Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tennessee and Delaware win Race to the Top

So the winners of the first round of competition for the Race to the Top grants have been announced, and Tennessee and Delaware have come out ahead.

While a number of people had fretted that a dozen or more states would win awards, thus watering down the impact, the selection of only two is promising. It makes this a real competition, and hopefully will empower reformers. As someone with vaguely libertarian leanings, it does bother me that the federal government compels people in all the states to send in tax money, and then doles it back out. But given that our government is definitely not moving in a libertarian direction, I'm glad to see that some federal dollars are being used in a way that could improve educational outcomes. Plus, with only two state winners, we'll be able to track if things do change.

The Race to the Top announcement has gotten me thinking what would be on my educational wish list. Next up? A Race to the Top for raising the performance of America's top 5% of students against the top 5% of students in other countries, as measured by international benchmarks... I have been pondering what that would look like. Flexible but frequent "readiness" grouping (aka ability grouping). Lots of acceleration, so kids would be challenged. And a focus on identifying and nurturing the talent of the best and brightest, much as we have coaches for nurturing athletic talent. What is noticed and measured and rewarded gets done, and gifted education could definitely use a race to the top.

On a personal and self-promotional note: Gifted education is one of my favorite topics, but I also write about many other things. One of my other favorite things to write about is time use, and I have a book coming out May 27 called 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Why 168 hours? It's the number of hours in a week! I'm keeping a blog at My168hours.com in advance of the book coming out, and would be very flattered if any GE readers wished to spend a few minutes of their 168 hours checking it out. I'm hoping to build up a readership and get people talking.

Ok, now back to gifted education. :)

Monday, March 22, 2010

America's Real Dream Team

Thomas Friedman has a great column in this weekend's New York Times, "America's Real Dream Team," also covering the Intel Science Talent Search.

He lists the names of the finalists to make an obvious point: Most of these young people are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Their projects are incredible, showing imagination, technology and drive -- the three factors that will produce the jobs and economic growth of tomorrow. America's immigrants have always done well on these fronts. A great reason to keep the doors open, and something I remember when I run through Battery Park (from where you can see the Statue of Liberty) here in New York.

He also interviewed Amanda Alonzo (the star teacher who helped mentor two finalists this year, including the 2nd place winner). She told him that San Jose real estate agents are now advertising what she's done in Asian newspapers so potential immigrants know exactly where to buy a house! These agents are on to something: We should be competing for the best and brightest in the world, and their children. As a teacher at Thomas Jefferson told me at the Intel STS public day, when he's traveled to other countries such as Russia, "They are putting a lot of effort into their best and brightest." Some teachers, such as Alonzo (who told me she took her 1-month-old infant along with her to the International Science and Engineering Fair last spring-- phew!) do this, but it needs to be a much more coordinated effort. As the Time magazine cover story this week on "The Workforce: Where Will the New Jobs Come From?" points out, ultimately only innovation creates jobs and growth. If we want jobs and growth, we need more innovators. The Intel STS suggests where we can find them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2009 Davidson Fellow Erika DeBenedictis Wins Intel STS

Erika DeBenedictis, a 2009 Davidson Fellow, won the Intel Science Talent Search last night for her project developing a software navigation system to help improve spacecraft travel through the solar system. Her research looked at gravity and how the planets move to help create "easy transit routes," (per the Intel press release) which will "ultimately help spacecraft move faster and with less fuel." You can read about her Intel project here, and about her Davidson Fellowship here.

(I also interviewed her for a Wall Street Journal article last fall on why it wasn't a bad thing for kids to be very busy).

She's a very impressive young lady and I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more from her in coming years. In the meantime, now that she's won another $100,000 in scholarships from Intel, I'm not sure there is a college that's expensive enough to cover all her winnings!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Observations from the Intel Science Talent Search

I went down to DC yesterday to interview folks at the Intel Science Talent Search finals for a City Journal article (slated for the autumn issue). As I go to more of these events (Siemens, Davidson, ISEF and Intel STS) I am continually struck by how certain schools show up again and again: the Texas Academy of Math and Science, Thomas Jefferson (in VA), Ward Melville in New York, Montgomery Blair (in Maryland) and a few others.

One of those this year was Lynbrook High School in San Jose, California, which had 2 finalists (and 6 semi-finalists). Unlike some of the others, Lynbrook is a regular public high school and doesn't have a long institutional history of sending kids to the Intel (or Westinghouse) finals. It only started happening a few years ago.

Why? Because of a young teacher named Amanda Alonzo, that's why. You can read this profile of her in the San Jose Mercury News.


Basically, she got excited about scientific research and invested the time in starting a program and mentoring her students. Over the past few years it has paid off. Several of her students are now going to get loads of scholarship money, and possibly have more college choices than if they had not been Intel finalists or semi-finalists.

It's a fascinating thought experiment. Clearly, the latent talent was there at Lynbrook. But a motivated, talented teacher helped develop it. If Mrs. Alonzo was teaching somewhere else, would there now be a major research program at another school? Would her students have done what they did? It is hard to know. The two I interviewed at Intel yesterday were obviously incredibly bright and hard-working and came up with their own ideas, so it is quite possible they'd still be there. But probably several of Mrs. Alonzo's students who didn't make it to the top reaches, but learned a lot about science in the process, will pursue careers in the field. The question is whether Mrs. Alonzo can be replicated.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Building a Better Teacher

The cover story of the New York Times magazine this past week, Building a Better Teacher, dealt with the increasingly popular topic of improving America's teaching corps. Author Elizabeth Green makes the point that with 3.7 million teaching jobs in the US, you can't simply hope to attract a better caliber of teacher in the future. Your best bet for improving student outcomes is raising the skill-level of the vast majority of teachers who are neither great nor awful.

Teaching and managing a classroom are, it turns out, skills like any other. Some people are naturally better at them than others, but most people can become better than they currently are with focused, deliberate practice. It's a fascinating piece, and worth checking out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Common Core Standards

Today, the National Governors Association released a draft of its core standards for grades K-12. Almost all the states (well, 48 of them) have signed on to this idea of creating standards that define what students should know at any given grade level.

I've been reading through the standards (available here) and I think there is a lot to like about them.

For starters, the math standards were specifically benchmarked against countries that routinely eat America for lunch in international comparisons (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea). And so they are far from the lowest common denominator standards that some folks had fretted about. Kindergartners need to know how to count by tens, to understand what adding and subtracting are as concepts, and to think about geometric concepts such as 2- and 3-dimensions. By 6th grade, students are learning to think algebraically about problems (if I can walk half a mile in 10 minutes, how can I use that information to figure out how many miles I can walk per hour?) By 7th grade, students are learning about probability concepts--if I guess on 10 true-false questions, what are the chances I get 7 right?--and in 8th grade, they're thinking about the slopes of lines and concepts in solid geometry that in general many kids these days get around to in 10th grade.

Some critics in the news articles about these standards have said so what, what's the point in learning concepts earlier? That doesn't mean you'll really know them. But I disagree with this -- the earlier things are introduced, the more time you have to think about them. And waiting to introduce concepts until later has had the effect of watering down standards, to the point where 4th graders are still working on addition because you have to fill time with something.

The National Governors Association also released the language arts standards, and at least on the writing front, I'm cautiously optimistic about them. Many of the student writing samples in the appendix are pretty good (one 4th grade short story blew me away, though the authors of the standards pointed out that it may have been edited -- then again, so is all professional writing!).

I think it is encouraging that the common standards will be aimed high, and I also think it's encouraging that we will have common standards, in part because I hope this will pay off for gifted kids. If we define as a nation exactly what an 8th grader should know, then it raises an obvious question. If a 10-year-old knows what an 8th grader should know, why can't that 10-year-old be in 8th grade? This question exists now, but because there are so many varying standards on 8th grade knowledge, there is always wiggle room. Common standards help take that away -- which I think is a good thing.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Idaho encourages gifted kids to graduate early

Acceleration is good for gifted kids -- allowing them to move through school at a rapid pace without dredging up some of political issues that dog other accommodations. Now the state of Idaho is realizing that acceleration can be a money-saver for governments, too.

According to the Associated Press, a new Idaho plan would pay kids to graduate early. (Direct URL: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hMyjdWG670FdForgcXMTVOa4MY1QD9E7AU780 -- I have been having trouble with Blogger on getting the whole URL in these links lately).

Kids who finish high school up to three years early would be eligible for a scholarship of $1600 for each year they don't do. That sounds like it would be a new expense for the state of Idaho, but of course it isn't. Every year that a kid spends in the Idaho public schools costs the state $4593. Not only will the kids have the opportunity to move on to more challenging work, the state will save about $3000 a year. The one problem, of course, is that tuition at a place like the University of Idaho runs more than $1600 a year, but at least this is a start.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Primary Sources

Today, the Gates Foundation, partnering with Scholastic, released the results of a survey of 40,000 American teachers. You can read the press release (and find links to the main report) here.

There were several interesting results. For instance, more teachers thought that supportive leadership, time to collaborate, and quality curriculum were important for retention than thought that higher salaries were essential. About half of elementary school teachers said they'd be willing to have parent-teacher conferences in kids' homes. Teachers endorsed the idea of clear standards, common across the states. And perhaps most interestingly, only 10% of teachers said that tenure was a good measure of teacher performance. Some 42% said it wasn't a good measure at all. This suggests a potential difference in belief between rank-and-file teachers, and teacher union leadership (since years of service and graduate degrees tend to be the most commonly allowed standards for differences in pay).

In recent years, the Gates Foundation has moved on from its initial Small Schools programs (which turned out not to work that well) to focusing on teacher quality. This report is a first step in figuring out what teachers think, in order to enlist their support in future reforms.