Friday, June 30, 2006

Business Week: Bill Gates Gets "Schooled"

This blog has, over the past year, criticized the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Small Schools Initiative for missing the boat when it comes to challenging bright kids. The theory is fine -- kids in small schools feel like they're part of a community. They're less likely to drop out.

Unfortunately, when the Gates Foundation has taken on troubled schools and split them into 3-4 small schools, too often they have not concentrated children by ability or interest (say, a selective math/science school). Sometimes, the schools have been downright hostile to the idea of ability-grouping, choosing to "detrack." But gifted kids learn best when they're challenged to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers. Because the gifted children from the previous big schools are scattered around these new Gates small schools, there are too few gifted kids in each individual school to justify programs that meet their needs. So, their needs aren't met.

Now some other publications are picking up on this. Business Week ran a cover story in its June 26 issue called "Bill Gates Gets Schooled." The opening anecdote describes one Manual High School in Denver. A low-income school with low test scores, Manual was a testing ground for the Gates's ideas. People working with the Foundation split the 1,100 student population into three small schools. But these new schools had no particular theme and became indistinguishable. The new principals had no experience managing schools. Even worse, notes Business Week, "Because the schools were so small, they couldn't offer as many electives as before. French was eliminated, leaving only Spanish for many students who already spoke it. Advanced Placement courses were reduced. Sports teams struggled just to field squads. When the famed choir was limited to one school, the popular director left, and that program withered, along with band and theater."

Fortunately for Manual's students, Denver laws allow kids to transfer to other schools if there's room, so most of Manual's best students managed to escape this downward spiral. But of course, that just accelerated the trend. With just 580 students enrolled for this fall, Business Week says, Denver is shutting the school.

Lest anyone think Manual was just a particularly rough test case, Business Week visited 22 Gates-funded schools around the country. Notes the magazine, "they deserve no better than a C when it comes to improving academic performance." Gates schools show only slightly improved reading achievement, and worse results in math. Kids do graduate at higher rates. But if they know less when they graduate, it's hard to see how that was an improvement.

Business Week notes that some schools have turned out quite well. Mott Haven Village Preparatory School in the South Bronx, for instance, has doubled its graduation rate, and, more importantly, posts Regents pass rates of 96% for math and 98% for English ("Regents exams" are the tough exams that show New York students have mastered the high school curriculum -- about half of state high school students pass the exams each year). Of course, it's not clear that being small is what pushed Mott Haven's success. The school has an excellent principal. Gates money pays for SAT tutoring which, when you think about it, often winds up being advanced, accelerated, one-on-one work.

But another school profiled, High Tech High in San Diego, shows the philosophical problems with some of the Gates Foundation's work. High Tech High graduates 99% of its students, with most being college-ready. High Tech High also has an amazingly charismatic principal, Larry Rosenstock. He attempted to work with a network of other schools to recreate his success. But it hasn't gone smoothly.

"One point of contention has been Rosenstock's belief that dividing students into honors and non-honors classes lowers expectations for ordinary students and undercuts the benefits he sees when teens learn as a team," says Business Week.

What Rosenstock -- and the Gates Foundation -- don't seem to understand is that only in the presence of absolutely top-notch teachers and principals (like Rosenstock) can un-tracked schools have a chance of succeeding. Most teachers aren't so adept at figuring out every child's needs and meeting them. It would be great if all teachers were Teacher-of-the-Year quality (the kind Rosenstock can lure with the $17 million his school received from Gates) and capable of meeting gifted kids' needs in the regular classroom. Even with the addition of Warren Buffett's money to the Gates pot, I don't see that happening on a national level any time soon. Untracked schools have a better chance of winding up like Manual in Denver instead. It becomes a great race to the middle -- the lower middle. Only 16% of students at Gates schools make the grade in math, Business Week, says, compared with 27% of students at traditional schools in the same districts. In other words, for all the Gates Foundation's money, students in the schools it funds have often wound up slightly worse off.

I have hope that this strange love of detracking is just a result of the ideology of the people the Gates Foundation has hired to manage its education programs. Foundations have a tendency to attract people with utopian do-gooder ideas that sometimes crowd out a realist commitment to results. But Bill Gates was a very gifted little boy. Now that he is stepping down from Microsoft to devote himself full-time to the Foundation, he may demand more accountability and evidence of results for his investments -- particularly among the brightest kids at his schools.

At least I hope so. It's a shame to squander the minds of gifted kids in low-income schools just to pursue a certain ideology.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

New Jersey's Governor's School: Update from Laura Overdeck

Following up on yesterday's post... New Jersey's Governor's School, the prestigious, free summer program for gifted high school students, had been canceled due to budget cuts. Thanks to private donations, the programs will run as planned this summer.

On the webpage for the New Jersey Governor's School of Science (to be held at Drew University), the school specifically thanks John and Laura Overdeck for their generous contributions, which allowed the school to stay open. Mrs. Overdeck graduated from Princeton a few years before I did, so I contacted her through the school's alumni directory.

First, she told me she's reading Genius Denied!

Second, it turns out that she was a Governor's Scholar in Science in 1986, the program's third year. "It was an amazing, life-altering experience: it's a big reason I went on to major in astrophysics at Princeton," she told me. "I also made lifelong friends, one of whom was in my wedding a few years ago."

When Corzine announced the budget cut, NJGSS notified alumni, including Overdeck. "My husband John and I are wholehearted advocates of gifted education, self-pacing, accelerated curriculum, and programs that recognize and nurture young talent (he was an early attendee of Johns Hopkins' CTY-SET)," she says. "So after some discussion, we decided to offer to fund the Governor's School in Science for this summer." Their $200,000 donation would pretty much cover the program's costs.

But, amazingly, when Overdeck offered the state $200,000 to keep the program running, the state rejected it! She was told the program simply had to shut down. "This upset me enough that I notified the Newark Star-Ledger. Others had complained as well, and it hit the front page that week."

Long story short, NJ decided to accept the $200,000 and also recruited former state first lady Ruthi Byrne to raise the $1.9 million necessary to keep all six schools open this summer.

From her interactions with Corzine and others, Overdeck says she thinks state leaders believe NJ Governor's School should continue as a tuition-based program. The thinking is that some families can afford to pay, so why not ask them to contribute? But those families already have other options, such as summer programs at Harvard and other universities. What makes NJ Governor's School unique is that it doesn't charge tuition. Kids who can't afford expensive summer programs are as welcome as those who can. No need to apply for scholarships or financial aid. No one decides not to apply because of sticker shock. Says Overdeck, "John and I strongly believe it should remain free for all attendees. It's an honor to be selected, and tuition-free ensures that talented kids of all income groups can go."

As I said yesterday, I'm thrilled that NJ's gifted high school students still have this option, thanks to gifts from people like the Overdecks. Of course, I can't help thinking of the parallels. Can you imagine if Corzine had announced that there was no more funding for bilingual education, and that if people thought it was important, they could step up to the plate and raise the money themselves? Various state and federal laws mean he can't do that. But no one requires states to put their money where there mouths are when it comes to meeting the needs of gifted kids.

Monday, June 26, 2006

New Jersey's Governor's School survives

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry about NJ's Governor's School. This program allowed 600 academically advanced high school students to study advanced material for four weeks over the summer at no cost to them. As private summer enrichment programs can run several thousand dollars, Governor's School was a life raft for bright kids without extra income. The program cost $1.92 million, which New Jersey retroactively cut from the 2006 budget. That means that 600 students received acceptance letters for the summer, and were then told to make other plans.

Fortunately, it turns out they don't have to. Thanks to some generous donations from corporations and private individuals, the programs will now run as planned this summer. Meanwhile, alumni and others concerned about gifted education are lobbying the New Jersey legislature and Jon Corzine, the governor, to make sure funding is restored for fiscal year 2007. You can read about some of those efforts here.

I am thrilled that students will have the opportunity to study arts, sciences, engineering, and other great things this summer. But I also want to point out that New Jersey isn't relying on private contributions to make sure that other kids with special needs receive the education they deserve. Hopefully Corzine and the legislature won't get the idea that this is the way things should work in the future.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Poetry Out Loud

Here's a fun new contest that readers of this blog might like to know about: the Poetry Out Loud annual poetry slam/bee from the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. The first national contest was held in April of this year. The winner, Jackson Hille of Ohio, walked away with $20,000 in scholarships.

Here are the details. Once upon a time, kids memorized and recited poems as a way of learning about this literary form. This method of learning fell out of favor for awhile, but now it's back. When you memorize a poem, you get closer to it -- and understand it better -- than you do when you're just parsing verses for meter and reading the footnotes about how others have interpreted the words. Indeed, most poetry was meant to be experienced out loud. Our oldest poems (The Odyssey, for instance) were experienced this way. When we're little, we hear nursery rhymes out loud, and delight in how the words sound together.

So now high school kids are reliving that experience, memorizing poems such as Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, or Billy Collins' Forgetfulness and hamming it up on stage as they recite them. About 500 schools participated last year; the Foundation intends to make it truly national this coming school year.

If your kids are bored for the summer, memorizing great poems (and doing some recitation for neighbors) would be a good way to spend the time and get a jump start on participating in this contest. If you really want to give them a challenge, have them memorize a poem in another language! (and use a language dictionary or online resources to figure out roughly what it means). For more information on Poetry Out Loud, check out the Poetry Foundation's website.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Florida Students Get "Majors"

As part of a push to make high school more meaningful for kids, Florida legislators passed a law last week that requires students to declare majors. Students take a variety of core courses, then four electives in their major, and four other electives.

In theory, this is a good idea. Too much of high school focuses nothing on the world beyond it. So I'm inclined to wait and see how it goes. Perhaps schools will start expanding their offerings to include advanced science classes for science majors, specific literature genres (say, 20th century, or women writers, or Latin America) for literary types.

But I worry that, instead, this well-intentioned program will lead to bad results for gifted kids. Many high schools are a bit narrow-minded on what constitutes a career. South Carolina instituted "career clusters" recently to boost student interest. This link leads to some literature about each of the clusters. I'm not sure I could have chosen journalism, for instance -- or that a budding Egyptologist would find much to interest her (unless she could somehow link it to the hospitality industry). Kids who want academic majors would also, under the Florida majors plan, have far less time to take arts electives like orchestra or choir. This will force kids with "multipotentiality" to commit to one interest, or else fund their study on their own after school.

Ideally, schools would have adopted the "majors" approach on their own, and kids would be free to move between schools in a given area. That way, if students were interested in a focused, in-depth study in a career or academic area, they could attend that school. But it's easier to enact policies on a state level, so that's what Florida has chosen to do. We'll see how it turns out.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

William Huston, the "Brightest Boy"

Today's New York Times has an obituary on William Huston, who was chosen by Thomas Edison as the nation's "brightest boy" in 1929. Edison had bemoaned the lack of interest in math and science among youth (sound familiar?) and sponsored a nationwide scholarship contest to find the brightest young person and give him a full scholarship to college. Girls were not part of this contest; apparently Mr. Edison never considered that the brightest kid in America (if such a thing can be determined) might be female.

Anyway, William Huston won the contest and a scholarship to MIT. He died May 25 in Arizona at age 93. You can read about his life here.

For all the talk of prodigies flaming out, Huston offers a different version of this tale. Tagged at a young age as being the nation's brightest boy, he didn't let that label get to him. He did "rocket science" research for NASA, had a seemingly rewarding family life (a long marriage and six children), and basically didn't berate his children with tales of being the brightest boy (they say he never mentioned it). Given how many people constantly rehash their glory days as, say, high school football players, I found the tale pretty refreshing.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Decline of the Chemistry Set

Quick quiz: What do Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, internet guru Vint Cerf, and Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard have in common? Besides their later tech accomplishments, all spent their childhoods blowing things up with chemistry sets.

And unfortunately, they may be the last generation able to do so. "There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids -- particularly boys-- to science," Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann told Wired magazine recently. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."

Yep, chemistry sets are fun stuff for bright kids who want to do more real science than the ball-dropping "experiments" in school allow. But good luck finding a decent one these days.

According to Steve Silberman's recent story in Wired on the topic, the crackdown began after Timothy McVeigh used commonly available chemicals to construct the bomb that tore through Oklahoma City in 1995. General terror worries after September 11 prompted more concern. Then add the crystal meth epidemic to the mix. Thirty states have passed laws in recent years restricting sales of chemicals and equipment that can be used to make that drug. According to Wired, in Texas, you have to register Erlenmeyer flasks with the state's Department of Public Safety. The rise of the internet means enterprising kids can now concoct explosions straightaway, without having to tinker with the set for a while, first. And did I mention how litigious people have become? Imagine the lawsuits a real chemistry set could inspire.

But all this means that the old Porter Chemical Company Chemcraft labs-in-a-box can no longer be sold. That set had enough equipment to perform 800 experiments. The new Mr. Wizard Science Set, by contrast, comes with only five chemicals, including laundry starch. Ho hum.

The only "real" set still available, according to Wired, is the Thames & Kosmos C3000, which retails for $200. But even this top-of-the-line set comes with a list of chemicals you must purchase elsewhere in order to actually do certain experiments. Ted McGuire, the company's head, told Wired that "A lot of retailers are scared to carry a real chemistry set now because of liability concerns... The stuff under your kitchen sink is far more dangerous than the things in our kits, but put the word chemistry on something and people become terrified."

That's too bad because, in case anyone hasn't noticed, America is cranking out fewer scientists than we once did. The kind of science practiced in a lot of classrooms looks nothing like the real thing, where you have to come up with questions and find answers that aren't in the back of the book. Chemistry sets help you do that. Too many inquisitive kids these days, unfortunately, are going to have to settle for a sanitized version of the subject.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Condition of Education

The U.S. Department of Education released its annual Condition of Education report recently. This phone book-size list of statistics has a lot of fascinating information (a list of indicators is available here), but two things in particular touch on subjects we've discussed on this blog.

First, the "boy troubles" are for real. Women now comprise 59% of all graduate students, including 50% of professional degree students (ie, law, medicine, business). While the parity is nice, it's come about partly because of an 11% drop in men seeking professional degrees. Women continue to earn the vast majority of undergraduate degrees. The findings are so striking that that's the statistic the Associated Press chose to highlight in its article on the Condition of Education report.

Second, homeschooling is rising, and it's becoming an interesting blend of working at the kitchen table and other things. Over two percent of all US students are now homeschooled according to this indicator. While the majority of homeschoolers (82%) received all their instruction at home, some 12% of homeschoolers attended school for up to 9 hours a week, and 6% were enrolled between 9-25 hours.

These are positive statistics, because they show that at least 18% of schools are willing to show some flexibility on homeschooling. Most districts maintain that you're either all in or all out, and some homeschooling families want nothing to do with their local schools, for religious or ideological reasons. But many parents of gifted kids homeschool because they don't see any other options for getting their kids the challenge they need. Many of these parents would like to have their children take music, art or gym classes with other students, or specialized subjects (for instance, Mandarin) that the parents themselves might not be able to teach. That 18% of schools are willing to consider such options is a start. By the time a third say it's OK, we'll reach critical mass-- and see a lot more a la carte education. More flexibility is always a good thing for kids who don't fit inside the educational box.