Friday, February 29, 2008
This strange little Nordic country, whose language is very different from neighboring Norway and Sweden (or anywhere else for that matter), has posted scores at the very top of international skills comparisons. The Program for International Assessment (PISA), which tested 15-year-olds, placed Finns at the top of the heap in science. Only Taiwanese students did better in math; only the South Koreans did better in reading. American students didn't come close to their Finnish counterparts in understanding these concepts. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a Finnish senior, Elina Lamponen, who studied abroad at Colon High School in Michigan. When she came back to Finland, she had to repeat the grade.
International comparisons aren't particularly useful if all they inspire you to do is beat yourself up. The best thing to do is to figure out what other countries do well, and then figure out if these best practices can be implemented elsewhere. We've looked at Singapore math on this blog. What about Finnish math, science and reading? The Wall Street Journal attempts to answer these questions.
Unfortunately, The Wall Street Journal notes several times in the article that there are no gifted classes in Finland. This is misleading. There aren't "pull-out" type classes featuring Robin Hood, bugs, Egyptology, the culture of Japan, etc. But according to this report of gifted education in Europe, Finnish parents have the right to enroll their children in school early if they want. Many of the elementary schools are ungraded, which allows children to accelerate.
The WSJ offers a few other ideas about Finnish educational success. One is that kids learn to read very early because American television and movies tend to have Finnish subtitles, rather than dubbing. If you want to know what's going on, you have to learn to read. Few American kids feel so motivated.
The students are relatively homogeneous, both in terms of race and economic status (there's not much of a Finnish underclass). Some people cite the relatively relaxed educational environment as a plus. Students and teachers may call each other by their first names. There aren't a lot of rules. There also aren't any truly elite universities, so the competition to get into a good school isn't so intense (if there are any Finnish readers of this blog, I'd love to hear if that's true).
But here's what I think is the key point, from the WSJ and my other reading: The education culture in Finland is one of excellence and intense individualization. Finnish teachers are expected to customize lessons for students. As the WSJ quotes one education expert saying, "In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs." And they are good entrepreneurs. In Finland, teachers are trained extensively. They must have master's degrees, and 40 people apply for every job. They earn about the same as their American counterparts. But, through treating teachers like professionals, and only choosing the best, Finland has managed to get an excellent teaching corps capable of individualizing lessons for slow learners and quick learners alike.
Another note: Finland spends less per student than the U.S. does.
Unfortunately, I worry that people reading the WSJ article and looking to take away ideas for educational improvement in the US will only seize on the "no gifted classes" idea. That would be a shame. In an environment where the teachers are uniformly excellent, where individual lessons are customized and where acceleration is possible, you don't necessarily need specific gifted classes. But I don't see many American education reform efforts combining all these elements yet.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Unfortunately, the intentions of these parents -- and probably a lot of representatives who voted for this money -- are being completely thwarted by bureaucrats at the Department of Education.
Here's the story: While amounting to only a few dollars per gifted child in the U.S., the Javits program does do some good. It funds research on gifted education. The Department of Education also doles out a few grants from these funds to programs serving gifted children across the country.
This is where we get to the disturbing part of all this. During the annual grant-making process, various federal agencies alert the public, in something called The Federal Register, to what kinds of programs they are looking to fund. The Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education recently published a "Notice of Proposed Priority" in the Federal Register about the Javits money.
Assistant Secretary Kerri L. Briggs (a native of Midland, TX) says she is seeking "to support the implementation of models with demonstrated effectiveness in identifying and serving gifted and talented students who are economically disadvantaged or limited English proficient, or who have disabilities, and who may not be identified and served through typical strategies for identifying gifted children. We intend the priority to increase the availability of proven approaches for increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups performing at high levels of academic achievement."
The explanation follows: "In 2007, 32 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch program (i.e., students who are economically disadvantaged), 13 percent of students with disabilities, and 7 percent of students with limited English proficiency. Students from these three groups are significantly underrepresented at or above proficient levels on the 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade mathematics assessments."
All of this is unfortunate and true. But here's the big question: What does that have to do with gifted education?
Done right, gifted programs should be educational interventions for students who cannot be well-served in traditional classrooms. If 32% of students score at or above proficient, this is hardly indicative of a level at which students need educational intervention. Most good gifted programs aim for the top 5%, or even the top 1-2% of children's test scores.
Second, there is much to be said for helping disadvantaged children achieve at high levels. Indeed, the whole No Child Left Behind Act is focused on making sure children from disadvantaged backgrounds don't fall behind children who enter school with more advantages. But gifted education is not about normal "high levels of academic achievement" or, frankly, about traditional achievement at all.
If a child from a disadvantaged background scores at the 75th percentile on a grade-level test one year, and then at the 85th percentile the next, that's wonderful. If she goes from B's and C's to A's on her report card, that deserves to be celebrated. But what about the child with a 160 IQ who's reading Harry Potter books at age 5, who then starts kindergarten and has to spend six hours a day in a class where everyone is learning letters? What happens when she refuses to do school work anymore, or when she loses interest in school in general because she's so bored?
Under the proposed Javits guidelines, this child -- who scores in the 99th percentile on any available grade level test -- is not a priority. She's not a priority if she's from a disadvantaged background (since hey, she's already been identified -- and thus is not served by programs aiming to increase representation). And she's particularly not a priority if she happens to be white and/or middle class.
No, the Javits priority this year is about increasing representation of under-represented groups in the top third of grade-level achievement tests. To say this misses the point is putting it mildly.
As we say over and over again on this blog, gifted education is not a reward -- a kind of awards ceremony where the kids on the stage should "look like America." It should not be a bonus recognition for a kid who does well in school, or works hard, or overcomes obstacles, or what have you. All those things are worth celebrating. But they are not the point of gifted education, which is about accommodating kids whose frenetic intelligence means their needs cannot be met in normal grade level classrooms. Gifted education should be about challenging these children to the extent of their abilities.
There's so much money allocated to No Child Left Behind, and so little allocated to gifted education, that it's adding insult to injury to take Javits and turn it into yet another close-the-achievement gap program. But that is precisely what our federal government has stated is its priority.
I don't know what Assistant Secretary Briggs has against gifted education. Maybe it's nothing sinister. But it's clear she doesn't get it.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Several years ago, as a new college graduate, G. R. began volunteering at a new Catholic school in inner-city Chicago. The school, called Cristo Rey (Spanish for "Christ the King") pledged to provide a prep school quality education for children of limited means. Their tuition would be primarily covered through a work-study program, in which students worked in corporate offices doing entry level jobs 1-2 days a week. I've written about my visits to these schools on this blog before; while the schools do not view gifted education per se as part of their mission (as G.R. points out, the most brilliant low-income children already have scholarship options at some great private prep schools) , there are lessons for everyone from watching a school grow. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has identified the Cristo Rey network of schools as an idea that seems to be working, and has funded scaling it up to almost 20 locations across the country.
*LV: How did you come to work at the Chicago CR school?
G.R. Kearney: I had the great privilege of helping to found a volunteer program at Cristo Rey in 1999, just a few months after I graduated from college. Two of my classmates from Georgetown University and I spent two years at Cristo Rey teaching, coaching, and driving school buses.
*What was the biggest growing pain for the school? What did you learn about education by watching a school grow?
It’s hard to identify just one growing pain. Cristo Rey is unique in that it seeks to provide private, high quality, college prep education to students who couldn’t otherwise afford it—many of the school’s students live below the poverty line. Figuring out a way to make the school work economically was a huge hurdle that ultimately led to the school’s revolutionary Corporate Internship Program.
Educationally, I think the biggest growing pain for the school was developing a curriculum that was student-centered and responsive to the needs of the community, but also cost-effective. From the start, Cristo Rey’s founders knew that a cookie cutter curriculum simply wouldn’t work in a neighborhood where dropout rates often exceeded 50%. Unfortunately, many of the young people in the predominantly Latino neighborhood simply weren’t engaged in school. If Cristo Rey were to succeed, it would have to be different and would have to find a way to connect with and engage its students in the leaning process.
Cristo Rey’s original faculty and staff did incredible things from a curricular perspective. They were using block scheduling and encouraging teachers from different content areas to co-teach classes in an effort to help students understand the connections between subjects. The school also used a dual language curriculum that gave students a chance to study in both English and Spanish. The curriculum was truly cutting edge.
It was also expensive. Because teachers went to such great lengths to custom build the classes they taught, they spent less time in the classroom than teachers at any comparable school. This was a problem in a school that had to, by virtue of the population it served and its revenue model, operate on a lean budget. Balancing those two competing interests was a source of tension at the school for many years.
What did I learn? If students don’t want to be there and don’t have some desire to learn, then it’s tough to make a school work well. This desire takes makes forms. It can be a response to motivation from parents or peers. It can be internal. It can be a love for learning. Unfortunately, in low income communities, motivation from parents and peers is sometimes lacking. Schools that serve students who don’t necessarily desire an education need to prove to students that education is worth it before they can even begin to teach.
*We've been discussing on this blog that public schools in the era of NCLB are failing their brightest lower-income students "virtually as a matter of policy." What did CR schools do to challenge particularly bright kids?
Cristo Rey schools encourage those kids to go to other schools. Cristo Rey was founded for those students who didn’t have the academic background to get into the city’s elite high schools — private or public. Cristo Rey’s administrators still tell students that, if they can get into Whitney Young, Walter Payton, or St. Ignatius, they should go there.
Cristo Rey wasn’t founded to educate the best and brightest students, but rather to give those middle of the road students who might be at a higher risk of dropping out or failing to prepare adequately for post-secondary education with the best education possible.
Initially, there was no tracking at Cristo Rey. It’s my understanding, though, that there has been a realization that the school does attract students with very different aptitudes and skill levels and, as a result, the school has begun to experiment with tracking.
* How does working in an office environment change children's perceptions of the adult world?
Enormously. Tom Vander Ark, who used to run the education arm of the Gates Foundation and now runs the X Prize Foundation, has praised Cristo Rey schools for giving students “an opportunity to spend time with adults they can imagine becoming.”
Many of Cristo Rey’s freshman students have a somewhat narrow world view. For the most part they come from blue collar families and, in many cases, they spend very little time outside of the neighborhood. Their sense of the future and their potential is sometimes limited by what they’ve seen. They simply don’t know what is out there.
Going to work instead of going to class five schools days every month opens the students’ eyes to another part of the world. It’s not uncommon for a Cristo Rey student to graduate from high school having worked at a bank, a law firm, a consulting company, and an advertising agency. Talk about expanding horizons.
I think the experience of working to earn their own tuition also gives the Cristo Rey students a profound understanding of the sacrifices their parents make on a daily basis to provide for their families.
* If a parent isn't near a CR school (or the family wouldn't qualify) is there some way to recreate some of the adult mentoring that comes from the corporate work-study program?
Great question. I think any young person, regardless of their station in life, benefits from relationships with adults. Such relationships help students and young people to see that the world is much bigger, and often more exciting, than is sometimes apparent to them.
As you said, not every family qualifies for Cristo Rey schools—only low-income families are allowed to apply. To answer your question, though, yes, I think there are ways to replicate some of the mentoring that takes place between students and adults through the work program. Many communities have mentoring programs. If your readers’ communities don’t, maybe they can create such programs. Summer internships or after school jobs can also be a good way for students to interact with adults. You may also think about inviting adults from the community in to your child’s school to talk about what they do at work or how their educations have impacted their lives. It could be a regular series. I think, as the students get older, this becomes more and more valuable.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Yes, the show is silly and offensive. But I think it offers some interesting points for discussion. In the column, I criticize the fact that most of the women have "unthreatening" jobs. But, though the primary screen -- by a long shot -- is looks, Patti does like to set her clients up with reasonably bright women.
We've come a long way on this front in the past 100 years. One study of women born in the 1920's found that more intelligent women were less likely to marry. These days that's not true -- women with college degrees, and indeed graduate degrees, are just as likely to marry as women who are less educated. They just tend to marry a little later in life. A Columbia Business School study of speed-dating (in which men and women meet lots of dates for a few minutes apiece) found that men do exhibit a preference for intelligence in women -- to a point. That point turns out to be exactly the perception the man has of his own intelligence. In other words, these days, men seem to want their wives to be a perfect match on the brains front. That's Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women.
I find this all fascinating. Growing up, girls get a lot of messages about brains, beauty, ambition, and love. As we discussed in the Nerds post here on Gifted Exchange, young children seldom hear the message that beauty, brains, and love can go together. One of the reasons many gifted advocates stress that identification and accommodation need to happen before third grade is that by this time, many gifted girls have already fully absorbed the message that to be smart is to be unlovable. Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses. In a group of other gifted girls and boys, however, intelligence recedes as a primary identifier. You can suddenly be the soccer player, the girl with the cute smile, the singer, the actress. One of the most jarring moments of my life was when I found out that, during a game of Truth or Dare at one of the summer "nerd" camps I attended, a group of guys had named me as the most attractive girl on the hall. This did not even remotely fit with my self-concept. I was first and foremost the "smart girl." Who knew I could be anything else?
I now find myself in an entirely different situation. My husband and I are well-matched in terms of intelligence and ambition. To an outsider, though, here's the situation: I married a successful businessman who's ten years my senior. I've had to deal with first impressions from new acquaintances that "oh, this is the trophy wife." To put it mildly, this does not fit with my self-concept either. It stinks to be pre-judged as stupid as much as it stinks to be pre-judged as the smart girl and nothing else.
There are a lot of things changing in society right now. It is hard to put a finger on exactly where things stand. A woman is running seriously for president, but she was launched onto the national stage by her husband. Women now run four of the Ivy League schools (including Harvard and Princeton), but lead just one of the largest 50 companies in the US. In the Columbia speed dating experiments, men were a lot less likely to follow up with women they perceived as more intelligent or ambitious than themselves. But they did prefer smart women to less intelligent women, right up to the tipping point of their own level of intelligence. Who knows where things will stand 50 years from now? It's hard to predict, but I believe -- here on Valentine's Day 2008 -- that we're moving in the right direction. Even if Millionaire Matchmaker is getting there a little slower than the rest of us.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Some other research has found that the left and right hemispheres of gifted people's brains tend to work together better. When asked to solve problems that required both sides of the brain to work together (because inputs came in different visual fields), boys who had scored well on the math section of the SAT as youngsters were able to solve these problems quicker than those of more average abilities. For the Science Daily write-up, see this article here.
What if, someday, we were able to measure someone's intelligence via brain scans? What if imaging gets to a point where we can measure just how quickly someone's left and right brain work together, or if certain structures are larger or more efficient -- and we come up with a way to map this onto generally accepted intelligence measurements? How would you feel about that?
My first thought was to be a bit apprehensive. After all, this sounds like a modern-day version of those old cranial measurements that were once used to "prove" that people of certain ethnic backgrounds were not quite all there, mentally.
But then I thought more about it. Head measurements are obviously an incredibly rough proxy for anything. Then again, IQ tests are a proxy, too. Through written or oral means, we are attempting to judge how quickly the brain is able to solve problems by piecing together previously learned information, how quickly it can assess patterns, and whether it can make inferences. The written and oral means introduce some hazards of their own. A child who's been given lots of logic puzzles will know how to solve these better than one who's never seen such games before. A kid who's been drilled on his letters will do better on a school readiness assessment (see the post on NYC's new gifted screening program, below).
A brain scan, on the other hand, may actually be able to measure raw intelligence. As such, wouldn't it be preferable to methods of measuring intelligence that might be more biased against children who haven't been exposed to certain information?
I'm curious what others think of the idea. It doesn't sit very well with me, but I'm really not sure why. Our culture has a strong narrative of the undiscovered genius, the diamond in the rough who doesn't necessarily shine on tests but is secretly brilliant. In theory, brain imaging could discover such a person, but no one likes the idea of one measurement determining anything of too much importance. What do you think?
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Of course, this is also an extremely competitive city, with all the usual problems of under-performing public schools. So getting into the city's gifted programs has also been a highly sought-after good for families. Private school is expensive, and comes with its own hassles. The city has used gifted programs as a way to lure middle and upper class families into the public schools, but such families are not arranged randomly around the city. Plus, some gifted programs have been located in dangerous neighborhoods, making parents disinclined to send their children there.
As a result, there has been a patchwork of entrance requirements for different programs over the years. Getting into some programs -- for instance, on the Upper West Side -- has been more difficult than getting into others.
This past year, New York has attempted to make the system a bit more fair and equitable. And frankly, I think they've hit on a reasonable solution. Right now, across the city's elementary schools, kindergartners, first and second graders are all taking the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (BSRA). Previously, parents had to request testing. Now it is done as a matter of course. The OLSAT, which measures logical thinking and reasoning ability, accounts for 75% of a student's score. The BSRA, which tests things like colors, shapes and numbers, accounts for 25%.
I think the use of the BSRA leaves the city open for a bit of criticism. While New York has been trying to enroll students in Head Start and other preschool programs, many kids have not attended these programs or high quality daycare programs. As a result, they may be a bit behind on their shapes, letters, numbers and colors, and other such knowledge that depends on information transfer. The OLSAT is a bit closer to a "pure" intelligence test (if such a thing exists). In theory, the material children learn at preschool should be less relevant, though even the idea of sitting still for a test is somewhat of a learned skill. But the 75-25 split does give the city a hedge against the idea that it's basing a child's future on a single test.
Any child who scores at the 95th percentile or above will be guaranteed a spot in a gifted program. Anyone who scores over the 97th percentile will be guaranteed a spot in one of the programs that draws children from across the city. You can read the city's brochure on the new policies here.
I think it's great that the city is taking this issue seriously. As Andrew Jacob, a Department of Education spokesperson, told Time Out New York Kids, "We want to identify more gifted and talented students and to make sure we're meeting their needs." It is infinitely more fair to test everyone than to rely on parents making the call that a child needs intervention.
That said, did I mention that New York is competitive? The Time Out New York Kids article on the gifted program changes cautioned parents to "break out the flash cards." It is too bad that many parents -- rightly, alas -- perceive the gifted programs as islands of excellence in a public school system that, though improving, still has a lot of problems. If you're counting on your child scoring above the 95th percentile so you can avoid paying $26,000 in private school tuition (or moving to the suburbs), you can bet that you will break out the flash cards. I wish that all the schools were excellent, and that the city's gifted programs were simply perceived as educational interventions for children who need them. But this is not the case. In the meantime, at least the new system is relatively fair.
Monday, February 04, 2008
The article is mostly about how Pondiscio still managed to get burned out after five years of teaching, and wound up transitioning back to communications and non-profit work. But I thought that his observations about working in an urban school in the era of No Child Left Behind were most prescient. I quote:
"I was especially frustrated for my highest-achieving students. I have nothing but admiration for high-minded education reformers, teachers, and administrators who want to make sure every child goes to a great school. But one of the unintended consequences of the accountability movement in schools is that virtually all of a teacher's time and attention goes to the lowest-performing students. We lie to ourselves that we're educating high-performing kids because they test at or above grade level on dumbed-down state tests. In reality we're neglecting our brightest low-income kids virtually as a matter of policy, all but guaranteeing their future struggles in college and the workplace."
Eventually, Pondiscio decided he should start a non-profit that would focus on high-achieving low-income children -- on challenging them, and finding opportunities for them. And actually, New York City is embarking on a new era of gifted education -- in which all children will be screened, and all children who score in the 95th percentile will be offered a spot in the city's gifted programs. Up until now, admission to the various gifted programs has been a complicated patchwork of systems which, not surprisingly, better-off and better-connected parents were better able to navigate (we'll do another longer post on this topic later).
But I think that Pondiscio is on to something. There is a lot to like about the accountability movement. For too many years, too many educators have assumed that as long as there was a teacher in a classroom, and textbooks, and adequate funding, schools were doing their job. This is how a lot of jobs have worked in the past -- show up, you get a paycheck. No one demands a connection to the business bottom line. Now, we as a society are asking about outcomes. Are kids actually learning to read? Are they gaining the math skills necessary to get anywhere in life?
Yet...Savvy parents can deal with schools that focus on lower-performing students to the exclusion of their brightest pupils. They can notice that their children aren't being challenged, demand accommodations, or enroll their children in extra-curricular activities, make sure the kids get to the library a lot, read a lot, or else even pull their children out and put them in private schools. Children whose parents are not so savvy are simply stuck with the schools and teachers they get. T
his is a shame and needs to be addressed -- not by dumping the accountability movement's new standards, which would be a disaster -- but by judging schools and teachers based on individual students' progress. Give a high-scoring third grader a fifth grade achievement test. If she scores at the 79th percentile in the fall, and the 79th percentile in the spring, there should be consequences. What gets measured and rewarded gets attention. It's just that sometimes, we're measuring the wrong things.
Friday, February 01, 2008
Indeed, high schools come closer than elementary and middle schools to what a "good" education for a gifted kid should look like already. Since students usually change classes every hour, moving to a higher-level class isn't quite so logistically difficult as it is for elementary students. In math and English, at least, there are often different levels (or -- scandalous! -- "tracks") which makes readiness/ability grouping par for the course. And there are no silly pull-out programs that have the kids doing enrichment activities about Robin Hood, insects, the culture of Japan, etc., but not advanced math, science or English. Since AP classes, accelerated classes and dual enrollment aren't labeled "gifted education" as such, they don't have the same political sensitivity. When things come out of more general funds, they tend to be safer. As parents across the country have discovered, when something needs to be cut, a line in the budget called "gifted education" is often the first on the block.
That said, my guess is that Florida's high schools don't universally offer the whole suite of AP classes, or prepare kids to take them in grades 9-11, rather than solely in grade 12. Dual enrollment at local community colleges is a great option for gifted students who have particular interests or who have exhausted their local high schools' offerings. But my guess is that few schools make such arrangements as a matter of course.
If Florida -- and other states! -- want to nurture their gifted teenagers, one good option is to create residential high schools for gifted students. Such schools can offer the full suite of AP courses, which can be broadcast to students elsewhere who can't or aren't willing to enroll in a residential school. The legislature could also appropriate gifted funds for creating a dual-enrollment office or coordinator in the various districts. In general I don't like creating more bureaucracy, but since this person or office will have to do something with their time, they may make it more likely for schools to actually make dual enrollment work.
I'm curious if parents reading this blog live in districts that have made good arrangements for gifted high schoolers, and what you think about gifted education at the high school level.