Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Newark and $100 million

Education circles are buzzing this week with news of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's decision to donate $100 million to the Newark schools. Newark mayor Cory Booker is raising matching funds from other donors, including Bill Gates, with the goal of trying to turbo-charge education in this city.

It's an interesting question: can a massive infusion of cash change a dysfunctional system? No one is denying that Newark has big problems. Only about half its students graduate from high school. One thing it does lead the nation on? The number of sick days the teachers take. According to this Wall Street Journal article, about 7% of Newark teachers are absent on any given day, vs. 4% in the average urban district.

The issue, though, is that Newark does not suffer from a lack of funding. The district spends well over $20,000 per student. Los Angeles, with its dysfunctions, does not spend nearly as much per pupil. If the $200 million disappears into the same pit as the rest of Newark's funding, then it's unclear why anything would change.

Over at the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio argues that Zuckerberg should have given his millions in X-Prize fashion. That is, set a goal such as an urban district graduating 80% of its 9th graders four years later, or hitting a certain NAEP target. Any district that hits such a goal gets a massive infusion of (well-deserved) cash.

It's an interesting idea with merit. But what's done is done - I do hope Zuckerberg's gift helps turn Newark around. In recent years, I've seen some great stuff going on there, from the private Christ the King Prep school to events in the Prudential Center. Only 30 minutes from New York, the city has great potential. But it's unclear what will become of it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Grade-Skipping Should Be Back in Fashion

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews tackles the issue of acceleration in his Class Matters post today, called "Why Grade Skipping Should Be Back in Fashion."

Noting research from Belin-Blank (and also citing Gifted Exchange!) Mathews argues what we long have: that acceleration is a budget-friendly and effective way to challenge gifted kids. It is often better than the short pull-out sessions that pass for gifted education these days, and also avoids most of the political issues around gifted education: namely, that gifted kids get "special" stuff like trips to science museums, more fun classes, etc. With acceleration, they get the same education as everyone else. Just earlier.

Yet few schools have embraced acceleration. We have this notion that children do best when they are around kids of the same age, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. For most of the history of education, classrooms were multi-age. Kids learn at home too, and play with their brothers and sisters of different ages. A mere glance around a 6th grade classroom will find that 12-year-olds can be at vastly different stages of development anyway. Furthermore, few adults have such restrictions on our working and social relationships. I am glad to have friends who are both older and younger than me, and I'm not sure why schools are so averse to similar things.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Online Learning Gains Acceptance

I was amused to see re-surface, via Twitter, an article I wrote 6 years ago called Online learning: A smart way to nurture gifted kids. I was making the case that since every community doesn't have a great school for gifted kids, online learning can fill in the gaps.

I suppose, writing that piece in 2004, I would have thought that this would be old news by 2010. But online learning is still in its infancy, even in postsecondary education, where colleges have discovered a real need. For adults with jobs and kids, it is hard to get to a classroom at a certain time. Online learning lets people study at night and on weekends. And with available technology, interaction is certainly no worse than in a lecture hall.

On the plus side for online learning, a new survey done by the Society for Human Resource Management finds that HR folks are getting their heads around degrees earned online. A full 79 percent had hired someone in the last 12 months who earned his/her degree online. Most disagreed with the statement that people with traditional degrees had more self-discipline, or better time management skills. There were some reservations, of course. A large minority thought that online degrees were less credible, and in some cases, there may be reasons for that. All degree programs should concern themselves with metrics like persistence to graduation, job placement, etc.

Why do I find this growing acceptance encouraging? Mostly because online degree programs are a great way for gifted students to start college courses early. If you are 12, sitting in a college classroom can feel intimidating, even if you understand everything that's going on (and your parents may worry about sending you). But distance/virtual learning allows us to do away with these barriers, in the same way that social networks and online communities bring us together with people who are different ages, ethnicities, who have differing physical abilities, etc. There are places for both, and I'm glad I earned my college degree in person. But if there is growing acceptance, then more students who start such coursework early can transfer their credits and finish college earlier should they decide to attend in person later. And more acceptance means more supply -- which is good for giving gifted students more options.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

IQ Fun Park

I have lots of opinions. Too many, some might say! But sometimes, Gifted Exchange readers, I come across things that I really just have no idea what to think about.

That's where I am right now with the IQ Fun Park, a board game for the CandyLand set (hat tip to Executive Moms, which covered the game in the group's newsletter). Billed as "Test prep that feels like a game!" the IQ Fun Park helps prepare 4-year-olds for elementary school testing with 1,500 practice items based on the WPPSI-III, the Stanford-Binet 5, the OLSAT and BBCS tests. You can choose just questions from one test (I guess the idea is why bother with the others if your kid only has to take one?) or all four. The idea is to "prepare your child without pressure, expensive tutors, or workbooks," though billing IQ Fun Park as cheap only works if you're comparing it to 20 hours with a $100/hour tutor. At $297, it's not in the same ball park as Life or Monopoly.

I am curious what you all think of this. I have two initial observations. One is that something like this is inevitable in markets where the supply of spots in "good" kindergartens exceeds demand. There is also the corollary of gifted programs being life rafts (the only good spot in a failing school system), as opposed to interventions for kids who need them, and no better or worse than other classes.

The other observation, though, is that I am always skeptical of what test prep can do. People talk that the SAT can be prepped for and all that, but the vast, vast majority of kids who go through test prep programs do not get 2400s on the SAT. High scores still mean something, and I suspect that even a fun game won't totally change how a child will do on the Stanford Binet.

Friday, September 10, 2010

1-on-1 Time When You've Got a Brood

(cross-posted at My168Hours.com)

In a webinar I ran on Wednesday (co-sponsored with CurrentMom), one participant spoke of wanting to find solo time for each child, given that she had children. This is a good question, and one I've been pondering myself lately.

On one hand, I know that one-on-one parenting (past the nursing baby stage) has not been the historical norm. As I write in Chapter 6 of 168 Hours (my new book, for those just tuning in!), Mrs. Meyer (of the cleaning products fame) rarely got time alone with any of her nine kids.

On the other, these individual interactions are among the most pleasant of parenting. When you have multiple kids doing something together, there are always group dynamics, there is always competition for your attention, and there is always the desire to keep things from descending into chaos. Even if, in general, your kids do very well together.

So how do you carve out time for each kid? Here are a few ideas:

1. Evening book groups. If your kids are clustered together in age, they might enjoy the same books. But if they're more spread out, you can read with the little one while the older one(s) is getting ready for bed, then go do another story reading appropriate for the older set. If you and your spouse are both doing this, you can read at the same time, or if you have four book groups, split them. Mark where you are in the book so your spouse can pick up where you left off. Then let the kids fill you in next time (a bonus reading comprehension exercise!).

2. Use older kids' activities. This is a good time for hanging out with littler kids. Rather than chasing your 4-year-old all over the piano teacher's waiting room while the 8-year-old has her lesson, think through what you'd like to do together. A walk? Put the Big Wheel in the car trunk so she can ride it? An art project you can both do? A nearby pond where you can go feed the ducks? Ask her what she'd like to do during this mommy or daddy time, too.

3. Commute together (if you can). Some parents I profiled in 168 Hours coordinated their work schedules so they could commute with the kid whose school was closest to the office. Yes, this is just another way of saying "drop the kid off at school," and may not sound exciting if you're the parent normally doing that, but if you're not doing primary parent duties during the week, it's a nice way to put solo kid time into the day.

4. Find an activity you can do with each child. Maybe you and your 12-year-old train for a 5K together. Or if you're training for a longer race, the child can bike along. You can volunteer at a food bank together with a 16-year-old, or in a church nursery with a 14-year-old. You can take a multi-age art class with a younger child.

5. Chore teams. If they have to get done (and you're not outsourcing them), you may as well get some one-on-one time out of it. Mom and one child can always be responsible for changing the sheets together. Dad and another child can do the dishes together (or you can rotate which kid does this with which parent). Car washing and garden weeding are chores even a young kid can do with you; if you're comfortable with it, a teen can help with bill paying (that's one way to introduce them to the idea of personal finance!) A middle-schooler can maintain a grocery list and then serve as Dad's Special Assistant during all grocery store trips.

I'm curious how other people with larger families have created special time with each child.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Waiting for Superman

On Sept. 24, Davis Guggenheim's new film, Waiting for 'Superman,' will be released in theaters. Guggenheim (who directed An Inconvenient Truth) is turning his attention to the question of reforming American schools. I was recently sent the companion book to the film (which is published by PublicAffairs), and have been enjoying reading it.

The film was inspired partly by guilt. Guggenheim, a good liberal, has spent years grappling with the fact that he drives past public schools in order to drop his own kids off at a private one. He did not think the local public schools were good enough for his own kids, though of course this raised the obvious question: why were they good enough for other people's children?

Waiting for "Superman" attempts to answer the question of why schools fail, and looks at the individual consequences for children who do not receive a great education. I'm sure the film will be quite moving, but here's why I like the book: it brings together some of the best thinkers about education from many angles. There are essays by Michelle Rhee (chancellor of the Washington DC schools), Bill and Melinda Gates, Eric Hanushek (my favorite education-focused economist!) and Jay Mathews (The Washington Post's education writer, and possibly the most linked-to person in Gifted Exchange history).

Over the next few weeks I'll look at different essays, but today I want to focus on an essay by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I greatly respect that the film's creators gave Weingarten a platform in their book because (spoiler alert!) teachers unions emerge as the bad guys in Waiting for "Superman." Weingarten, herself a former history teacher at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, notes (correctly) that "Many of those who weigh in on the state of our public schools do so from an ivory tower, a think tank, the opinion pages, or from in front of a television camera. Teachers have no such remove. They are in the classrooms every day, seeing what their students need, and doing the hard work to help them succeed."

She notes that most talk of reform has focused on "two kinds of outliers: bad teachers and difficult-to-replicate schools, the implication being that if you get rid of a few bad teachers and create a few boutique schools, you can solve all the problems of education. You can't."

For starters, "speaking from my own experience, there are very few teachers who are great teachers on their first day in a classroom. There has been a lot of talk about teacher quality, and about who is a 'good' teacher and who is a 'bad' teacher. Much of this talk seems to fall back on the assumption that teachers enter the profession as either one or the other -- good or bad -- and stay that way. The truth is that while wanting to teach may be innate, becoming a great teacher is a learned skill."

To this end, much of teacher assessment is not particularly useful. "Today, this is how teachers still are commonly evaluated: by an administrator sitting in the back of the classroom for a few minutes, a few times, in the first few years of teaching. The teacher then receives feedback at the end of the semester or the end of the year. It's like a football team watching game tape only when the season is over."

She goes on to say that "No teacher -- myself included -- wants ineffective teachers in the classroom." As she points out, "When a teacher is disengaged or floundering, there are repercussions not only for the students, but also for the teachers down the hall, who take responsibility for those students the next year." This is a point that has not been raised too much in the education debate: how much time good teachers spend cleaning up the messes that bad teachers create.

Weingarten suggests that because of this, teachers themselves have a great incentive to either work with under-performing colleagues to improve their skills, or to counsel them out of the profession. She describes the Peer Assistance and Review system in Toledo, Ohio, where teachers are assigned to work with and evaluate each other. Based on the consulting teachers' assessments, she reports, between 8-10 percent of new teachers opt to resign or don't have their contracts renewed.

She also raises some critiques of other standard school reform stories. The key lesson from the Harlem Children's Zone, she notes, should not be that charter schools work. It should be that when you surround families with cradle-to-college services, you can address the barriers that keep children from learning.

She does not come out against performance pay, but rather advocates performance pay on a school-wide basis, rather than just focusing on individual teachers. "This will allow them to do more than create pockets of excellence, class by class, but rather to develop schools of excellence, where everyone works together to make sure everyone improves," she writes. Certainly, research has found that teachers often don't want to be pitted against their colleagues, competing for a small number of bonuses. Like salesmen competing against each other for one trip to Hawaii, it can undermine the collegial relationships necessary for long-term improvement.

Anyway, it's an interesting read, though there are problems with Weingarten's take, too. She plays down the "rubber room" issue in New York (where teachers who were removed from the classroom continued to be paid for not working, often for years). She notes that the rubber rooms have been permanently shuttered, and so we should just all move on, but of course, shutting the rubber rooms doesn't remove the real issue, which is that teachers enjoy more job protections than the vast majority of other people these days. When you can't stop paying a teacher who's been accused of passing out drunk in the classroom, it sets a very low bar for everyone else.

It is true that there are problems with placing all the burden of student performance on teachers (especially since disadvantaged students often move frequently, in the middle of the school year, meaning that it's unclear which teacher is responsible for them in the first place). But given that there are schools which overcome barriers such as kids coming to school hungry (and isn't this what school breakfast is for, anyway?) this is a bit of a cop-out. As Hanushek's research has found, having a good teacher matters, and having several in a row can make up for one's socioeconomic status. The problem is that very few kids from lower income families get 3-4 great teachers in a row.