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.