Friday, October 19, 2007

Memorization and Intelligence

ABC News had an interesting story on pint-sized prodigies the other day called Are You Smarter than a Toddler? (or alternatively, "How Young is Too Young to Start Studying?" -- it has two different titles which suggest very different things...)

Children who can memorize long lists of quotes, capitals, digits of pi, etc., are staples of the talk show and late night show circuit. They are often called "prodigies," and certainly they are "highly talented children," as my dictionary defines the word. But crack memorization skills and intelligence are different things. Intelligence is "ability to learn and understand or deal with new or trying situations." It's a difference which is occasionally disconcerting. I remember watching one little girl on Oprah who had memorized a large number of quotations. She had memorized all of them in the form of quote, and then the name of the person who said it. She stuck to this format even in situations where it made no sense. Oprah said she heard the girl had memorized one of her quotes on something, and the little girl recited it back, and then said "Oprah Winfrey" as if the woman had not just asked her the question. This is the same skill that helps people win spelling bees.

ABC News interviewed Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor who studies child development, for some perspective on the phenomenon. "Children come wired to make these associations to learn," Dweck said. These kids' skills are impressive and unusual, but "it's not what you would call a prodigy. A prodigy is someone who has a deep precocious understanding of something — of numbers, words, music. They think in new ways, invent things." Or as ABC News puts it, "A true prodigy is someone like Picasso or Mozart who was composing by age 5, or Tiger Woods who shot a 48 on a nine-hole course by the age of 2."

It's all semantics, but there is a reason I'm always a little worried when I see these kids on television shows. Memorization is not a particularly useful skill, long-term, and if people think that's what gifted children are able to do differently, then it doesn't make a great case for giving gifted children the interventions they need. Most of the kids trotted out on TV shows probably are highly gifted, but their prodigious memorization is not necessarily the best evidence of that. It's simply the most obvious "cool" trick anyone can understand.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Free and Appropriate Education

This week, a divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision requiring New York City to pay for private school for a child with learning disabilities. The child had never attended public school. In addition, the child is the son of Tom Freston, former chief executive of Viacom, who got a roughly $85 million severance package. In other words, this is a case about principle, not the actual educational options a child will face. But as such, it could be a win for gifted education -- maybe.

You can read an article about the case here. In essence, the ruling means that parents do not need to first put a child in an educational situation they consider inappropriate before they file for tuition reimbursement at a private school. States pay private school tuition for thousands of disabled children across the country. Sometimes these payments are as high as $50,000 for children who require residential treatment. Others attend private schools that are focused on specific disabilities such as autism or blindness. New York's position was that the public schools should at least be able to try to serve these children before the parents enroll them in private schools. By letting the ruling stand, the Supreme Court is saying that's not the case. If parents don't think the public schools can meet their children's needs, the kids do not need to fail first in order to go elsewhere.

Freston does not actually need the money to pay for his son's private school tuition. Indeed he has donated all his tuition reimbursement money to public school tutoring programs. He has fought the case so other parents without $85 million good-bye gifts from Viacom can have the same opportunities. (Though interestingly enough, the New York City schools offered Freston's son a spot in the city's Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education - in many cities, such options don't even exist).

I certainly don't begrudge children with disabilities the opportunity to attend whatever school serves them best at public expense. But when I read about some of the dollar amounts involved, it makes me a little sad that most profoundly gifted kids -- who have special needs whether they have other disabilities or not -- are often stuck in whatever regular school happens to be nearby. Some could be best served by boarding schools elsewhere, or private schools in town, but their families can't afford it. Sometimes parents have sought disability dignoses solely to qualify for special education programs that can help.

In states with gifted education mandates, this case could possibly open the door for some families who have chosen private schools over inadequate public school options to file for tuition reimbursement. It may or may not work. But the door is slightly ajar.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bastions of Privilege, and Other Myths

Education writer Peter Sacks is the author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. Like me, he also blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post. Recently, he wrote a piece on how ability grouping has gone "underground" that left me shaking my head. You can read the piece, "Can Public Schools Fix the Achievement Gap? Yes, But They Won't" here.

Basically, it takes a certain sort of person to find evil in just about everything good that's going on in American education. He takes on AP classes, math and science magnet schools that are partially funded by corporations, and even a shocking move by some Berkeley High teachers to "quietly" offer what was called the Academic Choice program within the school (basically, a rigorous college prep curriculum). According to Sacks, all these are bastions of class and privilege. And as long as they exist, and every student is not enrolled in them, nothing will change.

So what is to be done? "With appropriate re-engineering and refocusing, American schools do have the capacity to diminish the achievement gaps that politicians like to talk about," he writes. "Schools need to pay a lot more attention to supplementing the cultural and social capital that disadvantaged students -- for a variety of reasons -- do not get from home because they, unluckily, were born to parents who lack education, information, and resources."

But I am trying to figure out how this would work in a schooling situation in which all separation of children has been deemed illegitimate. Let's say schools select out children from troubled backgrounds who are having academic difficulties for special attention. Perhaps they could be put in intensive math classes that would bring them up to speed. But would the children already performing at grade level need to be in the same intensive catch-up classes? Their presence would take attention away from those who need special help. But if these at-grade-level children are in separate classes from those who need extra help, we're back to some version of tracking, which will be viewed with much suspicion. Indeed, gifted education, when done right, is simply finding kids who need supplementation and giving it to them. Somehow this is OK if the kids have cultural and social capital needs. But not, in Sacks' view, if they have academic ones.

Of course, I would never claim that all is wonderful in the world of tracking and ability grouping. I know that in some schools, very bright poor or minority children are made to feel uncomfortable in college prep or AP classes. And too often, the "regular" tracks get bad teachers who don't challenge the kids. Sometimes honors classes don't challenge kids either, as we discussed in the last post. But the soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well.

Still, say we took a high school and chose one of two options. Everyone takes whatever math class the most advanced 10 students are capable of, or everyone studies the level of math the ten students who are struggling most in the subject are able to handle. The first might be interesting. I would love to see an experiment with it. My guess is that some proportion of the next tier of students would rise to the occasion through diligent work. But among the rest, you'd have as much frustration and failure as if you told all students in a school to run a 20 minute 5k.

Unfortunately, when schools do away with ability grouping, they tend to choose some version of the latter option (not aimed at the very bottom, usually, but the lower middle). Good teachers can still figure out a way to make it work some of the time. With bad ones, though, it's a disaster. Every time some education writer or researcher goes on about the joys of heterogeneous grouping, I remember my 7th grade English class, in which the teacher spent day after day having us do pre-writing exercises called "clusters," since some kids simply couldn't handle an essay. Eventually, it got so boring that a number of the boys started jumping out the first floor window and running around the school. But who knows. Maybe this is what Sacks means by "tearing down the gates."

Monday, October 08, 2007

Course Inflation

Course Inflation

Jay Matthews, the Washington Post education reporter, had an interesting column a few weeks ago about virtual AP classes. These can be a great way for gifted students in small districts to take challenging courses. There's also an added bonus in that, online, no one really knows how old you are. So a 14-year-old might feel more comfortable taking AP Bio online than she would in a class full of older children.

The most interesting part of Matthews' column, though, in my opinion, was the allusion to course title inflation. The young man he profiles was enrolled in honors 8th grade classes. But these classes didn't challenge him at all. AP Biology, on the other hand, has an actual, objective standard in the form of the final test. A 4 or 5 shows you learned basic college biology material. A 1 or 2 shows you did not. There's no smiling at the teacher for a better grade, or getting effort for trying. That makes these tests unpopular among some who like wiggle room, but many kids like a challenge. They rise to the occasion. Inflated course titles don't make the same demands on kids.

That's one of the reasons to view the new research on ability grouping that I cited in my last post as suspect. Many honors classes are anything but difficult for bright children. I have no doubt that they don't show progress in those programs. That doesn't mean ability grouping per se is good or bad. But there's a world of difference between, say, an AP Calculus class offered to a small group of freshmen and sophomores who are ready for it, and a general honors-track math class that just requires 75%+ on grade level standardized tests. If the latter isn't taught to be challenging, the difference will be even more profound.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Over the past few weeks, several publications have written about a new University of Sussex study purporting to show that ability grouping in math harms students.

This is news to those of us who follow education research. One of the biggest analyses of ability grouping to date (from James Kulik of the University of Michigan, surveying 23 major studies on grouping) found that when high-ability students receive accelerated classes, they advance as much as a whole year more than students of similar age and intelligence left in regular classrooms. Kulik's analysis found that specific subject grouping also helps slower students; low-achieving fourth graders put in a very focused group gained as much as two-thirds of an academic year over control subjects.

But the University of Sussex research, done by Prof. Jo Boaler and associated grad students, claims otherwise. The team followed 700 students over five years at three high schools. The press release states boldly that grouping kids by ability harms education. You can read an article about the research here. You can also read the report directly here.

Or you can read my take on it, rather than wading through the whole thing. I am always amazed, reading educational research, at how much the concept of "equity" excites some professors. Boaler studies math, and undertook her study to show that math classes could be used to advance the cause of democracy and caring for the least among us no differently than, say, civics class. She compared group-oriented, mixed-ability classes at a school poetically referred to as "Railside" (since it was near the railroad tracks) with two more suburban schools. The suburban schools used ability grouping. Though the students at Railside entered the school behind the suburban students, at the end of their four years, 41% of seniors were in advanced calculus or pre-calculus, v. 27% at the other schools.

That seems like a pretty clear win. But reading deeper, it becomes clear that the suburban schools were employing what I call the "boring" method of teaching mathematics. Teachers would lecture for 21% of the class; students would then work alone on problems in their textbooks for about half the class. Since this is the same thing they'd do for homework, I would not be surprised if kids spent whole periods watching the clock. When problems were discussed, teachers only spent about 2 minutes on each of them. There was very little opportunity for open-ended problem-solving.

At "Railside," on the other hand, when the teachers did discuss problems, they'd spend 5.7 minutes on a problem, and Boaler describes the process as far more interactive. The kids did a lot of group work -- approx. 70% of the class. There is nothing wrong with learning in groups. Math problem solving can often benefit from a shared approach. Of course, Boaler, being so into "equity," finds this very satisfying for a different reason. Students receive group grades! And best of all, they feel "responsible" for unmotivated students in their groups, rather than feeling that they are a "burden." The political implications are clear.

But I digress. What struck me, reading this study, is how well-trained the teachers at Railside must have been to make this set-up work. Since Boaler talks about "teachers" I am assuming that multiple ones employed this same group-work strategy. That means Railside had fairly strong quality controls in its math department. Teachers settled on a strategy and were committed to its implementation. They asked open-ended questions, and explained topics in depth. They roamed between groups during the problem solving sessions, meaning they were energetic enough to stay on-task for the entire class period. The beauty of the "traditional" approach (as Boaler refers to it) is that it allows the math teacher to read a copy of US Weekly for the 48% of the time the students are doing problems alone in their workbooks.

It begs the question. Given that Kulik's meta-analysis of major educational studies found that, in general, ability grouping helps both slower and faster learners learn more, isn't it possible that the better results achieved at Railside are the result of energetic, committed teachers, rather than the lack of ability grouping? Great teachers are highly correlated with great results.

Unfortunately, they're also rare. As I've written about ability grouping before on this blog, the benefit to that approach is that it fails better. Given a choice of a mixed ability class with a great teacher, and an ability grouped class with a lousy one, I'd take the former. But that is usually not the choice. This study compares intense, analytical, teacher-directed group learning with the "boring" method of teaching math. The former also happens to be heterogeneous in this case; the latter homogeneous. But when there are two big differences between things you're comparing, it's hard to know which one causes the results.

Two other quick critiques. First, while I think the teaching is more responsible for the gains seen at Railside than the ability grouping, the general type of ability grouping employed in American schools isn't finely tuned enough to challenge bright kids anyway. Creating three reading groups in a standard neighborhood school is slightly helpful. But it's far more helpful to create a gifted magnet program that draws students from, say, five counties. Then you can actually create classes for the top .1%. It wouldn't surprise me to find that most students in the 85-115 IQ range can do OK in a math class together. But if you try to throw, say, a Nate Bottman (2007 Davidson Fellow, topic: Analytically Determining the Spectra of Solutions of the NLS) in to a group-learning, mixed ability class, you will quickly find a problem with the approach. At Railside, "If they found that one student was standing out, by, for example, being faster in their mathematical thinking, they would find aspects of the work that the student was less good at and for which they needed more practice," Boaler writes. But a child who's learned calculus on her own at night is not going to need to practice more on any aspect of algebra.

And second, I assume the University of Sussex, and Stanford, where Boaler has also taught, aren't letting just anyone in these days. Their graduate programs and professorial hires are very much grouped by ability. This research was a group project between Boaler and her grad students. But this was hardly a true "mixed ability group." If Boaler really thinks ability grouping is harmful and inequitable, she should have pulled three people off the streets and asked them to work with her instead. I'm sure the results would have been just as good, and Boaler wouldn't have had to carry any extra weight in the computations at all...