Monday, August 31, 2009

Back-to-school chat at USAToday.com on Wednesday

Barring major breaking headline news, I will have a column running in USA Today on Wednesday (9/2) about self-regulation and school success. Barring me being in labor, USA Today will be hosting a "live" chat with me at 2pm eastern time about the topic. I'd love to have some Gifted Exchange readers drop by. I will post a link on Wednesday. Thanks!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Smart Child Left Behind

The New York Times ran an interesting op-ed yesterday from Tom Loveless and Michael Petrilli called "Smart Child Left Behind." It made the point that many Gifted Exchange readers have made in recent years: that No Child Left Behind is a wash at best for top achieving kids. This has the advantage (if you wish to look at it that way) of narrowing the achievement gap, though it's not clear that should be our top national educational goal.

What makes it more timely is that apparently the Center on Education Policy released a study finding that more students were making it to the "advanced" level on state NCLB tests (from the proficient level), thus indicating that top students were doing great too. But Loveless and Petrilli claim that these are simply small incremental gains, and that other tests (like the NAEP) don't show much upward movement. And, of course, we've pointed out here on Gifted Exchange that on international comparisons, the top 10% of US students would be considered middle-of-the-pack in countries such as Finland and South Korea. NCLB has not changed that.

As I've written before, I think the aims of No Child Left Behind are good. There needs to be accountability in schools, and the law is an improvement on having no accountability. What we need now is to stop using all these state tests -- some of which seem to declare you proficient if you can write your name -- and instead create a common, benchmarked national one, or use one that already exists for international comparisons. Our goal should not only be to raise achievement among kids most at risk of being left behind, but to have the top 10% of American students be the top 10% in the world. We are no where near that now, NCLB or no.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

SAT Scores: Good news and bad news

This week, the College Board released information about college-bound seniors who took the SAT in 2009. The New York based non-profit, which oversees the famous college admissions test, definitely tried to spin the results in a positive manner. The headline on the website? "2009 College-Bound Seniors Are Most Diverse Group Ever to Take SAT® As More Minority Students Prepare for Higher Education."

This is true; about 40% of the 2009 test-takers were minority students, vs. 29% in 1999. About a third of the test-takers said their parents had not gone beyond high school, so the positive spin is that a bigger proportion of America's high school students are thinking about college and considering it a feasible goal to get there.

On the other hand, despite decades of school reform efforts, the overall scores have been fairly flat, with reading scores actually dropping over the long term (math scores are slightly up over the long term, but not by much).

It is one thing to encourage a diverse group of Americans to consider college (which taking the SAT amounts to doing); it is another thing for our schools to actually educate children to be capable of attending college. The scores indicate that while aspirations are high, the results on the ground are not so great...except if you happen to be Asian.

The average math SAT score for Asian young people hit 587 this year, compared with 536 for white students, and 426 for black students. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal today, Asian students tend to do better at all income levels. Officials said this was "because they tend to take more Advanced Placement and other rigorous courses, and their families place a strong value on success in education."

I would love to find a study that looks at the actual practices of Asian children and Asian parents -- where these daily differences between Asian families and, say, white families arise, and what they look like. When it comes to education and test results, there is little known about best practices. When you know what works, you can try to put it into practice in other places as well, and it strikes me that this would be a fruitful area for study.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Cogito Update

Back in 2007, with the help of a $1.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the folks at Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth launched a new website called Cogito, devoted to math and science. The target market? Gifted young people who are comfortable with technology, want to meet other kids like them, and need a safe place on the web to do it.

Building up content and readership always takes time (we're almost celebrating our 4-year anniversary here at Gifted Exchange!), but two years later, Cogito is feeling pretty fleshed out. This week, there's an article on the winners of the International Math Olympiad, an interview with Preya Shah, a top-10 finisher at the Intel Science Talent Search this year, and links to interesting popular articles about math and science around the web.

I'd love to hear feedback from GE readers with kids who are Cogito regulars, and I encourage anyone who hasn't given it a look to check the site out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Can gifted kids become not-gifted?

I've been reading NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new tome about research-based approaches to education and parenting.

It's a fascinating book in many respects, aiming to show how little of what we think is obvious is actually backed up by any data. Of course, to do this, Bronson (whose voice carries the book) has to make a bit of a gee-whiz fuss over research that does exist and seems counter-intuitive.

Unfortunately, the chapter on gifted education -- "The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten" -- gets a heady dose of that. Bronson maintains that testing for IQ too young results in many kids being put in gifted education that wouldn't be if tested later, and keeping some late bloomers out. As he puts it, "if a school wanted the top tenth of students in its third-grade gifted program, 72.4% of them wouldn't have been identified by their IQ test score before kindergarten." This, he claims, is a problem, because "earning this classification when young is nothing less than a golden ticket, academically. The rarified learning environment, filled with quick peers, allows teachers to speed up the curriculum. This can make a huge difference in how much a child learns. In California, according to a state government study, children in Gifted and Talented programs make 36.7% more progress every year than the norm."

I'd quibble with the golden ticket idea -- much of what makes gifted education into a controversy is that it's perceived as some sort of reward, as opposed to an educational intervention for kids who need it. But anyway, the headline one would take out of this chapter is that either "gifted education is a scam" or "you shouldn't test until 3rd grade, at the very very earliest."

But this isn't exactly what Bronson appears to be showing. As he points out, "even in kindergarten, a few children are clearly and indisputably advanced." There is nothing gained by failing to meet these children's needs by putting off interventions until 3rd grade or later (which is what I worry people reading the chapter will take away). Instead, "what stands out as problems are: the districts who don't give late-blooming children additional chances to test in, and the lack of objective retesting to ensure the kids who got in young really belong there."

I find this to be a far more fascinating idea. It is true that in many districts, schools screen once for gifted programs, and then don't allow a whole lot more additional screens later. More importantly, they don't look at their gifted classes to see if the situation is still the best match for these kids, or whether someone would be doing better in a more conventional classroom. These policies are based on the assumption that intelligence is an unchanging thing, but there's no particular reason we need to think of it as constant.

That's why I prefer the words "readiness grouping" to "ability grouping." It implies less about an innate quality, and more about simply giving children work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. Likewise, if gifted education were truly perceived and treated as an intervention, not a reward, it would not be seen as so awful to remove children from the class based on retesting.

So what do you think, readers? I rather like the idea of more frequent evaluation, and kids moving between classrooms, grades, etc., as the need arises, as opposed to a certain IQ meaning you get 90 minutes of pull-out a week, and a lower IQ meaning you don't. Do you know of any gifted programs that offer lots of opportunities to come in and out?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Meet the 2009 Davidson Fellows!

The Reno, NV-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development announced its 2009 Davidson Fellows this week. These young people, who will receive $10,000, $25,000 and $50,000 scholarships, are profiled here.

They're a fantastically talented group of students, as usual, and my one regret is that I'm probably not going to meet them in person this year (since my baby is due right before the awards ceremony in Washington in September). But I've been thinking about their achievements in the context of larger academic issues nonetheless, and especially in light of the cultural narrative about "overscheduled" or "overworked" children who've been "hothoused" their whole lives (to use a few of the ideas thrown out there). Many of these young people are in multiple activities, in addition to the hours required to produce their projects. To some pundits, this is a recipe for an anxious breakdown.

But just as I have argued that adults are not nearly as overworked or under-rested as many of us seem to think, I'd argue that most children are not nearly as overscheduled or overworked as people seem to think, either.

According to studies done for the sociology book Changing Rhythms of American Family Life, the average teenager does a mere 4.9 hours of homework weekly (0.7 hours, or 42 minutes per day). He/she spends just 30 hours in school, which gives us a grand total of about 35 hours devoted to the teen's chief job of learning. Most adults would think a 35-hour workweek sounds pretty reasonable.

Furthermore, only about half of children participate in structured activities (such as sports, Scouts, etc.) A far greater consumer of time? TV and leisure computer activities, which account for around 20 hours of teens' weeks (Nielsen tells us that the average teen watches 3 hours and 20 minutes of TV a day, but time diaries give us a lower number -- probably the TV is on, but the kid is doing something else).

In other words, it's a very small percentage of teenagers who are hitting the books for large numbers of hours per week, or loading up on activities. And judging by what some of the Davidson Fellows have been able to accomplish by devoting their non-school hours to focused, meaningful activities, I'd say that it's far from clear that the outcomes of being "overscheduled" are so bad!

As you can imagine (given all the stats crammed into these paragraphs) this is a topic I'm writing about in conjunction with the back-to-school season, so I welcome thoughts on gifted kids and extracurricular activities. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Princess Problem

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts on little girls and princesses (per the previous Gifted Exchange post on this). My column, The Princess Problem, ran in USA Today this morning.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

EdWeek piece on gifted kids and acceleration

Richard Whitmire, author of the upcoming Why Boys Fail, and immediate past president of the National Education Writers Association, and I have a commentary in this week's Education Week called "What Ever Happened to Grade Skipping?" You can read the top with the link though you have to register for the entire piece. It is also in the print edition. And Richard seems to have put it up on his website.

The themes are the same ones we've talked about here at Gifted Exchange. In tight budgetary times, gifted education is an easy target. Acceleration, on the other hand, is cheap and usually a good solution. And yet most teachers don't like the idea, and a solid minority of schools don't even allow it -- with an additional chunk doing it so rarely that teachers can't even say what the school policy might be.

This antipathy is a bit strange. Parents have told me that schools are quite open to the idea of "red-shirting" kindergartners (especially boys) -- that is, having them start at age 6 or so. But try to start a kid who's already reading at age 4, and this will be a fight. People often bring up the concept of socialization, but what an artificial construct that people can only be socialized by others of the same age! It's a good thing that people don't hold this idea for adults, or my marriage and many of my friendships would never have happened.

Even with children, everyone develops at different paces. I have heard caveats from parents of children on the smaller side for their age, and this obviously has to be a family decision, but one thing to keep in mind is that adolescence is awkward for just about everyone. Everyone. Beautiful people like Mavis Leno and Gisele Bundchen have complained in profiles about how awkward they felt in middle school. Acceleration at least chips away at the problem of a mismatch between readiness and the academic curriculum.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Judging Teachers

I am back from vacation, and slowly gearing up to post more on Gifted Exchange as the school year resumes!

In my inbox this week -- a fascinating story from LA that is not about gifted education per se, but gets at one of the major problems in American education: a failure to reward and nurture excellence.

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez recently wrote "A Lesson from a Good Teacher" about a young and energetic teacher named Susan Requa who moved from Chicago in order to teach at James Monroe High School in the LA Unified School District. She won rave reviews from some veteran teachers in the school, and was taking on leadership roles and proving to be a natural in the classroom.

But then LAUSD ran short on cash and needed to lay off some teachers. So who goes? The teachers with the least seniority. That would be Requa -- not, as Ron Harris, a supervising teacher at the school laments, the burn-outs or the Holocaust denier he has on staff.

It's easy to blame teachers unions for this state of affairs -- and Lopez, the columnist, does -- but school districts have also acquiesced in creating these rules. We know that teacher quality matters a lot to student outcomes. It should not be a huge jump to look at student advancement during a year, coupled with supervisor, peer, parent, and student reviews (aka "360 degree feedback"), and figure out which teachers should be rewarded and which should be retrained or else seek a different line of work. But in the vast majority of districts, compensation and job security are based primarily on years of experience and advanced degrees. Not an honest comparison between teachers or against a set of standards of best practices.

This problem in LA is just part of a broader philosophical woe in American education: we do not value excellence. We are perfectly willing to squander talent in pursuit of someone's idea of "fairness." This is why challenging bright students to the extent of their abilities always gets the short end of the stick in funding and other resource allocation. It is why schools squash acceleration in favor of "socialization" and refuse to use homogeneous grouping as broadly as they could.

I am not sure where this idea comes from. In many other spheres, Americans are very much into talent. Sports is the obvious counter example, but we also swoon over entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas, or CEOs who truly transform their companies. Indeed, if you look at the bookshelves these days, it seems that companies everywhere are engaged in wars for talent. So why isn't the LAUSD fighting to keep teachers like Requa? Why aren't schools in general fighting over talent among students and teachers? The lack of competition is certainly one reason but the philosophical issue goes deeper than that. I wish I knew.