Friday, December 18, 2009

What are we thankful for?

Gifted Exchange will be taking a holiday break starting next week, and be back in 2010. This past year has been a big one for us. We passed our 4-year anniversary, and have now tallied more than 400 posts! Through the "Facets of Gifted Education" series earlier this year, we got to meet a wide variety of people involved in gifted education, from teachers to publishers to kids.

We've covered a variety of woes in the gifted education world, but as part of the holiday season's focus on joy and gratitude, I'd love to hear from people about things that are going right. If you know a school, a program, an accommodation, etc., that's worked really well, I'd love to hear about it. I want to thank everyone for reading this blog, and hope you have a fantastic holiday season and New Year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Intentions and results in school reform

Everyone is into school reform these days, and everyone has good intentions. Schools and teachers talk about how they're trying different things; every educational symposium features sessions about their innovations, with sympathetic audiences crediting the speakers for trying to "do something."

And it turns out, according to a very big new study, written about here in Education Week, that all this freelance innovation may not be as effective as following very specific scripts.

Thirteen years ago, researchers from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education set out to study three packaged school reform curricula: Success for All, America's Choice and Accelerated Schools. Success for All features scripted lessons which tell teachers exactly how to teach a concept. Accelerated Schools allows teachers to devise lessons, with guidance toward outcomes. America's Choice is somewhere in the middle. After studying the achievement of thousands of students at hundreds of schools, the researchers found that Success for All outranked the others. While the Accelerated School teachers felt they had far more autonomy in their classroom, this autonomy translated into not being very effective, or at least doing no better than the control schools. The Success for All scripts, on the other hand, raised achievement levels of the average participating student from the 40th to the 50th percentile over 2.5 years.

This is a fascinating result and, if you are a teacher, a wee bit tough to swallow. We think of teaching as a profession, benefiting from a personal, charismatic touch. It's somewhat akin to how we think of medicine. And there's a parallel to the dust-up going on among doctors with the whole evidence-based medicine announcements coming down from various task forces. In this morning's USA Today, for instance (right next to one of my op-eds!) there is a column from Dr. Marc Siegel at NYU complaining about the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which recently recommended against annual mammograms for women over age 40. Dr. Siegel writes that "Today I use my own checklist based on 20 years in practice." This involves sending women who are over age 40 for mammograms. He is sure that this is the right thing to do (and hence is writing an op-ed complaining about being told not to do it) but the reality is, based on the evidence, it isn't. That's exactly what the task force was "tasked" with figuring out. But he's a professional! He knows what's right based on 20 years in practice! Hence the title, "Task-force thinking doesn't deliver my kind of medicine."

The same thing, apparently, happens in teaching. When you teach for 20 years, you know how to teach, right? Certainly you know better than a scripted curriculum package... except that for the average teacher, that's not what this study seems to be saying. And just as doctors often object to standardization programs (for surgery, procedures, etc.) that try to turn them into robots, I don't think teachers like them either. But it raises the question in both areas: if the results are better (and there's no doubt that doctors following strict procedural guidelines make fewer errors), is it worth the cost? Nobody likes unhappy teachers or doctors. But we like results too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

National Journal: Education Tracking Continues to Stir Debate

As long-time readers of Gifted Exchange know, "ability grouping" or, as I like to call it, "readiness grouping" is a very important part of meeting the needs of gifted students. The narrative of a gifted child being bored in a heterogeneous classroom -- and being asked to serve as an unpaid teaching assistant because of it -- is so common it's a cliche. It's incredibly difficult to teach a classroom full of kids with wildly differing abilities in a way that challenges all of them. Excellent teachers can do it, sometimes. Unfortunately, excellent teachers aren't quite as bountiful as we'd all like.

Nonetheless, ability grouping or, as opponents like to call it, "tracking," remains controversial among people who aren't trying to raise bored gifted kids stuck in heterogeneous classrooms, and so people continue to study the practice. National Journal recently highlighted a new study from Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution claiming that schools with more ability grouping showed better results than those with less ability grouping.

Some folks agreed with him, and some didn't, but I was particularly interested in a quote by Kevin Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado. Per the article, "The research on tracking is as clear as anything in the field of education," Welner said. "It is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind." In Welner's estimation, National Journal reports, the body of research documenting the harmful effects of tracking speaks for itself, the debate is over and it's time to move forward.

Since Welner is so against ability grouping, I assumed that his classes at the University of Colorado must be open to all comers of all abilities. But it turns out that the University of Colorado at Boulder's School of Education is very proud of how "ability grouped" it is, in the sense of being very selective to get in. As this profile page notes, GRE scores for doctoral candidates in the School of Education ranked 6th out of 190 schools around the country. I think one needs to take with a grain of salt the idea that young people should be subjected to completely heterogeneous classes when it comes from people who have put themselves in professional environments where everyone has done well on standardized tests.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What to tell kids about Santa

No, not the big question. I'm guessing that many readers of this blog had their 5-year-olds come to them with good arguments about the top land-speed of reindeer, their dense bones which would preclude flight, the exact number of houses in North America--let alone in the rest of the world where, curiously, many cultures have a different conception of a night-time gift giver. Or, if your kid has a strong inclination toward fairness, she noted that while some of her friends got huge gifts from Santa, her stocking inclined mostly toward gum and toothbrushes (I don't think my parents wanted Santa taking credit for the good stuff!).

Since my family was firmly in the gum-and-toothbrushes category, any Santa belief ended quite early. In second grade, my class was supposed to write letters to Santa, which would then be answered. I wrote a letter saying this was a stupid exercise since he didn't exist. The letter I got back said I sounded like a smart little girl. I'm not sure if that was a good thing.

Anyway, the question is what to tell kids to say to other kids about Santa. While gifted kids can figure things out quickly, they're not always that good at social niceties, or see the point of white lies. It's wrong to lie to people, right? So if you've got a little Santa truther, how do talk him through this social navigation, particularly if all his friends at school or church are still at the age where it's fun to believe? (There's a broader take on the Santa issue, from the child development perspective, talked about in this article here). I'd love to hear how you all handled this issue.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Motivated Kids (and the Joys of Non-Fiction)

It should come as no surprise that one of the key ingredients of a good education is motivated kids. One of the issues that has bedeviled the study of charter and private schools is that often, the kids and families who elect to attend (or even apply for) these schools are just more motivated and oriented toward learning than those who don't. That means that a school billed as more challenging academically, which requires people to apply, will do better than a "regular" school, even if the former takes all comers or, for that matter, isn't any better. Motivation matters. If you knew you had to give a speech in French in four days to a big audience, you'd be a lot more motivated to practice than you probably were in your college French classes!

Some children start school more motivated than others. They come from families that really value learning (a positive focus) or come down hard for bad grades (a more negative focus, but probably effective, too). The question for raising the caliber of American schools, then, is whether you can create motivated kids in situations where families aren't sending the message that school matters.

I think you can. There have been a million articles written on successful-against-the-odds schools (I've probably written several dozen myself, as you can see from the links that follow). The common theme (aside from good principals and teachers, and often high standards) is that the schools have found some "hook" to motivate the kids. The Cristo Rey schools bring children into professional work settings 1-2 days per week where they see what skills might be needed to land high-paying jobs. The police academy magnets in LA interest kids in learning in the context of forensics, intense physical education and so forth. The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship has kids learning math and writing so they can produce business plans (and make real money -- a real world motivation!)

What all this boils down to is creating conditions where students want to learn something because they are personally interested in the answer. I was reminded of this at the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented conference, which I attended this past week. Much of the conference was aimed at teachers getting their professional development credits. I attended a session called "The Joys of Non-Fiction," led by Dr. Keith Polette, a professor of English Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. He started with a story of a kid in English class asking the reasonable question "Why did Poe put questions at the end of his story?" Almost every English class features short selections followed by questions, which Polette claimed was dull and not very effective.

So he tried another approach with us, showing us a black and white photo of a Victorian woman with no caption. Who did we think she was? People threw out silly answers. Then he gave us another clue. She did something no woman had done before. What did we think she did? (People threw out more silly answers, which he then made fun of. Humor always helps in teaching...) We pondered who she was, what she had done and why she had done it. And of course, by the time we had spent 5 minutes guessing who she was, we were all quite curious. When he finally gave us a short biography of a woman who turned out to be Bertha von Suttner, the first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, most people were genuinely interested in reading it, and in learning about this journalist who published Lay Down Your Arms in 1889. I am pretty sure most people would not have been interested in reading that chunk of text under other circumstances.

In other words, motivation can be created. The question for education reform is how to spread best practices to create motivation more broadly--for as many hours as possible that students are in school.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A different way of doing assessment

I just got back from the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented's annual conference (where Jan Davidson was the keynote speaker). I'll write more in coming days about various issues that came out of the conference. But one fascinating one, at least for me, was the assessment that the Davidson Academy at the University of Nevada-Reno has developed for choosing its students.

The Davidson Academy is the nation's first public school for profoundly gifted kids. To be eligible, students must have IQ scores above a certain level. However, scores only tell you so much. And so, the folks who run the Davidson Academy have developed a way of gauging how a student actually learns. Here is the Assessment Schedule (taken from a hand-out at Academy Director Colleen Harsin's talk-- the words in parentheses are from the hand-out):

1. Read a short story and respond to four critical thinking questions (done independently on laptops)

2. Academic discussion and direct instruction (About an hour using a PowerPoint presentation to guide the students through the literary elements of the story -- PowerPoint also includes information about how to write a literary analysis essay)

3. Write rough drafts of essays (Given detailed guidelines about how to approach the essay and what is expected)

4. Science questions (Both objective, multiple choice questions and reflective short answer and essay questions)

5. Lunch

6. Math assessment (Not multiple choice-- while students are doing this, the English teachers are writing feedback on the students' rough drafts)

7. Peer editing with each other's rough drafts (Allows students to get different ideas and perspectives from each other, helps students focus on the expectations we have of their writing -- handout that guides the editing process)

8. Work on final drafts of essays (using advice from the teachers and their peers)

9. Outside break

10. Read and respond to a short story (a quick check with a second story to help us look at critical thinking, reading comprehension, and independent writing).

What I like about this assessment is that, for starters, most tests are a complete waste of a day. They are designed to test what you know, and so they are inherently retrospective. But this assessment teaches kids something they, at age 10-12 (or so) have probably not encountered much before--namely, writing analytical essays. And second, the process is not so much about getting the right answer, or writing the perfect essay the first time (which I have never done in my life! I spent 5 hours revising a 900 word essay this week!) but about whether you can learn to incorporate feedback and write a better essay after evaluating your own and others' work.

In much of school, you learn something, cough up what you remember, get a grade and move on. There is little emphasis on revisiting what you've done and learning from any mistakes or seeing what can be done better. But this is precisely how one actually develops talent in a discipline. The nature of intelligence is being able to fit together disparate pieces of information and draw inferences and solve problems. Basic tests don't often measure this well, but I think this assessment does.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time: The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting

This past week, Time magazine's cover story addressed the phenomenon of "overparenting" (or helicopter parenting, or pushy parents, or whatever you want to call it). Writer Nancy Gibbs chronicles the backlash against a perceived tendency toward too much hovering and protectiveness, and treating even grown children as if they were babies.

I had a few thoughts on the piece. First, Gibbs does a good job of bringing up some nuances to all this that don't normally get addressed. One is that Americans in general have a real problem with statistics. We worry more about potential predators lurking on the half mile route between home and school than, say, an aunt's somewhat creepy boyfriend, even though statistically, the latter is far more likely to be a problem. Crime rates in places like New York City are at 1960s levels, and yet few parents let their kids wander alone around city neighborhoods, which 1960s parents were far more comfortable with. She also acknowledges that if you have a choice between an overinvolved or an underinvolved parent, you are probably better off with the first.

But then she doesn't really follow through on this thought. The reality is that some small number of children do have overbearing, hovering helicopter parents -- some small percentage of generally well-to-do children (whose parents read Time magazine). Unfortunately, though, far greater numbers of children don't have the advantage of parents who can do a lot for them. Various studies have put the percentage of children who aren't involved in any extra-curricular activities at 40-50%. A stunning number of children spend their non-school hours in something researchers charmingly refer to as "self-care." This generally involves watching a lot of TV because mom or dad aren't home, and that's the safest thing around to do. While some children get headaches and symptoms of anxiety because their academic work is too strenuous, the vast majority aren't being challenged nearly to the extent of their abilities.

I find overparenting as funny as the next person -- I like nothing better than making fun of parents who put hygienic gloves on their babies' hands so they never touch the dirty world. But there's also a problem with having this mocking and disapproval become the cultural narrative, especially in the context of gifted children.

Here's why. Few schools are really set up to handle the needs of highly gifted kids. This means that parents who have such kids are going to have to advocate for their children. They will have to get involved in the classroom, see what the children are learning, and step in to suggest various accommodations. Gifted kids also often need lots of outside-school stimulation as well. Many have amazing talents for music or art or things like that, and to develop their talents, these kids need lessons, coaches, etc. Often they need to travel to different towns, or go to special camps or what have you in order to interact with other students of similar abilities.

So -- if you're not into gifted education, which a great number of schools and educators, alas, are not -- what do you call a parent who is constantly advocating for her child, signing her up for violin and piano lessons at age 6 and setting up a math league so she can participate? A pushy parent, that's what. But I'd argue that that parent is simply doing what her gifted child needs. That's not pushy parenting, that's good parenting of a pushy kid.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Obama launches "Educate to Innovate" STEM campaign

Today, the White House launched its new science, technology, engineering and math initiative, "Educate to Innovate." Backed by $260 million in cash and in-kind support from companies including Intel and organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the initiative is supposed to complement the "Race to the Top" federal education spending. It has three main goals:

1. Increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology
2. Improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations
3. Expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.

The President and other partners in the Educate to Innovate campaign intend to use a variety of approaches to attack these issues. Time Warner will be sponsoring STEM after-school activities. Discovery Communications will work on science-related television programming. Sony, Microsoft, et al will sponsor game design competitions to produce STEM-related video games. A National Lab Day will push the idea of kids actually doing science as opposed to merely reading about it in textbooks. The White House will use its bully pulpit by hosting winners of science competitions.

Of course, I think it's great that this issue is getting attention, and it would be great if American students could top international comparisons in math and science. I just want to bring up a few issues that I'm not sure are going to be addressed by all this:

1. Much of the talk is about "motivating" and "inspiring" young people to learn math and science. But I'm not sure the problem is a lack of inspiration. As discussed in this Scientific American piece (which quotes me), some 85 percent of American kids said in a Lemelson-MIT survey they are interested in science and math, and 80 percent said their schools had prepared them for a career in science. This is absolutely delusional. Barely half of kids are even prepared for college! You can think math and science are as cool as you want, but until you learn the tools, you won't actually be able to do anything truly cool at all. Sometimes the tools are boring. I absolutely love writing, but learning the rules of grammar still wasn't exactly fun. So what?

2. Many parts of the initiative are aimed at improving math and science education among under-served, or under-represented groups. For instance, Intel sent me a press release about the initiative that said "Intel will develop new models for student research programs in rural, inner-city, low-income and high-minority classrooms across the US that encourage hands-on science and math learning." This is great; much math and science education in America's less-privileged schools is truly awful. Per the president's priorities, I would also love to see more minority (and women) scientists and mathematicians.

However, this focus on under-served kids seems based on the widespread assumption that America's rich white kids are doing just fine. This isn't true. See this column I wrote for USA Today about how our top 10% would fare, internationally. The answer isn't pretty. America's place in the middle-of-the-pack, internationally, is not necessarily because of an "underclass" problem. Closing the gap between black and white students, and between poor and better-0ff students would improve things, but not nearly as much as people think it would. Any effort at making America top-of-the-world needs to face the harsh reality that even America's well-to-do suburban schools with their helicopter parents and loads of homework are, in fact, not cranking out armies of graduates ready to compete on the international stage. We live in an increasingly competitive world. The sooner we truly recognize that, the better.

Friday, November 20, 2009

State of the States...and really changing things

So I finally made my way through the epic National Association for Gifted Children's bi-annual State of the States Report. (I'm having trouble copying links on Blogger, if I didn't type that link exactly right, here it is:

We will discuss specific aspects more in coming weeks, but overall, the report makes a convincing case that gifted education is not particularly a national priority. The vast majority of states say that most aspects of gifted education are decided by local education agencies (LEAs). This includes policies toward acceleration and early kindergarten entrance, dual enrollment, etc. While 32 states mandate gifted education for kids who need it, only 6 of those states fully fund those mandates. While most states say that gifted education for young kids is done in regular classrooms, only 5 states require that regular classroom teachers receive any training in meeting the needs of gifted kids.

I'm sure this is not really a surprise to many parents of gifted kids. You probably spend a lot of time working with individual teachers and principals to get appropriate accommodations. Then your child moves up to a different school and you have to start all over again. Or maybe your district has good policies, but then you move to a new city and, again, you have to start from scratch. Sometimes there's even wide variance in policies within schools, and parents of gifted kids whisper among themselves about how to get the right teacher -- the one who understands how to meet their kids' needs (maybe she actually took an elective in this while getting certified!)

But anyway, while I'm very glad that NAGC has compiled all these statistics in one place, the larger question is, so what?

So we know that gifted education is not a national priority. We also know this is shortsighted and stupid in an era in which most of us have to compete on a global stage and our ability to attract top talent from other countries is diminishing. When an economy is based on brains, not brawn, then gifted students need "a responsive and challenging educational system to help them achieve their highest potential," as NAGC puts it (actually, I'd say all kids need that, but that's a different point).

But again, so what? Advocates have been crying in the wilderness for years that doing great things like the next equivalent of putting a man on the moon requires nurturing top students. But the powers that be do not seem to care. In general, the federal powers that be are more obsessed with the accountability movement. State powers that be are gnashing their teeth over their current budget crises. So it's no surprise that most decisions about gifted education are left to local education agencies.

But there is an upside to this: it is a lot easier to change things at the local level than at the state or national level. Perhaps someday we'll have national education officials who are really into gifted education, but since education secretaries (and deputies and policy makers) tend to come from the ranks of state and local education bureaucrats, gifted advocates need to pack the pipeline. And that means holding as many of these spots as possible. Local education authorities have vast discretion in making gifted education work. If gifted education is a decision maker's pet cause, it will get attention.

Who are these decision makers? Broadly, the people with the most power to change things through personal discretion include professors at teachers' colleges (who can work gifted education into the curriculum), principals and district administrators, and local school board members.

The first three are not necessarily going to be easy professions for gifted advocates to enter, as you generally need classroom experience and certain degrees to become a principal, professor or administrator. Many gifted education advocates are parents with different professions (though we can certainly try to lobby these people! And long term, we can encourage like minded people to go into the education profession).

But running for school board is a different matter. I'd love to hear from people who've done a lot of advocacy on the local level, but it seems that if there were strong advocates for gifted education on a local school board, gifted education would become a bigger priority on the local level -- which is where most decisions are made on these things anyway. I'd love to see advocates run for school board anywhere they can -- and hopefully start changing some of the statistics in the State of the States report.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Last night I attended the premiere of Mary Mazzio's latest film, Ten9Eight. This documentary about the teen finalists in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's annual business plan competition is showing in select AMC theaters today around the country (Gifted Exchange has covered NFTE in the past, under its previous name, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship).

There are very few positive films out there about bright teenagers doing good things with their lives, and fewer still that feature hip hop dance, slam poetry, Popsycakes and (very briefly) the Washington Redskin cheerleaders. So if you live in NYC, LA, Boston, Washington DC, Kansas City, Miami, Atlanta or Chicago, go check it out!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Myths of Gifted Education

Gifted Child Quarterly recently ran a package tackling various "myths" of gifted education. This page has a list of the short articles, with links to PDFs of each of them. They're all written by big name researchers in the field and are worth checking out.

I particularly enjoyed reading James Borland's take on the problems of specifying what percentage of the population is gifted, mostly because he weaves in the movie Spinal Tap when discussing IQ. Obviously, any scale of measuring something as varied as human intelligence is going to have some arbitrariness to it, much like the amp in Spinal Tap that is extremely cool because it goes to 11, rather than 10.

Many an advocate of gifted education has gotten caught in this argumentative trap. The problem is then when people -- acknowledging this issue -- get sucked into another logical fallacy, such as that just because something is difficult to measure it must not exist or must not exist in differing quantities. Even if we had absolutely no good way to measure intelligence, or creativity, or things like that, that wouldn't mean that some people wouldn't be better at coming up with new solutions, or solving problems, than others. The fact that relying on IQ tests as a measure of giftedness has historically excluded some bright people from programs doesn't mean that no one's gifts should be nurtured. The answer is to individualize education -- to challenge everyone to the extent of their abilities. That involves turning teachers into coaches, developing everyone's talents as best we can.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Left-Brain Child

Today, Gifted Exchange welcomes Katharine Beals, author of the new book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World. Beals, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, argues that "bright, quirky, socially awkward children" are at a distinct disadvantage in today's schools, which emphasize group learning and class participation. While certainly not all gifted children fit that description, the stereotypical "nerd" does -- and Beals argues that such children need help from parents and schools to best make their way in the world. Her book also contains a section on parenting mildly autistic children; if you've got a twice exceptional child, that is well worth checking out.

Gifted Exchange: Describe what you mean by “left-brain children.”

Beals: I’m using the term “left-brain” not in a neurological sense, but in the everyday sense that has permeated our language via popular psychology. So by “left-brained,” I mean those who think abstractly and logically, analyze and systematize, process things linearly (or one at a time), attune themselves to verbal rather than nonverbal communication, and prefer to work independently.

GE: What do you make of books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which claim that what you label a “left-brain” style has previously been dominant, and the new economy will be based on a “right-brain” style? Do you think left-brainers are actually in the minority? Have they always been?

Beals: I agree with Pink that the “left-brain” style no longer dominates in terms of what most Americans consider important. As I argue in my book, this is especially true in our K-12 classrooms. But I believe left-brain thinking has always been essential to our economy, especially when it comes to scientific and technological advancement, and I find it rather alarming that Pink thinks we can comfortably outsource all of this to India.

I’m no expert on nature vs. nurture, but I suspect that the left-brain disposition is largely innate, and thus independent of societal trends. Whether or not left-brainers are in a minority really depends on where you draw the line. How social you are, and how linear a thinker you are, is really a matter of degree. Also, you might be fairly social but extremely analytical, or vice versa—in which case some, but not all right-brain trends will be problematic for you.

GE: Is there any relationship between giftedness and being “left-brained?”

Beals: I think there’s quite a strong relationship, particularly when it comes to academics. Strong analytical skills lead to aptitude for math, science, foreign language, and expository writing. The problem, though, is that fewer and fewer educators appreciate this connection. Today’s schools increasingly de-emphasize analytical skills in favor of social and organizational skills and visual creativity. The unfortunate result is that many bright left-brainers are no longer recognized as gifted.

GE: How can parents and schools teach left-brain children to cope with social situations?

Beals: Many unsocial children need more structure than the typical peer group environments offered by schools, which are often unstructured and unsupervised. Much more ideal is a social skills group run by a trained specialist—e.g., a developmental psychologist or speech/language therapist. Some schools offer this, but typically parents must look outside the schools to private clinics.

In my book, I also recommend several textbooks that focus on conversation rules in particular. Though these books were written for students learning English as a foreign language, and American culture as a foreign culture, much of what they say is also helpful to left-brain Americans.

GE: Has the increased use of text-based and virtual communication (email, texting, online games, etc.) opened up new ways to interact for socially awkward kids?

Beals: Yes, it has, and this is a very promising development. Many unsocial left-brainers are much more comfortable with text-based than with in-person communication. With text, all the social cues are right there, written out in front of you, and there’s more time to figure what to say and how to say it. Online games like Second Life, where you customize a two-dimensional “avatar” to stand in for yourself, have been a godsend to many shy or socially awkward kids--a non-threatening way to make friends and practice social skills.

GE: What makes math “reform” (making it more social and right-brain friendly) appealing to educators? Can a good teacher do it (or the other ideas, like Writing Across the Curriculum or Project-Based Learning that you criticize) right? Or is it inherently problematic?

Beals: Reform math appeals to educators partly because education schools have been pushing it for years, partly because it aligns with state math tests, and partly because it involves a lot less drill than you find in traditional math programs. But because it diverges so drastically from the structured, linear, explicit teaching environments that left-brainers depend on, and because the actual math is so much less challenging than it used to be, it’s hard to imagine how it can be successfully adapted to left-brain learners. An excellent alternative to Reform Math is Singapore Math: rigorous math without the intensive drill that turned off many students to math a generation ago.

Writing Across the Curriculum and Project-Based Learning are different. What makes these practices problematic is when the assignments are open-ended or large in scale—both of which can overwhelm left-brain learners. The way around this is for teachers or parents to break assignments down into smaller pieces and make the instructions more explicit, spelling them out step by step. Also, teachers need to be more flexible about the projects’ “creativity” requirements, recognizing analytical in addition to visual creativity.

There’s one element of Writing Across the Curriculum from which left-brainers should be exempt, however, and that is the requirement that they explain their answers to math problems verbally. Many left-brainers do arithmetic automatically in their heads in ways that can’t be explained in words.

GE: The main message seems to be that all kids are different. Is individualized education the answer?

Beals: To some extent it is. The easiest way to make school more hospitable to left-brainers, especially in the short run, is to let these kids work on their own, at their own rates—especially since left-brain students typically thrive when working independently. This also allows their more social classmates to continue working in groups. However, an argument can be made that certain subjects, especially math and science, need to be more left-brained and rigorous for everyone—indeed, that the future of our country depends on it.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sesame Street and the Commercialization of Childhood

Like just about everyone else under age 45, I grew up watching Sesame Street. It's a testament to how big an influence those Muppets and their human friends have had on society that pretty much every essayist is tackling the topic of Sesame Street's 40th birthday this week (I kind of enjoyed Nancy Gibbs' take in Time, but I welcome links to others!)

Life has changed for many young children since 1969. There are the demographic changes, of course--more have moms who are in the workforce, and more are living with just their moms these days. Sesame Street features a single working mom like Gina in part to be relevant and respectful of children's lives.

But what's more fascinating to me is the changes in early childhood education and, alas, early childhood marketing, over the past four decades. Given that I can remember watching Sesame Street, it strikes me that it used to be aimed at slightly older children. But these days, many 4- and 5-year-olds are in school during times when children's educational programming tends to air. Even many 2- and 3-year-olds are in preschool or daycare. And so while Elmo, the quintessential toddler, was a side character back in the dark ages of the early 1980s when I was watching, these days he's pretty much the star of the show.

As a star, he of course has licensed products based on his likeness everywhere (the Wall Street Journal had an interesting story this morning about the star treatment that toys are getting in Hollywood these days). We have an Elmo doll at our house that Jasper likes to sleep with. Jasper and Sam's diapers both feature Sesame Street characters like Elmo. Yep, even Sam's diapers, sized as they are for children weighing 8-15lbs. The various Tickle-Me-Elmo products have become hot sellers inspiring shopping crazes every Christmas. As toys go, they're pretty wholesome, and Sesame Street is certainly more wholesome than most things on television. You have to admire the earnestness as it's expanded around the globe; a character in the South African version is HIV positive, and versions that air in the Middle East stress the importance of girls learning to read too.

But there's a problem with babies and toddlers watching Sesame Street, not least of which is that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids under age 2. The problem was perhaps best articulated by Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby, in this interview with Salon:

"It's complicated for an infant or toddler to process television. When they are put in front of the television, the only thing they seem to be getting out of it in a verifiable way is character recognition. That's why you see babies and toddlers so thrilled when they're at the supermarket and they recognize Elmo. ... The problem is that the great social values that Elmo and the characters on Sesame Street teach are lost on children under the age of 3. They get solely a flat, one-dimensional character recognition. And the only other times that children are going to encounter the character are when a company is trying to sell the kid something. You don't see Elmo running around your park. You see Elmo when he's in diapers, when he's on juice boxes, when he's on Band-Aids and when he's on toothbrushes."

So Sesame Street has, alas, become part of the craze of marketing toward very young children. While I love the show and think it does a lot of good, I'm wishing it a happy birthday with a caveat. I know the Children's Television Workshop can't truly control how parents let their children interact with television. But if pediatricians say that kids under age 2 aren't supposed to be watching television at all, why is Elmo's face on newborn diapers? Something is not computing between the stated aim of Sesame Street to teach older children their letters and numbers and civility and citizenship and the reality of its marketing. There is a lot to be said for educational television. But there is probably more to be said for watching as little television as possible.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The BASIS for success?

I recently read a fascinating piece in the Economist about a group of charter schools, called the BASIS schools, in Arizona. Founded by Michael and Olga Block in the late 1990s, these schools feature an extremely accelerated curriculum and a commitment to hiring great teachers (and negotiating their salaries individually, and paying performance bonuses a la Wall Street). Most interestingly, the schools explicitly model their curricula on the best practices exhibited in other countries that routinely trounce the US in international comparisons. For instance, we know South Korea does math well. What can we copy from that system? Of course, the US does things well, too, and in this piece, Olga Block talks about the openness of American classrooms and the questioning nature of American students as being things she wanted to keep.

One of the exciting things about the education reform movement of the last few years has been watching all the different experiments around the country. Not every person would be thrilled to attend a BASIS school (Olga Block talks about how she didn't originally see extracurricular activities as being particularly important for a school). But the idea of high expectations is universally a good idea. We have a lot of untapped talent in this country, and a lot of children who have never truly been challenged. If the BASIS schools can take anyone who wins the lottery to attend, and have such children taking college-level classes through much of high school, it seems to indicate that most schools could aim a lot higher than they are currently doing.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My Gifted Girl

Continuing with this week's gender theme, we're joined today by Audrey Borden, founder of She answers a few questions about her website:

GE: Why did you decide to start My Gifted Girl, and why did you choose to focus on the female half of the gifted population?

Borden: Once my oldest daughter was evaluated and I was told she was gifted, like many parents would, I started looking for resources and information in several books and online. Of course I saw all the exciting academic advantages about how great it is to be gifted. Then, even more prevalent in my research, were the challenges gifted girls and women face. Alarms went off in my head when I read about the tendency to "dumb down" to fit in, substance abuse, depression, promiscuity, and the list continues. I started thinking back on my life experiences, the amazing ones and the challenging times, and it was a revelation. I started learning more about myself and understanding why I felt the way I did as a kid, teenager, adult, mother, wife, and businesswoman. I felt like, "Oh now it all makes sense."

As I thought about all the good things in my life, the successes and what pulled me through tough times, one common thread was clear. Mentors! My Gifted Girl is really about the mentoring that can go on through our message boards and the outreach that will come as we grow.

I decided to first focus on gifted girls and women because I have two daughters, I am one, my mother is and so is my grandmother. It's sort of a female trait in our family! Through my research as a parent, I found that our group had a few extra challenges to overcome and also use to our advantage. I felt we needed a resource that can be better accessed by all whether it's a girl who is exploring careers, a mom who is trying to understand her daughter, or a woman who is looking to network.

We have future plans to launch My Gifted Guy. Stay tuned!

GE: How has "business" been since you launched?

Borden: We got off to a great start in July through involvement at the SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) Conference in Orlando, FL. My Gifted Girl was a sponsor and I felt validated by the reaction the participants had to our event booth. We are growing daily and that is exciting.

Members love our logo and so our logo items have been popular. The "g" represents pride in our talents and community.

I've learned that LinkedIn and Facebook are a large extension of our site with many members involved on our Fan Page too. I'm also enjoying my fellow gifted Twitter community. Between the My Gifted Girl site members, the supportive Fans on the My Gifted Girl Fan Page and our LinkedIn Group we've reached 700 girls, women, parents and educators in less than three months.

We have community forums for all students elementary to college. We have parent, teacher, and forums for all women. Our forums exist for us to support one another, network and share ideas.

GE: What has surprised you most about trying to build a community of gifted girls and women?

Borden: The "impostor syndrome" is real for many gifted women. I hear this common challenge from members and individuals I meet in the community. I felt this most intensely in my twenties after graduate school. I was working for a chemical company and amazed myself at how much I could learn, handle, be given, and accomplish. I couldn't understand sometimes why I'd be able to do all of this and that it shouldn't be real. Sometimes I didn't give myself enough credit. Self confidence is vital to our continued success as gifted women. I've learned more about myself as a gifted woman through this process. I have a lot of freedom in my life for my endeavors and my family. I want to share my gifts with others.

GE: Have you learned anything from My Gifted Girl that's been important in your own advocacy in Palm Beach?

Borden: My degree is in political science and I have a masters in public administration. I have learned that through my passion to help gifted girls and women, I get to be involved at a local level in advocacy. I am part of an enormous group effort in Palm Beach County to make changes in our new curriculum that has been implemented this '09-'10 school year. The new format is described as unified curriculum framework: scope and sequence with embedded assessments school district wide. The change was very poorly communicated and received. This is seen as a "one size fits all" curriculum. This type of educational program is not only detrimental to gifted students, it is negatively impacting students with learning challenges and English language challenges.

My goal is to use my experience and passions and be a national advocate for gifted education needs. I am always one to dig down to root cause problems. I'm learning so much and it's exciting.

GE: What's on the horizon for My Gifted Girl over the next year--any new features or projects?

Borden: We are in the process now of assessing where we will expand to serve more and be flexible to go where we are needed with our scope to meet the needs of our community. My goal is to conduct more gifted girls and women-focused seminars and conferences both face-to-face and via web. This week we had a teleconference about "Just Right Books" for Gifted Kids.

I would like to see corporations involved in supporting these girls and women and I would like input from members in our forums. I see more mentoring outreach in our future and even more advocacy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Packaging Boyhood

While I've never been particularly girly, I'm sure that my childhood was shaped by my gender. That's something I'm thinking about now as I find myself raising a household of boys. What can I expect? What will be different? What influences boys and affects their character? We're still in the Elmo and Thomas the Train stage in my house, but I know that tough pop culture messages seep in more quickly than parents often realize.

So I was intrigued when I received a copy of Drs. Lyn Mikel Brown, Sharon Lamb and Mark Tappan's Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons From Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. The book documents "the narrow version of boyhood that is sold to our sons"-- a version that involves violence, being aloof and non-emotional, not caring about academic achievement, and often disrespecting women, or at least not seeing them as partners in this adventure called life.

I had interviewed Lamb, a professor of mental health at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, about girls and media in the past because she previously co-authored a book called Packaging Girlhood. She agreed to join us here at Gifted Exchange for a short Q&A.

Gifted Exchange: You (well, 2 of 3 of you...) wrote Packaging Girlhood before Packaging Boyhood. Is it tougher to raise girls or boys these days, or is that the wrong question to be asking?

Lamb: Thanks for mentioning that it might be the wrong answer. We are so trying to get away from 'battle of the sexes' and even though you're not really going down that lane, it's close enough. It's hard to raise kids and I find raising boys has particular challenges related to the kinds of stuff being thrown at them about what it means to be a boy or man in this society.

GE: Why do media messages aimed at young children enforce such strict gender segregation? And given that society is becoming more tolerant, why is the "sissy" label still so potent?

Lab: I think that there are a couple of reasons for the segregation. It's easier to sell to a stereotype than to a bunch of unique kids... And think about who are the people creating most media? White guys is my guess... But we all live in a world where these stereotypes abound. It's not like the creators of media start from scratch; they look around with no concern about gender stereotypes and write what they see. If we could work with these producers to be alert to the stereotypes and the harmful effects, they might write/produce differently. Re: the sissy label. It's homophobia -- and it still exists. Plain and simple.

GE: While there are plenty of slackers (and violence), at least many of the TV shows targeted at boys show the main character taking action to solve problems -- something many of us wish there was more of in girls' entertainment. Why should parents still be cautious about these messages?

Lamb: What kind of action? Sure it's a problem in girls' media that they too often are spectators... and yes boys get action. And solve problems. But with what emotional involvement? Do they have to solve these alone? Do they get friends? Can they rely on their parents? Are they allowed moments of desperation and sadness? Is the solution a solution that gets revenge? Those are the things to consider.

GE: Little girls are the target of increasingly sexualized messages from marketers. Did your research find this is starting to happen to boys, too?

Lamb: I don't think as much. But boys are being sexualized to be the ones that reinforce, call for, and celebrate the sexualization of girls as a form of bonding or to enhance their image as players... The sexualization of boys comes in the form of their not having a range of options of ways of being sexual. They can only be gung ho 24/7 and never have complex romantic feelings that might lead them to back away at times rather than "go for it."

GE: What advice would you give parents of highly gifted boys-- who sometimes behave like children and sometimes like adults -- about talking about media messages? How do you start these conversations? Why should you have them?

Lamb: Gifted boys will be great at deconstructing media messages and sharing this with their friends. The best thing for them to know, though, is that they are not immune. They may think because they're smart that they are able to fight the stereotypes and media messages in ads and such. But research shows that when people think they are most immune, they are most vulnerable to picking up these messages. Watch and listen with him, and have good conversations about what he enjoys as well as what he sees. Tell him it's okay to enjoy this stuff some times, as long as you don't let your guard down in terms of the really damaging stuff. Lyn, Mark and I are fans of some really stupid TV shows... what can we say? When some damaging stuff comes on, we get on email and deconstruct it. Sometimes we even complain to the shows!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dual enrollment

Many gifted young people are ready for college-level work before they officially graduate from high school. When they enroll in college courses at the same time they attend high school classes, this is called "dual enrollment" and, according to this recent article in the Omaha World-Herald, the practice is catching on. At least four districts in the Omaha area, the paper notes, are planning dual enrollment programs.

Of course, if this conjures up images of kids actually going to college campuses, that appears not to be the case in Omaha. Local colleges contract with high school teachers, approve a syllabus, and the teachers teach at the high school itself. So on some level, one could just call this more rigorous high school classes... which (unlike, for instance, AP classes) students have to pay for by the credit hour.

On the other hand, they don't have to pay much, and they do get college credit. Since college isn't cheap these days, this means students who enroll in local colleges can save some serious money on tuition (a point the particular reporter who wrote this piece seems mildly obsessed with). Even those who don't will probably benefit from more challenging coursework. So, on the whole, if this is catching on, I think it's a positive development.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A good idea out of India... and the NAEP

Two interesting news items on the education front. First, everyone had the headline yesterday about American school children's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This nationally benchmarked test is equivalent from state to state and year to year, and so, unlike many state tests used for No Child Left Behind, it actually means something. And unfortunately, what it showed wasn't great. Despite the accountability movement and an increased emphasis on teaching basic reading and math skills, 4th grade math scores did not improve from 2007 to 2009. Eighth grade math scores were up slightly, which is good, but the improvements weren't large enough to call for celebrating in the streets. What is clear is that for all the complaints from some parents and teachers of kids being stressed out by constant testing, or the emphasis on math and reading crowding out the arts, music, recreation, etc., all of that is either an exaggeration, or if it's true, then it isn't working.

This, of course, raises the question of what does work to raise student achievement and build the skills necessary for later careers -- and brings me to an interesting idea coming out of India on the science front. According to this article from the Times of India, the National Council of Science Museums has decided to create 1,000 "school science centers" across the country. Sometimes located far from any science museum, these centers will involve professional scientists mentoring teachers on how to help students conduct experiments, and will try to emphasize the hands-on nature of science.

Of most interest to us at Gifted Exchange, though, according to the article, is that this push to train more students in scientific methods is not just about broadening access. It's about using this broad access to identify top talent for future nurturing. The chairman of NCSM said, "We will keep a database of gifted students and follow their career paths closely after school." Another person involved in the project said the students identified as scientifically adept by the school science centers would get an opportunity to "work at the grass-roots level and help the community in solving its problems."

I personally think this is a fascinating idea. We may be trying to upgrade American school children's skills these days, but for the most part, very little about the push to do more testing has involved using individual results to identify top talent and then do something with it. Wouldn't it be interesting if we replaced state-level NCLB tests with the NAEP (or an equivalent internationally benchmarked test) and then not only got aggregated results, but identified the top 1% of scorers on, say, the math section, for further talent development? Wouldn't it be great to do this in other subject areas, too?

For years, people have tried to do similar things with the out-of-level tests used in talent searches (e.g. the SAT for 7th and 8th graders), but as long time readers of Gifted Exchange know, the vast majority of schools do absolutely nothing with these results. Kids who can afford it can use their high SAT scores to go to summer camps at Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. But schools for the most part give kids a certificate or an awards ceremony (if that) and then stick them right back in their grade-level classes. No wonder we're worried about falling behind India on the math and science front.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Jay Mathews: School Rules Stifle Gifted Student

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews penned a piece recently on the struggles of Drew Gamblin, a 16-year-old gifted Maryland student who wanted the "real" high school experience after being homeschooled and taking courses at a local community college. His family's attempts to get high school credit for his various courses (and to show that he's fulfilled certain requirements) will, I'm sure, sound familiar to Gifted Exchange readers who've tried to carve out exemptions from usual school policies. In defense of Howard High School, it is tough to have one student do things differently than everyone else. But as Mathews points out, the state of Maryland regularly allows students who don't pass their high school exams to do special projects in order to graduate. It's unclear why creating an exception for a young person who clearly can (and has!) done the required work is so much more difficult.

Have any readers fought City Hall, as it were, in this kind of situation, and won?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Is "a widening gap" always a problem?

One of the major goals of No Child Left Behind, and the accountability movement in general, is to "close the achievement gap" between more-advantaged and less-advantaged students. It currently remains true in this country that children from poor or minority backgrounds tend to score lower on standardized tests, and to graduate at lower rates than white or more affluent students. Many people worry that such a gap will translate into reduced opportunities for disadvantaged young people later on. And so, education policy makers closely watch test results to see if the achievement gap is narrowing.

Now, data from the Center for Education Policy, written about in Education Week, show that in most states and in most cases, the gap is getting smaller. But as we achieve this goal, I think it's important to keep in mind that a narrowing gap is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself.

First, the easiest way to narrow the gap is to have more advantaged students suddenly do worse. If the average disadvantaged 4th grader is performing at a 3rd grade level, and the average more-advantaged 4th grader is performing at a 5th grade level, and you knock this down to the 4th grade level, you would have cut the achievement gap in half. But this would hardly be cause for celebration (one hopes). Fortunately, the Center for Education Policy data do not show that happening. In most cases, more-advantaged students seem to be making some progress, with disadvantaged students making more rapid progress.

Interestingly, though, in the roughly quarter of analyzed cases in which the achievement gap is widening, it does not appear to be because disadvantaged students are falling behind. They are making some progress, but more advantaged students are making more progress. In other words, everyone is still doing better. As Jack Jennings, the Center for Education Policy's president put it, all boats are "rising with the tide."

This raises questions. In these cases, the achievement gap is clearly widening. This is generally viewed as a bad thing. And yet everyone is doing better -- which tends to sound like a good thing.

So which is it?

I guess it depends on whether you view higher education opportunities, and the job market as fully competitive or as benefiting from rising skill levels in general. I think it's a bit of both. Getting into Harvard is competitive; there are only so many slots. But a million more students could graduate from high school college ready, and I bet there would, soon enough, be higher education slots somewhere to absorb them. Any given job opportunity is, of course, competitive; no business has an unlimited payroll. But in general, the more students who have solid math, reasoning, reading and writing skills, the better off our economy will be as these young people make productivity gains for their employers or start their own businesses.

So, in general, I'm of the opinion that as long as everyone is doing better, the actual gap is not worth fixating upon. But we shall see if that's the headline that comes out of these results.

On a personal note, we're on a bit of a lighter blogging schedule here at Gifted Exchange as I'm busy with the newest addition to my family, Samuel Dwight Conway. He was born on September 24, was discharged from the hospital at a sturdy 8lbs 8oz and is winning all of us over quickly-- even big brother Jasper! I'm still always looking for ideas for posts, though, so please send them along. (If you'd like to see photos, and you're on Facebook, just send me a friend request!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Asperger's and unique gifts

USA Today ran a feature piece recently on professional surfer Clay Marzo, who has Asperger's syndrome. It's a fascinating profile of an incredibly physically and artistically gifted young man. While having difficulty with social interactions, media interviews and the like, he can be incredibly focused in the water, logging more hours surfing than many of his competitors, getting better -- rather than more tired -- as the day goes on. He scores fabulously in competitions when he wants to, but sometimes doesn't because he doesn't particularly want to play by the same rules as his competitors. Rather than waiting for waves that make it easy to show off certain skills, as the article notes, Marzo believes "there's merit in every wave." And so, like a sculptor seeing what the block of marble wants to be, Marzo rides the wave for what it is.

Reading the article, it becomes clear that this young man's brain is just wired differently -- but fortunately, there seems to be a place in this world for such a different brain. As Jamie Tierney, who directed a film about Marzo called Just Add Water, says, "Let's talk about Asperger's but not as disease or a disability. Clay is so good because he has Asperger's, not in spite of it. His level of focus in the wave is incredible, he makes instant natural connections with the water, something very few people have."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Rubber Room

My maternity leave has not gotten off to quite as quick a start as I'd wanted (baby is now 8 days overdue) but at least I'm getting some extra time to catch up on the New Yorkers that are sitting around the house.

One particularly fascinating piece that I wanted to share with Gifted Exchange readers is called "Rubber Room" from the Aug 31 issue. In it, reporter Steven Brill pays a visit to one of New York City's "Rubber Rooms" -- places where teachers who have been charged with incompetence or misconduct, but who have not yet had a full hearing (which can take years), report every day in order to continue receiving their salary and benefits. I had read about a similar set-up for GM workers a few years ago (albeit not ones charged with misconduct -- just ones for whom there wasn't any available work). Basically, when union contracts specify that people have protected employment, but their employer decides that their services are either not needed or not desired, you have to do something with them. These rubber room situations arise because if an employer has to continue paying salary and benefits, it behooves them to make the experience as unpleasant as possible, in the hopes that people will quit. So rubber room policies tend to require people to clock in at a certain time, take certain specified breaks, and leave at a certain hour, but otherwise just sit there.

This sounds absolutely atrocious to me, but the fascinating thing is that often, people don't quit. In New York City, at least, teaching is pretty well paid (teachers with a master's degree start off around $50,000 with pretty good benefits, the contract is for a slightly-less-than 7-hour workday and tenure is granted nearly automatically after three years). So we New York City tax payers are funding the rubber rooms and also the bank of reserve teachers -- those let go because programs are cut but who either can't find or refuse to take another job in the system. They continue receiving their paychecks and benefits too. Given that excellent teachers are scooped up almost immediately, Brill makes the point that anyone on the reserve list after a year is probably going to be there indefinitely.

Of course, there's little point in writing a gee-whiz-isn't-this-crazy story; the broader question is whether this set-up can be changed in a way that is fair to teachers but doesn't waste massive amounts of taxpayer dollars. It is a question that turns out to be critical as a growing body of evidence shows that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement. In that sense, it is good that New York City isn't keeping incompetent (or in some cases, criminal) teachers in front of classrooms; on the other hand, the fact that hundreds of teachers sit in rubber rooms or on the reserve list, and continue to draw salaries, lessens any pressure on merely mediocre teachers to step up their game. Even after 7 years of what some people term "dictatorial" mayoral control of the schools, the percentage of New York City teachers who are not awarded tenure after three years has risen only a few points.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I think many people would be willing to pay for a system that lavished rewards on excellent teachers (with high value-add -- that is who can show student improvement even at the very high and very low ends) as long as bad ones could be weeded out. But this is proving very hard to do in practice. There is much hope that Pres. Obama and Ed Sec. Arne Duncan, who at least talk a good game of not being beholden to the education status quo, will shake things up with Race to the Top money. But we shall see if, over time, this manages to close the Rubber Rooms.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Gifted Exchange Turns 4!

This week marks the 4th anniversary of Gifted Exchange's founding in 2005. Blogging tools have definitely improved since then (I used to need to type whole strings of characters to put in links). We've covered a lot of interesting topics and have a fair number of regular readers. We now log, on average, more than 200 visitors per day. As always, though, I am looking for ways to make this blog more useful and interesting, and so I welcome feedback on what people like, and what I can do better. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gifted Children and Sleep

An article on CNN's website claims that enforcing a bedtime improves health outcomes for children and also has a chart of how much sleep children need. Apparently, toddlers need 12-14 hours, slightly older preschoolers need 11-13 hours, and elementary school kids need 10-11 hours. For most children, this may be true (and enforcing the bedtime may be a good idea for all kids!) but a number of parents have found an interesting truth: some highly gifted kids appear to need a lot less.

There are various theories about this: the kids' brains don't really shut down, or they're just wired differently. While this can be a positive in families with two working parents (hey, more time together in the evenings!) it can be tough if the kid needs less sleep than the adults.

I'm curious if parents who read this blog have found this trait in their own children, and how you've dealt with it. How do you figure out how much sleep your child needs? How do you stay sane if your 3-year-old likes to go to bed at 10pm?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Without skipping a grade"

Kay Williams, director of the Division of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction of the Montgomery County Public Schools, wrote a letter to the editor of Education Week regarding Richard Whitmire and my recent commentary "What Ever Happened to Grade Skipping?" We had noted that Montgomery County was debating whether to label 2nd graders as gifted or not gifted.

In her note, Ms. Williams highlights the various options that Montgomery County uses, such as allowing 8th graders to take algebra, and offering AP classes. She states that "acceleration is already an integral part of the program options in Montgomery County public schools" -- at least with math (the examples she notes, and which is the one subject schools tend to allow some acceleration in).

But what was most interesting to me is her statement that "The district’s systemwide model for acceleration ensures that students can access an appropriate, above-grade-level curriculum every day without skipping a grade." This was our main point -- why is it considered so horrible to skip a whole grade? Or two or three? Often highly gifted young people are ahead of their peers in many subjects, and need more mature classmates in order to fit in, socially, as well. If Montgomery County has a systemwide model in order to ensure that no one need (horrors!) skip a grade, this seems to show that the prejudice is alive and well.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Virtual Field Trips

Add this to the "fun stuff on the web" file: If you're looking for a rainy/winter day activity for young children that's slightly more enlightening than watching Happy Feet again (don't get me started on my kid's obsession), check out Meet Me At the Corner.

This site offers virtual field trips on topics kids find interesting, such as visiting a pet owner who is training a service dog for people with disabilities, and a trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden's Chili Festival. The segments are about the length of Sesame Street's video clips (and have some similarity in terms of topics and videography). Upcoming episodes will deal with the wolf population in Colorado and San Francisco's cable cars.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pink Brains and Blue Brains

As I'm not-so-patiently awaiting the arrival of my second son, I've been enjoying reading Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain, subtitled "How small differences grow into troublesome gaps and what we can do about it."

Eliot, a neuroscientist and mom of three (1 girl, 2 boys), examines the existing knowledge about children's brain development and gender differences. Are boys and girls different because of nature or nurture?

It will probably surprise no one that the answer is both, though often not in ways people enamored with explaining everything in what she refers to as the "Fred and Wilma scenario" (men used to hunt so they did this! women gathered so they did this!) mean.

First, differences between boys and girls as a whole are often quite small -- much smaller than differences between individual boys and individual girls. One of the most interesting, innate ones is that boys are born slightly bigger than girls, and mature slightly slower in the womb. Of babies born quite prematurely (say, at 24 weeks gestation) girls are a lot more likely to survive than boys, because, for whatever reason, they are about a week more mature. Because boys are bigger, birth is a slightly more traumatic experience. Couple that trauma with greater immaturity, and baby boys tend to be fussier.

So people interact with lnfant boys and infant girls differently right from the beginning, with girls getting lots of eye contact and cooing, and boys getting less because screaming babies just aren't that much fun to deal with. Is it possible that girls' vaunted social skills may arise out of just such differences?

For all modern parents try to raise their children in gender neutral patterns, we still have very set ideas of what is "good" for little boys and girls. When people in experiments are led to believe that baby girls are baby boys (and vice versa; researchers dress them as such or refer to them by incorrect but gendered names such as "Marie") the little girls are far more likely to be referred to as aggressive and independent (with corresponding more "little girl" attributes for the boys) than if people think the girls are girls.

We tend to notice events that fit with gender identities. Parents laugh about their sons turning dolls into guns, or little girls giving trucks a bath, but here's the thing: Jasper has given his trucks a bath, I just tend not to think about it much one way or the other. He likes to push his own stroller and he fought to play with a toy vacuum cleaner at a little girls' house recently. But I've never bought him a doll or a toy stroller or toy vacuum cleaner or toy kitchen even though, when we hauled out some tools the other day and he seemed fascinated, I mused that I should get him a toy tool box.

While toddler playtime is one thing, the magnification of small differences has much more profound consequences once children reach school age. Eliot notes that little boys are slightly better at understanding spatial relationships than little girls. But this is not an insurmountable difference; girls who spend as little as 10 hours playing certain video games can close parts of the gap, and in some cases Chinese girls who have to learn the intensely geometric Mandarin characters seem to do better on spatial reasoning than American boys. As Eliot writes, much of learning skills is like getting to Carnegie Hall: "practice, practice, practice." Small differences become large when little girls don't play with blocks or video games, and when little boys aren't given ways to get around their occasional difficulty with penmanship (so they learn to dislike writing and hence don't work at it).

I find it all very fascinating -- both from the perspective of trying to raise my sons and from what the various research into brain differences says about society. There is some evidence that little girls are becoming more open to playing with boy toys and doing "boy things" which makes sense as women have more paths open to them. On the other hand, boys are still being raised largely as boys -- we worry more about boys being sissies than girls being aggressive go-getters. Eliot also points out that a big problem with brain research is that studies that show gender differences tend to get the headlines. So, when one study seems to show that women do better on spatial reasoning when they are menstruating (and hence have less estrogen coursing through their blood), this gets trumpeted in the popular press with headlines like "Hormones make men and women better and worse at math!" Then, of course, when follow-up studies fail to replicate this result, there are no headlines.

I'm curious about gender differences parents who read this blog perceive in their sons and daughters, and if there are times you've caught yourself in stereotypical thinking. Are there specific ways you try to shore up what might be small differences in original abilities? (e.g. making sure girls play with blocks, or letting boys dictate stories they're having trouble writing?)

Perhaps here's a gender difference: I've written about this topic in the past but, when I started reading Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I didn't even think to check the index for my name. I'm not exactly self-effacing, but still. Imagine my surprise when I found myself quoted on page 248! The quote was from a USA Today piece about why girls are far more likely to go into, say, "Bio-statistics" than "statistics." Both are math-based, but put "bio" in front of it and it's perceived as being helpful to humanity. I wrote that math needed a Stephen Jay Gould explaining how helpful math is to the world, and engineering needed a Sylvia Earle doing likewise. I still do think that's true -- science and math are not nerdy disciplines for people who like to work alone, but that's still, too often, the perception.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why it's better to be challenged

Some interesting new research from William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, finds that -- holding academic preparation constant -- young people who attend more demanding colleges are more likely to graduate.

Part of this may simply be expectations. Graduation rates tend to be higher at more selective universities, and when graduating on time is what everybody does, people tend to respond. Plus, these universities often have good systems in place to make sure that people take the classes they need and understand the requirements.

On the other hand, as we've pointed out with young gifted children, it's no blessing to find school easy. We are happiest when we are working hard at something that challenges us at close to the extent of our abilities. If college isn't demanding, then I'm guessing that some people find continuing their education to feel a little pointless. Certainly, many gifted children become dissatisfied with school because they are bored, and there's no reason to think this wouldn't happen for older students, too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Obama Speech

In case anyone missed it, there's a transcript of President Obama's speech to America's schoolchildren here.

In general, I thought it was a good speech. I had a few favorite sections. For instance, I appreciated that he challenged children not to think of themselves as victims:

"At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying."

I also appreciated his realism: "I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things." No, you will not, and as he noted, "No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work."

I'm curious what others thought of the speech, and what your children thought, too.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Myth of the Overscheduled Child

I have another back-to-school piece, this one featuring 2009 Davidson Fellow Erika DeBenedictis, on the Taste Page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. The essay is called "The Myth of the Overscheduled Child" and makes the point that many kids like being challenged and busy. And, often, it's quite good for them to be so! We are happiest when we are throwing ourselves into meaningful projects (like practicing with a sports team to improve, or doing independent computer science research) and making progress. Unfortunately, vast proportions of American teens never get to do any of this.

Anyway, it's been a busy week of back-to-school pieces, but we'll be back to specific gifted coverage next week.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Chat transcript

Glad to see at least one question about gifted kids in the chat! There's a transcript available here.

The Secret of School Success

My column on self-regulation and academic achievement, called "The Secret of School Success," ran in USA Today this morning. I'll be participating in a live chat at at 2pm Eastern, today, and anyone who'd like to is welcome to join!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Back-to-school chat at on Wednesday

Barring major breaking headline news, I will have a column running in USA Today on Wednesday (9/2) about self-regulation and school success. Barring me being in labor, USA Today will be hosting a "live" chat with me at 2pm eastern time about the topic. I'd love to have some Gifted Exchange readers drop by. I will post a link on Wednesday. Thanks!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Smart Child Left Behind

The New York Times ran an interesting op-ed yesterday from Tom Loveless and Michael Petrilli called "Smart Child Left Behind." It made the point that many Gifted Exchange readers have made in recent years: that No Child Left Behind is a wash at best for top achieving kids. This has the advantage (if you wish to look at it that way) of narrowing the achievement gap, though it's not clear that should be our top national educational goal.

What makes it more timely is that apparently the Center on Education Policy released a study finding that more students were making it to the "advanced" level on state NCLB tests (from the proficient level), thus indicating that top students were doing great too. But Loveless and Petrilli claim that these are simply small incremental gains, and that other tests (like the NAEP) don't show much upward movement. And, of course, we've pointed out here on Gifted Exchange that on international comparisons, the top 10% of US students would be considered middle-of-the-pack in countries such as Finland and South Korea. NCLB has not changed that.

As I've written before, I think the aims of No Child Left Behind are good. There needs to be accountability in schools, and the law is an improvement on having no accountability. What we need now is to stop using all these state tests -- some of which seem to declare you proficient if you can write your name -- and instead create a common, benchmarked national one, or use one that already exists for international comparisons. Our goal should not only be to raise achievement among kids most at risk of being left behind, but to have the top 10% of American students be the top 10% in the world. We are no where near that now, NCLB or no.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

SAT Scores: Good news and bad news

This week, the College Board released information about college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2009. The New York based non-profit, which oversees the famous college admissions test, definitely tried to spin the results in a positive manner. The headline on the website? "2009 College-Bound Seniors Are Most Diverse Group Ever to Take SAT® As More Minority Students Prepare for Higher Education."

This is true; about 40% of the 2009 test-takers were minority students, vs. 29% in 1999. About a third of the test-takers said their parents had not gone beyond high school, so the positive spin is that a bigger proportion of America's high school students are thinking about college and considering it a feasible goal to get there.

On the other hand, despite decades of school reform efforts, the overall scores have been fairly flat, with reading scores actually dropping over the long term (math scores are slightly up over the long term, but not by much).

It is one thing to encourage a diverse group of Americans to consider college (which taking the SAT amounts to doing); it is another thing for our schools to actually educate children to be capable of attending college. The scores indicate that while aspirations are high, the results on the ground are not so great...except if you happen to be Asian.

The average math SAT score for Asian young people hit 587 this year, compared with 536 for white students, and 426 for black students. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal today, Asian students tend to do better at all income levels. Officials said this was "because they tend to take more Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses, and their families place a strong value on success in education."

I would love to find a study that looks at the actual practices of Asian children and Asian parents -- where these daily differences between Asian families and, say, white families arise, and what they look like. When it comes to education and test results, there is little known about best practices. When you know what works, you can try to put it into practice in other places as well, and it strikes me that this would be a fruitful area for study.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Cogito Update

Back in 2007, with the help of a $1.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the folks at Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth launched a new website called Cogito, devoted to math and science. The target market? Gifted young people who are comfortable with technology, want to meet other kids like them, and need a safe place on the web to do it.

Building up content and readership always takes time (we're almost celebrating our 4-year anniversary here at Gifted Exchange!), but two years later, Cogito is feeling pretty fleshed out. This week, there's an article on the winners of the International Math Olympiad, an interview with Preya Shah, a top-10 finisher at the Intel Science Talent Search this year, and links to interesting popular articles about math and science around the web.

I'd love to hear feedback from GE readers with kids who are Cogito regulars, and I encourage anyone who hasn't given it a look to check the site out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Can gifted kids become not-gifted?

I've been reading NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new tome about research-based approaches to education and parenting.

It's a fascinating book in many respects, aiming to show how little of what we think is obvious is actually backed up by any data. Of course, to do this, Bronson (whose voice carries the book) has to make a bit of a gee-whiz fuss over research that does exist and seems counter-intuitive.

Unfortunately, the chapter on gifted education -- "The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten" -- gets a heady dose of that. Bronson maintains that testing for IQ too young results in many kids being put in gifted education that wouldn't be if tested later, and keeping some late bloomers out. As he puts it, "if a school wanted the top tenth of students in its third-grade gifted program, 72.4% of them wouldn't have been identified by their IQ test score before kindergarten." This, he claims, is a problem, because "earning this classification when young is nothing less than a golden ticket, academically. The rarified learning environment, filled with quick peers, allows teachers to speed up the curriculum. This can make a huge difference in how much a child learns. In California, according to a state government study, children in Gifted and Talented programs make 36.7% more progress every year than the norm."

I'd quibble with the golden ticket idea -- much of what makes gifted education into a controversy is that it's perceived as some sort of reward, as opposed to an educational intervention for kids who need it. But anyway, the headline one would take out of this chapter is that either "gifted education is a scam" or "you shouldn't test until 3rd grade, at the very very earliest."

But this isn't exactly what Bronson appears to be showing. As he points out, "even in kindergarten, a few children are clearly and indisputably advanced." There is nothing gained by failing to meet these children's needs by putting off interventions until 3rd grade or later (which is what I worry people reading the chapter will take away). Instead, "what stands out as problems are: the districts who don't give late-blooming children additional chances to test in, and the lack of objective retesting to ensure the kids who got in young really belong there."

I find this to be a far more fascinating idea. It is true that in many districts, schools screen once for gifted programs, and then don't allow a whole lot more additional screens later. More importantly, they don't look at their gifted classes to see if the situation is still the best match for these kids, or whether someone would be doing better in a more conventional classroom. These policies are based on the assumption that intelligence is an unchanging thing, but there's no particular reason we need to think of it as constant.

That's why I prefer the words "readiness grouping" to "ability grouping." It implies less about an innate quality, and more about simply giving children work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. Likewise, if gifted education were truly perceived and treated as an intervention, not a reward, it would not be seen as so awful to remove children from the class based on retesting.

So what do you think, readers? I rather like the idea of more frequent evaluation, and kids moving between classrooms, grades, etc., as the need arises, as opposed to a certain IQ meaning you get 90 minutes of pull-out a week, and a lower IQ meaning you don't. Do you know of any gifted programs that offer lots of opportunities to come in and out?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Meet the 2009 Davidson Fellows!

The Reno, NV-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development announced its 2009 Davidson Fellows this week. These young people, who will receive $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 scholarships, are profiled here.

They're a fantastically talented group of students, as usual, and my one regret is that I'm probably not going to meet them in person this year (since my baby is due right before the awards ceremony in Washington in September). But I've been thinking about their achievements in the context of larger academic issues nonetheless, and especially in light of the cultural narrative about "overscheduled" or "overworked" children who've been "hothoused" their whole lives (to use a few of the ideas thrown out there). Many of these young people are in multiple activities, in addition to the hours required to produce their projects. To some pundits, this is a recipe for an anxious breakdown.

But just as I have argued that adults are not nearly as overworked or under-rested as many of us seem to think, I'd argue that most children are not nearly as overscheduled or overworked as people seem to think, either.

According to studies done for the sociology book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, the average teenager does a mere 4.9 hours of homework weekly (0.7 hours, or 42 minutes per day). He/she spends just 30 hours in school, which gives us a grand total of about 35 hours devoted to the teen's chief job of learning. Most adults would think a 35-hour workweek sounds pretty reasonable.

Furthermore, only about half of children participate in structured activities (such as sports, Scouts, etc.) A far greater consumer of time? TV and leisure computer activities, which account for around 20 hours of teens' weeks (Nielsen tells us that the average teen watches 3 hours and 20 minutes of TV a day, but time diaries give us a lower number -- probably the TV is on, but the kid is doing something else).

In other words, it's a very small percentage of teenagers who are hitting the books for large numbers of hours per week, or loading up on activities. And judging by what some of the Davidson Fellows have been able to accomplish by devoting their non-school hours to focused, meaningful activities, I'd say that it's far from clear that the outcomes of being "overscheduled" are so bad!

As you can imagine (given all the stats crammed into these paragraphs) this is a topic I'm writing about in conjunction with the back-to-school season, so I welcome thoughts on gifted kids and extracurricular activities. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Princess Problem

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts on little girls and princesses (per the previous Gifted Exchange post on this). My column, The Princess Problem, ran in USA Today this morning.