Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Project

I am blogging from Washington DC, where I attended the Davidson Institute's annual Fellows award ceremony at the Library of Congress last night. I also got to participate in interviews of all the finalists in the morning. They're a fun bunch of young people -- some more intense than others as you can imagine. We learned about the ontology of science, mesmerizing music, nanotubes and Kansas education. It makes one a bit wistful for the days when creativity does not necessarily need to be shoehorned into what you can get a grant for, what you can convince your company's research department to fund, what the major New York publishers are buying and the realities of trying to make a living in incredibly competitive fields.

Indeed, the high school and college years are probably the last years when this is possible. Which brings me to my thesis for today, one that I hope the readers of Gifted Exchange will help me develop over the next few weeks.

I think it is extremely important for gifted children -- not just the profoundly gifted ones -- but perhaps kids who score in the top 5% or so on standardized tests, to have a Big Project during high school.

While there are a lot of reform efforts going on in US education, much of it remains, shall we say, pointless for people who function a reasonable distance from the mean. You spend years learning material you could learn in weeks if you tried, and you often see no point to it, aside from vague societal pronouncements that education is important, and you should stay in school (say this while patting child on the head).

Good high schools often have reasonable classes, such as the AP franchise, which has so far resisted watering down. But still, you can get mired in the day to day. Humans in general, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has postulated, are happiest when they are in the "flow." (Read one article about the new science of happiness here). They are working hard -- absolutely absorbed -- in something that is reasonably challenging, but enjoyable. They are stretched to the extent of their capacities, but not frustratingly beyond.

A big project can hit this sweet spot. For me, I am happiest when I have figured out the thesis of a longer piece and am cranking away writing it (or editing my novel -- I just finished one and am looking for test readers if anyone is interested in giving feedback...). The Davidson Fellows spoke yesterday of their hours in the lab, their hours at the piano bench, these hours which don't seem like hours when you love what you are doing. Rick Warren talks of the Purpose-Driven Life. A Big Project can give a young person a sense of purpose during what is often an alienating stage of life -- when you are old enough to think as an adult, but not old enough for society to treat you as one.

Some young people -- like some of the Davidson Fellows -- think to take on these projects on their own. But most people don't. Some high schools now have multi-year research programs that try to guide students into finding these kinds of projects, and finding the kinds of mentors who can offer effective advice and support. These don't always work well. The Indiana Academy in theory had a research program -- I started it trying to do humanities research and it really just got lost in the shuffle (and gave me the one C ever on my transcripts). But creative writing classes with an emphasis on longer works could also step into the void. As it is, these classes tend to assign short stories because they're easier to workshop, even though there is no real market for short stories in the real world.

The point is -- young people need time and guidance to create the kinds of Big Projects that can give their teen years a purpose. As a side benefit, these projects tend to look awesome on college applications and can often be entered in contests like Davidson and the Intel Science Talent Search. A cynic might say that the rise of Big Projects among high schoolers is solely a function this -- and of parents pushing their kids to do something that stands out on a college application and confers bragging rights. We should just relax in high school, this school of thought goes. There's plenty of time for work afterwards.

The parental pressure worry has merit. The best projects are student initiated. As Barbi Frank, head of the extremely successful John F. Kennedy High School research program told me the other day, she tells parents, "suggest different topics, but don’t make it your passion. Children need to be passionate about it because they’re the ones who are going to be putting all these hours into it for next 3 years."

But I don't think it matters that some kids do these projects to win awards or write better college applications. The real world is all about incentives. As readers of this blog know, I'm no fan of Alfie Kohn's punished-by-rewards philosophy. If incentives nudge a few more kids to try a big project (and indeed, about half of the Davidson Fellows said that the possibility of winning an award affected their decision to do their project) then that's great. Big Projects teach children how to set a goal, break it into small steps, and develop the self-discipline to execute on each step.

These are life skills. Our world will be better off if more children learn these skills at a young age.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ligon Middle School Detracks

Many many moons ago, I was a sixth grade student at a place called Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, N.C. I only went to this magnet school -- located in a rather dingy part of the city -- for one year. My parents elected to move to South Bend, Indiana shortly thereafter. But I remember it as being a fairly good year academically.

Ligon was, at the time, one of the most thoroughly tracked schools around. I was a member of the "Chell team," named after my wonderful home room teacher who just retired recently after 36 years of teaching. The Chell team consisted of about 200 students who'd been identified as gifted. We all took academic classes with a set group of teachers (math, language arts, social studies, science) who only taught the Chell team students. (There were also plenty of options for electives -- a Tarheel ghost stories class, a tap dancing class, etc. -- what fun! These were usually not tracked and anyone could sign up).

So far, so good. However, within the Chell team, we were further subdivided into the apple group, the orange group (or some such) and other harmless fruit names. The apples all took academic classes only with the apples, the oranges with the oranges, etc. Though it was never explicitly stated, it turns out that these fruit groups were also organized by IQ scores/giftedness levels.

That's two levels of tracking if you're counting. Given that some schools don't even like to have one level of ability grouping, it was only a matter of time before this system got re-evaluated. It turns out that that matter of time is now. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, this year, "Ligon limits classes to the most gifted."

Rather than dividing into teams based on ability levels, only the most gifted students (in essence, the apples of the Chell team) will be in classes with other gifted students for all their core academic subjects. The more moderately gifted students (i.e., the oranges, pears, bananas and so forth of what used to be the Chell team) will attend social studies and science classes, at least, that feature mixed ability groupings.

I am of two minds about this. On one hand, there is a big difference between a moderately gifted kid whose needs can, in fact, be met in a good, challenging, grade level classroom, and a profoundly gifted kid whose needs cannot. At a normal middle school, it makes far more sense to keep the gifted program rather small, and not get into one of these politically untenable situations where 25% of students are suddenly labeled gifted.

But Ligon is already a magnet school -- the 200 or so students on the Chell team had applied from all over Wake County. The school system, total, has a pool of several thousand 6th graders. We are still talking only a small percentage being served in this gifted program. One of the things I liked best about Ligon is that we weren't just tracked for math and reading. You could do more advanced work in science, for instance, and have better discussions, because of the tracking. Creating more mixed ability classes has already had the predictable effect. According to the N&O article, "David Gaudet, a sixth-grade science teacher, said the main difference for him has been how he paces his lessons. He said he spends more time reviewing material in the mixed classes than in the classes exclusively with gifted students."

In other words, the moderately gifted students at Ligon are simply going to be bored under this new scenario. But hey, according to Scott Lyons, Ligon's principal, "This is more in keeping with Wake County's values." I guess at least they're explicit about what those values are.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Young Poet

While there have always been precocious mathematicians, the ranks of precocious poets are a bit more thin. Gifted young people who read a lot and think a lot can often write clearly and compellingly. But an understanding of the human condition is a bit like wine. It tends to deepen and become more complex with age. As Roald Hoffmann, poet and Nobel Prize winner (in chemistry!) once told me, "Children write beautiful poetry. There is an innocence and power to observations that are not stunted by too many things. Children are also repositories of our romantic notions about innocence. They write interesting poetry." But... "They don't write great poetry."

Of course, adults seldom write great poetry either. One of the reasons we don't write it is that most of us don't read it. Few books of poems make the display tables in Barnes & Noble's. Of major general interest magazines, only the New Yorker publishes it. Consequently we don't know what good poetry sounds like (for often, it is meant to be said aloud) and even people who might write good stuff wind up cranking out greeting card fare.

So that's why I was thrilled to see an article at the Poetry Foundation's website about homeschoolers re-introducing poetry to a new generation. Poetry can be extremely kid friendly (although the tale of the 4-year-old lisping Emily Dickinson is hilarious: "Because I could not stop for deff, He kindwee stopped for me..."). When poetry drills deep into our heads as we memorize it, we wind up meditating on the words and finding deeper meaning in them -- something that often happens for me with songs. But that requires memorization, something traditional schools have all but dropped. That's too bad, because it's a fun challenge for bright kids. Bright pre-school aged kids often commit books to memory just because they like them so much. Why not continue that with poetry? Homeschooling gives you the time to commit a text to memory -- or at least the freedom to read and read the good stuff. Hopefully at least a few regular school programs do this too. Without reading the good stuff, it's unlikely there will be many great poets in the future.

I'm curious about which poetry texts readers of this blog like sharing with their children, and if your kids have been interested in memorizing poetry. Do they like to write it too? Which books are best for parents looking to introduce the genre to their little ones?

Homeschooling while holding a job?

This is not an official GE post, but more of a request for a column I'm writing for USA Today on homeschooling. I would love to talk with a parent who homeschooled a child while holding a job (working from home/self-employed is OK, as long as it was a "real" reasonable money-making enterprise). Please let me know if you'd be willing to be interviewed. Thanks!

Friday, September 12, 2008

On Acing the SAT

NPR's Morning Edition ran a fascinating snippet recently about a program at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which is a magnet high school in Baltimore. The school's "Ingenuity Project" has a good track record of students earning perfect scores on various sections of the SAT. (NPR sounded like everyone was getting 2400s or 1600s -- the old perfect score -- but the school web page is more toned down -- it says from 2001 to 2006, 12 students scored 800s on various sections, and one scored a 1600; you can listen to the NPR story here).

The most fascinating thing for me about this story was that NPR made it sound like the point of the program was to get students to ace the SAT, which isn't the case (though the project does like to publicize such scores). The program is designed to have Baltimore students achieve on the national levels in various competitions and gain acceptances to top colleges. To do that, the Ingenuity Project has students accelerate through the high school math curriculum and do calculus by their junior years. The program also leaves plenty of time for AP science courses, labs, and independent research (see here for more details). I've been coming across more and more public schools that have these research programs -- partly to have students win Davidson Fellowships, Intel nods and the like. What is rewarded gets done. We will talk about this more in the near future.

But anyway, back to the SAT question. The Ingenuity Project is a great example of a high expectations public school program. In 2005, three participants earned finalist nods in the Intel Science Talent Search. But with all the accelerated math these students are doing, you might think that more than 12 students would have achieved perfect SAT section scores. As one young man told NPR, there was nothing on the SAT they hadn't seen.

Fundamentally, a test like the SAT tests both content knowledge and your ability to call it up quickly and apply it to new problems. This is one of the reasons people dislike the SAT -- if your geometry class grades show you know the subject, why does it matter how quickly you can conjure it up? Why does it matter that you can solve a geometry problem that's next to an algebra problem? Others dismiss the test altogether, saying it can be coached.

But while coaching might raise a kid's 1800 to a 1920, coaching alone will not get anyone a perfect score. If a program like Baltimore's Ingenuity Project, which likes to publicize its perfect scores, can't get more than 12 of them in a 5 year period, that shows how difficult such a score is to achieve. It's not just a matter of having an excellent high school curriculum -- though obviously that's a big part of it.

For many years there's been a cultural debate over the place of the SAT. Once it was viewed as more of an intelligence test -- designed less to cover the high school curriculum, and more to identify people with high intelligence, regardless of what their high schools covered. Over the years this idea has fallen out of favor. Some schools are now even moving away from requiring the SAT.

But I still think this idea of fast critical thinking has a place. It may not be the most critical factor for predicting high grades in college -- it would make sense that one's academic grades in high school would be a better predictor of this. But it may predict some of one's future success in life. A Vanderbilt study done two years ago studied kids who did well on the SAT, taken in 7th or 8th grade. They were more likely than a comparison group of graduate students to earn an annual salary of more than $100,000 or achieve tenure in a top-50 institution. That's not what the SAT sells itself as predicting - so it's quite interesting if that's the case.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Homeschooling goes upscale

Once upon a time, homeschooling was viewed as something only freakishly religious or hippie parents did. In the past 15 years or so, though, it's gone mainstream. Estimates very wildly, but a 2003 National Household Education Survey found that more than a million US kids met the homeschooled definition.

There are a number of reasons for this, both on the push side (dissatisfaction with schools) and on the pull side (the internet makes finding curricular materials or even whole courses much easier; online communities offer support for what can sometimes be an isolated undertaking). In our wired world, we are less inclined to see sharp dividing lines between places where we do things -- an office for income generation, school for learning, home for leisure. I met a family in Texas not long ago in which the father was working from home and the mom was homeschooling their kids. In other words, no one ever really had to leave the place!

Homeschooling offers certain natural advantages. There's a low pupil to teacher ratio, which some people think is important. The hours can be flexible, and so can the curriculum, which is good for kids with special needs. When I was helping Jan and Bob Davidson write Genius Denied, they told me that a huge chunk of their profoundly gifted Young Scholars try homeschooling at some point.

But of course it's not for everyone. One major barrier has always been that homeschooling seems to require one parent to teach the kids, which is pretty much a full-time job. Not every family has a parent who feels qualified to do this, or wants to.

Then, yesterday, I found the most fascinating press release in my in-box. A new New York City education consultancy called QED (Quality Education by Design) is promising to offer parents an alternative to traditional homeschooling. How? They hire certified teachers/tutors in different subjects, piece together a curriculum for your children, and handle all the paperwork with the Board of Education. It's somewhat like retaining an agency to hire a governess, though with more of a focus on subject matter experts and experiential learning (one example they cite is going to the Galapagos to study Darwin). Hey, if you've got the money, why not?

Clearly, the market for this service is limited. The vast majority of American families do not have the resources to hire the equivalent of a full-time teacher, though in crazy Manhattan, it's probably a bargain compared to paying private school tuition for three kids. I'm hoping to write more about this topic for some of the publications I write for, and will update this blog once I (hopefully) get interviews set up.

But in the meantime, I wanted to throw this idea out there to Gifted Exchange readers. What do you think of the idea of outsourcing homeschooling, but retaining the customization homeschooling allows? While it's easy to dismiss the idea as yet another example of the strangeness of some parts of this country (what, the private schools now aren't good enough?) I tend to think that there's a good idea here. Over the past few decades we've seen again and again how ideas and products that catch on among the rich and/or famous trickle down to the rest of us. Once, back-up generators existed only in mansions housing extremely rare fish requiring aerated water. Now, they're becoming relatively standard in high-end, but not uber-high-end construction. If more people considered it normal to customize their children's education, I can't help thinking this would benefit education overall.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Are 20% of high school drop-outs gifted?

I spent a year as a fact-checker at USA Today before embarking on a freelance career. The experience of hunting down statistics gave me a statistic of my own: the majority of oft-cited stats are completely inaccurate. We do not know that telecommuters are 40% more productive than office-based workers. We do not know that 80% of 2-income couples have hired a cleaning service. We do not know that only 5% of Americans have a valid passport. Nor do we know that 95% of small businesses fail. Sometimes authors would make the stats sound more accurate by saying "According to the Census Bureau..." or some such, but when asked for back-up, it would always be a link to another news article or someone's website, never a primary source. And, indeed, when I called the primary source, I'd get a lot of loud sighing. In the internet age, incorrect stats get bandied about a lot.

Which leads me to the topic for today's post: the statistic that 20% of high school dropouts are gifted. This stat gets used in a variety of formats, which even at first blush makes it seem problematic. Some people twist it to say that 20% of gifted students drop out. Others say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" (I think I've been guilty of this one). There are old studies that mention something around this number. The 1972 Marland Report to Congress seems to have used an 18% figure. In 1973, E. Nyquist presented a paper to the National Conference on Gifted saying 19% of New York high school dropouts were gifted. E. Robertson's 1991 article in Equity and Excellence on "Neglected Dropouts: The Gifted and Talented" said 18-25% of GT students drop out. From there things get more slippery. Some people cite one Solorzano 1983 stat saying the figure is up to 18%, but this turns out to be an article in US News & World Report, not an original study.

Of course, all of this hinges on there being a clear definition of giftedness. There isn't one. Some school districts in the past used a clear 130+ IQ definition, but this method has fallen out of favor in terms of more comprehensive assessments, achievement tests and the like. There isn't even a completely uniform definition of a dropout. Some people go back to school later in life -- or at least plan to, and hence wouldn't identify themselves as dropouts. Just on an extremely long sabbatical.

All that being said, I've spent the past few hours reading a late 2002 report from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented about "Giftedness and High School Dropouts" that has a bit more rigor to it. The report was mainly designed to find out why gifted kids drop out. The answer is that they drop out for the same reasons other kids do. They don't like school, they're failing school, they're pregnant, they want to get a job, their parents didn't finish school, their home life doesn't particularly support learning, etc. The report found that "at risk" gifted kids -- those of lower socioeconomic status -- are more likely to drop out, as are gifted minority kids. These are unfortunate findings but not particularly surprising.

However, to establish these things, they had to find gifted dropouts. And to find them, you have to have some sense of how many of them there are. The study's authors used data from the National Education Longitudinal Study begun in 1988. This tracked 8th graders through the next few years and is the most comprehensive data set available on who stayed in school and who did not (obviously not all dropouts could be found, but many could). The authors had to use some screen for giftedness, and so they chose a relatively broad one. Students were counted as gifted if they participated in their school gifted program, or took more than 3 advanced, enriched or accelerated classes. Obviously, this is not perfect. My first high school's advanced classes would hardly have required a genius IQ to do all right in, but this at least gave the authors some screen for kids being relatively bright.

The numbers? In the first part of the study, "Among 1285 students who completed the Second Follow-Up Dropout Questionnaire, 334 were identified as gifted." That gives us a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 26%. That's even higher than the oft-cited 20%!

But, of course, it's not quite that simple. We need some context here. What is the giftedness rate among the overall population using this definition? For the second part of the study, the authors used the full cohort of 8th graders who completed all the rounds of the longitudinal survey. Of 12,625 students, 3520 met the giftedness definition, or 28%.

In other words, what this survey reveals is that students identified as gifted (by a broad definition) and other students drop out at the same rate -- and indeed, the authors did find this explicitly as well. 5% of both the 12,625 total student sample and the 3520 gifted student sample dropped out.

So what does that mean? My personal definition of giftedness is not nearly so broad as to encompass a full quarter of students. I don't think most other people believe the definition should be so broad, either. When people say "up to 20% of high school dropouts test in the gifted range" we generally use that stat to imply that the gifted are over-represented in the dropout population. We don't actually know that. I would love to see a study of students with 150+ IQs, looking at their dropout rates. The other way of getting at this -- studying all dropouts, and seeing how many have 150+ IQs -- would probably reveal the obvious. It's a very small percentage, precisely because so few people have IQs that test so high.

So if I'm reading this all correctly, to get a rate of giftedness among dropouts of 20%, you simply have to set the definition of giftedness among the total student population at 20%. If you set the definition of giftedness at 10% among the general population, you'd probably get a rate of 10% among dropouts too. This may not go all the way to 1%, or .005%, though it might. Or there might be more of a bell-curve, with top 1%-ers being less likely to drop out, but the misunderstood, lone 200+ IQ kid in the 0.001% being more likely to do so. I just don't know. But there's no reason to believe that gifted students are over-represented among dropouts.

However, it is interesting to note that being relatively bright (for instance, in the top quartile of seeming academic potential) does not protect students from dropping out. The 20% stat is usually cited to counter the belief that the gifted are all academic superstars. Many are, but some aren't, and it's important to keep in mind when looking at the numbers that many people drop out who are quite capable of not only completing high school but going on to college and even more. This is a huge waste of human potential, whatever the numbers happen to be.