Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Individual tracking comes to NCLB

On this blog, I've complained that No Child Left Behind testing doesn't track progress for gifted kids. For starters, NCLB compares groups of students over time -- say, African American fourth graders in 2004 vs. African American fourth graders in 2005. Since these aren't the same kids, the test results can show broad changes in a school, but don't show whether individual kids are learning. Second, the use of grade level tests means that children who score at the 99th percentile for their grade don't register a change one way or the other -- so you don't know if they're in a holding pattern or growing.

At least NCLB is now addressing the first problem. The federal Department of Education recently chose two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, to participate in a pilot program that tracks individual student progress. A kid in fourth grade in 2006 will be compared against his own test scores from 2005. If he doesn't show adequate yearly progress, the school can be held accountable.

If the pilot program produces usable data, then the program could spread to other states. That's a start. Then we need NCLB to ask schools to use above grade-level tests for gifted kids. A fourth grader who scores at the 75th percentile on a 7th grade test, and then at the 88th percentile on an 8th grade test a year later, is making progress. We don't know if that's true if she just takes the fourth grade, then fifth grade test.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Indiana Academy graduation, 2006

I spent this Saturday at the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in Muncie, Indiana. The school flattered me greatly by asking me to give the commencement address. So I did, and had a great time doing it. I was also thrilled to see that there were about 140 kids graduating. When I graduated in 1997, fewer than 100 of us walked across the Emens Auditorium stage. It's great that this public, residential school for gifted kids is growing. May it continue to do so!

You can read my speech at my website.

I am happy to report that the graduates did not throw rotten eggs at me. In fact, some seemed to like the speech :)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Boy Troubles

I was excited to learn yesterday that Richard Whitmire, an editorial writer at USA Today (and my former colleague), had just landed a six-figure book contract to expand on his recent New Republic article called “Boys and Books.” In that essay, Whitmire called attention to the declining academic performance of boys. He lists reasons for their sliding college enrollment rates. (Unfortunately, the New Republic website is subscription only)

Schools, Whitmire says, not only don’t shortchange girls, they favor them. That’s not intentional – it’s just that the standard college curriculum and today’s workplaces require a lot of verbal and reading skills. Boys, for whatever reason, on average, are slower to learn these skills as children. Then there’s the social aspect. While middle- and upper-class fathers read at night after work, in many blue-collar type families, reading is a “sissy” thing (as Whitmire puts it). Fathers do a lot less of it. Then the boys go to school and all day long do something they think isn’t very important – and so they disengage.

I have mixed feelings about this thesis. Whitmire has some interesting excuses for boys’ failures in school. Take this one: “Basing grades on turning in homework on time guarantees lower grades for boys. Studies consistently show boys have more trouble than girls turning in homework on time. Some educators and parents explain this by saying that many boys simply forget or decline to turn in completed homework. Here's the boy-thinking: If I answered the homework question to my satisfaction, the task is done. Why turn it in?” Yet even in very male worlds like banking and consulting, you get no credit for solving a problem until you share the answers. Those are systems set up by men who are probably a lot more egocentric than the average boy. I’d buy the forgetfulness thesis first. Maybe boys will be boys when it comes to having their growing brains leap around frenetically.

On the other hand, I would agree that many classrooms are more girl-friendly than boy-friendly. I came across this fascinating list of classroom practices that hurt boys. Culprits range from distracting, frilly decorations to journaling to the lack of male teachers in many schools. Sitting still through boring classes is hard for girls and boys, but boys can be more rambunctious about it (and are labeled as ADD more often). Competition drills get frowned upon, and class discussions reign.

Of course, you don’t have to be male to dislike class discussions on people’s feelings. I always hated them because, well, the teacher knows things the other children in the class don’t. There’s limited info to be gained from listening to your classmates blather before they’ve had time to study the material. A recent Simpsons episode made fun of these stereotypes by having Springfield Elementary split into girls and boys schools. The girls talked about their feelings about math but, much to Lisa’s chagrin, never did any of it. So she dressed up as a boy to study their math, only to learn the boys found it fun to beat each other up constantly. They bounced off the walls.

As the show suggests, I don’t think splitting up boys and girls is the answer. Then people become too inclined to give credence to gender stereotypes. As Whitmire points out, the answer is to look at schools that overcome the gender gap. These schools tend to have high expectations for everyone and work with kids to find what works for each of them. That’s not a terribly snazzy solution to this latest educational crisis but, on the other hand, you do get results.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Miss America vs. the Spelling Bees

A few weeks ago, I complained on this blog that spelling bees gave a false impression of what intelligence is. That may be true, but on the other hand, they're getting some amazing attention of late. USA Today has an interesting piece today pointing out that, this year, while ABC dropped the Miss America pageant, it is broadcasting the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in prime time. Clearly, something has happened when a major network decrees that letter-slinging 12-year-olds make better TV than swimsuit-clad co-eds.

I have a theory on this. The Miss America pageant has turned viewers off these past few years by becoming horribly confused. It's not really a "beauty pageant" anymore, it's a "scholarship contest." So the contestants wind up being pretty, but not too pretty, talented, but not too talented (they can't be professional performers), and they have to feign interest in the most politically correct causes imaginable. The girls are smart, but they're not judged on their academic prowess. Who wants to watch that?

On the other hand, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has no such confusion. Candidates win by spelling words correctly. Anyone can figure that out. I compare it to the Miss USA pageant, which is pretty much all about looks. Miss USA has seen its TV ratings rise of late, and so has the spelling bee. Are you all tuning in to the spell-down finals on June 1?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Another Early College Program

One of the things I'm trying to do with this blog is to help parents of gifted kids find the resources that are available to them. To that end, I want to share another early college option I've come across: Simon's Rock College in Massachusetts.

This small, private liberal arts college is set up specifically for younger scholars. Students usually enroll after their sophomore year in high school. They live on campus, and either complete 2-year degrees and transfer, or complete a 4-year degree. Simon's Rock is affiliated with nearby Bard College. You can read more about their programs at

One of the reasons I find Simon's Rock appealing is that the institution really does try to create the "collegiate" feel that students enrolling early elsewhere miss out on. The Portland Press Herald (of Maine) had an interesting article two weeks ago about a 14-year-old girl who was admitted to the University of Maine -- and indeed was given a full scholarship -- but wasn't allowed to live on campus. You can read the story here.

I understand the university's point. College dorms are sometimes a more adult environment than 14-year-olds should be exposed to, even if the 14-year-olds are mature. And the university is no doubt worried about liability. On the other hand, living with other scholars is a big part of the fun of going to college -- discussing ideas with other bright young people, making friends, and all that. Simon's Rock lets 15- and 16-year-olds do that in an environment set up for them. It certainly isn't cheap -- tuition, room and board top $41,000 a year -- but it is an option for kids too bored with high school to see staying two more years.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Entrepreneurship Education

Yesterday I met with Steve Mariotti, a former high school teacher (and business executive) who founded and runs the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. NFTE's offices are located on Wall Street. Indeed, much of the backing comes from banks and investment firms. Most of NFTE's main work, however, is done in low-income high schools across the country, and in low income communities around the world.

Basically, students take a course in entrepreneurship that uses a text book called How to Start and Operate a Small Business. Kids learn about profits and losses, calculating rates of return, writing business and marketing plans, dealing with customers and all those things. Many of the schools that use the curriculum have students start a (very low capital) business and ask them to try running it for part of the course's duration.

Mariotti came up with this idea when he noticed that his students at his South Bronx high school were not interested in many academic things, but they were interested in money (aren't we all?) Specifically, they were interested in ways of making money. Many had a street-smarts sense of marketing, and they enjoyed hearing about Mariotti's experience running an import-export company. I'll back up there for a second -- Mariotti started his career at Ford, started an import-export business, then was mugged in the early 1980's by a group of New York City kids. They shoved him around a bit when they realized he had only $10 in his wallet at the time. Shaken by the whole experience, he decided to confront his fears and try to change a few kids' lives by becoming a teacher. Thus his job in the South Bronx, and thus the eventual founding of NFTE.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education has done some research on NFTE's programs in Boston's schools. The results are fascinating. Only a small percentage of the children who take the high school course in entrepreneurship actually continue running small businesses. Many realize it's a far tougher job than working for someone else!

But low-income students who study entrepreneurship for a year do experience a 32% increase in their level of interest in college. A control group of Boston students experienced a 17% drop during that same period. Students who studied entrepreneurship showed an increase in time spent reading independently; students who didn't spent less time reading on their own. A follow up study found that NFTE students scored about five times higher than the control group on a scale measuring something called "locus of control." That's a fancy way of saying how in control of your own life you feel. People with high scores believe that they can change things in their lives and make things happen that they wish to see happen.

That last finding is pretty exciting. Those of you who've read Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People know that this locus of control (called "Be Pro-active" in 7 Habits) is the first habit. People who take control of their lives achieve far more than people who don't. That teenagers who've no doubt suffered a lot of discrimination, deprivation and other things can learn to see themselves as the architects of their own existence is cool, to say the least.

The more I've been thinking about the curriculum, the more I've been thinking that parents of gifted kids can adapt some elements for their own children's education. Learning how to run a business requires a kid to draw together information from vastly different areas. Rather than learn something because the text book says he should learn it, he learns it because he figures out that he needs to know it. He does this on his own (and hence increases that locus of control measurement).

Certainly running a business ropes in the 3 R's -- reading marketing literature, writing a business plan or letters to advertisers or literature for customers, using arithmetic to calculate unit costs and profits. And it's also very practical. Interviewing the lady who runs the beauty parlor down the street connects you with the real world in a way that very little in school does.

So parents looking to turn their kids on to a challenging project might try this for the summer. Brainstorm business concepts and, if you're able, provide some small amount of start-up capital (ie, $20 to make post cards about a dog-walking business to distribute to neighbors). Check out several books on starting a business from the library, and have your child make reports on the business's progress (i.e. to you, the main investor). Who knows, at the end of the summer, he might decide to continue. But even if not, he'll have learned some interesting lessons about money, budgeting, and taking control of his education.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Gifted Kids Skip Standardized Tests

In high school, I once opted out of a grade-level standardized test because it would have required me to miss several days of my above grade-level math class. This required some intense negotiation with the school. Grade-level tests are pretty much useless to gifted kids. When taken broadly by all kids, though, test scores can make a school look good or bad. So there's a trade-off. The gifted kid taking the grade-level test is bored, and has her time wasted. But the school gets the benefit of having a high score included in its average. Obviously, given the stakes these days, schools will do anything they can to keep kids from opting out. In most states they aren't even allowed to do so (my school took the line that such tests were like jury duty-- though eventually they relented).

In this era of increased standardized testing, this battle is heating up even more. The Sacramento Bee ran an article last week called Kids Skipping STAR Test noting that 135 students at Davis Senior High School refused to take their grade-level tests. These STAR tests were given right before the SAT and AP tests. So students and their families elected to have the kids stay home and study for the AP exams and SAT, which matter more for individuals.

The school was furious. Only 34 parents requested exemptions last year.
As the principal pointed out, the results of the STAR test are used to rank schools. Davis is, no doubt, a school that posts high test scores. Now the test results might not show that. Indeed, with 100 more high achievers opting out, the school's test scores will drop.

I see the school's point. But of course, my sympathies lie with the bright kids who opted out. The principal may claim that the evidence of so many 99th percentile scores would indicate that Davis is a good school, but gifted kids will score at the 99th percentile on grade level tests even if they're not learning a thing. Such scores tell you nothing about the quality of the school with regard to gifted kids. A school that challenged gifted kids would show a rise in an individual's test scores. To get that for kids who start at the 99th percentile, you have to test them above grade level.

I'd like to see a testing rubric that does just that. A few months ago on this blog, we discussed testing software that would let you answer questions at a higher and higher level until you hit your max. That would give you an indication of your real grade level. You could take a similar test at the end of the school year. If you scored higher -- good for the school. If you didn't, the public should know that -- even if you're testing three grades above level, and would have scored a 99 both times on a grade-level test.

But California doesn't have such an option in place. There are other compromises, of course. The state and the schools could develop some formula for subbing SAT scores and AP scores for grade-level tests. This would require an asterisk in the report. But personally, I'd be more interested in learning that students earned a lot of 5's on AP tests than a school's grade-level scores. The AP tests are enough above grade level that 5's do tell you something. We shall see if anyone tries anything along these lines. In the meantime, though, expect to see a lot more battles in this area over the next few years.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Indiana Academy Graduation

I'll be speaking to the graduating class of 2006 at the Indiana Academy in Muncie, Indiana in about two weeks. As some of you know, this is my alma mater, so I'm very excited about (and flattered by) this opportunity.

The Academy (as students call it) is one of about a dozen public, residential schools for gifted kids nationwide. It's also a little different from most in that the word "Humanities" is in the full school name, and these fields are a crucial part of the curriculum. Almost all of the 150 or so graduating seniors will be going on to college after graduating.

I've been working on a speech, but of course I don't want to take myself too seriously or offer too much life advice when I've only been out of high school nine years myself. So here's a question for Gifted Exchange readers. What do you wish your high school graduation speaker would have said to you?

One possible theme. I just turned in Grindhopping, my next book, to McGraw-Hill today. One of the chapters deals with the idea that fairy godmothers are lazy people. You need a lot of luck to build a good life and a good career, or even to get everything out of college you can. But you can't leave too much up to chance. You have to know where you're going and be prepared to seize on chance opportunities that will help you get there as they arise.

Oh, and another one. Be sure to see the world outside Indiana. Too soon you wind up getting caught up in work and school and family and travel gets a bit more difficult.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Losing our Programming Edge

Though most folks have been paying attention to a different Duke team, Business Week has an interesting article in the May 1 edition about the Duke computer programming squad. Competing in the finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest in San Antonio, they completed only one of the challenging problems posed to them. The Russian team that won nailed six. Business Week reads into this event a Red Flag in the Brain Game.

Young American students, apparently, do not have the discipline and dedication that winning international computer programming contests requires. Business Week then sets about finding reasons this is so, and actually blames the lovely, inviting green collegiate quads that detract from programming time, Ultimate Frisbee, and all that.

The blaming is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Business Week also notes that many young American programmers are worried that the good programming jobs are going overseas. The magazine then assures us that this is not entirely true -- people with a good head for business and a knack for managing teams will always be in demand here. True. But I'd go a step farther. I think the reason American teams aren't sweeping computer programming contests anymore is that young programmers -- with their logical brains -- are looking at the job market very logically and allocating their time based on what they see.

These programmers know they are good at math and science. They're realizing that people with great math skills can command high salaries on Wall Street. Plenty of people with science and math PhDs also choose to go into management consulting, because they find it more interesting than straight programming. It's those distracting activities and green quads again. As American per capita incomes rise, the brightest, most ambitious people migrate to higher-level, higher-margin jobs. Rather than being the people in companies doing research, they become the folks arranging for licensing deals to acquire that research. Rather than become programmers, they become the people who figure out which problems programmers need to solve.

There's plenty to fret about with American schools not training kids in science and math as rigorously as they might. But this latest lamentation sounds almost like old industrialists claiming the American economy is doomed because we don't make most of our own widgets anymore. Somehow, incomes keep rising. I think our young computer whizzes will do pretty well in life, regardless. Maybe they realize that spending all their time in dark rooms programming won't add as much to their future marketability as networking with their fellow classmates and professors will. We don't seem to be losing our edge in that.

Monday, May 08, 2006


Jean Sunde Peterson, a professor at Purdue University's College of Education released an interesting study on gifted kids and bullying last month. The university's official press release is available here.

I'm always wary of studies on gifted kids and bullying, because of certain social stereotypes. We assume that gifted kids are the ones with the Coke bottle glasses getting their lunch money stolen and being called "nerd" or "geek." Indeed, since the bullying definition used in Peterson's study included name-calling, it's no surprise that about two-thirds of gifted kids said they'd been bullied. A slightly more surprising result: 16% of gifted kids identified themselves as bullies. And in fact, based on some other studies of bullying, it appears that gifted kids are no more likely to be bullied than other kids. Everyone gets it at some point or another. Perhaps we should be more surprised that one-third of gifted kids hasn'tbeen bullied.

The one difference that does matter is the one Purdue points out in the headline: gifted kids are especially vulnerable to bullying when it does occur. Anyone who's spent a lot of time around gifted young people knows they have a heightened interest in fairness and social justice. This makes it tougher to brush off bullying of themselves -- or others.

Like other children, some gifted children respond to bullying with thoughts of violence. As the researchers pointed out, this could be anything from kicking a trash can to blowing up the school. The problem is that gifted kids are often quite imaginative -- and may dream up more elaborate methods of revenge than a kid whose brain doesn't work that far out ahead. The infamous school shooters had psychoses that begged to be treated, but many of them were also of above-average intelligence. Clay Shrout, who in 1994 murdered his family and took a class hostage in Union, Kentucky, had a tested IQ of 160. At the sentencing of Kip Kinkel, the Springfield, Oregon school shooter, his psychiatrist noted, "He's cognitively bright, above average. Even though he has a learning disability, his overall IQ is high."

There is no easy way around this. In a world where 16% of gifted kids admit to being bullies themselves, ability grouping will create classes where being smart isn't a teasible characteristic, but won't get rid of bullying. The bullies will find something else to attack.

In general, when kids feel good about their accomplishments and their place on the planet, they don't bother bullying other kids, and they brush it off themselves. This isn't a call for self-esteem building exercises, though. When kids are challenged, work hard, and have caring adults around them, self-esteem follows. That will make bullying less of a problem for gifted kids and other kids alike.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Gifted Homeschooling

A few parents have remarked on this blog that they're investigating homeschooling their gifted kids. It's a popular option. When we were doing research for Genius Denied, the Davidsons told me that about half the families the Davidson Institute for Talent Development works with homeschool their children at some point during the kids' K-12 career. Few parents start off intending to homeschool. They're not religiously or philosophically opposed to public schools. It's just that the regular education programs their local schools offer don't work for their kids. Attempts to make accommodations go awry. So the parents take their kids out of school and attempt to teach them at home.

Of course, with gifted kids, this can be a problem too. As one mom told us, "Homeschooling an extremely gifted child is daunting. What works today is guaranteed not to work in six months. 'Canned' curricula are useless. Every single day is a challenging adventure."

So most parents of gifted kids don't wind up just teaching them at the kitchen table from the various curricular packages. They cobble together "school" from college classes, tutors, distance learning, and even half-day programs or pull-out programs at schools that are OK with that sort of thing. For instance, a kid might take calculus at the high school, music and art electives with her age-peers at the local middle school, study literature through an online provider like Stanford's Educational Program for Gifted Youth, and Spanish with a neighbor who speaks it fluently. That might work for one year. Then you have to find something else that works for the next year. Flexibility is key.

Fortunately, homeschooling parents tend to be wired types who like to help others in the homeschooling community. So there are a lot of homeschooling resources on the internet. I can recommend Hoagies' Gifted Education Pages on homeschooling, available here. While you're there, be sure to read the article in Reason magazine from Daniel Pink, author of Free Agent Nation (available directly here.) He points out that this mish-mash style of education is actually closer to the way a lot of us assemble our careers than the cookie-cutter style too many schools promote. That may be small comfort when you're tearing your hair out because you carved out 6 months to learn multiplication and your kid learned it in 6 hours. But it might inspire a smile.

Monday, May 01, 2006

More Books for Gifted Kids

Thanks to everyone who's been posting on the Izzy the Impatient "books for gifted kids" thread. People have also emailed me some names of books, and DITD sent me along some lists. For instance, here is a list of recommended biographies for young gifted kids (I attached the cached page because the actual link was broken for me, but it might not be for you; search "Brookline books gifted kids" for the actual site).

If you scroll down on this list of books for gifted kids, you'll find them broken up by appropriate age. Looking them over, I'd say most of the "junior high/high school" books are fine for younger readers too -- just give them a quick look over before giving the OK. A few I'd really like to recommend: Katherine Patterson's books (from the Great Gilly Hopkins to Jacob Have I Loved) are beautifully written; I also loved Cynthia Voigt's Dicey's Song series. Madeleine L'Engle is exciting for all ages. I think I kept trying to draw the fifth dimension (not terribly successfully) after reading Wrinkle in Time.

Another interesting thing -- some of these lists break apart books for girls and boys. There is a certain comfort in reading about a hero or heroine of your same gender, but many books can easily cross gender lines.

That said, I was at a writing conference this weekend and listened to a panel given by children's book and magazine editors and agents. To a person, they said they are desperate for books for boys. They get very few of these crossing their desks. I wonder if this is a function of the fact that most YA and children's authors are women (as you can see from these lists I've linked to). It's easier, as a woman, to write from a female character's perspective -- Harry Potter being a notable exception (though even that's third person, not first). Maybe parents of boys reading this list can urge their children to grow up to be children's book authors, and expand the literature for future gifted boys.