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 www.DavidsonGifted.org/Fellows.

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.