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.