Monday, November 29, 2010

A sense of entitlement?

In recent days, Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper has been doing a series called The Gifted Child. The paper capped the series off with perspectives from three teachers on what teaching gifted kids is like. I applaud The Globe and Mail for covering this issue. But reading these teachers' comments, there is certainly a negative undercurrent. Consider this from a Toronto high school teacher:

"A challenge that my colleagues and I often lament is the sense of entitlement amongst our gifted students. They have been told on countless occasions that they are intellectually superior and often this notion is reaffirmed at home. This may result in difficulties interacting with their non-gifted peers as well as issues when they realize that not all gifted students are gifted in all areas."

An elementary school teacher notes that gifted kids are often forgotten in classrooms, then mentions that socializing with other children can be a problem:

"It then becomes the teacher’s job to teach gifted children (and the rest of the class) to be considerate, respectful and mindful of the varying abilities that each other possess."

Then there is this from an Ottawa high school teacher:

"Often parents will expect that once their child is diagnosed as “gifted” that their child will excel in all areas of the curriculum; this is not likely and parents’ expectations have to be managed."

So there we have it. Maybe I'm a little sensitive, but I read in these quotes a message that gifted kids and their parents need to be taken down a notch, or "managed," if you will. If you're gifted in one area, maybe you aren't in another. And even if you are globally, then probably you're not very socially adept or respectful.

I'm sure this is true for some kids. But there are kids of all kinds who are insufferable. There are probably quite a few "normal" kids who could stand to learn to interact better with gifted kids -- not teasing them for quirky interests, for example. Difficulties in socializing go across the board. And given the rather low level of expectations in many schools, it is quite possible that a parent's expectation that a child will excel in all areas of the curriculum won't need to be revised downwards.

Broadly, though, there is a leveling streak that runs through educational culture. My personal experience is that many families of highly gifted kids don't have enough of a sense of entitlement. Parents think they should just be grateful, rather than demand an individualized program or acceleration or other accommodations.

Of course, the irony of this is that the easiest way to combat any sense of entitlement is to match a gifted child up with work that is challenging enough that it finally stumps him. A child who skips three grades is probably going to feel less intellectually superior than one stuck in too-easy grade level classes. But too few schools and teachers seem to take this view.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Davidson Fellow profile: Laurie Rumker

We're still highlighting some of the 2010 Davidson Fellows! Today's interview is with Laurie Rumker, a student at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. Her science project dealt with the treatment of river contaminants. You can read more about it here.


Gifted Exchange: How did you come up with your topic?

Rumker: I grew up outside of Eugene, Oregon, an environmentally-savvy city, within a nature-loving family. Our regular camping trips, hikes, forest bike rides and other outdoor activities taught me to recognize the resources that nature offers and instilled in me a desire to protect, restore and preserve them. I imagine my particular affinity for water and water systems came from living on the banks of the McKenzie River, which I frequently skipped stones over and pondered the world alongside. As a delegate from my school to an International Collaboration Project focused on wetlands conservation in the summer of 2006, I joined students from LA and Australia to learn about the complex and fragile ecosystems that water bodies support. All of these experiences influenced my selection of a research topic for this project, in addition to my experience with microorganisms and biodegradation in earlier independent research projects. Because of my concern for our environment and affinity for water systems, I began reviewing methods to confront contamination in water systems. I became interested in organoclay because of its use on the Willamette River in my hometown of Portland. As I looked further into the chemical mechanism organoclay utilizes to contain pollutants, I began to see a hole in the experimental research conducted on organoclay prior to its implementation: the possibility for surfactant biodegradation.

GE: As you were doing your project, were there any skills or things you'd learned earlier that turned out to be important?

Rumker: Organizational, trouble-shooting, creative and communication abilities are, I believe, the most important aspects of good researchers. I am continually striving to improve myself in those areas. Thankfully, those are all skills that one can learn and work on in many activities beyond research: in team sports, in art and music and even in daily conversation and negotiation with others.

GE: What was the most fun part of your project?

Rumker: My favorite part of the project was sharing it: telling others about my project premise, results and implications in formal research presentations at research competitions like ISEF and at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality annual meeting for the specific Superfund clean-up site that inspired my work and in informal conversations with interested non-science individuals and my young researching peers. It is through presenting my work that I really see its applications and advancement of scientific knowledge coming to fruition.

GE: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Rumker: My current long-range goal is to explore and improve the human condition. I want to pursue a life of scientific investigation, and in 20 years could be working on solutions for problems of human health, disheartening living conditions, our changing global climate or resource distribution to ‘3rd world’ countries. These studies would yield practical discoveries and engineered solutions, but also help us to understand our roles as humans on the earth and in the greater system of the universe by contributing scientific knowledge. I see myself in a cross-disciplinary field, utilizing global collaboration to address pressing societal problems.

Friday, November 19, 2010

All Together Now?

Over at Education Next, Michael Petrilli has an interesting article called All Together Now, which looks at the practices of tracking, ability grouping, and in-class differentiation. He starts off with this controversial, but I think correct thesis: "The greatest challenge facing America’s schools today isn’t the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or “teacher quality.” It’s the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom."

As many readers of this blog know, a given third grade classroom can feature children who are still figuring out how to read and those zooming through novels normally assigned in high school. Schools will do some "readiness grouping" (as we like to call it here) for math. There may be differentiated reading groups. But in many cases, elementary school teachers are expected to deal with incredible ranges of academic preparation.

Very good teachers and principals can make it work. Petrilli highlights Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, which serves an incredibly diverse group of both middle class families and new immigrants. Piney Branch does some grouping for reading, with the "best practices" approach of moving kids quickly between reading groups based on constant evaluation. Math also features ability grouping, but most of the rest of the subjects do not. Within the first few years of the new principal arriving, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test rose from 55 to 91 percent. "And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time," Petrilli writes. "In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school."

But, as any education reformer knows, replicating a Mr. G is a difficult task. As Petrilli points out, one recent Fordham Institute survey found that 8 in 10 teachers say that differentiation is "very" or "somewhat" difficult. Great teachers can handle difficult tasks. Less great teachers cannot. And so what often happens in classes is that the differentiation doesn't happen, or happens in the sense of the teacher letting the advanced kid read a book when she finishes her assignment early. While this is a great way to work through novels, it's not quite why we force children to go to school.

The reason I support extensive readiness grouping is that it works best for kids of different levels in the education system we have, not the education system we hope to have. A childhood can't be repeated, and squandering a bright mind in the name of future utopia is not justice. Petrilli's piece broadly seems to agree with this point, and is the most thorough discussion of it I've seen in a while. It is definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Microphilanthropy, Donors Choose, and gifted education

I have a column in today's USA Today about microphilanthropy: basically, non-profits that encourage a direct connection between donor and recipient, with donors choosing where their money goes and receiving follow-up updates. One of the non-profits I highlight is Donors Choose. Founded by a Bronx teacher, Charles Best, in 2000, Donors Choose lets people select certain classroom projects to help fund.

I spoke with Best a few weeks ago about finding classrooms serving gifted learners through the search function, and while it's a little complicated, it's definitely doable. You can search for "gifted" in the keyword search, and come up with a few. This morning, I found a request from Mrs. T that way. Mrs. T in Green Bay, Wisconsin writes that "I work in 6 different schools a week with gifted and talented children. Many are second language learners and/or economically challenged. My children come to school and know a large percentage of the curriculum or they learn it very rapidly and many times then have to read a book to wait while other children work through the concepts. These children have so many gifts to offer the world, but they need to be pushed to challenge their learning and expand their thinking." She is asking for donors to band together to raise $353 to purchase materials. (Read more about her classes here).

Best told me that you can also narrow the search to magnet schools, which will help find some that specifically serve gifted students. Using this method, I found a request from Mrs. F in Birmingham, Alabama. She is seeking funds to purchase history books that will intrigue her students. She writes, "I teach fifty-five 4th grade students from fifteen area schools who have been identified as gifted. There is no funding for gifted education in Alabama. Our state education systems have been tremendously hurt by the economic turndown and the oil spill in the gulf. Any materials we get are purchased from our own pocket, thus no books, no equipment, and no materials." She is asking donors to give $268 (it was more but four people have chipped in already). You can read more about her here.

Of course, you can't read these requests without getting upset. The United States spends more per pupil than the vast majority of countries (even in a downturn), yet somehow teachers are being told that there is no money for books for their classes and they have to buy them themselves? How is it that low-income, gifted students -- those that we need public schools to serve and challenge to reach their incredible potential -- are given a mere hour or so of pull-out a week? Why is their teacher running around to 6 different schools and asking anonymous donors for items to help her serve her kids' needs?

These are broader questions that we have to continue working on. But in the meantime, Donors Choose gives people a way to address specific needs even as we figure out how to address a broader problem.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Your Child Left Behind

Amanda Ripley has an interesting new piece in The Atlantic on how America fares in international education comparisons. We all know this story: we stink. Of course, we have a tendency to believe it's other people's schools that stink, not our own children's. America is a diverse nation, the story goes. We all know that inner-city schools struggle with issues of entrenched poverty. Other schools serve newly-arrived immigrant children who don't speak English. Wouldn't these schools drag down overall scores?

Perhaps. But she highlights new research from Eric Hanushek (my favorite educational economist) which compares white kids and kids with college educated parents to students overall in other countries. Reports Hanushek? "Even our most-advantaged students are not all that competitive."

Hanushek has spent his career debunking different notions of what makes a school work. For decades, we've been focused on inputs: money, class sizes, teachers with advanced degrees. No Child Left Behind has started to measure outputs, but there are many flaws with the system (not least of which is that states use their own tests, some of which seem to measure only if kids can write their names). Ripley cites Massachusetts' reforms, which have produced some good results. Massachusetts tests teachers, tests kids (using tests that produce similar results to the NAEP), and focuses money on tutoring for kids who need help.

But overall, Hanushek's findings are going against a culture of denial which is deeply entrenched. For all the fretting about schools, in certain communities (and often in the media), we hear even more about how much pressure students are under these days. The college admissions game has overachieving kids and their parents stressed out... but in most cases, all that stress isn't actually producing results that are internationally competitive. And that's a problem because we are shifting, more and more, to a global economy where your competition is not others in your school or community, but people in other countries. Where, it turns out, kids actually learn math.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

American teens: It's the other kids who have a problem in math

Intel recently conducted a survey of American teenagers, to determine their attitudes toward math and science. The results are fascinating. Not for asking if kids feel that being good at math and science is important (99 percent said yes -- perhaps the other 1 percent didn't understand the question). But for finding that 85 percent of American teens are confident in their own math and science abilities. Indeed, a full 58 percent aspire to pursue a math or science-related career.

There are interesting statistics, since no where near 58 percent of American teenagers will finish college, let alone do so in STEM majors. State 8th grade proficiency scores on the math NAEP range from 7 percent (DC) to 43 percent (MA). Apparently, American teenagers have absorbed some of these statistics, since 90 percent said the US was not the best in the world in math and science. Yet the vast majority felt they, personally, were doing just fine.

Intel spun these results as saying that American kids may not be challenged enough, which I think is true. It's easy to be confident of your abilities if you've never truly been tested. Unfortunately for the over-confident among our teenagers, we now live in a global economy. Doing fine for your school, or for your community, is no longer enough.

At least, according to the Intel survey, most teens don't think this lack of international standing is a result of a lack of educational funding. They attribute it to a lack of discipline and work habits -- though, again, among other people. We all tend to think we, ourselves, are working hard (something I've discovered with time use data, and write about occasionally on my other blog). But working hard is not always enough. I'm curious if this study will get any press, and if so, how other organizations will analyze it.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Changing your local school

I recently came across a book called How to Walk to School, which tells the story of a turnaround project in a Chicago public school. What's different about this story is that the turnaround was the fruit of a collaboration between a new principal and the middle-class parents who lived nearby. Instead of moving to the suburbs or sending their kids to private schools, these parents worked with the principal to turn the local school (Nettelhorst) into the kind of place they'd send their kids to. This wasn't just a matter of sprucing the place up and fundraising for extras (though this is part of it). They also looked at the quality of instruction and worked on ways to improve teaching within the school.

I know many readers of Gifted Exchange are veteran educational activists... because you've had to be. Schools, for a variety of reasons, generally have to serve the norm. Often they don't do that! But even many good schools simply can't deal well with a child who really bucks the norm. You have had to carve out exceptions to policies, make new policies, lobby for new classes, extra services and so forth.

Sometimes it doesn't work. And so you wind up homeschooling, or moving to a different community, or paying tuition at a private school that will work with you. But I'd love to hear some stories from readers who have successfully worked with teachers and principals to change their local school to better serve both your own children, and other gifted children who will come along in the future.