Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are Legos for girls?

BusinessWeek ran a cover story this past week on whether Lego is for girls. A note of explanation, before anyone leaps to certain conclusions. The classic Lego blocks are, most emphatically, for either gender. However, in recent years, Lego has figured out that there is far more money to be made selling kits based on different themes. So which themes? While Harry Potter has been pretty gender neutral, most of the other themes are pretty over-the-top boy: battles, Ninjas, etc. I wish the laws of economics didn't point toward kits (talk about stifling creativity, to dictate how a toy should be played with, and assigning a story line already...) but it does.

So why not some kits aimed at girls? Sounds simple enough as a way to build market share. But what should those kits look like?

To the credit of Lego, it sounds like they are not simply making the blocks pink. The soon-to-launch Lego Friends line is based on studies of how girls play -- packaging kits so you can start playing before you've totally assembled the kit, since girls seem to be more into enjoying the process than boys (who tend to race against the clock to complete a kit). It seems to be like a reasonable compromise to make Legos more appealing to girls so they can get the spatial reasoning benefits of playing with these little blocks... but I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Bold Step?

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of Northwestern's Center for Talent Development, recently took over the reigns of the National Association for Gifted Children. In her first address, she called on the field to take a "bold step" toward focusing on talent development, rather than giftedness. Focusing on "giftednesss" has led to marginalization, she says (and given that the spell check on this blogger software doesn't even recognize "giftedness" as a word, I'd have to agree that the field is not exactly central to much of education).

This announcement has been controversial for several reasons. One is that parents of highly gifted children often have to fight to convince schools that there is anything different about their children and their children's learning styles. Olszewski-Kubilius's point is that the field has been focused too much on identification -- sometimes a bit of an angels dancing on the head of a pin type question of whether a tested IQ of 129 vs. 131 means anything, and on which test, and at what age, and then nothing happens to the kid anyway except getting 45 minutes of enrichment once a week. But after decades of work, at least many school districts now try to identify gifted children. Clearly, people would be a bit miffed to have the head of NACG say that's not so critical.

I have mixed feelings about this myself. Regardless of whether children grow up to do anything remotely high-achieving as adults, they deserve to have their educational needs met. Sure, some gifted kids grow up to win Nobel prizes, write great symphonies, etc., but others live quiet and normal lives. One's temperament has a great deal to do with these things too -- one's level of ambition, one's level of self-discipline, competing priorities like family obligations, etc. I don't view the quiet and normal types as failures.

On the other hand, Olszewski-Kubilius is correct that identification is only the very, very start. Personally, I'd rather live in a world where there was no identification, but all children were challenged, stretched, and had their talents maximized, vs. a world with perfect identification but none of the above. The question is whether this "all children challenged" vision is too utopian for the world we do live in, where the educational establishment likes to ignore high-achievers as a matter of policy with NCLB, and sometimes just for sport (cutting down the tall poppies and all).

What do you think? Should the field talk about "giftedness" or "talent development"? Is there much of a difference in focus, or is there plenty of room for both?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Be careful with "no"

(cross-posted with

I've been pondering lately the question of "what have my children taught me?" (Asked by the facilitator of my parents' group). One lesson I'm working on learning is to be careful with my "nos."

Here's the thinking: Whining is hell on earth. Listening to children whine makes one irritated, tense, embarrassed. Why do children whine? Well, we tend to encourage it. Many of us say "no" reflexively to whatever random thing a child is proposing. Then, the child starts whining or throwing a tantrum and we eventually say "yes." Because we probably didn't really care. Yes, you can play for 5 more minutes. I only wanted to leave the playground because I was bored. Yes, you can have jam on your pizza crusts. Why not?

The lesson the child learns is what any good negotiator (or dungeon master) knows. Don't take the first offer. Torture produces a much better confession. Find out for sure what the parent cares about and doesn't care about. Whine enough and "no" turns into "yes."

So what is a parent to do? Grow a spine, perhaps -- but the best negotiators know that confrontation often leaves your opponent with no choice but aggression. Here's another framework:

If you are going to say no, be willing to defend it to the death. Well, not death, but to the point of a public, grocery-throwing temper tantrum.

Otherwise, consider a "yes." Or at least pause before you automatically say "no." Stall by asking "why do you think that would be fun?" or "tell me more about that idea." Because if you're going to say yes eventually under duress, you may as well say it before the kid realizes that screaming is the way to go. In other words, be careful with each "no."

This is obviously easier said than done. But I am trying to be judicious with my flat-out refusals. Sam, my 2-year-old, got himself out of his car seat straps last night. That was a definite "we are pulling this car over" no. But when he wanted to have a bite of my birthday cake before lunch, I realized this was going to escalate rapidly, and wasn't that big a deal. He's a good eater, shoveling in tomatoes, oranges and other foods that his 4-year-old brother won't touch. When I realized that I didn't care enough about lunch order enforcement to endure a temper tantrum during my birthday lunch, I went ahead and said yes fairly quickly. After all, I have been known to eat junk food before meals as well.

When do you say "no" and when do you say "yes"?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

What have your children taught you?

That was a question posed recently in a parenting group I've joined. I imagine that broadly, people would say things like "patience" or possibly "humility" (something I was thinking, the other day, upon learning that a couple expecting their first child had chosen a parenting manual they intended to follow if children follow operating instructions).

But the first answer that popped into my head was actually literal. My 4-year-old is currently obsessed with how many letters are in different words. So I now know that "Philadelphia" and "Pennsylvania" both have 12 letters. I also know that 2 "Jasper"s make a "Philadelphia." These are definitely things that I never pondered before.

My children have, perhaps, tried to teach me patience in their often aggravating fashions. But I do know they have taught me a lot about time, and whether I am spending it on things that matter or not, and that you can do quite a bit in small bits of time. Someone was describing to me the other day that they need long, uninterrupted periods to write. My children have taught me that, at least for me, this is not the case.

What have your children taught you?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can you change your IQ?

I keep reading articles about new research (published in Nature last month) finding that IQ is malleable. The sample size of the study (33 British students) was quite small, which means that outlier findings need to be taken with a grain of salt. One student's IQ rose from 107 to 128, and another's fell from 114 to 96. The trumpeted finding is that 9% of students showed a change of 15 points or more, but of course 9% of 33 is 3 kids. The most interesting finding is that MRI scans showed actual brain changes in the kids with the big IQ changes, which suggest that it might not be total measurement error. The idea is that one can possibly change IQ, on the margins, through certain brain exercises.

Some people will no doubt trumpet this as evidence that giftedness is some sort of made up concept, just capturing a snapshot in time among kids whose parents have trained them more than others. But one certainly doesn't have to draw this conclusion. I am comfortable believing these two things at once:

1. I am not nearly as athletically gifted as many other people and never will be and
2. If I practiced hard in any given sport, I could become better at it over time in a way my body might actually physically reflect.

These two beliefs also do not lead me to believe that we should get rid of varsity basketball teams, or camps for children who've shown promise in basketball or that athletic ability is some sort of social construct. So I'm not sure why the idea that IQ might change by one standard deviation in a small number of children would lead anyone to believe that there aren't children who learn differently and need more challenge than others of the same age.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Children and Rituals

The holidays are approaching, and they are always a time for traditions. This will be our first Thanksgiving and Christmas in our new house, and our first with three kids, and our first with any sort of space. As we start to put down roots, we can start to choose which rituals and traditions we will do, and hence our kids will someday think of as "normal." If you think about it, this is a heady amount of power.

Families raising gifted kids have the additional element of the constant "whys." When it comes to rituals and traditions, these are often good questions -- from both the mundane to the profound. Why do we have hamburgers and hot dogs on Sunday nights? (Because it's easy and your father grew up having that for Sunday dinner. That's why). Why do we give gifts? Why do some kids celebrate different holidays? (and this at an age where you didn't think you'd be explaining such things). Why were the pilgrims so thankful for food? Did they not have food? Why? What happens when you don't have food?

I think this year will feature some sort of write-up of what we're thankful for, some Christmas cookie baking, a decorated tree with lots of kid-made ornaments, an Advent calendar, and such. I'd like to take the boys shopping for another child through one of the non-profits around here, but I'm not sure how that will go. I'd love to hear from people about what rituals and traditions they've introduced or kept up in their families, what their kids think and ask about them, and how you've figured ways to celebrate the meaning of the season with small kids.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Fluctuating IQ in Teens

A new study in Nature this past month indicated that the teenage brain is fairly plastic; that IQ can change a reasonable amount during those years of rapid physical change (You can read one write-up of the study here).

As usually happens, some of the commentary on this study has raised the question of whether giftedness exists, or if it just captures a moment in time. But I think this misses the point -- while IQ may not be absolutely constant, a child whose IQ measures at, say, 150, is unlikely to then measure at 100. And just because IQ can change doesn't mean that giftedness shouldn't be accommodated. Gifted education is an intervention for children who need it. If one doesn't view it as a reward, then there's no reason children couldn't move in and out of needing services over time. It's something to consider.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Glaring Asynchronous Development

One of the challenges with gifted children is asynchronous development. This means that physical, emotional and intellectual development are not proceeding at the same pace. Sometimes this can be downright jarring. You can be having a real, fluent conversation with a 5-year-old about something, but she then proceeds to scream or cry because she's tired or hungry. A 3-year-old might be reading words on a box of his own diapers. You get the drift. What are some particularly glaring examples of asynchronous development that you've seen? How has this affected your parenting?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Life With Gifted Children (New Series Idea)

One of the goals of Gifted Exchange is to cover parenting topics, as well as educational policy. To that end, I'd like to start a regular series called "Life With Gifted Children" to provide an outlet for parents to share stories about the unique challenges of raising gifted young people. I'd like to focus on parenting advice that could possibly help other people, but I also want to provide a place for people to talk about their kids (albeit anonymously if you'd like!) knowing many of the people reading it are also raising gifted kids. In other words, they won't think you're just bragging when you mention that your 8-year-old is way into Shakespeare.

Various topics come to mind:

* How do you stay calm after the 20th question related to the same arcane topic?
* What to do when your children don't like to sleep (and don't seem to need it)
* Discipline -- what is age appropriate behavior when a kid often acts older than her age?
* How to find books that are challenging but age appropriate
* How to prepare a child for an acceleration
* How to speak positively about your child without alienating friends/family/neighbors
* Teaching respectful behavior when a child is bored in school

And so forth. Please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com if you'd like to share what you've learned along the way, or any particular challenges you'd like input from others about.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Davidson Fellows Media Round-Up

I missed the Davidson Fellows award ceremony last week due to Ruth's arrival that afternoon. So, in lieu of writing about the winners of this award (scholarships of $10,000-$50,000 for important original works in fields from math to the humanities), I thought I'd share some of the news clips from other places about the fellows.

Arjun Aggrawal, 17, of Lexington, SC, won a $25,000 scholarship for building a robot that tells jokes and gives hugs. He built the robot in his garage and spent about $2800 on the project, which sounds like a pretty good return on investment! You can read more about Gnut III here.

Lucy Wang, 17, who lives in my neck of the woods (PA), won $25,000 for a project that used the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (from the CDC) to try to predict adolescent depression. Her statistical model accurately predicted which young people would have symptoms of depression more than 80% of the time. You can read more about her here.

Caleb Kumar, 15, of Blaine, MN, won a $25,000 scholarship for his work developing an algorithm that automates the diagnosis of bladder cancer. You can read more about him here.

It's always fun to see high-achieving students in the news, and every year the Davidson Fellows remind me just how much young people are capable of... when they are challenged and given opportunities to develop their talents.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Say hello to Ruth!

I had to miss this year's Davidson Fellows awards in DC because I was otherwise occupied here in Philadelphia, giving birth. Please say hello to little Ruth, who arrived on October 5 at 3pm, weighing 7lbs 12 oz. She joins big brothers Jasper and Sam, and will no doubt provide lots of fodder for future Gifted Exchange posts.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Case Against Delaying Kindergarten

In New York City, where I used to live, the cut-off to start kindergarten is to turn 5 in late December. I find it interesting to ponder whether my life would have been different if I grew up there; my birthday is December 5, and so I could have been a grade ahead of where I actually was in school. Here in Lower Merion, PA, where we recently moved, the cut-off is September 1. Thus my son, Sam (9/24) and soon-to-be-born baby daughter (around 10/5 or so) will always be among the oldest in their classes.

I really wish they'd be the youngest instead. It's become common for parents to "redshirt" their 5-year-olds, delaying kindergarten for another year, particularly for boys. Schools let parents get away with this, but for some reason, going the other direction (starting kindergarten early) is fraught with the same angst that grade-skipping in general evokes in some people. Sure, some kids aren't ready. But others are. If a kid can read and write, which many gifted 4-year-olds can, what purpose is served by keeping them in preschool another year?

So I was fascinated to see an op-ed in the New York Times this past week from Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt called "Delay Kindergarten At Your Child's Peril." The gist of the piece is that any advantage that children get by being delayed a year disappears rapidly, and that school, in general, is good for children. It helps their brains grow and develop. Some data has found that disadvantaged and advantaged children make similar gains during the school year, but disadvantaged children slide during the summer break, when they're not exposed to lessons. Enough summers can make a pretty big gap. It's not a huge stretch to believe the same would be true for starting kindergarten. The earlier disadvantaged children can get into full-time school, the better.

Gifted children likewise would benefit from more flexibility in when kids start kindergarten. While, again, I think the angst about grade-skipping is overblown, it can be harder to pull off to go from, say, 1st to 3rd grade in the same school. But when you start kindergarten early, it doesn't have to be a big deal.

I'm curious if anyone has successfully challenged a school district's cut-off date and been able to enroll a child in kindergarten early.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

15 Minutes Outside

I've been paging through Rebecca P. Cohen's new book, 15 Minutes Outside: 365 ways to get out of the house and connect with your kids. There is plenty of research finding that getting outdoors can boost one's mood, and kids who spend time outdoors are highly likely to get more physical activity than those who don't. So those are two big reasons to get out there.

Of course, the question for modern children, accustomed to video games and such, is what you do once you get outside. One can always hit the playground, and we do this fairly frequently. But this is often not terribly relaxed, partly because of the Intense Other Parent Factor (at a playground just outside Washington DC earlier today, I kept having parents apologize for their 2 and 3-year-olds taking our ball, as if children that age have much concept of other people's stuff anyway. Sometimes I want to hang a sign saying "Chill out! I'm not going to judge you!") Cohen's book lists hundreds of activities for kids to do outside during all types of weather. The idea is that once you get them started on something, they'll probably come up with something else, and eventually move to the unstructured free play that is the holy grail of child development.

Among my favorite ideas:

* Do homework outside. If you have to do a boring worksheet, it's still better while lying on a blanket on the grass.
* Find wonder in a small pail. Have kids collect whatever they like (blades of grass, acorns, etc). in a pail and then look at them under a magnifying glass.
* Give your kid a place to dig. Digging is just plain fun. So why not give kids a patch of dirt in the backyard where they can go to town?
* Play leaf tic-tac-toe with autumn leaves of the same color as Xs or Os. Or just use different species of trees at any point in the year.
* Track an animal. A lost human skill, if you think about it.
* Get the kids to weed and rake!

Of course, by the time you get to 365, some ideas seem not so fabulous. It also bothers me that Cohen buys, hook-line-and-sinker, into the idea that picky eaters will eat their vegetables if they plant them themselves. It's fine to keep a garden if you're into it, and kids often like plucking tomatoes and peppers and the like. But my own experience with this is the exact opposite of her claim that "One of the best things is to get your kids involved in growing and harvesting the vegetables. They are more willing to try new foods if they can proudly boast, 'I grew that!'" Maybe if you don't have a truly picky eater. But despite this as an overarching theme of essays in numerous parenting and women's magazines, I'm not convinced it's the case. My 2-year-old eats lots of things and eats the tomatoes we grow. My 4-year-old loves picking tomatoes, but will not eat them, or our acorn squash, no matter how many bushels he picks. Picky eating is not really about your parenting (or you wouldn't have kids in the same family behaving so differently). It's about some kids being more sensitive to tastes than others.

But I digress. In general, coming up with ideas of stuff to do with kids is tough. It's always easier to turn on the TV, but watching television for hours isn't terribly fulfilling, and probably won't create the kind of memories that splashing in mud puddles will. So it's good to read a book reminding us that the latter is an option.

(Cross-posted at

Monday, September 19, 2011

Content vs. Skills

E. D. Hirsch Jr. waded into the story of declining SAT scores this week with an op-ed in the New York Times on "How to Stop the Drop in Verbal Scores." Hirsch claims that the drop stems from a move away from content-rich elementary school reading curricula and toward an emphasis on reading and writing skills, divorced from anything larger.

This is the whole anti-worksheet sentiment that rears its head fairly frequently in education circles. I can, of course, sympathize. Especially since I write content! There are amazing writing and vocabulary lessons to be gained from reading interesting books. Reading books also allows you to absorb a lot of core knowledge about history, civics, science, etc.

However, just like the widespread progressive educator idea that children will simply discover the rules of mathematics by looking at different problems and talking them over, I know from personal experience that this doesn't always happen. I read everything under the sun as a kid. What actually allowed me to make a living as a writer, and make writing feel easy, was learning rules of grammar and why they exist. I'd look at incorrect sentences and correct ones and see why certain things worked better. I memorized these rules. And while I break them all the time (I just started this sentence with an "and"!) I know I am choosing to do so and generally do so for effect.

The reality is that as people learn, they need both content and skills. This doesn't have to be a battle over every individual class. I was thinking of this while pondering Princeton's relatively recent writing requirement. The problem was that even young people who were capable of getting into Princeton arrived unable to construct an academic paper. So the freshmen writing seminars would give them the skills necessary to do this. The problem that such a program always struggles with is that the professors who teach these courses want to teach specific content areas -- their areas of expertise. So is the emphasis on the subject matter or the writing skills?

Ideally, people should get both. The Hirsch argument is that many disadvantaged children never get the core knowledge that their more advantaged peers show up with. Skills are useless apart from that. But content without skills isn't that helpful either -- as anyone who's struggled to write a paper that actually expresses what she means to say knows.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SAT scores fall to new lows

Every year, more than 1.5 million high school students take the SAT -- the test used by most selective colleges to assist in enrollment decisions. According to headlines this week, the scores for the class of 2011 were the lowest ever recorded.

There are a few ways to spin this. A positive one is that the number of people taking the test has been increasing, and this larger pool of young people has far more diverse backgrounds in the past. The proportion of test-takers who are minorities has risen, as has the proportion who speak English as a second language, and the proportion who qualified to have the test fee waived. American young people seem to be absorbing the message that going to college matters, and in order to have the option of going to college, you often need to take either the SAT or ACT. This is roughly the same statistical phenomenon which would have shown falling wages when women entered the workforce in droves. You could focus on the falling wages, or you could say hey, look at all these people without a work history who are getting a foothold in the economy and are diversifying the job market.

However, there's a limit to this positive spin. Because it would be even better if scores were rising and the test-takers were becoming more diverse. To some degree, falling test scores mean what they show. Among the American young people who consider themselves college material, most are not in fact prepared for college. The College Board says students need to score a 1550 out of 2400 to have a 65% chance of getting at least a B-minus average during their first year of college. Only 43% of test-takers met that threshold.

The question of why they don't meet it is obviously the one that has been bedeviling the public for years. America spends quite a bit of money per pupil -- more than many countries that do better -- and doesn't seem to be getting the right return on investment. There's a profound anti-intellectual culture many places, where "high school" conjures up images of football and prom rather than college readiness. Fingers can be pointed many places. Parents don't care. Kids watch too much TV. School is too short. We need more excellent teachers. Bright students need to be challenged; failing kids need to be put back on track.

But regardless of the blame, the issue is a fairly tragic one, because we are increasingly living in a bifurcated economy. There is both a talent shortage and widespread unemployment. Wages for medium- and low-skilled workers are stalling (with household incomes now stuck at 1996 levels) and yet companies that require very specific specialized skills (say, Google) are throwing money and perks at their hires. The best solution to the jobs crisis would be to have more young people falling into the latter category. Judging by the new SAT results, it just doesn't seem to be happening.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Montgomery County, Acceleration and "Rigor"

For whatever reason, a number of people really do not like acceleration. The idea of a child who is, by age, supposed to be in one grade, going to a classroom associated with a different grade either on a permanent basis or just for a class or two, is just something to be avoided if at all possible.

At least that's the message I'm taking from a fascinating story in Bethesda magazine called "No more math acceleration?" According to the article, the principal of Wyngate Elementary School sent home a note informing parents that because the district's new math standards were so rigorous, "the previous practice of grade skipping acceleration in mathematics will not be necessary for most students. Almost all of our students will be working at the challenging grade level standards this year and not in the next grade level up."

The article goes on to mention the dreaded "gaps" problem -- the idea that acceleration somehow leads to holes in one's knowledge, as if all education isn't choosing some things to study and some things not to study. In this case, it's a haunting problem: "Parents and teachers have long complained that accelerating math students by skipping grade levels has led to gaps in basic skills and mastery of concepts that haunt them when they reach higher level math."

Perhaps there will be exceptions; as the article says, "Don’t worry – this doesn’t mean that children who are truly gifted in math won’t be challenged. The curriculum includes enrichment and accelerated material that goes beyond the new requirements. That means that “students who consistently demonstrate proficiency of a mathematics concept will be able to enrich their understanding of a grade-level topic or accelerate to a higher-level topic,” [the principal] wrote."

Just not in a different grade level class. Because that would be a disaster.

The whole thing is kind of funny, in one respect. I'm not sure why people are so allergic to the idea of skipping a grade in a subject or overall. The whole concept of grades is pretty arbitrary anyway. My oldest son, Jasper, just started a new preschool where they do mixed-age classes. Kids who are ages 3-5 can be in one class together, and I suspect that 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds are much farther apart on development spectrums than, say, a high-achieving fourth grader and a sixth grader.

As it is, rigorous content standards are a great idea. Covering fewer topics in depth to mastery is also a good idea. But there's no real reason to take acceleration off the table, even if one does have very rigorous standards. Sometimes kids really are ready to move on.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Too Young for College and Graduate School?

Over at the Huffington Post, Kelsey Caetano-Anolles has a fascinating essay about being a young college student -- and would-be graduate student. She enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign at the age of 14 after working with a legislator to get the minimum college age repealed. Having graduated with a degree in psychology, she's now trying to apply to the graduate program. But according to her, when she applied, she was told she was too young, and she really should take some time off to go backpacking through Europe.

I don't know Kelsey or her academic credentials, but I find this line of reasoning from UIUC fascinating. "Grown-ups" have a tendency to romanticize what young people should be doing: spending time finding themselves, traveling, etc. We like to wax eloquent about having plenty of time to advance in our careers later. Why hurry now? (the whole "Hurried Child" book was called that for a reason -- it appeals to a certain mindset). Of course, there are good arguments for "hurrying" too. Whole books have been written about the time crunch experienced by people trying to pursue graduate degrees and the early pre-tenure years of academia while having and raising small children. One way to space these windows out is to finish with school earlier. One way to finish school earlier? Start earlier.

Age is not a classification like race for which the law recognizes almost no reasons for discrimination. We don't let children work in most paying jobs before age 13 and have limits on hours and types of work up until age 18. Most people support some age restrictions on driving, drinking, etc. Nonetheless, age is a pretty blunt instrument for determining what people are capable of. We got rid of most mandatory retirement age policies, and these days, senior citizens are showing that people can contribute massively to organizations after age 65, 70, or what have you. And so, likewise, we need to be careful about claiming that people should or shouldn't do something else with their time because they happen to be 17. I hope Kelsey finds a graduate program that is interested in treating people as individuals -- and recognizing that human psychology allows for many different ways of finding happiness as a young person.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Joy of Information (plus Davidson Fellows announcement)

Plenty of folks are going back to school this week and next and the week after Labor Day. In my home, both my boys are starting new preschools this fall. My almost 2-year-old will be going two days a week. This will be quite an adventure for all of us.

It's also, if you think about it, an amazing privilege. We have so much access to education and information here in the United States. Right here on my computer I can read all kinds of books in the public domain. For a few bucks, I can download most others to my Kindle and start reading them in a minute. I can watch Khan Academy videos or listen to amazing classical works on Pandora. Kids can go to free public schools, and even if they're not wonderful, they exist, up to the high school level, for every kid in the country. That's more than many nations can say.

Can you imagine not having any of this? Can you imagine that, if you wanted to know Abraham Lincoln's birthday (to take one absolutely random example), you wouldn't just be able to figure it out? You'd have to ask around, and people might or might not know. Imagine having to walk a whole day to the next town to make a phone call to someone who might know the answer to a town engineering problem. It's funny that we make such a big deal about back to school sales, and what the kids will be wearing, and seldom stop to think about how amazing it is that we can tap in, so quickly, to much of human knowledge. It's something to be grateful for, even as we try to change our schools to best serve our kids.

On another note: The Davidson Institute has just announced this year's Davidson Fellows! These $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 awards go to young people who've done groundbreaking work in math, science, literature, the arts, and other categories. For profiles of this year's winners, read the announcement here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Historical Perspective on Skipping Grades

Close to 9 years ago, I wrote a column for USA Today called "Some Can Sail Over High School." The piece dealt with the phenomenon of early college enrollment, and suggested that it was a good idea for gifted kids. That was actually the column that led to my working with Jan and Bob Davidson on Genius Denied!

So I was fascinated to learn recently that my grandfather didn't go to high school, but did go to college. The story is a little less tidy than in these modern days of early college programs. He'd left school after 8th grade to work -- a far more common phenomenon in years past than now (and something I remember when someone extols the virtues of small scale farming. Sure it's fun to grow your own tomatoes, but small scale farming consumed a massive amount of human capital and potential before our economy became more specialized). But his minister saw that he was extremely bright, and tutored him. As a result, he was able to go to college and later to seminary to become a minister.

I wonder how many other stories there are like that? I was recently reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book is full of tales of people who are incredibly successful in business, despite not having more than (say) a 6th grade education. Plenty of smart people used to be forced to leave school for economic reasons, and had to learn on their own.

Now, one wonders, has the pendulum swung the other way? We force children to stay in school in lockstep for a certain number of years -- whether they're getting anything out of it or not. Skipping grades is a good way to zoom along to a point in school where one is actually challenged. It's fascinating to see that that is what happened with my grandfather -- even if the circumstances aren't so rosy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Services, Not Labels

Many districts, faced with budget shortfalls, are trimming their gifted programs. So I was encouraged to see an article from Wisconsin's State Journal highlighting a new program in the Madison School District. A group of parents had filed a complaint with the state that the district was not upholding various education laws requiring identification and services for gifted students. As the article puts it, "The district also has historically blanched at grouping students by ability."

It's too soon to see what the effect will be. The idea is that there will be a lot more grouping by ability, with gifted education treated somewhat more like special education. Children with the most profound needs that can't be met in a traditional classroom will get services outside the classroom, and grade acceleration will be an option. All sounds good.

But what I liked most was this line: "Sue Schaar, the district’s new talented-and-gifted program coordinator, said the new program differs from past practice by focusing on services, rather than labeling students."

This is what gifted education, ideally, comes down to. Over the years I've started to think that much of the resistance to the idea of gifted education in general stems from this word "gifted" or the phrase "gifted and talented" -- which implies that some kids are somehow better than others, even if this is not the intention. We're prone to many euphemisms in education (like "special education") and the word "gifted" is yet another in a long list. But the word just doesn't matter. You can call it something neutral, or even negative if necessary. The point is that children will have their educational needs met, and will be challenged to the extent of their abilities, ideally in an environment with their intellectual peers. Services, not labels. The only reason for the label is to get the services. If there would be some way to downplay the label, that would be great.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Khan Academy, and Learning by Mastery

I'm in the early stages of trying to write something about the Khan Academy. This online library of video tutorials on different subjects exists to break down much math, science, economics and other knowledge into discrete units. You go through at your own pace, and when you master a particular topic, move on.

So who is the target audience? This is where this all gets fascinating. It could be someone who discovers she needs algebra skills on the job... or someone in rural Morocco sitting at a library computer... or students in a US classroom whose teacher likes the Khan approach. Wired recently ran a story on school classrooms where advanced kids could move ahead at their own level, with the teacher checking where they were getting stuck, and answering questions.

There is much to like about individually-paced instruction, particularly the idea of moving on to new material as soon as you've mastered other concepts. So I'm curious if any Gifted Exchange readers have experience with Khan Academy tutorials, or if your children attend schools that use them.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Another State, Another Governor's School In Trouble

A few years ago, I wrote here about efforts to keep New Jersey's Governor's School afloat. Many states created such programs over the years, which sent high-achieving high school students to camps for the summer to study different topics (science, math, art, music). While there is no shortage of private summer programs that do the same, the point of these programs was to give all students who qualified access to intensive work. Kids also tended to enjoy being around their academic peers, and these programs figure prominently in many alums' memories.

But, like much in state budgets these days, they are on the cutting block. In North Carolina, another state with a long-running Governor's School, the state budget chopped the entire $850,000 appropriation. The program was to run this summer but probably not next. Alums raised $130,000 to keep it going, a downpayment on the $1.3 million needed to send 800 kids for free, but whether that money will come through is anyone's guess.

I hope it will, though I'm also not sure about the direction these programs are heading, relying on wealthy alums or state business groups to keep them afloat. Those of you who know my politics (which I try not to talk about too much on this blog) know that I'm generally a free market kind of girl, not too enamored with government spending in general. But, as we are debating the federal budget these days, the giant elephant in the room is that governments of various levels are going to spend money on something. So the question is what we spend money on, and what that says about our priorities.

Because the $850,000 the state was going to appropriate for Governor's School (with 800 students paying about $500 apiece to go to make up the shortfall) compares to the $11.5 billion North Carolina spends annually on Medicaid -- a figure which rises about 8% per year. If North Carolina somehow managed to save one one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) on this program, that would be a savings of... $1.15 million. Enough to fund Governor's School close to completely.

So what's a better use of public resources? A rounding error in health care spending or sending 800 kids to an academic enrichment camp for the summer that could possibly change their lives? I have my opinions -- unfortunately, they don't seem to be shared by the folks who make funding decisions.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tests and Cheating

We all like great stories. The seeming turnaround of the Atlanta public schools was one of them. Kids appeared to be doing better on standardized tests. Now it's come to light that principals and teachers were changing answers, with analyses of incorrect-to-correct erasures indicating astronomical odds against anything other than cheating going on. Even some Teach for America teachers have been questioned in all this.

Critics of NCLB and testing in general are claiming that this is the inevitable result of high-stakes situations. Hedge fund managers rewarded or fired based on performance may resort to insider trading. Athletes use performance enhancing drugs. I think these explanations go a little too easy on the culpable individuals involved, but I'm not particularly naive about human nature either. In situations where it is easy to cheat and cheating is rewarded, people cheat. By some estimates, about half of sole proprietor income (e.g. the guy who paints your deck) goes unreported in the US (and hence untaxed). Teachers judged on student test performance are subject to the same temptations.

I think there's plenty to criticize about NCLB -- not least of which is taking a focus away from high achievers who will always pass grade level tests, and concentrating teachers' time and attention mostly on children who are right around the edge of passing. Those children deserve attention, sure, but so do kids who are too far below grade level to catch up in the time any one teacher has them, and so do kids who will score in the 99th percentile.

On the other hand, in the absence of any accountability measures, you can wind up with kids graduating from high school who do not know how to read. Children are not necessarily served well by no testing either.

So how does one keep accountability while reforming some of the worst aspects of its unintended consequences? Long-time readers of this blog know I like a "value-added" assessment approach. Create tests that don't ceiling out at grade level (so you can get an accurate picture of gifted kids' needs as well). Then assess again throughout the year and judge teachers and schools on kids' improvement. In a digital era, this shouldn't be too difficult, and could in fact make testing fun. Frequent feedback can help teachers make spot changes (and is also more fair, given how much some students move around). Such assessments would reveal that a teacher who brought a fifth grader up from a 2nd grade level to a 4th grade level was in fact doing an awesome job -- and hopefully wouldn't put pressure on her to change a few more answers to get that kid up to 5th grade level. Such assessments would also show if a school's gifted students were merely treading water. Yes, they keep "passing" grade level tests. But that doesn't mean anything good is going on.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

I spent the last few days reading through economist Bryan Caplan's new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. The title is a bit of a stretch but the argument is a fascinating one when viewed through the lens of the whole parenting advice industrial-complex.

Caplan's main argument is that within the norms for First World, middle-class homes, nurture doesn't make a whole lot of difference to children's long-term outcomes. Parents can have an effect in the short run, but mounting evidence from identical vs. fraternal twin studies, and adoption studies, shows that over time, these effects become less and less pronounced. Parents have their biggest effect in the moment of conception. After that, there are very few effects that last. The only ones that really seem to are religious identification and political affiliation, but even there it's a shallow affinity. Devout Presbyterians who go to church twice a week might raise a child who identifies as Presbyterian, but he's not much more likely to attend services regularly than other people. The biggest effect may just be whether the child remembers the home as being happy or not.

As for what this means for one's fertility, Caplan suggests that people overestimate how much effort modern parenting requires. If you are a normal, productive adult, odds are your children will be too, and if you raise them within American middle-class norms, any odd outliers are probably not to your credit or blame. The flash cards don't matter. The activities don't matter. The focus on strict TV limits doesn't matter. Discipline matters more for making your life more pleasant in the moment than for anything it will do down the road. So he suggests that people relax and try to enjoy their time with their children, possibly more children than they were otherwise planning to have. After all, bigger families are good for nurturing social ties -- one of the key components of human happiness -- and if items are cheaper than you thought, economists will tell you to stock up.

I'm not sure on the "stocking up" advice, but I do think it's fascinating to ask the question of whether nature or nurture matters more. There's an old joke that parenting advice books are all written for first time parents because once you have the second one, you realize how little of it you actually control. You feed kids the same things and interact with them the same way at dinner, and yet one will lustily eat lox, capers, tomatoes and anything else you put in front of him, and the other screams when a strawberry touches his vanilla yogurt, thereby tainting it. Some children love to sleep and others decide that sleep is for the weak and flabby. Most disconcertingly, I recall reading not long ago an essay in O magazine from the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. There is really no evidence that she raised her son in anything but a normal fashion, the same as plenty of his peers. And yet look what he did.

As Caplan notes, no one likes to believe that nurture matters as little as it does -- though you could view it as a relief as much as anything else. But I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think. There are always anecdotes that point one way or another, but in a world of 7 billion people, it is possible to find anecdotes of anything...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

2012 Davidson Fellows Announcement

I know that many readers of Gifted Exchange have been involved with the Davidson Institute's programs over the years. Every year, they award scholarships to young people who've done significant independent work as part of the Davidson Fellows program. They're now accepting applications for next year; read below for the announcement:

2012 Davidson Fellows $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 Scholarships

If you are a student who will be 18 or younger as of Oct. 10, 2012 and are working on a graduate-level project in any field of study, please consider applying for the 2012 Davidson Fellows scholarship. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development offers high-achieving young people across the country the opportunity to be named a 2012 Davidson Fellow, an honor accompanied by a $50,000, $25,000 or $10,000 scholarship in recognition of a significant piece of work in Science, Technology, Mathematics, Music, Literature, Philosophy or Outside the Box.

Applicants must submit an original piece of work recognized by experts in the field as significant that has the potential to make a positive contribution to society. The scholarship may be used at any accredited institute of learning. The deadline to apply is Feb. 1, 2012. To find out more, please visit

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Fear of Gaps

Apparently, not long ago, someone wrote a column or letter to the editor for The Citizen (in Georgia) suggesting that gifted children be allowed to skip grades as a way to save money and give the kids some challenge. A parent of two gifted kids responded with a letter to the editor suggesting that this was a horrible idea. (Click on that link to read the letter). Why? While it might be OK for math or reading, the letter writer notes, kids would suffer from horrible "giant holes" in their education. They might not know about World War II!

This is the familiar old argument about those dreaded "gaps" in education that kids supposedly suffer when they are accelerated. I find this argument very odd on many levels. For starters, no school system claims to teach everything under the sun from K-12. We all have gaps in our education. I, for instance, learned basically nothing about the history of Islam in school -- not a small or irrelevant matter, if you think about it. I didn't learn that much about World War II either, because my world history class and US history classes kind of ran out of steam by the end of the year. And I never skipped a grade!

I have filled some parts of these giant holes by doing what many curious people do -- reading books on the subject. Other options include watching movies, taking courses in college, listening to audio lectures, visiting famous WWII sites in Europe, Japan and Australia, etc.

The point is that gifted kids, in general, like to learn. And part of liking to learn is identifying holes in one's education and filling them in. I taught myself to write cursive because I went to two different schools for third grade, and each of those schools taught cursive during the time of the year I wasn't there. I can guarantee that I spend a lot more time writing in cursive (in my journals, in long-hand rough drafts I've written, etc.) than anyone in my classes who didn't experience those gaps.

Acceleration remains one of the best ways to challenge gifted students to the extent of their abilities, particularly in districts that are not going to create self-contained gifted programs. Any district can do it, and it requires no extra funding. Indeed, as the original letter writer must have pointed out, it saves money.

Though, apparently, the parent writing the "giant holes" letter didn't like that line of reasoning either. "Why in the world would you want a child to rush through the fun and joys of childhood just to save a little money?" she writes. "What do you think happens to a kid who is a couple of years younger than everyone else at college? Do you think they would have a normal college experience and any friends or relationships?" Having known a few people like this, I would say that the answer is largely yes. And if you're bored to tears in school, you're probably quite willing to rush through the "fun and joys of childhood" too.

Acceleration isn't for all gifted kids. But it can work for far more of them than are ever given the chance to try. Rather than worry about "giant holes" in their education, we should be worrying about the giant holes in their spirits created by a lack of challenge in grade-level classes.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Making the Numbers Come Out Right

Whenever a school district decides to set up a gifted program, it faces a dilemma: what should the inclusion criteria be? In some districts it's very straightforward (NYC is based on test scores). If people simply viewed gifted education as an educational intervention for children who need it, that would be fine. The problem is that the idea persists, in many districts, that gifted education is a reward. It's a "most likely to succeed" designation, or a pat on the back for something kids have done (rather than just having a different, quicker learning style). As such, some people don't like using test scores, because a straightforward measurement may not result in a program that reflects the gender and ethnic make-up of the district. And rewards, we believe, should be bestowed equally.

That seems to be the thinking behind the new inclusion criteria for a program I read about in the Oakland Tribune. In the New Haven district, school officials were concerned that too many white and Asian students were being identified as gifted (alternately, one could say that they were concerned that too few black and Latino children were identified as gifted, but these are really flip sides of the same coin). So they put the program on hold and revamped the process. Now, the percent of white students in the program has fallen from 15 percent to 10 percent, reflecting their total fourth-grade population of 9 percent. As the article notes, "Chinese students, who make up 7 percent of the population, used to be 23 percent of the GATE program. Now that number is 9 percent. The number of Vietnamese GATE students has dropped from 9 percent to 4 percent -- equal to their percentage of the total population."

"The results are remarkable," Chief Academic Officer Wendy Gudalewicz told the Oakland Tribune. "The students that we identified as gifted and talented in this district represent the ethnic makeup of our student body."

How did this magic happen? "The new process uses two ways to identify GATE students -- through academic achievement and using a checklist system to find students who are gifted and talented in other ways, such as creativity and leadership," according to the article. "The academic pathway gives students a numerical score based on their performance in reading and math and, for fourth-graders, language. Officials then identify the top 5 percent districtwide within each racial and ethnic subgroup in each of the academic areas, reviewing the results for proportional gender representation. The other pathway to the program is through a nomination process to identify students with unique learning styles, creative ability, leadership skills or artistic ability. These students must be nominated by two adults, at least one of whom must be employed at the student's school."

In other words, the school district is setting out to make sure the proportions look right, and (shockingly) has achieved that.

The whole thing is a bit farcical. I have no doubt that someone can be a gifted leader -- but this is the problem with making gifted programs a reward, or a pull-out with special classes, or field trips, or what have you. All kids can benefit from enriched classes. What academically gifted children need is accelerated academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. It's not about being fun, or being recognized for being a good, creative kid. It's about giving someone the opportunity to do work that is hard enough that they really, truly could fail. I keep hoping that, over time, the world of gifted education will start moving that way. But then I read articles like this and realize how far we still have to go.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Little Kids and a Big Move

Today is my last full day in New York City. I've lived here for close to nine years now, a period that has seen many life changes for me (you can read my love letter to NYC at my other blog, One of the biggest life changes has been becoming the mother of two small children. I have my own complicated feelings about this move (out to the suburbs of Philadelphia) but one big question for me right now is how to deal with my kids' feelings about it.

We've been talking about it a lot. The kids have seen the "new house" several times, and had fun playing in the back yard and running through the empty hallways. Indeed, as we've left to come back to NYC, Jasper has sometimes asked to stay at the house. He's also really excited that we will have a car (not a part of an NYC kid's existence!) So we think they'll be happy with it. But it's not easy to convey the permanent nature of a move to small kids. It's not easy to convey that there will be new schools with new friends in the fall, new babysitters, new routines, and so forth. We've looked at the new house's location on the map. I've been on the watch out for any questions or particular feelings about it. But little kids are little kids. The other night when he was in bed, Jasper told me "Mommy, I'm sad." I asked him why, thinking it would be about leaving his school or friends. But he informed me that he was sad because "I want you to bring me milk." Ah.

I'm curious how others of you have dealt with big life transitions with kids. How do you explain a new school, a new home, or other new arrangements?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What To Do With The Kids This Summer

I've never liked "having" to report somewhere every day -- a key reason I like my work-from-home, self-employment situation now. Growing up, I was always happy to take a break from school for the summer. Of course, as a parent now, I can also see that summer can pose massive logistical challenges. Not only is school de facto childcare for many families -- a problem, since it suddenly ends for 2 months -- it also gives kids something to do with their days. No structure can be good or bad, depending on the kid.

Lots of parents enroll their kids in summer camps, and I always enjoyed mine, but summer can also be a time for larger self-directed projects. School seldom gives kids the chance to pursue such projects, but for many of us, learning to tackle them is a useful skill. Some ideas for kids:

1. Research. The holy grail is, of course, working in a professor's lab over the summer. But even if this isn't possible, a child can come up with a topic that fascinates her, figure out what the unanswered questions are, and spend time in libraries, online and interviewing experts to come up with a hypothesis. The child can write up her thoughts and send the paper around.

2. Start a business. Also a challenging way to spend a summer! Encourage the child to figure out what needs are unmet in the neighborhood and what she could do to solve them. What would people pay for that? How can she find customers? How many customers does she need to cover start up costs and make a profit? How can she advertise and how can she meet demand? For help, visit the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship website.

3. Read with a purpose. Shakespeare's tragedies that don't get covered in freshman English, for instance. Then seek out where such plays are performed and figure out a way to go see them. Or perhaps biographies of leaders of the Civil Rights movement, in anticipation of a family trip to a destination like Birmingham.

4. Write a novel, or a book of poetry. All first novels need work, but the sooner a young writer gets her head around the idea of cranking out 50,000+ words, the easier it will be to do the next time!

What are you doing with your kids this summer?

Friday, June 03, 2011

Gifted Programs = Lower Grades?

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Shea asks "Do gifted programs work?" citing the study of students who either just made the cut for a gifted program, or didn't.

Oddly enough, one of the study results being highlighted under this headline is that students who just got into the gifted program got lower grades than students who remained in their home schools. Why? Well, most likely, the gifted program is more challenging. Of course students who barely squeaked in would have a harder time acing the work than they would in coursework aimed to a less challenging level.

I definitely have seen this in my own life. My first academic "B's" ever came when I was able to take algebra in 6th grade. If I'd taken pre-algebra or normal 6th grade math, I would have aced it. Likewise, when I transferred from Clay High School of South Bend, IN to the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities, I got several consonant grades that first semester. The work was harder. So I had to learn how to work.

The story has a happy ending in that, in both cases, I figured out how to get A's in harder classes: more studying, more practice on problem sets, etc. But I hardly think anything would be gained by staying in easier classes just to keep up the good grades. The great thing about gifted education, done right, is that it teaches children who have often never had to work hard for anything the joy of throwing themselves into something difficult. We need more of that, not less.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Thiel's Twenty Under Twenty

Talent development does not happen in a vacuum. One of the reasons US teams do so well in, say, basketball, is that the talent development system is quite mature and sophisticated. Coaches and programs scout for high potential middle schoolers, who are then funneled into certain high school programs known for training top talent. College coaches know about the best high schoolers by 9th grade, and see that they go to certain camps, work with certain trainers and so forth. Why is this system so well developed? For starters, we care about it. We all want to see our favorite college team hit the Final Four, thus making celebrities out of players, and the money that is there in college basketball (albeit not to the players) and in the NBA (finally to the players) is so good that people are willing to do a lot to nurture the talent that might someday claim it.

It is in that context that I've been thinking about the Thiel Foundation's Twenty Under Twenty program. The Thiel Foundation is funded by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal. The foundation seeks to promote new ideas and technological and scientific progress that will improve people's lives.

One way to do that? Contribute to the market for talent development. So the Thiel Foundation is giving 20 $100,000 fellowships to young people under age 20 to pursue their ideas under the mentorship of leading scientific, technological and financial thinkers. You can read about this year's fellows here.

It is obviously hard to know what will come out of this. Given that Thiel is a brilliant businessman, I'm sure there's some hope to be able to invest in breakthrough start-up concepts. Who knows if the fellows will produce such things? But putting money and mentorship toward talent development usually creates something, and I'm excited to see how this program grows over the years.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How To Handle The Playground?

Small talk with other parents is one of the great minefields of raising gifted children. Over time, gifted children may learn various social norms of blending in (we can argue whether that's a good thing or not, though they often do). But when they are little, there's no such self-consciousness. Which can make the parent feel self-conscious in her place.

I have no idea about Jasper's IQ. We are leaving NYC so we won't be finding out as part of the pre-K testing for admission to the city's gifted programs. But either way, he's a bright and curious little boy who just turned four, and has the usual interest in dinosaurs, animals and, in his particular case, writing and spelling various words.

This creates some interesting situations. The other night on the playground, Jasper worked up the courage to ask another little boy and his mom to borrow their sidewalk chalk. This was the part of the whole sequence of events I was most proud of; we've been stressing that he doesn't need my help to join another group of kids playing, or ask to share a toy or join a game. Anyway, he was drawing various things, and the mom casually asked him what he'd drawn. "A mouse!" he said. Another mother glanced over. "How nice! Oh! HE WROTE MOUSE."

And he had. I guess it could have been worse. He could have drawn and labeled a parasaurolophus. I wasn't paying much attention since I was trying to keep my 20-month-old from killing himself on the playground climbing equipment. But I was summoned over to answer how old my son was, was he in preschool, how we were getting him to sit still and write and to make matters even worse, one of the mothers started comparing Jasper to her own 4-year-old. I tried to just tried to bat it all off, primarily because Jasper can not only write, he can hear. And I don't want him to think there's anything weird about writing words with sidewalk chalk, and I don't want him comparing himself with other children.

I am curious how readers of this blog handle such situations. How do you be polite and friendly on the playground, and let your child be himself?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Would You Tell Graduates?

It's graduation season again. I'm heading back to Princeton tomorrow for my 10 year reunion. On some level, I think "oh, I can't believe it's been that long" and then I think back through various things that have happened during that time and realize, yep, it has been a while. Since this season always inspires nostalgia, those of us who make a living dishing out career advice tend to seize the occasion to write columns and such on what grads should know. I'm curious what readers of this blog would like to tell bright young people headed out into the world. I have a few thoughts:

1. You're going to switch jobs. I work with the Princeton Alumni Council's careers committee, and every year we ask classes approaching major reunions to take a survey about their career paths. Basically, almost everyone switches jobs within the first few years out of college, with many going to graduate school 2-5 years out. That's when people become a bit more settled on career choice. So your first job should be something interesting that you'll learn a lot from, with the understanding that it's probably more of a project than anything long-term.

2. "Find your passion" is a cliche... for a reason. We ask alumni to give us their words of wisdom, and probably at least half give some version of "find your passion" or "do what you love." It's a nice sentiment, but the reason people harp on it is that we spend a lot of time working. Not the whole of our 168 hours, of course, but a lot. The difference in quality of life between people who whistle while they work and people who are counting the days until retirement is huge. As someone who's trying to build her career and her family simultaneously, I would add that loving what you do is key to getting over various obstacles that combining the two can present. When you love what you do, you keep at it, which is important because...

3. You get better with practice. I find this absolutely wonderful. I had to give an impromptu speech for something in college and it was horrible. I now actually like public speaking. I like being in front of an audience and drawing energy from them as we find common ground together. Did I change personality? No. I just practiced public speaking a lot.

4. Life is a risk. I have taken a few calculated ones over the years. Submitting that first column to USA Today as an intern who'd been on the job 6 weeks. Having it published has led to just about everything else, including, indirectly, this blog (I co-wrote Genius Denied with Jan and Bob Davidson after they read a column I wrote about gifted education in USA Today a year later... co-writing that book gave me the opportunity to write others...) Moving to NYC without a job rather than getting a regular journalism job. Spending 18 long months trying to get a contract for what later became 168 Hours. Some risks turn out well and others don't, but few calculated ones end in disaster. You have to play career fairy godmother to yourself.

5 Be like Oprah. So it's been the last few episodes of her show this week. BNET had a great column about career tips anyone who wanted to build an empire could learn from her. A few? Bet big on yourself, nurture other people's talent (hello Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil...) and never coast. Wherever you are, you can always set your sights on something bigger and better, and work to bring yourself there.

What would you tell grads that you've learned over the years?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New York City, Gifted Classes and Seats

We've made the hard decision recently to leave New York City. We're actually moving out to the Philadelphia suburbs this summer, since my husband has been working in that general region and I can (in theory) work anywhere. The idea is to have more space for our growing family and hopefully let my husband have a bit of a calmer life. So I've been watching with a bit of detachment as many parents I know have had their 4- and 5-year olds take New York City's tests for its gifted programs and over the past few weeks have gotten the results back. (If we'd stayed, Jasper would have been tested next year).

This is a huge city, and thanks to decent outreach, many thousands of children sit for the test. I think it's great that NYC tries to test so many children, and I also think it's great that New York City starts gifted education in kindergarten. In many districts, the idea is that they'll all "even out by third grade" when, allegedly, any benefit gained via hothouse parenting or any gaps created by a less-enriching home environment will have been erased. So that's when you start. But this is patently ridiculous. Any reader of this blog who lives with a highly gifted child knows that their quirks, gifts and struggles don't all come out in the wash as they get older.

The issue is that New York City has not actually created enough seats to accommodate students who meet its definition of gifted. To qualify for the city-wide gifted programs, a child needs to score in the 97th percentile nationally on the qualifying tests. This year, 1,788 children did so. There are only 250 seats in the city-wide programs (there are others in neighborhood schools...but maybe not your neighborhood school). So it is still going to be a scramble.

One can argue about where, exactly, on national standardized tests the cut-off should be set. But it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to create a program that can't accommodate all the children who qualify. When you create fewer slots, gifted education starts to be a reward as opposed to an educational intervention for children who need it. In theory, gifted education shouldn't cost more than any other class, as long as you figure a way to keep class size constant (which you could do by combining grades or in NYC where schools may be close together, combining programs at one of the schools). So it's unclear why the situation is what it is. But hopefully, as this massive school system starts to change in other ways, the powers that be will think about this issue as well.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Global Science Fair

Intel just announced the winners of the annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). I attended this fair when it was held in Atlanta in 2008, and it's certainly a step up from the usual vinegar volcanoes and plants grown in different conditions. You can read about this year's winners here.

Two interesting highlights? One, this is truly an international fair. Three Thai students won a $50,000 award for designing a new type of plastic out of fish scales. Southeast Asia is not short on fish, so this is a fun development (although apparently the bowls can't yet survive the microwave, so the team is tweaking the design). $50,000 will go a long way in Thailand, so it's cool to see science being rewarded there, and for students from various countries to be exposed to their peers in others.

Finally, Taylor Wilson of Reno, NV won Intel's Young Scientist Award for his project which figures out a low-cost way to detect nuclear material. Wilson's work is receiving funding from the Department of Homeland Security which (shockingly!) sees an application for this idea -- possibly in the Port of Newark close to my home. Anyway, Wilson is a student at the Davidson Academy, housed at the University of Nevada at Reno. One of the selling points of this school for gifted young students is that you can devote serious time to long-term, independent projects. We're certainly seeing the payoff from that now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gifted Education: Not A Smart Idea?

Over at the Globe and Mail, economist Frances Woolley wrote about some recent research into the performance of gifted students on No Child Left Behind tests. The conclusion of the research was that there were no outsized gains for these students who were just barely identified as gifted on NCLB tests... and therefore, according to the headline, gifted education may not be a smart idea.

I think Woolley and the researchers are completely missing the point.

I understand the befuddlement. An unfortunately high percentage of gifted programs don’t really offer accelerated work for gifted students. They send them on field trips or into resource rooms where you learn about mythology or some such enrichment topic. What gifted students need is academic work that challenges them to the extent of their abilities. An unfortunate number of gifted programs, operating under the idea that the gifted label is a "reward," also set the bar in a place where many kids whose needs could be served in a regular classroom qualify as gifted. We should not be particularly surprised that there are not huge gains there, or that some of these students might struggle in gifted programs that actually are challenging.

(Regular readers of this blog will also get a good laugh out of the idea that gifted kids get "more educational resources coming their way").

But most of my readers here are dealing with situations where a child would score in the 99th percentile on a grade level test. Put her in a gifted program and, guess what, she’ll still score at the 99th percentile. Because that’s as high as grade level tests go! But a good gifted program may actually allow her to interact with peers on a similar level, and do challenging work, as opposed to grade level work that she mastered years before that leaves her bored to tears. What's so dumb about that?

[Deleting the part about Carleton College -- as it's Carleton in Canada, not in US.]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is "Most Likely To Succeed" A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Or Burden?

Sue Shellenbarger's Work & Family column at the Wall Street Journal today covered a fascinating topic: is the "Most Likely To Succeed" label a burden? For decades, graduating senior classes have voted on which classmate would be running the world at some unspecified future point. The people who win this award tend to be popular, smart and ambitious, which generally does bode well for one's performance in the labor market, according to Christy Lleras, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who's studied this topic. Shellenbarger cites Lleras's study, published in Social Science Research in 2008, finding that people who'd won this award earned 12% more than their peers 10 years later. A different survey by found that about 4 in 10 most-likely-to-succeed winners viewed the label as an inspiration.

On the other hand, about a third viewed it as a curse. Clearly not everyone who wins the most-likely-to-succeed label will have a stunning career. People may have mixed feelings about their careers in the first place, but when you add in the pressure that your classmates once expected you to achieve high school definitions of success, it can feel even worse.

I've been thinking of this in light of gifted students and their later career development. Many gifted students clearly feel a lot of pressure to succeed, much of it self-inflicted. When you're young, everything is possible -- you'll win the Nobel Prize in physics and the presidency, and publish best-sellers and perform piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall! Later on, not only do most of us have to specialize, many soon learn that success of the people-have-heard-of-you variety requires other skills beyond sheer genius. Persistence. Risk-taking. Long-term goal setting, etc. These are important skills too, but not necessarily ones we think of cultivating during the school years.

Anyway, I'm curious how people talk with their gifted kids about goals and career aspirations. Do you encourage total dreaming, or ever talk about the practical side as well?

Friday, May 06, 2011

Leaving High School Early... With Credentials

The New York Times (hat tip to GE reader Twin Mom) had an interesting piece the other day about a program in Texas allowing kids who've demonstrated enough subject mastery to receive a certificate that can be traded in for a high school diploma. The standards for the certificate are set by the state's top two universities, Texas A&M and the University of Texas, and while it doesn't guarantee that a kid will be admitted to either, the idea is that the certificate shows she'd meet their criteria. That makes it a definite step above the GED (which adults can test for at later points in life) which, while certainly helpful for employment and community college enrollment, isn't treated quite the same as a diploma -- and certainly not a diploma that indicates you could have qualified for Texas A&M or UT.

I think this is a great idea, and I'm surprised the idea isn't more widespread. What is the point of high school, after all? Is it to impart to children a certain volume of knowledge (academics and citizenship) or is it a holding tank until they turn 18? If the former, then there's no reason that people who've demonstrated that they've learned what they're supposed to learn can't move on. Finishing high school early allows one to finish college early, and then pursue graduate education or other things, without the often compressed 20s timeline dragged on schooling offers.

Does anyone know of any other states looking into a similar idea?

Monday, April 25, 2011

If Not Gifted, What?

There's an interesting discussion going on in the Title Nine post that I thought deserved its own thread. Namely, what word or words should we use to describe giftedness? Many people (including people who advocate for gifted education) don't like the word "gifted" though it's short and, at this point, pretty universally recognized for what it is. The word does invite criticism -- aren't we all gifted in some fashion? Other kinds of giftedness are sometimes qualified, like "athletically gifted" or "musically gifted" or perhaps for the models among us, "aesthetically gifted." Some folks use "intellectually gifted" to qualify it, or "academically gifted" which is probably the least offensive, though it raises questions too. After all, some gifted children aren't actually that good in school.

I've long blogged about using the words "readiness grouping" instead of "ability grouping" to talk about organizing classes into people who are prepared to handle certain material. It has nothing to do with age or innate talents. We all work at different paces and should be challenged to the extent possible. But I'm not sure what word is better than gifted, which is why I use it, and I'm sure many others do, too. I'm curious if people have great suggestions for other phrases that convey the same point.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Title Nine and Gifted Kids

I get lots of catalogs in the mail, one of which happens to be Title Nine, a maker of women's athletic clothing. I opened the current edition to see founder Missy Park listing "My definition of insanity." It was an 8 part list, with such things as "Any diet with one ingredient," and "our tax code" and... "'Gifted' children...How do they know??"

It's a bit puzzling, really. I mean, there are several ways they know. Some children really do exhibit exceptional intellectual abilities, at a very young age. And if that's not enough, there are multiple tests that have been rigorously prepared and studied that can ascertain when someone's IQ is outside the norm and there is a high probability he/she will need accommodations to meet her academic needs.

But of course, I think Park was coming at this from the perspective that it is patently absurd. Who could fathom such a thing as "gifted" children? I am quite curious what she thinks of the comments that several Davidson Institute bulletin board readers left on the online version of the list. I can sympathize to a degree. When I worked for Reader's Digest, writing the "Only in America" section, I once made a mocking list of "Museums Not To Build Your Vacation Around." I included a mustard museum, with the snarky line "thousands of mustards, not a hot dog in sight." Suddenly, there was a letter writing campaign to Reader's Digest from fans of this particular mustard museum. Dozens upon dozens. I kid you not. I was surprised, and I imagine Park is surprised that what she considered a throwaway line drew such ire.

On the other hand, I think giftedness is well enough established in educational research and pedagogy that it doesn't need quote marks around it. I do wonder why a catalog going after women who think it's OK to bust the norm (on the athletic side of things) would insult children who are busting the norm on another side of things. It's as if someone scoffed "Athletic children... how do they know??" Well... look at someone like Tiger Woods. That's how they know.

For AP Students, a New Classroom is Online

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating article on the rise in online AP classes. The number of students taking Advanced Placement classes has soared -- with just shy of 2 million expected to sit for exams this spring, up more than 100% from 2000. However, not all schools can offer a full slate of such classes, and in an era of budget cuts, AP classes (which are often smaller than others even as the number of interested students has risen) are ripe targets. But given how standardized these classes are, there's no real reason that you have to be in a physical classroom with a teacher. A few states have charter schools that offer online versions of the classes, and there are national companies, the WSJ reports, that also allow students to enroll for a fee: Advanced Academics ($425 for a one-semester AP class), Apex Learning, Aventa Learning, Florida Virtual School, etc.

Online learning is tricky to get right. As reporter Sue Shellenbarger notes, "One potential drawback for socially connected teens: taking an advanced placement course online seems to require advanced placement time-management skills." It's hard to focus when Facebook and Twitter are one click away! Nonetheless, preliminary comparisons find that students who take online classes do just as well as students who take in-person ones.

I think this is a great trend, as the rise in online learning allows students to break through traditional barriers to taking advanced classes. A school system might balk at shuttling a 7th grader over to a high school for AP US History or AP Calculus, but no one can see how young you look online. Virtual learning is a great way for kids in rural areas to take classes that would otherwise be unaffordable for a small high school. And on the margins, it starts to change the notion that school is something you do in a certain building, with people of a certain age, during certain hours. That's a win for gifted students. I'm curious if any readers of this blog have incorporated online AP courses into their children's individualized learning plans.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Should Science Be Part of NCLB?

I know that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is not particularly popular within the gifted education community. The law definitely provides a convenient excuse for districts to divert resources from programs for advanced students -- something many seem to want to do anyway. But given that it's unlikely to be gutted, here's a different question: should science be part of NCLB?

Science teachers claim that, particularly at the elementary school level, schools have decided to spend much less time on science instruction since NCLB focuses on math and reading. On one hand, math and reading are pretty foundational, and lay the groundwork for all other subjects. Schools may be spending less time on science, but there are probably other neglected, important subjects too (like foreign languages, history, civics, etc.) that are losing time because of NCLB. Why just science?

On the other hand, broadening the standards movement to include other important subjects has upsides too, and science is certainly an important one. What is measured gets taught. The only way that some schools will start doing lab experiments with young kids is if they know it matters to their bottom lines and reputations. But will standardized tests actually cover scientific knowledge? Hard to know! I'm curious what readers of this blog think.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Google Enters The Science Fair Scene

Young scientists wishing to compete on a national (or international) stage have lots of options these days: The Davidson Fellows program, the Intel Science Talent Search, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, and ... Google.

Yes, Google has created a Google Global Science Fair (accepting applications until midnight eastern tonight!) for young scientists to demonstrate their experiments. Google hopes to differentiate its program by being strongly virtual: students upload information about their projects, and lots of people will be able to see what's been entered and judged. The vast majority of humanity will never attend a science fair in a conference center or school gymnasium, but people might check out a cool uploaded video on YouTube (hopefully demonstrating something more profound than the whole baking soda and vinegar volcano bit, but hey, the Diet Coke and Mentos video was pretty popular, so you never know...) The prizes also sound like fun, including a trip to Switzerland and a visit to the Galapagos islands.

The New York Times had a somewhat skeptical article about the contest a few days ago, asking if this was a bit of a marketing ploy to get young people hooked on Google's office products, but I figure hey, the more options the better! Anything that makes science more lucrative and interesting for young people is probably a good thing.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Differentiation, Tracking and Challenge

A recent feature story in the Quad City Times discusses a new "integration" program at North Scott High School that did away with honors classes for freshmen. In their place, students at varying levels of preparation take classes together. Teachers are charged with differentiating within the class. As one teacher puts it, her kids can choose "straightforward" or "hilly" or "mountainous" work. You can read the article (worthwhile, by the way) by following this link.

As long-time readers of this blog may guess, the results have been...mixed. Teachers who have done a lot of training in differentiation, and who are teaching subjects where it's more possible (like social studies) do OK with it. Others struggle quite a bit. As the language arts teacher points out, the most obvious way to differentiate would be to have everyone read the same novel then do different projects with it. But she has such varying reading levels within her class that this is hard to pull off. And some students, as she notes, aren't that into class. Dealing with those discipline issues holds everyone back.

What I find fascinating is the rationale for this de-tracking experiment. According to the article, "Administrators are hoping the end result will be more students signing up for Advanced Placement, or AP, classes." In the past, apparently, only the kids in the honors classes would take AP classes. But why is the solution to this to do away with such classes? An equally obvious solution, to me, would have been to offer more rigorous preparation within the other tracks. It doesn't seem clear why the presence of honors students in general classes would suddenly inspire others to sign up for AP classes later on in their high school careers. More, this seems to me like another excuse to get rid of the readiness grouping which many educators dislike anyway. By framing it in terms of increasing enrollment in AP it gives the movement a little push. But I'd be fascinated to see if rates of students scoring above a 4 or 5 on the AP tests they take go up significantly.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Treating Students As Gifted," Giftedness and Assumptions

It has become fashionable, of late, to claim that giftedness is purely a construct. Children learn at different paces, and some kids who enter school ahead of others will later regress toward the mean and others will catch up. IQ has nothing to do with success, etc. We have heard all these arguments.

So I'm not surprised to see the spin on recent research out of Duke University, which finds that, "Schools that seek to help students who are underrepresented in advanced programs should treat them as gifted young scholars, an approach that can result in many of them actually performing at a gifted level within a few years." Project Bright Idea put thousands of young students through what the researchers deemed as "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms." Net result? 15-20% of students (and in many cases more) later reached the bar for academic giftedness, compared with 10% of a similar group.

So is gifted education a fraud? Not at all. These "techniques usually reserved for gifted classrooms" turn out to look a lot like...good teaching. According to the press release, "The project requires teachers to undergo regular and intensive training, energizing their profession and their classrooms by weaving together teaching strategies based on the work of national education experts... 'We are literally changing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of teachers so they believe children can learn. It is a lot about teacher expectation and belief,' said Mary N. Watson, the director of the exceptional children division of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, who helped develop the project. In workshops and week-long summer institutes, teachers in the project are taught by national and state-level experts on how to develop students’ thinking and skills such as controlling impulsivity, posing questions and taking responsible risks."

I am not surprised that energized teachers who focus on developing students' thinking skills and controlling impulsivity get good results. I wish all teachers did this, and there's really no reason they shouldn't. If people think this is unique to gifted education, I think they misunderstand the whole idea.

But beyond that, the press release wasn't clear on how students were later identified as gifted, but the fact that 10% of students were identified as such even in the control suggests it may learn toward one of those very broad definitions that get gifted education in trouble. And I worry that the definition may be even broader. This research was funded by the Jacob Javits grant, which, as I wrote back in 2008, had been re-steered to fund programs that solved this problem, per literature from the Department of Education: "In 2007, 32 percent of all 4th grade public school students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch under the National School Lunch program (i.e., students who are economically disadvantaged), 13 percent of students with disabilities, and 7 percent of students with limited English proficiency. Students from these three groups are significantly underrepresented at or above proficient levels on the 8th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade mathematics assessments." The idea was to find programs that can bring at-risk students up to the top third on standardized tests.

Which is great -- and definitely a worthy endeavor. But not necessarily what gifted education is about. To my mind, gifted education is about meeting the needs of children who are so far outside the norm that they can't be readily accommodated in good classes. All children should be treated as bright, capable scholars. All children should be challenged and their teachers should demand their best. But that has little to do with giftedness.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Early Enrollment: On The Rise?

The Davidson Institute graciously sends me a round-up of headlines from gifted and education news every week or so. These stories are usually all over the map -- a profile of a contest winner here, a closure of a gifted program there, often a Jay Mathews column -- but this week there seemed to be a ton of pieces on early or dual enrollment.

The basic idea is that sometimes course work is offered at the high school level or college level that isn't offered at the level below it, and sometimes students are ready for more advanced work in certain subjects, while still desiring a similar-aged peer group. Especially if educational institutions are near each other (a middle school is across the street from a high school; a community college is around the corner from both), why not allow students to take classes at any institution they want?

In Colorado, students can enroll simultaneously in community college and high school classes. The number of students taking college classes, according to this article in the Denver Post, has risen to 6,473 in 2010 from 1,750 five years ago.

Meanwhile in Chicago, according to a brief write-up in the Chicago Tribune, officials are moving toward a gifted middle school program that would enroll 7th graders, and allow them early admission to Lane Tech High School, one of the city's top public schools.

Over in Michigan, another article from ABC local news talks about a Carrollton program which partners with Delta College to allow students to enroll simultaneously in both. Students can graduate in four years with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree. If that's where you want to stop, you already have a credential for job hunting. If you wish to go on to a 4-year college, you can save lots of cash by having the first two years paid for.

Indeed, there are now so many dual enrollment programs in operation that the National Consortium of Early College Programs, which takes a slightly different tack, met last fall to "provide clarity of the traditional mission and purpose of early college." These programs, like Mary Baldwin's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted and Simon's Rock College, have students leave or skip high school completely to enroll in a 4-year college program.

I think all these programs have their places. The community college dual enrollment programs are sometimes aimed at helping at-risk students develop career interests but they can work perfectly fine for gifted high school or middle school students who want more enrichment and advanced course work too. And then some students are prepared to sail over high school, and so traditional early college programs are a great option for them. All of these are great options. And broadly, they help the public and the educational establishment see that just because you are 13-14 years old doesn't mean you have to be in 8th grade, learning a set group of things that only 8th graders are supposed to learn. Better to use all a community's resources.