Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Raising Bill Gates

Based on an excellent suggestion by GE reader Taia, today's post deals with a recent Wall Street Journal article on Bill Gates Sr. and Bill Gates Jr.

Bill Gates Sr. has mostly stayed out of the limelight, but with a short book coming out, he agreed to talk to the WSJ about Bill Gates' childhood. The article reveals some fascinating details. Young Bill read the encyclopedia at a young age, and became very intellectually curious. Mrs. Gates (Bill Gates Jr.'s mother) was fairly strict with young Bill. When he started to become rather obnoxious -- a not uncommon thing for highly gifted young people -- and talking back to her, questioning her authority, the two fought a lot. This resulted in one dinner table incident of Bill Gates Sr. throwing a glass of water in Bill Jr.'s face.

After that, the parents enrolled Bill Jr. in counseling. The counselor advised them to ease up on the boy a bit. While this may or may not be the right move for other gifted young people, having the freedom to explore lots of things in the real, grown-up world, definitely helped satisfy Bill Jr.'s curiosity. His parents transferred him to Lakeside (known as the school where he learned about computers) and let him spend late nights working with the University of Washington's computer facilities. This helped him build up programming expertise, which became necessary when he started Microsoft a few years later. They also still provided a lot of familial support even after Bill Jr. dropped out of college (his mom actually checked on whether he had clean shirts!)

Lots of parents of highly gifted kids struggle with what to do with their precocious adolescents. On one hand, these young people have the minds of adults. They can interact with adults on their level or beyond, and are often capable of thinking into the future and accepting responsibility. But, on the other hand, they can still have some of the impulses and generalized stupidity that come from being 13. And even if they are quite mature, the outside world is not willing to let such young people accept the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood.

I'm curious how readers of Gifted Exchange have dealt with the conflicts involved in raising a gifted teenager. How do you give the child the freedom to explore his or her interests, while protecting them from making life-altering mistakes? And how do you know if those "mistakes" aren't really mistakes (such as Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard)?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

McKinsey: Bad schools cost us $2.3 trillion

It's a constant refrain in education circles that spending on schools is an investment in the future. Better educated people earn more and live healthier, more productive lives. We know this through extensive social science research, and in fact, even know income numbers in terms of averages for people who score in different quartiles on standardized tests.

But we don't talk about the converse very often: By that logic, bad schools are extremely expensive in terms of producing far lower returns than one should expect. This is the equivalent of keeping your money in a 0% interest savings account at one bank, rather than going next door to one offering 2% or so for the same level of risk.

This week, McKinsey's Social Sector Office released a report quantifying exactly how bad our returns are in terms of lower expected earnings and the like. You can read the report here. Among the findings:

* If the USA closed the achievement gap on international tests between better scoring countries such as Finland and South Korea, our GDP could be $1.3-$2.3 trillion higher. This is the equivalent of 9-16% of GDP.

* If the USA closed the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white students, our GDP could be 2-4% higher ($310-$525 billion).

* If the USA closed the achievement gap between low income students and other students, our GDP could be 3-5% higher ($400-$670 billion).

* If low performing US states did as well as high performing US states, our GDP could be $425-700 billion higher.

* And lest anyone think it's all about money, the USA spent more per earned point on international tests than other countries (though McKinsey still notes that in general poor districts in the US spend less than richer districts and also do less well -- not universally, a la Washington DC -- but in general).

These are interesting numbers because as of late March, the current recession was expected to knock about 3.4% off GDP, and only the most bearish economists are putting it into double digits. So if our lousy schools are giving us annual returns of 9-16% less than we could expect, this is like being in a "permanent national recession," as McKinsey says.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to Raise Our IQ

Just a quick post today -- but wanted to call attention to a Nicholas Kristof column from the New York Times last week. He writes about the ongoing debate about whether it is possible to raise IQ. The answer? Maybe. Children who are already testing above average probably won't see much effect from efforts to boost their intelligence quotient. But children who are otherwise subjected to deprived or chaotic home and school environments can see boosts from intensive, early intervention. In the coming weeks, I'll review the main book he cites, Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It. In the meantime, I encourage you to give the article a read.

Here's the URL since it seems the above link is broken:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Davidson Academy, a student's voice

Not long ago, we heard from a teacher at the Davidson Academy of Nevada, located at the University of Nevada-Reno. The Davidson Academy is the nation's first public school for profoundly gifted children. I thought it would be fun to hear from a student as well. Today we're talking with Alex Wade, 11, a student in his first year there.

GE: Why did you decide to attend the Davidson Academy?

Alex: At my old school, I was bored because the material covered was too easy for me. Also, I had trouble finding kids like me that I could make friends with easily.

GE: Describe a typical day. How is it different from your previous schools?

Alex: 1st period I take Algebra I, 2nd period I take History, 3rd period I take English, then a break for lunch, in 4th period Digital Media, in 5th study hall, and in 6th Chemistry. The classes themselves and the teachers are different from my old school in that they are more accommodating towards gifted students and the classes are harder and are not at the same exact level as each other.

GE: What kind of student do you think would do best at a place like the Davidson Academy?

Alex: A student who can meet deadlines, is self-motivated, curious, and does not goof off.

GE: Are there things you and your fellow students do at the Davidson Academy (or ways you learn) that you think other schools could try?

Alex: Matching classes up with students by ability and not age or grade, and teachers who do not lecture, but converse with the students and respect the opinions of the students.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Vouchers work -- sort of

In 2003, Congress created the first federally funded voucher program in the District of Columbia. This program offered students $7500 scholarships to attend private schools in the area (a number which is significantly below the public schools' per pupil funding rate). When the funds were appropriated, Congress also set aside funds for studying the program. The most recent results were just released; you can read the executive summary here.

The verdict? Vouchers do work -- sort of. Students using the scholarships earned reading test scores that were significantly higher than comparable students remaining in the public schools. This worked out to the equivalent of being about three months ahead in school. Parents also reported higher levels of satisfaction with the schools. However, math scores were not higher with any statistical significance. Scores were also flat for students who entered the voucher program after attending schools designated as being "in need of improvement." Since vouchers are usually billed as a way to help children escape failing schools, this lack of progress is certainly disappointing for some voucher advocates.

However, I view this all more through the lens of being interested in high achieving students. The DC scholarship research study was carefully designed to counter the selection bias critics usually complain about with voucher programs. Kids and families who are most interested in receiving a scholarship to attend a private school are naturally more interested in school -- and hence will likely do better on tests regardless of where they attend school. So this study compared students who didn't win the lottery for vouchers with students who did, not with "regular" students in the public schools. But even if these students would do reasonably well regardless of where they attended school, so what? I'm all for giving kids who want to broaden their opportunities any chance possible to do so. It's too bad all the students who applied couldn't be given vouchers - I like the idea of families being able to look around at the widest variety of schools, and pick the ones the best fit their needs.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Duncan: Want stimulus money? Cough up the data

As long time readers of this blog can guess, I'm not a huge fan of the federal stimulus bill. However, I am happy to learn that when it comes to education funding, the feds (led by education secretary Arne Duncan) have decided to ask for as much transparency and data collection as possible. The first checks seem to be coming regardless. But in order for states to get the second round, they're going to have to release certain numbers, according to this article in the New York Times. A key set? Local test scores and scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

This is a big victory for the accountability movement, and is also going to embarrass several states. When the No Child Left Behind act was passed several years ago, Washington required that the states test children annually and track school results to show adequate yearly progress. However, in a nod to federalism, states were left free to design their own tests.

Some states did the right thing and created challenging tests that actually matched what children should know at grade level. Others decided that hey, if all they had to show was progress on a test to be rewarded on a federal level, why not make the test as easy as possible?

The NAEP -- sometimes called "The Nation's Report Card" is far more challenging and gives a better sense of whether schools are doing their job. When some states wind up reporting that 89% of their 4th graders passed the state reading test, but only 18% were proficient on the NAEP (as Steven Colbert once joked about Mississippi), something will have to happen.

So what does this mean for gifted students? Unfortunately, for a lot of gifted students, testing days are pretty much wasted days. However, a completely dumbed down test is even more of a waste than a reasonably challenging one. And if states have to redesign their tests because of these new policies, at least that opens the door to creating tests that better gauge gifted students' abilities (i.e. ceiling-less tests that show the full bell curve of children's scores). Ideally, gifted children will be accelerated to grades where the grade level test actually is challenging. But this happens far fewer places then it should. In the meantime, more rigorous assessments create better schools -- which are, in the long term, better for everyone.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Erin Vienneau on teaching gifted children

Today we welcome another teacher of gifted students to Gifted Exchange. Erin Vienneau teaches English and history at the Davidson Academy of Nevada, the nation's first free public day school for profoundly gifted children. Located in Reno, the school serves children who would conventionally be in the middle and high school years, and focuses on individualized instruction.

GE: Please describe a typical day for us.

Vienneau: Describing a typical day at the Academy is almost impossible because it varies so much from student to student, but I'll try. The school day starts at 8:00 and ends at 3:15, although we have several students with late starts and/or early dismissals. Our classes are an hour long, with five minute passing periods, and a 45 minute lunch -- there are six periods in a day. Most students take all four core subjects -- English, math, history, and science -- and then add electives such as foreign languages, computer classes, etc. Much of the day on Friday is devoted to other electives like creative writing, jazz band, yearbook, student council, etc. Students who are signed up for University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) courses come and go throughout the day. The majority of the students also have at least a little study hall time, during which they can work on homework or ask for assistance from someone in the writing center or math center. During lunch, there are many clubs (math, science, debate, chess, GECKO -- an environmental group -- and Community Crusaders -- a volunteer group).

GE: What are some differences between the Davidson Academy and other schools you are familiar with?

Vienneau: Two of the biggest differences between the Academy and other schools are: 1) Our classes are small and student driven. The pace, depth, and types of assignments are constantly adjusted to meet the rapidly changing needs and interests of the students. For example, in my classes, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to cover, how I want to cover it, and about how long I think it should take, but I am constantly checking in with the students, making adjustments, and altering my plans based on their feedback. 2) To a higher degree here than I have seen elsewhere, these students are really supportive of each other. There is a lot of collaboration in class and in study halls. I thought this school might be highly competitive, and while there is some good natured competition which helps everyone push themselves a little, overall, the students are very kind and cooperative with each other.

GE: What have you learned from teaching at the Academy?

Vienneau: Lessons I've learned at the Academy: 1) Be flexible. Be willing to change your mind or your strategy at a moment's notice based on how well any given task is working. 2) Have a good sense of humor. Many smart teenagers, and preteens, like to joke around, and being willing to joke back goes a long way toward building good relationships. When students like their teachers, they are usually more driven to do their best work. 3) Don't feel like you have to know everything. Be open to learning from your students. I greatly value the enthusiasm and knowledge of my students because then our whole class is working together to learn, think, deliberate, and discover.