Sunday, July 26, 2009

Gifted education and budget cuts

Education makes up a large share of any state budget, and with states facing falling tax revenue, it's inevitable that education budgets will take a hit. In Illinois, for instance, state education officials had to recently figure out a way to cut $146 million from funding levels from the year before. I'm sure no one will be surprised to hear that, according to this article from the Chicago Sun-Times, gifted education was simply zeroed out. In tough times, gifted education is treated as an optional perk. And unfortunately, many gifted programs leave themselves open to this criticism by focusing more on fun field trips to science museums or short pull-out enrichment programs than accelerated academic work.

It's really too bad that gifted education is going to wind up bearing a disproportionate amount of state budget cuts over the next few years. But here's what I hope will happen. Advocates for gifted kids -- mostly parents -- will use the absence of funds to truly press the case for acceleration, a.k.a. "skipping grades."

Acceleration costs nothing beyond the usual per-pupil funds. In the long run, it saves states and districts money, since it costs less to pay for 10 or 11 years of compulsory schooling vs. 13.

The evidence in favor of acceleration is very strong, and yet there is incredible academic resistance to it. I have yet to figure out why this is -- I'm curious what reasons parents who read this blog have heard. Anyone who's observed children between the ages of, oh, 8 and 16, knows they develop at different rates anyway. The whole notion of grades, per se, is relatively modern. In the 1-room schoolhouses of yore, it was not a distinction with much weight.

I don't want to let parents entirely off the hook here, either. If parents of gifted kids were completely unified in pushing for more widespread use of acceleration, I think school districts would find it harder to say no. But, just like teachers, some parents worry about social issues, sports, and perhaps some worry about just how hard a gifted 8-year-old might have to work to stay on top of the 6th grade curriculum, vs. always getting A's... and getting to go on science museum field trips with the gifted program.

But if the latter is no longer an option, maybe there will be a bit more of a unified front with acceleration. It is worth lobbying for as a broader solution than it is, currently. That would certainly be a silver lining in all this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A National Curriculum -- Sort Of

The New York Times ran a fascinating article a few weeks ago called Newark Starts a Summer School Aimed at Advanced Placement. Advanced Placement, or "AP" classes, are accelerated high school classes originally designed to help students earn college credit early. Newark, NJ, a highly troubled urban district, is trying to offer more AP classes and -- more importantly -- make sure kids are prepared to handle their rigors. So an intensive summer program gives kids a taste of reading large volumes of text quickly, doing experiments and the like, before the curriculum begins in earnest in September.

Though Newark has a long way to go toward succeeding in this experiment -- only 16% of AP tests taken in the district in 2008 earned the 3, 4, and 5 scores necessary for college credit -- I think this is a great idea. It behooves all children to try something difficult, and experience the joy of throwing themselves into challenging work. Even in good schools, gifted young people often coast through classes easily, and in sub-par districts, this can be an even greater danger. Perhaps Newark's AP classes are not as well-taught as they should be, though the district has hired coaches to train AP teachers, and hopefully this will boost the pass rates.

But what's even more interesting is just how widespread AP classes have become in this country. According to the article, "Nationwide, 12,605 public schools offered Advanced Placement classes in 2008, up from 9,582 a decade before." There are about 37,000 public and private secondary schools in the US. There has been much talk lately about creating a set of common standards in US schools; to some degree, the AP curriculum is starting to become that. Texts, experiments and tests are at least somewhat standardized with AP courses, and a 5 on the AP Calculus AB exam means the exact same thing in Topeka as it does in Newark, whereas an "A+" on an individual teacher-designed test doesn't translate across districts at all.

Of course, the College Board is a private (albeit non-profit) group. One could argue that the US public missed an opportunity to create a rigorous national curriculum that wouldn't be controlled or administered by a private institution. However, as these things go, the AP curriculum isn't bad, and given that educational authorities have punted on this for so long, it's good that the non-governmental community has stepped up instead.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Little Girls and Princesses

This comes more under the "parenting" category of posts than anything related to gifted education, but I'm hoping that Gifted Exchange readers can provide some insight nonetheless.

I am fascinated by the Disney Princess cultural juggernaut (and the prevalence of princess images in other shows, toys, etc. marketed to very young girls). I am hoping to write more broadly about it, tied to some other cultural issues. However, since I don't have little girls myself, the toys and movies that are big in my house have more of a "truck" or "wild animal" theme.

For those of you who do have little girls, are they into princesses? What makes the princess image appealing? How prevalent is it (like what percentage of girls in your daughters' classes dress up as princesses for Halloween)? Is one of the Disney princesses more popular than the others? Why is that?

What do parents in general think of the princess phenomenon? Is there any worry about girls playing princess more often than, say, deep sea explorer or astronaut?

Thanks for your help in researching this! Marketing to children has gotten so much more sophisticated over the years, and I enjoy trying to understand exactly why some concepts hit it big.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gifted Siblings

Per request, today's post is on giftedness and sibling love and rivalry. As any parent of two or more kids knows (and I will find out when baby number 2 arrives in September), just because kids are related doesn't mean they're anything alike. They have different interests, different temperaments, and in some cases within families, some children are highly gifted and others are not. What happens then?

When I first thought about this question, I assumed that when one sibling is highly gifted and the other is "normal" (whatever that means), this would lead to a certain level of strain. After all, if good grades and test scores come easy for one child, and require a lot of effort from the other, wouldn't the child who has to work so hard resent that? If a younger sibling can easily outpace the older on reading or -- seemingly worse -- is accelerated into the same class, wouldn't that be difficult to deal with?

But thinking about it a bit more, and reading about it a bit more, I realized that this (probably) conventional wisdom is not based in fact. For starters, not all highly gifted children are academic superstars -- the "normal" child might actually be happier in school. The child who is not intellectually precocious may have her own interests and talents.

This second version of events turns out to be backed up by some research. According to this report in the Duke Gifted Letter from Nancy Robinson, a study of 378 sibling pairs (ages 8-13, some involving 2 gifted siblings, some involving 1 gifted sibling, or none) revealed that "According to their mothers, the children with a gifted sibling had fewer behavioral problems, and in general they were described with more positive adjectives than the children in pairs with no gifted child. Gifted children described their siblings in a friendlier way, and their mothers confirmed their more amicable relationships. We noted not a single unfavorable difference. Our best guess, based on this study, was that having a gifted sibling was simply a ready excuse for the ordinary wear and tear that brothers and sisters inflict on each other."

Robinson has lots of great advice for how to deal with siblings of different levels of intellectual ability: "Teach your children that “fair” is not necessarily “the same” and that you will meet each child’s needs and passions as best you can. ...
Make time for companionship, hugs, fun, and time alone with each of your children. ... If you spend time chauffeuring one of them to lessons, use the wait time with the other child for a trip to a nearby park or library to practice ball skills or read a special book. At the dinner table, do not let the more verbal child dominate the conversation....Treasure each child for his or her own quirks and assets. Minimize comparisons. Most families — even families of identical twins — assign one child to be 'the smart one,' 'the grumpy one,' or 'the jock.' By implication, the other child is 'dumb,' 'sunny,' or 'a klutz.'"

Not much good can come out of locking children into sibling identities like that!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Summer Reading List

We're on our summer posting schedule here at Gifted Exchange (read: infrequent), but I'm always looking for topics so please send ideas along!

In the meantime, today's post covers summer reading. As part of my attempts to "make over" my time to get more out of days and weeks, I've been trying to read more fiction. I read a lot of non-fiction (often for book reviews) but as life gets busy, I often find myself not inclined to read books that I'm not getting paid to read. I know this isn't a good thing -- I like to write fiction, after all -- and I used to read fiction for hours as a kid, particularly on summer days. I recall reading Robinson Crusoe at one point (I believe an abridged version) while walking around outside barefoot. I stepped on something sharp but was too into the story to deal with it. Only hours later did I look down and notice the dried blood all over my toes. Talk about being absorbed!

This experience of being totally lost in a fascinating world is one of the most exciting a kid can have. I've never understood situations where parents have to force kids to read for 30 minutes every evening. Maybe the kids are just reading the wrong books!

In which case, I thought it would be helpful to provide a link to the winners of the Newbery Medal (and the honorable mentions) from 1922 to the present.

Every year, the American Library Association gives this award to the best book for young readers. While some may be darker or more intense than others, and deal with slightly more grown-up themes, in general, they are more appropriate for young gifted children (e.g. K-4th grade) who are capable of reading chapter books than books specifically marketed to adults.

Looking over this list brought back some great memories. There was Dicey's Song (Cynthia Voigt, 1983), Jacob Have I Loved (and other Katherine Patterson books), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The High King (and other Lloyd Alexander books), From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1963). Indeed, you probably couldn't go wrong just printing up a copy of this list, taking it to the library, and checking out any of the books that happened to be on it.

In that same spirit, Jasper and I have been working our way through the Caldecott winners this summer. These are also good, though since the award is given to the artist (who is often not the writer) the emphasis is more on the visual experience. Pretty sumptuous so far. Definitely beats yet another Elmo book. Unfortunately, this has also turned out to be an expensive undertaking, as he still has a tendency to destroy books, which means I don't want to risk the library's copy.