Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Advanced Placement (AP) vs. Actual College

I was just in Louisville the past few days, meeting with various school and community leaders to write a piece on the recent desegregation case that's come before the Supreme Court. It's a long, complicated story with a long, complicated history, but race is, of course, not the only issue a large and varied school population faces. So I thought I'd share one issue here. The Jefferson County Public Schools include a number of magnet programs. More or less, the gifted and talented program for high school students is located at DuPont Manual High School, which is just across the street from the University of Louisville.

It's a great set-up; if students run out of, say, math classes, they can cross enroll at the university. Principal Beverly Keepers told me that in years past, as many as 100-plus students would cross-enroll. That number, however, has fallen in recent years. She identified two reasons. First, cross-enrollment is no longer "free" (i.e. underwritten by people's education taxes). State universities across the country have had to raise tuition in recent years and the University of Louisville wasn't thrilled to be filling its introductory classes with non-tuition paying students (though the professors, Keepers said, loved working with such eager pupils). Second, the Advanced Placement program at "Manual" (as residents and students call it) has greatly expanded. Students can take everything from AP Statistics to AP Studio Art. Some 80% of students receive scores of 3 or higher on their AP exams (out of 5); 23% of Manual AP scores are 5s.

AP classes are held at the high school. They're also portable in a way that specific classes at a specific university sometimes aren't. While some universities would gladly recognize freshman biology at the University of Louisville as being functionally equivalent to their own introductory biology classes, others don't. Keepers noted that her own daughter was not able to claim credit for one such science class when she went to college; the school wound up giving her "elective" credit for such a course. Many Manual students intend to go to college outside Kentucky. So they opt for AP courses that they can take with their friends, with portable scores, rather than head over to the University of Louisville.

I have a feeling this is happening at other rigorous high schools across the country, and I have mixed feelings about this. The quality of university classes is uneven, but so are AP classes. A poorly taught AP class with a lot of smart kids can easily produce a lot of "3" scores, but the kids will really flounder if they try to take upper level classes at a university next. Some schools also don't do the AP labs "full out." They tell the kids what should happen and why, but lack the equipment to do the necessary experiments. And the AP labs do involve quite a bit of hand-holding. I took AP Chemistry at the Indiana Academy, which was a very rigorous course. I scored a 5 on the exam, which implies that I knew what I was doing. But I was quite confused about lab procedures and such when I took Organic Chemistry at Princeton. Students who enroll in university courses will get the full university deal, sink or swim.

In addition, AP was originally supposed to be an option for kids who were ready for college level work, but who didn't have ready access to a college. Manual's block scheduling allows for college-length classes, and they have a college nearby. But AP still wins out. I am guessing there's a bit of the college application mania going on here. AP scores are readily comparable and, like perfect SAT scores, make you stand out on a scale that everyone else applying to selective colleges will also be judged on. Local university classes may not indicate the same thing.

So now Manual students tend to enroll at the University of Louisville only if they've blown through AP Calculus BC before their senior years. Then they enroll in the university's multivariable calculus class.

Across the country, AP classes are becoming a national curriculum for the most ambitious college-bound students. A rigorous national curriculum may be a worthy goal to pursue in its own right, but I'm not sure that, on the whole, students who are prepared for college work aren't better off just enrolling in college when they're ready.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Vying for NYC's Gifted Programs

As mentioned in previous posts, New York City is trying some new methods this winter for figuring out which children belong in the city's gifted programs. Unlike many big cities, New York has a long tradition of offering gifted education; indeed, the city's public magnet schools for the gifted are among the best accommodations in the country for such special learners (think Stuyvesant High School, profiled in Genius Denied). The city also starts gifted education in kindergarten, while some districts insist (wrongly) that it's impossible to tell the difference until 3rd grade.

This year, the city is promoting a test for 4- and 5-year-olds to choose students for spots in the limited number of kindergarten and first grade gifted programs. The school system has been aggressively promoting the test in neighborhoods where parents may not be as savvy about these things. So far so good.

But this is New York, one of the most competitive cities in the country. And given the general weakness of the public school system, this test has suddenly become quite high stakes. You can read a Daily News story about the issue by following this link:


I sympathize with Anna Commitante, head of NYC's gifted program. She notes in the article that "It's unfortunate that it's turned into the belief that this is the only way to get a quality public education... Gifted doesn't mean the classes are better or the kids are better. ... These children learn differently and need modifications to their education program."

She's absolutely right. One of the problems with gifted education in this country is that so much of the rest of education is so mediocre. In many schools parents perceive, rightly, that the gifted classes are the only ones where academic expectations are kept high. But all children deserve to be challenged to the extent of their abilities. Unfortunately, many gifted programs feed into the nonsense by not covering academic material. Why should only gifted kids get to study myths or insects or the culture of Japan, or various other classic pull-out curricula? This special, more "fun" work invites resentment and the idea that gifted education is a reward. Many schools feed into the hysteria by choosing ridiculously high percentages of kids for their gifted programs and by creating quite arbitrary cut-offs that invite gaming the system.

Gifted education should never be a reward. It should be an educational intervention for kids who need it. This is one of the advantages of grade skipping as an accommodation. Clearly, it isn't a reward -- it matches the child to the curriculum that best challenges him. Maybe instead of having thousands of nervous 4-year-olds vying for spots in special classes, NYC should try having those who have already mastered kindergarten material start 1st grade, or 2nd grade, or, heck, 6th grade. My guess is that you'd see a lot fewer parents convinced that it's "gifted" or the private schools.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

North Carolina trains more gifted teachers

Teacher training is a thorny subject. On one hand, I believe that the current system of licensing teachers is horribly inefficient. Many prospective teachers major in education, rather than in the subjects they will teach, and too many districts have elaborate licensure systems in place that discourage mid-career professionals from considering teaching.

That said, studies have found that gifted education teachers who've done a significant amount of coursework in that area have better outcomes than those who haven't. So it makes sense that if a district is going to go to the trouble of creating a gifted program, it should make sure that the program's teachers know how to reach these special learners.

Yet few universities offer such courses to teachers. Fortunately, two universities in North Carolina have recently started programs specifically to train gifted education teachers (in ways that work around these established teachers' schedules). I am traveling in California on book tour for Grindhopping right now, so I don't have my HTML cheat sheet, but you can read about a program at Duke by following this link:


And you can read about a program in High Point, NC by following this link:


The Duke program in particular is exciting because it's run by the Talent Identification Program (TIP) that so many gifted kids have participated in. Every summer, TIP brings 1000 gifted middle schoolers to campus to take advanced coursework. Now Durham Public Schools teachers will be able to observe and work with the teachers of these courses. Students at programs like TIP often talk about how the three week summer camps enable them to endure the whole school year. Now, hopefully, some Durham students will benefit from that energy all year round.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Aztecs vs. Greeks (Murray part 3)

Today, Charles Murray turns his attention to the intellectually gifted, which he defines rather broadly as those with IQs over about 120. It turns out these articles are available online, so you can read today's installment here.

Basically, in this installment, Murray calls for the gifted to be given a challenging, classical education. He further states that we need to encourage gifted kids not to become just smart but wise. "The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities -- in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today's education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, "I can't do this." Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them."

I totally agree with this, just as I agree that gifted kids need to learn grammar and logic. There's no point telling kids just to be creative and express themselves without giving them the tools to do so in a coherent fashion. As an art, music and history junkie myself, I also think it would be great to make sure children have a classical education, which Murray calls for (full of ethics, study of the Greeks rather than the Aztecs, which is how this essay gets its title, and so on).

Unfortunately, for all his lauding of a classical education, Murray fails to tie the knot demonstrating why studying the Greeks makes anyone good and wise. He repeats William Buckley's joke that it would be better to be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard, but it must be pointed out that the vast majority of Harvard faculty have studied the Greeks and art and ethics, while the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book have not. If the Harvard faculty have not become wise (defined, here, I suspect, as envisioning a society with rules similar to ones Murray and Buckley would design) than we have a logical problem. Unfortunately, this essay doesn't address that. I guess Murray simply had to crank out a part 3 of a 3-part series.

But if anyone reads Aztecs vs. Greeks and decides to push for education that holds gifted kids' feet to the fire, intellectually, than I'll be happy. There is great satisfaction that comes from trying something difficult and achieving it. This is one of the reasons Jan and Bob Davidson give their fellowship awards every year; the projects kids undertake go far beyond what is ever assigned in school. The results are rarely easy to come across, and the projects rarely easy to produce -- at least if you're going to win. Likewise, it wasn't until I got to the Indiana Academy that I discovered how hard I was capable of working. I decided I wanted to take AP Biology and Chemistry simultaneously during the fall of my senior year, and I wanted to get As in both. That required not only doing well, but according to our grading system, doing a full standard deviation better than my very intellectually gifted classmates on each test. I struggled -- writing up lab reports at 2am -- but I did it. It's a lesson of perseverance and being in control of one's life I've since taken to book writing and other long, difficult projects. It's a lesson I worry too few gifted kids learn. No one should expect life to be easy, at least not if you're going to enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Murray part 2: Is College for Everyone?

Today, Charles Murray continues his discussion of intelligence and education in the Wall Street Journal with an op-ed on college enrollment. The returns on a college education have increased, many employers demand a bachelor's degree as a credential that shows perseverence and capability and, consequently, many more high school graduates are enrolling. In the early 1970's, only about 10% of Americans over age 25 had a college degree. Now, at least 40% of people in their late teens attempt some college. We have not had a corresponding increase in overall intelligence in the population, which means that two things are happening. Drop-out rates are high, and college instruction has been dumbed down (or at least many colleges are having to focus on remedial education for high percentages of their students). That in turn creates degree inflation where employers start looking for master's degrees to signal intelligence, and so forth.

Murray believes that, on the basis of IQ, at most 15-25% of the population is capable of college level work, as most people think of it. So he calls for other options for young people to signal that they are skilled workers that don't involve a four year liberal arts education. He calls for an expansion of two year and vocational schools. Clearly he is not riding the New York City subways, as every ad on the wall is already for such schools that teach office technologies, opthalmic dispensing, welding, and the like. I think Murray is more conveying that people in his social class assume everyone who is going to make something of themselves should go to a four-year college. That pressures a lot of young people who want to make decent wages to go to four year programs (and then spend longer than four years, or drop out before finishing) when they'd be better served by other options. So Murray calls for dropping the snob factor. Over time, he believes, the market will do this. After all, a lot of plumbers make more and have nicer houses than the white collar workers whose pipes they work on.

Are any Gifted Exchange readers reading this series? I'm curious what you think about Murray's take on college. Is the idea of making college near-universal foolhardy? Is it better to make "some education after high school" the goal? There are policy debates going on right now in Congress about subsidizing the interest on student loans as a way to increase access to higher education. But do we suffer from a lack of access?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Intelligence in the Classroom - Charles Murray

The Wall Street Journal is running a 3-part series on the op-ed page from Charles Murray, scholar of intelligence and general gadfly. Since giftedness is so caught up in questions of IQ, we'll be talking about the subject for the next few days here at Gifted Exchange as well. (Unfortunately, Wall Street Journal content is generally only available to paid subscribers online, but I'll do my best to summarize).

In today's installment, "Intelligence in the Classroom," Murray takes on the very American notion that education is salvation. You name the social problem, and "better education" is listed as the way to solve it. The point of the No Child Left Behind act is that, with the right expectations, proper discipline and excellent teaching, any child can learn to function at the kind of level that will enable him or her to succeed in the modern economy. We bemoan that 36% of fourth graders score "below average" on the reading part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, "the nation's report card") and put various standards and accountability practices in place to hope this rises.

But one question goes unasked, Murray says. What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement score? After all, mathematical models tell us that about 36% of fourth graders should have an IQ under 95. We do not live in Lake Wobegon. We can't all have above average IQs. So "if the bar for basic achievement is meaningfully defined, some substantial proportion of students will be unable to meet it no matter how well they are taught."

Further weighing on the situation, Murray writes, is the reality that a person's general intelligence (which he calls "g" and which may or may not be measurable by current IQ tests accurately) is largely unchangeable at least after you get to kindergarten. It is grounded in the architecture and neural functioning of the brain, he writes. These things are set in the womb and in a baby's first few years of life. "No change in the educational system will change that hard fact."

Americans naturally don't like to hear things like this. Murray mocks the story of "a child who was getting Ds in school, met an inspiring teacher, and went on to become an astrophysicist." That, he writes, is an underachievement story. A gifted child was not being challenged. When challenged, you "might be able to get a spectacular result," he writes of another gifted child example. Neither is a case of someone in the 49th percentile of intelligence. And 49% of us are going to have to be under that bar.

Murray does say that "This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved." And here I think he massages over a point to get to his raw thesis on intelligence.

The lack of discipline and structure and high expectations at many American schools is so profound that many children who are in the top half of the intelligence distribution are performing as though they were in the bottom half. We have many stories of underachievement going on. Claiming this is just part of the problem of low IQ is like saying that men and women are not equally capable of doing math. At the very, very top end of the intelligence spectrum, maybe there is some difference in brain wiring. But most of us are not there. Most of us aren't even close to the point where the different wiring comes into play. The vast majority of men and women are equally capable of grasping mathematical concepts, and the lower number of women in math programs in college and even graduate schools is likely more related to societal expectations than anything else. Likewise, some children just may not be able to ever read well enough to follow the logic of, say, Kierkegaard's writings. But when schools don't even expect poor children, minority children, or what have you, to be able to read at all by the end of 3rd grade, or 12th graders to be able to read a newspaper, then we have an underachievement problem.

Murray also does not address a few studies we've discussed on this blog last year about adopted children. While adopted children with low IQs who are raised in higher IQ families do not wind up with IQs approaching those of their more intellectually gifted family members, they do wind up reasonably higher. Especially when we are talking about IQs on the lower end of normal, an increase to a normal range can translate into a huge benefit in achievable lifestyle. This suggests that there is at least something one can do to raise intelligence, albeit not by as much as we'd all like. And of course, it suggests social policies that few people would support. While Head Start may be popular for, in theory, giving disadvantaged children a chance to catch up before school, in reality, the time to intervene is immediately after birth. The image of the state rushing in to take babes from their mothers' arms since "we can do better" is a bit too fascist for anyone to tolerate.

Uncomfortable as Murray's statements may be, though, I'm glad he's bringing them up. Innate intelligence is not often talked about in schools. Even gifted education advocates shy from talking about it. The "alternate" methods of identifying gifted students we've discussed on this blog often try to catch and label kids who are trying hard, regardless of IQ or "g" or whatever you want to call it. But sometimes it is best to stare uncomfortable things in the face. It is best to see what they are, so we can then react based on the facts.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Challenging Gifted Kids in the UK

Over the holiday season, the issue of gifted education has been garnering headlines in the UK, due to a report on how the country is neglecting the brightest 10% of its children (particularly those from working class families). You can read a Guardian article about the report here. The report blames an extreme egalitarian and "anti-elite" mindset in the schools -- a mindset that finds the idea of gifted education distasteful (sound familiar?).

Fortunately, the UK is looking to do something about the problem. Another article from the Guardian, which you can read here, reports that schools minister Lord Adonis (don't you just love that name?) wants 800,000 gifted pupils to receive vouchers to pay for summer or online classes. This credit system could be used to supplement the education bright pupils receive at their local schools. Lord Adonis (I'm sorry, I can't type that without picturing a romance novel cover...) has been spearheading a registry of Britain's gifted students for better tracking, and apparently has been infuriated by the attitude he's encountering from some schools. About 30% of schools have not registered with this gifted database, and 20% claim they have no gifted pupils. That's highly unlikely, but may be the schools' way of telling Lord Adonis to buzz off.

While not a pure voucher program (the government recently rejected a flat voucher payment to parents of gifted kids) the system would give kids credits that could be used at a variety of programs that would compete for the business through the government system. Some of the suggested programs are university summer school classes (think programs like TIP or CTD in the U.S.) or online programs (think programs like Stanford's EPGY courses in the U.S.). While well-to-do parents of gifted kids can afford such programs, parents of gifted kids from lower socioeconomic levels often can't pay for challenging extra curricular programs, and so the kids are stuck with the schools they get. That, in turn, wastes potential.

Given all the focus in the U.S. on raising the achievement of kids who are lingering behind grade level, it's nice to see that the UK is also taking the issue of challenging the brightest children seriously. If this program passes in the UK, maybe American educators will be similarly inspired.

Monday, January 08, 2007

No Child Left Behind Turns Five

President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law five years ago today. One of the few truly bipartisan laws to pass Congress over the past few years, NCLB aimed to raise the achievement levels of poor and minority children while improving school accountability, giving parents choices and throwing federal weight behind proven education methods. USA Today has a thorough round-up of how the law has affected schools, teachers and kids here.

The centerpiece of the law is annual testing of all children. Parents of gifted kids have complained that the focus on testing (and keeping gifted kids' test scores in a certain grade to boost averages) has reduced support for gifted education, and has taken time away from the more accelerated material gifted kids are ready for. Standardized grade level tests -- which most gifted kids can ace without trying -- also tell nothing about whether individual gifted children are learning to the extent of their abilities.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has started talking a good game about making sure No Child Left Behind doesn't also mean No Child Let Ahead. When she spoke at the opening of the Davidson Academy in Reno this summer, she said the law should do more to encourage high achievers (of course, like all politicians, Spellings knows her audience). In an online "Ask the White House" session, she told one "Lora" from Boone, N.C. that "We are also in the process of looking at whether measuring individual student growth can be included in NCLB. This way of measuring how much each student learns in a year can help us show progress for kids who are above grade level. While we certainly have a lot of work to do in this area, you are right that we need to make sure our gifted students are also receiving a quality education." (you can read the whole chat transcript here.)

Whether anything will happen, though, remains to be seen. I am curious what effects people have seen from NCLB in their own schools with regards to gifted education over the past five years. I suspect that schools that value gifted children and gifted education have continued to find a way to challenge them within the guidelines of NCLB, while schools that have long been itching for a way to abolish or trim gifted education have used the law as a club to do that.

It's popular in some quarters to reflexively bash NCLB, but I don't think that's too smart. A number of districts have improved test scores for low income students over the past few years, a result that is worth celebrating to the high heavens. The USA Today article highlights one Philadelphia elementary school that has seen the proportion of kids scoring at grade level on state reading tests rise from 2 in 10 in 2003 to 7 in 10 in 2005. If those results are being repeated elsewhere, then society will be reaping major benefits 10-15 years from now in higher incomes, reduced crime, etc. Some principals and superintendents are also using NCLB as an excuse to clean house of non-performing teachers and to revamp underwhelming curricula. That's another result worth celebrating.

But it does seem that there should be a way to focus on raising the ceiling and the floor. Testing individual progress -- on a sensitive enough scale (i.e., out-of-level testing for gifted kids) and holding schools accountable for the results would seem like one way. Breaking out results for children identified as gifted could give parents a better idea of which schools nurture such talents. NCLB was also supposed to spur competition between schools, which in theory could have led to special gifted programs at some magnet schools in big cities. Unfortunately, many districts have made it tough for kids to transfer, which reduces the effectiveness of this element of NCLB.

I'm curious about Gifted Exchange readers' verdicts on NCLB at five. Please post and discuss. (I also want to thank readers for linking to this site so often -- when I Googled "Margarent Spellings" and "gifted education" to research this piece, Gifted Exchange came up first!)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Perfect Mess

One of the most popular New Year's Resolutions is to "get organized." Indeed, January is the official "Get Organized Month." We promise ourselves that this year will be the one where we clean out the garage, the attic, our desks, and hence, our lives.

Now an interesting new book, A Perfect Mess, takes that pursuit of neatness-above-all to task. You can listen to an NPR interview with Dave Freedman, one of the authors, here.

The authors advance the theory that messiness has a correlation to creative giftedness. They did a survey that found that higher paid people, who have more responsibility, often do have more clutter in their desks and offices. The clutter reflects the desire to keep many slightly unrelated things together, since these seemingly unrelated things often can be linked together to come up with creative solutions (CEOs who are usually photographed in their spic-and-span offices, often have 2-3 administrative assistants who organize the clutter in the "public" office where the chief entertains visitors. In other words, they cheat to create an impression!). Out-of-sight, out-of-mind is a saying for a reason, and creative people don't like to really have things out-of-mind (they push them to the back, and to the bottom of the pile, to be retrieved later). Indeed, they usually know where most important papers are, even if the piles look bad to others.

Anyway, as I write this on my desk that's overflowing with papers -- an index card listing chunks of a novel I just wrote that needed particular revisions, stamps, business cards, page proofs of another article I just wrote on New Year's resolutions, news clippings on the Brown v. Board of Education school in Topeka, KS that might just be turned into a charter school, my running log, the press kit for Grindhopping -- I find this quite comforting. Which is precisely why this book will do well. Reviews have made this point. It's a very comforting thesis ("Actually, Mr. Boss, my mess is a sign of my genius!") The authors also belabor the point for 200 pages when they could have made it in 20.

But... I do believe that messiness can be one of the side effects of giftedness. Walk through a hall of academic offices, and you'll see people happily buried in piles of papers and manuscripts. Perhaps these people know that while a cluttered desk may be the sign of a cluttered mind, by that logic, an empty desk suggests something even worse.