Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Flying High (learning on your own)

As some of you know, I'm writing a book on young people who build their own careers doing things they love outside the traditional corporate grind. While researching this topic, I'm coming across some great stories, like this one of Jamail Larkins, an acrobatic pilot and motivational speaker, or a young woman I just found who started a company that runs surfing camps for girls. On Thursday I'm interviewing a young man who started a toy company; I just wrote a profile of a young woman who designs and sells renegade needlepoint patterns (think sushi rolls and tattoos, not the bunnies and bonnets your grandmother stitched).

All of these bright, gifted young people were highly impatient with the corporate world. Big companies insisted they take on responsibility only when some higher-up deemed them ready. It's reminding me a lot of the impatience I heard from kids as I researched Genius Denied. These kids wanted to move on to new topics when they felt ready, not when their age or the textbook decreed that OK.

I'm writing my book in part because the corporate world's career ladders are disintegrating. In the next few decades, more of us will have to strike out on our own. For reasons from layoffs to burn-out, it's the rare person who will spend her whole career at one company. Even the academic world -- where many a grown-up gifted kid lands -- is increasingly relying on adjuncts, and so putting young PhDs in a position where they have to scramble to find work that fulfills them and pays them well. More and more of us will have to learn as we go. It won't even be clear what we *should* learn.

The problem is that this is the complete opposite situation from how we learn in school. There, it's very clear what we should learn -- the curriculum from grade 9, then grade 10. Even when we get to accelerate, it's still clear what's next. This is as old-fashioned a set-up as IBM's old lifetime employment career tracks.

But it's also a tricky issue to handle. Students do need a certain background in reading, writing and arithmetic, not to mention computer science and other fields. Many a graduate school of education has posed this question and decided that students should undertake experiential learning. The net result tends to be kids who don't know arithmetic but have a fun time talking with other students about problem-solving strategies. That's not an improvement.

But at least gifted programs on the high school level could start incorporating this independent learning issue. Students could telescope the high school curriculum into 2-3 years, with the option to continue regular advanced study for half days their last two years. The rest of the time they can work on rigorous independent projects. This will require a fair amount of teacher involvement -- and flexibility. I blew off the research project I was assigned in high school. But I know why I blew it off. It had to be an academic research project. I've never been interested in academic research. If I'd been allowed to devote that time to investigative journalism for our school newspaper, I would have been a lot happier.

I'm wondering if any readers have kids in schools that push independent work, and how this is handled. Handled badly, it can be a waste of time. Handled well, it could give kids a leg up on planning their careers and teaching them how they'll have to learn for the rest of their lives.

I'm betting the homeschooling parents reading this blog already do this :)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Multi-Age but... Homogenous?

The Northern Wells Community School Board in Bluffton, Indiana (east central part of the state) has encountered a fascinating paradox. The local school had several multi-age classrooms (ie, second and third graders share a teacher). Yet the school board canceled the program because the powers that be worried that such a multi-age program was creating homogeneous classrooms. You can read about this puzzler in the News-Banner here.

It's no secret that high-achieving kids (and their families) tend to like multi-age classrooms. Teachers know there will be a wider range of abilities, and so plan for some kids to be more advanced than others. Kids in the lower grades can work ahead at the higher grade level -- or even skip to the higher grade -- with no awkwardness. Since parents could request placement in multi-age classrooms, the school board determined that just about all of the school's high-achieving kids were in the multi-age classes. That meant they weren't in the single age classes. Voila -- homogeneous grouping by default. And the Northern Wells School Board wasn't going to stand for that.

This is a frustrating story in many ways. According to the article, school principal Steve Darnell seemed to determine to shut down the program, claiming “It wasn’t the program that created the success stories, it was the positive interaction between the students, parents and teachers that created that memory for the child.” He stated that the staff wanted heterogeneous grouping by ability -- but apparently not by age -- and that gifted students were already being served through other programs. He also blamed No Child Left Behind, saying it requires schools to hold children accountable by grade, and so it was administratively difficult to do that in multi-age classrooms. He said that many other schools with multi-age programs cut them for just that reason.

Has anyone else experienced this in their school systems? Is NCLB really leading to the demise of the few multi-age programs out there, or did this school system just not like the idea that high-achieving kids got clustered in one class?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

MathCounts Memories

Districts and chapters held their MathCounts competitions last weekend, which means the past week has been filled with stories like this one from the Peoria Journal-Star about the mathletes.

MathCounts is a middle school math competition that pits 7th and 8th graders against mathletes from their districts first, then around their states (to select state teams), then nationally. Since the competition covers algebra and geometry, in theory, many a mathlete winds up learning these topics a few years ahead of the game, and learns them in a way that is a game. For instance, to be quick at the competition, I learned to find averages not by adding numbers and dividing, but by taking the over/under of where I was aiming and working with these numbers (eg, if Johnny scores an 86, an 85, and a 91 on his first three math tests, what score does he need for an 89 average? You use -3, -4 and +2 to get -5, which means he needs +5, or 94.) This has been more useful than one might imagine in life.

The problem, of course, is that schools with strong MathCounts programs also tend to have strong math programs to start with. So in schools where kids are already getting a solid foundation, they learn some quick tricks, like the one I showed above. In schools were they don't, they don't do very well in the competition. I helped judge the New York City MathCounts three years ago. The Young Women's Leadership School, a local charter school, scored dead last. That made me a little sore; the school has gotten deserved good press for helping bright girls aim for college, but you think they could be a bit more rigorous about math in the meantime. My school in Indiana had no MathCounts team; my mother formed and coached one since no teacher planned to do it. We had a decent run of it; we won the chapter competition my 8th grade year and placed in the state competition. But once my family wasn't involved anymore, the school stopped being involved.

I suppose MathCounts could be most useful in situations where local college math majors come in and coach a team in a school without a great math program. I hope there are a fair number of these teams. If people know of them, let me know. I'd like to profile them here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"He is quite intelligent, but daydreams..."

The Ask the Teacher column in a recent Boston Globe had an interesting question from a parent. Her son was "quite intelligent, but daydreams," got distracted easily in class and didn't always finish his work on time. A battery of tests had ruled out ADHD. The columnist, fortunately, suggested that the parent have her son tested for giftedness. "The behaviors you describe tend to trigger thoughts of an attention disorder," the columnist wrote, "but they're similar to those seen in gifted children."

As someone who daydreams, gets distracted easily and hates having my time wasted by assignments that don't make sense, this column struck a note for me. When doing research for Genius Denied, and since, I've heard anecdotal evidence of schools that issue their own diagnosis of ADHD, then expect the parent to shop around for an actual physician willing to confirm it. There are kids with ADHD, sure, that need to be treated. But there are also kids who don't fit into the lock-step watch-the-teacher, sit-still-until-we-call-on-you school mode. I shudder to think how many of the latter are having their personalities medicated away. I shudder more given recent headlines about the potential cardiac side effects of ADHD medication (the FDA is considering a black box warning for the drugs).

Anyway, one solution is to have school districts train more teachers to recognize the symptoms of giftedness, and how those can mimic symptoms of ADHD. The Houston Independent School District is actually proposing such training. According to this article from the Houston Chronicle, all kindergarten teachers would be trained to recognize signs of advanced intellectual ability. HISD is considering this in part to increase the representation of minority children and children from low income backgrounds in the gifted program, but my guess is it will result in fewer ADHD misdiagnoses as well.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The word "gifted"

I had spoken about this blog with a reporter for a journalist trade magazine recently. The resulting article gave the blog a nice mention. One thing that did surprise me, though, was that the author put "gifted" in quotes. You rarely see quotes around "special" education, though that's a coined term as well. I guess what made it jarring is that I view quote marks as a way to sneer at something. Strunk & White's Elements of Style notes on colloquialisms, "If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks. To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better."

I don't think the reporter was inviting us to join her in a select society, though. There's simply a fair amount of trepidation about using the g-word. We all have gifts of some variety or another. You can be a gifted athlete, a gifted conversationalist, a gifted liar. Why use the word just for children with high IQs?

From what I can gather of the history of gifted education, Lewis Terman coined the term gifted child in the early 1920's. He used it to refer specifically to those with high IQs because, well, that's what he studied. He believed people with high IQs would be the movers and shakers of the future, and were thus gifted with abilities that needed to be recognized. Leta Hollingworth used the phrase "gifted children" in a book title in 1926. It caught on. Most of us use the word without dwelling on it because it makes as much sense as any other word. It's a euphemism, sure. But it sounds better than "brainy children" or "High IQ children" or other phrases I could put in quote marks because I don't like them. It's also a nice metaphor. A gift is useless unless unwrapped. Likewise, being gifted won't do a darn thing for you if you don't develop your talents and work hard.

But a lot of schools don't like using the word. We've grown accustomed to acronyms, rather than simply calling something the gifted program. Think TAG, GATE, etc. In schools with lots of ability grouping, the more advanced groups are usually called the "apples" or the "blue jays" or something else that doesn't imply a value statement. Indeed, I've often joked that schools should call their gifted programs something perjorative. The clowns. The dunces. The remedial program. If parents were still willing to put their kids in there, you'd know they really needed the intervention, not that it was a prize to brag about to the neighbors.

I wonder if any blog readers have examples of euphemisms their schools have used, or ideas for what gifted education should be called.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Public or Private

6-year-old Grady Day had an enjoyable time lobbying Arizona lawmakers about gifted education recently. According to an Arizona Republic article, "First Grader Wows Arizona Legislature", Day told lawmakers he found the standard kindergarten curriculum a bit tedious. He preferred learning about things like stem cells. His family decided to put him in a Phoenix gifted program, rather than in a regular classroom in his Mesa home, to help meet his needs.

As blog-reader Kim Moldofsky points out, what's most interesting about this link is not so much the article, but the comments from the readers, below. A poster mentioned that he was once this kid. "You're cute as long as you're a dog and pony show." Then he said "I ended up homeless with a doctorate."

Who knows if it's true or not. But this missive sparked letters on whether parents of highly gifted kids should be lobbying for gifted programs in public schools, or lobbying for vouchers for private schools created solely for gifted kids (the idea being that public school gifted programs weren't as effective as they might be). Part of the mission of public schools is to educate all children to a certain level of competency. But that means, for the most part, that districts feel they're doing you a favor by creating anything outside that. Schools try to fit their gifted programs within their regular parameters, and so many choose pull-out programs that have kids learning about Robin Hood or bugs for 90 minutes a week, and then racing right back to be part of the regular program.

Private schools are certainly not free of their problems, either. Even private schools for the gifted. When I was interviewing parents for Genius Denied, I had a few parents tell me that their private schools for the gifted were even less flexible than the public schools. There, all children were gifted, so there really weren't going to be any accommodations for a kid who's IQ 160 vs. IQ 130. But a strong parents group could create private schools that do cater to gifted kids' needs specifically. They could make sure such schools continued to be run with gifted kids' best interests in mind.

So the question arises -- lobby for vouchers for private gifted schools, or lobby for public school gifted programs?

Right now, I'd have to say the latter. The Florida courts recently struck down most of that state's voucher programs, and while other state courts might be more amenable, the national political situation isn't pro-voucher enough to make the first option feasible. Not only would parents have to overcome general education establishment resistance to gifted education, they'd also have to overcome the resistance to vouchers.

Charter schools are, of course, a reasonable option somewhere between the two. So maybe that's the best choice if you have cute, brainy 6-year-olds willing to make a good speech in favor of something.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Speaking of Math and Science Academies...

New Hampshire is thinking of opening a charter school called the New Hampshire Academy for Science and Design at Daniel Webster College in Nashua next year. That's an amazingly ambitious timeline for opening a school, but you can read about it in the Boston Globe here.

The Academy would cover grades 7-12. The first half of the article is quite encouraging, talking about the rigorous science classes students could take in aeronautics and biochemistry.

The second half is less encouraging. Apparently, New Hampshire originally allowed charter schools only if local voters and local school boards near the site approved them. Not surprisingly, some small minded folks decided such schools would break their local monopolies and got every charter school proposal defeated until about two years ago.

Then the legislature started a pilot program allowing themselves to approve charter schools, and the first opened about a year and a half ago. That's a small step forward. But these new laws set charter school funding at $3500 a student. New Hampshire's regular public schools spend about $6,000-$10,000 a year educating each kid.

I'm all for saving taxpayer dollars, but I think making charter schools start out broke unless they can raise private funds is a mistake. Such a policy tempts school officials to seek out students whose families can contribute the rest, instead of throwing open their doors to whichever scientifically curious kids want to cross the New Hampshire Academy for Science and Design's doors.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Our Scientific Edge (Another Take)

Time magazine's cover story this week builds on the math news from the Business Roundtable last week, with a title "Are We Losing Our Edge?"

The gist is that Americans still produce the most peer-reviewed articles, the most innovation, and still have one of the highest productivity growth rates in the world. But bright young people who come to the US for college and graduate school are often entertaining offers to return to their home countries afterwards. And with amazing institutions like the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) cranking out top engineers, many such young people aren't even coming to the US at all. And that's before we get to the subject of the declining number of science and engineering PhDs going to American citizens... and the bad state of science and math education in our primary and secondary schools...

It's a complex topic, which is why throwing our hands up in the air isn't entirely warranted. For starters, geographic boundaries mean less these days. An Indian engineer might work in India for an American company -- does that mean America is losing its edge? Not really, and not any more than an American working in America for a pharmaceutical company headquartered in London means things have gone horribly awry.

Also, people move more. I have interviewed a number of Chinese graduate students in the US. Many would like to stay; others would like the ability to move back and forth. Few go back to China for long periods of time without obtaining US citizenship. It's still a helpful passport to have, given the uncertainties of the Chinese political situation, or the possibility of social unrest in India, Russia and other countries that send top-notch students to the US. Occasionally, there's even a touch of xenophobia in these arguments about America's scientific "edge." People who don't even understand the concept of statistical significance look at US grad schools, see a lot of Asian faces, and say "we're" losing our edge. As if many of these young people won't become "us." For that reason, Charles Krauthammer has an essay in Time saying "Don't Believe the Hype. We're Still No. 1." Google was founded by a Russian, he points out, Yahoo by a Taiwanese, etc.

I agree with Krauthammer that the opportunities in the US -- to get rich, to build a company with little government interference, to fail and then move and start over again -- are still attractive to many of the best and brightest around the world. But he brushes over the very serious problem of American students not receiving a vigorous enough education.

Ideally, America would be bringing in the best and brightest from other countries and cranking out more folks from American schools capable of doing innovative work. This isn't just a matter of standards, as most of the policies put on the table seem to indicate. Sure, it would be great if all students got a more rigorous math and science education.

But it's the top 1% of US students who will really be competing in the innovation category with their peers from around the world. Some states have recognized this and created residential math and science high schools for their top performers. These schools offer more in-depth labs and accelerated classwork (often in conjunction with state universities). That's the good news.

The bad news is that fewer than 20 states have such schools. If America really wants to push the envelope in science, creating such schools in every state would be a bold first step.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"Class" Division in Hawaii

An unfortunately titled article ( "Class Division") in Sunday's Honolulu Star-Bulletin notes that the Small Learning Communities movement has arrived in Hawaii.

This movement attempts to take the warehousing aspect out of schooling by reducing schools to a few hundred students at most. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But as readers of this blog know, small learning communities (SLCs) tend to be heterogeneously grouped to maintain someone's idea of "community." And they tend to be small enough that they'll have only a few highly gifted students. Gifted students need to concentrated and taught in classes, with their peers, that challenge them to the extent of their abilities. This does not happen in heterogeneously grouped SLCs. The theory is that such SLCs will help those on the bottom end of the achievement ladder. The Hawaii schools give some evidence of reduced drop out rates. But the anecdotal evidence also indicates that gifted students aren't being challenged at all. They're being used as tutors. And, true to form, educators seem to think that's OK. Per the article:

"The highest level of learning is when a student has the ability to instruct others," said Principal Dennis Manalili of Kaimuki High School, which also is part of the grant."

Earth to Manalili. This is one of those nice-sounding educational cliches that isn't true. You know how to multiply single digits, right? Would you learn how to multiply any better if I made you spend the next hour explaining it to me? Probably not. Having kids teach each other topics only works when both are relatively unfamiliar with the subject. If one kid knows it cold, making her teach the subject to a classmate is just using her as an unpaid teaching assistant. She isn't getting anything out of it.

As for "the grant" described in the above quote... That grant would be from the federal government. Yes, the same federal government which can only shell out a few million dollars, total, for gifted education nationwide, is paying for Hawaii to leave its gifted students behind.

What's even more frustrating about all of this is that the SLC movement is being pushed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to this article, the Foundation has put $1 billion toward creating SLCs. Bill Gates was a gifted boy at one point, and certainly knows how frustrating it can be not to be able to zoom ahead as fast as your frenetic brain will allow. I hope the Foundation will realize what's happening and start creating ability-grouped SLCs, so everyone -- those who zoom ahead and those who need a little more help -- will be able to learn as fast as they can.