Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The gift of a cardboard box

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article this morning from Sue Shellenbarger about what makes kids creative. According to Kyung Hee Kim, an assistant professor of educational psychiatry at the College of William and Mary, American kids' scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008. (An example of a question on such a test: A child sees 6 boxes arranged to look like a T. She is asked to list all the things this figure could represent. A common idea would be "the letter T." A less common idea might be "stones in an anti-gravity statue!")

Of course, some folks are quick to point to the increased use of standardized tests, and (the story goes) rote learning as crowding out time for creativity. But I think it's not just what we do in school that discourages creativity. Every Christmas as I'm shopping for toys, I'm struck by how mindless many toys have become. Selling Legos or Lincoln Logs in sets produces higher margins than just selling them as buckets of blocks, so that's what companies do. We buy toys that are associated with characters in TV shows, which then provide ready story lines for children. Will Cinderella turn into a pioneer woman who builds a hut out of Star Wars Lego sets? Let's hope so. But not hold our breath.

But it's not just the toys. It's also the amount of time children spend watching TV and playing video games. Games can encourage creativity -- sometimes. But they don't leave as much to the imagination as a book.

I'm not sure what's to be done about that. We're trying to limit our kids' exposure to video games and TV, and encourage coloring and building with blocks (and cardboard boxes) and the like. I'm curious what other readers of this blog do to nurture their children's creativity.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What makes a good teacher? Ask the kids

The Gates Foundation has been undertaking a multi-year study of teacher effectiveness, trying to learn why some teachers' students excel and others don't. How can you evaluate teachers? Should you just look at test scores?

Preliminary findings from the Gates study suggest that there may be one underused approach: ask the students (as highlighted in this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article).

The Gates study had students watch teachers explaining various concepts. The students were asked about the teachers' effectiveness, and were also tested.

It turns out that, as Justice Potter Stewart once said of obscenity, students know effective teaching when they see it. The study also found that a teacher's past success in raising student achievement on state tests is the best predictor of doing so in the future, and that the teachers who demonstrate the best value-added scores on state tests are rated as most effective by students in explaining concepts.

It's a fascinating finding, and suggests that the so-called 360 degree feedback model, in which a person is evaluated by everyone he or she works with, could have some merit in education too. In general, teachers are mostly evaluated by principals, but this suggests that student feedback on effectiveness can also be meaningful.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The opposite of red-shirting

For the past few years, it's become quite popular to "red-shirt" kindergartners, especially boys. The idea is that if kids start school a little later, they'll be academically more advanced and do better (and kids who are bigger and more coordinated will do better athletically). In some cases, this may be true. School districts have been quite open to following parental directive on this front.

They have been less open, however, to going the other way, and letting a child start kindergarten early. I'm not quite sure why, but even children who just miss the fall cut-off and can demonstrate, say, an ability to read at a much higher grade level, encounter an uphill battle getting an exception.

So I'm glad to see that Colorado is at least creating a pathway for parents to request an early acceleration. According to this article in the Canon City Daily Record, parents can request testing, get a recommendation from a preschool teacher and make their case. The school district is quick to point out that only children scoring in the 98th percentile or higher should do this, but at least they are acknowledging that in some cases it's a good idea!

Obviously, in some cases it isn't too. Many gifted children rather enjoy preschool because it tends to be more flexible, and less about everyone in the class doing the same thing at the same time. But starting kindergarten early is one of the best ways to do acceleration, because it gets it out of the way early, and then (barring the need for more acceleration... which, of course, can happens with PG kids!) children can keep going along with the same cohort.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Inching in the right direction"

That's the verdict from the National Center for Education Statistics on the US results on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years, countries around the world have thousands of 15-year-olds participate in this internationally benchmarked exam. The idea is to see how students stack up on an international basis.

As usual, the US is not exactly on top of the heap. 15-year-olds boosted their scores in science, coming in right at the middle of OECD countries, while in math, US students score a bit lower. (In reading, the US is above average for OECD countries, so that is good).

What's interesting to me is that our mediocre scores are not the result of having a heterogeneous population, including many English language learners. A McKinsey study that came out a little over a year ago found that the top 10% of US scorers on the PISA don't stack up well against the top 10% in other countries either. One thing we do stack up well on? We spend a lot per pupil. For years, America has been focused on inputs (funding, small class sizes, etc.) rather than outputs, and these international comparisons always show it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Teach Like a Champion... and issues even champions face

After many positive recommendations, I finally downloaded Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion to my Kindle, and I've been rather enjoying it. Lemov, the managing director of Uncommon Schools, has spent quite a bit of time video-taping excellent teachers. He defines excellent teachers as those whose at-risk students outperform more privileged ones. He studies the tapes like a football coach, and has honed their craft down into 49 replicable techniques. As he points out, it's one thing to say that teachers should have high expectations for their students. It's another to figure out what that looks like at 8:30AM on Monday.

The techniques are not rocket science, but are also dazzling when you think about them. For instance, he advocates cold-calling on students. All well and good. But how do you cold call? Effective teachers ask the question first, then call a student's name ("What is 8 times 3? [Pause] James?"). If you call a student's name first and then ask the question, only the student in question does the work in his head. If you ask the question first, then call on someone, all of the students do the work in anticipation of being asked for the answer. This is a little thing, but makes a massive difference in class engagement. Another important technique is "Right is right." When teachers ask classes a question, they often reward a partially right answer by "rounding up." That is, they supply extra information that the student didn't give. Why not say, "I like where you're going with that," and then ask the student to elaborate? Near and dear to my heart, he also chides teachers for engaging in the whole debate of whether slang is a cultural difference that should be celebrated. Proper English, he says, is the "language of opportunity." Kids can speak how they want at home. At school, they should be trained in speaking in a way that will open doors for employment and college.

You can certainly see how a teacher employing Lemov's techniques would have complete control of a class and be able to guide students toward discovering and mastering concepts. However, as I'm reading the book, I can't help but think that all of these techniques work wonderfully when the students are all working at close to the same level. Lemov advocates checking for mastery among kids of all abilities to see how it's going, and he suggests differentiating by cold-calling on your advanced students with harder questions, and having bonus questions ready for people who can master work after three examples rather than ten. But what if the kid already knows the material at the beginning of class? Circling back until 80% of the class has mastered something is incredibly frustrating for the kid who doesn't need half an hour to learn how to round to a certain decimal spot. Sometimes, gifted kids cope by tuning out and studying something else in their desk -- reading a book for example. But most of Lemov's techniques are designed to stop kids from opting out. This makes perfect sense for kids who are defiant or struggling. But not for those who mastered the material long ago.

This is why schools need homogeneous grouping (or "readiness grouping" as we call it here). Such grouping best leverages the talents of great teachers by making sure they can push everyone in a class and not spend a disproportionate amount of time on people who need more help. It also makes life easier on teachers who may still be learning how to teach effectively. Even champions are going to struggle with a class that encompasses 5 or more different grade levels.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A sense of entitlement?

In recent days, Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper has been doing a series called The Gifted Child. The paper capped the series off with perspectives from three teachers on what teaching gifted kids is like. I applaud The Globe and Mail for covering this issue. But reading these teachers' comments, there is certainly a negative undercurrent. Consider this from a Toronto high school teacher:

"A challenge that my colleagues and I often lament is the sense of entitlement amongst our gifted students. They have been told on countless occasions that they are intellectually superior and often this notion is reaffirmed at home. This may result in difficulties interacting with their non-gifted peers as well as issues when they realize that not all gifted students are gifted in all areas."

An elementary school teacher notes that gifted kids are often forgotten in classrooms, then mentions that socializing with other children can be a problem:

"It then becomes the teacher’s job to teach gifted children (and the rest of the class) to be considerate, respectful and mindful of the varying abilities that each other possess."

Then there is this from an Ottawa high school teacher:

"Often parents will expect that once their child is diagnosed as “gifted” that their child will excel in all areas of the curriculum; this is not likely and parents’ expectations have to be managed."

So there we have it. Maybe I'm a little sensitive, but I read in these quotes a message that gifted kids and their parents need to be taken down a notch, or "managed," if you will. If you're gifted in one area, maybe you aren't in another. And even if you are globally, then probably you're not very socially adept or respectful.

I'm sure this is true for some kids. But there are kids of all kinds who are insufferable. There are probably quite a few "normal" kids who could stand to learn to interact better with gifted kids -- not teasing them for quirky interests, for example. Difficulties in socializing go across the board. And given the rather low level of expectations in many schools, it is quite possible that a parent's expectation that a child will excel in all areas of the curriculum won't need to be revised downwards.

Broadly, though, there is a leveling streak that runs through educational culture. My personal experience is that many families of highly gifted kids don't have enough of a sense of entitlement. Parents think they should just be grateful, rather than demand an individualized program or acceleration or other accommodations.

Of course, the irony of this is that the easiest way to combat any sense of entitlement is to match a gifted child up with work that is challenging enough that it finally stumps him. A child who skips three grades is probably going to feel less intellectually superior than one stuck in too-easy grade level classes. But too few schools and teachers seem to take this view.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Laurie Rumker

We're still highlighting some of the 2010 Davidson Fellows! Today's interview is with Laurie Rumker, a student at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. Her science project dealt with the treatment of river contaminants. You can read more about it here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Rumker: I grew up outside of Eugene, Oregon, an environmentally-savvy city, within a nature-loving family. Our regular camping trips, hikes, forest bike rides and other outdoor activities taught me to recognize the resources that nature offers and instilled in me a desire to protect, restore and preserve them. I imagine my particular affinity for water and water systems came from living on the banks of the McKenzie River, which I frequently skipped stones over and pondered the world alongside. As a delegate from my school to an International Collaboration Project focused on wetlands conservation in the summer of 2006, I joined students from LA and Australia to learn about the complex and fragile ecosystems that water bodies support. All of these experiences influenced my selection of a research topic for this project, in addition to my experience with microorganisms and biodegradation in earlier independent research projects. Because of my concern for our environment and affinity for water systems, I began reviewing methods to confront contamination in water systems. I became interested in organoclay because of its use on the Willamette River in my hometown of Portland. As I looked further into the chemical mechanism organoclay utilizes to contain pollutants, I began to see a hole in the experimental research conducted on organoclay prior to its implementation: the possibility for surfactant biodegradation.

GE: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Rumker: Organizational, trouble-shooting, creative and communication abilities are, I believe, the most important aspects of good researchers. I am continually striving to improve myself in those areas. Thankfully, those are all skills that one can learn and work on in many activities beyond research: in team sports, in art and music and even in daily conversation and negotiation with others.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?

Rumker: My favorite part of the project was sharing it: telling others about my project premise, results and implications in formal research presentations at research competitions like ISEF and at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality annual meeting for the specific Superfund clean-up site that inspired my work and in informal conversations with interested non-science individuals and my young researching peers. It is through presenting my work that I really see its applications and advancement of scientific knowledge coming to fruition.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Rumker: My current long-range goal is to explore and improve the human condition. I want to pursue a life of scientific investigation, and in 20 years could be working on solutions for problems of human health, disheartening living conditions, our changing global climate or resource distribution to ‘3rd world’ countries. These studies would yield practical discoveries and engineered solutions, but also help us to understand our roles as humans on the earth and in the greater system of the universe by contributing scientific knowledge. I see myself in a cross-disciplinary field, utilizing global collaboration to address pressing societal problems.

Friday, November 19, 2010

All Together Now?

Over at Education Next, Michael Petrilli has an interesting article called All Together Now, which looks at the practices of tracking, ability grouping, and in-class differentiation. He starts off with this controversial, but I think correct thesis: "The greatest challenge facing America’s schools today isn’t the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or “teacher quality.” It’s the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom."

As many readers of this blog know, a given third grade classroom can feature children who are still figuring out how to read and those zooming through novels normally assigned in high school. Schools will do some "readiness grouping" (as we like to call it here) for math. There may be differentiated reading groups. But in many cases, elementary school teachers are expected to deal with incredible ranges of academic preparation.

Very good teachers and principals can make it work. Petrilli highlights Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, which serves an incredibly diverse group of both middle class families and new immigrants. Piney Branch does some grouping for reading, with the "best practices" approach of moving kids quickly between reading groups based on constant evaluation. Math also features ability grouping, but most of the rest of the subjects do not. Within the first few years of the new principal arriving, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test rose from 55 to 91 percent. "And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time," Petrilli writes. "In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school."

But, as any education reformer knows, replicating a Mr. G is a difficult task. As Petrilli points out, one recent Fordham Institute survey found that 8 in 10 teachers say that differentiation is "very" or "somewhat" difficult. Great teachers can handle difficult tasks. Less great teachers cannot. And so what often happens in classes is that the differentiation doesn't happen, or happens in the sense of the teacher letting the advanced kid read a book when she finishes her assignment early. While this is a great way to work through novels, it's not quite why we force children to go to school.

The reason I support extensive readiness grouping is that it works best for kids of different levels in the education system we have, not the education system we hope to have. A childhood can't be repeated, and squandering a bright mind in the name of future utopia is not justice. Petrilli's piece broadly seems to agree with this point, and is the most thorough discussion of it I've seen in a while. It is definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Microphilanthropy, Donors Choose, and gifted education

I have a column in today's USA Today about microphilanthropy: basically, non-profits that encourage a direct connection between donor and recipient, with donors choosing where their money goes and receiving follow-up updates. One of the non-profits I highlight is Donors Choose. Founded by a Bronx teacher, Charles Best, in 2000, Donors Choose lets people select certain classroom projects to help fund.

I spoke with Best a few weeks ago about finding classrooms serving gifted learners through the search function, and while it's a little complicated, it's definitely doable. You can search for "gifted" in the keyword search, and come up with a few. This morning, I found a request from Mrs. T that way. Mrs. T in Green Bay, Wisconsin writes that "I work in 6 different schools a week with gifted and talented children. Many are second language learners and/or economically challenged. My children come to school and know a large percentage of the curriculum or they learn it very rapidly and many times then have to read a book to wait while other children work through the concepts. These children have so many gifts to offer the world, but they need to be pushed to challenge their learning and expand their thinking." She is asking for donors to band together to raise $353 to purchase materials. (Read more about her classes here).

Best told me that you can also narrow the search to magnet schools, which will help find some that specifically serve gifted students. Using this method, I found a request from Mrs. F in Birmingham, Alabama. She is seeking funds to purchase history books that will intrigue her students. She writes, "I teach fifty-five 4th grade students from fifteen area schools who have been identified as gifted. There is no funding for gifted education in Alabama. Our state education systems have been tremendously hurt by the economic turndown and the oil spill in the gulf. Any materials we get are purchased from our own pocket, thus no books, no equipment, and no materials." She is asking donors to give $268 (it was more but four people have chipped in already). You can read more about her here.

Of course, you can't read these requests without getting upset. The United States spends more per pupil than the vast majority of countries (even in a downturn), yet somehow teachers are being told that there is no money for books for their classes and they have to buy them themselves? How is it that low-income, gifted students -- those that we need public schools to serve and challenge to reach their incredible potential -- are given a mere hour or so of pull-out a week? Why is their teacher running around to 6 different schools and asking anonymous donors for items to help her serve her kids' needs?

These are broader questions that we have to continue working on. But in the meantime, Donors Choose gives people a way to address specific needs even as we figure out how to address a broader problem.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Your Child Left Behind

Amanda Ripley has an interesting new piece in The Atlantic on how America fares in international education comparisons. We all know this story: we stink. Of course, we have a tendency to believe it's other people's schools that stink, not our own children's. America is a diverse nation, the story goes. We all know that inner-city schools struggle with issues of entrenched poverty. Other schools serve newly-arrived immigrant children who don't speak English. Wouldn't these schools drag down overall scores?

Perhaps. But she highlights new research from Eric Hanushek (my favorite educational economist) which compares white kids and kids with college educated parents to students overall in other countries. Reports Hanushek? "Even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive."

Hanushek has spent his career debunking different notions of what makes a school work. For decades, we've been focused on inputs: money, class sizes, teachers with advanced degrees. No Child Left Behind has started to measure outputs, but there are many flaws with the system (not least of which is that states use their own tests, some of which seem to measure only if kids can write their names). Ripley cites Massachusetts' reforms, which have produced some good results. Massachusetts tests teachers, tests kids (using tests that produce similar results to the NAEP), and focuses money on tutoring for kids who need help.

But overall, Hanushek's findings are going against a culture of denial which is deeply entrenched. For all the fretting about schools, in certain communities (and often in the media), we hear even more about how much pressure students are under these days. The college admissions game has overachieving kids and their parents stressed out... but in most cases, all that stress isn't actually producing results that are internationally competitive. And that's a problem because we are shifting, more and more, to a global economy where your competition is not others in your school or community, but people in other countries. Where, it turns out, kids actually learn math.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

American teens: It's the other kids who have a problem in math

Intel recently conducted a survey of American teenagers, to determine their attitudes toward math and science. The results are fascinating. Not for asking if kids feel that being good at math and science is important (99 percent said yes -- perhaps the other 1 percent didn't understand the question). But for finding that 85 percent of American teens are confident in their own math and science abilities. Indeed, a full 58 percent aspire to pursue a math or science-related career.

There are interesting statistics, since no where near 58 percent of American teenagers will finish college, let alone do so in STEM majors. State 8th grade proficiency scores on the math NAEP range from 7 percent (DC) to 43 percent (MA). Apparently, American teenagers have absorbed some of these statistics, since 90 percent said the US was not the best in the world in math and science. Yet the vast majority felt they, personally, were doing just fine.

Intel spun these results as saying that American kids may not be challenged enough, which I think is true. It's easy to be confident of your abilities if you've never truly been tested. Unfortunately for the over-confident among our teenagers, we now live in a global economy. Doing fine for your school, or for your community, is no longer enough.

At least, according to the Intel survey, most teens don't think this lack of international standing is a result of a lack of educational funding. They attribute it to a lack of discipline and work habits -- though, again, among other people. We all tend to think we, ourselves, are working hard (something I've discovered with time use data, and write about occasionally on my other blog). But working hard is not always enough. I'm curious if this study will get any press, and if so, how other organizations will analyze it.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Changing your local school

I recently came across a book called How to Walk to School, which tells the story of a turnaround project in a Chicago public school. What's different about this story is that the turnaround was the fruit of a collaboration between a new principal and the middle-class parents who lived nearby. Instead of moving to the suburbs or sending their kids to private schools, these parents worked with the principal to turn the local school (Nettelhorst) into the kind of place they'd send their kids to. This wasn't just a matter of sprucing the place up and fundraising for extras (though this is part of it). They also looked at the quality of instruction and worked on ways to improve teaching within the school.

I know many readers of Gifted Exchange are veteran educational activists... because you've had to be. Schools, for a variety of reasons, generally have to serve the norm. Often they don't do that! But even many good schools simply can't deal well with a child who really bucks the norm. You have had to carve out exceptions to policies, make new policies, lobby for new classes, extra services and so forth.

Sometimes it doesn't work. And so you wind up homeschooling, or moving to a different community, or paying tuition at a private school that will work with you. But I'd love to hear some stories from readers who have successfully worked with teachers and principals to change their local school to better serve both your own children, and other gifted children who will come along in the future.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Scott Boisvert

Aren't these profiles fun? Today we welcome Scott Boisvert to Gifted Exchange. Boisvert, 17, hails from Chandler, Arizona. His project connected amphibian aquatic environment conditions with a pathogen that has contributed to the loss of 32 percent of amphibian species worldwide. You can read more about him and his project here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Boisvert: In 2007 I was Jr. High Grand Finalist at the AZ Science and Engineering Fair, and attended Intel ISEF as an observer. Being at ISEF really inspired me to do a great research project so I could go back the following year, this time to compete. I searched the Arizona State University website looking for professors doing research in the biological sciences. I sent out a lot of emails, but because I was only 14 I got mostly thank you for your interests but no thanks. I finally met Dr. Elizabeth Davidson after an email introduction from my biology teacher, and she agreed to give me a chance. I met with her at ASU, toured her lab, and she described the work being done for amphibians because of global population decline, and some of the history with B. dendrobatidis. I was interested as I hadn’t heard about this problem. I searched online, read a few articles, and watched a PBS documentary about threats to amphibians. I remembered growing up in Michigan, spending many afternoons sitting along a creek near my home watching and trying to catch frogs. This early science exploration held my attention for hours. When I thought about amphibians facing a real threat of mass extinction, I couldn’t accept the idea that one day my children or grandchildren may not be able to enjoy those same experiences. I was inspired to find something that could help, and that moment confirmed my interest in this research.

GE: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Boisvert: A natural interest in science and math was my preparation. In terms of conducting the actual research, there were no skills that I had previously learned that benefited me. All of the research skills were learned during the course of my research project as I found the need to utilize a different technique or approach. Despite this, I drew upon valuable lessons that I learned growing up in order to successfully complete my project. Skills such as time management, attention to detail, good reading and writing, and an overall strong work ethic were crucial. Without my upbringing both at home and at school I would never have been able to have the dedication necessary to complete such a lengthy study.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?

Boisvert: The field work had to have been the most fun aspect of my project. Growing up, my family used to take long road trips from Michigan to Rhode Island in order to visit family, and did a lot of outdoor exploration trips too. I came to love driving, which is a good thing considering all of the driving necessary to collect water samples for my projects. I really like being outdoors, and I got to see a lot of new places in Arizona. Traipsing down embankments and through prickly underbrush to collect my samples was an adventure in itself, especially finding the water as we do live in a desert.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Boisvert: In 20 years I see myself having completed an MD/PhD degree, toward my goal of becoming a physician scientist. By this time I should have finished my residency, or at least be close, depending on the specialty I select. After this step, I see myself working in a research hospital, or at another clinical institution, while having an affiliate group at an independent or academic-based research lab. These options will allow me to participate in clinical research endeavors while maintaining my primary goal of becoming a physician. Aside from my career, I hope to be starting on a family of my own at this point too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Johnny Li

Today I'm happy to run the third installment in our series on the 2010 Davidson Fellows. Jonathan (Johnny) Li, 17, lives in California. His project involved developing a mathematical model and computer simulation to analyze tumor growth, and was specifically notable because it looked at motility and contact inhibition, which is a mechanism that limits cell growth through pressure from neighboring cells. You can read more about Li here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Li: I sought out mentorship with Prof. John Lowengrub at UC Irvine after taking Partial Differential Equations and became fascinated about how math can be applied in many meaningful ways. I chose the tumor growth topic because both of my maternal grandparents had cancer and I witnessed the suffering and devastation of my family. My grandpa who had stomach cancer was not given chemotherapy due to his old age of 88, while my grandma who had breast cancer went through chemo but it was very painful. So, I wanted to learn more about cancer cells and am hoping to make some contribution in the field.

Gifted Exchange: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Li: My project is an interdisciplinary research [project] that requires programming skills and knowledge in math such as partial differential equations, physics, and biology. Also, critical reading, writing, and problem solving skills were important for the project.

Gifted Exchange: What was the most fun part of your project?

Li: The most fun part was when first ran my simulation and saw the modeled tumor grow as I had programed it to.

Gifted Exchange: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Li: I see myself becoming an MD/PHD or a medical researcher.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Kyle Loh

This week we're continuing with profiles of some of the 2010 Davidson Fellows!

Today we welcome Kyle Loh to Gifted Exchange. He is 17 years old, and is in graduate school at Stanford (he graduated from Rutgers University at age 16). His project involved looking at reprogramming human and mouse skin cells into stem cells -- a feat which would make them more useful while avoiding other ethical issues. You can read more about him here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your project?

Loh: At age 13 as I was entering Rutgers University, I read the landmark Cell paper by Shinya Yamanaka that reported that skin cells could be converted into stem cells that are identical to embryonic stem cells. I thought that this was a fantastic feat! (Cells are notoriously difficult to change lineages; you obviously wouldn't want your blood cells turning into bone cells! Furthermore, you could get therapeutically useful stem cells from skin -- I thought it was amazing). This paper permanently changed my research direction and informed all my subsequent research projects. I was so excited about this that I couldn't think of working on anything else.

I wrote a research proposal on a similar avenue of inquiry and looked for stem cell labs across New Jersey who would take me in. Many professors were deterred due to my age, and I only finally found one mentor -- Dr. Dale Woodbury of the UMDNJ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School -- who would take me in and host my research project on this stem cell conversion work. After one year of working with Dr. Woodbury's laboratory and benefiting from his extraordinary mentorship, I was accepted into the Harvard Stem Cell Institute's Summer Internship Program. Again, none of the Harvard professors would take me because of my age (14 years old), but finally, I was accepted by Dr. Doug Melton; Director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. When I heard that a nearby Harvard lab (Dr. Kevin Eggan's) was working on this stem cell conversion work, but was succeeding in doing these conversions with chemicals, I decided to take an entire year off from my undergraduate education to work in Dr. Eggan's laboratory on this project of converting skin cells into stem cells with chemicals. This work was the basis of my Fellows' project.

Thus, my research direction was informed through a mixture of serendipity and also some lucky insights I happened to have (when I was carrying out the technical work for my project). I find in research that there is much luck involved. However, being careful and aware, trying to think of things from an unconventional angle, and having good mentors and a detailed knowledge of the literature can really help things out.

Gifted Exchange: As you were doing your project, were their skills or things you learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Loh: I was amazed and humbled to hear that some of the other Fellows literally did their research projects in their bedrooms. I had to rely on the resources and hardware of two laboratories at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (Dr. Kevin Eggan's and Dr. Lee Rubin's) in order to prosecute my project. To be candid, given the nature of stem cell research, there wasn't a chance to learn any technical "skills" beforehand in academic studies that I could use in my project. I had to learn everything myself from the ground up, such as the technique of high-throughput chemical screening whereby 10,000 or more drugs are tested for their ability to perform a certain function. Where my lab colleagues relied on other people to do this chemical screening for them, I got my hands dirty and did it myself.

In my present research project at the Genome Institute of Singapore, I've learned that for at least for stem cell research, a detailed knowledge of the literature can make a tremendous difference. Anyone technically proficient can do the same amount of work as anyone else; rather what differentiates projects is the research direction and the long-term strategic aims, which can be heavily informed by detailed understanding of the literature. Probably the most "important" aspects of my project were dictated by assiduous and broad reading of the literature. Another "important" aspect is seeking out collaborations. As a team leader of several graduate students, I had the opportunity to independently seek out a collaboration with another laboratory that has accelerated my project by half a year. Thus, I feel that the "skills" that are important in research must either by learned on-the-spot (for techniques) or else they're rooted in reading the literature and seeking out friendships/opportunities/collaborations.

Gifted Exchange: What was the most fun part of your project?

Loh: When you make a novel finding, for a few moments, you're the only person on Earth that knows something! Imagine that! Such experiences have been at the root of my forays into stem cell research. Research otherwise is extremely competitive: at centers such as Harvard, lab politics are cutthroat and the demand for publications is enormous. Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that one's own pursuit of their chosen research topic should be "fun" and that what should be driving them forward. There is no use doing something like research if it isn't "fun", especially given how time-intensive it is! Good science cannot be done by people who aren't excited!

Gifted Exchange: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Loh; Not sure! I've got a long way to go until then. Hopefully, by that time, I'll be a faculty member somewhere and continuing my "obsession" with stem cell research, which excited me since age 13 and my beginnings at New Jersey. Nevertheless, I hope that there are two things I can be engaged in besides research activities. Firstly is the provision of opportunities to younger students. My entire research career is due a single mentor, Dr. Woodbury, who took me in at age 13 and fostered me until I became who I am today. I hope to provide such opportunities to other students. If so, it'd be very worthwhile! I am presently mentoring several students (undergraduates, high school students) as part of my research team alongside graduate students.

A second priority is to become involved with the "higher" echelons of research -- the decisions at the level of policy, law, and ethics that subsequently translate into the policies that govern research as a whole. As scientists we cannot be self-absorbed with our own work to the extent that we overlook that we need to clearly represent science to policymakers and the public such that future policies do not needlessly restrict us due to public misconceptions. To this end, I have written a white paper to Singapore policy-makers about the bioethics of human-mouse hybrids and am in the midst of a series of correspondences in a Singaporean newspaper that are challenging such hybrids.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Kevin Hu

I hope to run a few profiles of the 2010 Davidson Fellows over the next few weeks. These young people have won $10,000 - $50,000 scholarships for prodigious works, and are quite an inspiring crew.

We're starting today with Kevin Hu, 16, of Naperville, IL. Hu won his fellowship for a violin portfolio called "Sociomusicology: Exploring and Sharing the Worlds of Music," which presents music from around the world. He has also done extensive volunteer work sharing his musical talents with different audiences. You can read more about him here.

Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your project?
Hu: In a way, my relationship with music therapy at Edward Hospital has been strangely similar to an intimate relationship with a person. It started out as no big deal. I noticed it, and decided to get to know music therapy better. Well, I started spending more and more time with it, and before I knew it, I had fallen in love.

Metaphor aside, I did not truly “come up” with my project idea. I was given the opportunity to serve my community, and I accepted the challenge. My motivation to develop the music therapy program at the hospital came from inspiration. Music inspires me, and it inspires others, so why not spread the music, and spread the inspiration?

GE: As you were doing your project, were there skills or things you learned earlier that turned out to be important?
Hu: While working with acoustics, the high school music therapy volunteer project that I founded and currently lead, I learned that it is absolutely vital to be able to communicate well. It’s not enough to have great ideas – you have to sell them as well. Even if there is no associated risk or cost, as in the case of a volunteer program, people are often hesitant to accept new ways of thinking.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?
Hu: The most fun part of my project has been playing for little kids. They often walk by a parent’s side until they realize, “Whoa, there’s a real person playing a real musical instrument!” Almost always, they stop in their tracks and watch intently. Sometimes the parents will walk quite a distance before realizing their kids have stopped following. What’s most powerful to me is that these kids do not show any sign of distress when their parents accidentally leave them behind. Even for children who can’t speak or understand a spoken language, music is able to create another world to live in and to revel in.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Hu: I have no clue where I will be in twenty years. A few years ago, I wanted to be a doctor. Five years ago, I wanted to be a violinist. Ten years ago, I wanted to be a teacher. Twelve years ago, I wanted to be a farmer. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to be a fire truck. I’ll see where the next few years take me.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Jasper's flash cards

(cross posted at My168Hours)

My 3-year-old, Jasper, attends a full-day preschool program. From my observations, preschool seems to have experienced an academic upgrade since my days of hanging out in my church in Raleigh, NC eating graham crackers. When I started kindergarten, our first set of reading words included "cat," "dog," and "fish." I thought of "fish" as a rather difficult word to foist on the 5-year-old set, given that it had 4 letters. My son, on the other hand, learned all his letters and numbers by age 3. Not because I was teaching them. Because his daycare was teaching them. Now that he is officially in the preschool class, they are tracing letters (a rather humorous thing to watch a 3-year-old boy attempt, by the way). Part of me thinks this is a bit much for people who have just learned to go to the potty by themselves. But the interesting thing to me is that my son loves it. Indeed, the other day, he was very excited to show me his "words." This was a sheet of paper with eight short words ("up" "to" "I" et al) in boxes that we could cut up to make flash cards.

Yes, flash cards.

Now, flash cards are a flash point, if you will, in the whole education/parenting debate that consumes a lot of modern mindshare. They've become a symbol of the excesses of our culture of standardized tests, pushy parenting, etc. Indeed, a book came out a few years ago called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. I don't know if he did or didn't, but here's the charge: Flash cards present one fact or thing, divorced from any context, and usually involve drilling -- pushing a concept into the brain's temporary memory, to be regurgitated when required, then forgotten. This is not a great way to learn.

But my 3-year-old doesn't come to learning with any of this baggage. To him, words are an exciting thing. Grown-ups can read them, and he wants to see what the grown-ups can see. Plus, we got to use scissors to cut the flash cards out, and that was exciting in its own right. So I tried to respond to the flash cards in the same spirit. We had fun making them. Then after he read me all the words on the cards, we made some other flash cards with different words so we could make real sentences. "School," and "playground" and "the" got added to the mix. We tried moving them around on our coffee table so we could read phrases Jasper might say like "I go to school" or "we go to the playground." He squealed when he realized that the words he'd read formed an actual thought. And then when we tired of this, as one does quickly at age 3, we had fun piling the flash cards into another toy and carting them around the house.

I have been realizing, as I think about how I spend my time with my kids, that there is a lesson here. The best contribution I can make to their education is not to make sure their homework is all done right, or to introduce new and advanced topics, or to work with them to get them to read early, or what have you. It is to make sure that they continue to find learning enjoyable. It is exciting to work hard to understand something new about the world. I want them to want to learn for its own sake. For now we seem to be doing OK with this. The other day, when I couldn't identify a certain dinosaur species, Jasper thought about this problem for a minute, then went and found his dinosaur encyclopedia so we could look it up. We never did find the right dinosaur name, but we learned all sorts of other interesting things in the process, so that was good too. We shall see how this pans out as the years go by and he can't just explore what piques his interest, but I figure it's worth a shot.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Congrats to the 2010 Davidson Fellows! Plus a note on the humanities

I was in Washington DC on Wednesday night for the 10th annual Davidson Fellows award ceremony. Held this year at the National Museum of the American Indian, this event always brings together an incredible group of people interested in gifted education. As well as, of course, the Davidson Fellows themselves. You can read the bios of this year's winners here.

One interesting trend this year was that a very high percentage of the fellowships were in science. There is no particular limit on the number of fellowships awarded each year; it's more a matter of recognizing eminent work. I suspect that what is going on is that at least a handful of highly effective schools are starting to recognize the massive amounts of scholarship money available for students who do scientific research. I've written about school research programs in the past (see "Real Kids, Real Research" in USA Today). Indeed, when I was writing about the Westinghouse/Intel Science Talent Searches for Scientific American, I definitely saw the same schools appear again and again. Between Siemens and Intel, a top young scientist can wind up with six-figures of scholarships.

But the Davidsons are pretty much the only game in town with literature and the humanities. You don't see many "humanities fairs" like science fairs. And plus, in our zeal to promote STEM as the wave of the future, we forget that the humanities are actually, ahem, hard too. When done right. Of course, they usually aren't. In general, math and science have not been watered down as much as the humanities, so we find it easier to recognize excellence. We accelerate kids in math, but not in the humanities.

The net result of all this is that schools are just not as focused on nurturing, say, writing talent. We don't build up programs for accelerating the brightest young writers. The Indiana Academy is one of the few specialized public secondary schools for gifted kids that actually mentions humanities in the name. While science research programs are more rare than they should be, at least more of them exist than, say, programs that pair up a young writer with the masters of the field. Or young philosophers, poets, and so forth.

Many of the Davidson Fellows simply come out of the woodwork -- dreaming up an amazing idea and making it happen. But others have definitely been helped by having the architecture of a supportive school around them, one that recognizes scientific research as both important and doable, even for high school students. Can talent exist in a vacuum? Probably. But it has a much harder time, and you lose people on the margins. I do hope that we can start to see more structural support for gifted children with core competencies in the humanities in the future. One scholarship contest is a great incentive. Ten would be even better.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Newark and $100 million

Education circles are buzzing this week with news of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's decision to donate $100 million to the Newark schools. Newark mayor Cory Booker is raising matching funds from other donors, including Bill Gates, with the goal of trying to turbo-charge education in this city.

It's an interesting question: can a massive infusion of cash change a dysfunctional system? No one is denying that Newark has big problems. Only about half its students graduate from high school. One thing it does lead the nation on? The number of sick days the teachers take. According to this Wall Street Journal article, about 7% of Newark teachers are absent on any given day, vs. 4% in the average urban district.

The issue, though, is that Newark does not suffer from a lack of funding. The district spends well over $20,000 per student. Los Angeles, with its dysfunctions, does not spend nearly as much per pupil. If the $200 million disappears into the same pit as the rest of Newark's funding, then it's unclear why anything would change.

Over at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio argues that Zuckerberg should have given his millions in X-Prize fashion. That is, set a goal such as an urban district graduating 80% of its 9th graders four years later, or hitting a certain NAEP target. Any district that hits such a goal gets a massive infusion of (well-deserved) cash.

It's an interesting idea with merit. But what's done is done - I do hope Zuckerberg's gift helps turn Newark around. In recent years, I've seen some great stuff going on there, from the private Christ the King Prep school to events in the Prudential Center. Only 30 minutes from New York, the city has great potential. But it's unclear what will become of it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Grade-Skipping Should Be Back in Fashion

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews tackles the issue of acceleration in his Class Matters post today, called "Why Grade Skipping Should Be Back in Fashion."

Noting research from Belin-Blank (and also citing Gifted Exchange!) Mathews argues what we long have: that acceleration is a budget-friendly and effective way to challenge gifted kids. It is often better than the short pull-out sessions that pass for gifted education these days, and also avoids most of the political issues around gifted education: namely, that gifted kids get "special" stuff like trips to science museums, more fun classes, etc. With acceleration, they get the same education as everyone else. Just earlier.

Yet few schools have embraced acceleration. We have this notion that children do best when they are around kids of the same age, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. For most of the history of education, classrooms were multi-age. Kids learn at home too, and play with their brothers and sisters of different ages. A mere glance around a 6th grade classroom will find that 12-year-olds can be at vastly different stages of development anyway. Furthermore, few adults have such restrictions on our working and social relationships. I am glad to have friends who are both older and younger than me, and I'm not sure why schools are so averse to similar things.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Online Learning Gains Acceptance

I was amused to see re-surface, via Twitter, an article I wrote 6 years ago called Online learning: A smart way to nurture gifted kids. I was making the case that since every community doesn't have a great school for gifted kids, online learning can fill in the gaps.

I suppose, writing that piece in 2004, I would have thought that this would be old news by 2010. But online learning is still in its infancy, even in postsecondary education, where colleges have discovered a real need. For adults with jobs and kids, it is hard to get to a classroom at a certain time. Online learning lets people study at night and on weekends. And with available technology, interaction is certainly no worse than in a lecture hall.

On the plus side for online learning, a new survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management finds that HR folks are getting their heads around degrees earned online. A full 79 percent had hired someone in the last 12 months who earned his/her degree online. Most disagreed with the statement that people with traditional degrees had more self-discipline, or better time management skills. There were some reservations, of course. A large minority thought that online degrees were less credible, and in some cases, there may be reasons for that. All degree programs should concern themselves with metrics like persistence to graduation, job placement, etc.

Why do I find this growing acceptance encouraging? Mostly because online degree programs are a great way for gifted students to start college courses early. If you are 12, sitting in a college classroom can feel intimidating, even if you understand everything that's going on (and your parents may worry about sending you). But distance/virtual learning allows us to do away with these barriers, in the same way that social networks and online communities bring us together with people who are different ages, ethnicities, who have differing physical abilities, etc. There are places for both, and I'm glad I earned my college degree in person. But if there is growing acceptance, then more students who start such coursework early can transfer their credits and finish college earlier should they decide to attend in person later. And more acceptance means more supply -- which is good for giving gifted students more options.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

IQ Fun Park

I have lots of opinions. Too many, some might say! But sometimes, Gifted Exchange readers, I come across things that I really just have no idea what to think about.

That's where I am right now with the IQ Fun Park, a board game for the CandyLand set (hat tip to Executive Moms, which covered the game in the group's newsletter). Billed as "Test prep that feels like a game!" the IQ Fun Park helps prepare 4-year-olds for elementary school testing with 1,500 practice items based on the WPPSI-III, the Stanford-Binet 5, the OLSAT and BBCS tests. You can choose just questions from one test (I guess the idea is why bother with the others if your kid only has to take one?) or all four. The idea is to "prepare your child without pressure, expensive tutors, or workbooks," though billing IQ Fun Park as cheap only works if you're comparing it to 20 hours with a $100/hour tutor. At $297, it's not in the same ball park as Life or Monopoly.

I am curious what you all think of this. I have two initial observations. One is that something like this is inevitable in markets where the supply of spots in "good" kindergartens exceeds demand. There is also the corollary of gifted programs being life rafts (the only good spot in a failing school system), as opposed to interventions for kids who need them, and no better or worse than other classes.

The other observation, though, is that I am always skeptical of what test prep can do. People talk that the SAT can be prepped for and all that, but the vast, vast majority of kids who go through test prep programs do not get 2400s on the SAT. High scores still mean something, and I suspect that even a fun game won't totally change how a child will do on the Stanford Binet.

Friday, September 10, 2010

1-on-1 Time When You've Got a Brood

(cross-posted at

In a webinar I ran on Wednesday (co-sponsored with CurrentMom), one participant spoke of wanting to find solo time for each child, given that she had children. This is a good question, and one I've been pondering myself lately.

On one hand, I know that one-on-one parenting (past the nursing baby stage) has not been the historical norm. As I write in Chapter 6 of 168 Hours (my new book, for those just tuning in!), Mrs. Meyer (of the cleaning products fame) rarely got time alone with any of her nine kids.

On the other, these individual interactions are among the most pleasant of parenting. When you have multiple kids doing something together, there are always group dynamics, there is always competition for your attention, and there is always the desire to keep things from descending into chaos. Even if, in general, your kids do very well together.

So how do you carve out time for each kid? Here are a few ideas:

1. Evening book groups. If your kids are clustered together in age, they might enjoy the same books. But if they're more spread out, you can read with the little one while the older one(s) is getting ready for bed, then go do another story reading appropriate for the older set. If you and your spouse are both doing this, you can read at the same time, or if you have four book groups, split them. Mark where you are in the book so your spouse can pick up where you left off. Then let the kids fill you in next time (a bonus reading comprehension exercise!).

2. Use older kids' activities. This is a good time for hanging out with littler kids. Rather than chasing your 4-year-old all over the piano teacher's waiting room while the 8-year-old has her lesson, think through what you'd like to do together. A walk? Put the Big Wheel in the car trunk so she can ride it? An art project you can both do? A nearby pond where you can go feed the ducks? Ask her what she'd like to do during this mommy or daddy time, too.

3. Commute together (if you can). Some parents I profiled in 168 Hours coordinated their work schedules so they could commute with the kid whose school was closest to the office. Yes, this is just another way of saying "drop the kid off at school," and may not sound exciting if you're the parent normally doing that, but if you're not doing primary parent duties during the week, it's a nice way to put solo kid time into the day.

4. Find an activity you can do with each child. Maybe you and your 12-year-old train for a 5K together. Or if you're training for a longer race, the child can bike along. You can volunteer at a food bank together with a 16-year-old, or in a church nursery with a 14-year-old. You can take a multi-age art class with a younger child.

5. Chore teams. If they have to get done (and you're not outsourcing them), you may as well get some one-on-one time out of it. Mom and one child can always be responsible for changing the sheets together. Dad and another child can do the dishes together (or you can rotate which kid does this with which parent). Car washing and garden weeding are chores even a young kid can do with you; if you're comfortable with it, a teen can help with bill paying (that's one way to introduce them to the idea of personal finance!) A middle-schooler can maintain a grocery list and then serve as Dad's Special Assistant during all grocery store trips.

I'm curious how other people with larger families have created special time with each child.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Waiting for Superman

On Sept. 24, Davis Guggenheim's new film, Waiting for 'Superman,' will be released in theaters. Guggenheim (who directed An Inconvenient Truth) is turning his attention to the question of reforming American schools. I was recently sent the companion book to the film (which is published by PublicAffairs), and have been enjoying reading it.

The film was inspired partly by guilt. Guggenheim, a good liberal, has spent years grappling with the fact that he drives past public schools in order to drop his own kids off at a private one. He did not think the local public schools were good enough for his own kids, though of course this raised the obvious question: why were they good enough for other people's children?

Waiting for "Superman" attempts to answer the question of why schools fail, and looks at the individual consequences for children who do not receive a great education. I'm sure the film will be quite moving, but here's why I like the book: it brings together some of the best thinkers about education from many angles. There are essays by Michelle Rhee (chancellor of the Washington DC schools), Bill and Melinda Gates, Eric Hanushek (my favorite education-focused economist!) and Jay Mathews (The Washington Post's education writer, and possibly the most linked-to person in Gifted Exchange history).

Over the next few weeks I'll look at different essays, but today I want to focus on an essay by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I greatly respect that the film's creators gave Weingarten a platform in their book because (spoiler alert!) teachers unions emerge as the bad guys in Waiting for "Superman." Weingarten, herself a former history teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, notes (correctly) that "Many of those who weigh in on the state of our public schools do so from an ivory tower, a think tank, the opinion pages, or from in front of a television camera. Teachers have no such remove. They are in the classrooms every day, seeing what their students need, and doing the hard work to help them succeed."

She notes that most talk of reform has focused on "two kinds of outliers: bad teachers and difficult-to-replicate schools, the implication being that if you get rid of a few bad teachers and create a few boutique schools, you can solve all the problems of education. You can't."

For starters, "speaking from my own experience, there are very few teachers who are great teachers on their first day in a classroom. There has been a lot of talk about teacher quality, and about who is a 'good' teacher and who is a 'bad' teacher. Much of this talk seems to fall back on the assumption that teachers enter the profession as either one or the other -- good or bad -- and stay that way. The truth is that while wanting to teach may be innate, becoming a great teacher is a learned skill."

To this end, much of teacher assessment is not particularly useful. "Today, this is how teachers still are commonly evaluated: by an administrator sitting in the back of the classroom for a few minutes, a few times, in the first few years of teaching. The teacher then receives feedback at the end of the semester or the end of the year. It's like a football team watching game tape only when the season is over."

She goes on to say that "No teacher -- myself included -- wants ineffective teachers in the classroom." As she points out, "When a teacher is disengaged or floundering, there are repercussions not only for the students, but also for the teachers down the hall, who take responsibility for those students the next year." This is a point that has not been raised too much in the education debate: how much time good teachers spend cleaning up the messes that bad teachers create.

Weingarten suggests that because of this, teachers themselves have a great incentive to either work with under-performing colleagues to improve their skills, or to counsel them out of the profession. She describes the Peer Assistance and Review system in Toledo, Ohio, where teachers are assigned to work with and evaluate each other. Based on the consulting teachers' assessments, she reports, between 8-10 percent of new teachers opt to resign or don't have their contracts renewed.

She also raises some critiques of other standard school reform stories. The key lesson from the Harlem Children's Zone, she notes, should not be that charter schools work. It should be that when you surround families with cradle-to-college services, you can address the barriers that keep children from learning.

She does not come out against performance pay, but rather advocates performance pay on a school-wide basis, rather than just focusing on individual teachers. "This will allow them to do more than create pockets of excellence, class by class, but rather to develop schools of excellence, where everyone works together to make sure everyone improves," she writes. Certainly, research has found that teachers often don't want to be pitted against their colleagues, competing for a small number of bonuses. Like salesmen competing against each other for one trip to Hawaii, it can undermine the collegial relationships necessary for long-term improvement.

Anyway, it's an interesting read, though there are problems with Weingarten's take, too. She plays down the "rubber room" issue in New York (where teachers who were removed from the classroom continued to be paid for not working, often for years). She notes that the rubber rooms have been permanently shuttered, and so we should just all move on, but of course, shutting the rubber rooms doesn't remove the real issue, which is that teachers enjoy more job protections than the vast majority of other people these days. When you can't stop paying a teacher who's been accused of passing out drunk in the classroom, it sets a very low bar for everyone else.

It is true that there are problems with placing all the burden of student performance on teachers (especially since disadvantaged students often move frequently, in the middle of the school year, meaning that it's unclear which teacher is responsible for them in the first place). But given that there are schools which overcome barriers such as kids coming to school hungry (and isn't this what school breakfast is for, anyway?) this is a bit of a cop-out. As Hanushek's research has found, having a good teacher matters, and having several in a row can make up for one's socioeconomic status. The problem is that very few kids from lower income families get 3-4 great teachers in a row.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Is college worth less because students study less?

(cross-posted at

A generation ago, a college degree was the ticket to a comfortable, upper-middle class existence. We believe, as a society, that more education means more income, and in general this is still true. The unemployment rate for college educated people is much lower than for people with less education.

But the returns on a college education have been declining for some time, even as costs have skyrocketed. A college degree is no longer a guarantee of a comfortable existence. Why is this?

Perhaps it is because more people are going to college -- and we cannot all, alas, earn more than average.

But the American Enterprise Institute released an interesting report this month claiming that part of the problem may be how college students spend their time. According to various time diary studies analyzed by researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, in 1961, students at 4-year colleges spent 24 hours per week studying. By 2003, this had fallen to 14 hours per week.

There could be many plausible explanations for this besides laziness. Perhaps students are working more to pay for school. Perhaps they have more family responsibilities. Perhaps, as the first in their families to go to college, they are facing other obstacles. Perhaps, as more Americans go to college, more people are attending schools that don't require as much study. Perhaps we are majoring in topics that require less study, or perhaps technology has made learning more efficient.

The authors look at each of these explanations, and find that most don't hold up. Students are working more, but even among students who are not employed, study hours have fallen. They have fallen among students whose fathers also went to college, and they have fallen within majors. They have fallen among students who attend the most selective colleges. While it is true that the Internet and word processing make writing papers easier, the bulk of the decline in study hours came prior to the 10 years before the 2003-2005 numbers. It really just appears that students are studying less.

Why? Given that students are paying so much more for college these days (in many cases shouldering staggering debts) you'd think they'd have more skin in the game. The authors posit that perhaps college has become a signaling device for employers -- the fact that you got a degree is more important in the job market than your actual grades. You can work hard in high school to get in, and then coast after that. Perhaps grade inflation contributes to this as well. If you know you'll get an A or a B in most classes, why put in more work, particularly if employers don't care about your grades?

These explanations make sense, but there's a problem with this trend because when you study less, you learn less. And the authors note that there's evidence that when you study less, you earn less too. Which would explain why the returns on a college education are declining.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is this gifted education, or just good teaching?

According to a recent article at, elementary schools in Wayne, NJ will soon be participating in a new kind of gifted education.

"Students of varying abilities will be engaged via lessons while in the same classroom using their creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, and logical reasoning skills," the article notes. "Faster learners may be given the task of calculating off the tops of their heads what could be bought with $20 from a list of items without using pen and paper. However a student who requires a little more help would be allowed to check their work with a designated "shopkeeper." And students needing more help would be given objects to count during their assessment."

To be fair, the program calls for a once-a-week pull-out as well, but on the whole, this is basic differentiation in the classroom. People like to claim that this "new" way of doing gifted education allows them to reach more students. But shouldn't good teachers be able to differentiate for different students, anyway, without calling it gifted education?

Of course, the problem is that differentiation is difficult to get right. The easier approach is to teach to the middle, which leaves gifted students bored and plenty of other students perplexed. So teaching teachers how to do differentiation well has plenty of merits. But if the goal is to enhance learning for gifted students, it would be easier to do ability grouping instead.

Which leads me to suspect that this is not the goal...

Friday, August 20, 2010

10 Ways to Embrace the Evening Hours

(cross-posted at

My kids are night owls. While I console myself that needing less sleep is often a sign of giftedness, it's hard on a parent to have a 3-year-old who really will not go to sleep until 10PM (the baby often doesn't go down until 9PM or later, either).

The net result is that we have some long evenings in our house. While there are some perks to this as a working parent -- even working 50 hour weeks I can usually spend 5-6 hours per workday with my kids -- there are also some downsides. What do we do with that time? Dinner and baths certainly don't take 3-4 hours. In summer we can go to the park, but it gets dark here by 8, and in winter it's dark at 4:45PM. New York has many wonderful activities for children on weekends and during the weekdays, but there are not a whole lot of activities for 3- and 1-year-olds that start at, say, 7PM.

So, over the last 3 years, I have slowly been building a list of evening activities that will distract the kids from whining for Dora for at least a little while. Some of them:

1. Borders!
Last night we camped out in the kids' section for 45 minutes playing with the plastic dinosaurs. While this is not really a free activity (I usually wind up buying sticker books), a library with evening hours would serve the same purpose.

2. The grocery store. But not necessarily with the purpose of buying groceries. I try to order the workhorse staples of my grocery list online, since the kids get cranky after a short while of shopping, and hauling groceries (I don't have a car) while hauling the kids is tough. So if I go with both kids, we cruise the produce aisle and name things and then buy, like, one bunch of bananas.

3. A run with the double stroller. Lock the front wheel, cruise 1.5 miles to a playground, play briefly (or not, depending on how dark it's getting), run home. A bonus way to get more exercise.

4. Visit the play room or pool.
My apartment building has a kids' playroom and an indoor pool, both of which are technically open until 9:45PM on weeknights. Yes, people think you're crazy when they see your small children up at 8PM, but so it goes.

5. Museums with evening hours. I have to plan ahead for this, as often they close by 6PM. But some stay open late one night per week.

6. Evening playdates. This hasn't worked out quite as often as I would have liked (since other people's children seem not to keep my kids' hours) but is a great option if you can pull it off.

7. Invite people who don't have kids over for dinner. This has several benefits. First, you get to see them without the whole babysitter song and dance. Second, the kids enjoy hanging out with other adults who may be a bit less burned out than the parents. Order take-out so no one has to cook.

8. Backyard "camping."
OK, living in the heart of New York City, this one isn't an option for me, but I look forward to someday doing evening campfires and s'mores, even if the fire is inside the grill on the patio.

9. Really easy arts and crafts.
You know the Crate & Barrel and Harry & David catalogs that show up, oh, every other day? Make collages.

10. Random sporting events. Jasper and I have been known to go take in a kickball game in Central Park. Interesting to watch for a bit, but if you don't really care about the team or the sport, than you won't mind leaving in the middle (key with kids).

Of course, many of these things require at least a bit of planning. As I've been pondering how I spend my hours, I realize that I don't plan for the evenings as often as I should. I'm tired after working all day, and I'm tempted to play it safe, staying home rather than risking a subway diaper explosion or a meltdown. But given how long our evenings can be, staying home the whole time without something on the agenda is a recipe for frayed nerves, or for constant begging to play "stegasaurus," which involves crawling around on the floor and hurts my knees. Or for a Dora the Explorer marathon. And while Dora is fine for half an hour, 3-4 hours is a bit much.

I'd really welcome other suggestions on things to do during the evening hours with kids who don't sleep.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I hope I haven't yet reached the limit of how many times I can link to Tamara Fisher's Unwrapping the Gifted blog over at EdWeek, but I really enjoyed her recent post on Multipotentiality.

Blogger's software doesn't recognize that as a real word, but it's a real phenomenon. Just try asking many gifted kids what they want to be when they grow up and you'll get an earful. As Fisher quotes a list from Maggie, a 6th grader: "famous singer, veterinarian, marine biologist, material scientist, archeologist, doctor, nurse, dancer, artist, Navy Seal, charity founder, fashion designer, spy, professional horse rider, dog agility trainer and competitor, firefighter, EMT, animal shelter owner, magician, professional photographer, TV star, cop, INVENTOR, professional instrumental musician, weather woman, chemist, engineer, physical therapist, game designer."


Of course, the problem is that while some of these could certainly happen together in a lifetime (plenty of fashion designers found charities, and some these days moonlight as TV stars as well), being a doctor and an archeologist both require many years of specific training. Since gifted children have a tendency to think about the future, this can introduce plenty of stress, particularly as they hit college and need to start actually specializing. Fisher quotes Jane, a young woman, as saying "It seems almost impossible to pick just "one" [subject] and as a result I am looking into possibly getting multiple degrees so that if I get bored with one career I can move on to another." This is an option, though my husband (who works at a consulting company) can tell plenty of tales of people who've gotten PhDs and medical degrees and MBAs, and finally wind up working with him, which they could have done with any one of those degrees. About a decade earlier. As a net result, they're a decade behind the hierarchy of people who made up their minds. That state of affairs also doesn't sit well with many gifted folks.

There is no good solution to this, though I can tell you mine. One big reason I chose writing as a career is that I get to study many subjects briefly. I have stubbornly resisted specializing (this month I wrote about the anti-lawn movement, people who create jobs, the Ramona books, and a forthcoming piece on Korean green grocers, among other topics). 168 Hours profiles everyone from scientists to novelists, with a mix of economics and sociology thrown in. As a result, I rarely get bored.

But part of growing up is realizing that not all doors will be permanently open. Eventually, you'll need to pick a career (even if you won't stay in it forever). Perhaps one of the best ways we can help gifted children is help them sample different careers that sound appealing, figure out ways that certain careers can combine other interests, and help them figure out ways to have other loves become hobbies. I'm curious what other parents have done or observed with their children.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The 2010 Davidson Fellows

I am on vacation this week at the beach, but wanted to make sure Gifted Exchange readers got to see the list of the 2010 Davidson Fellows. You can read the list here.

What might be particularly interesting to people is that this is the 10-year anniversary of the fellowship program, and the Davidson Institute asked former fellows to report back about what they were up to. The answer? Most are still in school -- which makes sense for people who won when they were 14-18 years old. You can read their stories here. A few have, however, entered the working world (check out Anders Kaseorg, who co-founded a company called K-Splice, and won an MIT entrepreneur-of-the-year award). I expect this will become a very interesting feature in the years to come.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Take a test, skip a grade?

It seems like a fairly straightforward proposition: each grade represents a certain quantity of knowledge. If you already have mastered that knowledge, shouldn't you be able to show this on a test, and then move on to the next level? In other words, take a test, skip a grade?

Yet very few school districts offer that option. As I learned in the exchange with the Montgomery, MD schools, even some gifted programs seem to be structured around the belief that it is far better to receive in-grade enrichment than to skip a grade. Which is why I was quite interested to see this little notice about the Taylor Independent School District in Texas. According to the Taylor Daily Press:

Taylor ISD will offer examinations for acceleration in grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade on Aug. 18, 19 and 20.

Students must score at least a 90 on such a test to be advanced to a grade level in grades first through fifth or to receive credit in grades sixth through twelfth. Criteria for Kindergarten acceleration may be obtained from the Naomi Pasemann Elementary principal. No fee is required for the examination. Any students who wish to take an examination for acceleration must register with the principal of their school no later than Aug. 9.

How straightforward! I like the idea of an "acceleration exam." I know there is already an Iowa Acceleration Scale; a standardized acceleration exam in any state would make the whole process much easier. And hopefully, more common.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Time: The Case Against Summer Vacation?

(cross-posted at

This week's Time magazine cover story deals with a thorny issue: summer vacation. Why is it thorny? Because most of us romanticize it, and yet it does serious academic damage to people who can least afford it.

We all have grand summer memories. Certainly by middle school, this was my favorite time of year, a nearly 3-month break from a plodding school routine. Before I was old enough for a full-time job, I did summer theater and went to academic camps at Northwestern, both of which were far more stimulating than most things that happened during the academic year. (Now, my two full-time summer jobs at age 17 and 18, working at Fazoli's Italian Restaurant, and Osco Drugs, were a different story, but all nostalgia requires a bit of finessing).

We all like to picture Tom Sawyer-esque romps, but viewed more critically, there are many problems with this break now that most of us are no longer farmers. For starters, it leaves working parents scrambling for childcare. I've been amazed how many work-from-home parents seem to be trying to stumble through it, with Facebook posts complaining about the situation. School is not supposed to be childcare, but that is the reality for many people, and most jobs don't only run September-June.

More importantly, though, there's reasonable evidence that taking 2-3 months off from school really harms vulnerable students. This makes perfect sense; artists and musicians need daily practice to stay on top of their game, and students do too. While my summers featured plenty of reading and enrichment opportunities which could be deemed academic "practice" (again, until the Fazoli's/Osco's fun), many kids wind up in what is charmingly referred to as "self-care." That is, they are home alone while their parent or parents work, with watching TV considered the least bad of all possible options. This is not doing anyone any favors.

I thought the Time article made a good case that the solution is not merely to extend the school year (since much of what happens in American schools is sclerotic and ineffective anyway). The solution is to make a better net of summer camps and programs that make learning fun. Frankly, this should happen during the whole school year, but we have to play the cards we are dealt. The link, above, gives an intro to the piece, and the article in the print magazine highlights several great programs from Indianapolis to Corbin, KY where programs provide as much as 10 weeks of 10-hour days which sound like a lot of fun. Think arithmetic and fishing, balancing each other out. Or a fire-fighting themed camp.

For readers here, what are you doing with your kids during summer break? Is it a scramble, or do you have something you always do?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mathematics and Lockhart's Lament

Presumably some of you have already read this, but my mother and little brother forwarded me an interesting essay by Paul Lockhart, a math teacher, which was written in 2002. You can read a PDF of the essay here. (It's 25 pages long - so I'll forgive you for skimming it instead...). Called "A Mathematician's Lament," the essay makes the case that the way math is taught is usually boring and irrelevant, turning children off to the beauty of mathematics. Or to use his words:

"If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being done -- I simply wouldn't have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education."

He writes that instead of learning formulas, students should play games, play around with shapes, pose their own word problems based on questions that are actually interesting in real life, etc.

It's an interesting read, though I'm of mixed mind about it. I took a geometry class during the summer after 7th grade that used this conjecture method, and while it was fine, I can't say that it made me enjoy math more than the traditional geometry class I took the next year. I also think that creativity and discipline have to be closely linked. One of the most frustrating things, looking back on my own writing education, is how often teachers just encouraged me to be creative. It turns out that there are actually rules of grammar and best practices of argument and story plotting and other such things which can be enormously helpful in getting your point across!

But anyway, I'm quite curious what Gifted Exchange readers think -- does the usual method of math instruction kill all the joy of the subject?

Monday, July 12, 2010

USA Today: Some Schools Grouping Students by Skill, Not Grade Level

Here's a silver lining if I ever saw one. Kansas City, MO, is having to make such deep cuts and changes as part of its reorganization that the school district is willing to try something a little radical: ending the widespread educational obsession with grades. According to an article called "Some schools grouping students by skill, not grade level" in USA Today, the plan calls for students to move forward based on mastering certain skills, not based on 9-year-olds generally being in 4th grade. If you get through the K-12 material in less than 13 years, great. You can start on college. And as KC Superintendent John Covington told USA Today, "This system precludes us from labeling children failures...It's not that you've failed, it's just that at this point you haven't mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level."

In other words, readiness grouping!

As readers of this blog know, the age-grade lockstep is one of the most pernicious ideas in education. Though mounds of research (see A Nation Deceived) has determined that grade skipping is perfectly fine for most advanced kids, schools hate to do it. But organizing children by age for academics doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Kids learn at vastly different paces. Better to have a certain body of knowledge and learning methods that we want educated citizens to know, then let kids take what time they need. Maybe it's 6 years. Maybe it's 15.

I know there are logistical issues with this, but I wish the Kansas City schools the best of luck in this endeavor, and I applaud them for being willing to try something new. Hopefully, when kids are able to learn at a challenging but doable pace, they'll be more excited about learning generally.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Disease-IQ Link

We know that infectious disease inflicts many burdens on developing countries -- high infant mortality rates, for instance, and shortened lifespans. But new research highlighted in the Economist this past week indicates that perhaps too many pathogens can result in lower intelligence among the populace, too. You can read the article here.

While controversial, here is the explanation. In young children, a developing brain demands the majority of a body's metabolic energy. Any competition for this energy will result in less energy for the brain at a crucial juncture. Infectious diseases require quite a bit of energy to fight (or result in diarrhea, which prevents the body from absorbing nutrients which would feed the brain). Some practical evidence seems to support this; many children who manage to recover from cerebral malaria suffer cognitive disabilities afterward.

Of course, one has to be careful with all this. For some time, "experts" cautioned that teen girls shouldn't be educated because tending their brains would divert energy from their developing reproductive systems -- a sort of reverse of this hypothesis. But it does appear that the countries with the highest measured average intelligences (like Singapore and South Korea) have the lowest disease burdens. And, of course, this explanation does offer hope for future development. If you eradicate disease, you get a human capital boost apart from the fact that people will be healthier. They may be smarter too.

And as readers of this blog know, intelligence matters. A 150 IQ kid whose intelligence is lost due to disease is an asset a developing country will sorely miss.

Friday, July 02, 2010

My interview with My Gifted Girl

If you're not already a fan of My Gifted Girl on Facebook, I suggest you become one! This community looks at nurturing the gifts of girls and women of all ages. And, as a side benefit, is currently running a Q&A with me about 168 Hours, and gifted girls/women generally. Here's a taste of the interview:

Q:What advice do you have for gifted young women who are just beginning careers?

A: Many gifted young women flounder as they transition from college to career because work is not like school – and gifted girls are often good at school! In school, if you do a project according to the teacher’s specifications, you’ll get an A. If you finish all your assignments and pass your tests, you’ll move to the next grade. The real world isn’t like that. You can definitely move backwards. You can do everything exactly right, and still lose your job because your company is in the middle of a slump. There are no right answers in the back of the textbook. Sometimes, no one even knows which questions are important! You have to be comfortable with a lot more uncertainty. But once you embrace that uncertainty – and realize that most people don’t have any better clue what’s going on than you do – you can soar.

Q: What are your thoughts about how impostor syndrome can impact our time?

A: When you lack confidence in your abilities, it’s easy to waste time on things that you think may “prove” to the world (or yourself) that you deserve space on this planet. This leads to the SuperMom problem. If you’ve decided to take time out of the workforce to raise children, you may spend a lot of time showing people that you’re still a high achiever by volunteering for school projects only a martyr would take on or enrolling your kids in every activity available. If you’re working, you may try to over-deliver on the job on things that don’t matter (writing a dissertation when your boss wanted a memo) or constructing hand-made Valentines for everyone in your second grader’s class (to show that you’re still a good mom).

In general, you should spend most of your time on three things: nurturing your career (which includes keeping a hand in your profession if you’ve stepped back for a bit), nurturing your family, and nurturing yourself. If something doesn’t fit into these categories – for instance, a volunteer project you’re not passionate about – then it’s probably not a good use of your time. Somebody else can do it better. It will take your attention away from the things you do best. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome has us doing a lot of things that aren’t good uses of our time.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How do you talk about your gifted kid?

Parents like to talk about their kids. Sometimes (when we are around friends without kids, for instance) we realize that we barely talk about anything else! And part of being a parent is being proud of your kid and wanting to share good news, and share concerns as well.

If you've got highly gifted offspring, though, this can be a problem.

I was thinking of this while reading the "Unwrapping the Gifted" blog over at EdWeek. Tamara Fisher describes a parent weekend in Montana, and the awkwardness of discussing your kid in mixed company, as it were:

"Parenting a gifted child is not usually the cakewalk others assume it to be," she writes. "These kids are intense, they crave (and seek out) challenge and mental stimulation, and their learning needs are typically not well-met by a regular classroom pace and content. These factors can lead to parenting struggles that a parent's friends just don't understand. It's not easy to say, 'My child is four grade levels ahead in his reading abilities and I'm worried he's not getting what he needs in the classroom' when the societal response to that worry is cynicism and sarcasm."

It is also very hard to talk in public about your kid's accomplishments. As the Davidsons and I wrote in Genius Denied, "Bragging about one's child is a birthright of being a parent -- when she took her first step, said her first word, learned how to read. But friendly bragging in the neighborhood and at work involves a quid pro quo. You talk about your kid for a bit, then I'll talk about mine. If you can't talk about the same thing, the bragging stops. Parents who are proud of an A on a test resent hearing about another kid who has just skipped three grades, published an academic paper, and still complains that the work is too easy."

As one parent told us about her daughter, "I feel like it is seen as inappropriate for me to say too much 'good' about her. I worry about this because I want her to hear me say good things about her, but it is so uncomfortable."

So here's the question: how do you talk about your gifted child? How do you participate in those friendly parenting conversations at work or at the park? Or do you just keep quiet and save most of the conversation for parenting gatherings where everyone is dealing with similar issues? I'd love to hear how Gifted Exchange readers handled these situations.