Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Problem with Math Teachers

I must confess -- I'm a bit of an economics junkie. So I've really been enjoying Alan Greenspan's memoir, The Age of Turbulence. In the first half he tells his story of working in high levels of government (and hanging out with Ayn Rand) over the last many decades. In the second half, he offers his take on various economic problems facing the world.

One of the big problems in America is that -- even as the economy has been going gangbusters the last 2-3 years -- an increasingly high percentage of Americans do not think it is going well for them. This is one of the results of a winner-take-all globalized economy. The return on high skill levels is much greater than it was in the past. People cannot simply earn a high school diploma, get a job in a factory, and expect to be middle class for life. Most good jobs require a college degree and, in fact, require a level of critical capacity that even many college graduates don't possess. You have to be able to solve new problems and adapt to new situations.

Many top jobs require a good grasp of math, in particular, and this is where Greenspan identifies a big problem that we have also talked about on this blog. The American education system is doing a lousy job training a broad base of students for careers that involve math. In past blog posts, we've looked at problems with the curriculum. But he identifies another economic problem: most districts reward teachers by seniority, not how much they are needed.

"A flat pay scale when demand is far from flat is a form of price fixing that undermines the ability to attract qualified math teachers," he writes. "Since the financial opportunities for experts in math or science outside of teaching are vast, and for English literature teachers outside of teaching, limited, math teachers are likely to be a cut below the average teaching professional at the same pay grade. Teaching math is likely being left to those who are unable to claim the more lucrative jobs."

Of course, economics is about generalities; many of us can point to excellent math teachers who had a strong desire to shape young minds -- or who didn't particularly like the private sector. But as Greenspan points out, even without the quality issue, there's still a quantity issue. A 2000 study of large urban districts found that 95% had an immediate demand for math teachers. Clearly, it is hard to get good people.

The simple economic solution is to pay math teachers (or any other teachers with high-demand credentials) more. In reality, this has been beastly hard to do. The culture of teaching -- to say nothing of union contracts -- often undermine this. But I recently came across a program in NYC and a few other cities called Math for America that pays promising math teachers (defined pretty much as math majors who did not major in education; the program pays for a master's degree in teaching) an additional almost $20,000 per year above the salaries they would earn as regular teachers. The America Competes Act has a provision modeled on this program that will establish National Science Foundation fellows around the country and boost their pay.

I am looking more into these programs because I think it's a fascinating idea. Money isn't everything. I chose to go into journalism rather than a math-related field for reasons that have nothing to do with salaries. But, on the whole, a bright young person who is interested in teaching might choose to specialize in math if the pay was better. Over time, that would help solve the quantity problem, if nothing else.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Brainy Baby Backlash Continues...

I was watching Oprah on the treadmill the other day when I saw an advertisement for Hooked on Phonics. In it, a 4-year-old boy was reading out loud to his mom in front of a gaggle of other amazed moms. "How old is he?" they wanted to know. They also wanted to know the first mom's secret. She said -- with some rather forced humility -- that they'd been practicing. Flash to an ad for the Pre-K Hooked on Phonics system.

The whole thing seemed a wee bit distasteful to me. Not the part about a 4-year-old reading. I know that many highly gifted young people start reading long before kindergarten because they view reading as a way to learn more about the world. Since they want to learn more about the world, they learn to read. But this is often to their parents' amazement. There is very little "practicing" going on. The ad plays into the oft-repeated dismissal that parents of these highly gifted young people are just pushing them into reading in order to impress the other moms at playgroup. If 4 years old is good, why not even earlier? Fortunately for those looking to put other parents to shame, Hooked on Phonics has a baby edition that is aimed at 3-18 months.

But also, I found the ad disturbing because I just finished reading Susan Gregory Thomas' Buy Buy Baby. This book documents how various marketers have aimed their products at increasingly young children in order to build brand loyalty, and have gotten away with it by claiming the products are educational. Her particular bugaboo (the name of a $800 stroller, by the way) is the Baby Einstein series, but as she told me when I interviewed her for an upcoming USA Today column, there's really no escaping it. Elmo's face is on diapers. One of her daughter's first words was Dora, and she hadn't seen the show. My son Jasper loves his "How Big is Baby Elmo? Baby Elmo is SO Big" board book, and he doesn't watch Sesame Street. It was simply a pleasant looking book available at Babies R Us, but now he'll have an affinity to the red furry monster -- and no doubt the lunch boxes, toys, and sleeping bags he adorns -- for the rest of his childhood. Sigh.

The humorous thing about all these products is that they must be pitched as educational in order for families to feel it's OK to buy them. Every marketer knows this. Jasper has a musical animal train toy that plays incredibly annoying songs. But they all talk about "learning about animals." It's not enough to say that giraffes are tall, or to play Old McDonald Had a Farm, or what have you. The little singing voice keeps chirping that "learning about animals is so much fun!" Gregory Thomas tells a funny story about a doll for toddlers that had the names of body parts stitched onto the appropriate places. Toy stores refused to stock it because it wasn't "educational." So it was redesigned with numbers and letters stitched on instead. Now it was deemed OK, even though the new design made absolutely no sense.

It's unclear why parents are so concerned that toys for young kids be educational. Kids learn through play, period. They certainly don't learn more watching a Baby Einstein video than they do when you talk to them while folding laundry. Gregory Thomas blames a White House 0-3 conference in 1997 which claimed that those years were absolutely critical to brain development, as well as parental worries about whether kids will do OK in our winner-take-all culture.

The Hooked on Phonics Pre-K programs play into these worries. So do the various LeapFrog game systems which give very young kids even more screen time (unlikely to help little brains, regardless).

But there is definitely a backlash brewing. Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos took a big hit recently when some researchers discovered that kids who watch the videos know fewer words than those who don't. And TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), has been featured on many blogs for its 2007-2008 Toy Action Guide which actually has the gumption to call LeapFrog's Click Start My First Computer a toy to avoid. Well!

Certainly there's no harm in pre-K kids learning their letters and numbers. But it is funny that we've become so obsessed about it, as if there is not a minute to lose in those critical early years. After all, the other little 4-year-olds are reading. All Johnny needs is a $99.95 toy, and he will be too...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Girls Sweep Seimens Competition

This year, young women won both the individual and team divisions in the annual Siemens Competition. This prestigious high school science competition awards scholarships to young people who undertake compelling research. Isha Himani Jain of Bethlahem, PA, won the individual grand prize for her research on bone growth. Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff of Plainview, NY, won the team competition for their research on tuberculosis. You can read more about the competition here.

It's always good to read about young people doing amazing things in science, period. But I found the news about the female sweep of the top awards particularly heartening, given the ongoing controversy about women's achievements in science.

A few years ago, former Harvard President Larry Summers made headlines with his statement that women were unlikely to be proportionally represented in the "most prestigious jobs" in math and science in the near future for three key reasons. First, Summers claimed that all prestigious jobs require complete devotion during one's younger years, and until women are willing to put in the hours (to the exclusion of all else) they won't gain tenure at the same rates, publish at the same rates, etc. Second, women may not be as well represented on the extremes of mathematical intelligence. This doesn't mean any one given woman is worse at math than any given man. But perhaps on the margins there's a difference which then results in low representation at the top universities. And finally, there may be discrimination. But he made very clear that he thought the first two were bigger factors than the latter.

There is definitely a problem in academia and elsewhere with the perception that getting anywhere in math and science requires devoting oneself, monk-like, to the lab. Many corporations are plagued by this same idea that people who have outside interests aren't "serious." Both men and women have outside interests. But women are more likely to put a premium on having balanced lives. Larry Summers seemed to think this inevitably meant women wouldn't be well-represented at the top. Personally, I think the institutions will change. After all, we have a female Speaker of the House who started her political career after her kids grew up. But anyway...

What the Siemens competition results are doing is putting the nail in the coffin on Summers' second point. When young men and women are given equal opportunities, and are equally encouraged to excel in scientific pursuits, young women are just as likely to achieve great results.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Another Gifted Blog

I'm excited to share the news about a new blog on raising gifted children with readers of Gifted Exchange. Kim Moldofsky, a longtime Gifted Exchange reader, has recently started contributing to BabyCenter (one of the biggest parenting websites out there). You can read some of her posts here. She writes about asynchronous development, over-excitabilities, laundry, etc. Hope to see some of you there!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior

A few newspapers run education Q&A columns, often written by educators, parents and the like. I came across this interesting one from InsideBayArea. A little girl, who is ahead of the rest of her class in various subjects, is humming, daydreaming, etc., as the teacher goes through her lessons. What should be done?

It's a good question. One of the big myths about gifted children is that they are well-behaved teachers' pets. Many get bored in class, and while some bored children just get quiet, others act out or call attention to the fact that they find class boring. Some whose social skills are less well developed may ask obnoxious questions, call the teacher or other students "dumb" and otherwise make general pains of themselves. It's hard to imagine anything more annoying than a kid who persists in humming while other children are trying to work.

Yes, gifted kids need to be given tougher work that challenges them. But bad behavior can't be tolerated, even if there is a reason for it. I'm curious how parents who read this blog have dealt with discipline challenges.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Dangerous" and "Daring" Books for Boys and Girls

When I was young, I remember hauling around one of those big books of everything -- a phone book-sized tome with page-long essays on Cleopatra, dragonflies, volcanoes, etc. -- and devouring its pages. I'd read 50 entries on a Saturday, or 10 before bed. I bored the rest of my family senseless with various tidbits gleaned from my reading and, at one point, announced that I loved my volume of "facts, all facts."

Yes, those were good times for a curious kid. During the pre-teen years, the voracious reader wants to learn everything she can about her universe, and how to have fun in it. That's why I've been smiling nostalgically for the past 24 hours as I've paged through two new books, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. Done up to look a bit like old-fashioned encyclopedias, these volumes offer bite-sized essays on everything cool in the world, as well as how-tos that give you a mischievous feeling in this era of toy recalls and injury-proof playgrounds. For instance, the Dangerous Book for Boys tells you how to build a go-kart and hunt and cook a rabbit (with explicit instructions that you must eat it -- it's no good to kill things just for sport). Delightful!

Not to be outdone, the Daring Book for Girls instructs on building a clock powered by lemons (who knew?), biographies of female pirates, examples of karate moves, instructions for telling a really good ghost story, how to whistle with two fingers and how to tie a sari. Yes, the world is a complicated place, but armed with this knowledge, the 8-12 year old reader will sail through.

These books couldn't come out at a better time. As I've been pondering Christmas presents for the children in my life, the lists of hot toys are bringing out the Grinch in me. For starters, many of the mass-market girls' dolls are completely brainless. One that "eats like a real baby?" Oy -- girls, you'll spend enough time trying to steer strained peas into real babies' mouths later in life. Why play it now? Most of the other hot toys feature screens of some variety -- as if kids don't spend enough time watching TV -- and the one science kit type that's made some lists is for making bubbles. In other words, no chemistry set with strong oxidizers that go BOOM! And forget any possibilities of skinned knees. The seemingly-cool SmartCycle, a stationary bike type contraption you hook into a TV that gets kids spinning in order to zoom through video games is, in reality, a bike that can't fall over, located in the living room where you won't get the ruddy cheeks that come from zooming down a real hill.

The Dangerous and Daring books, on the other hand, tell you to save up for a Swiss Army Knife. They tell you how to play 14 kinds of tag (banned on more politically correct playgrounds). They give you a brief history of artillery. They note the differences between genders ("as a general rule," observes the Dangerous book, "girls do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do.") And yet, both contain poetry and instructions on foreign phrases and proper grammar. We may be dangerous and daring, but it is important for all of us to learn to be civilized as well.

In short, I think these books make much better Christmas presents than more video games for the curious children in your lives. Here's hoping they stay atop the best-seller lists for the rest of the holiday season.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What's So Great About Singapore Math?

Recently, on this blog, we discussed the performance of US 8th graders on the NAEP, and how that compared with exams taken by students in various countries. As usual, Singapore came out right at the top. The vast majority of Singaporean students were deemed proficient; a far lower percentage of American students were.

Of course, the US has a long tradition of incorporating what works in other countries here. So it comes as no surprise that a number of districts have adopted "Singapore Math" curricula. Some have achieved test gains after doing so, though educational studies are almost impossible to control (i.e., are the gains from the curriculum, or the fact that the teachers went through additional training, and were excited about it? Etc.) You can read a handful of articles about the roll-outs here.

I don't have any personal experience with Singapore math. I haven't observed a class learning it. But reading over these articles, I have to say that the curriculum seems to be doing a number of things right.

First, kids learn fewer topics each year, but learn them more in depth. American kids might see 30 math concepts a year, and then re-cover 25 of them the next year. Singapore math does not repeat concepts. You learn a concept, then move on or build on it.

There are pros and cons to this. One of the reasons American schools review so many concepts is that kids move around, and there is no national curriculum (or even state curriculum sometimes). Singapore kids might move from school to school, but they'll be covering the same stuff even if they do. Kids who move into Singapore math districts in the US wind up with some big gaps.

But on the other hand, covering and then recovering concepts leads to burn-out and shallow knowledge. American students have covered various basic arithmetic concepts many times by the time they officially get to algebra. But they may not actually understand what's going on. I had a conversation with a grade school child recently in which he asked how old my baby was. Six months, I told him. So how long until he's a year old? the child asked. I turned it around and asked the kid how many months were in a year. Once we established that there were twelve, I repeated the original question. The child was somewhat confused. I have no doubt that if I'd given him a worksheet saying "12-6 = ?" he would know what to do. But a multi-step word problem requires deeper understanding of what subtraction is and why you use it. American schools tend to skimp on these.

Singapore math also encourages students to do problems in their heads, to talk them out, and to draw visual representations of the problem (as an intermediate step to doing that visual work in your head). There is some stress on speed in order to keep kids interested. I developed all kinds of short cuts and visual ways of figuring out problems when I did math contests in school, and those skills certainly helped me master various concepts. Singapore math seems to incorporate these strategies into the curriculum for kids who aren't on the Math Counts team. That's certainly a good thing.

I am not sure how this winds up working for highly gifted children. To accommodate them in a Singapore Math curriculum, one would have to rely on acceleration. If a kid has mastered the year's 10 concepts, bump her to the next year. But, on the other hand, even in the absence of acceleration, Singapore math seems to bring so many kids up to the advanced level on international comparisons that perhaps even many gifted kids are reasonably challenged. After all, Singaporean 4th graders start learning algebra (though they don't call it that -- it's presented as simply figuring out numbers you don't know in a problem).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

University at Age 7, or a "Normal Childhood"

From the UK, we have an interesting story this week about a 7-year-old boy with an intense interest in chemistry. Little Ainan walked and talked early (as many highly gifted children do) and then taught himself chemistry on the internet. Now his parents want him to go to university to study chemistry on that level. They are searching for a place that will take him, and are warning that the child will become very frustrated if he is denied the chance to do such advanced work. You can read the story here.

I don't know about the particular merits of this case. I know little Ainan needs a lot of challenge. I also know that universities are most wary of having him participate in labs (even a brilliant 7-year-old can have the coordination and concentration of a 7-year-old).

After reading enough of these stories, though, you start to notice certain throwaway comments that are in fact quite profound. For instance, the reporter feels the need to note that "Experts believe that the lack of a normal childhood can do irreparable long-term psychological damage."

Do they? What is a normal childhood anyway? I'm not sure I know anyone who feels they had one. Children who move around a lot because their parents are in the military, or are missionaries, don't have a normal childhood. Likewise, children who go to university at age 7 probably don't have a normal childhood either. But unless one believes that anyone who doesn't go to normal, local schools for grades K-12, has a perfectly normal family and normal activities, is suffering irreparable long term damage, it's hard to argue that a normal childhood is so important. Or else we're all damaged, which may be the case too.

(As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the list of child prodigies on the bottom who met a variety of fates. These two are right next to each other:
*Ruth Lawrence graduated from Oxford at the age of 13 with a first-class mathematics degree in 1985. She is now a maths professor in Israel, married with two children
*Terence Judd made his first appearance as a classical pianist at the age of 12, playing at the Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At 22 he threw himself off Beachy Head, just before Christmas 1979.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're Number 18!

Every international comparison of US students with students in certain Asian countries presents an opportunity for self-flagellation. A new analysis by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research is no different.

Phillips used various statistical techniques to convert the scores other nations achieved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, or "nation's report card" test that a sample of American 4th, 8th, and 12th graders take every few years). Specifically, he compared 8th grade mathematics scores. The results show that the U.S. is right in the middle of the pack. About two-thirds (65%) of 8th graders scored at or above the basic level, 27% scored at or above proficient, and 6% scored at or above advanced.

This isn't awful (the Jordanian equivalent of 8th graders came up with a 35-11-2 basic-proficient-advanced split on this international comparison, and those in the Philippines came up with 10-1-0). It puts the US squarely in a cohort with other nations such as Finland, England and New Zealand.

However, Americans seldom like to view themselves as being mediocre. The true stars on this international comparison are, no surprise, the industrialized Asian nations. Singapore's split is 96-73-34, South Korea's is 93-65-26, Hong Kong's is 94-64-23, Japan's is 92-61-24, and Chinese Taipei (which I understand to be the politically neutral name for "Taiwan") posts 87-61-31. Interestingly, the Flemish part of Belgium is fairly close to the Asian tigers, posting an 88-51-15 split. You can see the whole report here.

I think there are two key take-aways from this analysis. Many Americans know we have a problem with educating our most disadvantaged students. They still believe, however, that our top quarter of students is doing pretty well. This comparison shows that to be completely false. The top quarter of American 8th graders is equivalent to the "top" three-quarters of Singaporean students. Six times the proportion of Singaporean students test at the advanced level, compared with American students. Even the folks in Flanders are managing to educate two-and-a-half times the proportion of students to the advanced level as here in the U.S. There is no reason the top quarter of American students can't be educated to the advanced level, defined as being able to generalize and synthesize concepts and principles in the key mathematical areas (such as statistics and probability, algebra and functions, etc.) The fact that only 6% of American 8th graders score at this level shows that American schools are failing to challenge their top students. This is a problem, since knowing how to generalize and synthesize are key skills for competing in the knowledge economy, and given the state of American high schools, it's unlikely that kids who aren't figuring these things out in 8th grade will get much better at them later on.

Second, if we're serious about raising mathematical achievement, we need to look at what these Asian countries are doing. This isn't a new idea; periodically, some school district tries to implement "Singapore Math" or what have you. But in education, as in any social science field, it is difficult to separate out which factor works. Perhaps a certain kind of instruction is key, or perhaps Singaporean students watch a lot less television. We'll examine studies of Singapore math in some coming Gifted Exchange posts to see what people have come up with.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Joy of Distance Learning

When I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in the mid-1990's, some of my AP classes were broadcast state-wide via some innovative (for the time) software. This set-up allowed kids at other high schools to see the same lectures and ask questions. Their own on-site teachers supervised labs. It wasn't perfect, but it did allow Indiana to spread around scarce resources (high school teachers who could teach advanced science well) to as many students as possible.

Ten years later, this concept still hasn't caught on as well at the high school -- or college -- level as it could have. So there's a certain genre of "gee, isn't this cool?" article that runs about these programs whenever they're launched. For one example, see this recent Baltimore Sun article called "Technology Goes the Distance for Students." These Maryland students now have the option of taking advanced math classes without going to community colleges, which is logistically easier for all involved.

Any lecture-style class can lend itself to this format. Since most 101-level classes at college fit this mold, too, it begs the question: Why not adopt distance learning for higher education more broadly? If you think about it, there's no real reason for multiple versions of Econ 101. One awesome lecturer, nationwide, could be recorded giving the basic lessons, perhaps with computer simulations that class members could do on their own PCs, all at the same time. Grad students or other faculty could lead short break-out sessions once a week to answer questions and go over homework. Of course, this would make it seem a little more odd that some universities charge much more than others. But it would probably raise the quality of most basic college level courses and create lots of efficiencies.

The distance learning model is much harder to make work for discussion-oriented classes (which would include good literature classes). Still, a few programs such as Stanford's EPGY, and Northwestern's Gifted LearningLinks, are starting to fill the void.

This is a long time in coming. The biggest problem for gifted learners is that they are so rare. In order to have enough highly gifted kids to form a class, you need a broad geographic reach for a school. This doesn't work well if kids need to go to one place to meet with certain teachers, unless you live in a big city. There are enough highly gifted children within New York City's 8 million residents to justify a high school like Stuyvesant. There probably aren't so many highly gifted kids in a rural area. With distance learning, these obstacles start to disappear.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rush, Little Baby

The Boston Globe ran a fascinating (and, warning, rather long) piece on the infant education industry a little over a week ago. You can read the piece, "Rush, Little Baby," here.

Author Neil Swidey reaches the standard conclusion of these pieces. For most children, early formal instruction (before the usual start of first grade or at most kindergarten) does little good. Early readers are not really reading, they are memorizing and, in fact, children who are pushed to read too young are less avid readers later on. All the commercial products out there to maximize infant brain development may in fact retard such development. After all, just look at the recent study pointing out that Baby Einstein video devotees had less well-developed vocabularies than children who didn't watch such videos.

Swidey puts a lot of the research in one place, and is good at pointing out the absurdity of some claims -- and some parents. My 6-month-old son has never seen a flashcard in his life (he has seen Sesame Street, but that's because we found out it shut him up the other morning when my husband and I were both trying to get things done. We were surprised that Sesame Street had kids learning about the number 18, though. Maybe this is a testament to the infant education movement's reach. We didn't think Sesame Street went past the number 12!)

But what is true for the average child -- that kids parroting back Dick and Jane books are not really reading -- is not at all true for the highly gifted child. Swidey does mention that maybe 3% of children are truly early readers. That is, they comprehend what they are reading on the page, and how each letter or letter combination corresponds to a sound, and how stringing those sounds together makes a word. These children are able to figure out words from context. Readers of this blog -- who have seen their five and six year olds devouring Harry Potter, reading silently -- know that these children are, in fact, reading. Generally, these kids haven't been pushed at all. They learn to read because they want to discover what wonderful things are in books.

The problem is that the research cited in this piece, and the general tone of "oh those crazy parents" is often used to say that early enrichment for gifted kids isn't necessary. After all, kids all even out by third grade or so, as Swidey says. This is why many gifted programs don't start until third grade. By then, the effect of early parental striving has allegedly disappeared, so we can get down to business of figuring out who is "actually" gifted. But believing that toddlers can't actually have advanced intelligence that needs to be nurtured is as absurd as showing a 6-week-old baby a flashcard. Many parents of gifted kids have the experience of being labeled "pushy" at some point or another, and articles like this certainly add to the adversarial nature of the relationship between parents and educators. Maybe some brilliant kids haven't been pushed at all. Maybe they push their parents. Trying to hold them back is silly, and stating that they may possibly become less avid readers later on just adds to parental insecurities.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Memorization and Intelligence

ABC News had an interesting story on pint-sized prodigies the other day called Are You Smarter than a Toddler? (or alternatively, "How Young is Too Young to Start Studying?" -- it has two different titles which suggest very different things...)

Children who can memorize long lists of quotes, capitals, digits of pi, etc., are staples of the talk show and late night show circuit. They are often called "prodigies," and certainly they are "highly talented children," as my dictionary defines the word. But crack memorization skills and intelligence are different things. Intelligence is "ability to learn and understand or deal with new or trying situations." It's a difference which is occasionally disconcerting. I remember watching one little girl on Oprah who had memorized a large number of quotations. She had memorized all of them in the form of quote, and then the name of the person who said it. She stuck to this format even in situations where it made no sense. Oprah said she heard the girl had memorized one of her quotes on something, and the little girl recited it back, and then said "Oprah Winfrey" as if the woman had not just asked her the question. This is the same skill that helps people win spelling bees.

ABC News interviewed Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor who studies child development, for some perspective on the phenomenon. "Children come wired to make these associations to learn," Dweck said. These kids' skills are impressive and unusual, but "it's not what you would call a prodigy. A prodigy is someone who has a deep precocious understanding of something — of numbers, words, music. They think in new ways, invent things." Or as ABC News puts it, "A true prodigy is someone like Picasso or Mozart who was composing by age 5, or Tiger Woods who shot a 48 on a nine-hole course by the age of 2."

It's all semantics, but there is a reason I'm always a little worried when I see these kids on television shows. Memorization is not a particularly useful skill, long-term, and if people think that's what gifted children are able to do differently, then it doesn't make a great case for giving gifted children the interventions they need. Most of the kids trotted out on TV shows probably are highly gifted, but their prodigious memorization is not necessarily the best evidence of that. It's simply the most obvious "cool" trick anyone can understand.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Free and Appropriate Education

This week, a divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision requiring New York City to pay for private school for a child with learning disabilities. The child had never attended public school. In addition, the child is the son of Tom Freston, former chief executive of Viacom, who got a roughly $85 million severance package. In other words, this is a case about principle, not the actual educational options a child will face. But as such, it could be a win for gifted education -- maybe.

You can read an article about the case here. In essence, the ruling means that parents do not need to first put a child in an educational situation they consider inappropriate before they file for tuition reimbursement at a private school. States pay private school tuition for thousands of disabled children across the country. Sometimes these payments are as high as $50,000 for children who require residential treatment. Others attend private schools that are focused on specific disabilities such as autism or blindness. New York's position was that the public schools should at least be able to try to serve these children before the parents enroll them in private schools. By letting the ruling stand, the Supreme Court is saying that's not the case. If parents don't think the public schools can meet their children's needs, the kids do not need to fail first in order to go elsewhere.

Freston does not actually need the money to pay for his son's private school tuition. Indeed he has donated all his tuition reimbursement money to public school tutoring programs. He has fought the case so other parents without $85 million good-bye gifts from Viacom can have the same opportunities. (Though interestingly enough, the New York City schools offered Freston's son a spot in the city's Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education - in many cities, such options don't even exist).

I certainly don't begrudge children with disabilities the opportunity to attend whatever school serves them best at public expense. But when I read about some of the dollar amounts involved, it makes me a little sad that most profoundly gifted kids -- who have special needs whether they have other disabilities or not -- are often stuck in whatever regular school happens to be nearby. Some could be best served by boarding schools elsewhere, or private schools in town, but their families can't afford it. Sometimes parents have sought disability dignoses solely to qualify for special education programs that can help.

In states with gifted education mandates, this case could possibly open the door for some families who have chosen private schools over inadequate public school options to file for tuition reimbursement. It may or may not work. But the door is slightly ajar.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bastions of Privilege, and Other Myths

Education writer Peter Sacks is the author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. Like me, he also blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post. Recently, he wrote a piece on how ability grouping has gone "underground" that left me shaking my head. You can read the piece, "Can Public Schools Fix the Achievement Gap? Yes, But They Won't" here.

Basically, it takes a certain sort of person to find evil in just about everything good that's going on in American education. He takes on AP classes, math and science magnet schools that are partially funded by corporations, and even a shocking move by some Berkeley High teachers to "quietly" offer what was called the Academic Choice program within the school (basically, a rigorous college prep curriculum). According to Sacks, all these are bastions of class and privilege. And as long as they exist, and every student is not enrolled in them, nothing will change.

So what is to be done? "With appropriate re-engineering and refocusing, American schools do have the capacity to diminish the achievement gaps that politicians like to talk about," he writes. "Schools need to pay a lot more attention to supplementing the cultural and social capital that disadvantaged students -- for a variety of reasons -- do not get from home because they, unluckily, were born to parents who lack education, information, and resources."

But I am trying to figure out how this would work in a schooling situation in which all separation of children has been deemed illegitimate. Let's say schools select out children from troubled backgrounds who are having academic difficulties for special attention. Perhaps they could be put in intensive math classes that would bring them up to speed. But would the children already performing at grade level need to be in the same intensive catch-up classes? Their presence would take attention away from those who need special help. But if these at-grade-level children are in separate classes from those who need extra help, we're back to some version of tracking, which will be viewed with much suspicion. Indeed, gifted education, when done right, is simply finding kids who need supplementation and giving it to them. Somehow this is OK if the kids have cultural and social capital needs. But not, in Sacks' view, if they have academic ones.

Of course, I would never claim that all is wonderful in the world of tracking and ability grouping. I know that in some schools, very bright poor or minority children are made to feel uncomfortable in college prep or AP classes. And too often, the "regular" tracks get bad teachers who don't challenge the kids. Sometimes honors classes don't challenge kids either, as we discussed in the last post. But the soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well.

Still, say we took a high school and chose one of two options. Everyone takes whatever math class the most advanced 10 students are capable of, or everyone studies the level of math the ten students who are struggling most in the subject are able to handle. The first might be interesting. I would love to see an experiment with it. My guess is that some proportion of the next tier of students would rise to the occasion through diligent work. But among the rest, you'd have as much frustration and failure as if you told all students in a school to run a 20 minute 5k.

Unfortunately, when schools do away with ability grouping, they tend to choose some version of the latter option (not aimed at the very bottom, usually, but the lower middle). Good teachers can still figure out a way to make it work some of the time. With bad ones, though, it's a disaster. Every time some education writer or researcher goes on about the joys of heterogeneous grouping, I remember my 7th grade English class, in which the teacher spent day after day having us do pre-writing exercises called "clusters," since some kids simply couldn't handle an essay. Eventually, it got so boring that a number of the boys started jumping out the first floor window and running around the school. But who knows. Maybe this is what Sacks means by "tearing down the gates."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Course Inflation

Course Inflation

Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education reporter, had an interesting column a few weeks ago about virtual AP classes. These can be a great way for gifted students in small districts to take challenging courses. There's also an added bonus in that, online, no one really knows how old you are. So a 14-year-old might feel more comfortable taking AP Bio online than she would in a class full of older children.

The most interesting part of Matthews' column, though, in my opinion, was the allusion to course title inflation. The young man he profiles was enrolled in honors 8th grade classes. But these classes didn't challenge him at all. AP Biology, on the other hand, has an actual, objective standard in the form of the final test. A 4 or 5 shows you learned basic college biology material. A 1 or 2 shows you did not. There's no smiling at the teacher for a better grade, or getting effort for trying. That makes these tests unpopular among some who like wiggle room, but many kids like a challenge. They rise to the occasion. Inflated course titles don't make the same demands on kids.

That's one of the reasons to view the new research on ability grouping that I cited in my last post as suspect. Many honors classes are anything but difficult for bright children. I have no doubt that they don't show progress in those programs. That doesn't mean ability grouping per se is good or bad. But there's a world of difference between, say, an AP Calculus class offered to a small group of freshmen and sophomores who are ready for it, and a general honors-track math class that just requires 75%+ on grade level standardized tests. If the latter isn't taught to be challenging, the difference will be even more profound.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Over the past few weeks, several publications have written about a new University of Sussex study purporting to show that ability grouping in math harms students.

This is news to those of us who follow education research. One of the biggest analyses of ability grouping to date (from James Kulik of the University of Michigan, surveying 23 major studies on grouping) found that when high-ability students receive accelerated classes, they advance as much as a whole year more than students of similar age and intelligence left in regular classrooms. Kulik's analysis found that specific subject grouping also helps slower students; low-achieving fourth graders put in a very focused group gained as much as two-thirds of an academic year over control subjects.

But the University of Sussex research, done by Prof. Jo Boaler and associated grad students, claims otherwise. The team followed 700 students over five years at three high schools. The press release states boldly that grouping kids by ability harms education. You can read an article about the research here. You can also read the report directly here.

Or you can read my take on it, rather than wading through the whole thing. I am always amazed, reading educational research, at how much the concept of "equity" excites some professors. Boaler studies math, and undertook her study to show that math classes could be used to advance the cause of democracy and caring for the least among us no differently than, say, civics class. She compared group-oriented, mixed-ability classes at a school poetically referred to as "Railside" (since it was near the railroad tracks) with two more suburban schools. The suburban schools used ability grouping. Though the students at Railside entered the school behind the suburban students, at the end of their four years, 41% of seniors were in advanced calculus or pre-calculus, v. 27% at the other schools.

That seems like a pretty clear win. But reading deeper, it becomes clear that the suburban schools were employing what I call the "boring" method of teaching mathematics. Teachers would lecture for 21% of the class; students would then work alone on problems in their textbooks for about half the class. Since this is the same thing they'd do for homework, I would not be surprised if kids spent whole periods watching the clock. When problems were discussed, teachers only spent about 2 minutes on each of them. There was very little opportunity for open-ended problem-solving.

At "Railside," on the other hand, when the teachers did discuss problems, they'd spend 5.7 minutes on a problem, and Boaler describes the process as far more interactive. The kids did a lot of group work -- approx. 70% of the class. There is nothing wrong with learning in groups. Math problem solving can often benefit from a shared approach. Of course, Boaler, being so into "equity," finds this very satisfying for a different reason. Students receive group grades! And best of all, they feel "responsible" for unmotivated students in their groups, rather than feeling that they are a "burden." The political implications are clear.

But I digress. What struck me, reading this study, is how well-trained the teachers at Railside must have been to make this set-up work. Since Boaler talks about "teachers" I am assuming that multiple ones employed this same group-work strategy. That means Railside had fairly strong quality controls in its math department. Teachers settled on a strategy and were committed to its implementation. They asked open-ended questions, and explained topics in depth. They roamed between groups during the problem solving sessions, meaning they were energetic enough to stay on-task for the entire class period. The beauty of the "traditional" approach (as Boaler refers to it) is that it allows the math teacher to read a copy of US Weekly for the 48% of the time the students are doing problems alone in their workbooks.

It begs the question. Given that Kulik's meta-analysis of major educational studies found that, in general, ability grouping helps both slower and faster learners learn more, isn't it possible that the better results achieved at Railside are the result of energetic, committed teachers, rather than the lack of ability grouping? Great teachers are highly correlated with great results.

Unfortunately, they're also rare. As I've written about ability grouping before on this blog, the benefit to that approach is that it fails better. Given a choice of a mixed ability class with a great teacher, and an ability grouped class with a lousy one, I'd take the former. But that is usually not the choice. This study compares intense, analytical, teacher-directed group learning with the "boring" method of teaching math. The former also happens to be heterogeneous in this case; the latter homogeneous. But when there are two big differences between things you're comparing, it's hard to know which one causes the results.

Two other quick critiques. First, while I think the teaching is more responsible for the gains seen at Railside than the ability grouping, the general type of ability grouping employed in American schools isn't finely tuned enough to challenge bright kids anyway. Creating three reading groups in a standard neighborhood school is slightly helpful. But it's far more helpful to create a gifted magnet program that draws students from, say, five counties. Then you can actually create classes for the top .1%. It wouldn't surprise me to find that most students in the 85-115 IQ range can do OK in a math class together. But if you try to throw, say, a Nate Bottman (2007 Davidson Fellow, topic: Analytically Determining the Spectra of Solutions of the NLS) in to a group-learning, mixed ability class, you will quickly find a problem with the approach. At Railside, "If they found that one student was standing out, by, for example, being faster in their mathematical thinking, they would find aspects of the work that the student was less good at and for which they needed more practice," Boaler writes. But a child who's learned calculus on her own at night is not going to need to practice more on any aspect of algebra.

And second, I assume the University of Sussex, and Stanford, where Boaler has also taught, aren't letting just anyone in these days. Their graduate programs and professorial hires are very much grouped by ability. This research was a group project between Boaler and her grad students. But this was hardly a true "mixed ability group." If Boaler really thinks ability grouping is harmful and inequitable, she should have pulled three people off the streets and asked them to work with her instead. I'm sure the results would have been just as good, and Boaler wouldn't have had to carry any extra weight in the computations at all...

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

I just returned home yesterday from the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony in Washington DC. While the ceremony at the Library of Congress is always fun, this year was particularly nice for me because I got to interview most of the children that morning. I think the quality of fellows continues to improve as more people hear about the program. Among the winners this year were two performers from the Juilliard pre-college program, and another young woman who'd been featured on NPR. Several young writers talked with me about their creative process. The scientists are always a stand-out lot, and among them this year we had a young woman who figured out a new process for recycling plastic, one who figured out a way of penetrating drug resistant biofilms, and a young woman who'd developed a process for a potential urine test for the early detection of cancer. Anyone who's been through some rather invasive and unpleasant cancer screenings will immediately see the benefit of potentially coverting these screenings into nothing worse than a pregnancy test.

After the interviews, I had two main observations. First: These fellows often go to specialized secondary schools. On one hand, this is simple correlation. There are a growing number of specialized math and science high schools, and if you're interested in math and science, why wouldn't you go? Given that the students at these schools tend to be bright and eager to learn, if you're bright and eager to learn, you also would take advantage of them, even if math and science aren't your main gifts. Christina Beasley, one of the young writers, attends a school for science and technology. Much of her creative writing is extra-curricular, but since the students are so eager to learn, there are good programs for them in areas outside S&T.

But there's also a causal connection. To do a prodigious work as a young person, you need time and access (to labs, mentors, etc.) Specialized schools often arrange one or both. Shannon Lee, of Plano Texas, attends a compressed school that caters to gymnasts and actors. Students do their studies in the morning, and their special interest in the afternoon. This works for her musical schedule as well. Nora Xu attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy. She told me that she has no classes on Wednesday, and the school shuttles them to labs, or mentoring situations so the students can pursue independent work. Billy Dorminy, who is homeschooled, has a mom who favors "delight directed" education. He has time to pursue what interests him.

The other observation is that the sweet spot occurs when you have time, access and affection for what you do. You can force a child into a lab (and given the competition to get into top colleges, perhaps some parents do this). You can give them a free day every week to pursue independent projects. But you can't force them to love it, to travel after school and work all night in the lab as Danielle Lent did at SUNY Stony Brook -- and then switch off driving home with a friend to be at school the next day. As Yuqing Meng, a musician, told me, after one particular recital when he was little, he realized that he would always want to do music. Maybe he wouldn't make a career of it. But he couldn't imagine it not being in his life. Yale Fan spoke of doing his physics and comp sci work as a form of stress release.

When you love what you do, you naturally become better at it. You do a lot of of it. You ponder problems as you're taking the bus to school, and you doodle in your other subject notebooks. You figure out problems in this area because you find it fun. When you have a great love for something, and the time and mentors necessary to develop this affection, there's no telling what you can do. (Well, OK, here's one thing you can do: Impress the Senate Majority Leader. Bob Davidson, Colleen Harsin -- the Davidson Academy's principal -- and I got to meet Sen. Harry Reid the other day to talk with him about gifted education issues. When Bob and Colleen mentioned the work some of the fellows had done, Reid about fell off his chair. "A 17-year-old kid can do that?" he asked. Yep!)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gifted Exchange Turns 2!

Gifted Exchange Turns 2!

Today this blog celebrates its 2nd birthday. That's pretty good longevity for the genre! We've been averaging just under 3,000 visits a month, to read the roughly two posts per week (this is post 209, apparently) and it's the rare post that goes without a comment. Please keep me updated on what you'd like to see covered, ideas, tips, critiques, etc. And if you've had a favorite post, I'd like to hear that too. Thanks for reading, Laura

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students Fall Behind

Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students Fall Behind

It's a popular belief that gifted kids are "the kids with disposable income," as Mara Sapon-Shevin wrote in her book Playing Favorites. Since all gifted kids supposedly have well-off parents, there's no need for schools to concern themselves too much with their welfare. After all, these are the kids best able to fend for themselves.

Now a new report from Civic Enterprises, a think tank, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, called The Achievement Trap, shows not only how wrong that assumption is, but that it's a dangerous assumption as well. Fully 3.4 million K-12 students with family incomes below the national median test in the top quartile for academic achievement. Unfortunately, a higher proportion test in the top quartile in first grade than later on. In other words, as these students progress through school, their achievement suffers.

As I mentioned in the last post, there is much to dislike about No Child Left Behind (though I think there's some evidence that it has created incentives to reverse failure in the worst schools). One thing to dislike is that these millions of high-achieving, low-income students are in fact getting left behind. Even as they fall out of the top quartile, they rarely test as "failing." And so they're ignored both by the standards movement, and by the folks who dislike gifted education because it's only for the kids with "disposable income."

I'm glad this report is out, and I hope it gets some attention, because it shines a spotlight on what many of us who are involved in gifted education know. The leveling impulse in schools hurts all gifted kids, but it does not hurt all gifted kids equally. Well-off parents can afford to move to a different district, put their kids in private schools, hire tutors, pay for summer courses, or give up a parent's income to homeschool. Low-income families are simply stuck with the schools they get. And so, these promising children wind up falling out of the top quartile, and going to college at lower rates than other children whose potential they matched in first grade.

Can anything change it? Under the current educational set-up, I think the best approach is to measure individual children's progress, not just the progress of groups and schools. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has hinted at shifting NCLB to this concept. What gets measured gets changed, and if schools are held accountable for the low-income children who drift from the 90th percentile in first grade to the 70th percentile in fifth grade, maybe that's a few more children who won't fall through the cracks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jonathan Kozol's Hunger Strike

Jonathan Kozol's Hunger Strike

No one can accuse education journalist Jonathan Kozol of being lukewarm about his causes. He is now 75 days in to a partial hunger strike protesting the impending re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. You can read about his strike here. He claims that NCLB is ruining inner city education with its emphasis on frequent testing.

Kozol is best known for his book Savage Inequalities, which documents the awful school conditions many poor, inncer-city school children endure. Roofs leak. Toilets overflow. Paint peels and heaters break. Kozol is wrong in his frequent assertion that no one would treat white children this way. He's wrong in his assertion that it's all about funding (in New Jersey, for instance, the state guarantees that high-poverty "Abbott" districts be funded at the same level as the best suburban districts, and many of these schools are still rotten). But he's certainly right that such conditions make it very difficult to learn.

The descriptions of awful school buildings hit you in the gut. But that's not the most disturbing part of Savage Inequalities. Kozol goes on about teachers watching soap operas, teachers letting kids entertain themselves while they read magazines, and other evidence of schools where adults simply do not care if the children learn anything at all.

There is much to lament about NCLB, as we often do on this blog. It raises the floor, not the ceiling. It tests schools, not individual kids' progress. But the one thing it has done is lit a fire under these so-called educators who've put no effort into actually teaching. There are consequences when schools fail year after year.

And yet, Kozol complains that NCLB "dumbs down" inner city education. He, of all people, should know that few failing schools were encouraging higher level thinking before the law. I wish all children were challenged by creative teachers who got the wheels in kids' heads turning. But if that's not yet possible, at least we should try to get kids reading and doing math at grade level. NCLB creates incentives to achieve that goal. You'd think Kozol might find something to like about the law.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Can Early SAT Scores Predict a Gifted Kid's Path?

For decades, gifted adolescents have participated in "talent searches." These involve giving these children out-of-level tests in order to more accurately measure their abilities. First pioneered by the late Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University, the concept is based on a simple observation. On grade-level tests, gifted kids tend to score at the 99th percentile. Give them a "tougher" test, such as the SAT in 7th or 8th grade, though, and their scores spread out over the entire bell curve. In theory, this should give educators information on which kids need just a bit of enrichment, and which need radical acceleration, early college, etc.

In theory. As readers of this blog know, the vast majority of schools do absolutely nothing with the scores besides congratulating the kids and maybe having a ceremony.

But anyway... Vanderbilt University just released a study noting that gifted children's scores in 7th and 8th grade can actually predict their career paths. You can read about the study in a Bloomberg article here. Young teens who did best on the math portion of the SAT tended to excel later in science, math, and technology. Young teens who did best on the verbal portion of the SAT tended toward the humanities.

I have two thoughts on this. The first is "no kidding." Children do not magically decide their professions at age 22 based on nothing more than pulling a career out of a hat. Usually there have been things that hold their interest along the way, clues that they excel in one particular area. A kid who's really good in math is quite likely to continue studying math and to choose a profession that involves math.

The second thought, though, is that this was entirely wrong in my case, for a reason that also hints at the limitations of talent searches in their current form. In 8th grade, I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT. I scored a 630 on the verbal. For a variety of reasons, math is viewed as a more cut-and-dried area in which to be gifted. The levels are more clear (first arithmetic, then algebra, then calculus...) It's more easy to show mastery. Add in the fact that I had a very mathematically gifted older brother, and my family and schools found it easier to accelerate me in math. I took algebra in 6th grade, took geometry the summer after 7th grade, and so knew everything that would be covered on the SAT math section by the time I took it as an 8th grader. My perfect score did not show that I should pursue math. It simply showed that my mathematical abilities had been nurtured.

Children with verbal talents, though, have a far rougher road ahead of them. In the early grades, writing is more about creativity than honing the craft. Grammar is a lost art. Few sixth graders are assigned analytical papers on, say, Tolstoy, in which they can advance some original interpretation. If you master the past tense, it's not entirely clear that the subjunctive is next. Reading will boost your vocabulary, but so does having well-versed people to talk with. Unfortunately, this is not really a reality for many gifted kids stuck in age-level classrooms.

So verbal ability is not as readily recognized. I spent hours writing stories at night as a kid, but my verbal scores lagged far behind my math scores. I thought for years that meant I should go into math or science, until I finally realized in college that writing is what made me happiest.

It's always a dicey idea to layer one's personal experience on top of a study in order to draw conclusions, but I would hesitate to draw the conclusion that Prof. David Lubinski of Vanderbilt did. He told the Vanderbilt News Service that since differences in potential can be noted at age 13, this offers "opportunities for educators and policymakers to develop programs to cultivate these individuals based on their unique strengths and abilities." I think it's just as important to follow the interests of the child. That will tell you as much as a score.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Day Care and IQ

So my son, Jasper, started day care this morning. Up until now, he's been cared for by a nanny during the day at our house while I've also been working at home. So this will be a transition for both of us (though the center is only 2 blocks from the house - so I will be a frequent lunch time visitor!)

Day care is a very controversial issue in our society, so it's been studied a reasonable amount, both for its effect on social development, and its effect on academic development. The findings are fairly mixed. That's because the quality of day care matters a great deal. High quality day care can actually improve language and academic development among at-risk children by giving them the stimulation they might not get at home. This can reverse the measured drop in academic ability that can sometimes occur for these children as they grow. For middle-class white children, high-quality day care appears to have no particular effect on language or academic development one way or the other, according to this study. On the other hand, long hours in not-so-great day care can increase aggression.

Every time a major study is released, the chattering heads on television give it lots of airtime. This commentary from City-Journal on Fear and Loathing at the Day Care Center, hints at some of the controversy. It is "common sense" to many people that children are best cared for in their homes, by their mothers. Some research does show that children of mothers who spend more hours devoted to childcare and less to working have higher academic achievement in early adolescence. But this same study found that women who have high levels of satisfaction with their childcare arrangements also had children with more scholastic competence in 6th grade. Women who are also satisfied with their "roles" have children with more scholastic competence. In other words, a woman who devotes her time to childcare simply because this is what everyone says she "should" do, but who isn't happy about it, isn't really gaining much by that choice.

I find it all fascinating. The issue of maternal employment and child achievement always gets people riled up. I'm curious what choices others on this board have made with their children, and whether they felt it affected academic achievement.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

When School Works

I have a column in today's USA Today called "When School Works" that talks about the Cristo Rey model of Catholic school that I first blogged about here a few months ago. Students work 1-2 days a week in corporate offices to earn most of their tuition. It's a concept born of financial necessity that has big side benefits. It turns out that getting kids out of the teen world for even a few hours a week gives them a much broader perspective. Even well-to-do teens spend more time watching TV and obsessing about trivia than they should. It's funny how a job keeps you level-headed.

Anyway, those of us who write about education can quickly become jaded about the "hot new thing" in education. Every week some celebrity is adopting a school and saying how it's transformed the lives of underprivileged youth. You hear about empowerment zones, and exciting new charter school concepts and yet.... American education overall continues to be pretty mediocre. I've read stories about the Young Women's Leadership School of New York and how wonderful it is (Sean Hannity wrote about it extensively in his book). But when I judged a MathCounts competition here in New York a few years ago, the team from that school came in last, which made me extremely cross. Leadership is one thing, but how about teaching some math? It is very hard to come up with a concept that is replicable and sustainable.

But Cristo Rey is different. For starters, the Catholic church knows a thing or two about running inner city schools, having done so for eons. The work-study model is financially sustainable. And since the kids are learning skills that they actually apply in their working lives, immediately, there's no need to rely on mass-recited slogans and cheers to keep up motivation, as a lot of the KIPP schools do. So I'm quite enthusiastic on the concept, and hope to write more about it in the future.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Question of Geography

I promised a few weeks ago that I'd write more about the Davidson Fellows, the decorated group of 17 young men and women who will be awarded $10,000-$50,000 scholarships in Washington DC in late September. I still hope to connect individually with some of them in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, hunting through the $50,000 winners' bios, I noticed an interesting theme.

Raw talent can happen anywhere. But geography plays an important role in turning that talent into achievement.

I noted, for instance, that Davidson Fellow Laureate Katherine Orazem, a young writer, comes from Ames, Iowa. This is a small Iowa town, but not just any small Iowa town. It's also the home of Iowa State University. University communities have certain features that make them more welcoming for gifted young people than other places. For starters, professors at major research universities are smart people who often have smart kids. Having a concentration of smart kids increases the chances that the school district will choose to cluster and challenge them. That doesn't happen everywhere, as I've often written about my home of South Bend, IN (home to the University of Notre Dame and some awful secondary schools). But the odds are on your side.

In addition, the universities themselves offer resources that curious kids can take advantage of. You can audit classes (or enroll for credit). You can find mentors in the form of graduate students and professors. If your talents lie in scientific pursuits, you can possibly gain access to lab equipment that no secondary school will ever be able to purchase.

You don't have to live in a university town to succeed, of course. There are tales of previous Davidson Fellows traveling multiple hours several times per week to do lab work at far away universities. This requires parents who are particularly motivated to commute, or who have the time to do so. This is extremely tough to pull off in a two-income family, which is why it's easier to live in a university town in the first place.

So Yale Fan, winner of a $50,000 prize for technology, lives in Beaverton, Oregon (close enough to Portland State University to do research there). Alexandra Courtis, another young scientist, is from Davis, California. Madhavi Gavini, whose work combines medicine and science, is from Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University. The lone musician of the group, Todd Kramer, lives in Port Jefferson, NY, which is on Long Island. While Port Jefferson is not a university town, it is the final stop on a branch line of the Long Island Railroad. I don't know if Kramer took the train or his parents drove him into Manhattan, but Penn Station is just a 5-10 minute subway ride south of the Juilliard school, where he studied.

In other words, geography matters. A child with much musical potential born in rural West Virginia will have a difficult time finding teachers and mentors to nurture that talent. While we all love the story of a diamond in the rough, even these gems must be cut and polished in order to shine. Some locations do a much better job of cutting and polishing than others.

I'm not sure what is to be done about this. If all teachers were trained in identifying gifted children, and all schools had partnerships with the nearest major universities, and all states had residential schools for gifted high schoolers, maybe geography wouldn't be so crucial. But for now, it is.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Failing Our Geniuses

Time magazine covers the Davidson Academy, and the issue of gifted education, in depth this week. You can read the article here.

Reporter John Cloud spent a week at the Academy meeting the kids (and apparently gawking at Bob's Ferrari, but anyway...) He reached many apt conclusions. Namely, that our schools are just not set up to handle highly gifted children. It's not because they don't know what to do. Acceleration, dual-enrollment, and other such accommodations are well-studied and known to be effective. It's just that we don't like doing them. Such accommodations hint at the idea that some children are -- and will always be -- smarter than others. And in the egalitarian world of education, that is simply not acceptable.

"At the academy, the battered concept of IQ--complicated in recent years by the idea of multiple intelligences, including artistic and emotional acuity--is accepted there without the encumbrances of politics," he writes. "The school is a rejection of the thoroughly American notion that if most just try hard enough, we could all be talented. Many school administrators oppose ability grouping on the theory that it can perpetuate social inequalities, but at the Davidson Academy, even the 45 élite students are grouped by ability into easier and harder English, math and science classes. The school poses blunt questions about American education: Has the drive to ensure equity over excellence gone too far? If so, is the answer to segregate the brightest kids?"

That's certainly one answer -- to congregate such students in a place like the Davidson Academy -- since schools have been so unwilling to do simple things like acceleration. Of course, as Cloud points out, it's a harsh choice for these students to have to move to Reno in order to find kindred spirits. It would be nicer if their home schools could figure out a way to challenge them. But instead, gifted programs wind up being about enrichment. Kids get 90 minutes a week of pull-out on topics such as bugs, or ancient Egypt, or forensics, or what have you, and these programs wind up being open to kids who may not be gifted, but who work hard and get good grades. Why not? Enrichment seems like a reward, not an intervention for kids who desperately need it. So why not reward kids with gumption and determination, regardless of IQ? We cling to egalitarianism and the hard work concept in intelligence even as we recognize that it's only part of the equation elsewhere. I run many hours and miles a week. If I ran more, and had a professional coach, I'd probably be able to run faster. But I would never run as fast as Paula Radcliffe. I simply don't have the physical ability.

Likewise, a child with an IQ of 155 is simply wired differently than a child of average intelligence. We can quibble over how meaningful individual IQ points are, and how high the scale can go, and whether our tests can actually test such a concept accurately, but no one who's been around children of average and extreme intelligence can deny a difference. Cloud talks about listening to the Davidson Academy children speak and realizing how different they sound than others their age (even as he notes that modesty is not a virtue of some).

He uses the standard line that these children will be the ones most likely to solve great problems in the future. Perhaps. That's a difficult argument to make, because plenty of gifted kids turn out to be very normal adults who don't move the world. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given an education that meets their needs. That's a right we deserve simply for being human. I'm glad to see Time magazine feels the same way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Is Brainy Baby not so brainy?

It is, of course, the perfect story for snarky journalists: A recent study by researchers associated with the University of Washingon in Seattle concluded that for every hour per day 8-16 month old infants spend watching Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein type videos, they know 6-8 fewer vocabulary words than other children their age. You can read one story (of hundreds) on the topic here.

Everyone loves to make fun of the Baby-Industrial Complex (yes, I bought a Bugaboo stroller... and an Ouef crib...) The explosion of Baby Einstein videos purporting to make one's child smarter is certainly a data point in this trend, and no one can accuse the University of Washington researchers of not knowing how to generate PR. Imagine -- a video designed to make your kid smarter makes your kid dumber! You can hear the snickering seeping out of the newsprint.

But of course, it is almost impossible to prove causal relationships with anything involving childhood intelligence or achievement. The researchers asked about Baby Einstein because these are the videos that babies watch. My guess is that every hour per day that babies spend parked in front of "Days of Our Lives" or "What Not to Wear" likewise corresponds to fewer vocabulary words... as does the number of hours per day they spend parked in front of a blank wall. It's interaction with other people that sparks vocabulary development. If children are watching TV instead of interacting with adults, then they probably will have learned fewer vocabulary words at some arbitrary age.

But TV-v-pleasant-and-educational-adult-interaction is probably not the exact choice many people are making. Small children can be exasperating. If the choice is Baby Einstein v. mommy losing it and teaching the child some very interesting words, I'd say Baby Einstein is the way to go. The videos don't make your child smarter. But I doubt they, specifically, make your child less articulate either.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Congratulations to the new Davidson Fellows!

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development just released its list of the 2007 Fellows. These amazingly gifted young people will win $10,000-$50,000 scholarships for their projects, which range from new scientific breakthroughs to musical compositions to short stories.

You can read about these young people and their projects here.

I'll be highlighting a few of their projects in coming weeks, but it will be hard to know where to start!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Class Size and Gifted Education

It's one of the sacred doctrines of education that smaller class sizes equal better classes. School improvement efforts often focus on lowering teacher-to-pupil ratios, and teachers unions, which have their own economic reasons for supporting such efforts, constantly lobby for smaller classes as well. There's some evidence to support smaller classes; a long-term Tennessee study (discussed on this NEA page) found that students enrolled in smaller classes from an early age are more likely to finish high school on time than those in larger classes (72% vs. 66%). However, the results aren't overwhelming, and achieving the NEA's target of 15 students to 1 teacher would require massive new expenditures (since current rates are often in the 20's or higher). While it makes intuitive sense that when students receive more attention they do better, there's much to be said for teacher quality as well. Some of my most informative classes in college were held in 200-person lecture halls. And some top-performing Asian countries maintain class sizes in the 40's. You can read more about issues with the Tennessee study and the class size argument on the Ed Reform website here.

Anyway, that's the background story on class size, which is what came to mind when I read about a controversy in San Diego about class sizes in gifted education. Apparently the so-called "Seminar" classes in the San Diego Unified School District, which are aimed at students in the 99.6-99.9th percentile on achievement tests, once had a pupil-teacher ratio of 20-1. Due to some funding issues, and a desire to expand the program to cover all students who qualify, the schools now want to expand this to 25-1.

I never like to see gifted education subject to reduced funding levels, but my first thought, reading this story, is that there's no point identifying students as gifted if you're not going to serve them. If the ratio needs to go up in order to serve the gifted population with the available resources, then that's what needs to happen. Those worried about the ratio could better spend their time evaluating teacher quality, as a top notch teacher with 25 students will beat a mediocre one with 20 any day.

That said, the range of readiness levels between gifted kids can be as large as the range in a general classroom, and gifted kids do have special needs. Special education classes usually have lower pupil to teacher ratios because these children require more one-on-one time. I'm curious if parents on this board have experienced larger and smaller gifted classes, and what the difference has been.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mensa-Wannabe Moms

The Savannah Morning News ran a humorous column called "Mommy I don't want to be a child prodigy" a few weeks ago. Columnist and new mom Anne Hart made fun of the British family that had their 2-year-old child (Georgia Brown) take the Mensa test. She passed and got in, which in theory could set off a lot of dithering among other parents. After all, we all want to believe our children are brilliant.

But personally, I've never understood the appeal of Mensa. It's so easily mocked (the Washington Post once put a note in the paper asking people to send in stories of Mensa members doing something really dumb -- the phrase "the wise man knows himself to be a fool" comes to mind). There's obviously something to be said for being around smart people socially. That's one of the reasons ability grouping is so important for kids. But with some careful career planning as an adult, you can work in an office of very smart people. With some careful social planning, your group of friends will share your intelligence. Kids can't choose their lives and choose who they spend their time with. Adults can. Which makes Mensa seem less necessary.

But I could be wrong! I'm curious if any readers of this blog have joined Mensa, thought about it, joined and quit, or what have you. Have your children ever expressed interest? Is there a place for a social organization made up of intelligent people? Or in this era of "bowling alone" is this another group that will lose clout?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Schools Move Toward Following Students' Yearly Progress

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story on something we've talked about a lot here on Gifted Exchange: using yearly NCLB testing to track individual student results, not just school quality. As it is, schools are graded based on the scores of fourth graders this year compared with fourth graders last year. But while that tells you if a whole school is stepping up its game, it tells you nothing about individual children. And last time I checked, we learn individually.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is aware of this, and she addressed the topic briefly during her speech at the opening of the Davidson Academy in Reno last summer. A number of states including North Carolina, Ohio and Florida have started participating in a pilot program that tracks individual results on achievement tests, comparing a fourth grader this year with the same kid as a fifth grader next year.

The New York Times article, "Schools Move Toward Following Students' Yearly Progress on Tests," by Winnie Hu, ran on July 6th. That means it's been moved to Times Select and, alas, is not available for free anymore. But here's the rather interesting opener: "The Cohoes city school district, outside Albany, is considering a gifted program for elementary students and adding college-level courses after discovering that its top students improved less on standardized tests in the past two years than everyone else in the district."

Yes, it seems that tracking individual test results shows what gifted education advocates have been saying for a while. Gifted kids are often being left behind. While they may continue to pass grade-level achievement tests, they are not truly learning as much as they could. That the Cohoes district is using this new knowledge to create new gifted programs is reason to celebrate indeed.

There's much to love about individual test result tracking. Schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged children like the concept because it means that they get credit if these kids improve, year over year, even if the kids don't meet a certain set cut-off. Schools that shortchange their brightest students will also be more likely to have a fire lit beneath them. So who's against it? Well, according to Hu's article, it's the usual suspects.

"It's detrimental for education," Aimee Bolender, the president of Dallas's American Federation of Teachers chapter told Hu. "It is pulling apart teams of teachers and it doesn't look at why test scores are low. From the very beginning, we viewed it as a slippery slope that did not do anything valuable to improve the educational environment in the schools." Bolender is fighting a decision by Dallas to remove 30 teachers whose students failed to show adequate progress. Bolender said many teachers call this individual growth model "voodoo math" because "you have to be a Ph.D. in statistics to even comprehend it."

And then there's Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust (which advocates for disadvantaged children). She told Hu that the individual growth model might put too much (!) attention on kids at the top. "It risks so broadening the federal government's involvement that its historical role will be dissipated," she told Hu.

So there you have it. The people who are upset about this don't like it because it means removing bad teachers from classrooms and focusing on gifted kids. From my perspective, that means there's a lot to like.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Anything but Acceleration!

It's been three years since the Templeton report on acceleration, A Nation Deceived, came out. The report established that all the available evidence supports acceleration (aka "grade skipping") as a cheap, effective educational option for gifted kids. Accelerated kids tend to thrive academically, and there are no negative social consequences that lead accelerated kids and their parents to see the acceleration as a mistake.

Too bad so few education "experts" are actually listening. The Orlando Sentinel's Family Project section ran a Q&A from a parent whose 5-year-old son needed more challenge. Should the child be accelerated? The Family Project panel members "prefer not to see a child moved ahead in school," though all agreed that the parent would have to advocate for her son so he'd get the enrichment he needed.

There's just one problem with that advice. Enrichment may or may not happen. Maybe the parent doesn't have the time or expertise to advocate. Maybe the kid's teachers don't know how to enrich the curriculum. The good thing about acceleration is that if you put the kid in a grade where he's actually challenged by the basic material, you don't have to advocate.

But the panel did not mention this. Instead, they repeated the usual odes to socialization:

"The most important part of kindergarten is peer relationships and that's why panelist Maryellen Blass says she doesn't advocate advancement. 'Enrichment can be very easily integrated into kindergarten,' she says.

"Even very bright children need socialization skills more than anything at this age, panelists say. 'It's important to consider the whole child,' agrees panelist Joanne Nigito-Raftas. 'He is in the process of growing socially. If he's placed where he is academically, you may see effects in middle school when he's not at same place as other kids. It's very hard when a child is developmentally not ready.'"

Last time I looked at a sixth grade class, everyone was in a different place developmentally already. And likewise, unless these panelists socialize only with people born within six months of their birthdays, I'm afraid they don't have much of a case. Humans are social creatures, but we grow socially when we hang out with people we enjoy, and with whom we can interact in meaningful ways. A 5-year-old who wants to discuss the themes of the literature he's reading will not grow socially if he must spend all his time with kids who are just learning their letters. You'd think that educational experts would get that. But apparently not.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Stephanie Pace Marshall and the creation of IMSA

The Illinois Math and Science Academy, a residential high school for gifted kids in Aurora, IL is now 20 years old. It appears to be well-established. The newly appointed school president is actually the former Illinois state superintendent of schools. But none of this could have been predicted when Stephanie Pace Marshall, IMSA's first president, helped establish the school. She recently decided to step down, and this article from the Chicago Tribune talks about her legacy. IMSA has become a leading light in the field of gifted education, training hundreds of kids each year to see math and science as cool (I wish the school name included the humanities, but the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in Indiana does, and it's partially modeled after Marshall's creation in Illinois). The school has survived budget cuts and constant criticism about its elite nature. It was always a great idea, but great ideas need practical people in order to bring them to fruition. Marshall managed to be both visionary and builder. While about a dozen states now have residential high schools for gifted kids, hopefully Marshall will use some of her free time to push the rest to step up to the plate. I recommend reading the linked article from the Chicago Tribune to get a feel for the debate over these specialized secondary schools, and to learn more about one of the best education ideas to come along in the past 25 years.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Class of Bright Sparks

Like the U.S., Australia has long been trying to figure out what to do with its gifted children. As in the U.S., with its egalitarian culture, Australians sometimes talk about cutting down the "tall poppies." That means that anything that makes someone stick out is viewed as bad. This recent article, A Class of Bright Sparks, from the Brisbane Times, examines the issue in light of the New South Wales system of selective secondary schools. I really recommend reading it.

The issues of achievement and intelligence are hard to separate out, and so admission into these schools is seen as an honor, and the schools are perceived as "better." But, of course, the issue is never entirely clear-cut. Students who obtain admission, but choose to go to "regular" schools do just fine, and plenty of students (some of whom have been coached like crazy) who do go to the elite schools flounder. The article notes that attending the selective schools does not necessarily raise self-esteem, which is obvious to anyone who's ever attended a rigorous, ability-grouped school. You learn the first day that while you were the brightest kid in your previous class, you aren't now!

The article brings up the usual note that educators are divided on whether ability grouping is good for students (though no one who seriously considers the needs of highly gifted kids is divided on this). As gifted expert Miraca Gross says in the article "Research shows that children are less likely to succeed if they are not accepted in their peer group... The earlier you put a gifted child - for some period of time at least - with other children of similar ability the more confident a child becomes. They have less time to dwell on the fact that others may think they are weird or strange which may make them feel confused and unlikeable and lead them not to develop skills of friendship and be socially isolated." Some people seem to believe that ability grouping hurts "socialization" but the truth is the exact opposite. A highly gifted child kept in a regular class becomes nothing but the "smart one." Only in a situation with her intellectual peers is she allowed to become other things.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Birth Order and IQ

There has been much discussion, the past few days, about a new Norwegian study showing that birth order affects IQ scores. Oldest sons tend to score higher on IQ tests than later sons, but the difference appears to be because of how children are raised, not biology. Later-born sons whose older brothers died in infancy show similar IQs to those who were first-born.

So what's to be made of this? Probably not much. The difference was 2-3 IQ points, which is pretty much meaningless. But that doesn't stop people from drawing whatever conclusions they like. I particularly laughed at the quote from the UC-Berkeley expert in the AP article I linked, above, stating that eldest children were probably smarter because they tutored their younger brothers and sisters. This idea that kids benefit from tutoring each other is often expressed in education circles, because it lets harried teachers use gifted kids as unpaid teaching assistants and claim it's good for them.

But anyway -- if I had to guess, I'd say the tiny difference is because parents have more time and energy to pay undivided attention to their first born children during the first 2 years of their lives. An acquaintance of mine recently confessed that with his first daughter, he was reading stories to her in the womb and, presumably, with even greater frequency after birth. The second daughter got no in-the-womb story sessions. Likewise, with my baby, I spend a reasonable amount of time showing him different patterns and objects, exposing him to different sounds, etc. I can't imagine doing as much of this if I had a 2-year-old shrieking around the house. But if that's the reason for the difference, the study's conclusion is heartening to me. If all that difference in time and energy only adds up to 2-3 IQ points, it would take a lot for good intentioned parents to really mess their children up.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sorry State of Education Research

One of the biggest movements in education these days is to choose research-backed programs and reforms. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Education involves a ton of variables, which confound many attempts to figure out "what works."

For instance, the Gates Foundation's small schools initiative works great when you take a lousy, huge, failing high school and substitute smaller ones with high quality principals who have a lot of flexibility. Some early experiments in this concept featured schools with these qualities. But was the success because the schools were small or because of the principals and the flexibility? Other small schools experiments didn't turn out so well, particularly for gifted kids (because schools were split, and many educators didn't like the idea of ability grouping these small schools, gifted kids couldn't be concentrated, so the brightest kids became incredibly bored). Yet, across the country, school districts have seized on the small school concept... sometimes because of the availability of Gates money.

Likewise, every teachers union will tell you that "smaller class sizes" are the key to better school outcomes, and that this is proven by research. But this perceived truth is based on fewer studies than anyone will admit. And some countries with larger average class sizes than in the US do much better on international comparisons in math and science. So it's not clear that class sizes, by themselves, are the magic variable either.

So what is? And for the purposes of this blog, what works in gifted education? There's some research on ability grouping that shows better outcomes for both rapid learners and those who need a little more help. But this is certainly an area that could use more research. If large, rigorous studies showed that ability grouping helped both gifted kids and others learn better, more educators might change their views of such arrangements. Maybe. Then again, plenty of studies have shown that acceleration works (see "A Nation Deceived") but the prejudice against grade skipping remains alive and kicking.

The Davidson Institute has published a list of 12 Cost Effective Educational Options for gifted kids. More research backing up these 12 options with data would certainly be nice to see. I wonder if there are any other burning questions people would like to see answered? I hear, on occasion, from researchers looking into different educational topics, so I'd love to know if there are particular statistics that would make lobbying for gifted education programs easier. It's funny how putting a number to a problem or a solution changes the conversation.