Monday, July 30, 2007

Mensa-Wannabe Moms

The Savannah Morning News ran a humorous column called "Mommy I don't want to be a child prodigy" a few weeks ago. Columnist and new mom Anne Hart made fun of the British family that had their 2-year-old child (Georgia Brown) take the Mensa test. She passed and got in, which in theory could set off a lot of dithering among other parents. After all, we all want to believe our children are brilliant.

But personally, I've never understood the appeal of Mensa. It's so easily mocked (the Washington Post once put a note in the paper asking people to send in stories of Mensa members doing something really dumb -- the phrase "the wise man knows himself to be a fool" comes to mind). There's obviously something to be said for being around smart people socially. That's one of the reasons ability grouping is so important for kids. But with some careful career planning as an adult, you can work in an office of very smart people. With some careful social planning, your group of friends will share your intelligence. Kids can't choose their lives and choose who they spend their time with. Adults can. Which makes Mensa seem less necessary.

But I could be wrong! I'm curious if any readers of this blog have joined Mensa, thought about it, joined and quit, or what have you. Have your children ever expressed interest? Is there a place for a social organization made up of intelligent people? Or in this era of "bowling alone" is this another group that will lose clout?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Schools Move Toward Following Students' Yearly Progress

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story on something we've talked about a lot here on Gifted Exchange: using yearly NCLB testing to track individual student results, not just school quality. As it is, schools are graded based on the scores of fourth graders this year compared with fourth graders last year. But while that tells you if a whole school is stepping up its game, it tells you nothing about individual children. And last time I checked, we learn individually.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is aware of this, and she addressed the topic briefly during her speech at the opening of the Davidson Academy in Reno last summer. A number of states including North Carolina, Ohio and Florida have started participating in a pilot program that tracks individual results on achievement tests, comparing a fourth grader this year with the same kid as a fifth grader next year.

The New York Times article, "Schools Move Toward Following Students' Yearly Progress on Tests," by Winnie Hu, ran on July 6th. That means it's been moved to Times Select and, alas, is not available for free anymore. But here's the rather interesting opener: "The Cohoes city school district, outside Albany, is considering a gifted program for elementary students and adding college-level courses after discovering that its top students improved less on standardized tests in the past two years than everyone else in the district."

Yes, it seems that tracking individual test results shows what gifted education advocates have been saying for a while. Gifted kids are often being left behind. While they may continue to pass grade-level achievement tests, they are not truly learning as much as they could. That the Cohoes district is using this new knowledge to create new gifted programs is reason to celebrate indeed.

There's much to love about individual test result tracking. Schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged children like the concept because it means that they get credit if these kids improve, year over year, even if the kids don't meet a certain set cut-off. Schools that shortchange their brightest students will also be more likely to have a fire lit beneath them. So who's against it? Well, according to Hu's article, it's the usual suspects.

"It's detrimental for education," Aimee Bolender, the president of Dallas's American Federation of Teachers chapter told Hu. "It is pulling apart teams of teachers and it doesn't look at why test scores are low. From the very beginning, we viewed it as a slippery slope that did not do anything valuable to improve the educational environment in the schools." Bolender is fighting a decision by Dallas to remove 30 teachers whose students failed to show adequate progress. Bolender said many teachers call this individual growth model "voodoo math" because "you have to be a Ph.D. in statistics to even comprehend it."

And then there's Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust (which advocates for disadvantaged children). She told Hu that the individual growth model might put too much (!) attention on kids at the top. "It risks so broadening the federal government's involvement that its historical role will be dissipated," she told Hu.

So there you have it. The people who are upset about this don't like it because it means removing bad teachers from classrooms and focusing on gifted kids. From my perspective, that means there's a lot to like.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Anything but Acceleration!

It's been three years since the Templeton report on acceleration, A Nation Deceived, came out. The report established that all the available evidence supports acceleration (aka "grade skipping") as a cheap, effective educational option for gifted kids. Accelerated kids tend to thrive academically, and there are no negative social consequences that lead accelerated kids and their parents to see the acceleration as a mistake.

Too bad so few education "experts" are actually listening. The Orlando Sentinel's Family Project section ran a Q&A from a parent whose 5-year-old son needed more challenge. Should the child be accelerated? The Family Project panel members "prefer not to see a child moved ahead in school," though all agreed that the parent would have to advocate for her son so he'd get the enrichment he needed.

There's just one problem with that advice. Enrichment may or may not happen. Maybe the parent doesn't have the time or expertise to advocate. Maybe the kid's teachers don't know how to enrich the curriculum. The good thing about acceleration is that if you put the kid in a grade where he's actually challenged by the basic material, you don't have to advocate.

But the panel did not mention this. Instead, they repeated the usual odes to socialization:

"The most important part of kindergarten is peer relationships and that's why panelist Maryellen Blass says she doesn't advocate advancement. 'Enrichment can be very easily integrated into kindergarten,' she says.

"Even very bright children need socialization skills more than anything at this age, panelists say. 'It's important to consider the whole child,' agrees panelist Joanne Nigito-Raftas. 'He is in the process of growing socially. If he's placed where he is academically, you may see effects in middle school when he's not at same place as other kids. It's very hard when a child is developmentally not ready.'"

Last time I looked at a sixth grade class, everyone was in a different place developmentally already. And likewise, unless these panelists socialize only with people born within six months of their birthdays, I'm afraid they don't have much of a case. Humans are social creatures, but we grow socially when we hang out with people we enjoy, and with whom we can interact in meaningful ways. A 5-year-old who wants to discuss the themes of the literature he's reading will not grow socially if he must spend all his time with kids who are just learning their letters. You'd think that educational experts would get that. But apparently not.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Stephanie Pace Marshall and the creation of IMSA

The Illinois Math and Science Academy, a residential high school for gifted kids in Aurora, IL is now 20 years old. It appears to be well-established. The newly appointed school president is actually the former Illinois state superintendent of schools. But none of this could have been predicted when Stephanie Pace Marshall, IMSA's first president, helped establish the school. She recently decided to step down, and this article from the Chicago Tribune talks about her legacy. IMSA has become a leading light in the field of gifted education, training hundreds of kids each year to see math and science as cool (I wish the school name included the humanities, but the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in Indiana does, and it's partially modeled after Marshall's creation in Illinois). The school has survived budget cuts and constant criticism about its elite nature. It was always a great idea, but great ideas need practical people in order to bring them to fruition. Marshall managed to be both visionary and builder. While about a dozen states now have residential high schools for gifted kids, hopefully Marshall will use some of her free time to push the rest to step up to the plate. I recommend reading the linked article from the Chicago Tribune to get a feel for the debate over these specialized secondary schools, and to learn more about one of the best education ideas to come along in the past 25 years.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Class of Bright Sparks

Like the U.S., Australia has long been trying to figure out what to do with its gifted children. As in the U.S., with its egalitarian culture, Australians sometimes talk about cutting down the "tall poppies." That means that anything that makes someone stick out is viewed as bad. This recent article, A Class of Bright Sparks, from the Brisbane Times, examines the issue in light of the New South Wales system of selective secondary schools. I really recommend reading it.

The issues of achievement and intelligence are hard to separate out, and so admission into these schools is seen as an honor, and the schools are perceived as "better." But, of course, the issue is never entirely clear-cut. Students who obtain admission, but choose to go to "regular" schools do just fine, and plenty of students (some of whom have been coached like crazy) who do go to the elite schools flounder. The article notes that attending the selective schools does not necessarily raise self-esteem, which is obvious to anyone who's ever attended a rigorous, ability-grouped school. You learn the first day that while you were the brightest kid in your previous class, you aren't now!

The article brings up the usual note that educators are divided on whether ability grouping is good for students (though no one who seriously considers the needs of highly gifted kids is divided on this). As gifted expert Miraca Gross says in the article "Research shows that children are less likely to succeed if they are not accepted in their peer group... The earlier you put a gifted child - for some period of time at least - with other children of similar ability the more confident a child becomes. They have less time to dwell on the fact that others may think they are weird or strange which may make them feel confused and unlikeable and lead them not to develop skills of friendship and be socially isolated." Some people seem to believe that ability grouping hurts "socialization" but the truth is the exact opposite. A highly gifted child kept in a regular class becomes nothing but the "smart one." Only in a situation with her intellectual peers is she allowed to become other things.