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.