Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brainy Kids' Brains Grow Slowly

That's the news from Nature, the scientific journal, in a new study out today. The cortex of all children's brains thickens as they get older, and then thins during the adolescent years. The cortexes (I'm stumped on the plural) of children with IQs of 121-149 thicken more slowly than those of children with average intelligence, reaching peak thickness at age 11, instead of age 6. Nature requires a subscription, but you can read an AP article about the research here.

No one knows quite what the implications of this are. One of the study authors suggested that a slower-thickening cortex could promote high intelligence, because the child is experiencing more complex things as his brain is growing. By this theory, gifted children would get a longer learning time than others; they'd still be learning rapidly into the late childhood years, where as other children would end that stage around age 6. But I'm not sure if that works, logically. Highly gifted children show their giftedness from infancy. They don't just outpace other children after age 6. Perhaps bright children seek out more stimulation, and this somehow slows the thickening of their cerebral cortexes (Again, what is the plural?).

Regardless, the research shows that there is a physical difference between children with gifted-level IQs and children of average intelligence. IQ tests get a bad rap, and certainly they can't show what a child will accomplish in life. Maybe they can be coached, and environment certainly plays a role. But these physical differences indicate that the tests are on to something, whatever that is.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"Lawmakers Play Favorites With Schools"

If you really want to get your blood boiling, check out this recent op-ed from Arizona Republic columnist Richard Ruelas.

The Arizona legislature considered two plans recently. One increased funding for gifted education by 49%. The legislators also looked at a proposal to increase funding for English language learners by 21%. Ruelas sees a conspiracy afoot to help children named "Logan" or "Madison" who "sail through with so much ease, it's almost tedious," while leaving children named Maria or Jose behind with a measly 21% funding increase.

He's correct that the Arizona legislature has been dragging its feet on coming up with a good funding mechanism for ESL students. The state now faces hefty fines for failing to put good programs in place.

But there are two problems with his argument that the legislature's incompetence in the ESL field is in any way evidence that lawmakers prefer to give "handouts" to children who have it easy. First, English language learners and gifted students are sets with an intersection. It's pretty insulting to gifted immigrant children to suggest that there's no way, no siree, no possibility that they might be gifted.

And second, I looked up the numbers. This man is managing to whine that ESL learners are getting a low boost even though ESL funds are being boosted far, far more, per capita, than gifted funds.

Arizona has 154,000 students classified as English learners. The legislature is considering raising the per capita ESL spending (on top of the standard cost to educate a student) from $355 to $432. That means an increase of $77 per child. Total ESL spending would rise from about $55 million to $67 million.

The gifted education bill would raise per pupil spending on gifted education from $55 to $82. That's an increase of $27, or 49%.

To review. ESL funding is increasing by $77 per child. Gifted funding is increasing by $27 per child. The only reason the percentage increase is twice as high for gifted education is that gifted education is starting from such a low funding level. Call me crazy, but I don't see a $27 boost as a conspiracy to enrich the Logans and Madisons of the world. Especially when compared with a $77 per pupil funding increase in ESL.

But Ruelas doesn't care about the numbers. Read this excerpt:

"The sponsor of the [gifted education] bill, Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, testified that gifted children drop out of school because they get bored. He told me the same during a phone interview.

"'I've talked to several kids,' he said. '(They say) 'I was always in trouble. I've read all the books in the library, and then what was I supposed to do?'

"Maybe go to Barnes & Noble?"

The man doesn't get it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Learning a Second Language, Young

Bay City, Michigan is considering a fascinating new preschool concept. A new pilot program will immerse 3- and 4-year-olds in Mandarin Chinese for half the day; the children will learn in English the other half of the time. You can read an Associated Press article about the program here.

The district is not providing any funds for the program, which might be a blessing. There won't be much controversy that way (which, given the complaining about the IB program's international focus, might otherwise be anticipated). The program hopes to attract grants. It is being sold as a way to help Michigan students compete in a global economy that features 1.3 billion Chinese people, many of whom speak Mandarin.

All well and good. Portraying the program that way might help attract funds from Chinese-American business people. But I think the key to this program lies in what the Bay City gifted coordinator mentioned in the article, that children's brains are like sponges when they're this little. New evidence in early childhood development points to the idea that the brain grows like crazy when children are 0-5 years old. During these years, we are programmed to learn as much as we can about this world. After that, however, we have a little more trouble learning things. Our brains slow down on the neurological pathway development front. We learn, but not like we learn words when we're little.

Unfortunately, too few kids are immersed in rich learning environments during these years. I'm not sure what the solution to that problem is; I'm not a fan of the universal preschool proposals out there for two reasons. First, I worry that these preschool programs will suffer from the same low standards that dog the K-12 years in many public school systems. Second, many families are capable of providing enriching environments for children's early years. Parents read to their children, talk to them, play with them, take them to fascinating places, etc. Not all families need or want preschool, so making preschool mandatory, like K-12 grades are, would be a step backward.

But if families do choose to put their kids in preschool, immersion programs like this Mandarin one would be wonderful. Not only will kids learn Chinese, their brains will grow and form different, more problem-solving pathways than they otherwise might. That's what will help these Michigan kids in the global economy, not their fluency in Mandarin.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Update on Bomkamp Story

This blog has been following the story of Alison Bomkamp for the last few months. Alison is a Kentucky first grader who skipped kindergarten. Since the state of Kentucky only funds half day kindergarten, the Bomkamp family received a bill for half the cost of Alison's first grade education, or $3,000. The Bomkamps refused to pay (after all, Alison is saving the district money by taking 12 years to go through school instead of 13), and the case got a lot of media attention. As a result, the district waived the fee for the Bomkamps, but asked for future guidance from the legislature on this issue.

I'm happy to report that the Kentucky legislature passed, unanimously, a bill clarifying that children who skip kindergarten are still eligible for the free public education Kentucky provides its other young citizens. You can read an article on the news, "House Passes Funds For Gifted" in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Shauna Bomkamp, Alison's mom and an occasional reader of this blog, notes that Alison is enjoying school and doing well academically. "It's a battle, obviously, but if more parents would just be willing to speak out we can initiate change!" she says. I think we can be as unanimous about that sentiment as the Kentucky legislature was on this bill.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Sally Ride on Math and Science

USA Today has a great interview today with Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She makes a few points that are germane to the discussion on America's math and science "edge" and the role of women in creating that edge. First, we used to think that women wouldn't make good doctors or lawyers, but now those professional schools are 50-50. It's possible that stereotypes in math and science are just slightly more entrenched. Second, girls have perceptions of engineering that consist of a 65-year-old guy in a lab coat hunched over his experiments in a basement somewhere. She recommends linking promising female math and science types up with "the coolest female engineer in the company" to show that those perceptions are false. And finally, she calls for vouchers to help hold schools' feet to the fire in creating higher standards.

As the numbers at the start of the piece point out, India graduated 200,000 engineers in 2004 (I'm guessing they mean undergraduate degrees, though this isn't said). The U.S. graduated 70,000. Engineering fields will grow fast and create a lot of new jobs in the next few years. By my calculation, if the U.S. graduated as many female engineers as male engineers, the total could rise to about 115,000, a far more competitive number. I've written in previous posts that we should remember that not everyone with capabilities in math and science wants to be an engineer. I like to think I could have been a good one, but my main interests lay elsewhere. Still, changing perceptions of engineering, and some good outreach, could really shake up the situation. Hopefully Sally Ride will lead the way, just as she did into space.

Friday, March 17, 2006

IB Controversial?

In the enriched curriculum family, the IB -- International Baccalaureate -- is the lesser known sister of the more popular Advanced Placement program. But it's gaining fans. The program is offered at 677 schools in the United States. The number of IB students worldwide grew 73 percent between 2000 and 2005, to 62,885. First started in Switzerland as an internationally-recognized curriculum for diplomats' kids, the IB pushes deep inquiry into subjects, international knowledge and lengthy writing assignments.

It's also, apparently, making enemies, according to this article from the Associated Press.

Some claim the curriculum is expensive, which is probably true. Some claim it is anti-American. I checked the IB website, www.ibo.org, and it does seem that the "Individuals and societies" curricular area doesn't cover American history (it does cover Islamic history). However, IB is only a 2 year program. Presumably, American students would have studied American history in one of the other 4 years they're in middle or high school. Some also claim the IB is Marxist for its international angle, and the fact that the IB organization signed the Earth Charter. The Earth Charter is one of those funny documents that has nice sounding ideas (we will all live in peace and harmony) that, in the fine print, have the same level of realism as leprachauns. For instance, the Earth Charter states that we will, in our bright shining future, "eliminate corruption in all public and private institutions." Also, militaries will avoid activities damaging to the environment. I'm sure the militias fighting in the Sudan are thinking hard about how much they're recycling right now.

But anyway, so what? So the IB signed this charter calling for an equitable distribution of wealth among nations. Is it preferable to ditch the curriculum for this sin, and give bright kids the watered-down curriculum many schools offer, in which you learn almost nothing about economics and never have to write a 4,000 word paper on anything?

School should help kids learn to learn. You can do this reading Karl Marx, or Adam Smith, the Koran, the Bible, any work of serious social consequence. Rigorous analysis of all those works, in fact, would be preferable to the "color in a map of all the former Soviet Republics" method of learning I got in my middle years of schooling. (I got a B, by the way, because I shaded Kazakhstan in more than one color). The last thing American kids need is to lose a rigorous curricular option because of a political battle.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A "One Kid" Story

Often, when parents want to have their kids skip grades, someone will bring up the tale of "one kid" who was accelerated years ago. In this tale, the acceleration experience turned out horribly for everyone involved. As a result of this "one kid," the school won't allow other children to accelerate.

I'd like to present the story of "one kid" who did a lot better after accelerating.

Dustin Hartman has always been a very bright -- and very sensitive -- boy. He had some bad experiences in school several years ago, to the point where he developed migraines and stomach pains. His mother fought for him to get an appropriate education that didn't cause him to be so unhappy that his unhappiness turned into physical illness. The solution she and her school finally hit upon? Radical acceleration.

Now, Dustin will graduate from high school at age 13. You can read about his story in this Chattanooga Times Free Press article.

Acceleration not only made him happier, it made him healthier. It's a story worth clipping for whenever someone brings up that "one kid" who had a bad experience.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

SMPY Kids at 35

Can early talent predict grown-up talent? It can, according to a new study from Vanderbilt on the kids in the ongoing Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth. A press release on the study can be found at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/news/releases?id=25185. (sorry I am traveling in Arizona right now and don't have my html command cheat sheet with me to hotlink this!).

Basically, kids who scored above 700 on the SAT Math section or above 630 on the verbal section at age 12 were as likely as a control group of graduate students in top programs, who were first surveyed in their 20's, to be on tenure tracks at top 50 institutions or earn over $100,000 a year at age 35. Researchers compared the SMPY kids with the graduate students because these graduate students were identified as very bright as adults (by their admission to top math, science and engineering programs). The SMPY kids were identified as very bright before their teens. That both have similar outcomes on certain success measures indicates that talent searches, which find gifted kids by giving them out-of-level tests, can indeed identify talent. The prodigy-who-flames-out story is perhaps not as common as people think it is.

Of course, with studies like this there's always a certain problem with identifying what makes people successful. I'm not sure that being in a tenure track job, earning over $100,000 a year, earning a medical degree (another variable studied) or the other criteria are the sum total of success. But you have to measure something. So on these measures, the SMPY kids were successful.

But in one sense -- the Darwinian sense -- they were phenomenally unsuccessful. 60-70% of the SMPY kids (and the grad student cohort, interestingly) were childless at age 35. Only about 20-25% of the American population does not have children by that age.

In other words, America's brightest young people are far more likely to choose to have children late (and hence, likely only have one child) or not at all.

Why on earth is that? Do people think you can't go to graduate school and reproduce? Are SMPY kids more likely than others to think having children isn't a top priority? To me, exploring the reasons for this low rate of child bearing would be a far more interesting study than learning that SMPY kids earned doctorates at 50 times the rate of the rest of America.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Wilmington Charter to be "investigated"

The best school for gifted kids in Delaware is under attack for, in essence, being the best school for gifted kids in Delaware.

I visited the Charter School of Wilmington (or "Charter") three years ago to profile it for Genius Denied. No sign outside announced the school's presence, and indeed the black floors and chipping paint did not suggest a stellar institution. But on top of that chipped paint I saw posters advertising a luncheon lecture from a visiting scholar. Apparently, said scholar had spoken a few days before and so many students attended the lecture that the school had to schedule a second appearance. Students giving up their lunch break to learn more? I remember thinking that there were very few high schools in this country where that would happen.

Delaware State Rep. Nancy Wagner (R-Dover) has decided that Charter should become a school where that doesn't happen.

There's no other way to explain her insistence, as the Wilmington News-Journal reported Friday, that the Attorney General's office investigate Charter for violating Delaware state law by having a selective admissions process. She is of the opinion, according to the article, that "There is nothing in the law that allows a charter school to look at a student's academic record and pick and choose which students to accept . ... As far as I'm concerned, they are breaking the law." Charter's admissions process amounts to "skimming off the cream of the crop" as she told the News-Journal in a creamy blend of metaphors, and the article paraphrased her as saying that it's important to have gifted kids in all classrooms, so their peers can learn from them. In other words, they need to rot (like ungathered crops.. or like unused cream) in schools where kids don't flock to lunch time lectures. That would satisfy Wagner's idea of fairness.

As Wagner is the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, this is a threat to take seriously. Here's the back story.

Six Delaware companies (including pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca) chartered "Charter" a few years ago to help solve the problem of lousy math and science education in Wilmington. These companies wanted their employees' children to have a solid education, and they wanted the future local workforce to have the skills necessary to work for them. The founders tapped Ron Russo, a popular local principal, to lead the school and institute a demanding curriculum.

The first few years, Russo took everyone who applied. He also hired great teachers and instituted a curriculum littered with AP classes and beyond (like differential equations). Not surprisingly, the school had a very high dropout rate. Some students were unprepared for the rigors and decided to attend less challenging high schools. This was frustrating to Russo and the teachers.

Fortunately, demand grew as families learned about Charter. By year four, more students wanted to attend than Russo had space for. So he had to figure out what to do. Delaware state charter law allows schools to give preference to siblings or those who live within five miles, but it does not specifically provide for being academically selective. After filling spots with sibling and local preferences, charter schools are supposed to conduct a blind lottery for admissions. However, there's also a clause saying schools can choose students who show an interest in the school's methods, philosophy or educational focus.

Russo decided that it would be easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission. So he decided to cut the dropout rate by choosing students who showed an interest in a rigorous curriculum -- by doing well in school. Now students take tests for admission and must turn in recommendations.

The result is a school that tilts toward the high end of academic ability, and has a large proportion of gifted students. Not all students at Charter are gifted, but enough are that teachers can cater to these students through advanced classes, independent research and all those things that make school fun for gifted kids.

And now, the head of the House Education Committee wants to put a stop to this. She doesn't seem to grasp that the Charter situation is like the farmer with the goose who lays golden eggs. Rather than be thrilled that a Delaware public school is producing golden eggs, Wagner wants to cut open the goose to get all the eggs quickly. But if Charter has to fill its spots via blind lottery, it won't be Charter. And then families won't want their kids to attend like they do now.

Rep. Wagner's email address is Nancy.Wagner@state.de.us if any Delaware residents who are reading this blog wish to contact her. My experience with writing legislators is that it doesn't help to write if you're not from the region they represent, but it really does if you are. So pass the news along to anyone you know in Dover, Delaware. Charter's local Red Clay school district is highly supportive of the school, so the House shenanigans may come to naught. But better to let people know that someone thinks gifted kids deserve to have their needs met, just like other kids., than take the chance.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Not Understandable, or Not Interesting?

Several stories appeared in the news last week about a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation survey which questioned high school drop-outs on why they dropped out. The findings were quite interesting. Most weren't failing; more than 6 in 10 were earning C averages or better when they dropped out. Most (70%) also believed they could have finished high school if they'd tried. You can read one story about the findings in USA Today, here, "Dropouts say their schools expected too little of them".

Some studies have found that about 15-20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range, so the answers these young people gave aren't terribly surprising to me. But what was surprising was one education expert's attempts to down play the findings and pretty much rule out the explanation that school really is too boring and too slow moving for a lot of kids. According to the USA Today article, Jay Greene, who chairs the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, says the report gives an interesting perspective.

But Greene, notes the article, cautions that students' points of view represent only "a partial and possibly distorted picture."

According to the article: "For instance, 69% of dropouts say they weren't motivated, and another 47% say classes weren't interesting. That is simply another way for students to say that their basic skills weren't up to the task of high school-level work, Greene says. 'Being in school seems like a big waste of your time because you don't understand what's going on. You can't understand the material that's being assigned to you.'"

Um, what if they really do understand it? What if they aren't motivated in part because classes aren't interesting, and because they're not being challenged? I thought big chunks of high school were a waste of time, and I did understand the material being assigned to me. Personally, I'm inclined to take the perspective of dropouts who weren't failing at face value. High school needs to be more challenging for all students -- and gifted ones, especially. Being gifted is no protection against dropping out.

Unfortunately, being gifted is also no protection against the problems that young droupouts encounter, including having trouble finding jobs and qualifying for other educational opportunities. Hopefully the Gates Foundation will put their money behind finding ways to keep gifted kids engaged in school as a result of this report (alas, I'm not holding my breath, given the Small Learning Communities initiatives the foundation has been funding).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Misdiagnosed

A few posts ago we talked about gifted kids who were misdiagnosed as having ADD or ADHD. Cookie magazine's March & April issue (on news stands) has an equally alarming essay about a gifted boy named Alex who was misdiagnosed as autistic.

Cookie is a new magazine, and it's pretty funny -- think Vogue, only instead of the Fendi "it" bag your accessory is a toddler. The back cover ad has children in Kenneth Cole Reaction clothing and one of the articles is about jetting with your family to Sweden. But leaving that aside, "Normal," an essay by Aliza Valdes-Rodriguez, is worth wading through the too-cute spring frocks.

Valdes-Rodriguez's son, Alex, spoke very early. He spoke in full sentences. He wouldn't walk for ages, then just decided to do so and did so. He would become obsessed with one particular game. When he kept speaking of himself in the second or third person, though, his parents became worried. Teachers suggested it might be autism. They had him tested, and the Southwestern Autism Network said that was indeed his issue. His parents were devastated.

Of course, Alex picked up on his parents' devastation, and would talk about them being sad. This was the first clue that he might have been misdiagnosed. Autistic children have an impaired abilty to understand emotions and emotional cues from other people. Valdes-Rodriguez did some more reading, and came to realize what might have happened. "Alex," she writes, "is a brown-skinned boy named Rodriguez in New Mexico, the poorest state in the union. I remembered that when I had suggested to one of the clinicians that perhaps Alex was simply a genius, he chuckled, as if this could not be possible."

But indeed it was possible. Growing up, the writer had to fight to be recognized as gifted herself. Now, the same thing was happening with her child. She got him retested by more autism experts, and they said the original diagnosis was dead wrong. She just had a very, very, very bright boy on her hands.

So why the strange third person talking? The obsessive behavior? These are signs of autism. It turns out that Alex's parents were "colluding to make this kid the way he is," according to the professor of psychology they took him to. Both neglected and misunderstood as kids, the two wouldn't let Alex do anything on his own -- smothering him in a sense. The professor pointed out that the Rodriguez family always referred to Alex as "we" -- as in "Now we're going to put on pants." Alex was just speaking this language style right back.

Once the family became aware of the problem, they changed it, and Alex's "autism" disappeared. The writer has some great thoughts about the struggles of gifted kids at the end, but you shiver to think what could have happened if she didn't keep poking at the diagnosis to see what was true and what was not.