Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Modest Proposal for Gifted Education

As school days dwindle, education stories are becoming fewer and far between. We'll go on our summer schedule here soon at Gifted Exchange, posting a bit less frequently. I thank you all for visiting me through our third school year.

In the meantime, I want to start a discussion on a new gifted program in Pittsburgh. You can read an article about it here. The reason I'm highlighting this particular one is that it gets at a lot of the current issues in gifted education (amazingly, in about 1200 words).

1) How do you identify gifted students? Pennsylvania is instituting some changes. From the article:

"'This is about a more flexible, open process,' said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the state board. 'It opens it up to students who may not test well on the IQ test.'

Current state rules say students must have an IQ score of at least 130 and do well on other measures -- grades, teacher observation, other standardized tests -- to be identified as gifted. The new standards, which after a review process could kick in for the new school year, say districts can use an IQ test or other measures."

Across the country, many districts and states are chucking the 130-and-up standard. Many educators (and others, I might add) are highly suspicious of IQ tests. But it's interesting that few educators are recommending that you use an IQ test as an initial screen, and then cut it down from that based on the idea that IQ tests might identify too many kids, because they can be gamed (at least one study found that people who play Tetris right before a spatial reasoning test do 50% better on it).

Rather, educators are proposing ditching or downplaying the IQ test standard because they want to open gifted education to kids who would not score above 130 on such a test. I suspect people want to do that because it gets at a second issue raised by the article:

2) Gifted education as a reward (as opposed to an intervention).

Here is the opening paragraph of the Pittsburgh article:

"David Badamo composes a sports fight song, goes on a scavenger hunt and uses books about sports to learn literary techniques at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Badamo, 11, visited the center with 200 other gifted students from 20 school districts in the area."

This just has me shaking my head. You do not have to be gifted to go on a scavenger hunt. I'm guessing that all kids would enjoy a lesson about literary techniques using sports books, just as most kids would enjoy a field trip to the John Heinz History Center. If the basic way of serving gifted kids is bringing them on field trips that other kids don't get to do, who can blame people for wanting to expand the definition to encompass any kid who does well in school? It's like giving a kid an ice cream cone. We naturally want to give the treat to anyone who works hard.

But that is not the same as being gifted. Gifted kids can be lazy, can get bad grades, can act out in class and so forth. Gifted education should be an intervention for kids whose needs cannot be met in a normal classroom, not a reward for the "best" students.

3) Inadequate ability grouping.

Of course, the reason the Pittsburgh students were brought to the history center is that they needed to do something on their special "gifted day." From the article:

"Pittsburgh Public Schools is the only district in the area that sends its 2,800 gifted students to a special school one day a week. J. Kaye Cupples, executive director of student support services, said the district is thinking of ending its gifted center at Greenway School because of concerns the program might not meet students' needs the rest of the school week."

Very true. What is the point of bringing a kid to a special school for one day a week, and then leaving them in their regular classrooms the rest of the time? Unfortunately, the district's solution is not to open up the gifted school for five days a week. Instead...

"The district will experiment this fall with five schools -- Colfax, Dilworth, Fort Pitt, Grandview and Northview Heights -- where gifted children will be taught with other students.

Many districts "cluster" gifted students in a classroom with regular students.

'Research shows that they need to be with intellectual peers a good part of the day to share ideas and to push each other to excel,' said Cathy Ekis, the elementary gifted coordinator at Penn Hills.

The youngsters might also be pulled out of their regular classrooms and be taught by special teachers elsewhere in their school."

In other words, we're going from one day a week of busing to a central location to maybe a daily pull-out, with a few gifted kids clustered in an age-level classroom.

This is not necessarily going to be an improvement, but looks more palatable to people who don't like gifted education. It also maintains an allegiance to the "kids should be with their grade level" mentality.

Which leads me to my modest proposal for setting up a system of gifted education. After spending years reading through the literature, and various articles like this, I have a few ideas on best practices in gifted education:

1. Don't chuck IQ tests or out-of-level tests. Yes, these may miss kids who don't do well on tests, so it's worth having some alternative screen (like a portfolio). But the point should not be to expand the definition of gifted. This is an educational intervention for kids whose needs cannot be met in a regular classroom. If a kid who is working just slightly above grade level is getting bored in a regular classroom, it's because you've got a lousy teacher. Deal with that problem.

2. Gifted education should not look like a reward. In smaller districts, it should look like one thing: acceleration. You take a lot of politics and mystique out of the gifted label if kids who get it don't suddenly get to go on fun field trips. Instead, they go (for example) three grade levels up for math, do an independent study in English, sit in on a community college history course, and take an online science course in the library.

3. If you're going to do ability grouping, really do it. Larger districts may have enough highly gifted students that it becomes more economical to create self-contained gifted classes or schools. That's a fine idea -- but don't just bus the kids there once a week. Don't just do two afternoons a week of pull-out. Self-contain them the whole time. And combine these programs across grades. Gifted fourth graders have no more in common with each other than they do with gifted third or fifth graders. Let the kids work at their own pace while interacting with their intellectual peers. All told, that might be even more fun than composing a fight song and going to a history museum.

Tongue-in-cheek here, I also have a modest proposal for articles about gifted education. Attention writers: please stop including the "we're just normal kids" line. Everyone does it. Sigh. Here's the Pittsburgh one:

"Most people think we're different because they think we're brainiacs," said Badamo, a fifth-grader at Ross Elementary School in the North Hills School District. "I don't think we're different at all. We do a lot more advanced work. We still like to do sports and the things other kids like to do."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is there a 'War on Boys?'

The American Association of University Women (which captured tons of headlines in 1992 for its report on "How Schools Shortchange Girls") released a report yesterday called "Where the Girls Are." This report seeks to compare boys' and girls' school performance and to refute the idea that boys are getting the short end of the stick in today's schools.

"It is a testament to the success of the efforts by AAUW and others that the gender equity debate has taken a new twist in which boys are cast as the disadvantaged gender," the report notes, singling out Christina Hoff Sommers' book, The War Against Boys. "Girls' gains have not come at the expense of boys."

The evidence in the report is fairly straightforward. Both boys and girls have been holding steady or improving slightly on standardized tests over the past few years. Girls tend to do slightly better on NAEP reading sections, boys do better on the SAT. The between-gender differences in performance, though, are nothing compared to the differences between racial groups and between income groups (which might be a more fruitful area for concern). Young women (and, interestingly, older women) are going to college in record numbers, but young men are more likely to go than in the past as well. So while the percentage of college students who are men has fallen in recent years, the proportion of men who are going to college has gone up. This suggests that women aren't "taking men's places" in colleges -- they're simply flooding into college, while the proportion of men going to college has been more of a slowly rising tide. Among "traditional" college students (those under 24) from high-income families, men still slightly outnumber women. It's just that while older women are more willing to go back to school for a few years, many older men can't or won't leave the workforce to do so.

The AAUW of course has its politics. They sniff that there's no way there could be a war on boys because men still out-earn women, even controlling for years in the workforce, field of study and the like. Which is true. But girls were doing OK on tests compared with boys in 1992, too, and the AAUW still managed to put out a report then counting the number of times teachers called on kids who were raising their hands, the number of times boys blurted out answers and teachers acknowledged them, etc. If one used different stats, one could surely come up with a report that schools shortchanged boys. For instance, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and to be disciplined for causing problems in the classroom. The majority of elementary school teachers are women, and just as grown women often feel awkward in offices in which all the managers are male, boys can feel excluded in female-dominated environments that lack male role models.

That said, I don't think there's much to be gained from hunting for a war on one gender or another. No discovery of a war is going to help a kid read or do math. Our schools have lots of problems. Not least is that bright kids sit, bored to tears, in their classrooms because they're not allowed to move ahead. Kids breeze through tests and homework, not learning the joy of having to actually labor hard to understand something. That happens to girls and boys. We should see more studies on that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Last week, I went (with Scientific American) to Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta. I did a lot of live-blogging from the site, and I encourage you to visit the Scientific American website to read some of my postings.

My job there was to point out some of the more cool projects. Here at Gifted Exchange, I'd like to talk a little bit more about the whole science fair concept, and how bright children often encounter science these days.

On some level, the ISEF was a lot like a normal science fair. Everyone hung out in a giant hall in front of their tri-fold poster boards, which contained a lot of grainy photos of (often) a gloved hand pouring some liquid into a container. On the other hand, there were less props than you normally see at a science fair. Few plants. No vinegar volcanoes. With people traveling, and with strict rules, it's just easier not to put a pea plant on a table to indicate that you put certain compounds on said pea plant.

The students were often undertaking interesting experiments. They measured wave patterns in a tsunami simulation. They gave people spatial reasoning tests after they played Tetris (a concept I will write more about later). I was glad to see that a fair number of high school students are really interested in science. It makes you hopeful about the future.

On the other hand, was a certain humorous innocence to some of the projects. For instance, my editor, Ivan, blogged about an experiment in which a young lady photo-shopped pictures of her mother and her science teacher's husband to change various features, and then asked people who they would vote for for president. The results indicated that appearance did affect how people would vote but, on the other hand, what else were people going to choose on? They had no information about these candidates' platforms, history, etc. A much better experiment would create platforms and histories and rotate them through the photo-shopped candidates, all the while asking who people preferred. If you could see that even people who supported gun control were quite willing to vote for a gun-rights candidate with a stunning nose, you might reach the conclusion that people were more interested in nose appearance than they probably should be. But, of course, this is high school. I was reminded of my own science fair project once which looked at "Probability and Pascal's Triangle." I "discovered" that, when you toss x number of pennies a certain number of times, the number of times you get each quantity of heads does work out to look like Pascal's triangle. In other news, I hear that mixing vinegar and baking soda makes a volcano.

For all their re-discovery of the known, though, the good thing about science fairs is that they change science from a subject in which you memorize definitions for a test to a subject in which you think up questions and try to answer them. I suspected many of the students at ISEF did not actually think up their own questions. They worked with professors who suggested the problem; they had parents in the particular field they were looking at. But they did think through the investigations. Science fairs also give students hands-on experience with science. Some young people did experiments at home, others learned to use lab equipment -- a fun experience which no doubt keeps many people interested in research.

I also realized that certain schools make a point of teaching kids about lab research, and encouraging students to do independent research projects. The existence of science fairs like Intel's (and the Intel Science Talent Search, and the Davidson Fellowships) do dangle a carrot out there for schools and kids to leap after. What may be more amazing is -- given the scholarship money out there, and the prestige that comes to a school from having multiple winners, or even one -- is why more schools don't encourage this. All you have to do is free time up in the schedule, or schedule a research class, and hook people up with a local university. My own excellent high school -- the Indiana Academy -- required everyone to take a "research" class, but I recall no one actually winning anything major as a result.

But as college admissions becomes more competitive, I'm sure more schools will figure this out. It's all a little packaged, perhaps, but it does encourage kids to work hard, and spend their time on independent science projects. I'm curious about readers' experiences with science fair projects, and what your children have learned from making a tri-fold poster board display.

Monday, May 12, 2008

New Scientific American Column: "Where Are They Now?"

A quick personal note that might interest some readers: I just started writing a new column for Scientific American called "Where Are They Now?" This series looks at former Westinghouse/Intel Science Talent Search finalists and winners, and what they're doing with their lives. We're starting with a couple this week, and the series will run weekly for awhile. The first one is on Roald Hoffmann, the 1981 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. I'll be live-blogging later this week from the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta.

Precocity and potential are fascinating topics. It should surprise no one that some finalists (like Hoffmann) have made amazing discoveries that have garnered lots of attention. Others are more quietly advancing science, and others are not in the sciences at all, but are doing other things with their lives. This series will also investigate issues of building a scientific career, and how that's changed over time. So please come check it out!

Brain Games

Hello- apologies for the long time since the last post. I was on vacation in Peru, which was a wonderful experience. Lima is bustling and busy, with the gorgeous Pacific ocean right there (leading to amazing ceviche!). Cusco, up in the highlands, shows off its snow-capped mountains. Out in the Andean countryside, there are llamas and alpacas, and women carrying babies in woven blankets on their backs. I could never get Jasper (who turns one this week, by the way) to stay in a sling, so I was impressed. The country is both poor in parts and rich in parts. It is thoroughly modern in places (like downtown Lima) but in small villages, the people don't even speak Spanish. They speak the native languages their ancestors spoke before the Spanish conquered the Incas, and pretty much live life as they always have too.

Anyway, one of the great things about travel is it forces your brain to work. You figure out Spanish words on signs, you figure out how to communicate when you don't share a language, and new experiences forge new connections in your brain. In other words, your brain gets a bit of exercise!

This concept has actually been in the news a lot lately. As our society ages, people are increasingly concerned about diseases such as Alzheimer's and the general deterioration of the brain as we age. A few studies have suggested that we can do a few things to preserve brain function. The most important is probably physical exercise. Living a creative life that forces you to think is another.

But there's not much obvious money to be made on those (well, there's a whole industry of commercial gyms, but most people don't go there for their brains!) So enterprising folks turn to another potential brain booster: brain games.

I've just spent the past half hour test driving an online brain game site called Happy Neuron. The company charges about $10 a month for access to 1500 hours of brain games that range from deciphering quotes when each letter is replaced by a certain symbol, to pairing letter-clusters together from a grid to make words. No sooner had I played this for a while (getting absolutely stumped that "me" and "li" could combine to make "lime")than I stopped by the Scientific American website, and saw an ad for another such site called Lumosity. This site also charges $10 a month, and like Happy Neuron, is backed by a team of psychologists and brain researchers.

I am sure there is a free site with similar games out there, and I'd love to hear about it. But anyway, the experience got me thinking. We don't spend much time as adults pondering whether we're challenged in given situations. We don't set aside seven hours a day or so to try to learn. Children have to go to school, and so we worry about whether they're reaching their potential, and whether their classes are meeting their needs. But we don't give much thought to whether adults are reaching their potential. I'm curious what readers of this blog do to keep their adult minds in the kind of tip-top shape that we expect of younger people.