Friday, January 29, 2010

UK Pulls the Plug on National GT Program

Back during his time in power, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had an ambition: to get more middle class families to stay in the UK's state schools. One way to do that, he decided, was to increase programming for gifted students. The result, a national academy for gifted students, was launched in 2002. This program provided summer classes, trained teachers, and otherwise tried to bring the needs of gifted learners into the forefront of education.

Now it appears, according to this article in the Telegraph, that the program's 20 million-pound budget will be redirected mostly to achieving more "social mobility," whatever that means. Any national funding for gifted kids will be directed mostly at those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Now, I understand that budgets are tight everywhere, and there is nothing wrong with helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it is absolutely ludicrous that this is set in contrast with gifted funding, with the idea being that any gifted funding is taking away money from students who deserve it more. 20 million pounds is a small drop in the UK's education budget. The country could probably find that kind of money by reminding everyone to turn off the lights a bit more frequently, or using cheaper toilet paper.

Instead, this is purely a philosophical stand made by educrats who are obsessed with "equity" to the exclusion of all else, and really hate the idea that some kids are brighter than others. If you can't remove that reality, then you try to at least ignore the bright kids and trust they'll do all right. It's a short-sighted philosophy, but it's incredibly widespread for reasons I don't understand. What is it about going into education that makes people dislike gifted kids?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Two Intel student prize-winners to be recognized in the State of the Union Address

President Obama will recognize two young scientists as part of his State of the Union address, according to this release from Intel. Li Boynton of Houston, TX and Gabriela Farfan of Madison, WI, who have both participated in Intel's science fairs and contests, will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama during the speech.

For the past few decades, presidents have been highlighting Americans with various triumphs or woes during this annual speech; the exercise is meant to call attention to certain issues. So I'm certainly glad that a big issue he'll be calling attention to is gifted young people doing great things! We should be doing more to treat such young people as rock stars. I look forward to seeing it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Alternative to AP

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story called "In Suburban Schools, an Alternative to AP." The article chronicled the growing interest in dual-enrollment programs, in which high school students take classes that follow college syllabi (and often earn college credits).

The New York Times billed these courses as two things: a cure for senioritis, and an alternative to the "high-pressure" pace of the AP, and its high-stakes end-of-year tests.

I think the first is definitely true. Once the college admissions process is over for the most selective schools by the second semester, people definitely start to slow down. Rather than take easy classes, dual enrollment lets students try out what they'll be doing during the next four years. Dual-enrollment classes potentially expand the curriculum that is available, and by giving kids a taste of college level work may sharpen their study skills.

But I am not sure that these courses are quite equivalent to the AP. For starters, while the AP classes are designed to get you credit (or passed out of courses) at even the most selective universities, many dual-enrollment programs use local community colleges' courses. That doesn't mean they're not good, but Harvard may not recognize these credits. And second, the end-of-the-year high stakes exam is the main reason I like the Advanced Placement courses. They are completely standardized across the country. A 5 in Boise means the same as a 5 in Tampa and New York City. You won't get a high score just because you are the smartest kid in your school. These are hard tests, there is an absolute standard, and if you don't know the material, you will not do well. If you do, though, you know that score means something.

Much in education is incredibly fuzzy. We have no idea if an A in calculus one place means the same as an A elsewhere. We don't even know that the same material is covered. Many gifted kids earn As for no better reason than that the teacher in a regular school has to aim the material to the middle of the class, which makes the material too easy for someone on the high end of the bell curve. A national, difficult, standardized test removes these temptations.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The homeschooling single parent

There's been a bit of a dust-up over at Business Week over their recent cover story, The Permanent Temporary Workforce. The story was written with the intent of casting the rise in the free agent workforce in as negative a light as possible. For some people it is a bad thing -- you're doing the same job as an independent contractor, and so not getting any benefits. But for many of us who consider ourselves more entrepreneurial, it's great not to call any one company boss, and certainly worth the trade-offs (like buying our own health insurance, something I did for a few years).

Anyway, the dust-up is that Business Week later had to run a letter from the lead character in the story, a single mom named Tammy DePew Smith, disagreeing with the whole premise, namely that "You know American workers are in bad shape when a low-paying, no-benefits job is considered a sweet deal." Smith works with LiveOps, a Santa Clara provider of call-center workers. She works from home, basically when she wants to, earning about $15/hour -- not great, but not exactly poverty, either.

So what does this have to do with education? Well, it turns out that Smith is also homeschooling her 7-year-old son. I know a lot of Gifted Exchange readers are homeschooling, and often this involves one parent stepping out of the workforce for a while to function as their children's full-time teacher. But the economy is changing. More of us are working wherever, whenever. While working from home is not a good way to save money on childcare when you have little children (trust me on this one), if an older child can be started on a lesson, the parent can then go do something else. In Smith's case, what she does is go answer customer service phone calls for half an hour or so until he's done. This allows her, as a single parent, to support her children, and homeschool one of them too.

Indeed, Business Week could have written a whole story about that! It could have read, "isn't it great that the economy is now so flexible that a single mom can not only support her kids, she can homeschool, too?" But I guess this was not the company line. Michael Bloomberg, whose Bloomberg company now owns Business Week, has often told graduating classes in his stump commencement speech that "it never hurts to be the first one into the office each morning -- and the last to leave." Well, it hurts if you don't get to homeschool, and you've decided that's what's best for your kids.

I always like to hear stories from homeschooling parents about how you're making it work, particularly if you are combining it with paid work or other commitments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ranking the States in Math

Ed Week recently published a "Math Progress" index related to the Quality Counts 2010 report. The index ranks the various states according to 12 metrics. I believe some of these metrics are important-- for instance, the percentage of middle schoolers attending schools where taking algebra in 8th grade is the norm. Others are less important--for instance, the percentage of lower-income students taught math by teachers who have been teaching it for more than 10 years. What with tenure and the like, it is quite possible to teach math badly for 20 years or more, especially in the large urban districts where many lower income students reside, and other studies have shown that after the first few years on the job, teachers don't make vast quality gains. So I'm not sure I would have included this one.

Nonetheless, what I find most interesting about these rankings is how varied the states are. Some are generally good on most of the metrics (Massachusetts and Maryland). Some are generally bad (Mississippi, for instance). But even the top scorers like Massachusetts don't do well on some important metrics, like 8th grade algebra, whereas lower ranking states like California do quite well on this one. Because of this, it is hard to point to one state doing "best practices" that others can emulate. In other words, large scale math reform is not going to involve just pointing to one state and saying "do what they do." It will have to involve picking and choosing from across the country.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Intel Semi-Finalists

Intel and the Society for Science released their list of the semi-finalists in this year's Intel Science Talent Search. You can read the list of 300 students here.

While the list of students who have done amazing independent scientific research projects is long, the list of schools they attend is much, much shorter. Scroll down, and you'll see the Texas Academy of Math and Science, the North Carolina School of Science and Math, the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and a few other stand-outs listed again and again.

What's happened is that a few schools have institutional research programs that give kids the time and the mentoring to actually conduct interesting, meaningful experiments. While it is certainly possible to find your own mentor at a university near your home, or even come up with your own experiments you can do at your kitchen table, a research program makes it that much easier for kids with scientific aptitude to test and stretch themselves.

I would love to see more schools putting serious research programs in place as an option for kids who want a project in high school. Hopefully the cash a semi-finalist designation earns will, over time, convince more schools to give it a try.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Our Little Genius

Over the past few years here at Gifted Exchange, we've written a few times about "child prodigy" shows, when TV hosts like Ellen or Oprah bring on kids who do what are billed as amazing things. These often involve memorizing a high volume of information, like which US president did what, or lists of famous quotes.

I'm not sure how it's become a broadly held notion that intelligence in children is defined by the ability to memorize things and do quick recall, but I guess this is what makes for good television. All of these kids are, of course, bright, but children in general like to memorize things like the names of all the Thomas the Tank Engine characters or the names of dinosaurs. It helps them make sense of the world and given that they don't have to stuff their brains with other questions (like "did I remember to pay the mortgage?"), many can do it quite well. If you've got parents who want to promote the kid, then you've got a TV segment, though it may not be showing quite what everyone thinks it does.

It was particularly eerie in one of the Oprah episodes I watched, in which a young girl who could recite famous quotes was asked about her favorite quote from Oprah. She gave the quote, then said at the end "Oprah Winfrey." Since she was speaking to Oprah, this made very little sense to give the name of the speaker. But this is how she had memorized everything (quote, then name of person who said the quote), so she stayed true to form, rather than changing to take account of the current situation (which is probably a better measure of intelligence).

Anyway, this television tendency will now get a new breath of life with the new Fox show, premiering next week, called "Our Little Genius." In it, children pulled from gifted programs will answer increasingly difficult trivia questions to win money. Their parents have the option to have them stop at any given point if they decide that's enough winnings. The show's creator, Mark Burnett, told the New York Times that “I love that we’re shining a light on these academic geniuses... So much light is shined on gymnasts, football players, singers and actors. It’s not often that you get a light shined on academics.”

This is definitely true. However, I wish we would recognize that this is a certain kind of academics. For game shows to work, there has to be a right answer. So you get questions like "Who was the Roman god of war?" for which you can study and cough up the right answer. You don't get more interesting questions like "why might a culture have a god of war?" or "how might it change a culture to move from a pantheon of gods to one god?" which actually test a person's ability to draw on different bits of information and reach a new conclusion. If you had a show in which a 7-year-old discussed those questions, I'd definitely watch it. But since there's no right answer, it would be hard to dole out $500,000 in front of a studio audience. And the ratings would probably stink.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Teach for America and civic engagement

For the past 20 years, Teach for America has sent new grads from top colleges into troubled schools to teach for 2 years. The idea is that these young, energetic teachers will inspire their charges, and that, in turn, having the experience of teaching will turn these young grads into better citizens.

It's an intriguing idea, but there's now some new evidence that the latter is not necessarily true. According to a new study from Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam (written about here), rates of voting, charitable giving and civic engagement are lower among Teach for America grads (who completed their two years) than among those who were selected to the program but declined the offer.

While there's some controversy about these findings (founder Wendy Kopp disputes them) it does raise the question of why this would be the case. I think the answer has to do with how much we, as a society, like neat narratives. We like stories that make sense. What could make more sense than people having a life-changing experience doing something like the Peace Corps, or Freedom Summer (when college students helped register black Mississippi residents to vote back in the Civil Rights era), AmeriCorps or now Teach for America? Thess life-changing experiences, according to the story line, would then inspire people to a life of service.

But real life seldom fits into neat narratives. As McAdam points out, the Freedom Summer folks (who did stick around in progressive activism) were undertaking something pretty risky and counter-cultural. When 13% of Harvard's graduating class applies for Teach for America, though, it's hard to think of it as a counter-cultural thing that would truly inspire you to do difficult and potentially unpopular things for the rest of your life.

It's also possible that serving in an inner-city school for two years can make people feel like they're "done" -- they've done their work for humanity, and now they don't need to volunteer or give money. Or perhaps people get so burned out doing this difficult work that they no longer care about public policy (why vote for politicians who will just grandstand about education anyway?)

These are tough questions, and I don't know the answer. In general, I think it's not a bad thing to have young, smart people try teaching. One of the few metrics that actually matter in teacher quality is the teachers' own scores on standardized tests. Clearly, the Ivy League grads who fill Teach for America's ranks do well on that metric. So maybe this study was going after the wrong thing. After all, if more than 60% of Teach for America grads are still involved in education, then it's certainly a success on that front.