Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Making Math Pay

I have a column in today's USA Today about a topic we've been discussing on this blog: paying math teachers more than other teachers in order to increase quality and quantity. Here's a link to the article, "Making Math Pay."

For the piece, I got to visit with some incredibly dynamic math and science teachers at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, interviewed Jim Simons (referred to once in the Financial Times as the world's smartest billionaire), and generally came away convinced of what I often find. There are some very good small programs out there, including Math for America, the Cristo Rey schools I wrote about this fall, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship I wrote about last winter, etc. These three programs are particularly interesting because they all aim to achieve scale. Math for America is being replicated in a handful of other cities, the Cristo Rey Network now has 19 members, and NFTE is in hundreds of schools.

Of course, the question is, does any of this move the needle? There are 50 million K-12 students out there. These three programs have wonderful results, but they help just a few thousand kids apiece.

Then again, I guess there's another question: does that matter? Maybe we can't necessarily move the needle for everyone, but as long as there are enough programs that do work -- affordable Catholic schools available to inner city kids, entrepreneurship programs that teach kids actual workable economics and that they always have the ability to make a job if they can't get one, a core cadre of excellent math teachers in urban schools -- there are life rafts for kids and families that choose to look for them. And there is something to that, even if it isn't everything.

Making Math Pay

I have a column in today's USA Today about a topic we've been discussing on this blog: paying math teachers more than other teachers in order to increase quality and quantity. Here's a link to the article, "Making Math Pay."

For the piece, I got to visit with some incredibly dynamic math and science teachers at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, interviewed Jim Simons (referred to once in the Financial Times as the world's smartest billionaire), and generally came away convinced of what I often find. There are some very good small programs out there, including Math for America, the Cristo Rey schools I wrote about this fall, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship I wrote about last winter, etc. These three programs are particularly interesting because they all aim to achieve scale. Math for America is being replicated in a handful of other cities, the Cristo Rey Network now has 19 members, and NFTE is in hundreds of schools.

Of course, the question is, does any of this move the needle? There are 50 million K-12 students out there. These three programs have wonderful results, but they help just a few thousand kids apiece.

Then again, I guess there's another question: does that matter? Maybe we can't necessarily move the needle for everyone, but as long as there are enough programs that do work -- affordable Catholic schools available to inner city kids, entrepreneurship programs that teach kids actual workable economics and that they always have the ability to make a job if they can't get one, a core cadre of excellent math teachers in urban schools -- there are life rafts for kids and families that choose to look for them. And there is something to that, even if it isn't everything.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them


Today we welcome to Gifted Exchange author David Anderegg, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Bennington College in Vermont. Anderegg also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in which he sees many children struggling to fit in to the rather rigid social systems school kids create for themselves. He recently wrote the book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them about his experience with this particularly nasty stereotype.

Nerds is a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to parents of kids who've been teased for being nerds, and those who haven't. He has a few main points. In our anti-intellectual culture, nerds (often so labeled for being socially un-self-conscious, and deeply interested in things other people deem weird or hard like math) are the low end of the social totem pole. Kids learn that being a nerd means, by definition, that you are unattractive to people and will likely never win over members of the opposite sex. The most gifted mathematicians will pursue their gifts anyway. But kids on the margins might shun such subjects in order to maintain their social standing. By the time they get to late high school and realize it's all silly -- and that you need a lot of math to get the best jobs in society -- it's too late.

Anderegg also probes the depths of the nerd and jock archetypes, criticizing the Legend of Sleepy Hollow for giving us the weird bookish character of Ichabod Crane, and wondering if Pres. Bush's habit of giving reporters nicknames won over these former nerds during his first election campaign. He takes on the ease with which amateur psychologists diagnose Asperger's syndrome, and pleas for parents to stop putting down "nerdy" kids in their own conversations. We asked him a few questions:

LV: In your book, you note that "nerds" are a particularly
American phenomenon. Why is that? Certainly not just because of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow! I would venture to say most people haven't read the book.

Anderegg: I argue that the concept of “nerds” vs. “jocks” fits right over a much older American idea, an idea as old as our country: that of the practical, upright, physical and “natural” American kind of intelligence that was opposed to an older, desiccated, European book-based intelligence. This idea is enshrined in much of early American letters, including, for example, Emerson's famous address “The American Scholar” as well as popular works like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

People make fun of "nerds" who would never make fun of, say, African Americans. But is there a racial element, when it comes to Asian Americans? You note that there are no popular Asian rock stars, possibly because of the nerd stereotype.

Asian Americans are often seen as “nerdy,” probably because of their supposed attachment to pleasing adults. Among kids, especially younger kids, being “nerdy” is associated with doing what adults want you to do (homework being one, but only one, of the things that adults want you to do). So kids who do what they are supposed to do get the label. Asian kids are often seen as being attached to the good opinions of adults: being what used to be called a “goody-goody” and being a “nerd” are very close in many kids’ eyes.

You posit that America's mediocre performance on international comparisons in math and science can be laid directly at the feet of the “nerd” stereotype that implies that people who are good at math and science are unlovable. We've been first in the world before; what changed?

Popular culture has become more sexualized for kids. I argue that as kids, both boys and girls, become more indoctrinated about how important it is to be “hot,” anything that contributes to them being seen as “not hot” will be shunned. Girls have always been taught that being smart is not sexy; the difference is that, in a hyper-sexualized popular culture, boys are now getting that message as well. If you haven’t ever watched “Beauty and the Geek,” watch it and you'll see what I mean.

Can girls be nerds?

Girls can have the attributes of nerds but the nerd stereotype is pretty exclusively male. If you ask people to describe a prototypical nerd, 99 out of 100 will describe a male.

Asperger’s seems to have become the nerd-disease. Why do people like to “diagnose” improbable people (such as Bill Gates) with Asperger's?

The concept of "spectrum disorders" is popular, and scientifically valid. Asperger's Disease is seen as being the upper end of the autism spectrum. But no one seems to know where the spectrum ends and normal variation begins. Normality is not a point; it is also a spectrum, and Americans have very little understanding of the idea of normal variation: people can have varying degrees of eye contact, for example, and still be normal. So any little quirk is now described as a “touch of Asperger's.”


Has Harry Potter made it socially safe for kids to be interested in wizards again?

Maybe. The movies help. For many kids, interest in anything that requires a lot of effort (like reading a 700-page Harry Potter book) makes one automatically a nerd. That's why interest in The Lord of the Rings used to be a badge of nerdiness as well. But now that both these fantasy productions are movies, it’s easier for more kids to be interested, and the stories have lost a lot of the nerdiness that used to attach to them.

Would the culture change if there were, say, a TV show featuring a lot of hot mathematicians? Certainly a lot of our richest folks these days – hedge fund managers – are mathematicians. And they get hot dates. Does this change anything?

We have a long way to go on that one. There is a TV show called “Numb3rs” which features a hot mathematician, and it helps. But historians of popular culture have noted that, until very recently, almost every Hollywood movie ever made which featured a mathematician depicted that character as criminal or insane or both, usually both.

What can parents do if their kids are being teased because of nerdiness?

Kids who are labeled as nerds need peers. Parents can find other kids who share their own kids’ interests: chess clubs, summer camps where kids do computer programming, etc. Once nerd-labeled kids know they have peers, they feel a lot better: they can always stay in touch via e-mail, even with summer camp friends. Nerd-labeled kids also need to be reminded that their own peers will outgrow their rigid conformity: by the end of high school, most of this stuff goes away. Parents can also help nerd-labeled kids go underground: it’s not the end of the world to get your kid contact lenses and help him dress like the other kids. If it feels like a disguise, so what? It can be explained as a useful disguise...like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"...But there's plenty of normal teenager too"

This post is an introduction, of sorts, to a longer post I hope to put up later this week. I recently read an article in the New York Times about 2007 Davidson Fellow Yuqing Meng. The article tells of this young man's amazing musical gifts (and, it turns out, physics gifts, too), but the title is really bugging me. Here it is: "A Prodigy, Sure, but There's Plenty of Normal Teenager, Too."

It's bugging me because I've been reading a fascinating book called Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg. The author has agreed to a Gifted Exchange interview, so we'll post more on the book later. But one of the takeaways from this book is the idea that extreme interest and gifts in certain subjects (often math and science, but certainly classical music too) imply that someone is unlikeable, likely to be unlucky in love, and unattractive as well. This is a stereotype that stems from general American anti-intellectualism, and is taken quite literally by young children, because, well, children are literal minded. Prodigies by definition show extreme interest and gifts in something -- often something deemed a little hard or foreign to the rest of us -- and so, by definition they must be strange, weird and probably a little off. Not someone you'd want to hang out with.

Since in journalism, profiles are generally supposed to make you like the person, the journalist must inevitably contend with this stereotype. And so profiles of prodigies inevitably contain paragraphs about how the child in question is actually so normal. I have personal experience with this; an article on me in the South Bend Tribune after I did the incredibly geeky thing of score an 800 on the math SAT section in 8th grade made sure to mention that I was on the cheerleading squad. See, she's not really a nerd! Because a nerd is the worst thing you can be.

Likewise, our headline writer here at the New York Times wants to assure us that though Meng is obviously much better at piano than the rest of us, and better at physics, we should take comfort that he is just a "normal teenager" who is worried about where he'll go to college. See, he's not a nerd either! This genre of article also tends to make a big deal of prodigies' community service pursuits. It's another thing that humanizes them and makes them not seem part of the despised "other."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Insufferable Genius (RIP Bobby Fischer)

It's become a bit of a cliche that child prodigies fly high then fall fast, or at least develop some rather strange habits. Bobby Fischer, the international chess champion who died yesterday in Iceland at age 64 after a long illness, certainly did his part to keep this impression alive. Indeed, he was the quintessential troubled genius, seemingly misunderstood by most people, achieving great things while finding himself unable to live within certain constraints society imposed. You can read one obituary about him here.

The more I study people with profound intelligence, the more I am convinced that their brains do not exactly work like the rest of ours. Fischer appeared to have a certain self-defeating impulsiveness. One illicit match in Yugoslavia led to 9 months in detention, a revoked passport and exile (a nice one, but exile nonetheless) in Iceland. Yet in his mind, I'm sure it made sense. After all, his replaying his old rival Boris Spassky on a resort island did nothing to personally punish Slobodan Milosevic, the actual target of international sanctions. Since the rule didn't make sense, he didn't follow it.

He was prone to making anti-Semitic statements (though part Jewish himself; again, other people's rules of civility don't apply). He didn't like to go along with the showmanship part of chess that backers always wanted to draw crowds. One got the sense that he had a very fundamentalist view of the game (indeed, he accused current chess promoters of rigging games), failing to see that the pomp and circumstance is what gave him a platform beyond playing in a park. He was erratic. He was prone to the over-excitabilities that many parents of profoundly gifted children recognize. But boy could he play a lovely game of chess.

One always wonders with troubled geniuses if they, looking back on their lives, would have chosen their gifts. Fischer certainly considered himself the best, and seemed quite proud of that. So he probably would have. But fitting such a frenetic brain into our society is difficult at best. When I think of extreme child prodigies, I find myself thinking about the school for mutants in X-Men (but in a good way!) Simply having a place to be oneself does wonders to calm the mind.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Able Pupils Lose Momentum

An interesting government report out of the UK, written about in a recent article in the Telegraph, comes to the conclusion that "Able Pupils Lose Momentum."

(the Telegraph URL is quite long and is defying my attempts to write it correctly in the link function on Blogger; it's: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml;jsessionid=VN42UK5N014RNQFIQMGCFFOAVCBQUIV0?xml=/news/2008/01/06/nschool106.xml)

Apparently, a quarter of the students who score very well on the state schools' tests at age 7 do not achieve high marks at age 11. The report looked at the various reasons and found that, in essence, schools are doing very little to actually nurture these "able pupils." They are often not grouped with children who have similar abilities, teachers spend more time with kids who are having difficulties, and the targets set for these pupils are often underwhelming. Apparently, teachers are supposed to set goals for these pupils (I am guessing this is something like a gifted IEP) but the report states that many teachers do not buy into this, and so the targets are things like "be neater." Of course, if people think the notion of challenging bright pupils is elitist, and everyone needs to be leveled off a bit, it seems to be working, at least for the quarter of students who don't do as well by age 11.

As we've said before on this blog, gifts are useless if they're not unwrapped. Gifted pupils will not inevitably do well in school. They do not necessarily fend for themselves. It is quite possible to turn an extremely bright kid off to learning by making his formal learning as unpleasant as possible. I have no idea why people would choose to do that, but as the UK report shows, it happens.

TOTALLY OFF-TOPIC POST: As many of you know, I'm a freelance writer, and write for all kinds of places beyond Gifted Exchange. Since many parents read this blog, I thought there might be some overlaps on this topic...I'm writing a magazine article, currently, on ways 2-income couples outsource household chores creatively in order to have a smoother home life. If anyone has ideas of people to speak with (folks who've used meal planning services, concierge services, children's taxis, etc.) please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thank you!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Why Wait Until Third Grade?

I was recently sent an interesting article about a gifted preschool program called the ECAP Academy in Wichita, Kansas. Kids as young as three are tested for giftedness and, if admitted, introduced to a preschool curriculum designed to stretch their little brains.

I can't comment on the school specifically, or the test (which was developed by the school's leaders), but the existence of a few gifted preschool programs like this around the country raise some interesting questions.

Since the mainstream recognition of gifted children and gifted education a few decades ago, schools have generally screened for giftedness in second or third grade. This is also the age in which schools tend to start any gifted programming they may offer. But many parents of highly gifted children have known since very early on that there was something different about their kids. So why do schools wait so long to identify and intervene?

There are a few potential explanations, some of which show good faith toward the whole concept of giftedness, and some which do not. In the "good faith" category, there's the explanation that schools often use IQ tests to identify giftedness, and such tests can be unreliable when used with very young children. Though there are preschool admissions tests (which we hear about a lot here in New York!), and some IQ tests are normed for young children, anyone who's spent much time with a 2-3 year old knows there are a lot of other things that can affect performance. The kid may not want to spend time with a stranger. The kid may want a snack, want a nap, etc. But good preschool programs already take this into account. And there's a big difference between testing a child at 2 or 3, and testing him or her at age 5 (which is when, incidentally, the Davidson Institute recommends testing potentially highly gifted children).

The other potential explanation is the more negative one. Many a parent has been told that kids all even out by third grade. Hence, this is when you can tell if a child is actually gifted, as opposed to, I don't know, faking it. So schools only identify and offer programming in third grade or later.

Aside from not being true, I hardly think the argument that kids all move toward the median is an argument against testing for giftedness earlier. Why not screen multiple times? Maybe more kids will be identified as needing intervention in third grade than in first. That's fine. There's no reason identification has to be a one-shot deal.

But beyond that, if you think about it, this comment shows a fundamental distrust of parents.
The unstated message is that privileged or neurotic parents have been hot-housing their toddlers, and any sign of early giftedness is just evidence that these parents have been shoving flashcards in their tots' faces since they exited the womb. Once the professional educators take over when the kids are 5 or 6, this will all be sorted out.

There are a few problems with this attitude. First, you don't actually have to know how to read to be screened for giftedness (see the tests for 2-3 year olds). Kids who have no exposure to formal education can certainly show signs of extreme intelligence. So it isn't a necessary first step to get all kids up to speed on reading in order to figure out who needs more challenging work.

And second, third grade is actually way too late for many highly gifted children to be identified and served. As the Davidson Institute notes, "Profoundly gifted children often have very difficult early school experiences, which could have been ameliorated or prevented entirely if parents and teachers had had accurate information about their abilities, academic instructional levels, and social/emotional needs. Gifted girls may 'go underground' by age eight, unwilling to demonstrate their precocious abilities in public for fear of making others feel inadequate. Extremely gifted children can also reach the ceilings of various test instruments if you wait until they are older to test them (some profoundly gifted children even reach the ceiling of the Stanford-Binet LM by the age of eight or nine). With any other exceptionality, we would not deliberately wait until several years of elementary school have passed in order to identify the exceptionality."

The last sentence hints at the big problem. Many people see gifted education as some kind of reward. So you wait until all kids have been adequately introduced to formal schooling, and then reward the kids who get good grades with pull-outs that highlight bugs, Robin Hood, the culture of Japan, etc. Done right, gifted education should, instead, be an intervention for kids who need it. Kids are screened for hearing issues at birth because we know that failure to identify such a problem will stunt their learning for life. Likewise, failure to identify and accommodate extreme intelligence can stunt children, too.

Monday, January 07, 2008

From Good to Great Kids

I hope everyone had a wonderful break. Welcome back to a new year of Gifted Exchange!

I've been fascinated to see the posts piling up on the "Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior" entry. While many people assume that gifted kids are the teachers' pets, quietly completing assignments ahead of time and becoming star pupils, this is not always the case. Gifted kids, no less than other kids, can act out when they're bored or frustrated, and unfortunately, gifted kids are probably more likely than other kids to be bored or frustrated in classes that don't challenge them. Viewed in that context, some behavior problems make a lot of sense. If I had to go every day to a job I hated, that I hadn't chosen, and that bored me senseless, I would not be a happy camper either!

But, broadly, I think the topic touches a nerve. When kids are having trouble in school, parents start to wonder if they're doing something wrong, and if they are, if this is causing permanent damage. We also wonder if there's anything we, as parents, can do, to actually help our kids become happy, successful people.

Which brings me to the actual subject head of this first Gifted Exchange blog post of 2008. I've recently read Jim Collins' perennial best-seller of a business book, From Good to Great. The book looks at companies whose stock performance kept pace with the market for many years, then outperformed the market by many multiples over the next few years. What happened to make these companies go from good to great? What lessons can managers take from these examples?

Since I write about education, I got to thinking: This question can also be asked of child-rearing. Is there anything parents can do to help kids go from good raw material to great lives?

It's a much more difficult question, of course. For starters, defining "great" for people is completely subjective. Public companies are supposed to generate great returns for their stockholders. That is their job, full stop. But while some people might consider a happily married small town second grade teacher to have a good life, others would think that's kind of boring, particularly if the kid grew up saying she wanted to be a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Some people think $50,000 is a great income. Some people find $100,000 to be inadequate. Maybe someone has started a successful business, has a large, caring family, but is still unhappy with her life because of a chronic weight problem. I don't think there's a single metric people could agree on as a "great" outcome.

There's also the difficulty of social science data. I spend a lot of my time perusing education and sociological research, and if there's anything hunting through footnotes and equations has taught me, it's that separating out correlation and causation is like counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. For instance, we know that kids from higher income families tend to do better on standardized tests than kids from lower income families. But is this because income buys children the advantages of better schools, tutoring if they need it, etc? Or is it because it correlates with other things, like parents who care about academics and intact families?

That said, there is a point to all this musing. And that is my list of Things That Actually Matter. Similar to the way magazines like to end the year by cranking out top ten lists of the best movies and biggest scandals, I've been trying to come up with a list of factors that actually matter in children's outcomes -- factors that can help kids go from good to great. I've got five here, and I welcome suggestions of others. In no particular order, they are:

1. Smart teachers. This was an interesting one to me. I've been researching efforts to attract higher-quality math teachers to schools, but everyone has their own opinion of what higher-quality means. A few people have done some fascinating studies on this. One particularly compelling one from Ronald Ferguson looked at the math scores of children, based on the scores of their teachers on the 1986 Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers (a basic literary skills test Texas administered to see how the state's teachers stacked up). He found districts in which kids entered with high scores but teachers had relatively low scores, and he found districts in which the opposite occurred. It turns out that, over 10 years, if students in two districts started out equal, but in one the teachers scored, on average, two standard deviations above the other on the TECAT, the student test scores would diverge by 1.7 standard deviations. In typical dry academic prose, Ferguson noted that "This is a large effect." A study conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that, in high school math, one semester with a teacher who was in the top 5% of quality corresponded to an additional gain of 0.3-0.5 grade equivalents.

This one is hard for parents to do much about if you're committed to a particular school, as good and bad teachers can teach side by side. But it is a large effect. It matters.

2. Limit television. This one is less of a surprise. There have been thousands of studies on children and television, and while a few have shown some positive outcomes, many more have not. Television desensitizes children to violence, enforces gender and racial stereotypes, makes them whine for toys, corresponds with obesity and other health problems, and -- even when controlling for confounding factors -- watching more of it is associated with higher drop-out rates and lower college completion rates by age 26. Even educational television hampers children's ability to entertain themselves, to the point where new minivans on the market are advertising that they come with TVs in them so you can drive to Grandma's in peace. Heaven forbid children actually look out the window, talk to each other, etc. Even having a TV on in a room with a small child interferes with the child's focus. Better to treat it as a planned, occasional diversion, rather than a constant companion.

3. Praise children for effort, not ability. We've covered this one on Gifted Exchange before. Kids who are told they are "smart" or other positive attributes they cannot control become more risk averse because they don't want to try activities in which this label might not prove correct. We've all seen gifted children who breeze through high school, then fail in college because they don't know how to actually tackle something that isn't easy for them. Some drop out, claiming that no one understands their genius. Children praised for effort, on the other hand -- which is within their control -- are inclined to try harder things. Over time, kids who continually try harder things will achieve more than those who refuse to do so.

4. Keep the family intact. This is another one that could justify many books in its own right -- and has. Some of the trouble with single parent families is economic. Given that the vast majority of mothers are involved in the labor force to some degree, two parent families are going to almost always have more money than single parent families. Children from higher-income families have a lot of advantages over children raised near the poverty level. But, over the years, researchers have attempted to untangle the economic elements from the family break-down elements (for one excellently researched look at this, see Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur's Growing Up With a Single Parent from Harvard University Press). Yes, many single parents do a heroic job, and deserve nothing but praise. From a sheer statistical perspective, though, overwhelmingly, the research shows that growing up with two parents is better than growing up with one.

5. Get children involved in some sort of constructive activity alongside adults. We've also covered this one with my posts on the Cristo Rey schools. These inner-city Catholic schools do a great job setting high expectations for children. But their most brilliant insight was born of financial necessity. Children at these schools work in corporate offices for 1-2 days a week in order to earn their tuition. The work itself isn't much (filing and faxing). The net result, however, is that kids see the kinds of lives they could have if they finish school, go to college and make something of themselves. This gives them the discipline to counter their more childish current impulses and to think long-term. This discovery isn't unique to Cristo Rey; I've encountered some other mentoring programs that work on the same principle (one Ernst & Young program raised the graduation rate to 90% among its Bronx student participants by bringing these kids to the gleaming Times Square E&Y headquarters fairly frequently). I suspect this is one of the reasons volunteer work appears to have such a good effect on kids. It's not just that they're volunteering, it's that they're working alongside adults -- the people they will someday become-- to accomplish something. Kids today spend way too much time with other kids. The modern teen culture this breeds focuses on things that don't matter, and inspires a lot of alienation. Volunteering, church activities, part-time jobs, and other such mixed-age activities get kids out of the world of TV, clothes, Britney Spears, etc., and hence can do a lot of good.

So anyway, that's a start on the list. What else should be on there? And if you've made it all the way down to the bottom of the post, thanks so much. We'll get back to specific gifted issues soon enough...