Thursday, February 24, 2011

Disability, Asperger's and software coding

I read a fascinating piece over at ZDNET asking this question: Does Asperger's make you a better software coder?

Adults with Asperger's, like adults with many kinds of disabilities, face discrimination in the job market. An interviewer may be turned off by a lack of eye contact or an inability to read social cues. And in office situations that call for a lot of group interaction, these may be real problems.

But what if you're interviewing for a job that requires profound attention to detail, and a methodical ability to follow exact guidelines? Then the personality traits associated with Asperger's might actually be a benefit. I don't know how this winds up working in real companies, but it's a good reminder that what is perceived as a disability is sometimes just a difference. None of us are normal, when you think about it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

California gifted programs on the block

Flexibility sounds like a good thing. In tight times, local school districts need to be able to use their stretched funds to cover their most pressing needs. But as anyone who's followed the issue of gifted education will suspect, educating highly intelligent children is rarely deemed a pressing need.

According to a recent New York Times piece (done in conjunction with The Bay Citizen), in California, a quick glance would make someone think that California funding for gifted education had only fallen a bit in recent years: from $46.8 million in 2008-2009 to $44.2 million in 2009-2010. But, as the article notes, "those numbers obscure a more important change: in February 2009, the California Legislature adopted a plan that allowed public schools to divert state money for gifted children to “any educational purpose,” including closing budget deficits."

And the diversion happened like a stampede. According to the article, "A study by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, released last May, found that 68 percent of the 231 school districts surveyed had shifted resources away from education for gifted students since lawmakers approved the measure."

So there we go. Left to their own devices, only 32% of districts actually think that money appropriated for gifted education should go to gifted education. I know statistics like this are why many gifted education advocates believe that the only thing that will make gifted education a priority is a national mandate with teeth, similar to the one that exists for students with disabilities. As a generally fiscally conservative person, I'm always wary of mandates, and arguments that the things that I think the government should spend money on are somehow more worthy than things other people think the government should spend money on. Still, statistics like this are incredibly frustrating. It is hard to envision a more shortsighted policy than cutting gifted programs because, hey, that seems like the easiest way to solve the problem of paying this month's electricity bill.

Long term, this mindset will need to be attacked on a few fronts. First, gifted education advocates need to work with teachers colleges to expose more teachers to the needs and diversities of gifted students, and ways of meeting their needs. Right now, too many educators see gifted education as something for, as Mara Sapon-Shevin once wrote, "the kids with disposable income."

Second, gifted education itself needs to be yanked away from a reliance on short pull-out programs -- the worst of which involve doing something like taking the gifted kids to a science museum on a Friday when no one else gets to go. Everyone can benefit from enrichment and field trips, and 45 minutes of pull-out twice a week do little to truly challenge a gifted child. Acceleration is a great idea. So is broad based grouping by ability (or readiness, as we like to say here). Gifted education should not be seen as a reward. It needs to be seen as an educational intervention for kids who need it.

And finally, we need some high profile champions. Surely, some folks in the California legislature, in politics generally, in industry, in the arts, in journalism, were in gifted programs as young people and saw benefits from them. If this sounds like you, please step up and let the world know!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Grouping ... by distance

I studied abroad for a semester in Australia back in college, so I can attest that it is a rather vast country. A bus trip from Alice Springs to Darwin took several days, much of it through a vast and strange landscape filled with rocks, some desert scrub, and not much else. Of course, as in America, people live in the craziest outposts, and they have kids. And the kids need to be educated. And some children in small towns around Australia are gifted. How can the education system meet their needs?

One approach is distance learning. An article in the Central Western Daily called "Distance no barrier for gifted scholars" discusses the growth of the xsel Virtual Selective High School. Drawing students from an area the size of Germany, they can listen to lectures, and interact with teachers and classmates.

I think this is a great development, though I know that distance learning is often hard to get right. There is something very human about feeling closer to people when we see them face to face. I would imagine it is hard, as a teacher, not to feel more attuned to the children in front of you, rather than those elsewhere. On the other hand, as virtual conferencing software gets better, it can actually be done to a point where it looks like the people really are in front of you. It remains to be seen whether better technology will trick our brains into believing we are really there, but gifted education is a great thing to start with. After all, if the children aren't served virtually, they probably won't be served at all, unless they're willing to leave home for boarding school.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is there a difference between smart and gifted?

As part of writing about different families for Gifted Exchange, I got an interesting email from Suzanne a few weeks ago. She wrote that she had "the unique perspective of raising gifted children and being married to a gifted adult but not being gifted myself." As she said, "Don't get me wrong, I am perfectly intelligent. I am able to recognize that my mind does not absorb information or make the same kind of leaps theirs do."

I found this curious and asked for more details. What did she think the difference was? "In my house, the difference between being perfectly intelligent and gifted comes out in things like processing speed," she said. "I tend to look at a problem and think about it and think about it some more. Maybe pull out some paper and a calculator or a ruler or some other tool. Whereas my husband will walk up and jiggle something or move two things around and BAM! It's solved. I'll get the job done just not as quickly or elegantly."

As for her 5-year-old, "I've noticed that my daughter is more like my husband in problem solving and processing speed," she wrote. "While I've been typing this email, my children have been in the next room watching 'The Cat in the Hat' on PBS. There is some theme music that pops up every time the Cat in the Hat does, it's maybe two measures of music. I heard my daughter say 'Hmm' and come into the room where I am and within 10 notes on the piano she was playing the theme music."

What do you think, GE readers? What is the difference between "perfectly intelligent" and gifted? Do you have a mixed family?

Friday, February 04, 2011

Narrowing the Range

Over in Batavia, Illinois, the school board is considering a curious gifted education proposal. The idea, according to this article, is to get rid of the pull-out program (basically, 50 minutes of advanced math per day) and instead, have one gifted class per grade level.

So far, so good -- here at Gifted Exchange, we definitely prefer homogeneous grouping to enrichment pull-outs, and expanding the gifted concept to mean more than just math.

But then things get interesting. Because these gifted classes aren't actually going to be homogeneous. According to the article, "Each 'gifted' classroom would include all the gifted children in that school at that grade level, plus a mixture of high-achieving and average students. Low-achieving students would not be assigned to those classrooms." The purpose of this, according to Associate Superintendent Jan Wright is to "narrow the range of abilities in those classrooms." But, I guess, not be too narrow.

My first thought is that this was odd, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like a relatively reasonable compromise. In this era of fiscal tightening, no gifted education proposal will be accepted if it costs more money. All must be budget neutral. If there aren't enough gifted kids in any grade to fill a full class, in order to be budget neutral, other kids would have to be assigned in. But by aiming the median slightly higher, you'd avoid some of the challenges of meeting a more diverse range of abilities. A full-time gifted class, even if the median isn't in the gifted range, is still better than pull-out.

That said, there are other options for a school district that could be budget neutral too. If there are only enough gifted kids for half a class, you can combine grade levels (so a 3-4th grade gifted class -- and maybe a 3-4th "regular" class too if that makes the numbers come out right... ) Or you could combine 3-4-5th grades, even if it meant a slightly bigger class size. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think.