Friday, August 31, 2007

A Question of Geography

I promised a few weeks ago that I'd write more about the Davidson Fellows, the decorated group of 17 young men and women who will be awarded $10,000-$50,000 scholarships in Washington DC in late September. I still hope to connect individually with some of them in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, hunting through the $50,000 winners' bios, I noticed an interesting theme.

Raw talent can happen anywhere. But geography plays an important role in turning that talent into achievement.

I noted, for instance, that Davidson Fellow Laureate Katherine Orazem, a young writer, comes from Ames, Iowa. This is a small Iowa town, but not just any small Iowa town. It's also the home of Iowa State University. University communities have certain features that make them more welcoming for gifted young people than other places. For starters, professors at major research universities are smart people who often have smart kids. Having a concentration of smart kids increases the chances that the school district will choose to cluster and challenge them. That doesn't happen everywhere, as I've often written about my home of South Bend, IN (home to the University of Notre Dame and some awful secondary schools). But the odds are on your side.

In addition, the universities themselves offer resources that curious kids can take advantage of. You can audit classes (or enroll for credit). You can find mentors in the form of graduate students and professors. If your talents lie in scientific pursuits, you can possibly gain access to lab equipment that no secondary school will ever be able to purchase.

You don't have to live in a university town to succeed, of course. There are tales of previous Davidson Fellows traveling multiple hours several times per week to do lab work at far away universities. This requires parents who are particularly motivated to commute, or who have the time to do so. This is extremely tough to pull off in a two-income family, which is why it's easier to live in a university town in the first place.

So Yale Fan, winner of a $50,000 prize for technology, lives in Beaverton, Oregon (close enough to Portland State University to do research there). Alexandra Courtis, another young scientist, is from Davis, California. Madhavi Gavini, whose work combines medicine and science, is from Starkville, Mississippi, home of Mississippi State University. The lone musician of the group, Todd Kramer, lives in Port Jefferson, NY, which is on Long Island. While Port Jefferson is not a university town, it is the final stop on a branch line of the Long Island Railroad. I don't know if Kramer took the train or his parents drove him into Manhattan, but Penn Station is just a 5-10 minute subway ride south of the Juilliard school, where he studied.

In other words, geography matters. A child with much musical potential born in rural West Virginia will have a difficult time finding teachers and mentors to nurture that talent. While we all love the story of a diamond in the rough, even these gems must be cut and polished in order to shine. Some locations do a much better job of cutting and polishing than others.

I'm not sure what is to be done about this. If all teachers were trained in identifying gifted children, and all schools had partnerships with the nearest major universities, and all states had residential schools for gifted high schoolers, maybe geography wouldn't be so crucial. But for now, it is.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Failing Our Geniuses

Time magazine covers the Davidson Academy, and the issue of gifted education, in depth this week. You can read the article here.

Reporter John Cloud spent a week at the Academy meeting the kids (and apparently gawking at Bob's Ferrari, but anyway...) He reached many apt conclusions. Namely, that our schools are just not set up to handle highly gifted children. It's not because they don't know what to do. Acceleration, dual-enrollment, and other such accommodations are well-studied and known to be effective. It's just that we don't like doing them. Such accommodations hint at the idea that some children are -- and will always be -- smarter than others. And in the egalitarian world of education, that is simply not acceptable.

"At the academy, the battered concept of IQ--complicated in recent years by the idea of multiple intelligences, including artistic and emotional acuity--is accepted there without the encumbrances of politics," he writes. "The school is a rejection of the thoroughly American notion that if most just try hard enough, we could all be talented. Many school administrators oppose ability grouping on the theory that it can perpetuate social inequalities, but at the Davidson Academy, even the 45 élite students are grouped by ability into easier and harder English, math and science classes. The school poses blunt questions about American education: Has the drive to ensure equity over excellence gone too far? If so, is the answer to segregate the brightest kids?"

That's certainly one answer -- to congregate such students in a place like the Davidson Academy -- since schools have been so unwilling to do simple things like acceleration. Of course, as Cloud points out, it's a harsh choice for these students to have to move to Reno in order to find kindred spirits. It would be nicer if their home schools could figure out a way to challenge them. But instead, gifted programs wind up being about enrichment. Kids get 90 minutes a week of pull-out on topics such as bugs, or ancient Egypt, or forensics, or what have you, and these programs wind up being open to kids who may not be gifted, but who work hard and get good grades. Why not? Enrichment seems like a reward, not an intervention for kids who desperately need it. So why not reward kids with gumption and determination, regardless of IQ? We cling to egalitarianism and the hard work concept in intelligence even as we recognize that it's only part of the equation elsewhere. I run many hours and miles a week. If I ran more, and had a professional coach, I'd probably be able to run faster. But I would never run as fast as Paula Radcliffe. I simply don't have the physical ability.

Likewise, a child with an IQ of 155 is simply wired differently than a child of average intelligence. We can quibble over how meaningful individual IQ points are, and how high the scale can go, and whether our tests can actually test such a concept accurately, but no one who's been around children of average and extreme intelligence can deny a difference. Cloud talks about listening to the Davidson Academy children speak and realizing how different they sound than others their age (even as he notes that modesty is not a virtue of some).

He uses the standard line that these children will be the ones most likely to solve great problems in the future. Perhaps. That's a difficult argument to make, because plenty of gifted kids turn out to be very normal adults who don't move the world. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given an education that meets their needs. That's a right we deserve simply for being human. I'm glad to see Time magazine feels the same way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Is Brainy Baby not so brainy?

It is, of course, the perfect story for snarky journalists: A recent study by researchers associated with the University of Washingon in Seattle concluded that for every hour per day 8-16 month old infants spend watching Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein type videos, they know 6-8 fewer vocabulary words than other children their age. You can read one story (of hundreds) on the topic here.

Everyone loves to make fun of the Baby-Industrial Complex (yes, I bought a Bugaboo stroller... and an Ouef crib...) The explosion of Baby Einstein videos purporting to make one's child smarter is certainly a data point in this trend, and no one can accuse the University of Washington researchers of not knowing how to generate PR. Imagine -- a video designed to make your kid smarter makes your kid dumber! You can hear the snickering seeping out of the newsprint.

But of course, it is almost impossible to prove causal relationships with anything involving childhood intelligence or achievement. The researchers asked about Baby Einstein because these are the videos that babies watch. My guess is that every hour per day that babies spend parked in front of "Days of Our Lives" or "What Not to Wear" likewise corresponds to fewer vocabulary words... as does the number of hours per day they spend parked in front of a blank wall. It's interaction with other people that sparks vocabulary development. If children are watching TV instead of interacting with adults, then they probably will have learned fewer vocabulary words at some arbitrary age.

But TV-v-pleasant-and-educational-adult-interaction is probably not the exact choice many people are making. Small children can be exasperating. If the choice is Baby Einstein v. mommy losing it and teaching the child some very interesting words, I'd say Baby Einstein is the way to go. The videos don't make your child smarter. But I doubt they, specifically, make your child less articulate either.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Congratulations to the new Davidson Fellows!

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development just released its list of the 2007 Fellows. These amazingly gifted young people will win $10,000-$50,000 scholarships for their projects, which range from new scientific breakthroughs to musical compositions to short stories.

You can read about these young people and their projects here.

I'll be highlighting a few of their projects in coming weeks, but it will be hard to know where to start!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Class Size and Gifted Education

It's one of the sacred doctrines of education that smaller class sizes equal better classes. School improvement efforts often focus on lowering teacher-to-pupil ratios, and teachers unions, which have their own economic reasons for supporting such efforts, constantly lobby for smaller classes as well. There's some evidence to support smaller classes; a long-term Tennessee study (discussed on this NEA page) found that students enrolled in smaller classes from an early age are more likely to finish high school on time than those in larger classes (72% vs. 66%). However, the results aren't overwhelming, and achieving the NEA's target of 15 students to 1 teacher would require massive new expenditures (since current rates are often in the 20's or higher). While it makes intuitive sense that when students receive more attention they do better, there's much to be said for teacher quality as well. Some of my most informative classes in college were held in 200-person lecture halls. And some top-performing Asian countries maintain class sizes in the 40's. You can read more about issues with the Tennessee study and the class size argument on the Ed Reform website here.

Anyway, that's the background story on class size, which is what came to mind when I read about a controversy in San Diego about class sizes in gifted education. Apparently the so-called "Seminar" classes in the San Diego Unified School District, which are aimed at students in the 99.6-99.9th percentile on achievement tests, once had a pupil-teacher ratio of 20-1. Due to some funding issues, and a desire to expand the program to cover all students who qualify, the schools now want to expand this to 25-1.

I never like to see gifted education subject to reduced funding levels, but my first thought, reading this story, is that there's no point identifying students as gifted if you're not going to serve them. If the ratio needs to go up in order to serve the gifted population with the available resources, then that's what needs to happen. Those worried about the ratio could better spend their time evaluating teacher quality, as a top notch teacher with 25 students will beat a mediocre one with 20 any day.

That said, the range of readiness levels between gifted kids can be as large as the range in a general classroom, and gifted kids do have special needs. Special education classes usually have lower pupil to teacher ratios because these children require more one-on-one time. I'm curious if parents on this board have experienced larger and smaller gifted classes, and what the difference has been.