Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Reviving Sputnik (or making math matter)

Every once in a while, there's a new wave of stories about how Americans are losing our edge in math and science. These articles usually talk about what happened in the wake of Sputnik. Suddenly, the story goes, Congress found money for training young mathematicians and giving young academics grants and the like. And we did wind up beating the Soviets to the moon. Maybe, the stories say, we should do the same now.

We're in the midst of another wave of such stories at the moment. President Bush is expected to talk about our competitiveness in these fields tonight in his State of the Union address. The Business Roundtable and US Chamber of Commerce are also lobbying on the matter. One proposal floating around is to pay math teachers more than other teachers, though this is vigorously opposed by the NEA. You can read about the push in an Associated Press article here.

Paying math teachers more is one solution. I'm a little wary of various proposals to "make math fun." These are noble in intent, but occasionally make math fun by watering it down. Don't get me wrong -- I hated doing worksheets of 90 single digit multiplication problems. But I recall reading an essay in O magazine last year about a young woman who hated math growing up, and then wrote that she was thrilled to see that some young people in her neighborhood now had a math program where they talked a lot about math, worked in groups and shied from the pure quant problems. Maybe that's an improvement, but I'm not sure. Some kids do like numbers without the fuzzy stuff.

I realize math is collaborative -- but I'd like to see collaboration follow after kids learn the basics individually. Here's my idea for improving America's math competitiveness. All classrooms could have a computer program (and enough screens) where kids work through math lesson plans and problems. If you get enough right, you move forward in the computer program. If you seem unsure about a concept, you or the machine summon your teacher. The teacher helps, and the computer program has tutorials as well. You move on when you master something. There are programs that approximate this now.

But the key part is that there should be no "end" of the program to correspond with the school year. If you master arithmetic, you move on to pre-algebra concepts. Master those, you move on to algebra, trigonometry, calculus, etc. One sixth grader could be stretching herself learning calculus while her classmate next to her is brushing up on her arithmetic. Both will be learning to the extent of their abilities. This is doable in a field like math (at least up through the calculus level or so) in a way it isn't in English or history. I bet you'd see a lot of kids learning a lot more than they do now. And gifted kids would be challenged. Maybe one of the tech companies pushing Congress to do something about math education could produce such a system.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Distance Learning

I attended Northwestern University's summer programs for gifted middle schoolers many (many) years ago. I just learned the university now offers similar programs online during the school year. If you're looking for another distance learning option, see the LearningLinks program webpage. You can also read a story in the Daily Northwestern about the program.

These programs are ideal for kids in small high schools that can't offer many advanced courses. You simply go to the library and log into AP Statistics instead of showing up in class for Math 9. At about $550 a course, it's not cheap, but if you've only got 2-3 kids who need such work in your school, it's cheaper than hiring a teacher.

Of course, my favorite part of Northwestern's "nerd camp" (as such programs are affectionately known among attendees) was hanging out with other kids like me. I liked the academics, but I really liked the social aspect. Being online isn't quite the same. Still it's better than nothing. A lot better.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Not-so-literate College Students

This is a "reforming education" post, not so much a gifted post, but I thought it was still an interesting topic.

The American Institutes for Research released a study last week on the skills of soon-to-be college graduates. They weren't too encouraging. I'm always suspicious of tests sprung on adults (those Jay Leno man-on-the-street interviews come to mind. Hey, sometimes we're busy with work and don't have time to follow current events!). But this study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, asked simple skill questions. Can students who are about to finish their degree programs understand a table about exercise and blood pressure, compare offers from credit card companies with different rates, and understand the arguments in a newspaper editorial? According to articles about the results, more than 50% of students at four-year colleges and 75% of students at two-year colleges could not perform these tasks.

Again, another study showing Americans are dumb. So what?

The reason we should care about this one is that the skills tested closely track skills that have long been bandied about as the point of free, compulsory public education. These students experienced such education for the full 13 years before they went on to institutions of higher learning. For the bulk of students, education should:

1. Give the student the skills necessary to hold employment to provide for his/her family and take care of his/her family and
2. Teach the student the skills necessary to participate in civic life.

If you can't understand interest rates, you'll have a hard time climbing beyond paycheck to paycheck living. If you can't read charts, the bulk of data-oriented jobs are off-limits to you. If you can't understand a table linking increased exercise with lower blood pressure, you'll have a hard time figuring out what works to safeguard your family's health. And if you can't understand arguments in an editorial, how will you understand the different arguments political candidates make, or lawyers make in trial when you serve on jury duty?

The question always raised in homeschooling cases is whether families can guarantee that they will teach their children the same skills that public education provides. If I were trying to launch a case, I'd clip this article. It seems the bar is pretty low.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Gifted Immigrant Kids

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a fascinating story about the representation of minority kids in gifted programs, though it's not fascinating for the reasons spelled out in the article (read it here).

The Birdville School District in Texas, the article notes, worries that minority students may not be represented at the right proportions in school gifted programs. Notes the article, "Birdville has identified about 8.3 percent of its students as gifted. But the district’s Hispanic students represent about 6.9 percent of gifted students while making up about 22.3 percent of the district’s 22,000 enrollment. Officials said they believe that Hispanics are underrepresented."

But then the article goes on to illustrate this point, not by profiling a gifted young Hispanic student who was passed over for the program, but by profiling a gifted young kid who immigrated with his family from Saudi Arabia -- and had no problem making the cut.

Young Khalid is in 6th grade. His father drives a taxi. His mother works at a department store. Both parents are trying to climb back up the economic ladder to the levels they occupied before immigrating (the father was a professor, the mother a tutor). But, tough circumstances or no, the family values education and has nurtured their son's gifts. The school noticed how well Khalid did in math and science. The article notes that he'd been an academic stand-out since first grade, despite his originally limited English. So he was invited to participate in the gifted program.

End of story. The article says kids like Khalid might fall through the cracks if Birdville wasn't looking, but it's not clear how. Which brings me to a different point than the one the article was making.

Those of us who've done a lot of research and interviewing in the field of gifted education soon notice that the families we're working with are as likely -- and sometimes more likely -- to be named Chang or Wzlovsky or Hussein as Smith. The biographies of Davidson Fellows show that children of immigrants, or immigrant children themselves, are far over-represented compared to their proportion of the population. Certainly, the group photos are more "diverse" than your average high school class! Immigrant families often come to America to prove themselves. They value education, nurture their children's gifts, and preach the gospel of hard work. That's a combo that's tough to beat.

Which is why I'm less worried about the proportion of minority gifted students than some educators seem to be. Sure, nets should be cast wide. Selection should be made on more than one test score. And schools shouldn't make their gifted programs so big that they become an excuse to segregate all white students from their peers. But if you look at the true top 1% of students, you'll see as diverse a group of faces as anyone could want.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Gifted Adults

The Davidson Institute reports that they get a reasonable number of queries from grown-up gifted kids who say they never knew that was what was "wrong" with them. (See this article by D. Lovecky for a round-up of the personality characteristics -- positive and negative -- many gifted adults display.) Some schools are simply uninterested in figuring out why the quiet kid in the back is bored with school, or doing anything about it. If parents don't know how or can't nurture their children's gifts, and if the child doesn't speak up or find mentors or teacher that do understand, then the kid can grow up thinking "learning isn't for me."

That's a sad situation. Fortunately, adults can control their lives in ways children can't. That means that adults who realize that maybe they weren't dumb, or weird, but just weren't being challenged, can create situations where they can feed their brains. Many, as the Lovecky article notes, become entrepreneurs. When you create the work rules, after all, you don't have to play by the ones you never liked in school. You can seek out creative fields and workplaces, especially ones that tolerate difference. You can create environments with intellectual peers by joining organizations such as Mensa and participating in their forums and activities. You can form book clubs and philosophical societies that draw people with intellectual interests. And you can always seek out activities like crosswords and auditing college courses or taking them online to keep your brain buzzing.

I'm curious if other people have suggestions for adults seeking to nurture their gifts.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How do you measure intelligence?

It's that time of year again, with thousands of high school students sitting for the SAT. It's a different beast than most of us took; now your score is out of 2400 points, not 1600. There are no antonyms, you can use calculators, quantitative comparisons have disappeared, and you need to write a 25 minute essay. USA Today has an article about the test, and various student angst problems with it here.

These changes, instituted last year, are just the most recent in a long line of reforms since the Scholastic Aptitude Test was introduced in 1926. The College Board says the test has "evolved to remain aligned with classroom practices." As such, the math section has started covering more advanced work, the word "Aptitude" has been removed, and the letters SAT now don't stand for anything.

I'm quite torn on this. On one hand, the SAT has always been about determining your ability to succeed in college. One's performance in the high school curriculum is usually the best predictive measure in this regard. A standardized exam that tests the high school curriculum helps colleges compare students across schools (when straight A students get "1750" at one school, and get "2100" at another, you have a pretty good indication which school is more rigorous). And I'm thrilled that schools now have to teach writing (the most neglected "R" in the past).

On the other hand, one of the original marks in the SAT's favor is that it didn't cover the high school curriculum. Before the early 1900's, few people beyond the sons of wealthy, WASPy families attended college. Before pursuing higher education, these young men attended a handful of northeastern prep schools. The SAT provided a way for young people from high schools that hadn't aligned their curricula with Harvard to prove they were just as much Harvard material. After all, if the SAT didn't test knowledge of the high school curriculum, nothing prevented a brilliant working class kid from a bad school from outscoring a privileged, but not so bright, boy from Exeter.

Or at least that's the theory. It's hard to design a pure intelligence test. As kids have started being exposed to more logic puzzles and games like mazes, their ability to solve such puzzles has risen. The old SAT covered subject matter such as geometry; my math score (but presumably not my intelligence) rose 140 points on the old test after taking a summer class in the topic.

The fine line between innate intelligence and subject matter exposure is one reason many educators are wary of using intelligence tests alone to select kids for gifted programs. The National Education Association website has an article on a math program in Connecticut that tries, explicitly, to expand the pool of kids identified as capable of doing advanced mathematical work, by moving beyond IQ tests.

"Kids are selected based on multiple criteria, including a special assessment of nonverbal math ability, which measures such things as spatial sense and reasoning, and standardized tests when available. Teacher recommendations and prior grades also factor in. Opening up the selection process (gifted programs in the past often selected students based on IQ scores alone) has allowed students with less obvious talents to benefit," the article says.

Yet at the same time that teacher recommendations and grades are being used, the NEA article warns teachers that "Sometimes actions speak louder than words. A kid who seems bored or disinterested (even acting up) may, in fact, need more challenging work." Since such students are less likely to be earning high marks and teacher praise, opening up the selection process might miss them.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Beauty and the Geek

So my husband has become oddly enthralled with this reality show called "Beauty and the Geek" (WB network) and to humor him, I watched part of it last night.

The show may take its place in the pantheon of pop culture salvos that create images of bright young people that stick in the collective mind. How many former gifted kids who are now about 30 can remember being called Doogie Howser? Yup, more than a few.

On one level, this reality show is better than most. It's redemptive -- we learn that the "geeks" are pretty cool, even if they do play Dungeons and Dragons or can fix a Rubik's cube behind their backs. We learn the unapproachable, glamorous "beauties" are nice girls who are eager for a project and are genuinely impressed with the geeks' intelligence (and that these young men tend to be nicer than the presumed studs most of them usually date).

But boy do we have to get through a maze of stereotypes to get there. The "geeks" are male. They're told they're chosen because they're highly intelligent, but really it's because they have certain trappings that people associate with the brainy. For instance, most wear thick glasses. Their clothing styles were not picked after religiously paging through Men's Vogue. The Dungeons and Dragons reference is just gratuitous (come on -- aren't gamers more likely to play Magic or one of the online games like Project Entropia now?)

One of the reasons many of us had a visceral bad reaction to the Prodigy Puzzle cover story in the NY Times magazine a few months ago is that the illustrations all featured stereotypes of gifted children. They had bad hair, bad glasses, weird clothes. But at least in the NY Times magazine pictures, geeks could be male and female. In the Beauty and the Geek universe, women cannot be both brainy and beautiful. That's trouble if that stereotype sticks in the public's mind.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Life and Death of a Prodigy (The New Yorker)

The 1/16 New Yorker has a long, sad story from Blood Relation author Eric Konigsberg on the suicide of Brandenn Bremmer in March of last year. It's worth picking up a copy (the story was not available online when I checked).

Brandenn was 14. He liked video games, the Middle Ages and composing music. He had an IQ on the old Stanford-Binet Form LM of 178, though there's some controversy about that test and Linda Silverman, the educational psychologist who gave it to him. In 2001, an 8-year-old boy she tested who had scored "298-plus" threatened suicide and was found to have been coached on the test. An earlier test found Brandenn had an IQ of 146, but that was probably low, as he didn't like the whole testing process (small, gifted children, no less than other small children, don't necessarily hide their feelings!)

But the number doesn't matter. Nor, really, do the various fingers one can point in blame for why this young man decided life wasn't worth living. Konigsberg is careful not to throw his weight behind a particular thesis. Brandenn had a rough life, even if it didn't seem so from the outside. He was a social boy, but because his parents thought he was a prodigy who wouldn't do well in a standard gifted program (the article says Silverman told them this), he was homeschooled and took correspondence courses. Homeschooling works well for many kids. But extroverted kids who don't have brothers and sisters at home may need a lot of time with other kids if they are homeschooled. Brandenn's parents led a fairly monastic farm existence in Nebraska -- just them and the animals. In emails and conversations before his death, Brandenn said that he was lonely, bored and depressed. He was happiest at get-togethers for other gifted students. He was probably a perfectionist and quite sensitive, like many highly gifted kids. All these things together, coupled with the general angst of teen life, and the trials of being different, may have pushed him over the edge. His access to the .22-calibre rifle he'd been using to shoot skunks that got into the barn made it easier.

None of these factors would have been easy to change. The Bremmers had roots in that small Nebraska town that went back generations; moving so Brandenn could be part of a program for the highly gifted somewhere would have been difficult, even if it would have given him the peers he needed. Perhaps the family should have been more open about the definition of Brandenn's peers (as gifted prof Tracy Cross of Ball State says in the article, "I don't believe there's much difference between a person with an IQ of 160 and one with 170 or 180." Maybe that's not entirely right, but Brandenn likely would have made good friends with kids with IQs in the 150s, whatever his tested IQ was.) Maybe he shouldn't have had such easy access to a gun, but a rural child who's been shooting, without incident, since age 6, seems trustworthy. Maybe the boy should have been in treatment for depression. But teen troubles come and go quickly, and Brandenn was good at hiding any long term suffering.

Which leaves the reader wondering what can be gleaned from this horrible story. Maybe nothing. Not all deaths teach us something. Two years before I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, the school suffered through a spate of suicides and attempts. This was around the time of Kurt Cobain's death; researchers have found suicide can be "contagious." The school cracked down. We used to joke that any hint of depression could get you sent home. That was a problem because many students went to boarding school precisely because their home situation and local schools were intolerable. Going back really would make you depressed. Unfortunately, we live in a world where gifted children have trouble fitting in. They're different. And unfortunately, some people who feel different may find it's not worth staying on this planet.

But that's not unique to prodigies. A girl I knew at my first high school committed suicide as well. Perhaps the one lesson that can be taken from Brandenn's story is that gifted kids, like other kids, need to be with kindred spirits to feel like they have a stake on this earth. It's harder to find such friends for highly gifted kids. But it's worth trying.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Highly gifted in the Puget Sound area?

If you have precocious teenagers, and live near Bellevue, Washington, check out Bellevue School District's new high school program for highly gifted kids.

Bellevue School District (BSD) pledges to provide every student with a "top-of-the-line college preparatory education." There is some evidence that children who attempt difficult classes, even if they don't do stunningly well in them, are more likely to attend college.

When I spoke with Ronna Weltman, one of the new program's architects, she told me that a large chunk of Bellevue's high schoolers now take AP classes. All well and good. Except that, as Weltman points out, it's hard to bring in children of all levels into an advanced class without slowing it down. Good teachers are attuned to their classes; they know if people are on the right page or not. In the past, AP classes had also served as a de facto gifted program that allowed the brightest kids to be around kindred spirits. The push to involve all children in AP classes had diluted that aspect.

But Bellevue's superintendent recognized this, and wished to do something for children who finished the gifted "PRISM" programs at the elementary and middle school levels. So Bellevue is rolling out a highly gifted program at Interlake High School for ninth graders next year. Students who test at the highly gifted level will take their core academic classes with other students like them. These classes will follow the International Baccalaureate program. Students will complete the high school curriculum in 11th grade. For 12th grade, they can take seminars, participate in internships (or go to college). All during high school, they'll take the fun stuff (PE, electives, music, etc.) with other students at Interlake.

The University of Washington already has an Early Entrance college program where students can skip several years of high school and start classes at UW as soon as they are ready. But as even gifted education pioneer Julian Stanley took to pointing out toward the end of his life, early college isn't for everyone. The new Bellevue program will give highly gifted students another option.

Weltman wants to make sure parents know that you don't have to live in the Bellevue School District to attend. Anyone who can reasonably make the commute to Interlake is welcome to apply.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Twice Exceptional

Dani D'Spirit is a second grader who reads at the eighth grade level, loves watching CNN and learning about archaeology and history. Last year she took a few EPGY courses online from Stanford. In short, she's your average gifted 8-year-old. Except that Dani suffered a stroke slightly before birth and has never been able to walk or talk. She communicates by pecking on a computer. The Wilmington News-Journal covered her amazing story in late December.

I can't imagine the frustration of trying to communicate your ideas with the world through such awkward circumstances. But gifted kids with disabilities wind up dealing with a lot of frustrations. At least Dani's disabilities are so obvious that they can be recognized and accommodated. I'm always amazed by the stories of gifted, severely dyslexic children who don't learn to read, but are so bright they can hide it and come across as mediocre students. I suspect one of the reasons it's been reported that 18-20% of high school drop-outs test in the gifted range is that many have some sort of disability. The disability masks the giftedness. The kid gets both bored and frustrated. Bored, frustrated kids decide school isn't for them. Dani wound up "dropping out" of first grade because she didn't like it (her parents homeschooled her for the year and used EPGY). Hopefully her teachers and schools will be able to teach to her gifts and accommodate her disabilities better in the future.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Problem of Achievement (part 349...)

I've been getting emails from various blog readers about this topic, namely, the problem with pushing for gifted education on the basis that "these children will be our future Nobel Prize winning scientists, literary novelists, composers, etc."

It's not a bad argument in the sense that movers and shapers of our society do generally come from people in the top 1-3% of intelligence.

The problem is that many programs that recognize gifted students for their early achievements don't wind up choosing the ones who actually will shape the culture.

I was reminded of this by a story in today's USA Today on the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the paper's All-USA High School Academic Team.

Since the late 1980's, USA Today has been choosing a handful of high school stars to profile every year. I have my own beefs with the selection process (community service, geographic diversity, an athletic side and some sleek marketing will get you on the list faster than pure smarts will). But regardless, these are the folks USA Today says are the best of the best. Now it's looking at the best of the best from twenty years ago.

The paper takes great care to say all these men and women, now in their late thirties, are successful. And by most definitions they are. They're doctors, scientists, writers, moms, moms who are doctors, scientists and writers, etc.

You also haven't heard of almost any of them. The paper surveyed the winners from 1987-1996. One, David Liu, is a Harvard chemistry prof who was recently named to the Popular Science "Brilliant 10" for his research. Another, Brooke Ellison, has continued to garner headlines for her disability advocacy (paralyzed in the seventh grade, Ellison went on to graduate from Harvard. Christopher Reeve directed a cable TV movie about her life, and Ellison and her mom wrote a book about living with disabilities).

Many of the others no doubt have the potential to do great things. But by age 38, we're getting out of the "potential" age and into the years where truly influential people start showing results. The All-USA team is presented as the best of the crop. The twenty years after high school are enough time to start a billion dollar company, or get elected to Congress, write a best-selling novel, compose a symphony that every orchestra in the country is itching to play.

If these All Stars had done that, USA Today would have written about it. And they didn't.

But unlike the Prodigy Puzzle article from the NY Times magazine a few weeks ago, I don't think that means we should throw up our hands and say, well, let's forget programs for gifted kids since we don't know who will do great things with their lives. I view the issues as entirely separate.

As a society, we don't devote a huge chunk of our educational resources to meeting the needs of special education students because we expect them to win Nobel Prizes. We simply view it as inhumane not to develop potential, however much is there. We think society is better off if people find learning to be an enjoyable thing, however much they are able to learn.

Gifted students deserve no less. No matter what they do with their lives.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Nation Deceived, One Year Later

In late 2004, the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa released the report "A Nation Deceived" showing how educational research supported accelerating gifted students. Written by experts Nicholas Colangelo, Susan Assouline and Miraca Gross, the report was designed to convince mainstream educators that skipping grades wouldn't cause children to became wounded psychopaths, wouldn't require anyone to stop worshipping that golden calf of "socialization" and would help kids learn better, to boot. (These are my words ... this is a serious academic report...).

A year later, the authors released a follow-up survey, which you can find in PowerPoint form here.

Let's just say the authors are a little tough on themselves. Of the 2500 respondents who were interested in the topic, 50% said the report had no noticeable impact. More said the report was not changing policies and procedures regarding acceleration in a positive direction than said it was. And while a majority said the report had a positive impact on educators in the field of gifted education, only 1% said it had a strong positive impact on educators outside the field.

The problem with this, of course, is that it does little good to have the gifted coordinator who travels between three schools conducting pull-out programs think acceleration is swell. You need the teacher of a gifted third grader to think it's a good solution, and the teacher of the fifth grade class where she'll be moving to, to accept it as well.

Advocates for gifted education are up against a tough wall here. A surveyed parent commented that she presented the findings to her son's district only to hear "Well, I'm sure there is just as much evidence against acceleration if we looked."

So what's to be done? Research alone can't change minds when educators have stuck in their heads the tale of "one child" who skipped a grade years ago and was miserable.

Families who've accelerated a child and had a good experience need to share their stories too. We need to trumpet these tales in the popular media. We need to talk about them at teachers colleges and conventions and portray grade skipping as a cheap way to meet kids' needs while lessening the headaches on teachers (dealing with vast differences in skill levels is tougher than dealing with a little difference in age). These stories will also help parents who wonder what to do for their kids, but fret that acceleration will harm them.

If anyone has some good stories of acceleration, please share!