Monday, October 30, 2006

Zooming Ahead Down Under

In response to the many international readers of Gifted Exchange who asked me to be a bit less U.S.-centric, I'm proud to bring you this story from Australia.

In the land down under, there's a saying about "cutting down the tall poppies." Namely, you don't want to stick out, and if you do, others will soon cut you down to size. That's certainly not a universal Ozzie sentiment, but unfortunately, it turned out to be school district policy for a gifted girl named Gracia Malaxetxebarria. You can read her story here.

Gracia, 12, was bored in school and wanted to move ahead a few grade levels. As the article points out, there's some precedent for this in Australia. Terence Tao, who just won the Fields medal in mathematics, was able to skip ahead and start college while he was still a pre-teen. But Gracia's Brisbane school didn't want to allow it. So her family sued and won the right for their daughter to skip grades as necessary.

As with many court cases, there are a few oddities and over reaches involved. I came across another article on the case, here, which says Gracia's mother pushed the court to give her a new home, a car and $500,000 compensation for age discrimination. The court declined to agree to that. But Gracia will be allowed to zoom ahead.

Of course, alert readers may be asking what's the difference between this case and the Levi Clancy case I wrote about last week. Don't both involve using the courts to advance gifted kids' interest?

From my reading, I believe that in the Australian case, the courts were being asked to address the case of an individual who was not given due process and indeed was treated differently than other children because of her age. Gracia had transferred to a private school and accelerated a few years; the public school completely ignored the evidence that she was earning As and Bs in her new grade. Normally, a child would be allowed to transfer to a public school from a private school at the same grade she was currently attending. Her public school was essentially changing its own policies to avoid accelerating the child. The court said that wasn't fair. No one was asking the courts to decree what the Brisbane authorities should spend their public monies on, as the voucher case does in California. I believe that's a question best answered democratically.

But hopefully the ruling in the Gracia case will encourage Australian schools to be more open to acceleration. Tall poppies deserve to grow no less than any other flowers.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Levi Clancy story (and school vouchers)

Levi Clancy and his mom, Leila, are no strangers to political controversy. In 2002, they lobbied the California state legislature to pass a law allowing any student, of any age, to take the state's high school exit exam and be considered a graduate upon passing. The law authorized schools and districts to include community college classes in gifted kids' individual education plans (IEPs) and also to pay for these classes. The legislature passed the law unanimously, but then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed it, saying it was too expensive (Levi was already attending community college classes by that time).

Four years later, the family is now taking a different approach to gifted advocacy. They are suing the state to create a mandate for vouchers to be offered to gifted students whose needs cannot be met in the normal K-12 schools. The case was argued before the California First District Court of Appeals in Sacramento yesterday. Leila's attorneys are arguing that she cannot afford to pay tuition at UCLA, and Levi Clancy needs the rigor of a 4-year college program. You can read a press release on the case here.

I have a lot of sympathy for the case. I'm in favor of school vouchers generally, not just for highly gifted kids. As a practical matter, even if California's taxpayers fully funded Levi Clancy's $9,000 UCLA education, they'd be saving money, as the per pupil attendance funding for the Los Angeles Unified School District is about $12,000. There's a good equal protection argument to be made that California residents are entitled to 13 years of education at public expense, wherever that education is obtained. Some California students with disabilities attend private schools at public expense because their local schools can't meet their needs. This case is also about a child with special needs.

On the other hand, I don't like the idea of using the courts to force issues that certainly can be decided democratically. Given how much support Leila Levi's lobbying efforts found in the California legislature a few years ago, going that route might be worth another try. California has a different governor these days, one who might be more amenable to a voucher plan for gifted kids. I understand the impulse to use the courts on both the left (witness the various cases about adequate school funding making their way through the courts) and the right (vouchers). It's clean and decisive (if not necessarily quick). But in my opinion -- and I realize a lot of blog readers will disagree -- solutions for gifted kids will enjoy broader support if they're obtained democratically than if they're forced on a state by the courts.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Better Approach to Multiple Intelligences

A few weeks ago, I complained about the overuse of the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in schools. MI identifies 9 main prisms through which children might learn. Traditional schooling, MI proponents say, focuses too much on logical and linguistic intelligences. While there's nothing wrong with the theory that every child can learn, and many children learn in different ways, MI has often been used as a Trojan Horse to bash gifted programs. After all, if there are multiple intelligences, then every child can be gifted in something. And if all children are gifted, what's the point of gifted education?

Today I came across a story about the Madison Simis Elementary School in Arizona that's attempting to address the idea of different gifts in a more thoughtful way. You can read the Arizona Republic story on the school here.

Principal Joyce Flowers told the AZ Republic that "Every child has a talent... Sometimes it's just a matter of discovering it." But rather than use this theory as an excuse to keep heterogeneous classes in all subjects, the school has actually hired additional gifted instructors, and created advanced classes in multiple different topics. Kids are screened for giftedness in each area individually. If the child shows promise, she's put in the accelerated class for that subject. At the same time, she can attend the regular level classes in other subjects if the tests show that's where she should be.

This careful screening comes a lot closer to the idea of matching the education to the child than either the heterogeneous classes many people champion, or the "130-IQ and up" globally gifted screen many gifted programs use. At Madison Simis Elementary School, it appears that a child who needs more challenge in a particular subject area gets it. While I've not observed the school in person to know if this works in reality (as opposed to in theory) it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Do any of your children attend schools that screen by different subject areas for giftedness?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Handwriting on the Wall

A recent Washington Post article chronicled the decline of cursive and penmanship instruction in schools.

Apparently, now that an essay is required on the SAT, only 15% of test takers wrote their samples in cursive. Everyone else used block print letters. Why? This is the first generation to grow up with computers available since birth. Most children now type even their early writing assignments. So while schools do a cursory look at cursive, they don't spend hours and hours on it the way they used to.

I have mixed feelings about this, particularly as it relates to gifted children. On one hand, typing requires a lot less fine motor coordination than cursive (and voice recognition software can type for people who can't master a keyboard -- an option not available with pen and paper). One of the things that holds many young gifted writers back is that their fine motor skills haven't developed as fast as their brains and their imaginations. You may have a great story in your head, but it's easy to get frustrated when your fingers make little chicken scratches on a piece of paper. Furthermore, as the Post article notes, studies show that people judge writing more harshly when the handwriting used is poor. Since this has absolutely nothing to do with the content, the widespread use of typing, even in the early grades, should level the playing field in a way that allows insight to triumph over coordination.

On the other hand... My family spent half a school year in California when I was in third grade. My elementary school class in North Carolina learned cursive while I was gone. My California class learned it right after I left. Consequently, I had to (mostly) teach myself the letters. I still am not sure why upper-case Qs look like 2s, but I did discover that I really like making those little squiggles. I write in my journal in cursive. The letters flow quickly in a way that they don't in printed block letters. Research backs this up. Free-flowing letters, the Post notes, correspond to simpler, shorter compositions (that's a good thing, as any teacher who's had to correct a windy, overwrought essay can tell you). Even if you ultimately intend to type, the quick nature of cursive writing has benefits for rough drafts. You can get your thoughts down quickly, then cross out and move sentences around with arrows as you wish.

I'm curious what other people think about the decline of cursive, and whether it's a good or bad thing for young writers. Are your children's schools teaching the topic?

Monday, October 16, 2006

What to do when your budget grows

Some districts in Arizona have recently been faced with the kind of problem educators love to have: The state legislature appropriated more money for gifted education, and all of their budgets are about to rise.

The districts and schools intend to do very different things with the money, however. Some will be more helpful for gifted kids than others. For instance, the Scottsdale Unified School District expects $81,000 for its budget this year, up from $37,000 last year. It plans to use the windfall on "supplemental material," according to this list which ran in the Arizona Republic. Perhaps these workbooks and curriculum packages will be helpful. But I'm inclined to give my thumbs up to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, which plans to spend its $105,000 (up from $44,000) on opening more separate classrooms for gifted students.

When James Kulik of the University of Michigan reviewed 23 major studies on ability grouping a few years ago, he found that gifted students placed in enriched classes gained 4-5 months academically on gifted students left in regular classrooms (over the course of a year). Gifted students placed in accelerated classes (which were trying to move ahead more quickly) gained as much as a whole year compared with comparable students left in regular classrooms.

In other words, we know that gifted kids benefit from self-contained classes. So creating them should be the first order of business for any school that doesn't have them and receives extra money. Hopefully the other Arizona districts will figure this out.
What to do when your budget grows

Some districts in Arizona have recently been faced with the kind of problem educators love to have: The state legislature appropriated more money for gifted education, and all of their budgets are about to rise.

The districts and schools intend to do very different things with the money, however. Some will be more helpful for gifted kids than others. For instance, the Scottsdale Unified School District expects $81,000 for its budget this year, up from $37,000 last year. It plans to use the windfall on "supplemental material," according to this list which ran in the Arizona Republic. Perhaps these workbooks and curriculum packages will be helpful. But I'm inclined to give my thumbs up to the Paradise Valley Unified School District, which plans to spend its $105,000 (up from $44,000) on opening more separate classrooms for gifted students.

When James Kulik of the University of Michigan reviewed 23 major studies on ability grouping a few years ago, he found that gifted students placed in enriched classes gained 4-5 months academically on gifted students left in regular classrooms (over the course of a year). Gifted students placed in accelerated classes (which were trying to move ahead more quickly) gained as much as a whole year compared with comparable students left in regular classrooms.

In other words, we know that gifted kids benefit from self-contained classes. So creating them should be the first order of business for any school that doesn't have them and receives extra money. Hopefully the other Arizona districts will figure this out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Gifted Exchange Turns One

About two weeks ago, Gifted Exchange celebrated its first birthday (it was a small ceremony, no cake!) I've been pleased with the steady levels of traffic the blog is drawing, and the number of posts from readers. Of course, I'd love to see this blog grow, too! So today's post is more of a plea for feedback from those of you who have checked in over the past year:

1. What would you like to see more of on Gifted Exchange?
2. What do you like? Don't like?
3. Did any posts cause you to do something differently or think about something differently? (Which one?)
4. How can I share Gifted Exchange with a broader audience?

I really appreciate any thoughts. You're welcome to email me privately as well: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thanks! Laura

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

More...downtime?

This one will be short, as there are workmen apparently drilling 1,000 tiny holes in the apartment floor above me, then hammering them for good measure, and I'm going to go crazy from the noise if I don't get out of here soon.

But anyway... Time magazine had a fascinating Po Bronson back page essay a few weeks ago pointing out that there are two schools of parenting. There's the Baby Einstein school, and the Barbie school. The Baby Einstein parents get written about a lot in books like Hothouse Kids and the Overachievers. They're the ones allegedly hovering over their precious kids, scheduling every minute, trying to make sure that not one single potential IQ point goes down the drain. But of course, Baby Einstein racked up $200 million in sales last year. Barbie? $3 billion. Barbie represents the vast majority of parents, for whom the question is not whether they're spending too much time with their kids, but whether they're spending enough with both parents working, or in single parent situations. The question is not whether school is too rigorous and the college application process too crazy, but whether school is preparing kids for college at all.

Given the split, why do Hothouse kid parents get all the press? The answer is that journalists who write about parenting issues and education tend to come from the Baby Einstein camp. So it makes sense to them that all parents are seeing their kids get caught up in the AP rat race, the college admission crunch, etc. We all suffer from a bit of myopia from time to time. Now it appears that pediatricians are falling for this line as well (makes sense; they're upper income and highly educated too, just like journalists). The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report the other day calling for more unstructured play time for kids. The message? We need not be super parents, dragging kids to karate, scouts, music lessons, etc. Just playing is fine.

Which is true. But I read the report after re-reading a book called "American Dream" by Jason DeParle about the recent welfare reform bill's effect on a few families. There were some successes. The moms landed reasonable jobs in nursing homes and worked full time, often two shifts to earn some extra cash. But that left the children with hours and hours of unstructured free time after school, the supposed gold standard that the pediatricians are pushing. Trust me, it didn't turn out so well for the children involved.

The truth is, the vast majority of children are not spending their afternoons in karate, scouts and tutoring. And even the ones who are often don't have the 'pushy parent' problem. I heard from one mom recently that her little girl (who's very gifted) was in five after school activities in part because school wasn't challenging her. If the AAP is worried about children's development, meaningful school reform would be a better report topic than the supposed epidemic of super parenting.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Multiple Intelligences Trojan Horse

I've been doing some research on various educational texts online, and I keep coming back to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). For an explanation of this educational theory, proposed by Harvard prof Gardner in 1983, see this website. Originally there were seven different kinds of intelligence, from linguistic to interpersonal. I believe we're now up to nine different kinds of intelligence, from "naturalist" (being especially sensitive to nature) to existential (asking deep questions about the meaning of life). You can find a chart of all these intelligences here.

The idea is that traditional schooling has focused too much on kids with logical and linguistic talents. But everyone has some dominant intelligence; teachers just have to find the right way to reach the kids. So while some kids might get fractions from a demonstration on the chalkboard, others might prefer to stack blocks of different sizes, and still others might prefer to look at a snail shell.

As an idea, there's nothing wrong with this theory. Certainly, some children are absolutely brilliant when it comes to dealing with other people, or playing sports. These skills will serve you well in life. There's also nothing wrong with the implication that all kids can learn, we just need to figure out what makes them tick.

Unfortunately, though, in reality, the theory of MI has often been used to slam educators and others who focus on gifted education as close-minded. We focus too much on IQ, which largely measures logical and linguistic intelligences. If there are nine intelligences (and who knows, why not more?), then all children can be gifted. And if all children are gifted, what's the point of gifted education? Rather than sequester the highest IQ children off from others, where they'll learn math at an accelerated pace, classrooms should embrace MI, recognizing that all the kids are learning equally, just in their own ways.

This is a problem because gifted education isn't terribly popular among the educational powers that be. It doesn't take much for a school system to decide that gifted education doesn't fit the right philosophy. So MI has become a Trojan Horse for undermining gifted education. I guess theorizing from Harvard, it's easy to forget the boredom bright children feel when they're forced to learn about, say, the former Soviet Socialist Republics by coloring a map of them. Maybe that's nurturing artistic intelligence. Or maybe it's lazy teaching with a gloss of theory put on top. Sure, all kids can learn. But boring bright kids does nothing to help the others.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nobel Americans

Like all of us, I enjoy indulging in a bit of wailing about America losing her competitiveness in research fields. Certainly the school situation isn't good over all, and the conditions some bright young scientists must endure in their primary and secondary schools is inexplicable.

On the other hand, American researchers have been having a pretty good year on the Nobel Prize front. Indeed, they've swept the awards. Roger Kornberg of Stanford's School of Medicine won for chemistry, Craig Mello at U Mass Med school and Andrew Fire of Stanford won for medicine, and the physics winners, John C. Mather of NASA and George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were announced to the public yesterday. These physicists have done groundbreaking work on the small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background that fills our universe. The thinking is that this background is lingering evidence of the Big Bang. Studying it is like studying our universe's baby pictures.

Obviously, there's a lot of great research going on at America's universities, at NASA, and at the national labs. The question is how to translate this spirit of inquiry into science at the student level, so American scientists do Nobel quality work in the future. Equipment is expensive. Talented, well-trained teachers are in short supply. Even chemistry sets are under attack (see the Gifted Exchange post on that from a few months ago).

I believe that partnerships between universities and schools will need to be a big part of the solution. While there are a few good matches out there, unfortunately, they're few and far between. When I was growing up in South Bend, Indiana, my middle and high schools were approximately two miles from Notre Dame, one of the midwest's most prominent research institutions. Yet Notre Dame could have been part of the cosmic microwave background of Northern Indiana for all anyone knew except on football Saturdays. Each institution stays in its little space, like a stereotypical scientist working alone in a lab. But as the many number of pairs of scientists winning Nobel Prizes indicates, real discovery doesn't work that way. Neither should education. Apprenticing local kids to university labs would give the universities free extra hands for simple tasks, and a great education to the students.