Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Making all young Americans "STEM Capable"

I wanted to call readers' attention to a new report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Institute for Advanced Study called "The Opportunity Equation." This report takes a broad look at math and science education in the US, sets a number of goals, and makes recommendations.

There's some interesting food for thought. The big goal is that all young Americans should be "STEM capable" -- that is, capable of choosing science, technology, engineering and math careers if they so choose. At least one survey found that young people are quite interested in such topics, but the proportion who believe they have the skills to enter these professions has no basis in reality.

Some of the recommendations for pursuing that goal are pretty boiler plate (we should have a national call to action! The public, alas, grows weary of such calls).

Others are more interesting. For instance, the report calls for common and fewer standards. One complaint of math education, at least, is that American schools hit dozens of topics each year in a shallow fashion and then repeat them the next year. Better to delve deep into a few and then move on. The report also calls for more rigorous math tracks that feature data analysis and statistics as opposed to calculus as the end point. In many schools, there is one "college prep" math track that leads to calculus, which is definitely useful, but all students need to know statistics and data analysis to have scientific and math literacy. Just because you don't plan to study calculus doesn't mean your math classes should be easy.

There are some good ideas about alternative certification programs for math and science teachers, and using scholarships and pay incentives to keep them in the classroom. Given that math teachers are in much higher demand than English teachers, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to pay them the same amount. And yet, most schools do. Net result? A math teacher shortage. Math for America is one innovative program that gets around this by paying math teachers more out of private funds. The report calls for more research on teacher effectiveness, to invest in cyberlearning, to make better use of universities and museums in communities, and to close and replace failing schools.

Unfortunately, when it comes to gifted education, though, the report doesn't deliver as much as one might hope. In the opening sections, the report states that we should be "providing opportunities for the most successful students in math and science to accelerate beyond what is traditionally available in high school." Yes, we should!

Unfortunately, none of the recommendations in the executive summary, which is all the vast majority of people are going to read, deal concretely with acceleration, telescoping, sending kids to college math classes early, giving advanced students the opportunity to do real science research in college labs, etc.

This is a missed opportunity, because while I definitely think it's a nice idea to have all young people be STEM capable, the reality remains that the big innovations are going to come, largely, from students in the top 10%. Many of these kids are already STEM capable, but they are not performing nearly at the level of students in some other rich countries.

So here's what I would have written as the key goals: All young Americans should be STEM capable, and the top 10% of American K-12 students should outperform the top 10% in all other countries.

In a flat and largely free world, we can no longer bank on the top 10% from other places coming here for college or graduate school and staying. Having a truly exceptional elite -- as well as solid preparation for everyone else -- is the true key to prosperity in the future.

Friday, June 19, 2009

US funds boarding schools for kids whose needs can't be met locally...in Vietnam

While doing some background research on a group called the East Meets West Foundation, I came across a fascinating press release about the new Kon Ray Boarding School in Vietnam. Providing an adequate education for the ethnic minority students in Vietnam's central highlands has long been a problem for this developing country. Families are scattered, which means that kids have to walk long distances to go to school. With poverty as an additional obstacle, many wind up dropping out. So USAID has helped to fund the new Kon Ray Boarding School, which has provided lodging and education for 180 students this past school year.

It certainly sounds like a good solution to the problem. Of course, as readers of this blog know, there are students a lot closer to home whose needs are not being met in their local schools either. Over the past three years, Gifted Exchange has covered the issue of boarding schools for gifted kids several times. While big cities can have magnet schools which concentrate highly or profoundly gifted children, in less populous areas, this becomes more difficult, with kids either needing to travel long distances, or else forgo an education with their intellectual peers. Some families move -- for instance, to be closer to the Davidson Academy in Reno, a school for profoundly gifted children -- but often this is not an option (either because of parents' jobs, or because other siblings are having their needs met locally).

In these cases, public boarding schools for gifted kids can be a great option. About a dozen states have public residential schools for gifted high school students -- usually those in their junior and senior years -- though there's no reason these couldn't cover other years as well. So reading this press release, I'm struck by the question: if we think this is a good policy decision in Vietnam (and I think it probably is), why don't we see more such schools here in the States?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Permanent Recession

I have a column in USA Today this morning called "The Permanent Recession." It touches on some topics we discussed here in recent weeks -- namely, that mediocre schools have an economic cost, and that underachievement is not just a problem confined to poor students in poor districts. It affects most students at most schools. Scores for the top 10% of US 15-year-olds on international tests are way below the top 10% in countries such as Finland and South Korea. That means that students who might qualify for some of the broadest defined gifted programs here in the US would be considered, at best, B-team material in some other rich countries.

I call for judging schools and states against international standards, and making those very public. I also got to quote Kyle Hutzler, a 2008 Davidson Fellow, who referred to NCLB as the educational equivalent of the Articles of Confederation. I think that's a very apt description. For all the problems of testing, we know that accountability is important, and NCLB was a feint in that direction. The issue now is making something that actually works.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Should Gifted Kids Know their IQ Scores?

I was particularly struck by this headline from ABC News the other day: Should Genius Kids Know Their IQs?

The question came up due to the media attention received by some precocious children. If headlines are blaring a kid's IQ scores (problematic though some of the higher ones may be due to controversies about the test used for 160+ scores) it's pretty hard to keep that under wraps. But what about with children who are simply being tested as part of determining an optimal education approach?

The easy answer is "no," though as any parent of a highly gifted kid knows, that's easier said than done. For starters, gifted kids are incredibly observant. They know they're being screened for something. Some may even then decide to research giftedness and realize that often something called IQ is involved. Since gifted kids love to ask questions, "Mommy, what's my IQ?" is bound to come out right along with "Why is the sky blue?"

So what do you do? I'm curious how parents who read this blog handled the situation, and if you ever told your kids, and if you did, how you framed the answer or what you told the kid to do with it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Career advice for gifted young people

As some of you know, I am deep in the throes of writing another book, called 168 Hours, to be published by Portfolio about a year from now. There are 168 hours in a week, and this book is about how successful, happy people get the most out of them (I'm still looking for people to profile, and people to "makeover" their schedules, so if you know anyone who's interested, let me know! Lvanderkam at yahoo dot com is the best way to reach me, though of course I read public comments here too).

Anyway, right now I'm working on a set of career chapters which look at how people build big Careers with a capital C in the middle of already full lives. A lot of it is advice culled from interviewing hundreds of people, and looking back at what I wish people would have told me.

Sue Shellenbarger's Wall Street Journal "Work and Family" column touches on this topic this morning. She starts with tales of woeful grads who tried to major in "hot" areas like accounting and finance, only to see those industries enter deep recessions. She then talks about how parents can help younger kids build skills for the new economy. You need to be adaptable -- answering the endless "why" questions, and helping children puzzle through these -- you need to encourage children to explore new areas so they're always open to change, and teach them how to seek out opportunities to put new ideas in play.

I think it's good advice, and I'd certainly like to hear advice from parents who read this blog on how they're helping their kids and teens prepare for life after school. Here are a few things I wish people had mentioned.

* For creative types: If you are, objectively, pretty good at what you like to do, there's no reason you can't make a career out of it, or at least try. Your twenties are a great time to do this. If it doesn't work, so what? You go and get a real job.

* You will always need to be entrepreneurial. No one is going to create the right job for you. You will probably work for yourself for parts of your life, and even when you're working for someone else you'll have to figure out ways to change the job description to get closer to what you want. One example: I recently profiled Kraig Derstler, a UNO paleontology prof, for Scientific American. He was not hired to research dinosaurs -- that wasn't his original area of expertise, so he didn't have any grants or papers in that area. So to finance his research, he started bringing along paying lay people on his digs, more or less like Tom Sawyer getting people to white wash his fence. But it worked and he got tenure, and is now doing all dinosaurs, all the time.

* The right job combines a few elements. First, the "stuff" of it is what you love and do best (and hopefully that others can't do nearly as well -- your "core competencies" as it were). Second, it affords you a lot of autonomy -- you can work in the way that works best for you. Third, it challenges you at close to the extent of your abilities. There is much joy to be gained by working hard, whether it's in school or at work, and it's a shame that too many gifted young people don't have experience with the riskiness of trying something you might fail. If you're working in an organization, there's a fourth criteria: your co-workers can't be total jerks. I don't have a lot of advice on the last front, since I'm a confirmed soloist, but I do understand that it matters a lot.

* A lot of people mistake things that look like work for actual work. Do not fall into this trap. Keep your eye on the revenue line, the "stuff" of your job, or what you'd like to be doing long-term. The fact that you had 3 meetings and 2 conference calls does not mean you're being productive unless something came out of all of those that advanced you toward the life you want.

* The best productivity boost comes from getting better at your professional craft. Practice does help! When I first started writing professionally, I'd be assigned a piece at 1000 words, and when I'd do my first "word count" it would be 1600 words -- difficult to edit without changing the focus, getting rid of key things I spent a lot of time researching, etc. Now, when I'm assigned a piece at 1000 words, my first count is always between 900-1100 words. I'm not counting as I go, I just have a sense of what kind of thesis will fit a certain length. I imagine that after a while, chefs never crack their eggs in anything but a perfect circle. I don't know why the idea that I'd get better at my job came as such a surprise, but it's true.

* Everyone needs a story. Life is about marketing these days -- hopefully with substance behind it -- but from college applications to job interviews to publicity, it helps to have a good line for why you're interested in something, why you are the right person to do it, etc. It's a competitive world.

Feel free to post more!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why do gifted kids drop out of college?

While it's become an article of public faith that almost all high school graduates should go to college -- because a college degree is critical in a knowledge economy -- it turns out that many colleges are doing a lousy job of helping their students finish. According to this article in USA Today about an AEI study, 4-year colleges in the US only graduate 53% of their students in 6 years. While people with "some college" often do better than those with just high school diplomas on the job market, the big payoffs come from the degree, which means that about half of people who start college will leave -- thanks to expensive tuition and loans -- perhaps no better than they started.

What's most fascinating about this is that some similar colleges do much better than others. As AEI and USA Today noted:

"•Among schools that require only a high school diploma for admission, Walla Walla University and Heritage University, both in Washington state, reported graduation rates of 53% and 17%, respectively.

•Among colleges that require high school grades averaging a B-minus or better, John Carroll University in Cleveland and Chicago State University in Illinois graduated 74% vs. 16%, respectively.

•In the "most competitive" group, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Reed College in Portland, Ore., graduated 96% vs. 76%, respectively."

These are not minor differences, and suggest that low graduation rates are not inevitable. They may also shed light on why some gifted students don't make it through college.

Over the years, I've talked to a number of grown-up gifted kids, who tend to have varying outcomes. Some, obviously, become smashingly successful. But for many, college seems to be a turning point. If students have coasted through high school, then the more difficult college curriculum can be unnerving. Being around other smart kids is often a relief for isolated gifted kids, but some perceive it as a challenge to their worldview. One young man once told me that the people around him didn't understand him -- and that was why he had to leave school. Add in the complexities of trying to afford college or get in the right classes, and graduation rates can coast down.

Since there are always going to be reasons not to follow through with something, this would suggest that as young people and their parents look for the right college, all things being equal, you should choose the one with the highest graduation rate. People respond to cues around them, and when almost everyone graduates, failing to do so becomes a less viable option.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


The online version of my story in the spring 2009 City Journal called "LAPD High" finally went live. Back in January, I visited the Reseda Police Academy Magnet, one of a handful of LA schools sponsored by the local men (and women) in blue. They're getting reasonable results for at-risk kids, and suggest an interesting model of career-focused education.