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.