Friday, September 28, 2007

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

The Davidson Fellows, 2007: Time, Access, Affection

I just returned home yesterday from the annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony in Washington DC. While the ceremony at the Library of Congress is always fun, this year was particularly nice for me because I got to interview most of the children that morning. I think the quality of fellows continues to improve as more people hear about the program. Among the winners this year were two performers from the Juilliard pre-college program, and another young woman who'd been featured on NPR. Several young writers talked with me about their creative process. The scientists are always a stand-out lot, and among them this year we had a young woman who figured out a new process for recycling plastic, one who figured out a way of penetrating drug resistant biofilms, and a young woman who'd developed a process for a potential urine test for the early detection of cancer. Anyone who's been through some rather invasive and unpleasant cancer screenings will immediately see the benefit of potentially coverting these screenings into nothing worse than a pregnancy test.

After the interviews, I had two main observations. First: These fellows often go to specialized secondary schools. On one hand, this is simple correlation. There are a growing number of specialized math and science high schools, and if you're interested in math and science, why wouldn't you go? Given that the students at these schools tend to be bright and eager to learn, if you're bright and eager to learn, you also would take advantage of them, even if math and science aren't your main gifts. Christina Beasley, one of the young writers, attends a school for science and technology. Much of her creative writing is extra-curricular, but since the students are so eager to learn, there are good programs for them in areas outside S&T.

But there's also a causal connection. To do a prodigious work as a young person, you need time and access (to labs, mentors, etc.) Specialized schools often arrange one or both. Shannon Lee, of Plano Texas, attends a compressed school that caters to gymnasts and actors. Students do their studies in the morning, and their special interest in the afternoon. This works for her musical schedule as well. Nora Xu attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy. She told me that she has no classes on Wednesday, and the school shuttles them to labs, or mentoring situations so the students can pursue independent work. Billy Dorminy, who is homeschooled, has a mom who favors "delight directed" education. He has time to pursue what interests him.

The other observation is that the sweet spot occurs when you have time, access and affection for what you do. You can force a child into a lab (and given the competition to get into top colleges, perhaps some parents do this). You can give them a free day every week to pursue independent projects. But you can't force them to love it, to travel after school and work all night in the lab as Danielle Lent did at SUNY Stony Brook -- and then switch off driving home with a friend to be at school the next day. As Yuqing Meng, a musician, told me, after one particular recital when he was little, he realized that he would always want to do music. Maybe he wouldn't make a career of it. But he couldn't imagine it not being in his life. Yale Fan spoke of doing his physics and comp sci work as a form of stress release.

When you love what you do, you naturally become better at it. You do a lot of of it. You ponder problems as you're taking the bus to school, and you doodle in your other subject notebooks. You figure out problems in this area because you find it fun. When you have a great love for something, and the time and mentors necessary to develop this affection, there's no telling what you can do. (Well, OK, here's one thing you can do: Impress the Senate Majority Leader. Bob Davidson, Colleen Harsin -- the Davidson Academy's principal -- and I got to meet Sen. Harry Reid the other day to talk with him about gifted education issues. When Bob and Colleen mentioned the work some of the fellows had done, Reid about fell off his chair. "A 17-year-old kid can do that?" he asked. Yep!)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gifted Exchange Turns 2!

Gifted Exchange Turns 2!

Today this blog celebrates its 2nd birthday. That's pretty good longevity for the genre! We've been averaging just under 3,000 visits a month, to read the roughly two posts per week (this is post 209, apparently) and it's the rare post that goes without a comment. Please keep me updated on what you'd like to see covered, ideas, tips, critiques, etc. And if you've had a favorite post, I'd like to hear that too. Thanks for reading, Laura

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students Fall Behind

Lower-Income, High-Achieving Students Fall Behind

It's a popular belief that gifted kids are "the kids with disposable income," as Mara Sapon-Shevin wrote in her book Playing Favorites. Since all gifted kids supposedly have well-off parents, there's no need for schools to concern themselves too much with their welfare. After all, these are the kids best able to fend for themselves.

Now a new report from Civic Enterprises, a think tank, and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, called The Achievement Trap, shows not only how wrong that assumption is, but that it's a dangerous assumption as well. Fully 3.4 million K-12 students with family incomes below the national median test in the top quartile for academic achievement. Unfortunately, a higher proportion test in the top quartile in first grade than later on. In other words, as these students progress through school, their achievement suffers.

As I mentioned in the last post, there is much to dislike about No Child Left Behind (though I think there's some evidence that it has created incentives to reverse failure in the worst schools). One thing to dislike is that these millions of high-achieving, low-income students are in fact getting left behind. Even as they fall out of the top quartile, they rarely test as "failing." And so they're ignored both by the standards movement, and by the folks who dislike gifted education because it's only for the kids with "disposable income."

I'm glad this report is out, and I hope it gets some attention, because it shines a spotlight on what many of us who are involved in gifted education know. The leveling impulse in schools hurts all gifted kids, but it does not hurt all gifted kids equally. Well-off parents can afford to move to a different district, put their kids in private schools, hire tutors, pay for summer courses, or give up a parent's income to homeschool. Low-income families are simply stuck with the schools they get. And so, these promising children wind up falling out of the top quartile, and going to college at lower rates than other children whose potential they matched in first grade.

Can anything change it? Under the current educational set-up, I think the best approach is to measure individual children's progress, not just the progress of groups and schools. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has hinted at shifting NCLB to this concept. What gets measured gets changed, and if schools are held accountable for the low-income children who drift from the 90th percentile in first grade to the 70th percentile in fifth grade, maybe that's a few more children who won't fall through the cracks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Jonathan Kozol's Hunger Strike

Jonathan Kozol's Hunger Strike

No one can accuse education journalist Jonathan Kozol of being lukewarm about his causes. He is now 75 days in to a partial hunger strike protesting the impending re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. You can read about his strike here. He claims that NCLB is ruining inner city education with its emphasis on frequent testing.

Kozol is best known for his book Savage Inequalities, which documents the awful school conditions many poor, inncer-city school children endure. Roofs leak. Toilets overflow. Paint peels and heaters break. Kozol is wrong in his frequent assertion that no one would treat white children this way. He's wrong in his assertion that it's all about funding (in New Jersey, for instance, the state guarantees that high-poverty "Abbott" districts be funded at the same level as the best suburban districts, and many of these schools are still rotten). But he's certainly right that such conditions make it very difficult to learn.

The descriptions of awful school buildings hit you in the gut. But that's not the most disturbing part of Savage Inequalities. Kozol goes on about teachers watching soap operas, teachers letting kids entertain themselves while they read magazines, and other evidence of schools where adults simply do not care if the children learn anything at all.

There is much to lament about NCLB, as we often do on this blog. It raises the floor, not the ceiling. It tests schools, not individual kids' progress. But the one thing it has done is lit a fire under these so-called educators who've put no effort into actually teaching. There are consequences when schools fail year after year.

And yet, Kozol complains that NCLB "dumbs down" inner city education. He, of all people, should know that few failing schools were encouraging higher level thinking before the law. I wish all children were challenged by creative teachers who got the wheels in kids' heads turning. But if that's not yet possible, at least we should try to get kids reading and doing math at grade level. NCLB creates incentives to achieve that goal. You'd think Kozol might find something to like about the law.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Can Early SAT Scores Predict a Gifted Kid's Path?

For decades, gifted adolescents have participated in "talent searches." These involve giving these children out-of-level tests in order to more accurately measure their abilities. First pioneered by the late Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University, the concept is based on a simple observation. On grade-level tests, gifted kids tend to score at the 99th percentile. Give them a "tougher" test, such as the SAT in 7th or 8th grade, though, and their scores spread out over the entire bell curve. In theory, this should give educators information on which kids need just a bit of enrichment, and which need radical acceleration, early college, etc.

In theory. As readers of this blog know, the vast majority of schools do absolutely nothing with the scores besides congratulating the kids and maybe having a ceremony.

But anyway... Vanderbilt University just released a study noting that gifted children's scores in 7th and 8th grade can actually predict their career paths. You can read about the study in a Bloomberg article here. Young teens who did best on the math portion of the SAT tended to excel later in science, math, and technology. Young teens who did best on the verbal portion of the SAT tended toward the humanities.

I have two thoughts on this. The first is "no kidding." Children do not magically decide their professions at age 22 based on nothing more than pulling a career out of a hat. Usually there have been things that hold their interest along the way, clues that they excel in one particular area. A kid who's really good in math is quite likely to continue studying math and to choose a profession that involves math.

The second thought, though, is that this was entirely wrong in my case, for a reason that also hints at the limitations of talent searches in their current form. In 8th grade, I scored a perfect 800 on the math section of the SAT. I scored a 630 on the verbal. For a variety of reasons, math is viewed as a more cut-and-dried area in which to be gifted. The levels are more clear (first arithmetic, then algebra, then calculus...) It's more easy to show mastery. Add in the fact that I had a very mathematically gifted older brother, and my family and schools found it easier to accelerate me in math. I took algebra in 6th grade, took geometry the summer after 7th grade, and so knew everything that would be covered on the SAT math section by the time I took it as an 8th grader. My perfect score did not show that I should pursue math. It simply showed that my mathematical abilities had been nurtured.

Children with verbal talents, though, have a far rougher road ahead of them. In the early grades, writing is more about creativity than honing the craft. Grammar is a lost art. Few sixth graders are assigned analytical papers on, say, Tolstoy, in which they can advance some original interpretation. If you master the past tense, it's not entirely clear that the subjunctive is next. Reading will boost your vocabulary, but so does having well-versed people to talk with. Unfortunately, this is not really a reality for many gifted kids stuck in age-level classrooms.

So verbal ability is not as readily recognized. I spent hours writing stories at night as a kid, but my verbal scores lagged far behind my math scores. I thought for years that meant I should go into math or science, until I finally realized in college that writing is what made me happiest.

It's always a dicey idea to layer one's personal experience on top of a study in order to draw conclusions, but I would hesitate to draw the conclusion that Prof. David Lubinski of Vanderbilt did. He told the Vanderbilt News Service that since differences in potential can be noted at age 13, this offers "opportunities for educators and policymakers to develop programs to cultivate these individuals based on their unique strengths and abilities." I think it's just as important to follow the interests of the child. That will tell you as much as a score.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Day Care and IQ

So my son, Jasper, started day care this morning. Up until now, he's been cared for by a nanny during the day at our house while I've also been working at home. So this will be a transition for both of us (though the center is only 2 blocks from the house - so I will be a frequent lunch time visitor!)

Day care is a very controversial issue in our society, so it's been studied a reasonable amount, both for its effect on social development, and its effect on academic development. The findings are fairly mixed. That's because the quality of day care matters a great deal. High quality day care can actually improve language and academic development among at-risk children by giving them the stimulation they might not get at home. This can reverse the measured drop in academic ability that can sometimes occur for these children as they grow. For middle-class white children, high-quality day care appears to have no particular effect on language or academic development one way or the other, according to this study. On the other hand, long hours in not-so-great day care can increase aggression.

Every time a major study is released, the chattering heads on television give it lots of airtime. This commentary from City-Journal on Fear and Loathing at the Day Care Center, hints at some of the controversy. It is "common sense" to many people that children are best cared for in their homes, by their mothers. Some research does show that children of mothers who spend more hours devoted to childcare and less to working have higher academic achievement in early adolescence. But this same study found that women who have high levels of satisfaction with their childcare arrangements also had children with more scholastic competence in 6th grade. Women who are also satisfied with their "roles" have children with more scholastic competence. In other words, a woman who devotes her time to childcare simply because this is what everyone says she "should" do, but who isn't happy about it, isn't really gaining much by that choice.

I find it all fascinating. The issue of maternal employment and child achievement always gets people riled up. I'm curious what choices others on this board have made with their children, and whether they felt it affected academic achievement.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

When School Works

I have a column in today's USA Today called "When School Works" that talks about the Cristo Rey model of Catholic school that I first blogged about here a few months ago. Students work 1-2 days a week in corporate offices to earn most of their tuition. It's a concept born of financial necessity that has big side benefits. It turns out that getting kids out of the teen world for even a few hours a week gives them a much broader perspective. Even well-to-do teens spend more time watching TV and obsessing about trivia than they should. It's funny how a job keeps you level-headed.

Anyway, those of us who write about education can quickly become jaded about the "hot new thing" in education. Every week some celebrity is adopting a school and saying how it's transformed the lives of underprivileged youth. You hear about empowerment zones, and exciting new charter school concepts and yet.... American education overall continues to be pretty mediocre. I've read stories about the Young Women's Leadership School of New York and how wonderful it is (Sean Hannity wrote about it extensively in his book). But when I judged a MathCounts competition here in New York a few years ago, the team from that school came in last, which made me extremely cross. Leadership is one thing, but how about teaching some math? It is very hard to come up with a concept that is replicable and sustainable.

But Cristo Rey is different. For starters, the Catholic church knows a thing or two about running inner city schools, having done so for eons. The work-study model is financially sustainable. And since the kids are learning skills that they actually apply in their working lives, immediately, there's no need to rely on mass-recited slogans and cheers to keep up motivation, as a lot of the KIPP schools do. So I'm quite enthusiastic on the concept, and hope to write more about it in the future.