Thursday, July 27, 2006

Teacher Training

I recently came across an article in the Examiner about one district's efforts to give its gifted program teachers special certification. You can read the piece here. By next school year, all the gifted teachers in Carroll County, a district in Maryland, will have taken a six course sequence through Johns Hopkins (a university with a deep interest in gifted education, thanks to the pioneering efforts of the late Dr. Julian Stanley).

Teacher training is actually one of the biggest problem areas in gifted education. It's also one that's not talked about much. As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, there are two main issues.

First, since most gifted children remain in regular classrooms, all teachers need training on how to best teach gifted children, just as they learn about teaching other populations. Yet very few teachers colleges require any courses on gifted learners. Few even offer them.

Second, since we hope that eventually gifted children will be in accelerated academic classes created specifically for them, this country needs a critical mass of teachers specifically certified in gifted ed. Yet many teachers colleges don't offer concentrations in gifted education, and only half the states offer certification in this area.

So it's good that Carroll County is going above the requirements to make sure its teachers know how to best run classrooms of accelerated learners. A Gifted Child Quarterly study a few years ago found that teachers with three to five graduate courses in gifted education were significantly more effective in instruction, and in creating a positive classroom environment, then teachers with no specialized coursework.

In general I'm wary of teachers colleges (they can be ideologically strange places). I'm also wary of requirements that people spend years learning to be teachers (given the shortage of math and science teachers, summer boot camps and night classes for mid-career professionals are probably fine). But I don't like that gifted education gets shut out of programs that almost all teachers have to go through. It's good to see that in Carroll County, they're not.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Those Crazy Statistics

The irascible Charles Murray is back today, writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal about black-white gaps in test scores achieved under No Child Left Behind.

Schools and districts are required to narrow the gap in test scores between various racial groups in order to receive certain levels of funding, or not be penalized. Of course, given the mean scores of different groups, and the number of people in each group, changes in mean scores can have very different effects on the gap, depending on where those means lie. Differences in pass rates, another key factor in NCLB tests, are also subject to the whims of statistics put in the hands of people who have a vested interest in seeing them go one way or the other.

For instance, Murray quotes Pres. Bush's statements about Texas. There, 73% of white students passed the math test in 1994, while only 38% of African-American students passed it. In 2003, Bush was happy to note, the gap was only 10%. That seems great, indicating that African-American students have made a great deal of progress -- more than their white counterparts. But it's somewhat misleading. Say in one state, the pass score is relatively low -- where many students will be able to achieve it. If one group of students has a higher mean score than another, raising each group's mean score by, say, 10 points, will naturally narrow the pass-rate gap by more than that (if the scores follow standard bell curve distributions). On the other hand, if a pass rate is set particularly low in another state (say, only 40% of all students will pass), a gain in everyone's test scores could in fact make the gap appear worse, Murray notes.

Both districts under that scenario will have improved test scores. But because the second district will appear not to have closed the gap between groups, it could suffer penalties, while the first one will be rewarded.

Studies that have come out earlier this year about state NCLB tests have found that indeed, most states are making them ridiculously easy to pass in order to make sure that pass rates are high and racial gaps appear to narrow. Given how states are citing NCLB as a reason to move away from gifted education to focus on improving everyone's scores, it would be nice to get slightly more meaningful data. As Murray notes of NCLB, in practice, "It holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented, at a time when the economic future of the country depends more than ever on the performance of the most talented."

Friday, July 21, 2006

Nerds and Geeks

So the other day I took my computer to Best Buy’s famed “Geek Squad” for repair. Leave aside the fact that they didn’t manage to repair it (apparently there was a motherboard problem; I’ve got a shiny new laptop being shipped to me now). They were a collection of nice, normal-looking young men and women. Their advertisement posters, however, were another story. In them, characters in horrible glasses, hiked up black polyester pants and white socks promised to fix your computer, rain or shine, “Sci-fi convention in town or not.”

Now, I suppose that Best Buy’s ad designers are using “geek” in an affectionate way, These are their colleagues, after all. Referring to these very normal-looking individuals as geeks is likely just a way to make the public think they’re competent when it comes to fixing computers.

Indeed, broadly, there seems to be a move by young people to reclaim words like “nerd” and “geek” and use them positively. I’ve been reading a number of articles recently on “nerd camp.” For three of my early teenage summers, I attended the Center for Talent Development’s summer camps at Northwestern University, studying geometry, computers and literature with gifted kids from all over the Midwest.
We never called it nerd camp. But now kids do so freely, telling reporters that’s what they call similar camps at Duke, Johns Hopkins and other universities.

When people reclaim words, they take some of the sting out of them. That’s a good thing. But I can’t help thinking that when gifted young people themselves use such words frequently, other people feel they’ve got a license to do so, too. As things tend to go, these names will then be aimed at younger gifted kids, particularly ones who haven’t made their peace with the whole thing yet. So while I grant that the Geek Squad is a great brand name, I wish they and the nerd-camp attendees would have come up with another way to talk about themselves.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Gifted Students Shy from Fast-Tracking

Fans of Prof. Miraca Gross (of the University of New South Wales in Australia) will be happy to learn she and her colleagues are undertaking a study of how Australian schools deal with gifted children. Gross has spent years advocating radical acceleration for profoundly gifted kids. Of course, in Australia, as in the U.S., sometimes it feels like shouting into the wind, according a recent
article
in The Australian.

“I'd rather be doing well in an easier grade than be behind in a harder one,” one girl named Ceili told the newspaper.

Her attitude, the paper notes, reflects that of many educators, who worry that acceleration puts too much “pressure” on students.

For whatever reason, in the past few years, mass media in the US -- and Australia, which does not escape the English language media echo chamber -- have decided that kids are under too much pressure. They feel pressured to do well on tests, get into good colleges, participate in the right activites, etc.

Of course, given children’s actual test scores, the percentage of kids enrolled in college who need remedial classes and other such realities, I’d say they could use a bit more pressure. Or maybe any pressure they’re feeling isn’t applied in a direction that achieves results. I’d also point out that children in the US watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day, and some measurements in Australia have clocked well over two hours a day for children. If families turned off the tube, some of that time pressure might be alleviated.

But I digress. Fortunately, Prof. Gross has several good responses for those who worry that accelerated gifted kids will be under too much pressure of the kind news stories claim all kids are under. “Most of these kids would be topping the class if they went up a grade. They don't realise that,” she says.

And then the kicker: “Teachers equate acceleration with pushing the child. Teachers are afraid of hurting a kid by pushing them, so they feel better doing nothing -- but that can in fact do more harm.”
Hopefully, Prof. Gross’s new study will lay the ground work for acceleration becoming the default option for kids who need more challenge -- the accepted option -- rather than something strange and “pressured.”

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Prodigies in the age of Big Media

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, wrote a fascinating profile of a young composer named Jay Greenberg in a recent issue (unfortunately, the WSJ web page is subscription only, so I can't give a link). Greenberg is 14 years old.
He's written five symphonies and more than a dozen piano sonatas. Samuel Zyman, his teacher at Juilliard, compared him to such composing prodigies as Mendelssohn and Mozart.

Greenberg, unlike Mozart or even the more recent Benjamin Britten, though, is growing up in an age of celebrity. Our 24 hour news culture likes to find the next big thing, chew them through and spit them out.
Teachout recently listened to Greenberg's debut CD, to be released by Sony this fall. Greenberg's Fifth Symphony is strikingly well-made, he noted, though it is conservative (young Greenberg seems to be consciously following Brahms -- not a bad person to imitate, of course, but composing is about creating something new). Because it is conservative, it's unlikely that anyone will be listening to it 200 years from now, Teachout states.

So what? We won't be listining to Beyonce, either. But quality does matter with classical music, which isn't written to be flash-in-the-pan. The fact that Sony rushed to get a CD out while Greenberg is a marketable young prodigy means that he hasn't had time to perfect his craft in private. "If his handlers have their way, the immature student efforts he might someday have chosen to suppress will instead be recorded for posterity and hawked to a world-wide audience with a short attention span," Teachout writes. When audiences have a short attention span, you need to go out with your best shot. I have old stories I've written stashed places around the house. Let me just say, I'm glad they stay in the house and the world will never see them. Sometimes when young people get rushed into things -- remember the Opal Mehta flap? -- their otherwise promising adult careers get snuffed out before they can start.

On the other hand, I think people -- including Teachout -- worry too much about prodigies losing their childhoods in order to pursue their dreams. He cites Ruth Slenczynska, a pianist who made a recital debut at age six and later wrote a memoir called "Forbidden Childhood." Does that "say it all" as Teachout claims? Not really. Plenty of people who don't get to pursue their talents have miserable childhoods. Prodigies likewise may or may not enjoy being children. My guess is most wouldn't anyway.
Since they're profoundly gifted, their brains will be years ahead of where their ages and bodies allow society to interact with them. That's seldom a recipe for a happy youth.

What does make people happy, though, is losing themselves in doing something they love. Which makes the hours many a prodigy spends practicing per day more like therapy than the child abuse popular culture makes it out to be.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Insufferable Genius

Thanks to blog reader Kim Moldofsky for sending this one in... A parent of a highly gifted 3-year-old wrote in to John Rosemond, a McClatchy Newspapers advice columnist, about how to deal with the daughter's lack of respect for adult authority. Now, the 3-year-old was definitely getting away with some bad behavior (such as telling her grandmother that she was the boss of the house). But reading the response, boy, does Rosemond have a chip on his shoulder about something.

You can read the exchange here. Sample quotes include:

*"You're not going to make any progress with this child as long as you think you're dealing with some unique being that represents a quantum evolutionary leap for all of humanity."

*"She is rapidly turning into a 3-year-old insufferable brat, and no one is more insufferable than an insufferable genius."

*"Stop treating her like she's an adult! Take her to a restaurant, and before you go in, let her know that you are doing the ordering, not her. If she doesn't like it, take her home and serve her beans and franks. Stop letting her make decisions that you would not be letting her make if her IQ was 100. Pick out her clothes for her in the morning, and don't let her come out of her room until she has put on what you picked out."

*"In every situation with her, ask yourself, "How would I handle this if my daughter was a normal, run-of-the-mill, garden-variety 3-year-old?" Then treat her that way, and if she doesn't like it, send her to her room until she's willing to accept her new reality."

I'm curious how the parents of precocious young kids who read this blog have managed to keep their children in check without keeping them from making all decisions on things like clothes. I thought raising self-reliant children was a good thing... But even more, I think Rosemond doesn't recognize that there are certain discipline issues that arise when a child's brain is older than her body. Simply berating parents for acknowledging this doesn't help. How have you dealt with this?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Keeping Our Edge

The Educational Testing Service (the folks who run the SAT) recently released the results of its annual poll on how American schools are doing. The results, which can be found here, show a few interesting results for gifted kids and folks who care about them.

For starters, the poll provides a useful teaching tool on how answers vary depending on how you ask the question. Half of Americans said schools are doing enough to challenge the brightest students; 46% said schools were coming up short. Among college faculty, 69% said schools were coming up short. Fair enough.

Pollsters also asked respondents to identify major problems facing the schools (from a list). 64% of Americans said that it was a big problem that gifted kids were not being sufficiently challenged to be able to compete with the best students from around the world. 84% of college faculty identified this as a big problem.

So in both cases, a good portion of people said the lack of challenge was a big problem, but they wouldn't claim schools weren't doing enough? Hmmm.... I'm still trying to figure this one out.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

What Percent Gifted... Again...

From time to time, I come across an article that basically hits all the hot buttons in gifted education in one fell swoop. A recent article in the Springfield, Illinois State Journal-Register falls into that bucket.

The Springfield school district has created the Iles School for gifted elementary school children in the city. All kindergartners take a standard intelligence test; the children who test highest are invited to look into the Iles school.

So far so good. Education would be in a much better state in this country if all districts had advanced schools for gifted children, and if all districts cast as wide a net as possible to see which children needed the challenges a school for the gifted can supply.

But after the test, things get a little funny in Springfield. The district identifies more children as gifted than can be placed at Iles. So once parents respond to the notice letter, and ask to be considered for Iles, their children's names are placed in a lottery. Which means that every year, a certain percentage of parents learn their children are gifted, according to Springfield, and then are told "sorry!" This happens randomly; a child with an IQ of 160+ who may be completely failed by a regular school can be turned down in favor of a child with an IQ of 120, who might do fine in a good, regular school.

Furthermore, even getting into the lottery requires parents to receive the letter from the district, recognize that Iles might be a good choice, and take the initiative to be included. Not surprisingly, middle-class parents are more likely to take these steps; indeed, Springfield determined that black parents were participating in the lottery at lower rates than white parents, even though all their children had been identified as gifted. So much for the district being inclusive.

At the same time, people have been worried that Springfield's high rate of giftedness (about 9% of children are deemed gifted after the IQ test) means the program will be watered down. There's something to this. Children whose IQs put them in the top tenth of 1% of the population have very different needs than those whose IQs put them in the top 5-10%.

But this leaves the question: How should Springfield structure its program? I'm guessing that one of the reasons so many students are identified as gifted is that the district worries a higher cut-off will mean fewer kids from minority backgrounds or lower socioeconomic levels will attend Iles. I think they worry needlessly -- gifted kids come in all colors. But if some parents are responding at lower rates than other parents, the wide net concept isn't working as well as it should.

My preference would be to set a cut-off for the gifted designation in Springfield at exactly the level that the Iles school can accommodate. Then children who test above that level should be assigned automatically to Iles. No opting in. No lottery. (Parents could pull children out if they wished).

This would be an arbitrary cut-off, for sure. If Iles built more classrooms, the definition of gifted would expand. If there was a baby boom in Springfield, the gifted definition would likewise shrink to a smaller percentage. But designating children as gifted is always somewhat arbitrary when it comes to cut-offs. It is less arbitrary, though, when it comes to the individual highly gifted children who need special challenges. Children in the top tenth of 1% are just different than other kids. Of course, that's a hard thing to build a broad policy around! Continuing to use the intelligence test, and having parents opt out, rather than in, maximizes the chances of those highly gifted kids getting the education they need.

I'm curious how other people would like to see Springfield structure its gifted program.