Thursday, March 29, 2007

EdWeek conversation with Karen Isaacson and Tamara Fisher

Education Week has a fascinating transcript from an online chat with Karen Isaacson and Tamara Fisher, co-authors of Intelligent Life in the Classroom, posted on their website. The chat covers all sorts of topics, but I found a few especially noteworthy.

For instance, the authors suggest having kids advocate for themselves. "I've found that the child speaking up and asking for harder spelling words (for example) is much more powerful than me or a parent doing it," says Fisher. "And over time, the more kids who speak up to the teachers about a need for more challenging curriculum, the more likely the teacher begins to realize that it's a real need (rather than it being just the GT specialist or parent bugging them yet again... although I've found most teachers don't feel that way and are generally open to it.) I tell my kids that if they are going to self-advocate, they need to follow the 3 P's: 1) Be polite (don't say "this is boring." 2) Do it in private (not in front of the rest of the class.) And 3) Provide proof (that they've actually mastered the content.) For some kids it is a good idea to role-play the process ahead of time. Usually the kids meet with success (i.e. a receptive teacher and accommodations)."

Since we've been talking about self-reliance on this board, that strikes me as very good advice.

The authors also suggest asking absent-minded professor type kids what strategies they think will work best for getting them more organized about school work, getting places on time, etc. This at least gets them thinking, and changes the model from combative to trying to solve a problem together. They note that one GT program is called "Extended Studies" instead of that tough word "gifted" -- and that removes some of the stigma. Then they offer this list of gifted links though, ahem, Gifted Exchange is not among them. But we'll forgive that, since overall, this chat was a very enlightening overview of the issues in gifted education.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A Head for Numbers

I wrote a short profile in April's Wired magazine on Anarghya Vardhana, one of the 2006 Davidson Fellows (page 40 - with a rather fun photo. Wired likes to be edgy). The piece mentions the prize money available to gifted young people like Anarghya through the Davidson Fellowship program. She won $10,000 to help with college, and others have won $25,000 and $50,000 scholarships. All application materials for the 2007 contest must be received by the Davidson Institute by March 30th, so if you sent in a preliminary interest form, get over to Fed Ex ASAP!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gifted programs and desegregation

Gifted programs and desegregation efforts often become intertwined. Some people think gifted programs are a way to avoid desegregation -- that they involve separating out white students from other kids. That's an erroneous idea, since gifted kids come in all colors. But sometimes the two issues become involved for other reasons. A number of cities, after being ordered to desegregate their schools, chose to create magnet schools offering gifted programs. The more strategic of these districts located their gifted programs in historically black schools that white parents might have been wary of enrolling their children in otherwise. Parents of highly gifted kids are usually willing to send their kids anywhere that might work, and when the schools offer enough other benefits besides gifted programs, these school districts have integrated their schools fairly seamlessly. For instance, my elementary school in Raleigh, NC was located in a historically black school. I rode the bus for an hour every morning. In addition to gifted programs, the school offered lots of dance, drama and music, and consequently middle-class parents of "average" kids also put their students on the bus. A good enough magnet program can actually draw kids back into the public school system. DuPont Manual in Louisville, for instance, offers dozens of AP classes, and its adjacent performing arts academy offers a best-in-nation class orchestra. The school draws kids from 32 middle schools into its 9th grade. A good number of those schools are private.

But other districts have been less successful in this regard. The Baton-Rouge, LA school system had tried putting its gifted programs in inner-city schools as part of a desegregation effort. But it was less successful in convincing middle-class, white parents to give the public schools a whirl. You can read about the course of events here. The district is now considering opening more gifted programs at neighborhood schools.

I am not sure why, exactly, the gifted-program-in-inner-city-school tactic works for some districts and not for others. A few things certainly help. For instance, when magnet schools work, it's because the whole school is good -- not just the gifted program. The school also has to be reasonably integrated -- no one likes it if the gifted program is predominantly white and the rest of the school has no white students. It looks bad. I think the change has to be managed at a time of a broader shake-up in the schools -- for instance, a merger of two districts. Then people approach their new schools with less of the baggage that they might have had before. I'm curious if any parents reading this blog have experience with a district that tried to use gifted education as a tool to help achieve desegregation compliance.

And -- a side note, if you post, you just might be the 30,000th visitor since March 29th last year! I'm thrilled that we're going to cross 30,000 views in a year. That's 2500 a month. If the average visitor stops by 4-6 times per month (roughly, I'm guessing), that means we have about 400-600 regular readers. Which is wonderful. I'll see if I can hunt down some Gifted Exchange stats for the next post.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Intel Announces Talent Search Winners

The annual Intel Science Talent Search is always a great showcase of young researchers. The awards were announced last week, and you can read about them here.

The kids are amazing. A few interesting tidbits. First, former Harvard President Larry Summers will be pleased to learn that the top 40 places were occupied by an equal number of boys and girls. The finalists were quite geographically diverse -- for instance, there were kids from North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Of course, the bulk came from high-income, highly-competitive regions like suburban New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. These regions start with certain advantages -- such as having a concentration of universities and college-educated parents. But after years of following science research competitions such as Intel and the Davidson Fellowships, I've developed a few thoughts on how schools choose to make themselves and their students competitive in national competitions. There are a few steps almost any reasonably competent school could follow.

First, let kids get actual lab experience as part of their school curriculum. Five day a week classes with bells ringing every 50 minutes are not good for this sort of thing. Block schedules are good for concentration in general, and they're particularly crucial in the sciences.

Second, take your AP program seriously. Invest in hiring teachers or training ones you have to become AP instructors. Then make it "normal" for the brightest kids to take AP Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Calculus, preferably by the end of their junior years of high school. Hopefully the National Math and Science Initiative (see the post below) will start making such training more lucrative for good teachers.

Third, partner with a local university or commercial research lab. Obviously, some schools have a natural advantage here; if a huge chunk of parents work at a local lab, then it will be easy to establish ties. But most metropolitan areas have at least one advanced-degree granting institution in their midst. I am continually amazed how few schools and universities take advantage of that fact. My first high school was located all of 2 miles from Notre Dame, which is a major research university. It could have been on the other side of the moon for all anyone cared to bring the two together. Bring in professors and researchers to talk about their work, and bring kids over for a field trip to check out the labs.

Then, fourth (and this is key) -- help bright, ambitious high school juniors who express interest in this sort of thing match up with research mentors for the summer between their junior and senior years. The research mentors will help the kids figure out which problems are best to investigate (ie, most likely to offer some results during the summer and be deemed "interesting" to the outside world). Few high school kids -- even winners of Intel and other competitions -- know enough about the scope of research that's been done in a field to know which little area they should investigate. Professors do. So make no mistake. This method is how most of them get the titles of their projects. Why shouldn't they? This is how grad students often come up with their thesis topics, too.

Schools can act as matchmakers between researchers who want to mentor kids (and maybe need free help in the lab) and kids who'd like to take a shot at the big research competitions. Schools with block schedules could continue sending their young researchers over to universities or commercial labs during the kids' senior years.

With Intel, Davidson, and other competitions, there are always a few kids who spent weeks knocking on researchers' doors on their own, asking to be allowed to work in the labs, doing the work only on Saturdays and afternoons because their own schools couldn't care less. We should be doubly amazed by the results these young science talents come up with. (And we should be wary of their schools' willingness to then tout these students as examples of how good the schools are!)

But most winners have help from schools or communities or parents who facilitate these big projects. There's nothing wrong with that. What is valued in a community usually gets done, and success breeds success. When I did MathCounts in middle school, one particular school had won Indiana pretty much every year for the previous decade. Not surprisingly, by the 10th win, almost all the brightest students in the school were taking tests to see who would make the team, the coach was recruiting kids in elementary school, practices were scheduled regularly and taken seriously, and the kids showed up confident that there would not be a single question on the exam that they wouldn't be familiar with. No wonder they won!

Schools can do the same thing to produce Intel winners. Too bad most don't care enough to do so.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Can you boost your kid's IQ?

The popular press likes to promote the idea of the pushy, hovering parent doing everything possible to get a child into Harvard from birth -- see all the talk of Hothouse Kids and the like over the past year. This is a misleading stereotype; most parents are focused on simply getting through the day without major crises, and have not developed a philosophy on why Baby Einstein is better than Barbie. But there is a certain subset that apparently believes, rather egotistically, that their children's later success rides on their early parenting decisions.

For instance, I recently came across a book, by neurologist David Perlmutter, called "Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten." Dr. Perlmutter says that 30 IQ points are at stake between birth and kindergarten, and he has the activities you should do with your kids to maximize their allotment. Frankly, I'm not sure why birth is the beginning point, except that it's hard to interest a fetus in flashcards. An industry of womb music has sprung up for parents looking to get a jump start on all this after putting two and two together. You see, babies remember music they hear after 20 weeks gestation, according to this article, and countless elementary school science fair projects have shown that plants grow better when exposed to classical music. So in theory, playing Mozart to a child, in utero, should make him smarter later. Except there's absolutely no evidence of this. Research is even showing that breast-feeding, long thought to increase IQ, actually doesn't.

That's not to say that parents have no effect on a child's intelligence beyond their genes. Studies on adoption have shown that while adopted children with lower IQs don't match their new families' IQ scores, they do get a major boost. This boost is enough to take children from the borderline mental retardation level to just a bit on the lower side of normal. This has a huge payoff in terms of what kinds of jobs and what kind of life the child will be able to manage later on.

But the evidence is not so clear on what well-educated parents can do to raise the IQ scores of their already well-loved, well-stimulated children. Nor is it clear that a mildly higher IQ score -- beyond a certain level -- will do much to enhance a child's success later in life. As the "Praise" post a few weeks ago discussed, there's much to be said for self-reliance. For a child to develop that, a parent has to do one of the hardest things possible in our competitive culture -- step back and let the little one succeed or fail on his own.

It's human nature to want to believe that things are within our power that aren't. But it doesn't help gifted kids to have society believe that parents just hothoused them from conception to age five. As one mom told us in Genius Denied, she saw a father out jogging with his son, shouting multiplication tables back and forth to be sure the boy learned them. "Sam just learned them," this mom says of her own kid. "I didn't have to do a thing." Gifted children are a gift, often a complicated one, for sure, but not a reward for doing the right number of flashcards. Discussions of gifted education would benefit from a wider realization of this truth.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Paying kids to take AP tests

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article about the National Math and Science Initiative, which pays kids to take and pass AP tests. You can read a press release from ExxonMobil, one of the lead sponsors, here.

NMSI builds on a Texas program that's been shelling out cash for good AP scores for almost a decade. Dallas-based Advanced Placement Strategies, Inc. began in 1996, when only 156 students passed AP tests in math and science at the original 10 Dallas schools in the program. This jumped to 877 last year. The program has now expanded to 64 schools. Students receive $100-$500 for passing the test, with students from poorer schools often getting more. Teachers get training bonuses -- $500 to $1,000 for becoming AP instructors, and lead teachers who coordinate the programs in the schools get $5,000.

Within five years, NMSI plans to have math & science AP incentive programs running in 150 school districts, and to set up teacher training programs at 50 universities.

Frankly, I think this is a great idea. For starters, what gets measured and rewarded gets done. Companies pay bonuses for precisely this reason. We can have a whole philosophical discussion about whether it's better to be externally or internally motivated (take the AP test to earn $500 or for the love of knowledge?) but this is a luxury we don't really have when it comes to math and science education (see the NAEP scores post, below). Over time we may all become members of Free Agent Nation, building our own businesses that satisfy internal desires for meaning and autonomy, but currently most people work for other people's companies -- like ExxonMobil -- and they work for pay. They tend to work more if promised more pay. So why not pay kids and teachers to do more of what this country has said we need to focus on?

Second, this national initiative isn't a tax-funded program. ExxonMobil can spend their money on whatever they'd like, and putting it toward better educational outcomes strikes me as smart for a company that needs to hire a lot of engineers. NMSI also is in talks with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to put in some money. As readers of this blog know, the Gates Foundation's efforts in education have so far been mediocre at best and damaging at worst. Paying kids to pass AP exams -- which do show specific content mastery in tough areas -- would be a much better use of Bill Gates' money than his small schools initiative, which pretty much hasn't worked. Using private money also gets around the problem of entrenched bureaucracy, and unions, which for some reason are loathe to allow schools to pay more for better teachers with skills that are in demand.

Ultimately, I see this as a stepping stone to a world where teachers with in-demand skills -- such as math and science qualifications -- earn more. People with these skills have more career options, and so few want to consider teaching, where they'll earn less than the teacher down the hall who's done nothing but sit there for 20 years, solely for reasons of seniority. I also like the idea of rewarding kids for outcomes. It takes a lot of work and study time to get a 5 on an AP Chemistry or calculus or biology test. That's time kids could be working at part-time jobs or watching TV. If the U.S. has decided that it would be better for kids to spend more time studying chemistry than watching Grey's Anatomy, then why not create incentives for them to do so?

The usual suspects, of course, have complained about all this. Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, told the WSJ that the approach involves "basing education reform on a series of bribes to kids and bounties to teachers." But nothing else seems to be working, and I'm guessing Schaeffer would take a different job if he were offered twice the pay. It's silly to say people shouldn't base decisions on money when almost all of us do.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The best schools for gifted kids

From time to time, parents struggling with the question of what to do with their gifted kids ask if there is a "best school" for such children. Some of these parents have flexible jobs, or the resources to live wherever they want, so it's a wide-open question. And unfortunately, not an easy one. That's because some schools for gifted kids cater to a certain range of giftedness, and some cater to certain temperaments. A very free-spirited child might prefer a Montessori or Waldorf type approach, whereas a more regimented child might prefer a structured curriculum that's heavy on grammar, logic, the liberal arts, etc. Some children have other profound gifts that need to be taken into consideration -- such as a budding musical career -- and some have learning disabilities that require their own modifications. A school that works wonderfully for one child might be awful for another.

That said, Hoagies' Gifted Education Pages has a list of schools organized by state (and some online ones) for people looking for a place to start the search. You can find the list here. Peruse the schools' websites, then send off for more information. Interview parents and graduates of these schools. Visit the schools. While it's unlikely any child will find a perfect match, choosing the right school can make learning far more enjoyable.

If people have been through this process and have helpful advice for other parents, I'd appreciate your posting your experiences and recommendations.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

12th Grade NAEP Math Scores

The regular release of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the nation's report card") is always a sobering experience. I don't like to be alarmist, but inevitably, it's a cause for some national self-flagellation.

The 2005 12th grade math scores are no exception. While tests given to 4th and 8th graders suffer from a certain reality that pretty much everyone attends these grades, by 12th grade, many people who have no interest in learning have removed themselves from school. Those remaining should skew toward the reasonably advanced. Indeed, the majority of high school graduates intend to go on to additional education.

Unfortunately, they don't seem to be learning the basic math skills that further education should require. Check out the sample 12th grade NAEP math questions here. The first is a very simple multiple choice geometry question; 73% of students got it right. The second is a simple algebra question that requires you to cough up an answer; only 23% of students got it right. Many students take algebra before geometry, so it seems odd at first glance that the geometry question was easier for people than the algebra one. But I think there's an unfortunate dynamic going on here that doesn't indicate good things for the rigor of most kids' curriculum.

The first geometry answer could likely be deduced through some real world observations (answer A isn't right since the second angle looks bigger than the first angle... and if you've ever doodled shapes inside a protractor in class, you might know a straight line totals 180 degrees). Children see streets in real life, too, so there's less of an eyes-glazed-over response to the question. Plus, it's multiple choice. You might give it a shot. The second question, though, with its f(x) and f(g(x)) language, doesn't feature a lot of real world reference points. Answering it requires a confidence gleaned from having taken and understood algebra. It is a pure content question, measuring content mastery. And unfortunately, three-quarters of high school seniors seem to lack that.

It goes without saying that children who can't do algebra will have an awfully hard time succeeding in college-level math. And a great number of jobs -- particularly fast-growing, high-paying ones -- will require some college-level math. U.S. schools do not seem to be preparing the majority of high school seniors for these career paths. But hey, at least the kids' grades are good. A report on high school transcripts, released about the same time as the NAEP scores, shows that students now average a 2.98 GPA in high school, higher than in previous years. Too bad their NAEP scores don't show a similar rise.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Thoughts on child prodigies

The Gainesville Sun ran an interesting piece recently with quotes from some experts on child prodigies. You can read the piece here.

Leave aside the bizarre opening (if the child's novel is a best-seller, it doesn't do much good to withhold the father's name from the article...). I thought the quotes from Ellen Winner, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, provided some real food for thought. For instance, she said that (with the exception of the child author in the lead anecdote), prodigies are often good at things that have already been mastered. Many of the child prodigies touted on TV have shown amazing memorization skills or technical skills -- they can cite facts about all the U.S. presidents, for instance, or have memorized dictionaries full of quotations, can play the violin beautifully, or can do arithmetic with amazing speed. But adult successes in many of these fields require a different set of skills. Mathematicians need to dream up new proofs. Composers need their own vision of the music they plan to create. Knowing facts about presidents and quotes doesn't get you anywhere in particular. Perhaps, she suggests, this is why the narrative of the prodigy who flames out is so compelling for many people.

This is no doubt why making the transition from childhood to adult success is so difficult. One of these days I hope to write a book about how gifted children have successfully made that transition! It also provides a rubric for thinking about questions we've looked at on this blog in the past (for instance, why there are so few literary prodigies, compared with math ones. The equivalent of a math prodigy in the literary field is someone who can read and comprehend incredibly quickly. Writing a novel is an entirely different concept).

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Talent Searches: What should schools do with the results?

On Monday, I spoke about my new book, Grindhopping, at the Kellogg School of Management. This is located at Northwestern University just outside Chicago. It's a place I have many fond memories of. For 3 summers in grades 7-9, I spent 3 weeks taking classes there through Northwestern's Center for Talent Development. If it hadn't been snowing like crazy, and if I hadn't had an 8:30pm plane to catch out of O'Hare (which was subsequently delayed... like every flight I've ever taken out of O'Hare...) I would have loved to spend more time walking down memory lane there.

I took classes through CTD because I'd participated in something called the "Midwest Academic Talent Search." Through this program, middle school students take an out-of-level test (I took the SAT) to provide more data on their level of advancement. On grade-level tests, gifted students tend to score in the 99th percentile, but on out-of-level tests, their scores spread out over the whole bell curve. I'm happy to report that I did quite well, even winning a partial scholarship to the summer program my 8th grade year. I received the award at a ceremony at Northwestern University. I also was recognized at a ceremony called "Achievers All" that the South Bend Community School Corporation held at the end of the year.

This experience is pretty typical for students who do well in talent searches. A survey by CTD found that after receiving MATS results, 66% of school coordinators recognize participants by handing out certificates at a special ceremony. However, in most schools, they don't do anything else. Only about 20% held meetings with parents and/or students to help them interpret the scores, and only 16% provided some sort of letter or materials they'd developed about the topic. A grand total of 2.8% communicated with parents about subsequent educational services that might be available. A full 22% of school coordinators said they did no special follow-up. I am traveling in Canada right now and don't have my HTML cheat sheet, but here's a link to the study results:

Since Dr. Julian Stanley did the first talent search at Johns Hopkins years ago, talent searches have done an excellent job of finding highly gifted kids. They have also done a great job of providing summer classes at top universities for these gifted kids. But the classes are expensive. Ideally, when a child does incredibly well on an out-of-level test, it should trigger action in their regular school. It should be time to figure out that, hey, if the kid is achieving the same scores as a high school senior, maybe she should be taking the same classes as high school seniors. But this almost never happens. Instead, schools treat it as a fun reason to hold an award ceremony.

Across the Midwest, schools should be receiving MATS scores around now (the SAT date was 1/27 and the ACT was 2/10). And unfortunately, most schools will fill out a certificate and file the scores somewhere to never be seen again.