Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Are Boys and Girls' Math Scores Now the Same?

A slew of articles this past week, based on a recent study in Science, claim that boys and girls' math test scores are now the same. According to this article in the New York Times, the average math scores for boys and girls on the tests taken for No Child Left Behind are identical. This article from the LA Times notes that boys and girls score in the top 5% at just about the same rates. Many of these articles gleefully note that former Harvard President Larry Summers was wrong about his statements a few years ago that women are underrepresented among math and science faculty because they are underrepresented in the top levels of abstract reasoning ability. Many articles also mention the stupid talking Barbie who, many years ago now, said "Math class is tough." Girls are just as tough as boys! the articles say. The idea that girls aren't good at math "doesn't add up."

But as Heather MacDonald points out on the City Journal website, this isn't exactly what the Science study said. Average student scores for boys and girls were the same, and top 5% scores were similar, but among the top 1% (and the very bottom), there was a lot of variability. For white 11th graders, for instance, boys outnumbered girls 2-1 at the 99th percentile. What does one make of this? It should be noted that these are also No Child Left Behind tests -- scoring at the 99th percentile on one of them isn't exactly tough for a highly gifted kid. And it's highly gifted kids who grow up to be the mathematicians of the future. Perhaps a truly tough test (for instance, the math SAT given to 7th graders) would show a different spread.

MacDonald brings up some good points, but what I find most fascinating is one that she just touches on -- among Asian students scoring in the top 1%, if I'm reading her correctly, there are slightly more girls than boys. So while she claims that the skew toward boys scoring better among white students shows that Summers was not wrong (boys are more likely to be extremely gifted or extremely mentally disabled), the Asian scores may show something else. But what exactly?

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between the "there are no differences, just cultural bias" camp and the "boys occupy both extremes" camp. One hesitates to stereotype, but my observational experience of gifted Asian children is that families value science and math achievement in girls and boys equally. There may be later assumptions about occupations and childcare and the like, but these don't show up among 11th graders. And hence they don't really show up among 11th grade scores. That may be a more complicated point than can come across in these articles, but if it's true, it's one worth looking at.

Monday, July 28, 2008

No Child Left Offline

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article about how different towns are retooling themselves to compete for talent and jobs in an economy where many people can live anywhere.

One of the most interesting programs was Kentucky's efforts to bring broadband internet connections to all rural parts of the state. Certainly this is allowing people to work from home while living in low-cost rural regions, and is also helping people start small businesses. A component of it is to distribute laptops to children -- see this article on No Child Left Offline.

While I know some readers of this blog aren't as big fans of distance learning as I am, I think there is potential for a program like No Child Left Offline to do good things for gifted education. When enough students have fast internet access, it is possible to tailor a curriculum to meet their needs using courses from elsewhere, access to mentors, etc. Not all small, rural districts have enough highly gifted students to create special classes or schools. But any district can come up with a computer. We'll see how this all shakes out.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer School and Gifted Kids

When I was a kid, I remember that "summer school" was for kids who were in danger of being held back. But, of course, there's more to it than that. Some districts offer summer enrichment programs (in, for instance, Mandarin). When I lived in South Bend, a highlight of each year was participating in the "Firefly" musical production run by the school corporation, which pulled the best singers and dancers from the entire district. This was, technically, a summer school course.

Unlike the federal government, many states require themselves to balance their budgets. That means that as the economy turns south, tax revenues dry up, and something has to go. Alas, this tends not to be the person assigned to make sure all highway signs reflect the new gubernatorial administration as soon as it changes over, or the person assigned to print out all emails for the Luddite assistant undersecretary for agriculture public relations. Legislatures instead tend to cut the enrichment programs. The New York Times has an article about this here. If any readers have seen enrichment programs hit the chopping block in their district, please let me know.

Friday, July 18, 2008

On Working Hard

A few weeks ago, one reader asked me to post more stories about the Indiana Academy, to try to demystify the concept a little bit. Since news is a little slow on the gifted education front during the summer, I'll post something about it now.

The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities is a residential school for gifted high school juniors and seniors. It is located on the campus of Ball State University and enrolls approximately 300 students. It's one of about a dozen similar public schools around the country (though it's one of only a very few that also emphasize the humanities. Most specialize in math and science, because these are seen as "hard" subjects that you can be gifted in. I am continually amazed how few people think the humanities are actually difficult -- done right they are!)

Anyway, my husband and I were talking recently about whether we would ever consider such an option for our son, Jasper. My husband actually lived at home for part of college, so the idea of having a child leave even earlier, at 15 or 16, seems foreign. Plus, he reminded me, my "normal" high school in South Bend produced a number of successful people in the grade above me, and mine. He's met one woman who got her chemistry PhD at Stanford, one who is getting a PhD at Harvard, has heard of a guy in my class who is now a doctor, etc. All of which is true.

But the occasional bright student does not change the culture of a school. The most fundamental difference for me between South Bend Clay High School, and the Indiana Academy, is that the Indiana Academy had way higher expectations. It taught me to work hard for something -- to throw myself into it -- when success was not guaranteed. This intellectual risk-taking is almost completely absent from the American educational experience for bright children today, and that is a shame.

I've been thinking about that lately, because I am deeply involved right now in an almost fantastically hard task. I have recently taken on a book project (another collaboration) that must be written in its entirety in about 5 weeks. So I'm cranking out about 2,000 publishable words per day, in addition to my other writing projects.

But here's the thing -- it has never occurred to me that it might be "too much." And, indeed, the darn thing is pretty much done a week early. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to throw myself into something and make it happen for a simple reason: that's what I did at the Indiana Academy.

My first semester junior year, I floundered around a bit. I didn't know how to work -- how to set goals and execute against them. But I figured it out. My senior year, I felt that to get into a good college as a not terribly well "hooked" kid from Indiana, I really needed to stand out. So I decided to get straight A's while taking our AP chemistry and AP biology classes simultaneously, plus multi-variable calculus and various humanities class, writing long features for our school newspaper, applying to 7 colleges that all had their own application forms, etc. I really didn't sleep much. I was in the lab a lot, and drawing on every bit of math ability I had to figure out my chemistry equations and the like. But it all wound up working out. I got 5s on all my AP tests, got my A's, got into every college I applied to, won several writing contests. And as these things started happening, my view of myself started to change, too. I had the ability to figure out a situation and make things happen. This does remarkable things for your confidence.

At Clay I never had to work. Really. It's not just that I was the top student in my class, because I often was at the Indiana Academy, too. It's just that what was required to be the top student was more. In theory, all of us could have failed a test (and, indeed, on some of our AP chemistry tests, the top score in the class would be in the 70's; the class median was a B, and to get an A you had to be more than a standard deviation above the mean). That would never have happened at Clay. The tests and mastery level required was set so that someone was inevitably getting a 100. If that someone was inevitably you, then you didn't have to work hard. Simple as that.

We do no favors to bright kids by making things easy for them. The Indiana Academy didn't make things easy -- and that was its biggest gift to me. I'll write more on this subject later, because there are many things that happened at the Indiana Academy to make a good academic environment, but that was the big one.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Call for Entries for Davidson Fellowship Program

Hello everyone-- I've been away on vacation, and in the middle of another massive project, but thought I'd pass along this announcement. I helped Jan and Bob Davidson write Genius Denied several years ago. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development, which they started, awards multiple $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 scholarships each year for young people who do extraordinary projects. See below for their recent call for submissions for the 2009 program. I would love to see an "Outside the Box" winner this year, so hopefully someone will read this and come up with a wonderful project that no one knows how to categorize!

Davidson Institute Seeks Extraordinary Achievers to Receive $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 Davidson Fellow Scholarships

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development is offering high achieving young people across the country the opportunity to be named as 2009 Davidson Fellows, an honor accompanied by a $50,000, $25,000 or $10,000 scholarship in recognition of a significant piece of work in Science, Technology, Mathematics, Music, Literature, Philosophy or Outside the Box.

To be eligible, applicants must be under the age of 18 as of Oct. 1, 2009, and a U.S. citizen or permanent U.S. resident residing in the United States. There is no minimum age for eligibility. The deadline to apply is March 4, 2009. Applicants must submit an original piece of work recognized by experts in the field as significant and it must have the potential to make a positive contribution to society. The scholarship must be used at an accredited institute of learning. For more information on the Davidson Fellows scholarship, or to download an application, please visit

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

"Time to Learn" -- an extended school calendar?

The other day, as I was dropping Jasper off at day care, a mom brought her 5-year-old in to greet Jasper's teacher. Apparently, this little boy had started at the day care when he was a baby, and was now back for the older kids' summer program. Kindergarten operates on a 9 month schedule but, of course, most people's jobs do not. So the family had to make arrangements.

Across the country, most students are now out of school for the summer. It's a fascinating anachronism, and one I've been thinking about a lot lately as I've been reading Christopher Gabrieli and Warren Goldstein's new book Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods. Very few American children need to be on the farm for the summer season, which was the original reason for a long summer break. Some 70-plus percent of American women participate in the workforce in some capacity -- not too far off the participation rate for men. That means that in the majority of American families, the only way someone can take the summer off to be with the kids is if mom or dad is a teacher.

Those high labor force participation rates also lead to a school year problem. As Gabrieli and Goldstein point out, most school calendars not only end after 180 days, a "day" is considered 6 hours. "As working parents we have raged against the inefficiency and foolishness of dismissing school at 2:30 in the afternoon," they write. If both parents work full time (or in single parent families) you either have to hire a sitter for the afternoon or rely on "self care." This is when kids get into trouble. As they note, "half of all high school students are sexually active, but we pay less attention to the fact that many teen pregnancies get started between 3 and 6pm." Parents who do want to be home to meet the school bus wind up limiting themselves in their career options.

That might all be fine if a 6-hour school day were best for the kids. But Gabrieli and Goldstein argue that it is not. A longer day has many benefits. "In science, longer classes allow students to carry out experiments from beginning to end in a single session," they write. In NCLB-driven schools that focus on the basics, extra time can create room for music, drama, art, PE. A study hall period can let kids do their homework at school and spend their evenings with their families. A pilot group of schools in Massachusetts that tried extended school days wound up seeing their test scores rise faster than the state average. So the authors encourage all school districts to give the idea a look.

I think it is worth looking at too, though I have some reservations. First, a lot of the school day is already wasted getting kids to be on task, dealing with discipline issues, moving between classes, etc. A year or two ago on this blog, we joked about starting school in January for gifted kids, because they could cover in a half year what it takes the typical class a year to cover. If a 6-hour school day is inefficient, I doubt an 8-hour day will be more efficient. Furthermore, if a school isn't meeting a child's needs in 6 hours, the school won't do it in 8 either. That's a philosophical choice, not a matter of time.

But, as someone who writes about working moms a lot, I do agree that it's ridiculous to send children home to watch television for 3 hours before the standard work day is done. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think about the topic. Should school get out at 5pm?