Monday, December 10, 2012

Montgomery, acceleration and the Common Core

We've covered Montgomery County, MD a few more times on this blog than seems probable, but the issues there seem to reflect the challenges and thinking in many other "good" school districts around the country. So here we go again.

According to a Washington Post article, the district has revamped its math curriculum. Tied to the new Common Core standards, the curriculum aims to cover fewer topics in more depth. The curriculum should be more challenging at grade level, which means that fewer children would need to be accelerated in math. The article says the district claims they'd over-accelerated in the past, with high school math teachers needing to re-cover material that children should have been exposed to before, and with some families needing to hire tutors to help kids keep up in the alleged pressure-cooker.

Of course, the side effect of this, according to some parents, is that it's now harder for kids to accelerate at all. So kids who could zoom ahead are bored, and to add insult to injury, the tone seems to be that frustrated parents just don't "get" the new math emphasis. It is true that some people like to race through things without any understanding, but there are certainly highly intelligent kids who understand pre algebra concepts quite well and deserve to be challenged. This move away from acceleration is putting multiple issues in the same bucket.

I know I sound like a broken record about adaptive digital learning, but one of the reasons I do hope we move toward that system is that kids will ideally be able to move at their own pace (particularly in subjects like pre-algebra math, for which there is a lot of software already). Then acceleration won't mean scheduling issues and sending kids to different classes, which for whatever reason makes a certain proportion of educators go nuts.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Challenging the kids at home

My 5-year-old is really enjoying kindergarten. He's a social little boy, and likes being around other kids who are not his younger siblings. Riding a school bus turns out to be tons of fun, as are certain life experiences like taking money to the school book fair and choosing a book that fits your budget. Since he came into kindergarten reading and doing two-digit addition and subtraction, however, there hasn't been a lot of opportunity to move beyond that in the roughly two hours of daily instructional time that half-day kindergarten provides.

So we're working on challenging him at home. The first thing I thought I'd try was DreamBox, the adaptive math program. I'd heard good things about the program, and my son was initially interested in it. But he doesn't really like playing on the computer that much. When he gets computer time, he'd prefer to look at Google Maps and find photos linked to different spots ("Mommy, there's the Sydney Harbor Bridge!" and "Mommy, look at this village in Kenya!") So I'm not sure I'll be buying the program after the initial trial period just expired.

He will do math problems straight up, however. He spends a few minutes in the morning working with our sitter on math worksheets. In his perusals of map books, he's come across charts on precipitation, temperature, etc., and so he's been making his own graphs for fun.

As for reading, this seems a bit more straightforward. He is checking out books from the library to read, and is writing and illustrating his own. At the moment, they seem to resemble the Magic Tree House books pretty closely, but hopefully Mary Pope Osbourne won't mind the copyright infringement... :) We've tried to encourage him to tackle more challenging books, for instance reading the text in an atlas under pictures he finds interesting, and puzzling through what the words must mean.

I welcome suggestions on any other ideas for keeping the brain stretched. What books or software programs have you found helpful for early elementary school aged children?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

At last week, Carolyn Coil wrote a post on Ten myths about gifted students and programs for gifted. The list touches on many we've discussed here (like not ID-ing kids until 3rd grade under the misguided belief that everything evens out by then). But my "favorite" myth, if one can use that word, continues to be #9 -- that if a gifted child already knows a topic being covered, it's a good strategy to use the gifted kid as a tutor for struggling classmates.

I've often argued from the perspective that gifted children deserve to be challenged with appropriate work. They often already deeply know whatever topic they're being asked to teach to peers, and hence aren't going to learn it better. Time spent tutoring is time they could be working ahead. But while Coil mentions this argument, she also throws out another one: teaching is a skill. Assigning children to teach each other "assumes that teaching struggling students is something gifted kids innately know how to do. Most gifted students do not know how to tutor others. They often are frustrated that struggling students don’t understand what they perceive as easy."

Some kids like to learn how to teach, and want to get better at it. Some do not. This is a different skill set than having mastered certain math concepts.

Yet peer tutoring remains quite popular as a strategy. I think some educators see it as win-win. The more advanced child is given something to do and the child who is struggling gets extra help. But it may be lose-lose.

Have you or your children been in classrooms that have relied a lot on peer tutoring? What did you think of the strategy?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Raising the ceiling

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Arthur Levine, former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, writes of “The Suburban Education Gap.” Long-time readers of this blog know that America doesn’t have one education gap. There are really two. The first -- the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to graduate from high school college -ready than children from more advantaged circumstances -- gets much of the attention. Education reform efforts are usually focused on raising achievement levels for these children, which is certainly a worthy goal.

When Americans hear that our children do poorly on international comparisons (like TIMSS and PISA) we assume it is because of high levels of poverty in inner cities. That’s part of it. But it’s only part. As Levine reminds us, “of American 15-year-olds with at least one college-educated parent, only 42 percent are proficient in math.” Even when you look at ritzy suburbs, only a few perform as well as students in Finland or Singapore. Evanston, Ill. does well. So does Scarsdale, N.Y. But places you’d think would be stellar, such as Greenwich, Conn., or Montgomery County, Md., or Grosse Point, Mich., do not outshine the international competition, Levine writes.

Why is that? I’ve been pondering this in light of some observations of my own school district. Lower Merion in PA is known for being very good. The high school students win various academic competitions, and in that nice marketing letter accompanying my property tax bill, I learned about all the wonderful colleges they are admitted to. My son’s kindergarten class has iPads! But looking at what my son is being assessed on, the expectations for being at benchmark largely center on being able to recognize numbers and letters. If you can do that, all is good.

In a world of many woes, raising the ceiling does not feel like an urgent educational priority. But it should be. As Levine writes, “The international achievement gap makes the U.S. less competitive and constitutes a threat to national strength and security. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has estimated that America would add $1 trillion annually to its economy if it performed at Canada’s level in math.”

So why aren’t we focused on raising achievement levels among kids who aren’t stuck in basket case schools? I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition, that by raising standards for such children, we’ll take our eyes off the ball for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. You can raise the ceiling and the floor. Refusing to look at how low our ceiling is amounts to sticking our heads in the sand.

The existence of the “suburban education gap” is why I get frustrated by narratives lamenting pushy parenting and how much pressure children in well-to-do suburbs are allegedly under. We need to relax and not push academic achievement so hard, the story goes. But while there’s no point in making children miserable, the reality is that we’re not asking nearly enough of kids. There is no kindness in failing to challenge a bright child’s little mind in the days when she still thinks learning is wonderful.

Friday, November 09, 2012

What to do if your kid wants to be an artist

Those of you who follow my other blogs know that I've been writing a lot, lately, about what sort of career advice parents should give children. Specifically, what should you do if your child wants to pursue a creative career? (see my post at CBS MoneyWatch, and over at

I've been writing about this question after reading a guest post at the Motherlode NY Times blog from Dan Fleshler. His nearly grown-up daughter wants to make documentary movies. He debates what to tell her, with the shadow of his own career hanging over the discussion. He wanted to write novels; he wound up doing public relations. This question gets at one of the fundamental tensions at the heart of parenting. You want to prepare your child for the world. The world of creative careers is not known for being easy (and to a degree, these days, the academic careers that young mathematicians and historians and the like might pursue are not that straightforward either). On the other hand, you also want to encourage your child. The world is full of people who will stomp on his or her dreams. Why should you do that too?

Parents of gifted children face particular challenges in this regard in that sometimes children show prodigious talent in certain fields, or have very ambitious goals. Should one spend 18 years encouraging a child to be creative, and then zoom in with the practicalities? Should one encourage practicalities all along -- but hopefully delivered in a "this is possible" tone of voice?

My vote is for the latter. Musicianship, artistry, or research on the cutting edge of a field often involves years of practice and a discipline aimed at getting better. Hopefully as a child is working on the discipline of a creative calling, he or she is also meeting people who are pursuing this field, or have pursued this field, professionally. These people can show and tell what is involved, and explain the role of luck, timing, and being entrepreneurial. If you want to be a choreographer, it's important to know that there are very few organizations hiring people as full-time choreographers out of college just because they have a degree in dance. You'll need to be producing a portfolio, and being entrepreneurial about getting people to perform your works in visible places.

What advice would you give a child who wanted to pursue an artistic career?

In other news: I just read Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. The book consists of 42 strategies for "getting better at getting better" and has a lot of interesting ideas on how to practice one's craft. While the authors primarily train teachers, you can apply the strategies to just about anything.

I'm also going to two of my three kids' parent-teacher conferences this week and am mulling the concept of silly mistakes on assessments. Lots to unpack there, so look for that next week.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to raise a prodigy

The New York Times magazine has a lengthy essay this week on "How do you raise a prodigy?" adapted from Andrew Solomon's forthcoming book, Far from the Tree. Solomon does a good job of introducing the topic of profound giftedness to the public, explaining that it is not an unalloyed positive. Such children do not fit into the normal mold of childhood, and so parenting such a child is a challenge. One has to walk a fine line between pushing too much -- the narrative of many a prodigy flame-out story -- and the less-told tale of not pushing enough. After all, a child with prodigious musical talent who isn't given access to good teachers and isn't given enough time to practice will not develop as he could. As one mother pointed out in this story, her child isn't normal. So why should he have a normal childhood? It's actually impossible. Solomon ends by saying that "I don’t think I would love my children more if they could play Rachmaninoff’s Third, and I hope I wouldn’t love them less for having that consuming skill, any more than I would if they were affected with a chronic illness. But I am frankly relieved that so far, they show no such uncanny aptitude."

That's a fascinating way to look at the issue. I wonder how often parents of children with profound gifts wish that things were more normal in their lives. I imagine it's not infrequent.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Handling a retraction well

Science is messy, and retractions of studies happens more often than we think. Indeed, there's a whole blog, Retraction Watch, devoted to such things! (One of its founders, Ivan Oransky, was my editor when I was writing at Occasionally, retractions are a result of wholesale fraud, though usually the errors are more pedestrian: math mistakes, wrong assumptions, faulty methodology.

Recently, Oransky sent me a link to a Retraction Watch post about 2008 Davidson Fellow Nathan Georgette. This young man studied herd immunity. He had his first major study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2007, and then later published another study on a similar topic in PLoS One in 2009. After taking a class on "Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations" at Harvard, Georgette reviewed his old study and realized that an assumption he made in building a mathematical model for the second study was flawed, and undermined the study's conclusions.

He wrote to the PLoS ONE editors, and asked them to retract the study, which they did. Oranksy points out that there are two interesting parts of this story. First, that the peer reviewers who reviewed the study didn't catch the problem, but second, the "rigor and transparency" with which Georgette handled the retraction. He found the error himself; he acted quickly to solve the problem. It bodes well for a future scientific career for this careful and honest researcher.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The lesson question

At my 5-year-old's annual check-up the other day, the doctor asked if he was taking any art or music classes. I mentioned that he quite likes to draw (my office paper and pens walk off with regular frequency; I later discover when hunting for them that he's written and illustrated a book). She suggested that I enroll him in an art class at a local arts center.

I have to say, I am torn. I've been reading and writing about talent development for years. Many readers of this blog have children with prodigious math or music talents. Part of developing those talents has been exposing the children to adults who can help them learn how to get better, early on.

But I also suspect that most kid art classes for 5-year-olds will be about encouraging creativity, or telling him to draw certain things. And he doesn't need grown-ups encouraging him to be creative or draw certain things. He draws whatever he wants right now and comes up with rather interesting ideas. He's in the process of discovering the concept of perspective ("You can't see my legs in this picture, mommy, because I'm behind the elephant") and setting ("You can see I'm in Arizona because of the cactus.") Right now he's drawing because he loves it. I'm worried that turning it into something you do on Mondays at 4 will undermine this intrinsic motivation.

Yet, like I said, I'm torn. And classes might introduce him to other types of art (sculpture, painting) that we don't do a lot of at home.

How have you decided to enroll your children in classes or lessons? Do you think it was a good idea?

(Cross posted at

Friday, October 12, 2012

Absenteeism and ability grouping

I get press releases on various educational studies. Recently, one from Johns Hopkins caught my eye. Prof. Robert Balfanz authored a report on chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school year. Balfanz and his co-author, Vaughan Byrnes, estimate that 10-15 percent of the student population misses this much school. The report finds that "missing school matters." Chronically absent kindergartners do less well in first grade. Sixth grade attendance strongly correlates with graduating on time.

This is obviously a problem for the students who are missing school, but what was noteworthy about the press release was how it was aimed at parents whose kids do go to school. "How often do your child’s classmates go to school? Whether fellow students show up for class matters more than you think," the release noted. Here's why: "Empty desks mean that teachers will either re-teach old material when chronically absent children return to school, which will slow the pace of every child in the room, or they will move ahead to new material anyway, often leading to behavioral problems as the children who have missed many days of school fall further behind their peers and disrupt the rest of the class."

That's certainly a reason to be interested in what one's school is doing about attendance, but it struck me that it's a reasonable argument for ability (or "readiness" as I prefer to call it) grouping, too. If the presence of a child who's missed 18 or more days of school in a classroom is that detrimental to the pace of the class, imagine how much more complicated things get if there are children spanning multiple years of preparation. Teaching to make sure the less-prepared kids get caught up will slow the rest, and not helping them get caught up can lead to disruptions. Wouldn't it be better to make sure most classes feature a relatively limited span of readiness levels? That way all kids could move at the right pace.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Hanushek and the economics of teacher quality

I recently finished reading The 4% Solution, a policy book released by the George W. Bush Institute. The chapters, including five by various Nobel laureates, look at what sparks economic growth, and what exactly it would take to make US GDP grow by 4 percent per year.

While people who don't share the former president's politics will find plenty to argue with in some of the essays, others are much more neutral politically, and focus on numbers. Eric A. Hanushek's essay on "Education Quality and Economic Growth" fits in this camp.

Hanushek studies the economics of education, and has done several studies into teacher quality. What teacher attributes affect student outcomes? In this essay he makes the case that increases in cognitive skills contribute to economic growth; basically, as people learn more and become better problem solvers, they use this knowledge and these skills to create efficiencies and new products and start businesses and so forth. He argues you can put specific dollar amounts on changes in US test scores on international assessments (particularly the PISA). If US achievement levels on the PISA rose by 25 points -- putting us at the level of Germany -- this would have a present value of $44 trillion for the United States over 80 years. Putting this in perspective, the entire US economy is currently $16 trillion. Getting up to the level of Finland -- one of the top countries -- would be worth $100 trillion over 80 years.

Hanushek then looks at the impact of teacher efficacy on student outcomes. His studies try to measure the "value added" contribution of teachers, looking at how different teachers instructing similar populations have wildly varying outcomes. He claims that replacing the least effective 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could bring the US up to a level of student achievement equivalent to that of Canada. Replacing the bottom 7-12 percent of teachers would eventually bring the US up to the level of Finland -- which was worth $100 trillion over 80 years. As he puts it, "the rewards for improvement are enormous. The economic benefits of reforming America's public schools far exceed the potential gains of a short-term focus on flattening out business cycles and from recovering from recession."

It's a fascinating concept, and if true, suggests a fairly stunning amount of economic growth almost there for the taking. But, of course, improving educational quality has been a long and not particularly successful battle. He notes that "The appropriate policies to achieve these changes in teacher quality are beyond this discussion." But hopefully some people will ponder that question, and come up with solutions that could put that $100 trillion in reach.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Too few kids for a class?

It's a common problem, particularly in the primary grades. A school would like to offer an advanced math option for kids at that level of preparation, but there aren't quite enough kids to justify a class. That handful of children can't just go to the next grade's math class, because it isn't being taught at the same time. What to do?

When I was in 4th grade, I remember joining 3 other children sitting in the back of one teacher's classroom. She'd give us a do-now type assignment, go teach the other class, then while that class was working, she'd come back and work with us.

I imagine this sort of arrangement happens pretty frequently, but earlier this week, I saw a more technologically sophisticated approach at a handful of Catholic primary schools in Philadelphia. Teacher Terri Danella instructs a small advanced math class at Resurrection school in northeast Philadelphia. As she teaches, she's being broadcast to 4 other schools (I was watching from St. Peter's near 5th and Girard). She's got a split screen that shows her all the students in the different locations, and when a student speaks up, the camera pans to that child. This makes the format relatively intuitive (when someone speaks, you look at her).

The technology itself obviously costs money, though this was underwritten by the Connelly Foundation, a Philly-focused charity that promotes technology in Catholic education. But it's cheaper than having an extra math teacher at the five different schools. And this method retains slightly more of the human touch than having these children take an online course.

How do your schools handle this issue? What do you do for children who need advanced math?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Testing prep and gifted education

Sometimes I sound like a broken record: gifted education should not be a reward. It should not be the only "good" class in a school or the only "good" school in a district. It should not indicate that a child has achieved something. It should be an educational intervention for children who need it.

But of course, that's not the way many educators and parents see it. I was reminded of this by a press release put out by, a company co-founded by Karen Quinn, author of The Ivy Chronicles. According to the release, the site had been re-launched, "giving parents a whole new set of tools to help their children succeed in the increasingly competitive world of gifted education."

If it's increasingly competitive most places, that must be because schools are cutting seats -- partly because gifted education doesn't seem like a priority when it's spun as something for kids who've been prepped extensively for a test.

Tests inherently have the reality -- perhaps the problem -- that you can prepare for them. When the stakes are high, people will prepare more (witness the cram schools in a place like South Korea). Certainly by doing logic puzzles, you can prepare for IQ tests, and it's possible you'd do better. When gifted education is perceived as a reward -- or, as in NYC, where it gets you out of paying $40,000 in private school tuition if your kid can score a seat in a good program -- people have every incentive to use test prep products.

I'm not sure what to do about that. Perhaps a good screening program could involve all kids doing some amount of test prep. Almost every law school graduate takes a bar prep course; it's kind of built into the system. But I also think it's important to recognize the limits of test prep. Tons of children take SAT prep classes -- and such classes probably raise their scores. But very few children who've taken SAT prep classes or do SAT tutoring actually get perfect scores. The test is not completely coach-able or you'd see people acing it left and right. A high score still shows something.

I'm curious if blog readers have seen an assessment program for a school or district that they thought was done really well.

In other news: I wrote about the Bedtime Math Problem over at Citibank's Women & Co site.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

IQ and Grit

There's a curious narrative running through some big thought pieces lately. The big idea is that Americans are obsessed with IQ. How obsessed are we? We even have gifted programs! But IQ turns out not to be the be-all and end-all of success. Character traits such as persistence matter more -- ergo we should stop pushing children.

The most recent piece along those lines was called "Opting out of the 'Rug Rat Race,'" which ran in the Wall Street Journal's review section this past weekend. It was excerpted from Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. There is much to like about Tough's book, but I'm a bit wary of the way some of the discussion is framed.

As regular readers of this blog know, American schools are most definitely not obsessed with IQ, at least to the point of doing much about it. The vast majority of gifted children -- even if they are identified -- are then given nothing more than 90 minutes of pull-out a week. Maybe they'll get to move a year ahead in math, but that's about it. The predominant focus of American education is on getting kids in the middle to meet grade-level tests.

One piece of evidence Tough cites that test scores don't matter is a study of GED recipients. The GED is a test that high school drop-outs can take to show they understand high school material, and hence can go on to higher education or signal to employers that they are the equivalent of high school graduates. Tough cites a study finding that, while GED holders are more intelligent than high school drop-outs, they do about the same in life as high school drop-outs, whereas high school diploma holders do much better. The character traits that got kids through high school seem to matter more.

Which is well and good -- but I'm not sure anyone would argue that character traits like persistence don't matter. I'm also not sure how you can control for the life circumstances that lead to people getting GEDs instead of high school diplomas. Beyond that, I think a lot of the folks arguing how much more grit matters than intelligence are looking at the world from their own perches of it. Everyone who works at the New York Times magazine (where Tough is a contributing editor) has a pretty high IQ. Academics look around their academic departments -- where everyone has made it into or through graduate school -- and see that the people who are most persistent and have the most self-control and discipline do best. This does not mean that you could pull two people off the street and only the person with the most persistence will do better in life. Wide differences in intelligence will matter too.

What Tough writes -- that I agree with -- is that many of America's children, "especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up." But a big reason kids don't experience failure is that they're never challenged. They're never given work that is truly right at the edge of their abilities... partly because we aren't obsessed enough with IQ. We aren't obsessed enough to make sure that highly gifted children are identified and then put in situations where they'll actually have to work to grasp the concepts they're trying to learn. That is how you learn grit.

I pretty much coasted through school until I went to the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities back in the mid-1990s. This public residential school for gifted children featured extremely challenging classes, and for the first time, I really had to work hard to get good grades. Sometimes, I didn't get good grades -- a flirtation with failure that made me realize I could work harder and change a situation. I didn't have to learn persistence until I was truly challenged. I worry that today's highly gifted kids won't get that chance to be challenged the more people repeat this story that intelligence doesn't matter and that we should just step back and let kids be kids.

In other news: The Davidson Institute just announced the 2012 Davidson Fellows. You can read more about these inspiring young people -- and the amazing things they've done -- at the Davidson institute's website.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Kindergarten orientation

Today was a milestone for me - I accompanied my "baby," now age 5, to kindergarten orientation. He had bright shiny white shoes and an even brighter smile. He was so excited to go wait at the end of the driveway for the bus. Today I got to ride with him. Tomorrow he goes on his own. His class, he told me afterwards, has 14 kids -- this is the upside of taking the PM kindergarten option!

I hope that he'll learn a lot this year and most importantly, will keep thinking learning is fun. As we were hiking over Labor Day weekend, he kept wanting me to ask him math questions. "I love this, mommy! This is my favorite game!" I hope that he'll keep thinking that puzzling through problems is an exciting way to pass the time.

What are your hopes for the school year?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Religious schools and gifted ed

Close to 5.5 million American children attend private schools. The majority of these schools are religious in nature. Over 40% are Catholic, another 15% are "conservative Christian," and a smaller proportion are Lutheran, Baptist or Jewish.

While 5.5 million sounds like a lot of kids, the number of children attending Catholic schools in particular has declined precipitously over the past few decades. Many have closed, and some are trying to reinvent themselves.

One possibility? Take a page from the playbook of a Queens, NY Lutheran school, which just reinvented itself as a school for gifted kids.

Lutheran School of Flushing & Bayside was struggling to attract students. But the folks in charge noticed something. NYC tests and identifies kindergartners for its gifted programs, but then doesn't actually have enough seats in the programs for all the kids identified. So now the school is enrolling children who meet the NYC standard but don't have a seat in the public schools in a program designed to meet their needs.

I think it's a neat idea. In large metropolitan areas, a school for gifted kids offers the best of all worlds: ideally, the academics are tough enough to cause kids to stretch, and they can learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Because the high population means there's likely a concentration of gifted kids, you can actually fill a school.

NYC has some gifted schools (think Stuyvesant) but not nearly enough. A private Lutheran school is obviously not the perfect solution: plenty of gifted kids aren't Lutheran (and their families won't want them taught as such) and there's the matter of tuition. If public schools exist for kids, and especially when they identify kids as gifted, it's crazy that they then don't actually have to do anything about that fact. But, given that we don't live in a world where that's happening, having other schools around that do try to meet gifted kids' needs is a major plus.

Obviously not all religious schools could or should reinvent themselves this way. But if there were 10 Catholic schools in a city, why not designate one to have gifted & talented education as its niche? If there are 6 Protestant schools in a town, maybe they could have a gifted program at one of them and share some teachers and courses for 2 days a week. This would give parents of gifted kids more options. Because the sad truth is that it's usually assumed that if you can afford private school, that will solve all educational problems. But parents of gifted kids soon learn that even being able to pay tuition is no guarantee that an appropriate education is there in your town for the taking.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Does algebra for everybody help anybody?

Over the past two decades or so, there's been a push to raise standards in schools with the goal of increasing the number of kids who graduate college and career ready. There are certainly logical reasons to do this. In California, for instance, entrance to the state universities requires a certain set of courses. Yet many students, over the years, have graduated from high school without having taken those courses. If students later want to try college, they need to take remedial classes to do so.

One form this push for higher standards has taken is "algebra for all" requirements. The idea is that all 9th graders will take algebra, so they have the background for college prep math and science in later grades. But some studies have found that requiring students to take algebra doesn't actually result in higher college enrollment rates. And now a new study finds that algebra-for-all has a downside: less progress for higher achievers.

You can read the Education Week story on the study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, here.

In essence, what happened is that schools eliminated remedial courses. By putting lesser prepared students into the same 9th grade math classes as more advanced students, the schools created more mixed (heterogeneous) groups, skewed toward a lower level of preparation than before. Teachers naturally teach to the middle of the group. An experienced teacher who can see that half her class hasn't quite grasped the concept she introduced is going to spend more time on it, assign more homework on it, and so forth. But there is a limited amount of classroom time, and so the teacher doesn't delve into more advanced topics, or move as quickly as she would if she could see that 70% of the class had mastered the material. Students who could handle more didn't get more.

As the article notes, any talk of grouping students by readiness (some say ability, but I prefer readiness) causes controversy. It is certainly possible that one could create a mixed-readiness class that met every child's needs. But doing so is very, very hard to do in real life as opposed to in educational political theory. Worse results for high-achievers without corresponding gains for students who needed more help doesn't sound like a result anyone would aim for.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's OK to be wrong

(Cross-posted at

Over at CBS MoneyWatch today, I have a post on “5 reasons you should fail more often.” This post came out of an experience last week on vacation of doing puzzles with my 5-year-old. I realized he seemed hesitant to try pieces, in part because he viewed trying a piece in the wrong spot as making a mistake -- something one wouldn’t want to do. This was obviously slowing the puzzle-doing down considerably. I don’t care about doing puzzles quickly but I do hope my child doesn’t get too hung up on the idea that everything has to be done right the first time. I hope he doesn’t think people are “good” at puzzles and “bad” at puzzles and trying a piece in the wrong spot indicates that you are “bad” at such things.

I’ve written before of Carol Dweck’s famous experiments on praising children for effort rather than ability. When children view their performance on a task as a result of some innate and unchanging characteristic -- you’re a smart kid or you’re good at puzzles -- they become risk averse. After all, failure would show your label is wrong. So best not to attempt anything too difficult, and put that identity in question. When children view performance as a result of how hard they are trying, however, then failure is less scary. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. You can always try harder, whereas you cannot magically become more smart.

So I dutifully spouted such motherly advice as “Look, I’m trying pieces in the wrong place too! That helps me figure out where else they might go! We just have to keep trying. That’s the fun of puzzles!” I praised my kid’s effort and made sure not to say “wow, you are good at puzzles” or any such thing.

But broadly, I have been thinking of other activities that reinforce the idea that trial and error is part of life, and not a case of Error with a capital E. Blogging for different outlets has certainly helped me with this. One of the beautiful things about blogging is I can try lots of different ideas. Some get no attention whatsoever -- the blogging equivalent of failing -- and some just explode. Oftentimes, I am completely wrong about what people will find interesting. Good to put things out there as concepts before I invest too much time in them.

The Olympics is also a good example of the inevitability of failure (with a little f). The best volleyball teams give up points against good competition. Imagine how many times those divers belly-flopped as they learned those beautiful somersaults! If they failed once and stopped they certainly wouldn’t be competing now. Missy Franklin doesn’t win every heat she enters. In her amazing 2-events-in-10-minutes performance yesterday, she squeaked into the finals in her first swim before winning gold in the second.

How do you teach your children that getting something wrong, or losing, isn’t always, or even often, bad?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's $1 billion master teacher program

Two years ago, an advisory group on scientific competitiveness recommended that the US create a "master teacher" corps in STEM fields. These highly compensated teachers would mentor other teachers, create new lesson plans and aid in professional development. Recently, the White House threw its weight behind this idea, calling on Congress to create a $1 billion master teacher program for science, math and technology.

While it's unclear any new spending will get passed these days, it's a fascinating idea. Several years ago, I wrote about a program called Math for America that provided extra professional development and bonus checks for math majors who became teachers. People with STEM degrees may be in more demand in industry, so education represents a potential income cut that might not be as pronounced for an English major. A program that paid them more and gave them an elite status could help with recruiting.

Broadly, the idea also hints at extending the reach of knowledgeable teachers. This raises the whole class size issue again. In recent years, there have been several programs to reduce class sizes. The problem is that if it's already hard to get good math teachers, getting more of them is going to be even harder. If you have to dip lower into the applicant pool to get smaller class sizes, the class sizes might not wind up being the deciding variable.

So what I'd love to see is this master teacher idea combined with a blended learning program, so that even more kids could get access to the best math lectures, and work on problem sets, and then get one-on-one time from master teachers, who could potentially handle classes with 40 kids or more with an instructional aide. Maybe that aide could be a student who's a math major, apprenticing with one of these master math teachers. It's an idea...

What do you think of the master teacher idea?

Friday, July 06, 2012

The trouble with "broadening reach"

Humans are social creatures. Like anyone, gifted kids enjoy being around their real peers -- people who understand them and can have conversations on the same level. In big enough districts, a good way to offer this is to create magnet gifted programs that pull kids from lots of schools to receive instruction targeted at a higher level. Gifted kids get challenged and, as a side benefit, they often learn there's more to their personalities than just being "the smart one."

I have never understood why so many people are so opposed to such programs, but they are -- and a recent article from on Frederick County, Maryland showed one way school districts have found to disband such programs while trying to claim they're still serving gifted kids' needs.

The argument? Claim you're broadening the reach of your gifted teachers. Rather than send kids to a magnet program, keep them in their home school. Then send around your gifted teachers to do enrichment programs for an hour or two at a time at each school. That way, more students can participate.

But why, exactly, do more students need to participate? If there are gifted kids who aren't being served by the magnet program, make more seats in the magnet program. If the kids and their parents don't want to go to the magnet school, a grade skip or subject matter acceleration can work for individual cases. I suspect that the desire to broaden reach is really that school districts don't like creating special programs for "the 1%" (to borrow a phrase from a different subject). By sending gifted kids back to their home schools, their test scores get included in those schools' results. Gifted education becomes a small and more easily cut part of the day. And as teachers struggle to meet everyone else's needs, the needs of gifted kids will be forgotten.

School officials may argue differently. According to the article, "School board President Angie Fish said on June 28 she understands how parents ... can be concerned. But she also was confident school staff will ensure advanced learners receive the services they need, regardless of the other challenges of their schools."

Sure. Except that it usually doesn't happen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Disrupting class

I recently read Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn's book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Christensen is best known for his book The Innovator's Dilemma, which chronicles how various industries have been wiped out by technological progress over time. Personal computers ultimately replaced the mainframes of yore, but in the early years, they didn't compete for the same market. Disruptive innovations usually come in from below. They're much cheaper. Only over time do they become better. But become better they do. Meanwhile, established companies focus on better serving their existing customers, but as a result, they don't change to accommodate the disruption until too late.

The question in Disrupting Class is what this will look like in education. The book was written in 2008, so the predictions are already almost obviously old, and yet many that seem obvious haven't entirely come to pass either. Education is a resistant entity. If what you want to do is listen to a lecture on the quadratic equation, there is no reason not to hear it from the absolute best conveyer of the quadratic equation on the planet. Any kid who wants to take any language should be able to (Disrupting Class features a speculation about a high-achieving student wanting to take Arabic, and being able to through an online class). Years ago, I had a history teacher whose approach to US history involved putting questions and answers on the chalkboard, which we then spent the time in class writing down. What a waste of time when, these days, you could be listening and watching lectures from the best professors of US history around. Kids could look at those same questions and answers on a computer. And yet in many cases, these things don't happen.

Why? There are vested interests, of course. But even in the theoretically more efficient and adaptable private sector, established companies can almost never innovate into new versions of their same industry. So Christensen, et al, see disruptive innovation coming from outside the usual channels. Hence, Khan Academy. Online and digital learning is more likely to take hold first in after school programs, summer school programs, and in alternative education programs (credit recovery, juvenile detention centers, etc.) Charter schools, likewise, might give it a whirl. At first, it's not as good. But over time, it gets better. And eventually, school will look very different.

Or at least that's the idea. The authors predict that by 2014, about 25% of kids will be doing some kind of digital learning, and it will be at a tipping point. We're probably not that close now, but the field is changing rapidly, so it may not be too far off.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fitting in

Over in Australia, a recent study of the state of gifted education has found that gifted kids face enormous pressure to fit in. According to a story in The Age, the report finds that children frequently face bullying when they don't conform to the social standard ruling everyone else their age.

While I'm glad to see this issue get some attention, I can't say I'm surprised. Growing up in "normal" schools in heterogeneous classes, the gifted child soon gets one identity: the smart kid. While a few other attributes can expand that identity (massive athletic talent, for instance) generally "the smart kid" is what you're stuck with. You soon learn that "the smart kid" is not necessarily the cool thing to be. So you don't stick up your hand. You don't ask a lot of questions. Or you do, and suffer the consequences.

People always talk about how heterogeneous grouping helps with socialization, but I think this world view misses what happens in real life. In a homogeneous grouping, the gifted child gets a one-dimensional personality. In a heterogeneous grouping, where "smart" isn't necessarily the biggest thing distinguishing you, the gifted child can discover other aspects of her personality, and how to relate to people in ways that aren't just about being the smart one. You learn that maybe you can be funny. Nice. Inquisitive. A prankster. Or anything else. These social skills are good to know, because eventually, many people wind up in semi-homogeneous situations on their own. At university, for instance, or in the workplace. It's probably safe to say that most software engineers at a major tech company are pretty smart. So what else do you have going for you? Unfortunately, many gifted kids don't get to think about this until much later. Or they dumb themselves down to fit in -- and miss out on opportunities for a better life later on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer reading time

I have fond memories, from when I was a kid, of using my summers to read. Summer hours seem to have less filling them, and while I read on the bus to school, skipping that daily commute and the 6 hours in the classroom opened up many more hours for paging through books. I'd get so absorbed that I have a memory of absentmindedly walking around the yard with my head in a book, feeling something sharp, but ignoring it. Later I looked down and saw my toe was covered in blood. Never even noticed!

This is the first summer that my 5-year-old can read in a way that would make reading fun. I've started reading aloud the Winnie-the-Pooh stories to him (before this year he couldn't sit through a whole one...they're not short!) He reads through his dinosaur and astronomy books, but I'd love to introduce him to some easy reading but enjoyable books for young readers. I welcome suggestions. The first chapter book I read was called something like Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims, but I'm not sure it was great literature. I loved the Little House on the Prairie books, too, but I'm curious if little boys get as excited about those books as I did.

Of course, I'm also nostalgic about all this summer reading because it seems these days I rarely read novels. The last one I made it through was Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and that was almost a year ago now. I think I'm reading and writing too much for work now, and it takes some of the fun out of digging into something meaty. Maybe I'm hoping that reading through some literature with my son will put me back in that frame of mind. What are you reading with your kids? To your kids? And what are they reading on their own?

Note: A purely self-promotional aside... I have a new ebook out this week called "What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast." You can read a review here at MoneySavingMom, and an excerpt at Available in Kindle, Nook and all other e-reader formats. It's short and cheap ($2.99). Thanks for checking it out.

Monday, June 04, 2012

In praise of abnormal childhoods

USA Today has a quick post today on Sho Yano's graduation from medical school at age 21. Yano also earned a PhD in molecular genetics and cell biology, but that wasn't in the headline -- I guess people still like the image of Doogie Howser, MD, all these years after that show!

My favorite lines from the post: "The average age of students entering medical school in the U.S. is 23, and there were schools that refused Yano admittance because of his age. School officials worried that the difficulty of medical school would hurt Yano's ability to have a normal adolescence, the Tribune reports...."I never understood that," Yano said. "Why would being allowed to challenge yourself be considered more damaging than being totally bored?"

Exactly. There is nothing "normal" about being bored in school, or about being forced to learn certain things and not learn others solely because of your birthdate. If being able to learn to your full potential is an abnormal childhood, well, I'm all in favor of being weird.

Friday, June 01, 2012

NYC's gifted programs...and mine

I lived in New York City for 9 years, and my oldest two children were born there. We'd started thinking about the whole school question before we left -- though we didn't get very far down that road before moving to Pennsylvania instead.

Anyway, this past week, the NYC school system mailed out its letters informing parents whether their K-3 child landed a spot in one of the city's gifted programs. Unlike many school systems, NYC has quite an elaborate network of GT classrooms. On the other hand, getting in one is not all that straightforward. A child is tested and is labeled gifted if she scores above the 90th percentile. But there aren't actually enough seats in programs for the students who receive that label. Some 13,508 students got scores high enough to qualify. Of those, 7,562 applied for spots (the others presumably chose private schools or found other non-GT programs they preferred -- maybe a neighborhood school or a language immersion program). Of these, 5,486 received offers. The other confusing part is that there are two tiers for the program. Scoring above the 90th percentile qualifies you for "regular" gifted programs, but scoring above the 97th percentile qualifies you for "citywide" gifted programs. These, at schools like Hunter, are the most popular. But because more kids score above the 97th percentile than there are seats, in effect, you have to score at the 99th percentile.

Reading about all this has me pondering what we're doing with my 5-year-old next year. We moved to a school district outside Philadelphia that is known for being good. Certainly the offerings of contests and courses dwarf anything I experienced at the local schools in Indiana I attended for a few years. His elementary school is about a mile from our house. To enroll him, all I had to do is show up at the district office with his immunization record and birth certificate. I'm really quite grateful to have skipped all the stress of figuring out if he'd have a spot in a certain program, applying to private schools, and all that.

I have no idea if my son is officially gifted or not. We'll likely have him tested next year. But on some level, I'm not sure it much matters yet. Kindergarten is half day here. So he'll be in school for a grand total of 2 hours and 45 minutes per day. If it's all playing on the playground, we'd deal, because my son winds up doing a lot of academic work at home. He writes stories, reads books and informs us of various things he's learning about dinosaurs and planets. We sometimes do our bedtime math problems. Or we stumble into it. He's become obsessed with this guide book on San Diego (we might visit in August). He's informed me multiple times that it's 77 degrees in August (per the average high in the table). But he was trying to figure out, does that mean it's 77 degrees on August 1? or 10? or 20? So we started discussing the concept of averages (which I'm having a hard time explaining, by the way).

Anyway, I feel like next year will be about easing into school, seeing how it goes. I'm glad to have avoided the high stakes system of NYC, even though I'm glad NYC even has a system. What are your school plans for next year?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How not to ruin a prodigy

Today's Wall Street Journal profiles Todd Schmitz, the coach of champion (and likely Olympics-bound) swimmer Missy Franklin. Franklin, 17, stepped into Schmitz's program at age 7. The curious thing about their relationship is that Schmitz's program isn't one of the elite Olympic feeder swimming programs. Indeed, the youth club Franklin swims with doesn't even have its own pool. Schmitz rents space in various Denver pools and lugs equipment like his digital clock around in his truck.

As the article notes, Franklin's parents know they could put their daughter in a different program. But as her father says, "Why would we?... We have a kid who is happy and who keeps swimming faster."

Schmitz's methods are a bit unconventional -- but the deeper one reads into the profile, the clearer it because that the bit about having "a kid who is happy" is very important. Franklin trains hard, but takes the weekends off. Schmitz monitors his swimmers for burn out, and if they're tired, he'll launch a game of water polo. Drills turn into play -- "A lot of this is about simply playing around in the water," Schmitz told the WSJ. He cross trains the kids on dry land which, among other things, helps avoid injury. All told, Franklin probably swims about half the yardage of elite college swimmers. But it seems to be enough. Franklin is the world champion in the 200-meter backstroke, and will be a swimmer to watch in London this summer.

Reading the article, I was reminded of the parallels -- and things that should be parallels -- between athletic prodigies and profoundly gifted young people whose main talents lie in other fields. In athletics, we naturally see the role of a coach. Practice tends to be supervised, with a coach offering immediate feedback. Ideally, for a young talent in other fields, much of practice time would feature coaching too. Here's what needs work. Here's how you improve. Proper practice is a skill that many people never learn -- it doesn't necessarily come naturally, as anyone who's listened to a kid bang out a song on the piano knows. Math can be practiced. Writing can be practiced -- with a good coach offering immediate feedback on drafts so one can learn how to improve.

But there's also the broader question of how to nurture talent without leading to a prodigy flaming out. Here, I think Schmitz is on to something. Getting to be world-class in any field takes a ton of work and practice. But if it isn't fun, then it's hard to stick with a rigorous practice schedule year after year after year. Kids often have lots of interests, even if they appear to have prodigious talent in one. While Missy Franklin clearly enjoyed swimming from an early age, the article notes that at age 7, she was a bit reluctant, sitting out some sprints. A coach who insisted on making her swim when she didn't want to might have squelched the joy that these days has her getting faster and faster. How to nurture that joy is a question that all adults who work with talented young people need to ask.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The class size kerfuffle

I like following politics in general, but seeing the "big stories" of the past few days has reminded me why I'm glad I'm not covering politics as a reporter full time. Yesterday's big campaign story was that Mitt Romney said that class size was not key to student success. The White House issued a statement asking what planet he lived on, as if this were a cut and dried issue.

The problem for both sides is that it's an incredibly nuanced issue. In our political debates, we tend to like story lines that focus on very few variables. From the left, perhaps: raise taxes and the debt will disappear! From the right: cutting defense spending makes America less safe! But with education and many other issues, there are so many more variables.

This is definitely true with class size. Some studies (most notably a long, longitudinal one from Tennessee) found that reduced class sizes correspond with higher student achievement. On the other hand, Mitt Romney could point to other studies finding that class size was not strongly correlated with student success. Both can be right. Studies can find all kinds of things when there's many variables! On this blog, we've looked at a study out of Kenya finding that cutting class size in half only helped if the students were then grouped by ability in the smaller classes. Teachers often prefer working in smaller groups, and find it better for discipline purposes, but what if you change the whole class structure? Some of the schools I visited in California for this blended learning project could have as many as 48 kids in a class, but they were all getting more instructional time, because they rotated through direct teacher instruction, small group projects, and adaptive learning programs on computers. KIPP Empower LA, an elementary school that's doing blended learning, has 28-30 kids per kindergarten class, and saw these children's test scores improve more over the year than any other KIPP school (which tend to be high-performing charters already). The kids got more small group time with the teacher because of the class set-up -- but that didn't require small classes.

Just think of all the variables involved. Small classes might be good, but if teacher quality were more important, then small classes might not help matters -- because it would force you to dip deeper into the applicant pool than you might want.

But all these matters are not easily discussed in sound bites -- so we tend not to get thoughtful discussions in campaigns.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Digital learning and acceleration

I spent the past week out in California, visiting several schools that are using digital/blended learning strategies. Done right, blended learning means that kids are getting practice on skills using technology that provides instant feedback: you got this math problem wrong, so let's work through to see what you don't understand. Or you got it right, so let's try a harder one. With computers doing the basics and the grading, teacher time can be re-deployed from large group instruction to small group projects or individual tutoring. Class sizes can be larger. Schools can be cheaper and, with teachers analyzing the data to see exactly what kids know and don't, schools can be better. Utopia!

But does it work in real life?

This is where a lot of educational ideas founder, and certainly, blended learning is going through some growing pains. At one school I visited, I was informed that they're switching software providers because they're getting data...but it's useless. At another, student reading passages were differentiated (the level of difficulty depended on your reading preparation) but if you finished early, you sort of waited for the next assignment from the teacher, instead of moving on. And in another, a big chunk of the computers didn't work because they were old. And the capital budgets for new computers in CA are not so generous at the moment.

On the other hand, many of the schools were getting positive results despite some challenges. At KIPP Empower LA, the kids who started kindergarten in 2010 came in with 64% scoring basic or below basic on the STEP literacy test, and 36% scoring proficient or advanced. By spring of 2011, 96% of the kindergartners were proficient or advanced. Blended learning isn't the only good thing going on there, but it's certainly part of it. Good educational technology is the equivalent of "deliberate practice" -- the kind of intense practice that professional musicians engage in, addressing their weak points and repeating skills over and over. The KIPP kids are getting an extra hour a day of pure deliberate practice on reading and math skills. Is it any wonder they improve?

Most people are excited about blended learning for the possibility of getting lower-performing kids up to grade level. I'm personally more excited about the potential for acceleration. At one middle school, the principal and teachers had implemented blended/digital learning for math. The teachers did a lot of assessments through the year, using the data, and found that a few sixth graders had mastered pre-algebra concepts by the middle of the year. So...they got to start algebra. Right then! No waiting around for a new school year to start. A child who demonstrated mastery in algebra got to start geometry.

People get a little worried about acceleration because it often involves going to "different" classes, and tends to involve whole units of years. But there's no reason it has to. In the past, people have always done independent studies, but I know from personal experience it's easy to fail when you're trying to teach yourself. Educational technology gives more feedback, so failing is more difficult.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Question of AP Exams

Over the past decade, the number of students taking AP exams has basically doubled. These tests are supposed to show whether high school students have mastered college-level coursework. Offering AP classes can be a way for schools to challenge students and AP classes are the closest thing we have right now to a common, high-standards curriculum. The AP Calculus exam, or AP Biology exam is the same over the whole country, and a 4 score in California means the same thing as a 4 score in New York.

Of course, just because a class is offered doesn't mean students are learning -- and the AP exams show this rather well. According to this article from the Associated Press (another AP!) the proportion of students scoring the lowest number on the exam -- 1 -- has also risen dramatically, from 13% to 21% over the past decade. In addition, there are whole school districts where no one is passing (scoring a 3 or above). As the article notes, "In Indiana -- among the states pushing AP most aggressively, and with results close to the national average -- there were still 21 school districts last year where graduates took AP exams but none passed."

There are also a number of specialized schools serving low income children with poor results. "Baltimore's Academy for College & Career Exploration, where 81 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price lunch programs in 2010, added three AP classes in recent years. Over the past two years, just two of 62 exams taken by its students earned a 3."

Some argue that these low passing rates show that offering AP classes is a waste. The classes are probably smaller than others, and hence resource consuming, and the teaching time spent on AP classes would be better spent making sure kids don't have gaps in their prior knowledge.

Which makes sense except...we spend a lot of time and energy on making sure no child is left behind. Much of American policy is focused on bringing low achievers up to the bar. Even if no one is passing the AP exams, offering more challenging classes is at least throwing more advanced students a bone. Would it be better if more passed? Of course. But thinking in terms of offering AP classes isn't a bad mindset for a school. Ideally, some with low pass rates will keep that mindset but offer new ways of preparing for the classes and teaching them over time -- maybe digital learning strategies or other such things. Sometimes it's about student preparation, and sometimes the AP class just isn't well designed or taught (which digital learning/distance learning could help solve). I only scored a 2 on the AP Physics exam in 11th grade, but scored a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam, a 5 on the AP Chem and a 5 on the AP Bio. I don't think it's that I wasn't capable of understanding physics. While of course I am ultimately responsible for my own learning, I think the class wasn't as good as the others, and that showed in the results. The good thing about AP exams is that at least they show that -- unlike watered down state level tests.

Did you take AP classes? Are your children taking them? What do you think about them?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A little nudge toward college

One of the current major public policy goals in the US is to increase the number of students going to college. Historically, children from lower to moderate income families have been less likely to enroll, even if they've done well enough in school that college is a possibility.

Money is obviously one barrier, but there is at least some financial help out there in the form of Pell grants (and loans) from the government. The problem? Policy makers have long suspected that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has inadvertently become a barrier by being too complicated.

So over the past few years, some folks who care about this issue have been running a fascinating study. Many low-to-moderate income families get help with tax prep. Why not have tax professionals help these families with high school aged kids fill out FAFSA at the same time?

The results, according to publications of this study, have been positive. When families visiting H&R Block got help filling out FAFSA, their children were more likely to enroll in college vs. a control group that got information about financial aid eligibility, but didn't get any help actually filling out the forms.

Going to college is a huge decision, and earning a degree can have a massive financial benefit in one's life. So it's disconcerting that something as simple as a complicated form can have such a deterrent effect. It gets at the point of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's book, Nudge -- that choices can be profoundly influenced by small things, like how easy something is, and whether someone you trust behaves in a way that shows a choice is a good idea. Given how simple this is to have tax preparers help with FAFSA, it seems like a good policy to pursue.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

High school, only shorter

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature ("High school, only shorter") on the handful of states that now give scholarships to students who complete high school early. If it takes you three years instead of four, the state is saving cash. So why not split that bounty, and give a small scholarship to be used to start college? Indiana, Minnesota, Utah, South Dakota and Idaho all have programs that create an incentive for kids to start college early.

I love this idea, and it may be working. According to stats from the WSJ article, some 2.9% of students who were sophomores in 2002 graduated from high school in three years or less, vs. 1.5% in the 1990s. The availability of online classes is helping this (since that's how many students earn the additional credits -- or through summer school).

The "pros" are obvious: if you've finished high school, why stick around? It's time to move on to more challenging work, or to start your working life earlier. What was most fascinating to me, though, were the "cons" the journal listed, which show how entrenched the idea is that high school is just part of American life. What about prom? What about senior class trips? Perhaps students will be "socially or emotionally unprepared for college" and, of course, graduating early "requires more work."

I get the hesitation. We live in an increasingly fractured society. Experiences like prom or homecoming and the supposed glory of senior year are some of the few universals we still have. From the vantage point of dull jobs, bills, and the responsibilities of raising families, people like to look back and view ages 17-18 as the best years of their lives. But prom is a relatively recent tradition. And as Nicholas Myers of Indiana, now enrolled in Ball State, told the WSJ, "Nowadays we have CEOS in their 20s... If I get out a year early, that's a year extra of pay... That's a whole year of my time that I can do whatever I want -- make some money, invest some money or just relax." Exactly. For all the worry about "hurried" childhoods, I see no reason to prolong it if the child is ready to grow up.

But I'm curious what other people think. Do you have fond memories of your senior year of high school? Do you think your children will?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Disney World, and access to calculus and advanced math

I'm back from a week-long vacation at Disney World with my three small children. It was a lot of fun (if not exactly relaxing). My inner geek was on display, though, as I kept pondering the logistics of line management. Disney has huge crowds for the popular rides. In a keen bit of psychological insight, Disney understands that people tolerate waits better if there's transparency on time. The powers that be also know that some people detest lines enough that they will give something up (like complete flexibility) in order to be guaranteed a short wait. So all popular rides have two options: a stand-by line, with a posted wait time, and a "Fast Pass" option. To get a Fast Pass ticket, you go to a machine by the ride and insert your park pass. The ticket gives you an appointed window to show up in order to bypass the line. The catch is that there are only a certain number of Fast Pass tickets per day, and they are given out in chronological order. If you show up at 9am, you might get a fast pass time of 10am-11am. Show up at 1pm and your time window might be 8pm-9pm, with the downside that you probably can't get another fast pass ticket until you return yours to the ride in question. So you're shut out of other popular rides for the day, unless you wait in the 60-plus minute standby line.

Making best use of all this information involves optimizing various variables: how much you dislike lines, how long the lines actually are (often a function of time of day and day of week), and how much you care about this particular ride in comparison to other rides. For example, "Soarin'" is by far the best ride at Epcot. Our first day at Epcot, we got Fast Pass tickets for the ride for a roughly 8pm return. That was fine, because there weren't very many other popular rides at Epcot. Once we learned that Jasper really liked that ride, though, we showed up the next day when Epcot opened. He and I made a beeline for Soarin' and got on the first run. Meanwhile, my husband got us all Fast Passes for the 9:45-10:45 window. So we got to go on the ride twice with no wait. By the time we got on for the second time, the standby line was up at 30 minutes, and it hit 60 very shortly. Fast Passes sold out by afternoon.

Optimizing in a world of multiple variables is, of course, a real world application of math. Amusement parks are one thing, but many other fields make use of this knowledge as well: economics (and business forecasting in general), engineering, logistics. Not having a background in advanced math would make getting jobs in any of these fields rather difficult. That's why I was quite disturbed to read (in Marian Wright Edelman's Huffington Post column) about the results of the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights survey of public schools in America. Edelman has her own opinions on tracking and funding that I don't share. But regardless, these are some disturbing statistics: "Fifty-five percent of the low-minority high schools surveyed offer calculus but only 29 percent of high-minority high schools do. Similarly, 82 percent of low-minority schools offer Algebra II compared to 65 percent of the high-minority schools."

While some enterprising students might take Algebra II or Calculus during the summer or petition the school for an online course (or do Khan Academy on their own), a school's course offerings pretty much set the tone for what a student is expected to know. That such a low percentage of high schools offer calculus -- and an appallingly low percentage of schools serving mostly minority kids -- does not bode well for a mathematically promising future. That's a far worse outcome than a 75-minute wait in the line for Space Mountain.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A real breakthrough

In education circles, people like to use the word "breakthrough" a lot. It's to be expected, given that the space is a bit evangelical right now with people trying to come up with transformational ideas.

But what, really, would a breakthrough mean?

If we think about technology, breakthroughs tend to mean better performance for less cost. An iPhone does a lot of the stuff people use their computers for, but costs less and can travel in your pocket. A digitally-delivered magazine could have more interactive content, and not have all the distribution costs.

Viewed in that light, a real education breakthrough would mean something that raises achievement but also cuts costs from the current model.

I think that last part is going to be critical in the near future. It's no secret that many state budgets have suffered a lot in the last few years, and also that the political interest in raising taxes is, well, minimal. Some states like California are already re-working their per pupil allotments and given the benefits and pensions costs that small class sizes will come with, this is likely not going to be sustainable long-term.

That's why many people are so excited about blended learning models -- doing digital/online learning for some coursework, and redeploying teachers as tutors. A teacher who can track students in real time and let them all work at their own pace can cover more students (with non-teachers running interference and doing crowd control). Most blended learning schools are pretty new. So we'll see if their cost structure turns out to be lower or not (particularly once all their equipment is taken into account). Few things in the history of education reform have turned out to lower costs.

Sustainable financing models might be another approach to lowering taxpayer costs. The Cristo Rey Network has thrived with its urban Catholic schools by having kids work one day a week as temps at local offices. It's interesting to think if there might be ways students could raise money for their own education at other schools. I don't know, but perhaps that will be the real breakthrough someday...

Monday, April 02, 2012

Self-publishing your kid's work

My mother sent me a link to a piece in the New York Times about parents employing self-publishing companies to print books of their children's work ("Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)"). Plenty of people are self-publishing these days to sidestep the gatekeepers of publishing houses, and it makes sense that some of these people are under age 18. As the article notes, parents think that this is a great way to reward creativity and encourage persistence. If your child has taken the time to crank out a 50,000 word novel, why not publish it? Kids can play amateur lacrosse and get recognized for it. Why not amateur literature?

Of course, as the article notes, these young authors then often try to get publicity for their books (all authors do! oh, do we try), and newspapers or TV news segments pick up on the "published author at age 14" part of it. But there is a major difference in achievement between having a commercial publisher pick up your work, and having parents who can pay $250-$2500 (depending on the package) publish your musings.

As my mother asked, "Should we have published your early writings? Actually, you were published without our doing it." Which is true. I entered short story contests, won them, and sometimes sent in my work to different places. I had a story published in a children's literary journal at one point in there. I had a ghost story read on the radio. Looking back on my own middle school and high school years, there were other projects that, if my parents and I had been more savvy people, could have made for better college application material. I wrote a "book" of a dozen-plus short stories in 10th grade. I also wrote a lot of different sonnets. That could have made for an interesting book of poems in iambic pentameter.

But I got into college anyway, and I think one thing that's helped me in my writing career is that much of it has been self-motivated. I was also pondering the other day that I'm grateful that the Internet didn't really come into power until I was pretty much writing professionally. My early stuff isn't out there. While some is good or at least salvageable, much of it suffers from the usual problems of early writing. There are very few literary wunderkinds. The older I get, looking back at some novels stuck in a drawer, I realize that one has a better understanding of the human condition the more you live as an actual, you know, human. You can't wait forever to write your opus. We get better the more we write, and one way to get better is to get your stuff out there and get it criticized. But it helps to go through gatekeepers too. Sometimes they're there for a reason.

One middle ground the article suggested is to pay to have your kid's work put through the wringer by a professional editor. Now that is an idea I like.

Would you self-publish your children's writings? Jasper shows a lot of interest in writing. If he starts writing stories, should I pay to publish them?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Pride and the gifted child

An exchange the other day: A mother was told by a teacher that her child would likely be identified as gifted if they had him tested. Quote from another person: "You must be so proud."

I've been pondering this choice of word. I think "proud" is not the right one. It's like saying "aren't you proud your child has brown eyes?" In the realm of intellectual giftedness, having a certain IQ is probably not something that shows great parenting, or hard work on the part of the child, at least not in the way that getting an A on a tough assignment would. That you could be proud of. IQ, like many human characteristics, has a very strong genetic component. There are probably some things that lower it (like malnutrition), and perhaps things that raise it on the margins. I just read an article about a study in the European Journal of Public Health finding that babies who are fed on demand (as opposed to on a schedule) have a slightly higher IQ than other babies, controlling for parent education and income and "parenting styles." Though really, with that last one, it's hard to know how one controls such things. One can imagine that there are other variables that correlate with demand-feeding that a study would just miss.

So if giftedness isn't really a result of something you or your kid have done, how do you deal with the "proud" comment? Obviously, parents are usually proud of their kids but that language seems to hint at one of the major misconceptions of gifted education, namely, that it's a reward. Ideally, gifted education is an educational intervention for children who need it. How have you responded to people saying you must be "proud" for your children to be in a gifted program, or to have been identified as such?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Answer to lagging scores? Bedtime math

I'm over at USA Today in today's paper writing about bedtime math. As we talked about a few weeks ago, the idea is that by making bedtime math problems as much a part of the culture as bedtime stories, we can change the "math-is-hard" and "math-is-foreign" mindset that seems to grip otherwise intelligent folks. You can read the column, "Answer to lagging scores? Bedtime math problems" by following that link.

We've been doing some of this with Jasper -- at night, at dinner, in the car, etc. He's sometimes been coming up with his own math problems. For instance, the other day, he suggested one: if a fire truck has 4 wheels, how many do 6 fire trucks have? Then he got silent for a while. We were in the car, and so eventually I asked "Are you still there?" A voice comes from the backseat, "Mommy, I'm counting!" He told me there were 20 wheels in total. I was debating how to respond to that. I think I said something like "Cool! I was counting and I got a different number. Do you want to hear my number?" I told him that when I was counting I got 24, but when he got to school he could draw 6 fire trucks and see what number he came up with.

I asked him later and he said there were 30 wheels. Maybe all the fire trucks had a spare.

Have you been doing bedtime math problems with your kids? And how do you respond when your children suggest a wrong answer?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cubicles and blended learning

I'm starting a fairly large research project on blended learning. This is the phrase people use to describe a mix between online/software-based learning and face-to-face learning with teachers. One example would be the Khan Academy, where students watch instructional videos and work online problem sets, with teachers monitoring progress and swooping in to tutor when kids are having trouble.

I think in general it's a good idea. Kids can work at their own pace but with plenty of accountability, moving through lessons as they achieve mastery. So I was a bit surprised at my initial reaction to a profile (in Mind/Shift) of a school that uses a similar approach, the Flex Academy in San Francisco.

At the Flex Academy, students sit in cubicles and work through most of their lessons online. When they need help with something they can ask a teacher or fellow student. The pace is pretty self-directed.

I like self-direction, and I like the idea that you wouldn't even know what level your classmate was working at, so maybe it was the mention of the cubicles that got me. One of the things I write a lot about the workplace is how silly it is that people commute to a place only to use laptops and email and call people in other places. Why not just stay home? Maybe not every day, but 2-3 days a week seems doable. It doesn't seem any better when kids commute and then simply work online, though of course the presence of teachers-as-tutors does change that equation. The school leaders are correct that this is how many people work, so school is preparing kids for the workforce. The problem is it's not necessarily how people want to work. At least the cubicle part. No one likes cubes.

Several of the comment writers on the article had the same visceral reaction. Students choose from online electives as well; perhaps in an ideal world there would be face-to-face electives and online core subjects. It's hard to know. The challenge of blended learning is hitting the sweet spot of learning at your own pace and from master teachers, without producing something like Dunder Mifflin from the Office.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Math of Khan

Last summer, I wrote several posts about Salman Khan and the Khan Academy. I was researching the topic for a feature piece for City Journal, the magazine of the Manhattan Institute. The feature has (finally!) been posted online, and you can read "The Math of Khan" by following that link.

A few other items: I'm also writing about Laura Overdeck's quest to spread the concept of a "bedtime math problem." Gifted Exchange readers may remember Overdeck from her quest to save New Jersey's Governor's School a few years ago. The idea behind Bedtime Math (follow that link to sign up for the daily email) is that kids learn to love language and understand plot naturally from bedtime stories. Why not learn to love math through cozy bedtime math problems too? If the world of the future will require deep math understanding, it helps to view math as a familiar thing, like a first language.

And finally, after years of writing about schools, I am about to experience them as a parent. This week, I took my 4-year-old to register for kindergarten for next year. It was a very straightforward experience, very different from what my life would be like right now if we were still in New York and having to apply different places. He'll be attending our local public school, which is less than a mile from our house. I'm excited about moving into this new phase of our lives and seeing my little boy grow up. And I'm sure being on this side of the American education experience will give me plenty more to write about!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Family vacations

We've been pondering where to take a family vacation this year. I'm going to register Jasper for kindergarten today, and I realized that this is the last year we'll be able to travel at non-peak times (without it being a bit of a fuss -- though kindergarten is only half-day in these parts, so we're still easing a bit into school). Anyway, it reminded me of a post I meant to share with Gifted Exchange readers, written by Kristen (aka "The Frugal Girl") on her blog called "Why I homeschool my children." One of the reasons was the freedom to go places at times that didn't correspond with school breaks. It is true that few family-friendly destinations are really busy the last week of September. I thought you all would enjoy the essay, so here it is.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

When should gifted students be identified?

Recently, the State Board of Education in Maryland adopted new rules on the identification and accommodation of gifted kids. According to this Washington Post article, the goal was to set minimum standards for the districts. In some cases, districts will be identifying children as young as age three.

A few advocacy groups protested the decision, claiming it was wrong to label children. I'm not sure they have much of an argument, given that kids are labeled in many other cases. There is an incredible amount of diversity within the category of "Hispanic" for instance, yet districts often keep statistics on that sort of thing. But a more interesting question, for our purposes, is when should gifted kids be identified?

For years, the common answer among school districts was around 3rd grade. The idea seems to be that by this point, any disadvantages or advantages one came to school with would be ironed out, and you could actually assess if a child needed extra services. With all we now know about early childhood, though, this is becoming a pretty outdated belief. Children are learning since birth. Many children attend preschool these days, and hence are encountering academic work long before kindergarten. Indeed, many preschools with less of a formal curriculum naturally differentiate for different children. Here's a journal. The not-yet-literate ones draw. Others write stories.

Preschools often do this without official labels, but they have certain things going for them that primary schools do not. Small classes, for instance. Multiple adults per class. Less emphasis on a certain amount of material that must be covered in a given year. Flexibility that big school systems often don't have.

When you lack that flexibility, that ability to meet kids where they are, then labels do become necessary. Labels help schools meet kids' needs. I tend to think that the beginning of kindergarten tends to be a good time for an initial assessment. I also think that assessment should be continual, with decisions about gifted programs re-evaluated regularly. You can go in and you can go out.

When does your school district identify children?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Should the progress of gifted kids be tracked?

I've been reading in a few different places about the TALENT Act, a bill in Congress that would require states and schools to measure the progress of students who score above grade level on standardized tests. The progress of these students would be reported on state report cards. The idea is that, while No Child Left Behind has done a reasonable job of tracking the progress of students scoring below grade level, anyone above grade level is deemed to be doing fine. If the proportion of students scoring at the highest levels goes down, that doesn't trigger any problems under the law.

It's an interesting idea. You can read an editorial in favor of the idea over at Education Week here. The author, Frances R. Spielhagen, writes, "As a former high school teacher and coordinator of programs for gifted students, I know firsthand the frustrations of the very capable student who must slog through drill-and-kill reviews every fall while teachers ensure that everyone is up to speed and ready to move forward."

What all this gets at is that schools should be serving a "value-add" function. There is no particular glory, as a school, in getting students who are all from well-educated families, and then producing students who score reasonably well on grade-level standardized tests. If you got kids who were on average one year above grade-level, and cranked out kids who were performing at two years above grade-level, that would be more remarkable. Likewise, a high-poverty school that produces students scoring at grade level, when similar schools score far below, is adding quite a bit of value.

People track these kinds of things in other spheres, and it certainly seems possible to track it in education as well. I hope we'll be moving toward the day of high-tech testing, when the tests respond to the student, and we figure out exactly where a student is, and can monitor progress more closely. Laws, though, are blunt ways to get at this idea.

On a personal note: I have a new book out today (March 1)! It's called "All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending," and it's published by Portfolio (part of Penguin). The book looks at money as a tool for building the lives we want, and argues that money can buy happiness (usually) if we spend it right. If you enjoy my writing here, I'd appreciate if you'd check it out. There's more over at my personal blog,

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Homeschooling and working

I have long been fascinated by homeschooling. I wrote my senior thesis on the topic in college (basically on the legal framework; you don't want to read it, it wasn't any good). As I started researching gifted education later, I learned that a very high percentage of families of highly gifted children homeschool. If you can't get a good accommodation in school then homeschooling winds up being the fall back option. When I wrote Genius Denied with Jan and Bob Davidson, we noted that about half the families of their Young Scholars homeschool at some point.

I don't have the personality to homeschool my own kids, and I don't think I would have been a good homeschooled student myself, but I'm intrigued by the parallels to the way I work. I pursue new knowledge as I have reason to do so (usually because I'm writing about it). I work at my own pace on longer projects (books; when a deadline in 12 months out, you have to self-pace). My schedule is my own as long as I get the work done. I don't commute to an office every day at a certain time to do certain things just because it's 9 a.m., and homeschooled students don't either.

I'm pretty sure that a lot more people will be working the way I work in 20 years. So the question becomes, is homeschooling the best way to prepare for the workforce two decades hence? That's the thesis Penelope Trunk (gadfly blogger and serial entrepreneur) has proposed over at her blog's section on homeschooling:

"Gen Z will have an education that is practical. College is widely seen as worth far less than its price tag in most cases. Graduate school is an anachronism, now seen by many (including the Chronicle of Higher Education) as a babysitting service for adults. So I started thinking, if Gen X ers – the parents of Gen Z – are not buying into the education system, then what will happen? The answer is that Gen Z will be homeschooled much more frequently than any generation before them, and Generation Z will understand how to synthesize data, self-direct learning, and ask the kinds of questions that make or break companies. The portion of Generation Z that gets the old-fashioned, classroom-based education, will end up being unprepared to compete."

Of course, homeschooling requires something from the parent that many didn't necessarily plan on doing: being a teacher (or at least an education facilitator). The traditional model of homeschooling is that mom stays home with the kids to teach them, rather than building a traditional career. A tiny number of families hire governesses, and thus can homeschool as two-career couples, but this is a small number.

But as people are working in different ways, this is opening up new options, and I've been coming across a few more mothers (or fathers) who work while homeschooling, often in a freelance or entrepreneurial fashion. Trunk, for instance, has her blogs. Modern Mrs. Darcy is another homeschooling working mom, as is Catherine at A Spirited Mind. I'd love to find more examples (and I've written about a few readers from Gifted Exchange as well). As technology opens up more options, we may see more families trying this different way of educating their children, which may change the workforce in more ways than we can currently see.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Over the weekend, we got to meet Dr. Scott, the paleontologist.

Those of you with preschoolers may know just how big a deal this is. “Dr. Scott, the Paleontologist,” is the scientist who comes on between cartoon segments on Dinosaur Train (a PBS Kids show). He talks about different kinds of dinosaurs, and other prehistoric creatures, and how we know various things about them. He always ends with “get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”

Anyway, he was in Philadelphia for some live events at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Hauling little kids anywhere is always vaguely traumatic. I couldn’t find parking, so I was circling around downtown Philly’s various small streets, eventually parking in a lot. I took a ticket with a magnetic stripe, then managed to fold it in my pocket, so it wouldn’t read afterwards in the machine or at the gate. I had to back my car out of the gate, run back to the hut to get the lot attendant, with the kids strapped in the car... ugh. But Dr. Scott! He told us all about various dinosaurs, and showed us clips from Dino Train, and then the kids got to meet him and take a picture with him afterwards. My 4-year-old found this a bit odd. How could Dr. Scott be on TV and talking to him?

But even if he found him odd, he did what he said. We came home and that afternoon, we played “finding fossils” outside for quite a while. Several rocks from our walk way turned out to look like T-Rex teeth. A stick that was bent at an odd angle became a fossil of a pteranodon wing (and shoulder-like hinge). We did, in fact, get outside, get into nature, and make our own discoveries.

I know there’s plenty to lament with TV, and how much of childhood these days is spent in front of a blue screen. But we never would have bothered to go be preschool groupies for Dr. Scott if we hadn’t seen the show. And in this case, a TV show encouraged us to go play scientists. So I’d list that as a mitigating factor in the sentencing of television for all that ails us.

(cross-posted at