Thursday, April 29, 2010

Evidence on Teachers

I am just back from a wonderful week-long vacation in California (I finished my first marathon! Don’t ask my time. Let’s just say I finished). Anyway, May is a great time for education stories, so I anticipate slightly more frequent posting until my book (168 Hours) comes out May 27 and things get crazy.

On today’s agenda: more evidence of the fact that teachers matter. None of us particularly likes standardized testing. But as the movement to tie children’s test scores to individual schools and teachers heats up, researchers are finding some fascinating things in the data this movement is producing.

First, twins are often assigned to different classrooms. This creates a natural experiment, since identical twins in particular have the same genes, and most likely the same home environment. So if they’re in the same school but separate classes, then at least some of any difference can likely be attributed to the experience they’re having in their classrooms.

In general, according to a new study from Florida State University, this turns out to be pretty much the same experience. Genes and home environment are most predictive of educational outcomes. But in cases where twins strongly diverge in their reading ability, in many cases, their teachers also have divergent quality ratings. This reinforces previous findings that differences in schools between great teachers and awful teachers are often bigger than between schools.

A whole industry of researchers is currently trying to isolate what makes a “great” teacher. But another recent study found one thing that definitely does not: anxiety about math. According to a study from the University of Chicago, girls whose female early elementary school teachers feel most anxious about their math abilities pass this belief – that math is something boys do – on to their pupils. That’s a problem since elementary education majors apparently have the highest levels of math anxiety of any college students. I'm not sure what to do about that except that, over time, our society needs to start believing that teaching, like engineering, is a math-intensive field, and requires a high level of competence. It is not a field for people who aren't "numbers people."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Time Mag: Is Cash the Answer?

A quick question for Gifted Exchange readers: do you reward your children for good grades? What do they think about this?

My family used to go out for ice cream if we got good report cards, and I can't say that it particularly affects me much now. My husband, the way he tells it, used to get to go out for King Crab Legs if all four kids got straight A's (which I guess they usually did). It seems to have left quite an impression on him, because every time we're at a restaurant that serves King Crab Legs, he orders them.

The question of whether rewards work has long been debated in education. Dan Pink's Drive (which I reviewed for City Journal here) makes the case that pay-for-performance doesn't work if you want the most creative results. The strongest motivation is intrinsic: you do something because the action itself is pleasurable to you.

No one argues that we would love to have kids learning because they love to learn. I also think it's not particularly controversial to say that a lot of kids don't necessarily show this kind of motivation (or at least schools haven't tapped into it). So what should be done?

This past week, Time magazine ran a cover story about a recent, multi-city study that looked into whether cash awards can boost student learning. You can read the article, "Is Cash The Answer" by following the link in this sentence. The experiment was run by Roland Fryer, a young Harvard economist who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks himself, and would like to figure out a way to boost the performance of at-risk kids.

The answer to whether cash is the answer? Maybe. As Time reporter Amanda Ripley writes, "The results are fascinating and surprising. They remind us that kids, like grownups, are not puppets. They don't always respond the way we expect." For instance, in New York City, paying for higher test scores did not lead to any measurable effect on end-of-year standardized tests. In Washington DC, rewarding for five different activities improved reading skills. In Dallas, paying kids to read boosted reading comprehension scores by the equivalent of being in school an extra 3 months (which is quite a big difference).

Fryer and his team have puzzled through the differences, and seem to have taken a few things away from these results. First, incentives work when kids can actually directly control how they will do. Getting a grade is pretty subjective, but you can control if you read a book, or if you show up for class or don't get in a fight. And second, you have to know how to achieve success. As Ripley puts it (quoting another economist), if I ask you to solve a third-order linear partial differential equation right now, and you don't know what I mean, it really doesn't matter if I offer you a million dollars. You're not going to be able to do it. If a kid doesn't know how to do better at geometry, cash doesn't help. But kids do know how to read through a book. They know when they have successfully done that. Hence the Dallas program, which paid for that, had the most success in jump-starting learning. Read enough books, and you get better at reading.

So what does this have to do with gifted education? Many highly gifted kids do, intrinsically, love to learn. Their brains are good at learning, at figuring things out. As parents, we want to be careful not to step on this joy. On the other hand, other things -- like turning in homework on time -- may not be so natural, and may be an area that's more ripe for rewards.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Parents are spending more time with their kids -- is it because of college admissions?

Earlier this week, Tara Parker-Pope's Well blog over at the New York Times highlighted findings from a recent study that American parents were spending far more time with their kids than a generation ago. College-educated parents in particular have really stepped up their game -- moms and dads -- which the headline deemed surprising (since more women are in the workforce now than in years past). I don't find it surprising (as I blog about over at but what's most interesting is a thesis that doesn't make it into the Well column. The husband and wife economist team, the Rameys, who ran these numbers, speculate that parents are investing more time in their kids because college admissions has gotten more competitive.

In a paper called The Rug Rat Race, they speculate that there are far more college-bound children now than in recent years, and that this surge in college-bound children is concurrent with the rise in investment of parental time. It's a crowded cohort, so you have to do something to make your child stand out.

I don't know about this explanation -- though they do some interesting calculations. On the whole, it seems like a negative gloss on a mostly positive thing: that parents value their time with their children, and so are more likely to engage in that during their non-working hours, instead of other hobbies or housework. Some of it may be sparked by increased competition. But it may just be a broader change in culture, too.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Davidson Young Scholar Success Stories

The Davidson Institute offers several programs for highly gifted young people. We've covered the opening of the Davidson Academy several years ago, and the winners of the annual Davidson Fellows awards, but I also wanted to call readers' attention to the Young Scholars program, which is one of the institute's biggest efforts, now reaching 1600 young people. When kids are accepted into the program, they are eligible for consulting services which can help parents and educators decide on the best way to meet their needs. Every child is different, of course, but by the time you've studied what works and what doesn't for 1600 highly gifted kids, there are some pretty robust best practices.

You can read several success stories of different students in the program, and how those best practices worked here. You can find out how to apply here.

Friday, April 02, 2010

In Defense of AP

Many, many years ago, I took several AP (Advanced Placement) classes and AP exams in high school. I had quite a range of experiences with them, too. I got 5s (the top score) on the Calculus BC, Chemistry, and Biology tests. I believe I scored a 2 on the AP Physics exam, which is a pretty poor showing. The tests felt very different, too. I was completely lost in the physics one, whereas I knew, in the middle of the biology and chemistry ones, that I was pretty much going to ace them. There was nothing I didn't know cold. I was clearly the same person, with the same work ethic (positive or negative) for all these classes, and given my calculus scores, presumably had enough math knowledge to deal with physics, so why the incredible difference in outcomes?

I was thinking of this as I read a recent article in USA Today called "Advanced Placement: Good for top students, oversold for others?" Harvard Education Press has recently released a book showcasing research into the College Board's AP program. The results, according to the article, are pretty mixed, but I believe this is a question of what you think the AP should do.

As USA Today quotes Philip Sadler, a Harvard prof and one of the co-editors of the book, here is the value proposition of AP for students: "Advanced Placement courses offer you an opportunity to study a subject in a very rigorous and demanding fashion. You will probably be in a class that has fewer students, those students will likely have stronger backgrounds, and there will be fewer student discipline issues than you have experienced in other courses. Your teacher will have a strong subject matter background and excellent teaching skills."

In my calculus, biology and chemistry classes, this was definitely the case, and I am far from the only one of my classmates who did well on the exams. But the fact that a course is AP can't necessarily make up for deficits or unevenness in teaching and preparation.

This is an issue because in recent years, many school districts have decided to roll out AP courses very broadly. Many cited a study finding that kids who attempted hard classes in high school were more likely to go to college. So why not offer AP, have kids challenge themselves, and watch the college enrollment rates go up?

That's a reasonable idea, but the reality is that many kids aren't prepared for the rigor of AP classes, and their teachers are equally unprepared to teach them well. They can lack subject matter expertise or teaching ability. So if you want to go this route, you're going to have to be prepared to watch a lot of students fail at least in the near term. And as the USA Today article indicates, there are schools where basically no one gets above a 2. There are also schools where the majority of kids score 3-5. The AP program is standardized, but it can't be completely standardized. It is hard to get around the reality that some kids don't come into AP programs ready to deal with them and that teachers matter. Period.

But I don't think this is a problem with the program. I think that it is what it is -- a great way for top high school students to try rigorous classes and stretch their brains. I still have a soft spot in my heart for chemistry and biology, and when I was writing a column for Scientific American for a while, I found that my basic knowledge from the AP on these topics was enough to converse with leading scientists. Knowing that my knowledge would be tested at the end of the class and that the results would mean something compared with all other high school students was very important to me. Coming from Indiana, I had no idea whether what I was learning would match up against the brightest kids from around the country. The AP exams let me see that. There was no wiggle room. Your score is your score, and a sympathetic teacher can't give you a top score just because you were the sharpest kid in her class. It is benchmarked for everyone, and at a level of very high standards. I wish more of American education was like that.