground in any research-based field). Mentors can help you learn what topics are ripe for investigation. They can give you access to equipment (key for science research). They can help you hone your creativity in humanities fields from something you dream up to something the world will want to consume. Indeed, having mentors is often the difference between kids who show promise in a subject and kids who truly nurture their talents in these fields.

They're also not always easy to find. Some high-achieving kids are blessed to have teachers or parents who are well-connected with local universities, professional artists or other such folk and are able or willing to use these connections. Some, like Solomon, go knock on doors until they find these people. I'm curious how other people reading this blog have found mentors. Alas, they do not all appear like Athena, disguised, who was the original Mentor comforting lonely Telemachus. How do you find a mentor in the non-mythical world?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Nurturing Talent

The Vancouver Sun tackles the tricky issue of nurturing gifted kids' talents in an article called Nourishing the Super Kid. While the Superman art is a bit much, the article is actually pretty good, and worth a read.

The lead anecdote is about a mom whose kid was really into marine biology. She and her husband, to put it mildly, were not. But they were not intimidated by that fact. "It didn't matter that neither of them knew the difference between a sea slug and a salamander," the article states. "What mattered, Ansell-Shepherd says, is that they knew how to introduce their son to people who did."

So they took him to the museum. They took him to the library and let him load up on books. They took him to meetings of the local natural history society -- a move that's going above the call of duty, but hey. Quite simply, the kid's school was never going to teach marine biology. He loved the subject. So if he was going to learn it, he'd have to learn it outside of school. So he did.

The article goes on to give other good advice. Even in small towns where amenities are comparatively limited, it's often possible to find unexpected ways to feed a gift, one of the interviewed experts says. "It's about being resourceful. There are people in every community who can nurture passions. There's an assumption that every good coach was a gifted athlete. That's not true. I know many coaches who can't even participate in the sports they coach. You don't have to be a participant yourself to be a great mentor."

Nurturing gifts is tough. But I liked the approach of this piece. It's doable, no matter where you are.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Neglected Middle?

USA Today ran a column from Patrick Welsh, a D.C.-area teacher earlier this week, called Students Aren't Interchangeable. A true statement, of course. He makes the perfectly reasonable point that average children need to be challenged and that the curriculum should fit the child, not the other way around. He also points out that many educators are more interested in social engineering than in challenging kids. But I found the column unfortunate as a whole. He wants to be contrarian, so he decides to characterize gifted kids and their parents as poorly as possible so the much-neglected middle seems more deserving by contrast.

He starts by referring to parents of gifted kids as "fanatical" -- and "usually white, in my experience -- who think their kids are geniuses, who must be protected from less talented kids and who are entitled to every advantage and resource the school system has to offer." There you go. If you speak up about your kid needing educational accommodations, not only are you pushy, you're "fanatical." And while we're at it, let's get some racial overtones in there, too. Why not? No wonder Nicholas Colangelo, professor of gifted education at the Belin-Blank Center of the University of Iowa, and an expert on acceleration, recently told me that many parents of gifted kids perceive that any such requests will be viewed negatively -- so they don't ask. They don't want to be seen as pushy. With teachers like Welsh roaming the halls, that's not an unrealistic fear.

Welsh then goes on to say he has "heard teachers in neighboring Fairfax County, VA, joke that every middle class white kid is labeled either gifted and talented or learning disabled. The LD label goes over with parents because it implies that the kid is brighter than his or her work shows."

This is complete hyperbole. Fairfax County, VA's own reports show that about 8% of 3rd through 8th grade kids participate in its gifted programs (see the report here (and let me know if the direct PDF link doesn't work. It's the Fairfax County Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee Report from 2004). This is a wealthy district -- more than 8% of the kids are middle-class and white. Furthermore, the district is home to Thomas Jefferson high school, a magnet high school for gifted kids that's ranked among the top in the country. If you do have a highly gifed kid, and live in the greater D.C. area, you're quite likely to move to Fairfax for precisely this reason. So it would stand to reason that Fairfax would have a high percentage of gifted kids, particularly among the high school set. But even so, it's not a de facto segregation system. TJ is nearly 40% minority (Asian children are the largest minority group; interestingly, Asian parents are somehow exempt from Welsh's fanatical label). I'm surprised USA Today let Welsh get away with this stereotyping statement with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

But we're in a mode these days where complaining about pushy parents is hip. Columns like this are the result.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Genius on CNN

I hope some of you were able to catch the Dr. Sanjay Gupta special on "Genius" on CNN last night (and my apologies for not promoting it on this blog before hand). The hour-long show covered quite a lot, dancing over everything from prodigious savants (I was especially fascinated by one young man who was able to recall any date's day of the week, weather, and what he did, after he got hit in the head with a baseball) to the Davidson Academy in Reno. It even featured a quick shot of the cover of Genius Denied.

My general take-away is that the brain is a strange organ that we're only beginning to understand. We have a very hard time separating out how much of intelligence is nature or nurture (as evidenced by the "Center for Germinal Choice" bit on the offspring of the Nobel Prize winners sperm bank). But regardless of what leads to genius, we should nurture it where we find it. Did anyone else see the show? I'd love to hear your opinions.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Homeschooling, with a Full-Time Job

Today's Wall Street Journal has a fascinating piece from Sue Shellenbarger on parents who homeschool their children while holding down full-time jobs. While homeschooling and gifted education aren't related per se, my experience is that a number of parents of highly gifted children wind up giving it a go at some point. Perhaps the child is asynchronous, so whole grade acceleration isn't a great option, or the school doesn't allow subject matter acceleration, or the high school is great but the middle school isn't, so the family tries homeschooling for two years....

One of the barriers to parents making such a decision is that it's usually perceived as difficult to homeschool a child and make a living at the same time. Homeschooling has religious roots, and many of the families who choose it for those reasons believe in having one parent at home. But those who choose it for secular reasons may not -- or they may not have the resources to live on one income -- or both parents may love their work. So what do you do?

According to Sue Shellenbarger, you make it work. An entire academic day can be compressed into 2-4 hours (given all the down time kids have in school). So parents stagger shifts -- one homeschools from 8am to noon, for instance, then reports to work while the kids stay with a sitter. The other parent gets home at 5 or 6 and finishes up the lessons. Or homeschooling can be done in the evening (there is the question of what to do with the kids during the day -- some families hire a sitter/nanny who drives the kids to college classes or supervises online learning). A number of people who work full-time work at home to make it work. Shellenbarger profiles a woman named Shari Smith, who works 60 hours per week as a moderator for the website She homeschools her daughter as she works at home, putting young Rebekah on assignments, working for 30 minutes, checking in with Rebekah, going back to work, etc. (Rebekah notes that homeschooling "is pretty cool, because I can be in my pajamas at school.")

Online curricula make this all easier, as the parent doesn't have to be "on" quite as much while homeschooling. Shellenbarger even found one single mom, Amy Garber of Mechanicsville, VA, who makes it work. She goes to her employer's office in the morning while a sitter cares for her two kids. In the afternoon, she homeschools. After the kids go to bed, she works at her home office from 7:30pm until midnight.

Obviously, Garber's schedule doesn't leave her a lot of room for hobbies and such. It also requires an employer who's willing to commit to a flexible schedule as long as the work gets done. But her story shows that even being a single parent doesn't have to be a barrier, if the parent decides homeschooling is the best educational option.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Combining High School and College?

Many gifted high school kids already take some college classes as a way to accelerate their education (indeed, AP classes are supposed to be at the college level, and some 60% of high schools now offer them). Now a school district in California is proposing combining a high school with a junior college to allow kids to earn a high school diploma and a 2-year degree at the same time. While many gifted kids have their eyes on 4-year-degrees, I think this close relationship between a high school and a college would be a great model for other districts.

You can read about Chico, California's efforts here. You can also read some complaints about the project here.

This particular letter-writer doesn't like the idea because kids will be giving up "friends and school activities." But one of the big complaints about the last few years of high school for many bright kids is that they're a holding pattern. You're pretty much grown up, but not entirely, from a legal perspective. You're probably ready for college work, but that requires a real push from parents or the kid to make that happen (will you take a bus to a college? Walk? will the college say yes? who pays?) Combining a high school with a junior college not only allows bright kids to move ahead, it allows kids at the junior college to brush up on subjects they might be spotty on. It's an unfortunate truth that approximately 40% of community college students must enroll in some sort of remedial course. If such classes are already being offered at an attached high school, both the students and taxpayers could save some money.

Of course, many concepts sound better in theory than in practice, but I think this one's worth a try.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?

It is according to Newsweek, whose cover story last week made the oft-repeated point that kids are under too much pressure, too soon.

As I've pointed out before on this blog, I'm skeptical. Certainly, there are schools that make kids do too much pointless homework. And certainly some kids aren't ready for academic work at age five. But plenty are. They're jumping at the bit to start reading and doing fun things with numbers. That kindergarten is starting to nurture this curiosity -- rather than just involving nap and playground time -- is not a bad thing.

Indeed, I'm not sure about the point of kindergarten if it's not going to have an academic bent. In this day and age, most children have some experience dealing with other kids in social settings by age five -- through day care, private preschool, or public preschool programs like Head Start. Kids do arrive at kindergarten with a wide range of skills, which makes excellent teachers who can accommodate individual children's needs a necessity. But we shouldn't lament that now schools are saying it's OK -- and maybe even worth a little pushing -- for kids to start reading in kindergarten. If all grades were challenging kids more, we wouldn't have so many of the educational problems we do.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Terence Tao and nurturing gifted kids

Someone had posted a question about Terence Tao, recent winner of the Fields medal in mathematics, on another thread. While the "early ripe, early rot" cliche gets bandied about a lot, Tao's story is more of the "early bud, early bloom" variety. A child math prodigy, he grew up into an adult math sensation.

Much has been written about his schooling. One example from Miraca Gross (like Tao, an Australian) can be found at GT-Cybersource here. I've been doing some research on this topic as I'm supposed to write a column for USA Today on prodigies (once they get done with the Sept. 11 commemoration pieces).

Basically, Grace and Billy Tao realized very early that they had an exceptional son (all their children are, really!) He taught himself his letters and numbers by watching Sesame Street at age 2. He was doing high school math by age 7, and amused himself by working problems and reading books in his spare time. Keeping him in grade level classes was a non-starter. So the Taos directed his schooling, at one point having him study math only at home, not at school, so he wouldn't learn to hate it by being unchallenged. He took various other classes out of sequence as well, at one point doing humanities classes with kids in Year 8 (as the Ozzies call it), geography with kids in years 10 and 11, physics with year 12, etc.

The Taos also gave him plenty of time to become absorbed in his favorite subject but, as his father, Dr. Billy Tao, said in an email to me, never "pushed." They wanted Terence to learn to think for himself. So rather than telling him what he was doing wrong when he got frustrated by a tough problem, they asked him questions that would help him think about the problem in a different way. This was slower in the short run (and frustrating to an impatient little boy!) but in the long run helped him gain a deeper understanding of problem solving. And, as Dr. Tao pointed out, eventually there would come a time when he and his wife couldn't help anyway. So it was good to have Terence learn self-reliance from the beginning.

The results show. Only mathematicians who make major contributions to the field win the Fields prize. Talent has to be nurtured. As M.A. (Ken) Clement wrote in a biographical article of Terence Tao in Educational Studies in Mathematics in 1984, "I had to admire the efforts which his parents, Billy and Grace, had made on his behalf, despite the danger that they would be labeled 'pushy' by persons who did not understand.... In a society where hostility towards parents who regard their children as sufficiently bright to warrant extra-special educational consideration is endemic, it is refreshing to discover parents as courageous and realistic as Grace and Billy Tao."

In other words, when it comes to highly gifted kids, what many people mistake for pushy parenting is, in fact, good parenting of pushy kids.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Boot Camp for Budding Virtuosos

Business Week has an article in the Aug 21/28 "Competition" issue on the Meadowmount School of Music in Westport, NY. This summer camp creates some of the top string players in the world by putting young people through a rigorous course of practicing (at least 5 hours a day) and performing -- maybe. As the article points out, only the top 60 or so students are allowed to perform, though 220 attend. Everyone else pays their tuition and yet is never deemed worthy to give a concert.

In this way, the school is more or less following the real world of professional classical music. One study found that there are 6 qualified musicians for any open position today in classical music. The last time the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington had an opening for a violinist (in October 2004, Business Week says), more than 320 folks applied and 124 auditioned. I see this myself in the choral field. I'm the president of an organization called the Young New Yorkers' Chorus. We had dozens of people apply for the music director position this year -- and had to choose among people who were all qualified for the job. YNYC runs a "Competition for Young Composers" each year, and also sees how many young musicians are competing for the scarce commissioning dollars out there.

All the students at Meadowmount want National Symphony Orchestra type jobs, and indeed many of them do eventually land such positions. The Business Week article tries to make the point that succeeding in the musical world (and by extension, the business world -- this is Business Week) is almost entirely about how much you practice. Raw talent is not the issue. If you want to be better, do more.

That may be partly true. But music students with more innate talent, in my experience, tend to love their craft more. It is hard to practice 5, 6, 7 hours a day or more if you don't love something. Being naturally good at something and loving it tend to go hand in hand -- which leads to more hours spent practicing, and practicing better.

So unlike Business Week, I wouldn't say that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. I'd say it's more like 40-60.

But at 60%, the "perspiration" part is still the most major component. That's why in all fields, not just music, it's a crime to let gifted kids skate through without working hard. When a gifted kid is told to just wait for everyone to catch up in math class, she's denied the joy of learning to work hard, which makes her better at math, and more likely to succeed in the future.

Monday, August 28, 2006

More Options for Gifted Kids

Somebody must be listening about the lack of schooling options for many gifted kids... Now Stanford University has announced that it will create a full-time online high school as an extension of its EPGY program. You can read about the article here, in the San Jose Mercury News.

Online high schools have gotten a bit of a bad rep in recent years, as a number have sprung up to cater to athletes who need certain grades to play in college. Having the Stanford brand name attached to one will certainly do a lot to make this variety of school seem more legitimate.

There will be some in-person interaction; Stanford recommends that students visit campus in summer to take their lab courses and meet with professors.

Online learning is certainly not for everyone. Kids need to be very motivated (it's easier to get away with zoning out than in a traditional classroom!). Some people find it easier to drop out of courses when they don't have a personal connection to the teacher or the other classmates. I've taken a few online writing classes, and inevitably we lose about half of the students by the end.

On the other hand, many parents of highly gifted kids wind up homeschooling at some point. These parents often complain about the lack of advanced curricula (or secular curricula in general) available for highly gifted homeschooled kids. For these families, Stanford's high school can't start soon enough.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Margaret Spellings on Gifted Education

On Tuesday, I attended the opening ceremonies for the Davidson Academy of Nevada. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was the keynote speaker, and there was some general audience trepidation that the speech might amount to a commercial for No Child Left Behind, which has been a mixed bag (probably good for raising the floor; not so good for raising the ceiling -- and in some cases squashing it).

The commercial did air; we got the spiel that big chunks of our schools' mediocrity could be laid at the feet of a lack of information. Now that we have information on test scores, things will improve. Perhaps -- transparent information is part of the equation. But real accountability, merit pay for teachers and principles, ability grouping and high expectations are also part of it. The Belleville, NJ school system I wrote about a few posts ago that is choosing to stunt the growth of its brightest students doesn't lack information. It just has a backwards philosophy.

But I digress. I'm happy to report that Spellings said many of the right things to an audience that was passionate about gifted education. Many of the Davidson Academy student speakers spoke about how bored they were in previous schools due to the lack of challenge. Spellings apologized on behalf of public educators everywhere. Then she said that NCLB was a start -- a minimum ("grade level learning is the minimum for success") -- and that we need to pay more attention to kids who are doing more than the minimum. Customization, she said, was the "next big revolution in education."

"Every student deserves individual attention," she said. "Education is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise."

She reported on traveling to India, and seeing a hunger for advanced learning that is often lacking in American schools. Indeed, she said that three out of four high school students say they are not challenged (a big admission from a woman who, officially, is somewhat responsible for all those schools' lack of challenge!) By denying children access to rigorous classes, she said, we deny their potential.

So we shall see. Politicians often say good things, so we shall see if President Bush's education agenda over the next two years actually does try to raise the ceiling in addition to the floor. I hope so. We need it. Does anyone have suggestions of what could be done on the federal level to make sure that not only are no children left behind, but that children are encouraged to surge ahead?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Live from the Davidson Academy

For those wondering why I haven't been posting... I took a vacation out west doing some hiking, camping, and wedding attending. Now I'm back on line. Yesterday, I drove across Nevada from Salt Lake City. I landed in Reno, where I'm now blogging live from the Davidson Academy, the nation's first public school for profoundly gifted students.

The kids and parents all showed up this afternoon for a ribbon cutting ceremony (quick, given the 95 degree heat!) Tomorrow we'll be hearing from Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and other VIPs.

The school will be starting next week with just shy of 40 students from around the country. Any Nevada resident student who qualifies can attend free of charge -- and several of the families of these profoundly gifted kids became Nevada residents to attend.

School hasn't started yet, so it's hard to render a verdict, but I can say this. You rarely see kids so excited about school. I spoke with a young lady in the parking lot who told me "I can't wait for school to start!" This is a sentiment you rarely hear cross the lips of very gifted kids in regular schools. So I'm thrilled for them. The higher-levels literature teacher reports that the curriculum will be quite connected -- kids may read Darwin's Origin of Species as they're studying evolution in science. I'm typing at a computer that's perched next to a stack of math textbooks of various levels, all thrown together so kids can work through them without the artificial structure of grades dictating what they're ready to know. And people who've spent a lot of time around gifted kids can appreciate this last observation: Some "misbehavior" (noisiness during the Davidsons' board meeting from a few kids who were still here) involved what appeared to be a very raucous and advanced game of Scrabble.

You've got to love it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Belleville, NJ to Gifted Fourth-Graders: Drop Dead

This seems to be becoming an all-New Jersey blog, but the threats to gifted education in that state mirror the larger challenges the gifted education community in this country faces.

Starting this school year, Belleville, NJ, will no longer send its academically advanced 4th graders to a separate, ability-grouped school for math, science and other academic courses. You can read the news in this article, called Changes Approved for Program in the Belleville Post.

Now, these students will remain in their home schools, and two teachers with expertise in gifted education will circulate around the schools to provide instruction in larger, more heterogeneous classes. Why? The first explanation, offered by Belleville Superintendent of Schools Edward Kliszus, is that this way, twice as many kids can be identified as gifted.

But then we learn this was more of a philosophical decision, rather than a sudden discovery that twice as many kids in Belleville were gifted as was previously thought. Board President Arlene Schor noted that “You have students identified as falling into Gifted and Talented who are all sent to one school... They don’t interact with other kids. They don’t take gym or art. We just felt that it was almost a form of segregation with the academically talented.” Since special education kids are being mainstreamed in Belleville, the board believes that gifted kids should be, too.

The article notes that "Schor said the AT [academically talented] program looks great on paper, with a number of the AT minority going on to four-year colleges, but added the desire is to have the majority of Belleville’s students succeed, not just a small percentage. 'That’s where we’re coming from,' she said. The new program will celebrate and enhance diversity among the student population and not the principle of isolation."

“It can’t be done if they’re self-contained,” said Kliszus.

And, of course, what article on the destruction of a gifted program would be complete without a quote on how mainstreaming gifted kids will benefit everyone else? In regular, heterogeneous classes, says board trustee John McManus, "They can act as leaders and help to bring the other students up.”

For now, fifth and sixth graders will continue to go to the self-contained program, but with explanations like these, how long does anyone think that will last?

It's not that these people don't get it. They get it. They just don't care. They do not believe gifted kids deserve to have their needs met. They believe gifted kids should suffer in regular classes that are taught to the median, and by their suffering, become "leaders" for everyone else. And yes, these people run the schools. And we, as a country, become stuck with the consequences of genius denied.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

NJ Governor's School Update

In previous posts, we've discussed how New Jersey cut funding for its annual summer Governor's School programs this year. Thanks to fundraising efforts by former NJ first lady Ruthi Byrne and others, the programs ran as planned.

Well, almost as planned. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry reading this article in the Daily Record, called "Despite Mishaps, Governor's School Proves Memorable for 100 Teens."

This particular Governor's school program highlighted in the article focused on international studies. Students took classes and participated in activites at Ramapo College in Mahweh, NJ. Because of the funding problems, the program was pared down from past years. Instead of visiting Quebec to study our nearest foreign culture, for instance, students were supposed to go to Washington, D.C. Due to a lack of funds, that trip got canceled too.

Then the fun really began. First, a 15-hour blackout meant students couldn't sleep in their 8-story dorm (it was deemed a fire hazard). They were allowed back in for a few minutes at 2am the night of the blackout to get their things, and then were scattered to the few available spots on campus.

Then, two-and-a-half weeks into the four week program, came the death blow: One of the campers was diagnosed with whooping cough. You're supposed to be vaccinated against this as a baby, but judging by the recent measles outbreak among kids in Indiana who weren't immunized, that's never a given anymore. Whooping cough is quite contagious, so the Bergen County health department forced the Governor's School program to evacuate the dorms. Parents had to come pick up their students by midnight.

Of course, if any of the Governor's School students do wind up working in international affairs in, say, refugee camps, they'll wind up dealing with a lack of electricity and contagious diseases quite frequently. In that sense, this program may have inadvertantly prepared them for the job...

But anyway, what struck me about reading this article is how much the kids loved being with other bright kids like them, despite the chaos. They talked about how close they became with each other, how much they loved learning. Despite the black outs, disease outbreaks and shortened programs, the kids were so grateful for the experience.

It's a shame that for most gifted kids, summer programs like Governor's school are the only opportunity to experience that joy. If NJ truly wants to help its gifted kids, it will establish Governor's school type programs that last for the whole school year (of course, they might want to check people's immunization records a bit more closely before they do).

Friday, August 04, 2006

The High Achieving (Homeschooled) Child

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development just released the names of its 2006 Davidson Fellows. They're a fascinating group of individuals, and you can read about them here.

I hope to profile a few more of them in the upcoming weeks, but one thing stood out for me immediately. Two of the three top winners (the Davidson Fellows Laureates) were homeschooled. For Heather Engebretson of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, homeschooling was a way to devote more time to studying her vocal technique. For Michael Viscardi of San Diego, California, homeschooling didnt necessarily mean "home" all the time -- being free of a normal school schedule gave him time to take all the college math classes he wanted.

I've been working on a piece on prodigies for USA Today that will point out that kids who are very gifted in one area are happiest when they get to spend a lot of time working in that area, playing in that area, immersing themselves in it. (if anyone has recommendations on prodigy "experts" -- people who've studied it, or studies, I'd welcome them!) While homeschooling is not for everyone, it certainly does cut down on the wasted time factor. Only a small percentage of school time is spent on actual instruction. If you compress, or "telescope" these broader lessons into a morning, that leaves the afternoon free to study math or sing. The results certainly show with these two scholarship winners.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Nature and Nurture in IQ Scores

Since many gifted programs use IQ scores to judge admission, people attach great importance to the number. They also spend a lot of time debating nature vs. nurture. Children from well-to-do families broadly have higher tested IQs than those from less well-to-do families. But are people well-to-do because they have higher IQs, and so pass these intelligence genes on to their children, or do well-to-do families give their kids lots of opportunities, which raises IQs?

Identical twin studies over the past century have reached a conclusion that about 75% of IQ is a result of nature (genes) not nurture. But an interesting recent article in the New York Times called After the Bell Curve suggests that viewing nature and nurture as separate forces is misleading.

Scientists have been discovering over the past few years that we can actually turn on and off gene expression through our behavior. My husband told me about a recent study on shyness genes that found approximately the following (I'm trying to remember the numbers right and can't guarantee accuracy, but they're not far off): Of people who are shy, 90% have a certain gene. But of people who have that gene in the broader population, only 50% are shy. Apparently, if you have the gene to be shy, but your parents don't let you hide around their legs in social situations, and make a point of making you play with other kids, you won't necessarily grow up shy. Even though your genes would seem to indicate you would.

IQ scores follow a similar pattern. A child who would naturally have a high IQ who is born into a family of professionals who read to him, talk to him, ask him questions and otherwise encourage his little brain to grow, will express those genes for intelligence. A child who would naturally have a high IQ who is put in, say, an orphanage where children do not receive enough attention, will not express those genes for intelligence. A child who would naturally have a lower IQ who is adopted into a high-IQ family will still have a lower IQ than the rest of the family (as the twin studies have shown). However, if his parents provide an enriched environment, his IQ will be somewhat higher than if he'd been in a family that didn't provide such an environment.

The problem with finding that nature and nurture both matter is that people can use that reality to justify whatever they want. One could certainly make an argument in favor of early interventions for babies and toddlers in at-risk families. Providing them with an enriched environment could allow these children to express any genes for intelligence they have.

On the other hand, plenty of parents of gifted kids have been told by teachers that differences in abilities exhibited by children in kindergarten don't matter, and shouldn't be addressed, because "they all even out" over time. If nurture matters, and the teacher plans to provide a very enriching environment, she may believe that overcoming all IQ differences is possible (even though that's not what any of these studies show).

But parents of gifted kids could also use the nurture argument to their advantage. Children with naturally high IQs who are put in more enriching classes are more likely to express these genes. That seems to be a good argument for better gifted education. These kids can't be left to "fend for themselves." If they are, their actual intelligence will be less than it could be.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Teacher Training

I recently came across an article in the Examiner about one district's efforts to give its gifted program teachers special certification. You can read the piece here. By next school year, all the gifted teachers in Carroll County, a district in Maryland, will have taken a six course sequence through Johns Hopkins (a university with a deep interest in gifted education, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the late Dr. Julian Stanley).

Teacher training is actually one of the biggest problem areas in gifted education. It's also one that's not talked about much. As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, there are two main issues.

First, since most gifted children remain in regular classrooms, all teachers need training on how to best teach gifted children, just as they learn about teaching other populations. Yet very few teachers colleges require any courses on gifted learners. Few even offer them.

Second, since we hope that eventually gifted children will be in accelerated academic classes created specifically for them, this country needs a critical mass of teachers specifically certified in gifted ed. Yet many teachers colleges don't offer concentrations in gifted education, and only half the states offer certification in this area.

So it's good that Carroll County is going above the requirements to make sure its teachers know how to best run classrooms of accelerated learners. A Gifted Child Quarterly study a few years ago found that teachers with three to five graduate courses in gifted education were significantly more effective in instruction, and in creating a positive classroom environment, then teachers with no specialized coursework.

In general I'm wary of teachers colleges (they can be ideologically strange places). I'm also wary of requirements that people spend years learning to be teachers (given the shortage of math and science teachers, summer boot camps and night classes for mid-career professionals are probably fine). But I don't like that gifted education gets shut out of programs that almost all teachers have to go through. It's good to see that in Carroll County, they're not.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Those Crazy Statistics

The irascible Charles Murray is back today, writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal about black-white gaps in test scores achieved under No Child Left Behind.

Schools and districts are required to narrow the gap in test scores between various racial groups in order to receive certain levels of funding, or not be penalized. Of course, given the mean scores of different groups, and the number of people in each group, changes in mean scores can have very different effects on the gap, depending on where those means lie. Differences in pass rates, another key factor in NCLB tests, are also subject to the whims of statistics put in the hands of people who have a vested interest in seeing them go one way or the other.

For instance, Murray quotes Pres. Bush's statements about Texas. There, 73% of white students passed the math test in 1994, while only 38% of African-American students passed it. In 2003, Bush was happy to note, the gap was only 10%. That seems great, indicating that African-American students have made a great deal of progress -- more than their white counterparts. But it's somewhat misleading. Say in one state, the pass score is relatively low -- where many students will be able to achieve it. If one group of students has a higher mean score than another, raising each group's mean score by, say, 10 points, will naturally narrow the pass-rate gap by more than that (if the scores follow standard bell curve distributions). On the other hand, if a pass rate is set particularly low in another state (say, only 40% of all students will pass), a gain in everyone's test scores could in fact make the gap appear worse, Murray notes.

Both districts under that scenario will have improved test scores. But because the second district will appear not to have closed the gap between groups, it could suffer penalties, while the first one will be rewarded.

Studies that have come out earlier this year about state NCLB tests have found that indeed, most states are making them ridiculously easy to pass in order to make sure that pass rates are high and racial gaps appear to narrow. Given how states are citing NCLB as a reason to move away from gifted education to focus on improving everyone's scores, it would be nice to get slightly more meaningful data. As Murray notes of NCLB, in practice, "It holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented, at a time when the economic future of the country depends more than ever on the performance of the most talented."