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.