Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Did NCLB hurt gifted students, part 2

For those of you who have waded through the whole Fordham report (see previous post) I'd like to start a discussion on the teacher survey. This is the second part of the Fordham report, and is based on questions asked of 900 elementary, middle and high school teachers.

Surveys are always somewhat problematic for a few reasons. First, people who respond may be different than those who don't respond. For instance, they may be more thoughtful about the questions being asked, have more of an interest in them, or just not be as busy. Second, people often answer questions in ways that show they agree with positive sounding statements (and then answer just as affirmatively to opposing statements that are also framed in a positive manner).

That said, the results of this teacher survey are fascinating. Among them:

1. Teachers are skeptical of the gifted label. A full 50% either strongly or somewhat agreed that "too often students are labeled as advanced only because their parents are overzealous and know how to work the system." Over 60% of high school teachers agreed with this statement.

2. Schools are not that concerned with the needs of high achievers. 78% of teachers agreed that getting underachieving students to proficiency is so important that the needs of advanced students have taken a back seat. About a third said that academically advanced students were a low priority, and 40% of high school teachers said that honors and accelerated classes were often watered down.

3. Teachers are quite concerned with the needs of academically advanced students, even if they don't believe their schools are. 73% agreed that "too often the brightest students are bored and under-challenged in school -- we're not giving them a sufficient chance to thrive." The focus group statements on this were particularly interesting. See page 52-- teachers talk about "cheating" their students and levels of frustration "when they have to sit by while we're babysitting." Noted one teacher. "It does seem that the resources, when we do get them for the higher achievers, are always geared toward things like day trips to places...The problem is that when we do get funds for the gifted students, it's always 'Take them to the science museum.'"

4. Teachers think students do better with homogeneous grouping and recognize that in-class differentiation is tough.
By a margin of 72-14, teachers believed advanced students were more likely to reach their academic potential in homogeneous classes, rather than mixed ability classes. While this fell to 46-36 for struggling students, this still tilts in favor of ability grouping for slower students as well. A full 76% of teachers said they favored the idea of homogeneous grouping for meeting students' needs. Key problems in mixed classes: 77% agreed that when they assign group projects, advanced students do most of the work. (I should note that 57% disagreed that teachers had advanced students tutor others when they ran out of things to do...)

5. Teachers recognize that they have not had much professional development on the topic of high achievers. Only 30% said they had some training, and only 5% said a lot. This is a problem because most teachers said that there wasn't a lot of special gifted programming in their schools, meaning that any teacher may be required to teach a high ability student.

6. Yet for all this, teachers are pretty negative on grade skipping, something that would remove the need for as much in-class differentiation and specialized training. While 85% liked the idea of subject matter acceleration, 63% opposed grade skipping. This is reflected in school policies. 46% said that their schools do not allow grade skipping, and 27% say they are not sure, which means that it must be extremely rare in these teachers' schools.

I find it intriguing that the majority of teachers would favor subject matter acceleration and the majority would oppose whole grade acceleration. I wonder if there is the fear of kids being picked on in gym class (though few schools have gym class anymore)? Or a way of recognizing the reality that kids need more challenge while clinging to the "community" ideal of school? (That frankly has no basis in reality -- my friends weren't all born within 6 months of my birthday).

Regardless of the oddity, this may suggest a strategy for parents looking to advocate for gifted kids: if you want a high probability of success, pick 3 subjects you want your kid advanced in, and go for broke on those. If you play your cards right, you might say that this is introducing your kid to more peers, and hence is increasing their socialization... Grade skipping will be a harder sell.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Did NCLB hurt gifted students?

This week, the Fordham Institute released a new report on "High Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind." I'm trying to get an interview with the authors, but then it occurred to me that the good thing about a blog is that I can write about the same topic multiple times! So I'll give my first thoughts on the report now, and hopefully start a discussion. Then, when I get the authors on the phone, I'll have better questions to ask.

For the Fordham report, authors Tom Loveless, Steve Farkas, and Ann Duffett looked at how students in the 90th percentile and the 10th percentile scored on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or "the nation's report card"). They particularly focused on scores since 2002, which is roughly when the current national focus on accountability began. They also surveyed teachers about their time and priorities.

This is the major finding: Congress passed NCLB with the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. That has, in fact, happened over the past 5-6 years. Here is why it has happened: lower-achieving students have made fairly large gains on the NAEP. High-achieving students have made small gains. Consequently, the achievement gap has been closing.

The bigger question, of course, is whether this is something to be celebrating, and whether Congress set the right goal.

In education, there is always a fundamental tension between excellence and equity. As Americans, we really like both concepts. We want all students to achieve more in the future than they do now, and we also want some students not to lag too far behind others. But these are conflicting goals. If all student scores were rising on the NAEP at a fast clip, the achievement gap would stay the same. In fact, if all student scores rose by 10%, this would expand the achievement gap (a student scoring 200 would go to 220, a 300 to 330, expanding the gap from 100 to 110). This means that, fundamentally, we have to choose which of the goals of excellence and equity is most important.

The Fordham report gives data on what we have, apparently chosen. I want to stress that it does show something important: NCLB has not, per se, hurt the highest achieving children on an objective test measurement standard. Scores are relatively flat. The NAEP (like an out-of-level test -- e.g. giving the SAT to 7th graders) allows for a full spectrum of scores to show up. So this is not the case of a consistent 99th percentile grade-level score masking a decline in achievement that a blunt test can't pick up.

But the authors did also survey teachers, and found something that is also salient. Some 60% of teachers said low achievers were a "top priority" at their schools, and 23% said high achievers were (teachers could give more than one answer). Asked about who was likely to receive more one-on-one attention, 81% of teachers said struggling students were, with only 5% saying advanced students were.

We don't really have data of how teachers felt in the past. But it is clear that in this era of accountability, NCLB and other policies have designated our national priority: raising the test scores of low-achieving students. Everything else is secondary.

It is, of course, a worthy goal to raise low scores. On the other hand, a teacher's one-on-one attention is a zero-sum game. If it's going to low achievers, it's not going to high achievers. So basically, as a nation, we have made a choice to let high achievers coast. This shows up in the NAEP scores.

I -- and many readers of this blog, I'm sure -- am not terribly comfortable with this national choice. I've long advocated taking the basic concept of accountability and applying it to individual students, rather than schools. That way, no one can hide behind averages on a grade-level test that make it more critical for a kid on the border of proficient to become proficient than for a high-achieving student to excel. From my first read of the Fordham report, I think we can start making a case in public policy spheres that we should change NCLB's mission from closing the achievement gap to raising the achievement of all students (really meaning "no child"). It does us little good to make sure everyone is capable of reading a ballot and balancing a checkbook if we can't also produce engineers and doctors and programmers and the like. Equality is not a useful end goal in itself. Excellence is.

But I would really like to hear from some readers about this. Anecdotally, is NCLB hurting high achievers at your school? Leaving them to languish? Is it causing a new set of priorities? Or just reinforcing beliefs people already had?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Achievers All

The school year is drawing to a close, and around the country, middle schools are hauling out the podiums and the fruit punch, and holding ceremonies at which they celebrate their high achievers.

Chief among these are students who have participated in talent searches -- usually when a university gives out-of-level tests (SAT, ACT) to young teens to see how they do. (For one such article, see this piece from the LA Times). The theory behind talent searches is that while highly gifted kids max out at the 99th percentile on grade level tests, out-of-level tests can show the kids who are truly capable of more advanced work.

But, as usually happens with things in gifted education, something has gone a bit awry along the way. A talent search is supposed to be a diagnostic -- showing what a child is capable of, so that schools can arrange for more challenging work if necessary. But, instead, it's become more of an excuse for an awards ceremony to "celebrate" an achievement, as if it's a real achievement to score highly on a diagnostic test. If you study a unit in biology very hard, and then do well on a test, that may be an achievement worth celebrating. But celebrating a high score on a talent search diagnostic is like taking a kid out for ice cream because she did well on an IQ test. It misses the point.

But you can see why schools generally like talent searches and like to hold award ceremonies for the students who participate. Who wouldn't want a headline that a handful of your district's middle schoolers scored as high as college-bound high school seniors on the SAT?

Don't get me wrong -- kids like the attention too. But the problem with these ceremonies is that for the vast majority of students who score highly on out-of-level tests, the ceremonies are the end of the line. These kids are never given anything more challenging to do in school. The well-to-do ones can take summer classes at universities. But most pick up their certificates, enjoy the applause, collect copies of the newspaper story from their neighbors, and go right back into 8th grade pre-algebra.

That's too bad, because while celebrating high test scores is one thing, actually nurturing a bright young mind so the young person can achieve real things in the future is far better.

I am curious what the readers of this blog have encountered in terms of awards ceremonies for high scorers on out-of-level talent search tests. Did your districts do anything with the results?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Life Raft Strategy

I had the great privilege of attending the annual Prep for Prep "Lilac Ball" last night at the Waldorf-Astoria here in New York. This ball doubles as the graduation for students in the Prep for Prep program, a 30-year-old campaign to prepare the brightest minority students in New York City for admission to independent prep schools (day or boarding). Prep for Prep continues to monitor their students' progress while they attend Andover, Choate, Dalton, etc., with the hope that these students will attend elite colleges.

It seems to be working. Among the roughly 150 high school seniors walking across the stage last night, a dozen are going to Yale, eight (I counted) are going to Harvard, and many others to Princeton, Columbia, Duke, MIT, Stanford, etc. I got a little teary when Learah Lockhart, the daughter of a single mom, talked about how she had been working until 2AM as a 7th grader getting ready to go to Choate. She didn't want to leave her mother to go to boarding school, but her mother insisted. Her mom always kept her school papers with good grades in a box by her bed. As Learah said, in April, she got something that was definitely box-worthy. At this point, she read us the letter offering her admission to Harvard.

(Of course, knowing how hard this young lady worked to get to where she is in life, it kind of ticked me off to know -- according to Daniel Golden's book The Price of Admission -- that Albert Gore III got into Harvard despite being suspended in 8th grade for smoking marijuana, being cited during high school for driving 100mph, and not getting particularly good grades or test scores. While a student at Harvard, he was ticketed for driving under the influence, and was also later charged with marijuana possession. But I digress).

Children are chosen for admission to the Prep for Prep program based, initially, on having test scores above the 90th percentile. From my discussions with people in the program, this seems to be a pretty hard fast line. Then once they make this initial cut, they give these children (drum roll please)... an IQ test! Yes, people are chosen for Prep for Prep based on their scores on the WISC. The selected children are then put through their paces being brought up to speed academically so they will enter their prep schools on par with the more privileged children who usually attend such schools.

As far as I know, the Prep for Prep program is not particularly controversial. It's funded with private money (and often the independent schools themselves give scholarships and financial aid to the young people who gain admission). You would need to have a pretty big chip on your shoulder to begrudge giving brilliant kids from modest circumstances the opportunity to attempt the kind of rigorous education that will give them a shot at being admitted to elite colleges (I might quibble with the fact that Prep for Prep does not seem to be open to white children, many of whom also come from modest circumstances, but a fair number of the graduates were Asian children, so at least it does seem to be open to all minority children).

Yet when we refuse to create self-contained gifted classes or schools in inner cities, this is exactly what we do. I think of Jonathan Kozol's complaints about New York City's selective public schools (which some Prep for Prep kids wind up attending). "The better schools function, effectively, as siphons which draw off not only the most high-achieving and the best-connected students but their parents too," he wrote in Savage Inequalities. "This, in turn, leads to a rather cruel, if easily predictable, scenario: Once these students win admission....there is no incentive for their parents to be vocal on the issues that concern the students who have been excluded...The political effectiveness of those who have been left behind is thus depleted...public schools in a democracy should not be allowed to fill this role."

There are plenty of people who think that schools for the gifted wind up being politically unacceptable life rafts. They concentrate limited resources on the brightest children, rather than the lowest achieving, or some other metric.

This is, of course, exactly what Prep for Prep does. The program amounts to a private gifted education program. The idea is to get the brightest kids out of bad schools, and put them in good schools where they will be challenged.

I -- like most people -- have no problem with that using private money. In an ideal world, sure, all schools would be great. But we don't live in that world. So I don't believe in holding bright children hostage until they and their parents revolt. If Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are willing to cough up money to buy tables at an event to support that, all the better.

But I do find it interesting that such a program has to be private to be politically palatable. Wouldn't it be great if any highly gifted kid across the country whose needs could not be met locally could attend an elite boarding school without worrying about the cost? Wouldn't it be great if we identified all the brightest kids (perhaps partially using the WISC!) and then monitored their progress and made sure their needs were being met? Alas, this does not seem to be a public education priority. A private life raft is better than no life raft. But I'd like a few more public life rafts around the country as well.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Core Competency Moms

This post is not specifically about gifted education, but about parenting. I had mentioned on this blog a few months ago that I was looking into the rise of middle-class household chore outsourcing (just as corporations are focusing on their core competencies -- ie, what they do best -- families are starting to as well. For moms this tends to be nurturing kids and the paid work they do). I've even spoken with some readers about the topic. Now, I've been posting a series of essays over at The Huffington Post on "Core Competency Moms." Here are some links; I'd be thrilled if you checked them out and left a message or two.

On Not Doing Dishes: The Rise of the Core Competency Mom

Life, Uncluttered

On Wasting Time: Are You Reading This at Work?

A Happy Mom's Secret: Don't Do Your Own Laundry

Monday, June 02, 2008

Figuring out the Flynn Effect

When I was in Atlanta a few weeks ago, blogging for Scientific American about the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, I interviewed a student named Julian Lyles Bass-Krueger who'd done a fascinating project on how Tetris (the computer game where you turn shapes to fit into variably-sized holes) makes you "smarter."

How so? He had half of a group of subjects play Tetris for 15 minutes (the other half did not play the game). Then he gave both groups a spatial reasoning assessment, of the sort you might see on an IQ test. The result? People who had played Tetris for 15 minutes scored about 55% higher on the spatial reasoning test.

While intelligence tests are usually based on multiple areas (not just spatial reasoning) this is obviously a huge difference. Bass-Krueger posited that this might be one factor in the Flynn Effect, the phenomenon that IQ scores seem to have been rising a few points per decade for much of the 20th century. After all, games like Tetris didn't exist 70 years ago. If many modern children are exposed to such games, their scores would naturally be higher.

It's an interesting theory, and there's probably some truth to it. The Flynn Effect is one of those concepts that's very difficult to tease out, and is often misunderstood. I have heard people reference it as a critique of the concept of intelligence. After all, if IQ scores are rising, then maybe IQ tests are easily gamed. People who've had the opportunity to do brain teasers as kids will naturally score better. Based on this idea, the use of IQ as a way to identify kids for gifted education also seems flawed. After all, who's to say if a child is gifted and needs educational intervention, or has just played a lot of Tetris?

But I think there's a larger factor in play that's probably more important. While it's a popular email forward to give an example of an 8th grade test from pioneer days (thus showing how dumb we modern folks are by contrast), one has to remember that when intelligence testing first took off in the earlier part of the 20th century, childhood mortality rates were still fairly bleak in industrial countries, including ours.

In 1936, according to historical records from the US government, infant mortality nationwide was 57.1 deaths (among children under age 1) for every 1000 live births. For non-white children, the rate in many states was twice as high (for instance, among non-white babies in Delaware in 1936, there were 110 deaths before age 1 for every 1000 live births). These days the number is 6.78 deaths per 1000 live births. Among black babies, the rate is twice as high: 13.6/1000. But even this unfortunately high number is many times lower than for children of all races 70 years ago.

Two things that we know affect brain development are pre-natal and infant health and nutrition -- factors that are highly correlated with infant mortality. Just as most of us are taller than our grandparents, it makes sense that our brains were better nourished when we were babies. And as it turns out, most of the Flynn Effect gains are concentrated on the lower part of the intelligence spectrum. That suggests that intelligence scores have gone up not because striving parents are teaching their kids brain games to get them into the top track in school, but because pregnant women and infants are not generally malnourished in developed countries anymore. They also receive better medical care (such as antibiotics that fight the infections that might otherwise lead to long term learning problems).

There is some evidence that the Flynn Effect has mostly stopped of late in richer countries, which would also be consistent with this hypothesis (there's less room for improvement these days).

But that brings us back to the Tetris question. If 15 minutes of Tetris can improve spatial reasoning scores by 55%, doesn't this put IQ scores under at least some suspicion? Yes...and no. All tests are blunt instruments. The fact that children's IQ scores tend to rise by 5-6 points the second time they take a test indicates that there is a learned familiarity boost. But this is pretty much a ceiling on the effect. Just as coaching can boost an SAT score 100 points, but not 600 points, playing brain games might boost an IQ score from 110 to 115, but not from 110 to 150.

In a previous post, I suggested that IQ tests be used as an initial screen for gifted education, but not the sole screen. Gifted education is not a reward for kids who work hard in school. Nor should it necessarily be based on a stark 130-and-over line in the sand. It should be an educational intervention for kids whose needs cannot be met in a normal classroom. My suspicion is that this is a subset of the 130+ crew and -- in good schools that allow grade skipping -- probably a smaller subset.

The Flynn Effect is a fascinating phenomenon. It may be a result of a more stimulating environment, but it's probably also the result of some more basic public health and welfare improvements. I don't believe, though, that it fundamentally changes the need to recognize the unique learning styles of extraordinarily bright children.