Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I just wanted to share a new website with readers of Gifted Exchange: Cogito.org. This project from Johns Hopkins University features interviews with high-achieving young scientistis and mathematicians (in the beginning of their careers), lists of distance learning programs, contest deadlines (the Davidson Fellows one is coming up!), etc. The idea is to create a community for young people aged 8-18 who are interested in science and math, and introduce them to the careers and resources that are available. It's pretty well done, so please check it out!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Praise: The Powers and Perils

Po Bronson is one of my favorite kid/parenting issues writers (I mentioned his essay for Time on Barbie v. Baby Einstein on this blog a few months ago). He had a cover story last week in New York magazine on the The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.

The feature is based on some research done a few years ago by Carol Dweck, a psychologist who's now at Stanford. Dweck discovered that, despite all the self-esteem literature out there, praise can actually discourage your kid from trying tough things -- that is, if you do it wrong. In one classic example of her studies, kids were given an easy test, one on which the researchers knew they'd do well. The kids were then told their scores and given a single line of praise. It was either "You must be smart at this" or "You must have worked really hard."

Then the kids were given a choice of which test to take next. One of the tests, kids were told, was hard, but they'd learn a lot from the puzzles. The other was easy, like the last one. Of the kids praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder test. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, the majority chose the easier one. A single line of praise made that much of a difference.

For a third test, the kids didn't get a choice -- it was hard for everyone. The kids praised for their effort struggled but threw themselves into trying. Some volunteered that it was their favorite test. Those praised for their intelligence, though, hated it - they felt massive distress as they found themselves failing. On a fourth test, as easy as the first, the group praised for effort improved their scores by about 30% despite their previous failing performance. The group praised for their intelligence took the failure to heart, and scored 20% lower than their first round attempts.

Dweck hypothesized that the one difference between these two groups of kids was a sense of control. Effort is something kids can control. Simply "being smart" is not. Those praised for being smart don't want to risk not appearing smart. They are absolutely petrified of trying something and failing. Those praised for effort want to put in more effort, so they do. The two approaches ensure drastically different results.

I've read this study before, but reading the Po Bronson article got me thinking about it again in relation to gifted kids. Few gifted kids are truly challenged in school. That's a problem not because gifted kids are somehow more deserving of "special" work, but because they learn that things should always come easy to them. They are constantly labeled "smart" for minimum effort. After a while, your self-image becomes wrapped up in being "smart." You don't want to risk not appearing smart, which means you never stick with something that's difficult, or that you don't stand out at immediately.

That's a problem because any change in life requires mastering new skills. I know gifted kids who've dropped out of college because suddenly the work wasn't easy anymore. They invented stories about "oh, they just don't understand me here" but I wonder if perhaps these kids were praised a little too much for intelligence, and too little for effort growing up. I suspect that many gifted kids suffer a tough transition to the real world for the same reason. When building a career, there is often no "right" answer -- there are simply choices you must make with imperfect information. It's not immediately obvious if you've made smart decisions or not. So people flee back to graduate school where they can see that they're making progress, and where tests and papers provide immediate evidence of their status as intelligent people. Or they hop from job to job, not because the hopping is getting them somewhere they want to be, but because they want the immediate rush of being the smart new hire. Taking risks to create something new within institutions, or on their own, and possibly failing in front of everyone, is just out of the question.

As Bronson points out, not praising a kid as "smart" takes a lot of discipline on the part of a parent. Calling our kids smart is an easy way to show unconditional love, and praising a state of existence allows some of that praise to rub off on the people responsible for the kid's existence (meaning us). No one controls effort but the kid himself.

But ultimately children have to learn to deal with life themselves, without hovering parents or teachers giving constant reassurance. Equipping gifted children with this skill is probably the greatest gift parents can give them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Curriculum Compacting: Why not start school in January?

Sally Reis has an article in February's School Administrator magazine called No Child Left Bored. Her piece talks about the various options available for gifted kids. It's more or less a laundry list, though it's a good refresher for people stumped about what to try next.

Buried in the section on curriculum compacting, though, I found an interesting tidbit. According to Reis, "In a national study, we found that with only a few hours of training classroom teachers learned to eliminate between 40 and 50 percent of the previously mastered regular curriculum for both high-ability and gifted students. Interestingly, no differences were found between students whose work was compacted and students who did all the work in reading, math computation, social studies and spelling. In fact, in some content areas, scores were actually higher when this elimination of previously mastered content took place."

I searched for the study I believe she is referring to, and found a summary here. As the study title asks, puckishly, "Why not let high ability students start school in January?"

Aside from the obvious answer (parents have to work; where do you stash the kids for an extra 4 months a year?) it's a reasonable question when you look at the results. Reis and her fellow researchers found that after a bit of training, 95% of teachers were able to identify 1-2 high-achieving students in their classes, and most of these teachers were also able to identify what material these students had and hadn't mastered. Quickly trained teachers were also able to brainstorm ways for the students to show mastery. They identified about 40-50% of the regular classroom material that could be eliminated for gifted kids. Even when a full 50% of the classroom work was eliminated, these students did no worse on standardized tests (and out of level tests) given to them later.

In other words, high ability students are probably wasting about half the "teaching time" in their regular classrooms. That doesn't even include the time everyone wastes doing things like waiting for other students to be on task. While this is probably no surprise to any bright kid who's been bored in class, it is interesting to see it documented.

Unfortunately, in the Reis study, while teachers trained for only a few hours were able to successfully compact the curriculum, they were not able to come up with high quality replacement material to fill the time. While reading in the back of the room, going to the library or even just daydreaming may be better than doing mindless worksheets, it hits home that gifted kids are often in school just to mark time. And if that's the case, why not start in January? To truly blossom, gifted kids need teachers trained to meet their special needs. And unfortunately, that's harder to pull off in a few hours of staff development.

Friday, February 16, 2007

All Gifted Education is Local

Returning to School Administrator magazine... Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for NAGC, has an essay in the February issue on the gifted various services different districts deliver. You can read the article here. While the piece is more a survey of what different options exist, the opening lines suggest an interesting question. In the U.S., education is largely a local matter, and so gifted education is a local matter, too. Is this smart or good for gifted kids?

Clarenbach says NAGC often receives calls from parents wondering where they should move in order to make sure their children receive an appropriate, challenging education. It's a tough question. A district that offers a magnet school for gifted children might look like a good choice, but if that school is inflexible about grade skipping (believe it or not, that happens) then it might not be a good choice for a profoundly gifted child.

In general, I believe educational decisions are best made closest to the people they affect. So gifted education should be a state or local issue. However, given that the federal government does muck around in various educational decisions already, I don't like the idea of gifted education getting the short end of the stick. I wish the federal Education Department would identify gifted education as a major national priority, offer better resources and circulate more "best practices" ideas for districts to implement. Federal bureaucrats can use their positions to promote concepts, even in the absence of national mandates. Because, unfortunately, one of the side effects of gifted education being local is that well-to-do parents, who can move, have better access to it than families who have to stay put. While local control of education is a concept worth defending, that result is not.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Gifted Education in Africa

I spent last week in South Africa, mostly in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve near Krueger and the Mozambique border. I was also able to pay a short visit to the nearby J.J. Matsone Primary School. I'm going to attempt to load a photo of the 4- and 5-year-old class singing songs in English and Tsongan (the local area's language).

The school building was newly constructed, but signs of South Africa's general poverty remained. Only about half the children had shoes. The village had electricity and water, but many of the town's buildings still resembled the awful slum homes you see in the townships outside Johannesburg and Capetown.

As I wrote last year when visiting Vietnam, when education is such a limited and coveted resource in a place, it becomes an interesting question of how you find and nurture the talent of particularly talented children. How do you reach children who live in circumstances that put them mostly outside the modern economy? Many nations wrestle with this. India and China have world class universities in the cities, but children in villages still must often pay for the few years of schooling they can afford.

South Africa has come upon one interesting solution: Get on Oprah Winfrey's radar screen. The talk show host has long had an interest in gifted children (I recall reading that she skipped grades herself). She's particularly interested in gifted children who overcome tough circumstances like she herself faced growing up poor in segregated Mississippi. Yesterday's program was on amazing kids from around the world, and featured young scientists, memory champions and so forth. These past few years, Winfrey has put that interest into practice with the newly opened Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. You can read about the school here.

The school will eventually be home to 450 gifted South African girls. They will be challenged and taught by the best teachers, and hopefully taught to be leaders (something Africa, with its chronic human resources problem, desperately needs).

I think this is a great idea, one I hope is replicated in other African and developing world countries. All developing country education needs to be improved, but nurturing the talents of the brightest gives you more bang for your buck. These girls will someday improve the systems in South Africa or, even if they immigrate to Europe or the U.S., will send money and expertise home.

Starting schools is expensive. But I suppose there are lower cost ways to accomplish the same objective. I'm picturing an international program that perhaps a technology or research company could fund that would seek out particularly bright children from poor circumstances. The company would make sure the children receive additional training -- perhaps via online stations in the libraries that the Gates Foundation is putting up around the developing world -- that would allow them to be accepted at the best western universities. Of course, the company couldn't force these kids to come work for them afterwards, but many probably would!

It is a shame to squander talent in the U.S., but even more talent is squandered around the world because children happen to be born in poor countries. Finding and nurturing talented children should be a part of any smart aid program.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Georgia Tries Acceleration

I've been hearing some sad stories about gifted education programs in Georgia lately from parents. So I'm pleased to read in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the easiest, cheapest form of gifted education -- acceleration -- is increasingly on the table. You can read the story here.

While few school districts downright forbid acceleration, they often use it only when parents insist, or when a kid moves to the district and there's no clear record of what he/she was doing before. Even in these cases, the parents often face alarmist stories about "one child" who was accelerated years ago and was consequently screwed up for the rest of his/her life. That's too bad because, as the recent report A Nation Deceived showed, acceleration is not only good for kids academically, it's fine for them socially, too. If "one child" was harmed by it at some point in the mythical past, there are 10 kids who are being harmed more by leaving them in the grades that their birthdates sentence them to.

According to the AJC article, a Georgia panel last year recommended that districts consider acceleration in their guidelines, and noted the "unequivocal" benefits. Ohio, the article also notes, recently required its 600 school systems to create policies saying how kids can go about skipping grades (for instance, the Iowa Acceleration Scale gives parents and teachers an idea of what grade a child is ready for). Since acceleration is cheap, effective, and doesn't share the political baggage of so much of gifted education (that it's a "special" program, or a reward, and therefore should be bestowed upon all motivated children regardless of actual intelligence), this is good news all around.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Every Child a Cheetah? (the "Full Fabric" Myth)

The most recent issue of The School Administrator is chock full of articles on gifted education. I will be out of the country next week, but we'll look at one of the articles today, and more when I come back.

Weaving the Gifted into the Full Fabric, one of the magazine's essays, is quite a piece of work. The author, Eric Smith, has been the superintendent of four school systems, and is currently the senior VP for college readiness programs at the College Board. He makes several of the "right" statements about gifted education -- i.e., that we don't challenge our brightest kids enough, that identifying giftedness in third grade is too late -- but fundamentally, this essay uses those caveats to then argue that any notion of separate education for gifted children is fundamentally flawed. Instead of viewing children as cheetahs, beavers and turtles (as, no doubt, some well-meaning teacher in one of Smith's school systems called various reading or math groups), he says we should view all children as cheetahs. We should have high expectations for all, inviting all children to partake of the same advanced curriculum that would be limited to gifted kids, and support those who need help. He cites a few examples from his own tenure that certainly are impressive (lower income children exposed to an accelerated preschool program in Charlotte maintained their academic gains several years later; the number of Anne Arundel, MD students taking AP classes soared).

One has to be an optimist to run a large school system. But as many a parent has pointed out on this forum, in the real world, almost all classes are taught to the lowest common denominator. When students who are not prepared for college level work take AP classes, the AP classes must be taught to keep these "turtles" on board. That means the cheetahs must learn more on their own. They wind up spending time tutoring the other kids, waiting for questions to be answered, etc. The whole pace is slower. In the course of researching Genius Denied I looked at one school that made a point of offering an accelerated curriculum to all students. I have no problem with that. I encourage it! People do perform better when there are high expectations. But when I interviewed the mother of a highly gifted girl in that accelerated program, the mother sighed and said it was unfortunate, but her daughter just wasn't being challenged. It was a great school, the teachers and administrators meant well and were achieving great results among the students. But that does not change the reality that some students are simply more intelligent than others.

The beauty of a separate education program for highly gifted kids is that it fails better. We do not have schools where everyone is as energetic and interested in problem solving as Smith. Teachers mean well, but it is hard to teach to anything but the lowest common denominator. Only the best teachers can do it and, alas, just as some kids are more intelligent than others, some teachers are better than others, too. When highly gifted kids are in separate classes, the lowest common denominator is at least closer to where they are. High expectations for all, and gifted education, are not mutually exclusive concepts. Smith does a disservice to school administrators who value his opinions by implying that they are.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Scaling up "Gifted"

The state of Florida does better than most when it comes to providing funding for gifted education. But anytime something is perceived as an educational reward bestowed upon a favored group, politics come into play, and that's precisely what's happening in Florida right now. The state Department of Education is in the midst of changing the way it defines "gifted" in order to be more inclusive. You can read about one county's experience with the change here.

For starters, the state wants to expand the number of children screened for giftedness to all of them. Not a bad idea. Currently, many districts only screen for giftedness among children whose parents or teachers request it. But some parents may not know much about gifted education, or how to navigate the school system. Few teachers have training in gifted education, and so may assume that "gifted" means "doing well in class." Not always the case.

But administering IQ tests is time consuming. Doing the full deal requires at least 2 hours one-on-one with a psychologist. So Florida districts may have to use quicker, slightly rougher versions of IQ tests for mass screening. But then the 130 cut-off seems even more arbitrary. So why not add in achievement test scores? That's what the state is proposing, in addition to lowering the IQ bar to 120. School officials say this may double or triple the number of children identified as gifted, and thus make the programs more inclusive.

I'm all in favor of inclusiveness if it means screening more children. But the move toward labeling more children as gifted -- which school districts across the country are trying -- strikes me as problematic for gifted education in general. In recent posts we've talked about the problems of positioning gifted education as some sort of reward. Attempts to pack more children into the definition buy into this thinking. If a district defines "gifted" as "good student," and as a seal of approval that the kid is going places in life, then why not choose everyone who has good grades and reasonable test scores?

Proponents of gifted education are on our most solid footing when we define gifted education as an educational intervention for students who need it. If 10% or more of a class suddenly needs an intervention, maybe it could just be taken care of by more differentiation in reading groups, math groups, and the like. I'd like to see true educational interventions (grade skipping, distance learning, early enrollment at college, magnet schools for the highly gifted, including boarding schools) focused on a smaller percentage of students. That means raising the cut-off IQ bar, not lowering it. If any districts are going that direction, please let me know. I'd love to hear about them.