Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cautiously optimistic...

That's how I feel about Barack Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan to be Education Secretary.

Obviously, it would have been great to have someone who talks about the needs of high achievers and gifted students a lot, and who has a great track record in that area, but there are few big city school chiefs (who form the farm team for this cabinet post) whose focus tends that way. There's a simple reason for this. By definition, your top 1% of students are going to be rare. A big city school chief needs to focus on making sure most of his students perform at grade level, and that most graduate from high school with the skills necessary to become productive citizens. Chicago has definitely been making progress on this front.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic, even beyond Duncan's reformer credentials. When he came to Chicago in 1992, he worked on the Ariel Education Initiative, a program of Ariel Investments. Ultimately, this led to the Ariel Community Academy, on whose board Duncan was still serving as of late. Ariel is one of those feel good inner-city success story schools that does a lot of things right -- extended school days for kids who need it, high standards, plus (near to my heart) a curriculum informed by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.

Most importantly for our purposes, though, is one of Ariel's philosophies: middle school kids should have the opportunity to do high school work if they're prepared for it. See this brochure on the school, page 5. To quote, Ariel "provides exceptional students the opportunity to begin high school level coursework while still at Ariel."

This openness to acceleration is a promising sign. Most education decisions are made locally, and this is certainly true with gifted education. But the Education Secretary could do a lot to use his bully pulpit to push the idea of acceleration as a cheap, easy solution to meeting the needs of kids who can handle a little more challenge. Given that Duncan worked with a school where it was par for the course, there's reason to hope he might encourage others to make it par for the course, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Talent Overrated?

My review of Geoff Colvin's new book, Talent is Overrated, ran at The American's website (and in their daily email to subscribers) today. I'd mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago that I thought the book was quite interesting, and now that the review has run, I can talk about it some more.

Colvin's thesis is that the formula for achieving world-class performance in many fields is quite simple. You have to put in many thousands of hours of "deliberate practice." This deliberate practice involves analyzing your weak spots through constant feedback, working on the specific skills that will make you better, and learning as much as possible about your field. There is no way to rush this process -- it's a matter of getting in the hours. When people achieve world-class status at something at a young age -- like Mozart -- it's because they started very young and spent their youth putting in these effective hours of practice.

Colvin tells some stories that really seem to show that superstars are made, not born. From my review: "The story of the Polgar sisters, which Colvin tells at length, also seems to undermine the notion of God-given talent. In the 1960s, Hungarian educational psychologist Laszlo Polgar postulated that great performers are made, not born. To test this theory, he designed an experiment. Polgar and his wife, Klara, devoted their lives to turning their three daughters into brilliant chess players. Laszlo was only a mediocre player, and Klara hadn’t played much at all, but they filled their home with chess books and homeschooled their girls so they could spend several hours each day mastering the game. As a result, their oldest daughter, Susan, was eventually named a grand master. The other daughters also became top players."

Unfortunately, there wasn't space to get into this in the review, but what I find most fascinating about this story is the ultimate outcome. The Polgar sisters did all achieve world-class status, but they did not achieve the same, and none of them became the world's top player.

Colvin writes: "The middle sister, Sophia, did not reach the heights scaled by her two sisters (though she did become the sixth-ranked woman in the world), and everyone seems to agree that she was the least committed. A lengthy magazine profile of the sisters quoted chess champion Josh Waitzkin as saying Sophia 'was a brilliant speed player, sharp as a tack. But she didn't work as hard as the others.' Susan said that Sophia 'was lazy.' And even Sophia agreed: 'I could give up easier than Judit. I never worked as hard as she did.' Similarly, everyone seems to agree that Judit, who rose highest, worked hardest at practice. It would also stand to reason that by the time Judit, the youngest, came along, Laszlo had refined his methods of practice design.

"As for the fact that none of the sisters became a world champion, it may be hazardous to speculate on why things work out as they do in the rarefied air of the very highest levels. But it's certainly worth noting that when they were in their twenties, when future champions are typically still fighting for their shot at the top, all three sisters decided there was more to life than chess."

It may be hazardous to speculate, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. Here's my thesis on what went on with the Polgar sisters: You can train someone right up to the precipice of the top. But ultimately, world-class achievement requires both practice, passion, and opportunity. You can force the practice. But you cannot force the passion. None of the Polgar sisters chose chess as kids (other than the fact that it was what their family did, which probably made it cool in its own right). Perhaps Sophia was lazy, or perhaps chess just wasn't where her real interests ever lay. When the sisters ultimately had the opportunity to choose what to do with their lives, they eased up on the chess.

Opportunity is the trickiest part of the equation. As I once put in an as-told-to essay I wrote on behalf of Lang Lang (the pianist), stardom is about working "to reach the lucky place where fortune spots you, and lets you shine." Chess is at least relatively straight forward, as there are lots of matches and it's pretty clear who is in the top tier of players. But if you have the misfortune to be born in an era where there are many great chess players, you will have a harder time becoming the world champion. Actually forging new ground in other, less regimented fields, is harder. To break new ground in math and physics you have to find the right problem, the problem that uniquely taps your abilities. There are many great physicists who never win the Nobel Prize. And even if you win the Nobel Prize, you probably won't be a household name like Einstein or Newton. The top physicists all have the practice and passion. They just didn't happen across the absolute right opportunity. Possibly that's even because they were born too late (as one former physicist told me, "all the fun simple stuff has already been done.")

So what does all this mean for gifted kids? Even with future professional musicians, mathematicians and the like, parents occasionally have to force a child to practice. But as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, this nagging takes a different form among kids with the potential for top achievement. It's not "practice the piano or you're grounded" -- it's "you'd better practice or we'll sell the piano." The child has an intrinsic passion and motivation toward the topic. Polgar sisters or not, I don't think you can force this.

You also can't force the opportunity -- but that's a topic for a different post.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Teaching's "Quarterback Problem"

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, has an article in this past week's New Yorker called "Most Likely to Succeed." He weaves together two narratives -- the problem a NFL scout named Dan Shonka faces in trying to advise teams on which quarterbacks to draft -- and the problem of figuring out how to hire effective teachers.

The link? Top-drafted quarterbacks have an incredibly mixed record in the NFL, in part because the game is just so much more advanced than what they play in college. Rather than throw a perfectly straight pass to an open receiver you can see, you have to throw a perfectly straight pass to a well-guarded receiver you can't see. And you'll be doing this while 4 300-lb guys are trying to dive on top of you. You can't judge a college quarterback on how well he executes the same play over and over; in the NFL he'll have to improvise more because the defense is far less predictable. "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired," Gladwell writes. "So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that?" The "case like that" with the most profound social consequence, of course, is teaching.

Readers of this blog know that teacher quality really matters. We've discussed Eric Hanushek's work at Gifted Exchange before, which shows that kids assigned to a good teacher and bad teacher can diverge wildly in achievement in as little as a year. In three years, it's an almost insurmountable difference. As Gladwell points out, "teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a 'bad' school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile."

If you talk to any principal she can tell you -- quite easily -- who's an effective teacher at her school and who isn't. You can also see it in student test scores. A few districts test students at the start of the year and the end of the year. Barring massive differences between classes, this gives you an idea of which teachers give the most "value-added" bang for your buck. If you tested effectively, you could even judge teachers of gifted kids this way -- the kids might score at the 99th percentile on grade level tests, but give them an out-of-grade level test. I recall something like this happening in 3rd grade for me. I took the 3rd grade standardized math test, got a 99, so I took the 4th grade. I got a 99th percentile on that too, so I took the 5th grade test. My score there? 79th percentile -- which meant this was probably the level where I belonged. By the end of the year I was at the 99th percentile on the 5th grade test. That 20 percentage point jump is a pretty good indication I was learning something.

But how do we define effectiveness? Or is it just like the famous quote about pornography, that we just know it when we see it? Gladwell discusses watching tapes with folks from Virginia's Curry School of Education to show how effective teachers behave in the classroom -- they tend to engage students, evaluate where everyone is, problem solve to figure out new ways of explaining things, and keep order by redirecting kids who are misbehaving. There really are big differences -- he describes one trig teacher who, in the time it takes a less effective teacher to boot her computer because she forgot to turn it on, has managed to interact with every child in his math class.

But while it's obvious to everyone which practicing teachers are good and which aren't, Gladwell says, it's not obvious to anyone when you're hiring a new teacher who will be good and who won't. The things we typically look for -- masters degrees, teaching certificates -- tell you absolutely nothing. Only being in front of a class can tell you that. But by the time a teacher has her grounding in front of a class -- 2 years in -- she's protected from firing by a rigid tenure system if she's bad, and rewarded less than a 30-year piece of deadwood if she's good.

So Gladwell suggests changing up the process. "We shouldn't be raising standards" for hiring teachers, he says. "We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don't track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree-- and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated... you'd probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can't be routinely awarded...An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half's material in one year, we're going to have to pay them a lot -- both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward."

(As a side note, this tracks my point about treating the teaching corps like McKinsey in my Michelle Rhee post: McKinsey is more selective than most big school districts, but it still hires a lot of associates and tries them out. Most leave of their own accord or are "counseled to leave" in three years. It's hard to stick around to make partner. But once you do, the rewards get much better).

It's an interesting piece and, in Malcolm Gladwell fashion, very engaging. Of course, he paints with a broad brush to make his point (also vintage Gladwell). Though Gladwell doesn't mention this, Hanushek studies have found that one or two variables we can figure out beforehand do matter some. A key one? Teachers' scores on standardized tests. That means that, other things being equal, a teacher who scores a 700 on the SAT math section is going to be a more effective teacher than one who scores a 500. The higher score tends to indicate that the teacher is better able to figure things out quickly. This ability to solve problems quickly is a key component of the "withitness" that Gladwell notes is a common attribute with good teachers. (Perhaps it's another way of saying "intelligence" but since Gladwell just wrote 2 chapters in his last book about how IQ doesn't matter, he doesn't mention this).

Furthermore, Gladwell gets so excited about proving a point that he often fails to be consistent across all his writings, arguing different points with equal vigor. For instance, in Outliers, he reprints charts showing that poor students in Baltimore learn as much as better-off students during the school years, it's just that they learn nothing (or forget things) over summer break. All the talk of reforming schools "assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing," he writes. "But look back at the second table, which shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."

Or is the problem that they have lousy teachers? Many more hours over the summer with a lousy teacher is not going to help matters.

The point is that there are many things that need addressing with education. For instance, even bad teachers can do better in classes that are tracked by ability than in heterogeneous classes. We need a lot more acceleration, teachers with better test scores, a more rigorous curriculum, reforms to tenure, etc.

But Gladwell does raise interesting points to a broad audience, and so I'm glad to see this piece in the New Yorker. A mediocre education system isn't good for anyone. Teacher quality matters a lot, and with Bill Gates and others now focusing on it, we may actually get somewhere.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Real Kids Real Research

I have a column in today's USA Today on high school research programs. The piece is called "Real Kids Real Research" and you can read it here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Siemens Competition swept by public residential high school kids

I spent yesterday covering the announcement of the winners of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for Scientific American. You can read my story here. The Siemens Competition awards up to $100,000 scholarships to top high school researchers. Unique among the major high school science competitions, students are also allowed to compete in teams.

So there were three top winners -- one individual (Wen Chyan) and one team (Andrew Guo and Sajith Wickramasekara). Chyan hails from the Texas Academy of Math and Science, a residential public school for gifted juniors and seniors in Denton (by University of North Texas). Guo and Wickramasekara hail from the North Carolina School of Science and Math, a residential public school for gifted juniors and seniors in Durham, NC (near Duke University). There was also a student from my alma mater, the Indiana Academy among the smaller scholarship winners.

Given that public residential high schools enroll an extremely small percentage of the overall high school population, I think this is certainly worth noting. Creating such schools requires a state to consider gifted kids a priority. Frankly, I wish they were from K-12, but I'll take 11-12 (or 10-11-12 in some cases). Public residential high schools can concentrate gifted kids and give them accelerated classes in an environment with their intellectual peers - 24 hours a day! The results? Well, I think the Siemens Competition made that pretty clear.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Today is my 30th birthday, and it started off with a bang -- Jasper (my toddler) woke up vomiting at 1AM. Norovirus is circulating in New York City and we were not spared. At least so far it has been better than last year's stomach bug (which also struck right after my birthday -- I'm beginning to think of norovirus as the universe's little "present" to me).

Anyway, Gifted Exchange was born long before Jasper, but the experience of parenthood has, of course, informed my thoughts on kids and learning. Among the realizations as I'm spending today (mostly) with him:

1. Children learn at their own pace.
The idea that parents can "make" their children advanced is just laughable. I'm a writer. I'm into, you know, words. I read multiple books daily to Jasper. I talk to him. I identify things by name and ask him to repeat the names to me. But did Jasper talk early? Hardly. We talked about delaying our 18 month pediatrician appointment so they wouldn't push speech therapy due to his lack of verbalization. He is, finally, expressing himself with a few words. His current favorite? "No." I'm not sure why I was so eager for him to talk just so he'd say that.

2. But boy, are they wired to learn. Kids are natural hard workers if they're given tasks that seem challenging and interesting. Jasper has this little toy which consists of four three-dimensional shapes, and a cube with holes in it in 2-dimensional versions of each of those shapes. He kind of banged it around right until 16 months (it makes annoying noises). Then one day, he looked at the cylinder, looked at the circle hole, and then tried sliding the cylinder through the hole. Bingo! The square and triangle came next, about a week later. He had to practice the star for a while, but now he gets all of them, and can also put his much smaller blocks through the holes in their container top, too. He has figured out creative ways to stick them through -- like that the small triangles will go through both the triangle and the square holes (since the triangles are one-half of the square). We got him a book of magnets in various shapes earlier this week, and yesterday he actually put the little triangle on the various triangle shapes in the book. None of this came easy for him, but he was so interested in figuring things out that he stayed with it.

3. Schools really have to assume a central role in serving kids. Yes, parents can always find other schools, move, hire tutors, bring kids to the library, etc. But the daily experience of being a working parent of a small kid -- and most parents do work outside the home these days -- is so exhausting that it's often hard to assess if your child is getting the best opportunities.

For instance, I think that Jasper has some musical inclination. He likes playing my keyboard -- not just banging it, but listening to the sounds the keys make. He also has some serious rhythm to him. I know these things. I also know about exposing kids to some feedback and instruction on their inclinations is a step in talent development (Tiger Woods was trying to hit golf balls by age 2!). But the only reason Jasper is now taking baby creative movement and music classes is that this year his daycare chose to offer them during center hours (I do have time to write a check). If I didn't do anything about developing these little inclinations of his, why would I assume that other parents would on their own, either?

Nurturing talent has to be a social goal. Schools have to give kids the chance to test out various inclinations, choose the ones they like and then work hard at getting better at them. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of curriculum compacting for gifted kids, to free up time to pursue their passions.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bill Gates: Small Schools "Disappointing"

Last month, Bill Gates made one of the most remarkable education speeches ever. You can read the remarks, delivered at the Forum on Education here.

Here's the gist. Over the past decade, the Gates Foundation has spent about $2 billion on its goal of having 80% of minority and low-income students graduate from high school college-ready. The Foundation has mainly supported this through a "small schools" initiative that breaks existing low-performing schools into 400-student blocks. The theory is that these small schools will reduce drop-out rates -- even in the absence of other major improvements -- by making students feel part of a community. When all the teachers and principals know your name, you have to keep showing up, right?

As we've discussed in the past on Gifted Exchange, though, these small schools come at a cost, particularly for advanced or gifted students. Advanced students are already more rare than they should be in predominantly low-income schools (for a variety of unfortunate reasons that readers here are familiar with). The benefit of a large school is that you can concentrate top students and give them classes with their intellectual peers. A school with 2000 kids might have 20 such students -- in theory, enough for a class and some social interaction. Break that into 5 smaller schools, though -- with no concentration by ability/readiness (which the Gates Foundation has not supported) -- and you suddenly have 4 advanced kids per school. That's only one per grade. So the gifted/advanced program goes out the window.

This is a problem, because a lack of advanced classes does not hurt all bright children equally. Kids from higher-income families often have the social supports in place to get tutoring after school, take distance learning classes, or even go to the library and such if schools don't meet their needs. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his recent book, Outliers, at least one in-depth study of poor and better-off children found that lower-income children receive far less parental "cultivation" than their peers. There are positive aspects to this: They often devise their own games and (as he quotes one researcher) can be less "whiny." But the lack of cultivation puts them at a disadvantage in terms of using their smarts to make their way successfully in the world. If their schools don't cultivate them, no one will. A lack of advanced classes for bright low-income children is a decision to waste their talents. There is really no other way to describe it.

So anyway, we've been against the "small schools" initiative for years. Now, Bill Gates has acknowledged that the results have been "disappointing" too. This is one of the things I love about the Gates Foundation -- they studied their efforts, and found that the evidence did not support their theory. Rather than bury the evidence, or insist that the study didn't capture the right things, or that the small schools initiative hadn't really been tried, Gates shared the findings. Here's what he said in his speech:

"In the first four years of our work with new, small schools, most of the schools had achievement scores below district averages on reading and math assessments. In one set of schools we supported, graduation rates were no better than the statewide average, and reading and math scores were consistently below the average. The percentage of students attending college the year after graduating high school was up only 2.5 percentage points after five years. Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for."

He went on to make several important points. First, this is what he said about the schools that did work:

"In general, the places that demonstrated the strongest results tended to do many proven reforms well, all at once: they would create smaller schools, a longer day, better relationships—-but they would also establish college-ready standards aligned with a rigorous curriculum, with the instructional tools to support it, effective teachers to teach it, and data systems to track the progress.

"These factors distinguished the schools with the biggest gains in student achievement. Interestingly, these are also limiting factors in taking these gains to scale. A model that depends on great teaching can’t be replicated by schools that can’t attract and develop great teachers. A school that has great instructional tools cannot share them with schools that don’t use the rigorous curriculum those tools are based on."

This is a problem, because the Gates Foundation's entire philanthropic mission is to find ideas that work and then scale them up.

So what to do? The Foundation's philosophy may be shifting to focusing on teachers, not school structure. "The defining feature of a great education is what happens in the classroom," Gates said. "Everything starts from that and must be built around it. So we’re going to sharpen our focus on effective teaching—in particular supporting new standards, curriculum, instructional tools, and data that help teachers—because these changes trigger the biggest gains, they are hardest to scale, and that is what’s holding us back."

He had a few other intriguing ideas. One -- which we will talk about more on this blog later -- is the idea of doing vastly more research on exactly how students learn and what curricula work. "The education sector desperately needs an infrastructure for creating better instructional tools—always with measurement systems in place so we have evidence that the new way works better than the old way. Without evidence, innovation is just another word for 'fad,'" Gates said. "Doctors aren’t left alone in their offices to try to design and test new medicines. They’re supported by a huge medical research industry. Teachers need the same kind of support."

I like this idea. Why not treat teaching as a tough profession which -- like medicine -- requires smart people with effective diagnostic and treatment tools? It is not (as Michelle Rhee has said) simply a profession for people who like cutting out bulletin board displays for the various seasons.

Of course, even with all Bill Gates's money, resources aren't infinite. So -- given that great teachers are so important -- we have to figure out if we're paying for the right things.

Right now, it really doesn't look like we are. As he said, "Money is tight. We need to spend it wisely. We’re now spending $8 billion a year for teachers with master’s degrees, even though the evidence suggests that master’s degrees do not improve student achievement. We’re spending billions on a seniority system, even though the evidence says that seniority, after the first five years, may not improve student achievement. We’ve spent billions to reduce class size, even though there is no strong evidence that spending money to reduce class size in high school is the most impactful way to improve student performance. And the last thing we can afford—-whether the economy is good or bad—-is to pay teachers who can’t do the job. As President-elect Obama and others have pointed out: We need to give all teachers the benefit of clear standards, sound curriculum, good training, and top instructional tools. But if their students still keep falling behind, they’re in the wrong line of work, and they need to find another job."

It is "disappointing" that the first few billions of Gates Foundation education money have not helped advance his mission of giving every person the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life. But if Bill Gates is willing to spend another $2 billion in figuring out exactly how to create good teachers and better feedback systems, I think he'll find this to be a far better investment.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michelle Rhee and the concept of teaching

The cover story in Time magazine this week is a profile of Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging new head of the Washington, DC public schools. You can read Amanda Ripley's article here.

There are many bits of food for thought in the piece. But the fundamental question (which Rhee is tackling) is what the 21st century teaching corps should look like. We know that the quality of a teacher is massively correlated with student outcomes; one study by Eric Hanushek of Stanford found that when you put an 8-year-old child with a top 15% teacher for 3 years, he or she will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests at age 11. If you put the kid with a bad teacher, the kid can be a year and a half below grade level. In other words, that's a divergence of about two years over three years. This is not a small difference.

But what makes a "good" teacher? Years of experience (after the first year or two) aren't highly correlated with student outcomes. Neither are advanced degrees. Yet these are the two factors that most influence teacher pay within a system.

Rhee's assertion is that you should test kids at the beginning of the school year, and test them at the end, and use the difference to evaluate teachers. The best ones should get bonuses. The worst ones should be fired. Rhee has actually succeeded in dismissing 270 teachers and replacing 36 principals.

Needless to say, this is not winning her big friends in the Washington DC teachers union. The national unions have also stepped into the fight because of the attention Rhee is getting. If she succeeds in some of her reforms (such as abolishing tenure and paying on merit) then perhaps other school systems will follow suit. It doesn't help that Rhee is incredibly brusque, and steps on some niceties of teaching. For instance, she's complained about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations.

But, as Rhee says, "Just because you're a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district." She wants teachers who mean business. And she's willing to pay them a lot if she gets them.

Frankly, I think there's a lot to like about her philosophy. A love of children is not a sufficient credential to teach. Nor is a teaching certificate, and with mandates for small class sizes, right now urban districts have to hire just about everyone who walks in the door. This is not anything close to best practices.

So what is? My husband works at McKinsey, the management consulting firm, and I get to watch the hiring process and evaluation process. It's very different from education. People take tests before they're hired; they compete against massive pools of qualified people for jobs. They answer multiple questions in multiple rounds of interviews, and extremely nice people who can't think on their feet don't get hired. Then the new hires get evaluated constantly -- 360 degree feedback every 6 months. A senior person interviews everyone you've worked with -- associates, partners, clients, etc. -- and makes the case for whether you stay or go, and if you stay, how much you should be paid. Again, very nice people have been "counseled to leave." It doesn't matter. What matters is what kind of work you bring in and how you do on the projects you land.

Wouldn't that be great to see in education, too? It's a bit early to see how Rhee will succeed (and, of course, we have to see how gifted kids do under the regime) but one story in Time was promising. Ripley started with an anecdote of a young man in a computer class playing "Russian roulette" to find a working computer each day. Only 6 of 14 worked; if he got one that didn't work, he'd just do worksheets rather than word processing. School finances are no excuse for this sorry situation -- Washington DC spends more per pupil than almost every district in the country. The computer situation was symptomatic of other problems at the school; Rhee wound up firing the very popular principal. The young man who alerted her to the computer problem was incensed.

But -- and here's the big "but" -- the new principal got the computers working. I'll take results over popularity every time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gladwell's Outliers

My review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, which deals with giftedness in parts, is posted online here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

10,000 hours

I've been assigned to review Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, for City Journal. I'll post a link to the review as soon as it goes up on the City Journal website. Gladwell talks quite a bit about IQ, the Terman study, the case of Chris Langan, and so forth -- all topics which will no doubt be of interest to the Gifted Exchange audience, and which I can talk about more once the review has been published.

But one thing I do want to bring up, because it's so similar to Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated (which I'm also reviewing, this time for The American), and because it has such implications for gifted children, is the idea of long hours spent at deliberate practice. Both writers cite a figure: 10,000 hours. This is the minimum number of hours of practice needed for true expertise.

Both writers base this figure, in part, on a study of Berlin music students at the elite Academy of Music. Many years ago, researchers divided the students into three groups: the stars (those who might become world-class soloists), the good (perhaps playing in an orchestra) and those destined to become music teachers (sigh... the adage about teaching...). The researchers ran all sorts of data points and figured that the key distinguishing feature between the three groups was the number of hours they devoted each week to sustained practicing with the purpose of getting better. By age 20, the elite group had totaled 10,000 hours. The good group had totaled 8000, and the OK group 4000. The OK and the good groups really couldn't catch up at this point, because the elite group were practicing about as much as it is physically possible to practice (roughly 30 hours a week; they spent other hours taking classes and playing in groups and performing in addition to, you know, sleeping and eating).

The two writers throw in different examples of this in other fields. Gladwell postulates that Bill Gates got in about 10,000 hours of programming before starting Microsoft; Colvin figures that Mozart got in roughly that amount of music training, and Tiger Woods got in that amount of golf.

I have been thinking about this 10,000 hours figure a lot over the past few days for a few reasons. First, I think it's likely true -- the older I get, the more heartened I am by the fact that when I deliberately do something for many hours I do get better at it. I picked up running in 2004 and have run about 15-25 miles weekly since then, many times deliberately working on speed and strength; I am definitely faster and stronger than I was 4 years ago. I began singing with actual real choral instructors and constructive feedback in college and have put at least 2-3 hours into it weekly since then. I am definitely a better singer and better musician than I was in 1999. Of course, 2-3 hours a week (for singing) or 4 hours a week (for running) only gets you to 100-200 hours a year, or 1000-2000 hours over a decade. At that pace, I should reach operatic heights and a competitive running level when I am...75.

But I did the calculation on the treadmill yesterday and I am probably coming close to 10,000 solid hours of writing over the past decade. How could I not? I have, oh, about four novels I haven't done anything with, clocking in at 250,000 words. I have written roughly 4 non-fiction books (give me another 200,000 words). Throw in roughly 60 USA Today columns at 1000 words apiece, 30 months of writing the Only in America section of Reader's Digest (1000 words each time), six months of weekly 500 word Scientific American columns, 50,000 words in random other features, more blog posts than I care to count, and you can see where this is going. I have probably written close to 1,000,000 words since I went "pro" as it were. If my rate of publishable production is 100 words per hour, then I've put in the time. If my rate is better, than I haven't. It may be better, because even though I've definitely worked more than 20 hours per week for the past 10 years, I haven't necessarily been writing for all of them. I call people up and interview them, do research, etc. Those are different skills. Regardless, it's heartening to know that I'm in for a breakthrough one of these days.

Of course, if you count from much earlier in life, I may have already hit my "expert" level. I learned to read through a computer program my kindergarten used called "Writing to Read." I used to type little stories up and illustrate them. My entire sophomore year of high school, I wrote 2 4,000-word stories (roughly) each month in my bedroom at night. I wrote columns for my high school paper, then the Ball State Daily News, then the Daily Princetonian. When you love something, hours of work don't seem like a prison sentence. It feels more like being absolutely free.

Which brings us (finally!) back to the question of 10,000 hours and gifted education. The problem we currently have is that it is very, very difficult for gifted young people to build up those 10,000 hours before age 20, which is about when you need to seriously think about your professional career. If you start playing the piano at age 5, that gives you 15 years of practicing -- hard -- for more than 13 hours each week. That's about 2 hours every single day. Even if you figure a more intense schedule in the later years, that's still a lot to ask of a 6-year-old when you add it on top of regular school. This is, of course, the reason many elite musicians (and athletes and actors) are homeschooled or have some sort of alternative school. You have to get your hours in.

You also have to get your hours in with academics. Kids who like math do problems at night, and on weekends in addition to their school hours. But should a kid who really, really loves math have to spend hours doing English literature homework, making history timelines and so forth?

I don't know. In American education, we don't like the idea of cutting off options. You might change your mind about what you want to be when you grow up. So we don't like to have kids specialize. The problem with that philosophy is that world class performance requires a high level of focus. By leaving all options open, you in fact leave no options open.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of undeveloped talent floating around. It is the rare school that lets a young writer do her academic work in the morning and spend the afternoon writing and checking in with a writing teacher or coach regularly to gauge her progress. We could produce more outliers. It's just that we choose not to. I personally think that's too bad. Gifted education should focus far more on talent development than on 90 minutes of pull-out per week. At 90 minutes per week, it will take you 133 years (and that's counting summers) to be an expert at anything.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

USA Today: Tailoring school to the child (Homeschooling)

After much delay due to big political and economic news, my column on outsourcing homeschooling, "Tailoring school to the child," finally appeared in USA Today today. The timing actually wound up being good, because I led with the question of where Malia and Sasha Obama should go to school. Reformers suggest the DC public schools; realists talk about Sidwell Friends. But homeschooling is actually a viable third option -- even for busy families like the Obamas! -- and would have some real educational benefits (not to mention allowing the girls to travel more with their parents and reduce some of the security risk).

Thank you very much to all the Gifted Exchange readers who helped out with this column. You are a great source for stories and information. So here's the discussion point for today: I'd love to hear even more stories from families who are "non-traditional homeschoolers." That is, both parents work, you're a single parent, etc. How do you make it work? Is it worth it? Would you recommend it to someone else?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Re-telling the Mozart story

I spent this Friday night reading a book called Talent is Overrated, which I'm reviewing for The American (the fact that I spend Friday nights working should give you a sense of just how fun I am...) The book, by Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin, bills itself as a look at "what really separates world-class performers from everybody else."

I won't give my overall impressions of the book since the review hasn't been published yet. But one thing I don't discuss much in the review is how Colvin retells the story of that quintessential child prodigy, Mozart. That's a part of the book that matters more to readers of Gifted Exchange than readers of The American, so I thought we should discuss it here.

As he writes, "Mozart is the ultimate example of the divine-spark theory of greatness. Composing music at age five, giving public performances as a pianist and violinist at age eight, going on to produce hundreds of works, some of which are widely regarded as ethereally great and treasures of Western culture, all in the brief time before his death at age thirty-five -- if that isn't talent, and on a mammoth scale, then nothing is."

But, as he writes, "the facts are worth examining a little more closely." The reality? "Any divine spark that Mozart may have possessed did not enable him to produce world-class work quickly or easily, which is something we often suppose a divine spark will do." Mozart began studying the piano and composition at age 3. He put in hours of practice daily, coached by his father Leopold, a composer in his own right and by all accounts a rather intense man. Leopold gave Mozart constant feedback, showing him exactly where he was going wrong, and having him study the intricacies of other composers' works. He studied these other composers so intensely that some of his early works hew very closely to previous works of the era.

We don't perform these works now except as curiosities because, frankly, they aren't that good. Mozart's first "major" work (defined by the number of recordings that exist now) is his Piano Concerto No. 9. He composed this work when he was 21. As Colvin notes, "that's certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training." A golfer who'd been training that hard, daily, since toddler-hood, would, at age 21 be... Tiger Woods.

In other words, as Colvin admiringly quotes critic Alex Ross, "Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard."

It's an appealing way of retelling the story, in that it redefines the divine spark. It is not so much a gift, fully-formed -- it's a slight inclination and the divine gift of persistence (whether jump started externally through a coach like Leopold, or internally). Personally, I don't think this in any way changes the idea of how, ideally, we should educate talented children, even if "talent is overrated." When someone shows a slight gift at a topic, and an extreme interest in it, and the willingness to work furiously hard, we should do our best to nurture that. We should nurture those inclinations by accelerating the child until she has to stretch herself, and giving her the best coaching possible.

Unfortunately, we don't do that now, which may be why world-class performances are as rare as they are. We settle for gifted education which gives students 90 minutes of pull-out per week to study enrichment topics like origami or the culture of Japan. If the key to world-class achievement is "deliberate practice" -- hours of work shoring up your weaknesses and honing specific skills -- then we're about as far from efficacy these days as one could possibly be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart Kids, Bad Schools

One of the things I’m trying to do here on Gifted Exchange is review more education books. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Brian Crosby’s new book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools. Crosby, a veteran English teacher, launched himself onto the education reform scene with his book The $100,000 Teacher, and now he’s back with 38 essays on ways American education can be improved.

Some are very good. For instance, Crosby founded the American Education Association, which seeks to be more like the American Medical Association than a union. The idea is to make teaching a true professional career with very high standards, get rid of tenure, demand results and then pay teachers accordingly. Indeed, Crosby would prefer to see larger class sizes for a simple reason: there aren’t enough excellent teachers to go around. Better have 40 kids with a stellar $120,000/year teacher than 2 20-kid classes with $60,000 mediocre teachers. He likes the idea of more field trips, of getting rid of middle school, of hiring MBA principals rather than simply promoting teachers looking to get out of the classroom. He notes that special education funding is grossly disproportionate to the funding other children receive, and that gifted education is massively undervalued. “Why doesn’t the issue of equity apply to bright kids?” he asks. He also points out that “People might be surprised to learn how often teachers of advanced classes give their students more work at a faster rate than their nonadvanced counterparts and call it a day. As if the amount of work and how fast you do it determines how smart you are.” When he was first assigned to teach advanced students, he notes that he was not given any special training on enriching or deepening the curriculum.

He understands that this is problem so... I wish I liked this book more, but I just didn't. Many of the 38 essays contain long anecdotes about particular injustices Crosby has suffered over the years, which may or may not be relevant to larger educational woes (memo to Crosby: everyone hates meetings – people in corporate America too! Plenty of people have bad bosses, not just teachers working under incompetent bureaucrats). The essays often suffer from a lack of focus; the one on improving gifted education manages to hook in GPA inflation, how much money the AP organization is making, awards for perfect attendance, goody bags at children’s parties and so forth.

Also, Crosby cites plenty of statistics, but has no end notes or foot notes explaining where he got them. That’s a problem because some of them are highly suspect. He claims that “one study on giftedness discovered that 15 to 20 percent of gifted kids drop out of school, mainly due to boredom.” We examined that statistic at length a few weeks ago. Also, there’s this paragraph: “Smart kids are the country’s most valuable resource. And how does the U.S. government reward such talent? By continuing to underfund and cut gifted programs, rewarding these bright young people with two cents out of every dollar spent on education.” The thought is right, but the only U.S. (federal) government funding for gifted education is the Jacob K. Javits program. It usually gets about $10 million in funding, out of the roughly $50 billion federal education budget (actually, the budget is bigger now, but that’s the number I’m guessing he’s using). This comes out to two cents of every $100, not every dollar. These silly errors undermine the book's authority.

Furthermore, for all his good ideas, he’s got some really bad ones too, like that because most homeschoolers are white, “race may play a large unspoken role in [these] parents opting out of public schools.” He also claims that “except for religious reasons and spiffy uniforms, there is no sound argument for educating children in private schools. Which environment mirrors the real world, public or private school? Do parents choose where their children will work and who they will work with?” This just totally misses the point. Public schools bear no resemblance to the real world either. In what company do employees only work with folks who have a birthday within 12 months of each other? He says that “no private school has ever won the U.S. Academic Decathlon since its inception in 1980” as evidence that private schools are no better than public schools. I have never heard of the U.S. Academic Decathlon, and I’ve been writing about education for awhile. This proves nothing.

So, the verdict? Check it out of the library or skim the table of contents in the bookstore - I'm not sure I'd buy it for your personal library.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Too Many Asian Kids

That seems like a stark headline, doesn't it? But it would have been a better title to a recent New York Times story called "Racial Imbalance Persists at Elite Public High Schools" than the one the headline writers dreamed up.

As we've been talking about in recent weeks on this blog, New York City has long had a commitment to serving gifted kids from all backgrounds. This is a city of immigrants, and tales are legion of children from all kinds of deprived backgrounds getting into the city's elite schools for the gifted and succeeding wildly. Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science, for instance, have produced many Nobel Prize winners.

Unlike many of the city's private schools, it's no mystery how one gains admission to the elite public high schools. You have to sit for the annual exam. Anyone can take the test; indeed, the city offers a program to prepare you called the Specialized High Schools Institute. If you score high enough, you are offered admission. Connections don't help you.

Net result? Stuyvesant High School does not "look like America." In fact, it looks a little bit more like Beijing, or Delhi than like any city in the US. Though the city's four major racial groups represent roughly equal proportions of those who sit for the test (28 percent of last year’s were black, 23 percent Hispanic, 30 percent Asian and 19 percent white), a full two-thirds of Stuyvesant students are of Asian descent. In other words, Stuyvesant is majority minority. But apparently its students are not the correct minority, because all sorts of city critics are up in arms these days about the failure to "diversify" Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and the city's other gifted programs.

As Daniel Golden pointed out in his thought-provoking book, The Price of Admission a few years ago, when it comes to education, Asian children are "the new Jews." Once, elite colleges conspired to reduce the proportion of Jewish young people granted admission, even though these young people often had stellar credentials and had overcome amazing odds (poverty, immigration, discrimination, etc.). A similar mindset seems to have gripped the diversity proponents criticizing New York's gifted programs. As it is now, your father can be a cook working in Chinatown after leaving mainland China penniless, and your admission to Stuyvesant will not be looked upon as a cause for celebration. Something strikes me as very wrong about that picture. Indeed, any efforts to further "diversify" the city's elite schools will result in fewer Asian children being granted admission.

Friday, November 07, 2008

New York City gets it right

I live in New York City with my family. Most likely we will move out of the city before my son, Jasper, goes to school, but this is not necessarily because of the schooling situation. If you live in Washington DC and desire a good education for your bright children, you pretty much have to enroll in a private school (as Pres. elect Obama, incidentally a school voucher opponent, will choose for his children). But New York City has long had good gifted programs, including Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, which have produced numerous finalists in the former Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

About two years ago, though, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joe Klein surveyed the gifted programs, and noted that they were not exactly fair. Not so much "not fair" in the way people normally claim they are not fair (i.e., separating out kids for special treatment, or even the racial balance, though they did note that). The programs had a patchwork of entrance requirements, were located at certain schools due to better parental lobbying, started in different years, etc.

So last year, the schools decided to standardize admissions requirements. First, the NYC schools declared that as many students as possible should be tested. They did tons of outreach to historically underserved areas. They used two tests -- a reasoning test and a school readiness test. Then they declared that only children who scored in the top 5th percentile (on a national comparison basis) would be admitted to NYC gifted programs; the flip side of this is that every child who did score about this level would be guaranteed a spot.

Well, all did not go entirely as planned. It turns out there were fewer gifted children under this definition than the schools liked, so they lowered the cut-off to the top 10% -- already pushing it, in my opinion. Even so, some schools have far smaller gifted programs than in the past -- for instance, 10 students in a class in a school in which there average class size is 20 or more. You can read about the controversy in this New York Times story on "Fewer Children Entering Gifted Programs."

As you can imagine, some people are upset about this. From the article:

"At P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side, the gifted kindergarten class has 16 children, while another kindergarten class has 28, a situation Lisa B. Donlan, president of the local Community Education Council, called 'unfair to the entire school community.'

"At P.S. 52 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, one of four schools with gifted classes of eight — the minimum the city requires — the other five kindergartens have 22 or 23 children each.

“'Their intentions are all good, and I understand making it more uniform across the city,' the school’s principal, Ilene Altschul, said of the changes in gifted admissions. “I just don’t understand how a class of eight children is beneficial.'”

Indeed, some parents are pressuring schools to open up these smaller gifted classes to other kids; as one parent noted, “To get your kid into a good kindergarten in New York City is such a yearlong battle, and I know that it’s a very desirable program...It’s a shame that other kids are being denied the opportunity.”

So maybe I can explain why it's beneficial. New York City gets it. Gifted education is supposed to be an intervention for children who need it. Personally, I think they should have stuck to the original 95th percentile, or even higher. But, leaving that aside, gifted education is not supposed to be the "desirable" class, an entitlement (every school gets 20 spots) or a way to keep middle class families in the city so they don't move to New Jersey. If kids need the interventions of gifted education, they should get it. If they don't, they shouldn't, even if there are empty seats. It's not about seats.

It's also not about "rewarding" kids. The New York Times falls into this trap, as usual obsessing about the racial composition of these classes, pointing out in the article that only 22% of the students identified as gifted now are black or Hispanic. Most districts would find this pretty good; if you add in Asian children, the city's gifted program is 50% minority, but given that the New York City schools have a higher proportion of minority students than this, the New York Times claims the reforms have "failed to diversify the historically coveted classes" (even though the percentage of Asian students in these classes has actually gone up).

But Bloomberg and Klein are sticking to their guns. As Klein says, "we won’t compromise standards and thereby dilute our programs." It's about time a school official understood why a school district should have a gifted program, even if not everything the NYC schools have done to reform their program has been entirely smart.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nature: Some people are naturally good at math

The October 2 issue of Nature, the weekly journal of science, contains an interesting study about something called the "approximate number system." (The headline, in catchy Nature form, is "Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement.") ANS is an innate counting sense, present in animals, infants, and others who've had no formal training in math. Some people have a much better ANS acuity than others. Those that have this acuity wind up doing better on standardized math tests, even controlling for IQ.

To prove this idea, scientists at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere gave 64 14-year-old children a test to gauge the innate numerical sense ANS measures. They showed them a scatter plot containing dots in 2 colors. They asked which color was more prevalent. They changed up the ratio, and found that when there were twice as many purple as yellow dots, almost everyone could tell, but when there were only 25% more purple dots than yellow, only about 60% of the children got this right -- not too much better than guessing. But, of course, some children were far more accurate on these close ratios than others. The researchers then looked at the children's scores on standard math tests going back through kindergarten, and found that those who could gauge the ratios easily had higher scores.

This wasn't just because the kids were "smarter." They had previously given all the children an IQ test, and found that, controlling for IQ, kids with higher ANS acuity still did better on math tests. They also gave the kids a rapid color reaction test to make sure they weren't just testing reaction times. Again, the kids with the best ANS scores did best on math tests.

The result? "Individual differences in achievement in school mathematics are related to individual differences in the acuity of an evolutionarily ancient, unlearned approximate number sense," the authors wrote. They said that much more research would be needed to know if ANS could be taught and, if it could, how this would affect student achievement.

I always like studies that use the scientific method to get at the obvious. We all know that some kids are just naturally more number-oriented than others. Some highly intelligent adults panic when asked to make change; others can look at a room and see instantly that there aren't enough chairs.

That said, this is all fine for student achievement tests. But if there's anything I've learned over the years through trying to write about math and mathematicians, it's that at some point, numbers have little to do with it. Indeed, I remember one day in my freshman math class in college looking at the chalkboard and realizing there wasn't a single number up there! This was somewhat disappointing to me, as I really liked numbers. But as my older brother once wrote as a math graduate student at Princeton, "Despite what the general public thinks, math isn't just about being able to multiply numbers in your head quickly, or memorizing thirty digits of pi (I know good mathematicians who struggle to calculate 15% tips in restaurants). We've got computers and calculators for that. Mathematics is about finding structures and truths in the world of patterns, and explaining why they're there."

I suspect that what happens is that kids who have both a good ANS acuity and a high IQ wind up finding early math easy and fun. So they become more interested in it, and are encouraged along. The ranks of top mathematicians are then pulled from this group of folks who have spent more time studying math and playing with it than other people. Ultimately, though, it's not the quick counting that will help them -- it's the ability to see patterns and draw inferences.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's NaNoWriMo Time! (Nurturing the Young Writer)

Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. Not only do you need to have a good story, you need the discipline to sit down and crank out the 50,000+ words necessary to deem a manuscript "book length."

The folks at the National Novel Writing Month Campaign, or NaNoWriMo for short, can't help you with the plot or characters. But they can help you with the discipline part. Every year, they challenge writers to pen a novel in the 30 days of November. That comes out to about 2,000 words a day (if you take Sundays and Thanksgiving off).

Now, if you've ever tried to write 2,000 words a day for a long period of time, you'll understand a certain reality of this pace: the quality of many of those words will be low. Not just a little low. We're talking way down low, sweet chariot low.

But you know what? That's OK. I can say from personal experience that getting the basic draft of a book down on paper is the tough part. Revising can be done in shorter spurts; chiseling away at a sculpture feels far more doable when you have raw material to chisel. Whenever I'm trying to write fiction, I force myself to spend a certain amount of time every day just writing the words out longhand. Then, by the time I type them, everything has taken more shape in my mind and it's already a second draft.

I'm trying to secure an interview with someone from the Young Writers Program part of NaNoWriMo, which so far has not happened. When it does, I'll post an update. But in the meantime, this is the gist of my post: I think NaNoWriMo is a great way to challenge a budding young writer.

Here's why. First, many gifted young people are prone to perfectionism. They worry whether every answer is right, or if the story is as good as it could be. At times, this can be paralyzing. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is that your draft is supposed to be atrocious. How can it not be? Almost no novels are polished to perfection in 30 days. Yours won't be either. The young writer need not show the content to anyone. All she has to do is verify the word count.

And here's the second part: As we've talked about before on this blog, people in general (and I suspect gifted, creative people in particular) are happiest when they throw themselves into something difficult, and then, finally, achieve it. You lose yourself in the flow. You stretch your brain. You stop worrying so much about the silliness of school and the institutions of our daily lives.

There is still time to register your young writer at the official NaNoWriMo site, or you can just do your own NaNoWriMo at home, writing down the word count every evening. Maybe you could do it alongside your child (ever thought you had a novel in you? If the stories I hear at cocktail parties are true, everyone does!) In the next few days, you can spend some time creating a plot outline, sketching out the characters, and so forth. Or you can just dive in on Saturday. As the official NaNoWriMo motto goes, no plot, no problem. It will come to you. And if you give yourself a month, you'll be amazed at what you can do.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beam me up, Scotty

So the Davidson Institute kindly sends me round-ups of gifted education in the news each week. This past week, one of the more bizarre headlines in the package was from a publication called Planet Blacksburg, entitled "Virginia's Gifted Not So Grand." After reading the piece by Kaylie Brannan, I was puzzled that a serious, adult news outlet would run it, constructed as it is by throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. But then I realized that Planet Blacksburg is actually a website that showcases Virginia Tech student freelancers, so perhaps it's best to use this essay as an excuse for a good Friday chuckle -- and a chance to count up the usual anti-gifted canards.

Technique #1: Bash "pushy parents," everyone's favorite target.

"'Our little Suzy is just so special...' How many eye-rolling moments have we all suffered when particularly proud parents begin boasting of their children's fine natural abilities? Most would say, probably too many."

Technique #2: Claim IQ tests are biased or ineffective.
"If we're using IQ tests, then it may be possible privileged children are scoring higher than disadvantaged ones."

Technique #3: Claim separating students by ability leads to horrible ostracizing and bullying.
"...Why should we have these programs anyway? Would not separating a child from his/her peers to be put into a 'gifted' program be a cause for ostracization or bullying? And wouldn't telling a child he or she is not gifted enough to be separated from 'the crowd' be sending a bad message from trusted adults and/or be cause for ostracization or reverse bullying from gifted students?"

Technique #4: Claim that incorrect socialization leads to lifelong problems.
"...A study published by the Society for the Study of Addiction, as well as research described on (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), found that people deemed gifted often experience alcohol or drug abuse as a way of coping with their differences from peers."

Technique #5: Lament some lost golden era of a classroom "community" and champion the idea of gifted kids teaching others.
"...[we] could reestablish the idea of everyone appreciating each other's differences and working with each other instead of singling people out. Maybe kids like Suzy could share their uniqueness with others instead of being herded into a room with a handful of other special kids."

Technique #6: Hint that gifted kids are nerdy. It helps to mention Star Trek.
(On changing the requirements for entrance to gifted programs): "It would be like inviting a group of intelligent adults to hold hands, cling together and chant, 'Beam me up, Scotty!' and then, when it was not really working, deciding to choose participants more assiduously."

That's a lot of the usual suspects for a short op-ed, but I bet Gifted Exchange readers can come up with a few our pundit missed. Have at it!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

2e: Twice Exceptional Newsletter

Just a quick link to the folks at the 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter blog. They provide a summary of news articles related to gifted students with disabilities, and also a link on their home page to Gifted Exchange (thanks!) Be sure to check them out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are Too Many People Going to College?

It's been a while since we've had a good Charles Murray discussion here on Gifted Exchange, but since we're debating the use of IQ tests in designating children as gifted, I figure now is the time. Murray, co-author of the highly controversial book The Bell Curve, has a new book out called “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality." An excerpt ran as part of a cover package in September's American. That essay was called "Are Too Many People Going to College?" (Hopefully we will get a chance to discuss the other "simple truths" at a later point).

The gist of Murray's argument is this: Large percentages of American high school graduates are now attempting to earn 4-year degrees. Some reformers want every student to attempt college. But in the process of expanding access to college, educators and administrators have watered much of it down, to the point where a BA is now merely a signal to employers that the person has some level of motivation and competence. Hence, requiring a BA for a job is an easy way to do a first cut on resumes. As employers require degrees for occupations that don't really require degrees, this increases the pressure on ever more students to go to college. The result is an expensive waste of time for most people.

For starters, big chunks of people are not going to enjoy a liberal arts education -- not because they're stupid but because it's not where their interests lie. Everyone needs a survey of the liberal arts (and certain cultural knowledge), but this should be covered in K-12. Many very good occupations -- electrician, skilled craftsman, etc. -- are better learned in trade schools, community colleges, or through on-the-job apprenticeships. While it appears that people with BAs earn more than people without them, Murray notes that this is a bell curve. A very good electrician earns more than he would if he became a mediocre white collar employee. And if he likes working with his hands or, say, accomplishing something each day, he will definitely enjoy life more than he would filing expense reports. It's only our own snobbishness that we treat, oh, say "Joe the Plumber" as less worthy because he does skilled labor rather than sending silly emails and crunching spreadsheets all day. And frankly, the spreadsheet cruncher doesn't need a BA either.

Second, even though college is watered down, a BA is still not achievable for a great number of people. Large numbers of people drop out. That wouldn't be a problem, except that when we expect everyone to go to college, not going to college marks someone as a failure from the start. That makes class divisions even worse in our society.

Here's Murray's take:

"Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it."

I think Murray's got an interesting idea here -- that our system of higher education has become pretty problematic. Plenty of people managed to get good jobs with high school diplomas in the past. Not just mindless assembly-line kinds of jobs that have long been outsourced. I mean jobs like, say, journalist. But, of course, many high schools now show a total lack of rigor. Students graduate without knowing much about economics, or our system of government, or how to express themselves clearly. So it's been left to college to fill in those gaps. In some occupations, I'm even hearing that a master's degree has become the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Now that many people have a BA, you need a better signal. Where does this end?

As societies with any sort of inflation have discovered, it's hard to reverse these expectations. Individuals who choose not to go to college face a hard battle in a tough job market. And even if they don't -- Alaska "First Dude" Todd Palin, for instance, made about $100,000 a year in his blue collar work without a college degree -- these people often face contempt from those who did go to college.

Two things could reverse the degree inflation. The first -- an actual, rigorous, high school education system and a top-notch professional training and apprenticeship system -- will be a long and unsure road. The second, unfortunately, might be the declining student loan market. If it becomes harder to get loans for a 4-year degree, fewer people may attempt it. If Murray is right, if this pushes smart people to do jobs they are more suited for, this may actually be a net benefit for many people and society in general -- a tiny silver lining of the credit crunch.

What do you think? Are too many people going to college? Has college become what high school used to be?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Does Giftedness Wax and Wane?

Education Week has a fascinating article up on their website titled "Gifted Label Said to Miss Dynamic Nature of Talent." It requires a free registration to read, but I hope a few Gifted Exchange readers will take the time to do so, because I'd really like to hear your take on this one.

The article is basically a preview of a new book being released by the American Psychological Association called "The Development of Giftedness and Talent Across the Life Span." In this book, various researchers comment on giftedness at different stages, with an emphasis on the idea that talent can wax and wane.

“The essence of this book, and the reason I found it so exciting, is that it is moving away from this idea of talent as something that some people have and some people don’t. It’s showing talent as something developable,” Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of the book's forward told EdWeek. Dweck is, of course, the researcher who's made a name for herself by showing that praising for effort, rather than ability, inspires children to try hard things and risk failing. Children praised for being "smart" don't want to challenge that assumption, and hence don't want to try things that make them seem not smart.

The book will talk about giftedness in various areas (spatial understanding, music, art) and the problems with the way school gifted programs tend to address the issue. "If schools were to view giftedness as more of a developmental process than an immutable attribute, they would likely need to test children more often. And children might move in and out of “gifted” programs more frequently, based on their individual needs," the article notes. "Instead, many schools test children once for academic advancement, and students tend to retain that classification for the rest of their school careers."

It's all well and good -- we all know that talent, not nurtured, can certainly fade. And hard work is probably the deciding factor between which, of two talented children, will wind up succeeding as adults. Furthermore, the whole pull-out enrichment concept is -- as we've talked about many times on this blog -- absolutely ridiculous. There is no reason you need to be gifted to spend 90 minutes a week learning about bugs, or Robin Hood, or the culture of Japan, or whatever. All kids could benefit from these programs. What gifted kids really need is advanced, accelerated academic work. It at least sounds like the contributing researchers are pushing that idea.

But... I'm worried about this book. I'm worried because of this explanation of the thesis near the top of the article: "Academic talents can wax and wane, the latest thinking goes, meaning that a child who clearly outpaces his or her peers academically at age 8 can end up solidly in the middle of the pack by the end of high school. Instead of being innate and immutable, giftedness can be nurtured and even taught."

If acceleration were widespread and uncontroversial, if students were grouped by ability and schools were committed to meeting gifted kids' needs, this statement, that academic talents can wax and wane would be fine. True enough. I used to be sharper on, say, math than I am now. We all know some kids who were identified as gifted who wind up having trouble later for a variety of reasons.

But the problem is, we don't live in that world where intellectual talent in children is seen as a precious resource and is nurtured appropriately. We live in a world where school systems seek out any reason to not allow acceleration, seek out any reason to mainstream gifted kids, do heterogeneous classroom groupings and the like. The last thing we need is a group of gifted advocates trying to make headlines by claiming that yes, kids really do all even out by third grade (the argument that's used to avoid serving younger gifted kids) or that giftedness can be taught, and hence we don't need gifted programs. See, all kids can be gifted! Gifted kids are probably just hot-housed by their parents and once professional teachers get involved nurturing other kids' gifts (and neglecting the gifted, who will fend for themselves) it will all get straightened out.

I hope I am wrong about this, and that the book calls for a massive upgrade in how our country nurtures its brightest kids. But trust me, that won't be the headline.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gifted Programs and Standardized Tests

Once upon a time there was a fairly clear method of selecting students for gifted programs. The child in question took an IQ test, and if the score was over 130, in you go. This method -- and IQ testing in general -- has fallen out of favor over the years. Now many programs use a variety of measures from grade level tests to school work to portfolios and teacher recommendations for admission. Some people consider this more "fair" than relying on one test. But, as a story out of Duxbury, Massachusetts, shows, this is not always the case.

The Boston Globe ran a story recently that "Duxbury's new program for 'gifted' children puts parents in uproar." Apparently, 14 3rd-5th graders were selected for the program, which was developed quietly. The children were chosen based on their matching "a chart of behavior traits associated with gifted children." Several families who had been agitating for more challenge for their children, who scored high on tests, discovered that their children were not included in the Gang of 14. This led to much finger-pointing and the like. Indeed, "At a forum on the program, held the first week of school, 150 parents peppered school officials with questions and accusations," the article notes. That's a lot more parents than kids in the program, suggesting that many more people think they have gifted kids than the school system decided had them. "Some even think that the kids selected for the program were chosen because their parents had 'connections' at the school," the reporter writes.

Of course, there's a certain element that's humorous about all this. If 14 children had been selected for a program called "remedial learning" or even something totally neutral, no one would be up in arms. It's just the reality of the gifted label. If someone is going to be labeled as "smart" then other people want their kids in too. But when you go down a road of choosing kids for programs based on behavioral charts and other extremely subjective measures, you do wind up in a gray area.

The beauty of IQ tests is that everyone takes the same test, and everyone is judged on the same scale. I've been writing profiles, for the past several months, of former finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for Scientific American. In the past, Westinghouse gave applicants a test which functioned almost like an IQ screen in order to choose their finalists (now, the Intel search is almost entirely based on project results). The profile running this week is of a woman named Sister Julia Mary Deiters (born Rosemary Deiters; she later became a member of the Sisters of Charity) who grew up in Ohio in the 1930s and 1940s. No one from her school had been a Westinghouse finalist before, and she certainly didn't have much science background. Her parents hadn't gone past 8th grade. But on a standardized test, she stood out with the best-trained kids in the country.

When we lose sight of that fundamental fairness, we miss quite a bit. Perhaps IQ tests shouldn't be the only measure of giftedness. But I tend to think they can play a fairly large role.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"A Nerdy Boy in Mathematics"

The New York Times today has a fascinating write-up of a study of female participants in the International Math Olympiad and other high-level contests. The article, "Math skills suffer in U.S., study finds" makes the point that almost all the U.S. female participants in these contests are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants from countries where mathematics ability is more broadly prized.

As one top young mathematician noted, in U.S. schools, there is an image of being "a nerdy boy in mathematics." This is, for the most part, an undesirable image. No one wants to be a nerd, and no one wants to date a nerd. And so, given that math ability is undesirable, only those who care very little about the social order of things are willing to showcase their abilities in the field. The fact that US young women are achieving less in these fields is less about innate ability, and more about a lack of cultivation of young talent. After all, other countries have managed to find far greater numbers of promising young female mathematicians to send to international contests. Not as many young women as young men, certainly, but not in the lopsided proportions you see in the U.S.

I find this fascinating because, as we've written about here before on Gifted Exchange, young men tend to outscore young women at top levels on math tests here in the U.S. But this difference is less pronounced (or absent) among Asian American young people. It suggests that there is some cultural element to the difference. We are all assumed to be relatively familiar with baseball. We aren't all assumed to be relatively familiar with math. Maybe if we were, it would be seen as less of a subject for "nerdy" boys.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Where should gifted students' test scores be counted?

It's no secret that gifted kids tend to score very high on grade level standardized tests. It's also no secret in this era of No Child Left Behind that schools like to include gifted students' scores in their averages!

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it creates an incentive against specialized magnet programs, since these pull gifted kids out of their home schools. These kids' high test scores (which they might have achieved at any school) are now counted to the magnet school, rather than the home school. It also creates an incentive against acceleration. If a 9-year-old scores at the 99th percentile on 4th and 5th grade tests, but at the 75th on 6th grade tests, 6th grade is probably the right place for her. But the school would much prefer to have a 99 than a 75 included in its average.

So I was intrigued to see a plan announced by the East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana to "re-route" gifted kids' test scores. According to this article from the Associated Press, this plan will "help schools' performance by counting test scores from gifted students who live nearby but attend magnet programs and schools elsewhere."

Needless to say, various watchdog groups have cried foul. Per the article, the State Department of Education spokeswoman Rene Greer said, "The department is extremely concerned and plans to investigate" ways to address it.

A group called the Council for a Better Louisiana published a commentary saying that re-routing "should be called deception," and Stephanie Desselle, a senior vice president with the group, told the AP that "School accountability is not about fooling around with scores to make things look better than they are...The heart of the accountability system is to tell us how each school is doing."

But...while it may be a bit deceptive, it does remove the incentives principles currently have to oppose magnet programs for gifted students. I've become more and more convinced that we'd do better off with a uniform national test like the NAEP that is not so targeted to one grade level. Then you should compare scores of all 10-year-olds in your school, rather than all 4th graders. It's a subtle difference, but it removes the other disincentive -- that schools have toward acceleration. Even if you use grade level tests, they should be re-branded as "age-level" tests. A 9-year-old who's in 6th grade can sit for the 9-year-old test. It will be a waste of a day for him, but better than waste a whole year in 4th grade, which is what some educators currently like to see happen.

I'm curious to know what readers think about re-routing scores, or doing them by age rather than grade, or using a national test that allows for higher out-of-level scores. Do any of your districts allow re-routing?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I've spent the past week or so interviewing people somehow connected to the Intel Science Talent Search, the Davidson Fellowships and other competitions. What's fascinating to me is how these high-profile, big money contests, and the rising competitiveness of college admissions, are spawning high school research programs. These programs give students the time, support, and skills necessary to do graduate level science research. (For one example see the Baltimore Ingenuity Project here). Students then enter their results in these contests.

Obviously, recognition is a big part of the lure. Even before students won tens of thousands of dollars in these competitions, lots of people entered (the old Westinghouse Science Talent Search prizes were quite a bit smaller than the current levels). But money is part of it. What gets rewarded gets done.

Is that bribing? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as more of a retroactive patronage type concept.

You can't go visit museums without hearing about the old patron systems in Renaissance Italy. The Medicis had their favorite artists, as did the popes. They gave these artists commissions, supported them financially, and hence inspired some of the greatest works in western art. In the purest form of patronage, patrons give support to creative types not in recognition of some particular work (as the Intel competition does), but because you expect there will be future great work (though the two are always intertwined; people are judged on their portfolios).

I've become involved with this on a very small scale of late. My choir, the Young New Yorkers' Chorus, sponsors an annual Competition for Young Composers. We solicit applications from all over the country. People submit previously composed choral works. We then choose three composers we think can do a great job and commission new works from them. We premiere these works in New York each spring, and give cash prizes (for the entry form, see here).

We've realized that it doesn't take much money to create great works of art. We also realize that we can fill an important niche. Student composers write works for classes. "Grown up" composers are more established in their careers and often have contracts with music publishers and big choruses or orchestras. But younger artists are trying to take risks, and often have less of an established market. They are trying to get on the map. They need patronage for that space between academics and the commercial market.

As a plus for us, when these composers hit it big (and they will) we will be known as the chorus that premiered their early works.

I've been trying to think about how good patronage programs would work in other fields. The MacArthur grants are obviously a good example -- $500,000 to do whatever you'd like. There are prizes for young economists doing good work early in their careers. Certain gallery owners nurture young artists. But it's probably an aspect of talent development that could use more cash, attention, and creativity.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Project

I am blogging from Washington DC, where I attended the Davidson Institute's annual Fellows award ceremony at the Library of Congress last night. I also got to participate in interviews of all the finalists in the morning. They're a fun bunch of young people -- some more intense than others as you can imagine. We learned about the ontology of science, mesmerizing music, nanotubes and Kansas education. It makes one a bit wistful for the days when creativity does not necessarily need to be shoehorned into what you can get a grant for, what you can convince your company's research department to fund, what the major New York publishers are buying and the realities of trying to make a living in incredibly competitive fields.

Indeed, the high school and college years are probably the last years when this is possible. Which brings me to my thesis for today, one that I hope the readers of Gifted Exchange will help me develop over the next few weeks.

I think it is extremely important for gifted children -- not just the profoundly gifted ones -- but perhaps kids who score in the top 5% or so on standardized tests, to have a Big Project during high school.

While there are a lot of reform efforts going on in US education, much of it remains, shall we say, pointless for people who function a reasonable distance from the mean. You spend years learning material you could learn in weeks if you tried, and you often see no point to it, aside from vague societal pronouncements that education is important, and you should stay in school (say this while patting child on the head).

Good high schools often have reasonable classes, such as the AP franchise, which has so far resisted watering down. But still, you can get mired in the day to day. Humans in general, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has postulated, are happiest when they are in the "flow." (Read one article about the new science of happiness here). They are working hard -- absolutely absorbed -- in something that is reasonably challenging, but enjoyable. They are stretched to the extent of their capacities, but not frustratingly beyond.

A big project can hit this sweet spot. For me, I am happiest when I have figured out the thesis of a longer piece and am cranking away writing it (or editing my novel -- I just finished one and am looking for test readers if anyone is interested in giving feedback...). The Davidson Fellows spoke yesterday of their hours in the lab, their hours at the piano bench, these hours which don't seem like hours when you love what you are doing. Rick Warren talks of the Purpose-Driven Life. A Big Project can give a young person a sense of purpose during what is often an alienating stage of life -- when you are old enough to think as an adult, but not old enough for society to treat you as one.

Some young people -- like some of the Davidson Fellows -- think to take on these projects on their own. But most people don't. Some high schools now have multi-year research programs that try to guide students into finding these kinds of projects, and finding the kinds of mentors who can offer effective advice and support. These don't always work well. The Indiana Academy in theory had a research program -- I started it trying to do humanities research and it really just got lost in the shuffle (and gave me the one C ever on my transcripts). But creative writing classes with an emphasis on longer works could also step into the void. As it is, these classes tend to assign short stories because they're easier to workshop, even though there is no real market for short stories in the real world.

The point is -- young people need time and guidance to create the kinds of Big Projects that can give their teen years a purpose. As a side benefit, these projects tend to look awesome on college applications and can often be entered in contests like Davidson and the Intel Science Talent Search. A cynic might say that the rise of Big Projects among high schoolers is solely a function this -- and of parents pushing their kids to do something that stands out on a college application and confers bragging rights. We should just relax in high school, this school of thought goes. There's plenty of time for work afterwards.

The parental pressure worry has merit. The best projects are student initiated. As Barbi Frank, head of the extremely successful John F. Kennedy High School research program told me the other day, she tells parents, "suggest different topics, but don’t make it your passion. Children need to be passionate about it because they’re the ones who are going to be putting all these hours into it for next 3 years."

But I don't think it matters that some kids do these projects to win awards or write better college applications. The real world is all about incentives. As readers of this blog know, I'm no fan of Alfie Kohn's punished-by-rewards philosophy. If incentives nudge a few more kids to try a big project (and indeed, about half of the Davidson Fellows said that the possibility of winning an award affected their decision to do their project) then that's great. Big Projects teach children how to set a goal, break it into small steps, and develop the self-discipline to execute on each step.

These are life skills. Our world will be better off if more children learn these skills at a young age.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ligon Middle School Detracks

Many many moons ago, I was a sixth grade student at a place called Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. I only went to this magnet school -- located in a rather dingy part of the city -- for one year. My parents elected to move to South Bend, Indiana shortly thereafter. But I remember it as being a fairly good year academically.

Ligon was, at the time, one of the most thoroughly tracked schools around. I was a member of the "Chell team," named after my wonderful home room teacher who just retired recently after 36 years of teaching. The Chell team consisted of about 200 students who'd been identified as gifted. We all took academic classes with a set group of teachers (math, language arts, social studies, science) who only taught the Chell team students. (There were also plenty of options for electives -- a Tarheel ghost stories class, a tap dancing class, etc. -- what fun! These were usually not tracked and anyone could sign up).

So far, so good. However, within the Chell team, we were further subdivided into the apple group, the orange group (or some such) and other harmless fruit names. The apples all took academic classes only with the apples, the oranges with the oranges, etc. Though it was never explicitly stated, it turns out that these fruit groups were also organized by IQ scores/giftedness levels.

That's two levels of tracking if you're counting. Given that some schools don't even like to have one level of ability grouping, it was only a matter of time before this system got re-evaluated. It turns out that that matter of time is now. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, this year, "Ligon limits classes to the most gifted."

Rather than dividing into teams based on ability levels, only the most gifted students (in essence, the apples of the Chell team) will be in classes with other gifted students for all their core academic subjects. The more moderately gifted students (i.e., the oranges, pears, bananas and so forth of what used to be the Chell team) will attend social studies and science classes, at least, that feature mixed ability groupings.

I am of two minds about this. On one hand, there is a big difference between a moderately gifted kid whose needs can, in fact, be met in a good, challenging, grade level classroom, and a profoundly gifted kid whose needs cannot. At a normal middle school, it makes far more sense to keep the gifted program rather small, and not get into one of these politically untenable situations where 25% of students are suddenly labeled gifted.

But Ligon is already a magnet school -- the 200 or so students on the Chell team had applied from all over Wake County. The school system, total, has a pool of several thousand 6th graders. We are still talking only a small percentage being served in this gifted program. One of the things I liked best about Ligon is that we weren't just tracked for math and reading. You could do more advanced work in science, for instance, and have better discussions, because of the tracking. Creating more mixed ability classes has already had the predictable effect. According to the N&O article, "David Gaudet, a sixth-grade science teacher, said the main difference for him has been how he paces his lessons. He said he spends more time reviewing material in the mixed classes than in the classes exclusively with gifted students."

In other words, the moderately gifted students at Ligon are simply going to be bored under this new scenario. But hey, according to Scott Lyons, Ligon's principal, "This is more in keeping with Wake County's values." I guess at least they're explicit about what those values are.