Thursday, May 28, 2009

Homeschooling on the rise

According to a new report from the US Department of Education (discussed by USA Today here), 1.5 million US children are now being homeschooled. This is up from less than a million in 1999, and puts the homeschooling rate at just shy of 3%. The homeschooling rate is much higher among college-educated parents; indeed, nearly 7% of college-educated parents now homeschool their children. Also, though American incomes haven't risen very much since 1999, homeschooling is now more popular among higher-income families. In 1999, 63.6% of homeschooling families earned less than $50,000 per year; now this figure is only 40%, with 60% earning more than $50,000.

That last stat is interesting to me because it's generally been assumed that homeschooling families are 1-income households, with one parent forgoing a paying job in order to teach. Naturally, 1-income households are going to be lower income than 2-income households, even if the breadwinner is highly likely to be college educated. But I suspect that the rise of "free agency" (self-employment, contract work, small business ownership, etc.) is enabling at least some 2-income households to homeschool. After all, if dad does freelance graphic design, for instance, he can work at his home office while a child is taking an online geometry course in the next room. I wrote about this issue some for USA Today last fall (with several Gifted Exchange reader families participating). In other words, free agent parents are deciding to educate free agent children!

Since homeschooling is quite common among families with gifted children, I think it's good to see it rising, overall, as a potential option. When more families consider this option, school districts wind up developing processes that make it easier for everyone (and there tend to be more support groups as well).

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What should a principal do?

The New York Times had an interesting article the other day on the principals who've graduated from the New York City Leadership Academy, the city's new boot camp for school leaders. Under Chancellor Joel Klein, the city has been trying to change the job of principal from a position that one takes after climbing up the teaching ranks, to one that attracts top Ivy League grads, trains them in school leadership, and then gives them much autonomy in exchange for accountability.

The article claims the results have been mixed. Since the new breed of principals is sometimes earning more, and supervising smaller schools, the principal payroll has climbed in the city, and in general, paying more for administration is not seen as a reform best practice. Teacher turnover is up at schools with Leadership Academy principals, though this could be seen as good or bad. If new principals are getting rid of deadwood teachers, great. If they're driving out good ones, that's a problem. It's hard to know. More troublesome, schools with Leadership Academy principals have not improved on the city's report cards as much as many people hoped they might. There's some speculation that this is because these principals are very new on the job and people, in general, get better at their jobs over time. But this stumbles into one of the major HR philosophy dilemmas you see in the corporate world as well. Sometimes it's great to hire untested but brilliant people who will shake things up. And sometimes that philosophy produces Enron.

From my time studying education, and corporate management, here's my opinion. The key non-parental factor in education is teacher quality. So the best principals would be the people who are the best leaders of teachers. This means being able to find and hire excellent teachers, coach them to become even better, and make sure they have the tools to succeed.

In terms of gifted education, principals can also play a key role by setting school tone. Leaders articulate a vision and inspire everyone to follow it. So for gifted education, a good principal would make it clear that the school will challenge all children to achieve their potential, and support teachers as they do whatever is necessary to achieve that. I'd love to hear from parents who have worked with principals who feel that way!

Friday, May 22, 2009

SAT Coaching Boosts Scores -- Barely

The SAT has a fascinating history as a test. Started as more of an "aptitude" assessment designed to find highly intelligent children who hadn't had top-notch academic preparation, it later turned into an "achievement" test designed to cover high school coursework. It was "re-centered" in the mid-1990s to push declining average scores back toward 1000 on a 1600 point scale. Then, four years ago, the College Board added a writing section, putting the potential point total at 2400.

In all its versions, though, here is one thing we do know about the SAT. It is one of the few academic measures that means something nationally. High schools vary vastly in their rigor; it is quite possible for two children at two different high schools to take math classes with the same names, both get As, but have one score 200 points higher on the math section of the SAT. In that sense, it is harder to manipulate.

So it's no surprise that a cottage industry of folks who don't like the fact that the SAT can expose bad schooling has sprung up to claim that the SAT can be rigged, too. The chief criticism is that scores are meaningless because they can be coached. Rich parents can afford to pay thousands of dollars for Kaplan courses or tutoring, and hence buy their children admission to top colleges. The commercial coaching companies give ammunition to this idea by advertising massive score increases. According to an article in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Elite Educational Institute says its average score improvement is 240 points. Ivy West guarantees a score increase of 200 points. Revolution Prep promises 200 points, Summit Educational Group says their proven increases are 180-400 points, and Sylvan pledges 160 points.

I've always been skeptical of these claims because if it were so easy and straightforward to raise your score by 400 points just by paying a fee, why don't you see more 2400s than you do? Why doesn't every kid who's been coached get a 2400? It's not that I don't believe coaching helps -- I paid for voice lessons for 2 years, for instance, and saw an improvement in my singing -- but I believe that any increase is coming, largely, from the fact that the kid is learning material that's on the SAT and that she didn't know before, or becomes familiar with the test. You could learn the material in school, too, but for a variety of reasons, that doesn't always happen as it should. There are also a variety of old SATs available from the College Board or even the library, so one can gain test familiarity without paying a cent.

Now, a new report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling released this week says I'm on to something. The average gains from commercial coaching were more in the neighborhood of 30 points on the SAT (the old version, which was out of 1600 points), not the 100 or 200 points claimed by many coaching companies. NACAC accuses some colleges of fueling the industry by setting cut-off scores that give 30 points a significance they shouldn't have, but as William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's admissions dean, told the Wall Street Journal, "It breaks my heart to see families who can't afford it spending money they desperately need on test prep when no evidence would indicate that this is money well-spent."

So what's behind the massive score increases claimed by the commercial coaching companies? Apparently a high school senior named Jonah Varon from San Francisco came up with a theory. As the Wall Street Journal noted, he took a mock SAT from a company called Revolution Prep, and scored a 2060. Then, without doing any of the company's coaching, he took the real SAT a few weeks later, and scored a perfect 2400 -- more than 300 points higher. He was suspicious. So he had several of his classmates do the same thing. Almost all of them scored hundreds of points higher on the real SAT than the mock SAT, with no coaching whatsoever. He wrote an article for his school paper claiming that the mock SATs were either harder or scored more harshly than the real SAT in order to inflate gains and make it look like the coaching created a miracle. It all makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gifted with ADHD

Having a high IQ doesn't protect you from the impairments caused by Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), according to a new study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

The researchers gave 157 adults with ADHD and IQs over 120 several tests designed to gauge their executive function. Executive function refers to the brain processes that control planning, choosing appropriate actions, and selecting relevant information. The researchers found that despite their high IQs, these adults were worse at these tasks than the general population.

As we've talked about here at Gifted Exchange before, it's important for teachers to have training in identifying giftedness, because in the absence of such training, a logical first assumption is that a gifted kid is one who acts "smart." In many cases, this means paying attention in class, turning in homework on time, following rules, etc. A highly gifted child with ADHD may not do any of those things. Indeed, the child may be downright lousy at such academic tasks -- doing worse than an average student. But that doesn't mean the child isn't gifted. It's tough to know how many children might be missed or misdiagnosed because of this.

Friday, May 15, 2009

An Unfortunate Correlation

It turns out that severe morning sickness during a mother's pregnancy is associated with higher tested IQ in the child, according to a recent study. The likely explanation is that something about the hormones that cause nausea and vomiting also help with neurological development. I guess that's a small comfort if you're feeling really sick. But boy, I know I wished whoever designed pregnancy decided, instead, to have the hormones make you feel heavenly...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Where Are They Now?" Turns One

For the past year, I've been writing a weekly online column for Scientific American called "Where Are They Now?" The series profiles former finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. For six decades, this contest found highly gifted young people from around the United States, and honored them for their science projects (it lives on today as the Intel Science Talent Search).

These young people went on to live varied lives. You can read the series, which celebrates its first birthday this week, here (for 2008 columns) and here (for 2009).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Secret of Self Control

The May 18 issue of the New Yorker has an interesting piece on self-control and how it relates to children's achievements. Years ago, at the Bing Nursery School on Stanford's campus, psychologist Walter Mischel designed an experiment. He'd put a 4-year-old in a room with some marshmallows. He'd tell the kid that she could have one now, or if she waited for him to return in a few minutes, she could have two. Then he'd leave the kid with a bell and say that if she rang it, he'd come running back and she could have one marshmallow immediately (though she'd forfeit having any more).

As you can imagine, most children were not able to hold out. Some chunk didn't even bother to ring the bell -- they just ate the marshmallows. Others would stare at the treats for 30 seconds and then ring the bell. Another 30%, though, were able to hold out until the researcher returned 15 minutes later. It's not that they didn't like marshmallows. The researchers filmed the children as they sat there waiting, and discovered that they had all sorts of mechanisms for distracting themselves. They'd play games, look at something else in the room, etc. As the New Yorker article puts it, "These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist."

So what, right? Well, follow up studies 3-4 decades later have found that, on the whole, the children able to delay gratification were doing much better in life. In high school, those with the most self-control had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than the kids who could only wait 30 seconds. The same pattern held in the career world, and in things like body mass index (kids who can't resist a marshmallow can't resist the donuts as grown-ups). As journalist Jonah Lehrer writes, "For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. 'What we're really measuring with the marshmallows isn't power or self-control,' Mischel says. 'It's much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can't control the world, but we can control how we think about it.'"

While it's typical New Yorker to downplay IQ, this could be an interesting piece of the puzzle for those dealing with gifted children. In general, people with higher IQs do better in life than those with lower IQs, but there are always plenty of high IQ people who don't seem to be able to succeed in the adult world. Some just don't fit in, but others seem to be shooting themselves in the foot with their inability to pass their college classes if they have to work at it, or hold a job for reasonable periods of time if things don't immediately go their way. Perhaps these people would have scored lower on self-discipline tests as children.

Of course, the other question is whether self-discipline is innate and hard-wired or can be learned. Lehrer raises several points that suggest it can be partially taught. When researchers taught children how to distract themselves from the marshmallows, far more were able to do it. But who knows if that will last past a half-hour research session. Some of the KIPP Academies, known for helping underprivileged children with high standards and strict discipline, are trying specifically to teach children habits of self-control. And some parents do this automatically. No, you can't watch TV or have dessert until after dinner. No, you can't open presents until Christmas morning. You have to wait until after your brother plays with that toy. Maybe these turn out to be very important lessons.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Do High School Exit Exams Work?

The "standards" movement has been brewing for quite a while, and one result is that about half of states now require something called a high school exit exam. Several years ago, there was a spate of stories about high school graduates being unable to read their diplomas, so states began adding exit exams to their graduation requirements in order to signal to employers and higher education institutions that a high school diploma meant something. It does not signal much -- exit exams are often based at around an 8th-10th grade level of knowledge -- but it should signal something.

Has it worked? At least one study looking at California's High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) says "not really." You can read the recently released results from Stanford here. The researchers made several efforts to control for variables that often confound social science research.

The study found that of bottom quartile students, those subject to the CAHSEE requirement graduated at a significantly lower rate than those who weren't (50 percent vs. 35 percent). Interestingly, while white students did not see large drops in graduation rates, minority groups did, including Asians. The Stanford researchers talk a lot about stereotype threat to explain why -- for any given level of performance on the California Standards Tests -- minority students had lower CAHSEE pass rates, but I'm not convinced on this point. After all, the California Standards Tests are tests, too. Why would the stereotype threat affect one set of assessments but not another? The difference in pass rates is quite curious and deserves more study.

The study's point, though, was not so much about graduation rates. After all, lower graduation rates are going to be inevitable if the CAHSEE is doing its job of screening out people who should not graduate in the first place. The benefit of such a test would be if it spurs higher academic performance among low performers who might on the margin make it. At least according to this study, though, there was no rise in academic performance among students subject to CAHSEE compared with those who weren't.

Personally, though, I think the high school exit exam phenomenon could be more useful for another reason. I think these exams should really test what a high school graduate should be expected to know. They should be extremely rigorous -- covering four years of English, four years of math, history, foreign language, etc. And then -- this is the key part -- they should be available to anyone who wants to take them, and people who score above a certain level should qualify for a high school diploma. That may include older adults (obviously the GED serves this purpose, more or less). But it should definitely include younger gifted students who'd like to go to college early and still be considered high school graduates. Why not? If you already know the material that is to be covered in high school, all graduating shows is that you also have an ability to go sit in a seat somewhere that someone else tells you to for 180 days a year. This probably is a valuable signal to employers, though our economy is changing in that way too. Few of us work in factories anymore. Something to keep in mind.

Monday, May 04, 2009

One Day a Week

I was excited to see an article from The Tampa Tribune a few days ago called "School board to consider expanded gifted program." Given that many districts are talking about cutting funding, how nice to see one place where gifted students' needs are being considered in the mix!

A closer look, though, brought up many of the issues we've been talking about here in the past. The school board planned to meet to discuss a proposal that all gifted students in Brooksville would be able to spend one day a week at the Quest Academy gifted center in Spring Hill. I'm sure whatever these kids would be doing at the center would be fun and more engaging than what they're doing in their home classrooms. It's also nice to be able to spend one day a week with your intellectual peers.

But here's the question: Why only one day a week? It seems we're back to the pull-out approach, with gifted kids getting one day a week of special programming, when what they need is academic work on a daily basis that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. It leads me to a new rule for designing gifted programs. If you're not willing to do whatever it is you're proposing for the lion's share of a child's instructional time, it's probably not really going to meet their needs. And it's going to sow a lot of discord, as the comments below the article make very clear.