Thursday, May 31, 2007

Choosing Secondary Schools

One of the most common questions I get from readers of this blog is "which school is best for my gifted child?" It's a question that's hard to answer, even if money and location don't matter (and they do tend to matter for most of us). Different children have different learning styles. A Montessori education might delight a free-spirited child, but frustrate one who needs more structure.

That said, I've come across two lists of "good" schools for gifted kids recently that can serve as good starting points. The first is the broad Newsweek list of the 1200 best high schools in the US. (Follow the links from this page for the list and related articles). Dallas's School for the Talented and Gifted came out in the top spot, with Dallas's School of Science and Engineering coming in at number two. So if location is truly negotiable, Dallas might be worth checking out. It's also worth noting that Newsweek purposefully excluded selective schools like the Illinois Math and Science Academy and Bronx Science from consideration for reasons that aren't entirely clear; the magazine published a list of these excluded schools (link from the same main page). These are all good options.

The second list comes from the Malone Family Foundation, a non-profit that makes grants to support gifted education. The Foundation adds three independent secondary schools to its list of "good schools" each year, and bequeaths a large enough chunk of change to these schools to endow scholarships for gifted kids. Since the schools have to undergo a certain vetting to get on the list, most of these are pretty good options for secondary school kids as well.

If anyone reading this is going through the school selection process right now, I'd love to hear how you're making your decision.

Friday, May 25, 2007

How to Fix No Child Left Behind

Time magazine has a cover story this coming week on the problems and promise of NCLB five years in. First the good news. A number of high-poverty, low-performing schools are indeed doing better on reading and math tests. When it becomes public knowledge that only 10% of kids at a school score at grade level on these tests, most people find that fairly embarassing -- and they do something about it.

The bad news is that sometimes the things they do are not exactly going to help America's competitiveness in the global economy. As Time points out, states can choose their own standards test, and some, such as Mississippi, have chosen to make the tests so easy that they're meaningless. A surprising number of schools simply cheat. Others adopt drill and kill approaches and get rid of all curriculum that doesn't appear on the tests (science, history, art, music, etc.)

And then, of interest to readers of this blog, there's the perception of neglect of kids who will definitely pass the standards tests. The opening anecdote of the Time article describes a school focusing on a batch of kids with borderline scores. Maybe they'll pass, maybe they won't, so the school throws time and resources at pushing them over the bar. But what about the kids who are already over the bar? I haven't been able to find a lot of stories of schools actually getting rid of gifted education because of NCLB, but certainly many people feel it's no longer a priority. The same criticism of NCLB, incidentally, can be made on the other end of the spectrum. A child who is reading four grades below his age level can improve to one grade below, but still may not pass the test. In the NCLB world, this improvement is meaningless.

One of the best proposed reforms is to put the focus on individual student growth. As Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings points out, the data bases necessary to achieve that would be complex. But the idea is that schools would need to show adequate yearly progress for individual students. A gifted child who wasn't learning would suddenly be a problem for the school (well, provided the test was hard enough-- a national set of standards might improve the picture).

It's anyone's guess how much NCLB will be reformed. I don't think it's a big priority in Congress right now, and given the small percentage of education funding the federal government provides, states may rebel over too much meddling. In general, acountability is a good thing, so I'm hoping NCLB can be done right. I'm not too optimistic it will be, though.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Research Partnership on Gifted Education

The Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa, and the Davidson Institute for Talent Development just announced that they would be working together to research highly gifted children. Some of the proposed projects actually look at the questions we've been talking about on this blog, namely, the problem of measuring potential.

As Nicholas Colangelo of the University of Iowa points out in the press release, there is very little research in this area. Decades ago, Louis Terman started a longitudinal study of children who'd scored very high on IQ tests. Like many researchers in this field, Terman assumed he was tracking the future movers and shakers of this country. Certainly, most of his subjects did very well in life. But his study missed some of the highest achievers from that age group (i.e., people you would have heard of, Nobel Prize winners, etc.). Similarly, the Glamour Top Ten College Women contest has missed almost every high-achieving woman you would have heard of who's lived in the United States over the past five decades. You can look at high-achievers and try to trace back to things that made them great. But it is very, very difficult to look at a group of kids and figure out who has the most potential to advance the culture, science, the economy, or what have you.

I liken this to magazine diet stories (stay with me here). You can read dozens of success stories in any given publication. But last year, Redbook tried an interesting experiment of following three women as they attempted to lose weight over a 12 month period. The women had access to nutritionists, trainers, etc. Only one of the three lost more than a few pounds. Why did she succeed where the others failed? Similar columns in Shape and other magazines have encountered this exact same problem. You can screen hundreds of applicants, but it is very difficult to measure motivation, gumption, discipline, drive -- whatever you want to call it. Some people simply will not let themselves fail, be it at becoming healthier or doing scientific research. It's hard to move the needle in any field. People who do tend to have that certain moxie.

Hopefully this research will, long-term, help supply the answers. Colangelo states that he thinks the Davidson Fellows in particular will show up more on the radar screen in future years than Terman's kids, because their awards are based on actual accomplishments, not just a test score. I think there's something to that. Hopefully this blog will be able to report on lots of research updates over the next few years.

By the way, thanks for all your kind wishes on the baby! We're all doing great.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Big News!

I'm happy to announce that my husband and I welcomed little Jasper Vanderkam Conway into the world at 2:15am on Wednesday morning. He was 7lbs 8oz, is very alert, and loves taking in the world around him. I'm attaching a photo of the little guy to this post. We are home from the hospital and enjoying getting to know each other. And sleeping on occasion!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When School Works

From time to time, I like to share news about educational innovations with readers of this blog. One of the more interesting ones I've come across lately is the Cristo Rey network of schools.

Started in Chicago a few years ago, this network of college prep Catholic schools has a mission to serve the urban poor. Indeed, in most Cristo Rey schools, 80% of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. The majority are black or Hispanic. Students receive a rigorous education and are expected to pursue college afterwards. Across the network of a dozen Cristo Rey schools, more than 90% of graduates go on to 2- or 4-year colleges.

There's nothing too crazy about this; Catholic schools have long provided a quality education to inner city kids. But over the past few years a number of urban Catholic schools have closed. For various reasons, archdioceses have run low on funds, and with fewer nuns and priests willing to teach for cheap, Catholic schools have had to pay salaries to lay people that are closer to public school salaries. That means they have to find donors or raise tuition. Raising tuition is seldom an option when a big proportion of your student body lives close to the poverty line, and even middle class families worried about college costs may be loathe to absorb big cost increases. But fundraising is expensive and time-consuming too.

So how do you develop an urban Catholic education model that's sustainable? Enter Fr. John Foley, a Jesuit priest. A few years ago he wanted to start a high school in Chicago, and he asked a management consultant friend to brainstorm funding ideas. The one they hit upon? Have the kids "work off" their tuition by apprenticing with area businesses. Basically, for about $25,000 a year paid to the Cristo Rey school, a company gets a full time equivalent worker in return. This comes in the form of a four student team. Each student works one day a week for the company doing something clerical or entry-level (and 2 days a week one day a month). Students spend the first 3 weeks of their freshmen year in a career bootcamp learning to shake hands, answer the phone, use computers, etc. Then the school matches them with a job that tempts their interests.

Since one of the big problems with high school is how unconnected it feels to the real world, this model has been a big hit. Kids at the Chicago Cristo Rey school would show up at downtown skyscrapers and find desks waiting for them. How cool is that? They'd bring their parents to see the buildings on weekends. Many had never been to the Loop before. Businesses that employ Cristo Rey kids like having these young people around, and Cristo Rey schools have to do very little fundraising.

Not that they're not attracting funds. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given several million dollars to the Cristo Rey network to help open seven new schools this fall, including in Newark, NJ. The Foundation is interested in learning if the model can be replicated broadly. I'm not sure how much of the schools' success is related to their Catholic nature, and how much is related to their rigor and career focus, but anything that helps bright kids from tough backgrounds see a world beyond their neighborhoods is worth praising.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

On Not Going to Harvard

I read a fascinating essay in the New York Times' parenting section last week on being Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard. The author, Michael Winerip, is a Harvard alum who does admissions interviews for that illustrious institution. He lives on Long Island, where the number of wealthy families hoping to give their kids any advantage in life is high. Out of 40 interviews he's done, he says, only one student has actually been accepted by his alma mater. So as he meets these highly accomplished young people, and talks to them, the thought that keeps going through his head is "Another amazing kid who won't get into Harvard."

The kids certainly do sound amazing. They've scored 5s on innumerable AP tests. They've done original research for science experiments (Winerip's school science experiments, he notes, involved plants in shoeboxes). They've traveled amazing places, often for charitable reasons. They are polished. They have Googled him. They write nice thank you notes.

Winerip writes, wistfully, that the stats that were good enough to get him into Harvard in the 1970's would be scoffed at now. Maybe. But I can't help think there's more to it than that. I can Google as well; I've learned in a quick search that the author is a man from a blue collar Massachusetts background who's won a Pulitzer for his writing in the Times, is a published novelist, etc. Perhaps the admissions committee saw in him a spark of ambition that Harvard could truly help, by giving this local boy an entrance into the elite world that he then wound up writing about for the next 30 years. The upper middle class (OK, let's not mince words, upper class) kids Winerip interviews now have a million routes to success available to them. Perhaps schools like Harvard don't like to perceive themselves as just another feather in a kid's cap.

But I don't know. I do know that even as recently as 10 years ago, Harvard was still open to not-terribly-polished kids -- like myself. Maybe it helps to be from Indiana, not Long Island. The admissions committee called a high school teacher of mine (in whose class I earned a "C") to figure out what had happened. The teacher said he wasn't sure, but I'd done much better in another class I'd taken with him later on. That apparently satisfied the committee enough to accept me (I didn't wind up going, but that's a different story).

Maybe everything has changed in 10 years, but I doubt it. The New York Times magazine did a cover story in 1996 about four near-perfect seniors at one elite high school who applied to Harvard that year. Only one got in. Winerip refers to recent "tragic" stories that recount the same odds. These tragic stores have been going on for awhile. I think he's even written some. Maybe in a sea of perfect applicants, it helps to be the kid who signs your own check for the application fee, who wrote your essays during your smoke breaks in the Fazoli's Italian Restaurant parking lot, whose transcript contains a few consonents, etc.

But what I found most interesting was his observation that "I see these kids -- and watch my own applying to college -- and as evolved as they are, I wouldn't change places with them for anything. They're under such pressure." As some readers of this blog know, I am expecting a baby any day (in fact, today is my due date; the kid is taking his sweet time). My kid is likely to grow up someplace where the ambition to go to Harvard is not uncommon. I will probably choose schools for him where kids can take 10 AP classes and will likely score 5s on all of them. Perhaps it will even be a school where, as Winerip recounts, a statistician is on hand to help run the numbers on kids' science experiments (OK, maybe not -- I hope I'd make the kid learn statistics on his own and run the numbers!). My husband and I are not unfamiliar with the ways of marketing; we could probably help the kid figure out some great story of why he should be admitted to all the top schools.

But the trade-off when everything is there for the easy taking is that you sometimes lack the spark that pushed one incredibly literary kid in Quincy, Massachusetts to apply to Harvard in the 1970's. One of the sweetest things in life is to want something so badly that little else matters, to throw yourself into working for it, and then finally to achieve it. Even better: to know you achieved it on your own. In that sense, I can see why Winerip wouldn't want to change places with the kids he's interviewing. It's hard to recreate that joy.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Glamour's Top Ten College Women of the Year

The June 2007 issue of Glamour lists both the 2007 winners of the magazine's annual Top Ten College Women of the Year, and looks at winners from the past 50 years. The contest began as the "Top 10 Best-Dressed College Girls in America" in 1957 and mercifully evolved into an academic and leadership competition by the 1970's.

Regular readers of this blog know I'm a little wary of lists like this that purport to show who will be the movers and shakers of the next few decades. The young women Glamour chose are obviously very accomplished -- there are budding researchers, activists, musicians, etc. -- but potential is a tough thing to measure. So magazine and newspaper lists like these (USA Today also puts out a All USA Academic team list each year) give special weight to good stories.

On this year's Glamour list, there is, for example, a young woman with chronic asthma who lobbies to ban smoking indoors. She says her goal is to be the director-general of the World Health Organization. That's an interesting goal, since the WHO is part of the UN, and it's generally understood that people from the most powerful or controversial member countries (ie, the US) won't be heading up some of the major UN agencies like the WHO. These positions tend to be allocated politically to "uncontroversial" countries such as Norway, South Korea, Sweden, etc. Even Margaret Chan, the current DG, who's from China, was quite controversial. I'm not saying it will never happen, but if this young woman becomes the future DG, she won't be chosen for it on the same merits that she was chosen for the Glamour list (ie, being bright, optimistic, and having a good story).

Herein lies the problem of these lists. The same skills that get you noticed in the college application game, and the college award game, are not the same skills that get you noticed in the career game. Credentials matter less. Who you know matters a lot more. So does luck and timing. Our anti-smoking crusader could have the perfect credentials to be DG, but if South Korea is "owed" a major UN agency position, and then the person sticks around until our anti-smoking crusader is perceived as too old, she will not land the job. She can, of course, make a difference in the world of public health. But to do so, she will probably have to do something more entrepreneurial, like scale up her anti-smoking activities overseas. Will she do that when there aren't any major awards to win for doing so?

Indeed, the people you've heard of on these lists have often wound up doing entrepreneurial things. For instance, Martha Stewart was on the Glamour list in 1961 -- though she was actually the 11th girl chosen. One of the top 10 did something bad and was booted from the list. Stewart took her place. It is highly unlikely that the first has accomplished nearly as much as Stewart. People who take the time and effort to nominate themselves for these lists and complete the paper work and figure out what it takes to catch the judges' eyes care a lot about credentials and how other people perceive them. Entrepreneurial types do not. Credentialists often try to work their way up institutions, which can be incredibly frustrating and political. It often doesn't work, which is why you've not heard of most of the Top 10 College Women over the years. They become things like "assistant dean at Arizona State University" (as a winner from 1968 did).

Because of this bias toward credentialism, it's amazing when you think about some of the incredible women Glamour's Top 10 College Women list has missed. Since the list has been around for 50 years, pretty much any woman in any major leadership position you can think of (who's under 70 years old) wasn't on the list. Granted, it wasn't fully academic/leadership oriented until the 1970's, but that means any woman in a leadership role who's under age 57 was also missed. I find it fascinating that the assistant dean of Arizona State University made the list, but the female presidents of Harvard (incoming) and Princeton (current) did not. Perhaps our Arizona dean has better credentials, or is even smarter than the other two. I don't know. But she wasn't in the right place at the right time. Oprah Winfrey did not make the list. My guess is that she was too busy actually building her career as a television journalist when she was in college to care about such things.

I'm happy that these lists exist, because I think it's great to give attention to bright, ambitious young people, particularly in magazines that often spend a lot of time talking about how to tone your thighs or spend $300 on a blouse. But no one has yet come up with a great methodology for measuring potential, which is something to keep in mind while reading these lists.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Prufrock Press recently published an interview with Joel McIntosh, publisher of Prufrock Press. Started in 1988, Prufrock is one of the biggest houses devoted to books and journals on gifted children. If you've ordered teaching materials for gifted kids or books on parenting them (such as James Delisle's books), you've heard of this house. You can access the article here.

He has a few interesting points. First, countering the general trend of putting down "pushy parents," McIntosh says that parents need to advocate for gifted children more than ever before. I don't quite share his view on No Child Left Behind being so awful (in general, accountability is a good thing), though I agree that what gets measured gets attention, and so gifted children tend to be ignored in schools that are worried about falling close to the line on showing adequate yearly progress. In such an environment, parents who want their kids to receive a challenging education have to step up to the plate to help make that happen.

The other interesting tidbit is where the name "Prufrock" comes from. Apparently, it takes its name from a T.S. Elliot poem called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Although I'd heard some of the lines from this poem before ("Do I dare to eat a peach?") I don't think I'd sat down and read the whole thing. It was an enjoyable experience, and I recommend it! In the poem, Mr. Prufrock frets about no one understanding him. "Do I dare disturb the universe?" he asks. This poem appealed to McIntosh, because he thought this experience of thinking no one understands you, that the universe is absurd ("I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me") is pretty common for gifted kids. It is. That's why Kurt Vonnegut is always such a favorite writer among adolescents who actually think. And so McIntosh's publishing house became Prufrock Press.