Thursday, June 28, 2007

Birth Order and IQ

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

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

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

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sorry State of Education Research

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Should Gifted Education be Mandatory?

Colorado's governor signed a law recently that tightened the requirements on school district gifted programs. As an educator explains in this linked article from the Greeley Tribune, the law turns a lot of "mays" into "wills."

It raises the question: Should gifted education be mandatory? And if so, on what level should that mandate be sent down?

Over the years, a number of gifted education advocates have pushed for a national mandate similar to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law requires that disabled children be given a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. It mandates individual education plans, and courts have sometimes interpreted the law as requiring vast services from districts, even if it means other priorities can't be funded (there are stories of art or music services being trimmed for everyone because one child needs profound intervention... though of course, these are not the only options -- trimming overhead or raising school taxes are always on the table too, even if people don't like to admit it). Since gifted kids have special needs, too, some gifted advocates want IDEA interpreted to include gifted, or else they want a similar national law to be passed for gifted kids.

Others have focused on the state level, and indeed some states do mandate gifted education. States vary in their enforcement, though. Sometimes, a requirement that all gifted kids receive IEPs winds up meaning that everyone's IEP says the same thing: 90 minutes of pull-out a week. Or districts may hire one or two gifted teachers who do "whole class enrichment" -- ie, word puzzles and games with whole, non-ability-grouped classes. None of this does much to challenge gifted kids to the extent of their abilities.

Colorado is attempting to address these issues. The new law allows the state to use its gifted dollars to push for more rigorous gifted programs. In theory this is a good idea. There's no point in spending money if it's not spent right.

But I'd like to hear from parents who read this blog about whether a move to make gifted education mandatory in your state or district has had any practical effect. Sometimes laws can change people's minds by showing that something is a priority. But sometimes, when things aren't a priority, culturally, people follow the letter of the law and not the spirit. In too many schools, gifted kids aren't a priority, whether gifted education is mandated or not.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thinking About Careers

I'm doing a number of radio interviews in the coming weeks in correlation with my book on the rise in self-employment among young people, Grindhopping. We're talking about the graduation theme of "You Don't Have to Hate Your First Job" (based on a USA Today column I wrote with the same name).

While it's fun to spin the topic this way, career choice is a source of considerable angst for most young people, and for gifted young people -- who have so many options -- in particular. My advice to graduates is to, first, realize that all that education is leading somewhere, so they should spend as much time thinking about what they want to do after school as they do studying for any given exam. And second, ask yourself some key questions, namely 1) what do I love to do so much I'd do it for free and 2) how can I get someone to pay me to do that.

There's no reason this process has to start in college. In fact, I think there's a good case to be made for asking gifted teens to really start thinking about the real world as soon as possible, even though they won't really be living in it, fully, for a long time (See the "Trashing Teens" post, below).

This was driven home to me this weekend, when I had the good fortune to make my Lincoln Center choral debut on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall. I was singing as a ringer with a few high school choruses who were performing Beethoven's Ninth. During rehearsal on Saturday, I was singing next to a young lady from a Long Island high school who asked me how old I was. I told her. "Wow," she says. "You're 28?" "Is that old?" I asked, defensive. "No, she said. It's just crazy. I'm singing next to a 28 year old!" That's when it struck me that this girl had probably never engaged in collaborative projects with adults. At school, she's working with other 16 year olds. If she goes to church, she's in a youth group and Sunday School with other people her age. My guess is she doesn't have a job during the school year, so she doesn't have exposure through the workplace to non-parent and teacher adults (who are authority figures, and have their own ways of interacting with teens). What a strange universe. The real world features peer relationships across age groups.

One of the reasons the Cristo Rey school model (see the When School Works post) works so well is that it brings teens into adult workplaces, gives them responsibilities, and lets them see that there is something beyond lockers and homeroom. I don't think many schools will adopt that model soon, but parents can use summer vacation to get kids thinking about these same things. One option is to have the kids start a business. The other is to have them work at a corporation or at a university. Volunteer projects that involve people of all ages can also expose them to different ideas about what people "do" with their lives. The point is to get the kids thinking about what they would like to do once their formal education is mostly completed. Because eventually they will have to answer this question. If you just start thinking about the question when your college's career counseling center holds a job fair, you will wind up at one of those companies that sponsors booths at such things. While those may be fine jobs, I don't think many people grew up dreaming about working for Avis or Georgia Pacific. It's hard to land a dream job if you don't think about what that dream job might be.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Profoundly Bright and Profoundly Bored

ABC's Nightline featured the Davidson Academy of Reno, NV on Monday night. For those of you who didn't get a chance to see the show live, there's a written version available here.

I've been following the progress of this school since I attended the ribbon cutting last August. Setting up a school is never easy, and the teachers and administrators at the Davidson Academy had to do some quick thinking and reshuffling in order to make sure the kids were getting the education they deserved and the challenges they were able to handle. But as the Nightline story pointed out, they did it. That's the difference between a school that caters to profoundly gifted young people and one that simply does not. Often, kids are told to simply wait for the others to catch up, or that this is the solution that's been decreed for this year, so just deal with it. But as one parent who was homeschooling her gifted kid once told me, what works now is guaranteed not to work in six months.

That's a tricky proposition to create a school around. Schools by their nature are institutions that resist change. So the Davidson Academy's flexibility on this count is encouraging news, even if it has made the first year more of a challenge than many schools deal with.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Trashing Teens

A recent issue of Psychology Today has a fascinating interview with psychologist Robert Epstein about "the problem with teens." It's not what you think, and it has far-reaching implications for gifted education.

Over the past 100 years, modern societies have succeeded in extending adolescence for years (one survey found Americans don't consider people to be "grown up" until age 26!). As a result, teens are not allowed the responsiblities and freedoms of the adult world until years after they are physically mature enough to be adults. Many of these restrictions are codified into law. Teens have few property rights, for instance, and can't participate in the responsibilities of citizenship. They can't usually set up businesses or borrow money without an adult's supervision. They also can't determine what they'll spend their time doing -- most are warehoused with their age peers into schools for 7 hours a day where they learn what someone else has deemed important (and that someone is often wrong). As a result, a whole teen culture has sprung up which celebrates angst and stupidity, and encourages teens to spend time and money on trivial things. This is true even though in a study Epstein did, which measured 14 areas of adult competence (such as interpersonal skills, and handling responsibility), teens did as well as adults.

I think Epstein is onto something (though I'm not sure he's correct about teens being able to make good marriage choices -- perhaps if all the other restrictions are changed first! Then again, many adults don't make good choices in this area either.) He's speaking about average teens; the situation is much more pronounced for gifted teenagers.

Part of being gifted is the fact that your brain is older than your body. You develop the ability to think abstractly, to analyze and draw new conclusions before your peers. Many gifted children prefer the company of older kids and adults because they speak the same language. When your thoughts are grown up, but you have no responsibilities, no rights, and no say over your life, no wonder it's easy for intelligent teens to become depressed or to act out.

One solution -- for gifted teens, at least -- is to compress basic education into fewer years, so they can start higher education earlier. I've also recommended encouraging kids (all kids, not just gifted ones) to start their own businesses. Figuring out market niches, advertising, profits and all that encourages synthesis across many areas, and gives kids a stake in the adult world. So do opportunities to interact with adults through church or community groups, particularly if these groups undertake real projects like concerts or volunteer work. None of these make adolescence easy, but if Epstein is right, they could certainly make it easier.