Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michelle Rhee and the concept of teaching

The cover story in Time magazine this week is a profile of Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging new head of the Washington, DC public schools. You can read Amanda Ripley's article here.

There are many bits of food for thought in the piece. But the fundamental question (which Rhee is tackling) is what the 21st century teaching corps should look like. We know that the quality of a teacher is massively correlated with student outcomes; one study by Eric Hanushek of Stanford found that when you put an 8-year-old child with a top 15% teacher for 3 years, he or she will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests at age 11. If you put the kid with a bad teacher, the kid can be a year and a half below grade level. In other words, that's a divergence of about two years over three years. This is not a small difference.

But what makes a "good" teacher? Years of experience (after the first year or two) aren't highly correlated with student outcomes. Neither are advanced degrees. Yet these are the two factors that most influence teacher pay within a system.

Rhee's assertion is that you should test kids at the beginning of the school year, and test them at the end, and use the difference to evaluate teachers. The best ones should get bonuses. The worst ones should be fired. Rhee has actually succeeded in dismissing 270 teachers and replacing 36 principals.

Needless to say, this is not winning her big friends in the Washington DC teachers union. The national unions have also stepped into the fight because of the attention Rhee is getting. If she succeeds in some of her reforms (such as abolishing tenure and paying on merit) then perhaps other school systems will follow suit. It doesn't help that Rhee is incredibly brusque, and steps on some niceties of teaching. For instance, she's complained about teachers who spend too much time cutting out elaborate bulletin-board decorations.

But, as Rhee says, "Just because you're a nice person and you mean well does not mean you have a right to a job in this district." She wants teachers who mean business. And she's willing to pay them a lot if she gets them.

Frankly, I think there's a lot to like about her philosophy. A love of children is not a sufficient credential to teach. Nor is a teaching certificate, and with mandates for small class sizes, right now urban districts have to hire just about everyone who walks in the door. This is not anything close to best practices.

So what is? My husband works at McKinsey, the management consulting firm, and I get to watch the hiring process and evaluation process. It's very different from education. People take tests before they're hired; they compete against massive pools of qualified people for jobs. They answer multiple questions in multiple rounds of interviews, and extremely nice people who can't think on their feet don't get hired. Then the new hires get evaluated constantly -- 360 degree feedback every 6 months. A senior person interviews everyone you've worked with -- associates, partners, clients, etc. -- and makes the case for whether you stay or go, and if you stay, how much you should be paid. Again, very nice people have been "counseled to leave." It doesn't matter. What matters is what kind of work you bring in and how you do on the projects you land.

Wouldn't that be great to see in education, too? It's a bit early to see how Rhee will succeed (and, of course, we have to see how gifted kids do under the regime) but one story in Time was promising. Ripley started with an anecdote of a young man in a computer class playing "Russian roulette" to find a working computer each day. Only 6 of 14 worked; if he got one that didn't work, he'd just do worksheets rather than word processing. School finances are no excuse for this sorry situation -- Washington DC spends more per pupil than almost every district in the country. The computer situation was symptomatic of other problems at the school; Rhee wound up firing the very popular principal. The young man who alerted her to the computer problem was incensed.

But -- and here's the big "but" -- the new principal got the computers working. I'll take results over popularity every time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gladwell's Outliers

My review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, which deals with giftedness in parts, is posted online here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

10,000 hours

I've been assigned to review Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, for City Journal. I'll post a link to the review as soon as it goes up on the City Journal website. Gladwell talks quite a bit about IQ, the Terman study, the case of Chris Langan, and so forth -- all topics which will no doubt be of interest to the Gifted Exchange audience, and which I can talk about more once the review has been published.

But one thing I do want to bring up, because it's so similar to Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated (which I'm also reviewing, this time for The American), and because it has such implications for gifted children, is the idea of long hours spent at deliberate practice. Both writers cite a figure: 10,000 hours. This is the minimum number of hours of practice needed for true expertise.

Both writers base this figure, in part, on a study of Berlin music students at the elite Academy of Music. Many years ago, researchers divided the students into three groups: the stars (those who might become world-class soloists), the good (perhaps playing in an orchestra) and those destined to become music teachers (sigh... the adage about teaching...). The researchers ran all sorts of data points and figured that the key distinguishing feature between the three groups was the number of hours they devoted each week to sustained practicing with the purpose of getting better. By age 20, the elite group had totaled 10,000 hours. The good group had totaled 8000, and the OK group 4000. The OK and the good groups really couldn't catch up at this point, because the elite group were practicing about as much as it is physically possible to practice (roughly 30 hours a week; they spent other hours taking classes and playing in groups and performing in addition to, you know, sleeping and eating).

The two writers throw in different examples of this in other fields. Gladwell postulates that Bill Gates got in about 10,000 hours of programming before starting Microsoft; Colvin figures that Mozart got in roughly that amount of music training, and Tiger Woods got in that amount of golf.

I have been thinking about this 10,000 hours figure a lot over the past few days for a few reasons. First, I think it's likely true -- the older I get, the more heartened I am by the fact that when I deliberately do something for many hours I do get better at it. I picked up running in 2004 and have run about 15-25 miles weekly since then, many times deliberately working on speed and strength; I am definitely faster and stronger than I was 4 years ago. I began singing with actual real choral instructors and constructive feedback in college and have put at least 2-3 hours into it weekly since then. I am definitely a better singer and better musician than I was in 1999. Of course, 2-3 hours a week (for singing) or 4 hours a week (for running) only gets you to 100-200 hours a year, or 1000-2000 hours over a decade. At that pace, I should reach operatic heights and a competitive running level when I am...75.

But I did the calculation on the treadmill yesterday and I am probably coming close to 10,000 solid hours of writing over the past decade. How could I not? I have, oh, about four novels I haven't done anything with, clocking in at 250,000 words. I have written roughly 4 non-fiction books (give me another 200,000 words). Throw in roughly 60 USA Today columns at 1000 words apiece, 30 months of writing the Only in America section of Reader's Digest (1000 words each time), six months of weekly 500 word Scientific American columns, 50,000 words in random other features, more blog posts than I care to count, and you can see where this is going. I have probably written close to 1,000,000 words since I went "pro" as it were. If my rate of publishable production is 100 words per hour, then I've put in the time. If my rate is better, than I haven't. It may be better, because even though I've definitely worked more than 20 hours per week for the past 10 years, I haven't necessarily been writing for all of them. I call people up and interview them, do research, etc. Those are different skills. Regardless, it's heartening to know that I'm in for a breakthrough one of these days.

Of course, if you count from much earlier in life, I may have already hit my "expert" level. I learned to read through a computer program my kindergarten used called "Writing to Read." I used to type little stories up and illustrate them. My entire sophomore year of high school, I wrote 2 4,000-word stories (roughly) each month in my bedroom at night. I wrote columns for my high school paper, then the Ball State Daily News, then the Daily Princetonian. When you love something, hours of work don't seem like a prison sentence. It feels more like being absolutely free.

Which brings us (finally!) back to the question of 10,000 hours and gifted education. The problem we currently have is that it is very, very difficult for gifted young people to build up those 10,000 hours before age 20, which is about when you need to seriously think about your professional career. If you start playing the piano at age 5, that gives you 15 years of practicing -- hard -- for more than 13 hours each week. That's about 2 hours every single day. Even if you figure a more intense schedule in the later years, that's still a lot to ask of a 6-year-old when you add it on top of regular school. This is, of course, the reason many elite musicians (and athletes and actors) are homeschooled or have some sort of alternative school. You have to get your hours in.

You also have to get your hours in with academics. Kids who like math do problems at night, and on weekends in addition to their school hours. But should a kid who really, really loves math have to spend hours doing English literature homework, making history timelines and so forth?

I don't know. In American education, we don't like the idea of cutting off options. You might change your mind about what you want to be when you grow up. So we don't like to have kids specialize. The problem with that philosophy is that world class performance requires a high level of focus. By leaving all options open, you in fact leave no options open.

And that's too bad, because there's a lot of undeveloped talent floating around. It is the rare school that lets a young writer do her academic work in the morning and spend the afternoon writing and checking in with a writing teacher or coach regularly to gauge her progress. We could produce more outliers. It's just that we choose not to. I personally think that's too bad. Gifted education should focus far more on talent development than on 90 minutes of pull-out per week. At 90 minutes per week, it will take you 133 years (and that's counting summers) to be an expert at anything.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

USA Today: Tailoring school to the child (Homeschooling)

After much delay due to big political and economic news, my column on outsourcing homeschooling, "Tailoring school to the child," finally appeared in USA Today today. The timing actually wound up being good, because I led with the question of where Malia and Sasha Obama should go to school. Reformers suggest the DC public schools; realists talk about Sidwell Friends. But homeschooling is actually a viable third option -- even for busy families like the Obamas! -- and would have some real educational benefits (not to mention allowing the girls to travel more with their parents and reduce some of the security risk).

Thank you very much to all the Gifted Exchange readers who helped out with this column. You are a great source for stories and information. So here's the discussion point for today: I'd love to hear even more stories from families who are "non-traditional homeschoolers." That is, both parents work, you're a single parent, etc. How do you make it work? Is it worth it? Would you recommend it to someone else?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Re-telling the Mozart story

I spent this Friday night reading a book called Talent is Overrated, which I'm reviewing for The American (the fact that I spend Friday nights working should give you a sense of just how fun I am...) The book, by Fortune editor-at-large Geoff Colvin, bills itself as a look at "what really separates world-class performers from everybody else."

I won't give my overall impressions of the book since the review hasn't been published yet. But one thing I don't discuss much in the review is how Colvin retells the story of that quintessential child prodigy, Mozart. That's a part of the book that matters more to readers of Gifted Exchange than readers of The American, so I thought we should discuss it here.

As he writes, "Mozart is the ultimate example of the divine-spark theory of greatness. Composing music at age five, giving public performances as a pianist and violinist at age eight, going on to produce hundreds of works, some of which are widely regarded as ethereally great and treasures of Western culture, all in the brief time before his death at age thirty-five -- if that isn't talent, and on a mammoth scale, then nothing is."

But, as he writes, "the facts are worth examining a little more closely." The reality? "Any divine spark that Mozart may have possessed did not enable him to produce world-class work quickly or easily, which is something we often suppose a divine spark will do." Mozart began studying the piano and composition at age 3. He put in hours of practice daily, coached by his father Leopold, a composer in his own right and by all accounts a rather intense man. Leopold gave Mozart constant feedback, showing him exactly where he was going wrong, and having him study the intricacies of other composers' works. He studied these other composers so intensely that some of his early works hew very closely to previous works of the era.

We don't perform these works now except as curiosities because, frankly, they aren't that good. Mozart's first "major" work (defined by the number of recordings that exist now) is his Piano Concerto No. 9. He composed this work when he was 21. As Colvin notes, "that's certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training." A golfer who'd been training that hard, daily, since toddler-hood, would, at age 21 be... Tiger Woods.

In other words, as Colvin admiringly quotes critic Alex Ross, "Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard."

It's an appealing way of retelling the story, in that it redefines the divine spark. It is not so much a gift, fully-formed -- it's a slight inclination and the divine gift of persistence (whether jump started externally through a coach like Leopold, or internally). Personally, I don't think this in any way changes the idea of how, ideally, we should educate talented children, even if "talent is overrated." When someone shows a slight gift at a topic, and an extreme interest in it, and the willingness to work furiously hard, we should do our best to nurture that. We should nurture those inclinations by accelerating the child until she has to stretch herself, and giving her the best coaching possible.

Unfortunately, we don't do that now, which may be why world-class performances are as rare as they are. We settle for gifted education which gives students 90 minutes of pull-out per week to study enrichment topics like origami or the culture of Japan. If the key to world-class achievement is "deliberate practice" -- hours of work shoring up your weaknesses and honing specific skills -- then we're about as far from efficacy these days as one could possibly be.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart Kids, Bad Schools

One of the things I’m trying to do here on Gifted Exchange is review more education books. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Brian Crosby’s new book, Smart Kids, Bad Schools. Crosby, a veteran English teacher, launched himself onto the education reform scene with his book The $100,000 Teacher, and now he’s back with 38 essays on ways American education can be improved.

Some are very good. For instance, Crosby founded the American Education Association, which seeks to be more like the American Medical Association than a union. The idea is to make teaching a true professional career with very high standards, get rid of tenure, demand results and then pay teachers accordingly. Indeed, Crosby would prefer to see larger class sizes for a simple reason: there aren’t enough excellent teachers to go around. Better have 40 kids with a stellar $120,000/year teacher than 2 20-kid classes with $60,000 mediocre teachers. He likes the idea of more field trips, of getting rid of middle school, of hiring MBA principals rather than simply promoting teachers looking to get out of the classroom. He notes that special education funding is grossly disproportionate to the funding other children receive, and that gifted education is massively undervalued. “Why doesn’t the issue of equity apply to bright kids?” he asks. He also points out that “People might be surprised to learn how often teachers of advanced classes give their students more work at a faster rate than their nonadvanced counterparts and call it a day. As if the amount of work and how fast you do it determines how smart you are.” When he was first assigned to teach advanced students, he notes that he was not given any special training on enriching or deepening the curriculum.

He understands that this is problem so... I wish I liked this book more, but I just didn't. Many of the 38 essays contain long anecdotes about particular injustices Crosby has suffered over the years, which may or may not be relevant to larger educational woes (memo to Crosby: everyone hates meetings – people in corporate America too! Plenty of people have bad bosses, not just teachers working under incompetent bureaucrats). The essays often suffer from a lack of focus; the one on improving gifted education manages to hook in GPA inflation, how much money the AP organization is making, awards for perfect attendance, goody bags at children’s parties and so forth.

Also, Crosby cites plenty of statistics, but has no end notes or foot notes explaining where he got them. That’s a problem because some of them are highly suspect. He claims that “one study on giftedness discovered that 15 to 20 percent of gifted kids drop out of school, mainly due to boredom.” We examined that statistic at length a few weeks ago. Also, there’s this paragraph: “Smart kids are the country’s most valuable resource. And how does the U.S. government reward such talent? By continuing to underfund and cut gifted programs, rewarding these bright young people with two cents out of every dollar spent on education.” The thought is right, but the only U.S. (federal) government funding for gifted education is the Jacob K. Javits program. It usually gets about $10 million in funding, out of the roughly $50 billion federal education budget (actually, the budget is bigger now, but that’s the number I’m guessing he’s using). This comes out to two cents of every $100, not every dollar. These silly errors undermine the book's authority.

Furthermore, for all his good ideas, he’s got some really bad ones too, like that because most homeschoolers are white, “race may play a large unspoken role in [these] parents opting out of public schools.” He also claims that “except for religious reasons and spiffy uniforms, there is no sound argument for educating children in private schools. Which environment mirrors the real world, public or private school? Do parents choose where their children will work and who they will work with?” This just totally misses the point. Public schools bear no resemblance to the real world either. In what company do employees only work with folks who have a birthday within 12 months of each other? He says that “no private school has ever won the U.S. Academic Decathlon since its inception in 1980” as evidence that private schools are no better than public schools. I have never heard of the U.S. Academic Decathlon, and I’ve been writing about education for awhile. This proves nothing.

So, the verdict? Check it out of the library or skim the table of contents in the bookstore - I'm not sure I'd buy it for your personal library.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Too Many Asian Kids

That seems like a stark headline, doesn't it? But it would have been a better title to a recent New York Times story called "Racial Imbalance Persists at Elite Public High Schools" than the one the headline writers dreamed up.

As we've been talking about in recent weeks on this blog, New York City has long had a commitment to serving gifted kids from all backgrounds. This is a city of immigrants, and tales are legion of children from all kinds of deprived backgrounds getting into the city's elite schools for the gifted and succeeding wildly. Stuyvesant and the Bronx High School of Science, for instance, have produced many Nobel Prize winners.

Unlike many of the city's private schools, it's no mystery how one gains admission to the elite public high schools. You have to sit for the annual exam. Anyone can take the test; indeed, the city offers a program to prepare you called the Specialized High Schools Institute. If you score high enough, you are offered admission. Connections don't help you.

Net result? Stuyvesant High School does not "look like America." In fact, it looks a little bit more like Beijing, or Delhi than like any city in the US. Though the city's four major racial groups represent roughly equal proportions of those who sit for the test (28 percent of last year’s were black, 23 percent Hispanic, 30 percent Asian and 19 percent white), a full two-thirds of Stuyvesant students are of Asian descent. In other words, Stuyvesant is majority minority. But apparently its students are not the correct minority, because all sorts of city critics are up in arms these days about the failure to "diversify" Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and the city's other gifted programs.

As Daniel Golden pointed out in his thought-provoking book, The Price of Admission a few years ago, when it comes to education, Asian children are "the new Jews." Once, elite colleges conspired to reduce the proportion of Jewish young people granted admission, even though these young people often had stellar credentials and had overcome amazing odds (poverty, immigration, discrimination, etc.). A similar mindset seems to have gripped the diversity proponents criticizing New York's gifted programs. As it is now, your father can be a cook working in Chinatown after leaving mainland China penniless, and your admission to Stuyvesant will not be looked upon as a cause for celebration. Something strikes me as very wrong about that picture. Indeed, any efforts to further "diversify" the city's elite schools will result in fewer Asian children being granted admission.

Friday, November 07, 2008

New York City gets it right

I live in New York City with my family. Most likely we will move out of the city before my son, Jasper, goes to school, but this is not necessarily because of the schooling situation. If you live in Washington DC and desire a good education for your bright children, you pretty much have to enroll in a private school (as Pres. elect Obama, incidentally a school voucher opponent, will choose for his children). But New York City has long had good gifted programs, including Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School of Science, which have produced numerous finalists in the former Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

About two years ago, though, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joe Klein surveyed the gifted programs, and noted that they were not exactly fair. Not so much "not fair" in the way people normally claim they are not fair (i.e., separating out kids for special treatment, or even the racial balance, though they did note that). The programs had a patchwork of entrance requirements, were located at certain schools due to better parental lobbying, started in different years, etc.

So last year, the schools decided to standardize admissions requirements. First, the NYC schools declared that as many students as possible should be tested. They did tons of outreach to historically underserved areas. They used two tests -- a reasoning test and a school readiness test. Then they declared that only children who scored in the top 5th percentile (on a national comparison basis) would be admitted to NYC gifted programs; the flip side of this is that every child who did score about this level would be guaranteed a spot.

Well, all did not go entirely as planned. It turns out there were fewer gifted children under this definition than the schools liked, so they lowered the cut-off to the top 10% -- already pushing it, in my opinion. Even so, some schools have far smaller gifted programs than in the past -- for instance, 10 students in a class in a school in which there average class size is 20 or more. You can read about the controversy in this New York Times story on "Fewer Children Entering Gifted Programs."

As you can imagine, some people are upset about this. From the article:

"At P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side, the gifted kindergarten class has 16 children, while another kindergarten class has 28, a situation Lisa B. Donlan, president of the local Community Education Council, called 'unfair to the entire school community.'

"At P.S. 52 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, one of four schools with gifted classes of eight — the minimum the city requires — the other five kindergartens have 22 or 23 children each.

“'Their intentions are all good, and I understand making it more uniform across the city,' the school’s principal, Ilene Altschul, said of the changes in gifted admissions. “I just don’t understand how a class of eight children is beneficial.'”

Indeed, some parents are pressuring schools to open up these smaller gifted classes to other kids; as one parent noted, “To get your kid into a good kindergarten in New York City is such a yearlong battle, and I know that it’s a very desirable program...It’s a shame that other kids are being denied the opportunity.”

So maybe I can explain why it's beneficial. New York City gets it. Gifted education is supposed to be an intervention for children who need it. Personally, I think they should have stuck to the original 95th percentile, or even higher. But, leaving that aside, gifted education is not supposed to be the "desirable" class, an entitlement (every school gets 20 spots) or a way to keep middle class families in the city so they don't move to New Jersey. If kids need the interventions of gifted education, they should get it. If they don't, they shouldn't, even if there are empty seats. It's not about seats.

It's also not about "rewarding" kids. The New York Times falls into this trap, as usual obsessing about the racial composition of these classes, pointing out in the article that only 22% of the students identified as gifted now are black or Hispanic. Most districts would find this pretty good; if you add in Asian children, the city's gifted program is 50% minority, but given that the New York City schools have a higher proportion of minority students than this, the New York Times claims the reforms have "failed to diversify the historically coveted classes" (even though the percentage of Asian students in these classes has actually gone up).

But Bloomberg and Klein are sticking to their guns. As Klein says, "we won’t compromise standards and thereby dilute our programs." It's about time a school official understood why a school district should have a gifted program, even if not everything the NYC schools have done to reform their program has been entirely smart.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nature: Some people are naturally good at math

The October 2 issue of Nature, the weekly journal of science, contains an interesting study about something called the "approximate number system." (The headline, in catchy Nature form, is "Individual differences in non-verbal number acuity correlate with maths achievement.") ANS is an innate counting sense, present in animals, infants, and others who've had no formal training in math. Some people have a much better ANS acuity than others. Those that have this acuity wind up doing better on standardized math tests, even controlling for IQ.

To prove this idea, scientists at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere gave 64 14-year-old children a test to gauge the innate numerical sense ANS measures. They showed them a scatter plot containing dots in 2 colors. They asked which color was more prevalent. They changed up the ratio, and found that when there were twice as many purple as yellow dots, almost everyone could tell, but when there were only 25% more purple dots than yellow, only about 60% of the children got this right -- not too much better than guessing. But, of course, some children were far more accurate on these close ratios than others. The researchers then looked at the children's scores on standard math tests going back through kindergarten, and found that those who could gauge the ratios easily had higher scores.

This wasn't just because the kids were "smarter." They had previously given all the children an IQ test, and found that, controlling for IQ, kids with higher ANS acuity still did better on math tests. They also gave the kids a rapid color reaction test to make sure they weren't just testing reaction times. Again, the kids with the best ANS scores did best on math tests.

The result? "Individual differences in achievement in school mathematics are related to individual differences in the acuity of an evolutionarily ancient, unlearned approximate number sense," the authors wrote. They said that much more research would be needed to know if ANS could be taught and, if it could, how this would affect student achievement.

I always like studies that use the scientific method to get at the obvious. We all know that some kids are just naturally more number-oriented than others. Some highly intelligent adults panic when asked to make change; others can look at a room and see instantly that there aren't enough chairs.

That said, this is all fine for student achievement tests. But if there's anything I've learned over the years through trying to write about math and mathematicians, it's that at some point, numbers have little to do with it. Indeed, I remember one day in my freshman math class in college looking at the chalkboard and realizing there wasn't a single number up there! This was somewhat disappointing to me, as I really liked numbers. But as my older brother once wrote as a math graduate student at Princeton, "Despite what the general public thinks, math isn't just about being able to multiply numbers in your head quickly, or memorizing thirty digits of pi (I know good mathematicians who struggle to calculate 15% tips in restaurants). We've got computers and calculators for that. Mathematics is about finding structures and truths in the world of patterns, and explaining why they're there."

I suspect that what happens is that kids who have both a good ANS acuity and a high IQ wind up finding early math easy and fun. So they become more interested in it, and are encouraged along. The ranks of top mathematicians are then pulled from this group of folks who have spent more time studying math and playing with it than other people. Ultimately, though, it's not the quick counting that will help them -- it's the ability to see patterns and draw inferences.