Monday, April 30, 2007

Voucher Remedy Litigation

Last week, I interviewed Clint Bolick, the former head of the Alliance for School Choice, for another piece I'm writing on vouchers and the like. However, I thought some of his insights might be interesting for people who care about gifted education as well.

The Alliance for School Choice has generally been focused on defending voucher programs against lawsuits that claim they violate the First Amendment's establishment clause (or roughly, the idea of separating church and state). As Bolick has pointed out, the words "separation of church and state" aren't in the Constitution. There are also all sorts of other precedents for using state money for non-religious ends via religious means. Veterans can use their education stipends at religious colleges, some Head Start programs are held in churches. etc.

This past summer, though, the Alliance for School Choice decided to take a more pro-active approach, which Bolick calls "voucher remedy litigation." Rather than wait for a district, city, or state to pass a voucher law, he sued the Newark, NJ public schools for failing to provide an equitable and thorough education to its students. As part of the remedy, he asked the NJ courts to force the district to impose a voucher solution.

This is obviously an entirely different can of worms, though there's some precedent. Courts have often imposed busing or funding schemes on districts deemed to be inequitable or segregated. And as Bolick points out, there's plenty of precedent in consumer law. If you buy a car that turns out to be a complete lemon, and you sue the dealership, if the court imposes a remedy, it's unlikely to be a massive payment to the dealership. More likely, you'll be given your money back to go buy a different car.

It's seductive reasoning. On the other hand, if I'm not happy with the way the U.S. military or the NYPD are defending my safety here and abroad, I don't think many judges would take kindly to a suit asking for my tax dollars back so I can hire a private security guard. Some problems we recognize must be argued out in elections and through the legislative process.

Bolick has an answer for this too. When it comes to school choice in NJ, he says, the democratic process has broken down. Newark mayor Cory Booker is a member of the Alliance for School Choice's Board of Directors. Something is clearly not working when the mayor of a city is on the board of an organization suing the city to get a solution that, in theory the mayor should be able to do something about. Bolick notes that he believes the New Jersey legislature would vote to create urban voucher programs if they were given a chance to do so. But a few legislators in the education committee have vowed that such a bill will never get to the house floor. So that's why he's taken to the courts.

He plans to take this "voucher remedy litigation" show on the road to other states whose Constitutions guarantee an education, where there are state standards, and where there are failing urban districts. It will be a hotly contested area in the future I have no doubt.

So what does this have to do with gifted education? One of the biggest arguments I've heard people make against vouchers is also one that's been made against separate schools for gifted students. Namely, that taking certain kids out of failing or mediocre schools amounts to "creaming." In the case of vouchers, the people who care about their children's education the most will avail themselves of the chance to send them to private schools. Then these parents will no longer care about the public schools. Similarly, I have heard opponents of gifted education argue that parents of gifted kids care a lot about education. If you remove these parents from the general public schools, they will no longer advocate for better teachers, more funding, more attention, etc.

Frankly, I think both arguments miss the point. Children are individuals, not members of some collective whose theoretical good should be advanced at their concrete expense. A childhood can't be repeated. As the Davidsons and I write in Genius Denied, "squandering a bright mind in the name of a future utopia is hardly justice." People who are concerned about the public schools have every right to advocate for whatever they want. But they have no right to hold other people hostage as allies. I'm not sure I agree with Bolick's litigation strategy. But the idea that certain children should be kept in miserable situations in order to change those situations deserves to be fought on both the voucher front, and in gifted education.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Teen Finishes University of Michigan in One Year

We read a lot these days about perpetual college students -- and college drop-out rates -- so I thought it was refreshing to see an article this morning about a young woman who enrolled at the University of Michigan in the fall and will be graduating this summer. You can read the article here.

Nicole Matisse attended high school outside Detroit, and finished up the curriculum there by her junior year. So then she took enough classes at Oakland Community College to transfer into Michigan as a junior. Rather than coast through her college experience, she then decided to double up on credits and finish up this spring. As a result, she'll be graduating with a bachelor's degree at age 19, and starting law school this fall.

Since Matisse did this all this curriculum compacting at ages 17-19, news accounts of her story feature a notable lack of teeth-gnashing about the topic. Often, children who finish college at age 19 -- because they start at age 14 or 15 -- encounter a lot of skeptical folks who wax nostalgic about their own high school and college experiences.

But there is no particular reason high school or college "should" take 4 years apiece. Indeed, there are many advantages in getting done sooner. Matisse can start her law career with more time and energy for that ladder, or she can get another degree and still be the same age as most of her peers when she starts her first job. With the scandal in student loans filling the airwaves, it should be noted that people who finish college in less time often wind up with fewer loans than people who take longer.

Unfortunately, though, I worry about how the very efficient Matisse will find law school. The first year tends to be tough, but by October or November of year two, most major law firms have hired their summer associates for the following summer. As one law firm recruiter once told me, they then give offers to just about any summer associate who doesn't drool on herself. So Matisse will find that only 1.2 years of her three-year law school program actually matter. Business school is even worse. Most firms hire their summer interns by November of the first year of B-school, then hire them permanently after the summer. That means only 2 months of the whole 2-year program matter. But perhaps this gifted young woman will find a way to introduce the concept of curriculum compacting to graduate school as well.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mind Games

Nell Casey has a story in Cookie magazine's May/June issue on "the cult of the wunderkind." She says that after a 1994 Carnegie Corporation report claiming that the 0-3 years were critical for neurological development, an explosion of educational toys, games and videos aimed at that age group hit the scene. Every major magazine did a story on ways of increasing children's intelligence and even though marketing studies find that Gen X moms don't like it when products are aggressivey marketed as educational, they buy them anyway.

Baby Einstein is, of course, the epitome of this trend. Sold for $25 million in 2001 to Disney, the brand is now showing up everywhere, to the tune of $250 million in sales per year. Toys R Us, Buy Buy Baby, you name it. The educational nature of the books has subsequently been watered down to pointlessness. I flipped through a Baby Einstein picture book at a store today, and saw no reason it couldn't have been any other picture book of animals, colors, etc. But somehow it's got the halo effect of being for parents who want smart children. (Funny quote from the Casey story: "One health professional interviewed ... posits that 'the reason babies seemed so riveted on Baby Einstein videos was that they were actually slipping into what could be described as a low-level seizure state.'")

As I've said in past posts, I don't like the narrative of pushy parents forcing all these educational toys on their children from birth in the hopes of getting their tots into Harvard later in life. Very few parents fall into this category. The average child watches more hours of TV per day than any of us care to think about, very little of it even claiming to be educational. If well-meaning parents want to buy children books with colors and animals and shapes and so forth that claim to boost intelligence, well, hey, at least they're buying them books. While some children have been "hothoused," in most schools extreme intelligence is not exactly perceived as a good thing. One wonders how those pushing this narrative would feel if nature suddenly bestowed upon them children with IQs of 160+.

But Casey does have a point about the extreme neuroses everyone seems to feel entitled to inflict on parents. She felt if she gave her infant a single bottle, she would have harmed his intelligence for life. When she did, she chose a formula brand loaded with DHA and ARA, the "smart" fatty acids (the research is unclear on whether these actually boost IQ). Even if all the neuroses raised IQ a point or two, though, this can disappear in statistical noise. Gifted children are gifts. Relaxing and enjoying them is probably the most gracious way to accept such a present.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Politics and the gifted kid

Though it's only early 2007, the 2008 political cycle is in full swing in this country, which is no doubt causing some interesting discussions in some families of gifted kids. First, gifted kids tend to be more aware of "adult" subjects like politics and current events (and find it very frustrating that their peers are more into TV shows and toys). Second, gifted kids tend to have a profound desire for justice, and sensitivity to injustices. While I think neither the conservative nor the liberal side of the American political spectrum has a lock on just causes, my experience is that a number of gifted kids learn toward the left.

I certainly did for a long time. For starters, I've always liked to be contrarian, and many of my fellow Hoosiers were unthinkingly conservative. I didn't realize that it was just as possible to be unthinkingly liberal, since the "smart" people I knew with advanced degrees and the like overwhelmingly leaned left (a fact that demographic/political surveys back up). Eventually, I studied economics and decided that big government didn't protect the little guy. My interest in justice took on a decidedly free market slant and, before I knew it, I was voting that way, and was engaging in dorm room arguments on the opposite side that were every bit as obnoxious as they were before.

My experiences around gifted kids these days, though, lead me to believe that most more naturally align themselves with the liberal side of the political spectrum. Liberals talk in a narrative of injustices (poverty, environmental devastation) that can then be remedied with government solutions. Conservative interest groups are only just now starting to adopt this narrative (the hassled small business owner, the home owner subject to eminent domain, the urban child locked in failing schools) with free market or limited government solutions. Plenty of gifted children feel like outsiders, and the Democratic party often comes across as more sympathetic to outsiders. Plus, it's easy to believe government should "do more" when you don't personally have to deal with much red tape, and you don't pay much in the way of taxes. All of these mean that an election conducted in a self-contained gifted class might not come out the same way as one conducted in the nation at large.

I'm curious if other people have found this to be the case. Given that gifted kids often like to argue, too, I'm sure homes with split political affiliations turn into battlegrounds every few years!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Surviving Nerdhood

A recent interview with Sylvia Rimm (author of See Jane Win) in Education News covers a variety of fascinating topics related to gifted education, and can be found here. For this blog, I thought I'd write about the last question, which broaches the topic I find most fascinating: Nerdhood.

Yes, nerdhood. According to Rimm, surving "nerdhood" as an adolescent can do great things for you later in life. It "builds independence and selectivity about friendships," she says. "As former governor of New Jersey Christine Whitman pointed out, her separateness in adolescence gave her the strength to be strong in politics when at the end of the day, you may indeed feel very alone. There are many successful adults who viewed themselves as nerds in adolescence. ... Parents and teachers can reassure these kids that having a few good friends is more important than the popularity that is so admired in middle and high schools. "

As a recovering nerd myself, I find this reassuring indeed. It is true that being well-liked by people who were born within 6 months of you and live within 3 miles of you has little bearing on the kinds of skills you'll need to make your way in the wider world. And some realizations you gain from social isolation can be a big positive. Making a living as a writer, for instance, involves a lot of rejection. I don't take it personally. Likewise, I threw myself a book launch party for Grindhopping last week, and I was amazed by the number of acquaintances who bothered to stop by. Since my self-perception doesn't depend on the number of people who show up at my parties, I could simply enjoy the serendipity of who showed up, and not worry about who didn't. You avoid a lot of mental angst that way.

I recall Mavis Leno (wife of Jay) saying in a magazine interview once that she could be happy her whole life simply knowing she'd never have to live through middle school again. If middle school was rough for beautiful, brilliant Mavis, that says a lot about the institution. But even so, while having a rough time in adolescence is certainly not something parents should hope for with their children (the Columbine anniversary lurks around the corner... and who knows what demons inspired yesterday's shooting at Virginia Tech) viewing it as a character building experience is better than viewing it as a trauma. And parents can help by pointing out that in the long run, it's better to be smart and ambitious than to be adored by people who will never do a blessed thing in their lives.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

Kurt Vonnegut, the author of eccentric, classic novels from The Sirens of Titan to Slaughterhouse Five, died yesterday at age 84. There are obituaries floating around the web, but here's one from USA Today.

Vonnegut was still on the lecture circuit until recently. I heard him speak in the fall of 1996, and even in 2005, he appeared on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. As Stewart told the audience, "As an adolescent, [Vonnegut] made my life bearable."

I agree. I first discovered Vonnegut's novels during a 10th grade independent study literature class. His prose was clean, stark, appealing ("So it goes.") His oddball characters and absurd time shifts have won over many a gifted, disaffected teen stuck in the absurd construction of high school. His novels invited you to engage in the Big Questions. Your high school classmates -- too stuck on who said what to whom at whose locker -- did not offer such engagement. And so Vonnegut provided an escape.

A number of other novelists have provided a similar service over the years. I was never so big on Catcher in the Rye (it's so obviously about teen angst that it becomes a bit too much) but The World According to Garp embraced the absurdist element to perfection. I'd love to hear about other people's Make-My-Life-Bearable novels from adolescence. What books are transformative for the gifted teen?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Amazing Kids

Just a real quick post, a request from Jacob Komar, a Gifted Exchange reader who's been involved with Davidson Institute programs for years. When he was 9, he founded a non-profit called Computers for Communities that refurbishes used PCs and distributes them to people who might not otherwise have access to such technology. Now that he's 14, Computers for Communities has distributed over 1,000 computers. He's also taught a number of prison inmates how to do the refurbishing, thus giving them a skill that might be useful upon their release.

Anyway, Jacob has been selected as a Brick Award winner from the organization dosomething.org. The website is asking visitors to vote on which project should receive an additional $15,000 in operational funds. There are a lot of deserving projects, but obviously Jacob would appreciate a boost in his category! If you have a Yahoo account, you can vote at this site, and if you don't have an account, you can create one fairly painlessly.

Voting, Jacob tells me, ends on Monday. I'll post how it all turns out.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Cluster Grouping in Arizona

Arizona has become an interesting laboratory for different school options over the past few years (a lot of the school choice legislation and litigation is coming out of this rapidly growing state) and consequently, gifted education is experiencing some changes as well. An article in the Arizona Republic recently noted that Paradise Valley gifted first graders will now be kept together in clusters. This means that the students identified as gifted will be put in one class with a teacher trained in meeting their needs. They will not be the only students in the class, however. The balance of these first grade classes will be filled with "normal" kids (whatever that means!)

It's an interesting compromise position. On one hand, it's a good thing, as some schools like to spread their gifted children around to different classes and just do pull-out on occasion. Administrators may believe that these kids will provide examples to other students, that these kids are "easier" to teach, and therefore every teacher deserves one. It's awful for the gifted kids themselves, because they quickly get labeled as the smartest kid in the room, or sometimes the teacher's pet. The teacher can rarely create lesson plans specifically for the one kid. So the gifted kids wind up tutoring the other students and becoming unpaid teaching assistants. They also miss out on the social benefits and the academic challenge of being with other kids like themselves. So clustering all the gifted kids in a grade in one class is a massive improvement from the default scheme.

On the other hand, if you're going to cluster and train the teacher (or hire one with a gifted endorsement specifically for this purpose), why not just create a self-contained class? There may not be enough students at one elementary school to justify this, but that's what magnet schools and school buses are for. Even very good teachers have trouble differentiating the curriculum across a wide variety of needs, and group lessons tend to be taught to the lower middle of the bell curve. The cluster system still extracts a high price in terms of efficiency and achievement in order to maintain a quasi-egalitarian set-up. It's better than nothing, but we'll have to see how it works for Paradise Valley, long term.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Amazing Girls

The New York Times had a rather odd feature piece on the cover this Sunday on "Amazing Girls" and their struggles to stand out and get into top schools. Students around the country are hearing from the elite colleges this week, which is always a time when joy comes in fat envelopes and tragedy in thin. I remember the anticipation I felt about all of this exactly 10 years ago this week. I had gone to Sweet Briar, Virginia for the weekend for a conference on women in science. I came back to my dorm to find some notes indicating packages in my mailbox. A good sign. Rejection letters would have fit in the mailboxes easily. Acceptance letters had to be held for later pick-up.

For the Amazing Girls feature, Sara Rimer, a New York Times reporter who often writes about education and gender issues, followed a group of high-achieving girls at Newton North High School just outside Boston as they waited for similar letters. Newton North is one of the nation's most affluent high schools, and so the article tries to document the angst of America's upper class teenagers who have been groomed for elite colleges since birth. They are expected to take multiple AP classes, to ace their SATs, to be on student council and play varsity sports. The article describes these high-achieving girls working until 4am on physics lab reports, at the same time that the town's BoBo sensibilities (that's Bourgeois Bohemians, the title of a David Brooks book) draws yoga studios and Whole Foods stores that tell you to relax and be yourself. The girls have grown up always hearing they can do everything boys can. But now more girls than boys apply to elite colleges. That means that it's even harder for them to get in, since most elite schools strive for gender balance. So there's the pressure to do that, as well as the standard adolescent girl pressure to be attractive, thin and happy. One mother said "you just hope your child doesn't have anorexia of the soul."

Well. I am sure life is competitive for the girls of Newton North. But I can't help thinking that articles like this reinforce the idea among America's elite (the folks who read the New York Times religiously) that this is what all schooling and teen culture is like. Esther, the lead character, has a literature class in which the teacher asks what Virgil's Aeneid teaches us about destiny and individual happiness. She's read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and debated what it means to be condemned to freedom. As I've written on this blog before, I had to move three hours away from home to go to boarding school in order to receive an education that valued asking questions like this. At my local school -- in a middle class town featuring a major research university -- I spent weeks in an honors English class listening to my classmates read A Separate Peace out loud, paragraph by tortuous paragraph. We were tested over what happened on p. 86. Not about the themes of friendship, betrayal, etc. If any thing approaching a significant number of American high schools suffered from the angst of Newton North -- of too many people applying for elite colleges and taking AP classes that had them working until 4am -- we would be in a much better position for future competitiveness. And the vast majority of gifted kids -- girls and boys -- would be happier.

But most schools aren't like that. Given that only 25% of high school seniors can solve a simple algebra problem (as we talked about on the TIMSS thread a few weeks ago), the Newton North experience is as rare as getting a fat envelope from Princeton is. The problem for gifted education is then that America's most affluent parents do not see the problem first hand. And so these politically well-connected people become inclined to believe that gifted kids can fend for themselves, that there's too much homework as it is, that schools demand too much, that kids need more non-academic time, etc. For most gifted kids, nothing could be farther from the truth.

That's not to say that the amazing girls of Newton North aren't appealing characters. Teen angst always dredges up certain emotions, and reading about Esther's rejection from Williams, her top choice, stings a bit. But then she got into Smith, so the story ends on a happy note. I just wish articles like this came with a disclaimer noting that Barbie still way outsells Baby Einstein in this country. And that most high schools send, at most, a handful of people to colleges like Williams and Smith.