Friday, February 26, 2010

St. Louis -- and what's wrong with gifted education

Yes, this is the second post of the day, but I wanted to get this one up before the weekend (and the early school dismissal on account of snow).

Out in St. Louis, the city school system is looking to open a second gifted elementary school, according to this article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

On one hand, this is great. I'm always glad to see schools trying to meet gifted kids' needs. On the other hand, the tone of this article points to two big problems with gifted education as it currently exists.

First, the article notes that there are hundreds of students on the waiting list for the gifted program. This means that gifted education isn't being treated as an intervention for kids who need it. It is a special program for those lucky enough to get in.

Second, the school system is explicitly using the existence of a gifted program as a way to keep middle-class families in the city schools. Again, this makes gifted education about special treatment--a situation that is ripe for resentment. All children deserve a good education; some children just need to move at a different pace than others.

As we've talked about many times on this blog, gifted education should be about matching students with an education appropriate to their needs. It should not be considered "better" than what other kids get. While I'm glad St. Louis is taking gifted education seriously, this seems to be the underlying assumption, at least according to the people quoted in this article.

The Early Literacy Crisis

Earlier this week, I had my first "real" parent-teacher conference at Jasper's (2y9m) pre-school. We had a parent-teacher conference last year, too, but that was mostly just to report that he liked to sing the clean-up song and seemed to have mastered the concept of drinking out of a cup. This year, though, I found myself sitting down with a list of which letters Jasper could recognize, and nodding in a way to convey that I understood that this was important.

I don't think it really is at age 2, but it turns out that letter recognition is a big deal these days, in part because it is a proxy for other things. It is a way to try to quantify young children's pre-literacy skills. Such skills include the knowledge that in the English-language world we read left to right, how you hold a book, that we read words not pictures, that letters correspond to sounds, that letters strung together make words, which stand for concepts.

As Richard Whitmire points out in his new book Why Boys Fail, the early grades have become much more reading intensive over the past few decades. Some children thrive in this language-rich world, but others (more often boys than girls) do not.

One way to make children comfortable with language is to expose them to lots of it. My son's pricey pre-school is teeming with books, as is our house (to the point of absurdity, as my toddler fell asleep last night on top of a copy of What Do You Do With A Tail Like This? which I thought had been misplaced). But many environments are not. The Pearson Foundation came out with a study last fall noting that 61 percent of low-income families do not have any age-appropriate books in their houses. Parenting magazine picked up on this and ran a story this past month called The Early Literacy Crisis, calling for more pre-school and highlighting early educational interventions.

I think in general such interventions are a good idea. The important thing is to get them to where very young kids are, and this is slightly more problematic. If the kids are in daycare centers, that's one thing, but if they're in family care, or in home-based daycare centers and other informal arrangements, this is going to be more difficult. People try with educational television (since, alas, television occupies a lot of children's time, even if reading does not). When people talk about public pre-schools, they're often talking about schools for 4-year-olds. The scary thing is that this may just possibly be too late. While letter recognition at age 2 doesn't mean a whole lot, when kids' brains haven't been surrounded by a lot of language early on in life, they may not develop in a way that will make reading intuitive later. And that has all sorts of consequences. In one of the most awful and cynical sentences I have ever read, Parenting reported that "States like California and Indiana have even factored in the number of third-graders who are not reading at grade level when planning future jail construction."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fleeting Youth, Science and Hiring College Grads

Is there an age for optimal creativity?

That's a question many people have debated over the years. Many great mathematicians and scientists did their most innovative work quite young (see this story, "Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity in Science" by Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal for more on this.) It can help to be able to see a field afresh, without the weight of previous interpretation narrowing your focus. This isn't necessarily true in all fields -- writing a great novel may require knowing lots about the human condition, which tends not to happen until you've experienced the human condition -- but it is in many branches of science.

That can be a problem, because funding tends to come later in a scientist's career. Grant-making bodies like the NIH like to see a track record, which a younger scientist might not have. But Lehrer highlights work that is being done to change that, so that's encouraging.

Of course, one easy way to get funded is to work for a tech company that really hopes you will make a breakthrough. So I was fascinated to see, yesterday, a press release from Intel about a new $3.5 billion job initiative. Intel, and several other companies, are committing to increase hiring of American college grads into various science and tech positions. I imagine that many top math and science grads already have their pick of positions, but certainly giving a broad swath of young people access to capital and equipment probably won't hurt the cause of innovation.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The New Child-Testing Craze

Gifted Exchange garners a mention in NurtureShock authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new piece in The Daily Beast: The New Child-Testing Craze.

We are grateful for the shout-out, but I worry that their writings on this topic aren't being read as carefully as one might hope.

Bronson and Merryman repeat their point from NurtureShock that a child with a tested IQ of 130 at age 4 may not necessarily test in the gifted range later, then go on to say that unfortunately other tests aren't any more reliable (such as those designed to see if kids can get along with others, follow teacher instructions, etc.).

Thus, they write, admission to gifted programs can be random, "save for an occasional bona fide prodigy who blows the top off these tests."

The problem is that this is an exception that is worth thinking about. While there may not be a big difference between a child with a 125 IQ, and a 130 IQ, and IQ can change over time, there are ways to deal with this. First, you can test multiple times. Kids can go in and out of gifted programs. And most fundamentally, gifted education should be viewed as an accommodation for kids who need it, not some sort of reward. That's one reason that acceleration (grade skipping) is often a pretty good option. It's not a special program where you get to go to science museums on Friday. It's what everyone else is getting... just a few years ahead.

But while there may not be a big difference between 125 and 130, there is a difference between 100 and 160, which Bronson and Merryman readily point out. Unfortunately, I think that point often gets lost in the recent craze (see the New York magazine article recently) to claim that giftedness is a myth.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Planning for Early College

Many of us, these days, work in jobs where we are judged on results. We aren't compensated based on how many hours we spend in a seat, but on achieving certain objectives. I get paid the same amount whether a USA Today column takes me 10 hours or 5 hours, and there's also a certain standard. If it isn't good enough, it won't be published, no matter how many hours I devote to it.

But while growing numbers of us have such flexible, results-oriented jobs, education remains largely a matter of keeping your posterior in a chair. In general, a school year is 180 days with about 6 or so hours of instruction per day. You do that for 13 years (K-12) and then you are done. Yes, you have to pass classes, but there is often no particular standard aside from what one individual teacher decrees. If he isn't particularly knowledgeable about the subject, or not good at teaching it, chances are his pupils won't learn much, but that doesn't matter. In many cases, you pass the class and you get a credit.

Of course, this leads to cases of people having high school diplomas that don't indicate much of anything. So over the past 20 years, a number of states and districts experimented with high school exit exams. Starting in 10th grade or so, you'd have a certain number of opportunities to pass a test of basic high school level skills. There would sometimes be exceptions (you could submit a portfolio of work instead) but the idea was that all high school graduates would have at least a minimum level of competence.

But then what? It raises the question: if the majority of students could pass a high school exit exam in 10th grade (and generally that was the level such tests aimed for), what were the last two years of high school for? Students intending to go on to selective colleges would take college prep classes, but what about everyone else?

It's a good question, and so I'm glad to see that, according to an article in the New York Times, a "New Plan Would Let High Schoolers Graduate Early." In eight states, certain schools would allow kids who passed the high school exit exam in 10th grade to actually...exit high school. They would enroll in community college classes for the next two years instead.

I think there is a lot to like about this idea. First, it gets more kids starting college. Many students get lost somewhere in between high school graduation and college, or in their first year or so of college, because they're also adjusting to adulthood at the same time. But if you're still technically a kid and going to college, then you can get at least 2 years under your belt before you're off on your own. Two years is enough for an associate's degree--not a bad thing to have in the job market.

And second, it reinforces the idea that you are in high school to learn certain skills, and not to twiddle your thumbs until you're 18. If you learn those skills, then it's time to move on to something else. Gifted kids are going to be the biggest beneficiaries of this separation of learning goals from seat time. Because frankly, if you can master the high school material in 10th grade and move on, why not an option to master it in 8th grade and move on? Or 6th grade? Since every state promises children a free and appropriate education up to grade 12, I think it would be a logical step forward to say that the state would promise a free and appropriate education up to the equivalent age. Gifted kids could then enroll in community colleges in their teens and hopefully get the kind of challenge that middle and high schools often fail to provide.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Richard Whitmire on Why Boys Fail

Richard Whitmire, an education writer who did a Q&A with us last year on various educational issues, and who co-write an op-ed with me for Ed Week on skipping grades, has a new book out called Why Boys Fail. He argues that while reading and verbal skills have become increasingly important, and emphasized, in the early grades, boys haven't caught up. As a result, they start out behind, and in many cases stay lost. He argues that the current collegiate practice of accepting young men with fewer qualifications than young women is needed at least for a few years until the gender ratio becomes closer to 45-55 (it's currently 43-57 men to women). He also warns, in a world in which young women still seem to prefer to marry men with equal or more education than they have, of a marriage gap as women can't find suitable husbands.

It's interesting stuff, if a bit controversial. Yes, women now comprise 50% of US non-farm payroll employment, but looking around the centers of power in this world -- the big corporations, the government, big law firms, banks, even non-profits -- it's kind of hard to argue that men are underrepresented at the top. But it is always dangerous to think that what is true now will be true in the future, and we will be better off if men and women all learn the skills necessary to succeed in this new economy. You can read a Q&A with him on the topic here in USA Today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Gifted brains...more efficient?

An old but interesting link crossed my desk recently--a CNN look ("Scientists Dissect Mystery of Genius") at the MIND Institute, where researchers do brain mapping and study what that tells us about intelligence. It seems that the brains of people with high IQs appear less active, but it is because they are processing information more efficiently.

I guess this should not be surprising. One of the basic definitions of intelligence is the ability to piece together bits of information to solve problems, particularly new problems in new situations. Being good at this means being able to retrieve and relate information more quickly -- like a librarian who knows his way around the stacks.

Of course it raises the question -- if high IQ brains are more efficient, can training make any brain more efficient? If IQ is fungible within a certain range, then it would seem that one could push toward the top of a range through repeated use. This could explain why certain problem solving games could lead to slightly higher scores on IQ tests.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do homeschoolers and telecommuters get a snow day?

I've been working pretty much as usual as the snow piles up outside; the commute to my home office is not changed by the weather. Many people are having this experience today -- a number of federal government workers, for instance, are working from home on contingency plans, though the fact that they can do this raises the question: why don't more workplaces have people work from home more often? Work that requires a lot of collaboration can still benefit from seeing people in the flesh, but a number of workplace studies have found that telecommuting, say, twice a week, has no effect on collegiality.

Back when I was in school, snow days were always a source of great joy -- you got them truly "off." After all, the buses couldn't take kids to school, and school is where schooling happened. But I'd venture to guess that a great many school children have home computers these days, and could get a lesson plan emailed to them from a teacher. Since if the schools are closed, a parent or other adult has to be home anyway, there would be adult guidance to help kids work through their lessons. In other words, they'd be doing a version of homeschooling for a day.

Of course, this then raised the question for me -- do homeschoolers take snow days? Not having to travel to school is one of the perks of learning at home, but still doing regular lessons would certainly change the connotation of those first weather announcements of an impending storm! I'm curious what the homeschooling parents reading this blog do.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Junior Meritocracy, or the "Myth" of the Gifted Child

It's become a very popular piece to write: Some schools test kids before kindergarten for placement in gifted programs. IQ tests are problematic! 4-year-olds are hard to test! Therefore, giftedness is a myth!

The latest publication to jump on this bandwagon (which others, including Malcolm Gladwell and Po Bronson have also joined or hinted at) is New York magazine, whose cover story this week is called The Junior Meritocracy.

Jennifer Senior's article makes the usual points. First, IQ is not inherently stable. It can move by 10 points or so over time, and is likely to regress toward the mean. This means that a strict cut-off (aka 130 points) can be problematic. Also, tests can sometimes be coached, and very young children are hard to test. They'd rather play, they need to go potty, they want their mothers, and so forth.

I had a few thoughts. First, this is a very New York specific piece. Most districts do not, in fact, test kids for giftedness at age 4. Third grade is a far more usual time, because in education lore, the schools will have straightened out in any advantages or disadvantages that kids came in with by then. This seems strange to me (kids spend more time at home than at school), but that is the thinking.

Second, New York is strange in that there are very few chances to get in "the system" once your kid has started school. Private high schools want you to have gone to private elementary schools, and Hunter's schools go K-12. Most districts do not have nearly enough choices in schooling for any of this to matter.

But anyway, some more important observations: So IQ can move. That may matter if we're talking about dropping from 135 to 125, but the chances that a kid who has been tested multiple times at 150+ will drop down to, say, 110, are quite low. As one quoted expert, Samuel J. Meisels, put it in the piece, "Giftedness is a real thing, no question." That completely contradicts the cover line ("The Myth of the Gifted Child") and suggests that the problem is not that too few kids are being labeled gifted, it's that too many are, with a dividing line too close to the mean. Tell the parent of a 3-year-old who taught herself to read just because she finds books so fascinating that kids are all the same, intellectually, and may even out over time, and she'll probably laugh in your face.

If IQ moves, then test multiple times. Test for entrance to gifted programs every year or two -- and have kids test out too. I agree that there's no point in having only one extremely high stakes test. But that doesn't mean giftedness is a myth. If a kid has a growth spurt at age 15, he's more likely to make the basketball team in high school than if he has a growth spurt at age 18, or just stays pretty short. That may not be entirely fair, since playing a sport can teach great lessons for life and maybe help with college admissions. But we don't go apoplectic as a society about how unfair this is or, more ridiculously, try to claim that tall people don't exist.

My last point: why are these articles always illustrated with child models wearing nerdy looking glasses? When the New York Times magazine ran a cover story several years ago about the rise of the "gifted child industry" they did the same thing.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Atlantic: What Makes a Great Teacher

It sounds like a no-brainer: You've got a 23-year veteran teacher, a very nice woman who persists in teaching in a lower-income school rather than moving elsewhere. She spends her own money on new equipment for the classroom. She decorates the place and keeps it neat and tidy. She clearly loves children. If you had to find an "effective teacher" she'd be it, right?

Well, maybe not, according to a fascinating (and well worth reading) article in The Atlantic by Amanda Ripley called "What Makes a Great Teacher?" This article is based on more than a decade of research from Teach for America, which has tracked teachers and looked at who raises test scores and who does not. While test scores are not the be-all and end-all of educational results (as parents of gifted kids know well), they do show something, particularly when tests cover basic knowledge and skills and students repeatedly do not show mastery of such things.

We are learning--as perhaps we've always known but maybe not really appreciated--just how much teacher quality matters. The article starts with an anecdote of a young Mr. Taylor, a teacher who manages to boost almost all of his lower-income charges up to grade level and better, regardless of where they enter his classroom. Research has shown that if a lower-income kid can have three years of teachers like Mr. Taylor, he will perform as well as kids in well-to-do suburban districts. On the other hand, if you have three years of teachers who aren't effective, you may never catch up.

So you definitely want effective teachers. The problem (as Malcolm Gladwell compared with NFL quarterbacks in a New Yorker article a while back), is that it's hard to know ahead of time what matters in a teacher. We've isolated some things, like a teacher's own scores on standardized tests, and subject matter expertise in the case of math, but there is still a lot of ground to cover beyond those data points. In the absence of knowing what matters, we look to things that seem like they should matter, such as years of experience or (perhaps the one that is the most insidious) how nice and caring the teacher seems. Clearly someone who bothers to put up friendly decorations is a good teacher, right?

But it turns out that there are other factors that are far more important. A key one, the Teach for America data shows, is "grit." This is a short way of saying a person's tendency to stick with a difficult problem until she solves it. A classroom of kids with plenty of woeful tales is full of problems. How are you going to make them learn?

The "you" in that sentence is there on purpose. Teach for America also found that effective teachers tend to believe that they personally are in charge of the situation and can come up with a solution, regardless of what other people do. Mr. Taylor, for instance, notes that "On back-to-school night, if you have 28 or 30 kids in your class, you’re lucky to see six or seven parents.” But when Ripley asks him how that affects his teaching, he tells her, “Actually, it doesn’t. I make it my business to call the parents—and not just for bad things.” He calls all his students' parents the first week of class. Other, less effective teachers she interviewed tended to keep complaining about the lack of parental involvement, or budget cuts, or too much standardized testing or organizational politics (or the monster under the bed), and use that as an excuse.

Effective teachers set big goals, and then execute against them, planning extensively for the next day, week, year. They are also constantly trying to improve. The Teach for America person in charge of quality decided to visit the most effective teachers' classrooms to see what they were doing. But whenever he called, he noticed he'd get a similar response, Ripley writes. “They’d say, ‘You’re welcome to come, but I have to warn you—I am in the middle of just blowing up my classroom structure and changing my reading workshop because I think it’s not working as well as it could.’"

All of these things are going to be hard to screen for in hiring teachers. There is also currently no good way to get rid of teachers who aren't performing very well, and frankly, I'm not sure many principals and parents have the heart to in some cases. The warm, caring 23-year teaching veteran who used her own money to outfit the classroom (in Ripley's article) turned out to be a horrible teacher, in the sense that, at the start of the year, 66 percent of her students scored at or above grade level. At the end of the year, only 44 percent scored at grade level. When schools start counseling such teachers to leave, you will know that there has been a major shift in educational philosophy toward performance, and away from the fuzzy stuff. We are a long way from there.

But at least this data gives us a place to start, and the Race for the Top money is going to start bringing more of this data into the public eye. For the cause of education reform, this is a good thing.