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

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Another post on kids and sleep

We've looked at kids and sleep on Gifted Exchange a few times. Some gifted children seem to need less sleep than other kids (though this isn't a universal sign). But interestingly, there's some evidence that the usual sleep guidelines aren't necessarily right. Kids may need less sleep than the experts used to say.

An article in the Wall Street Journal this morning on "Challenging 100 Years of Sleep Guidelines for Children" notes that in 1897, a scientific book claimed 2-year-olds should be sleeping 16 (!) hours a day. Researchers in 2010 say that 2-year-olds should get 11.5 hours a night.

If you think about it, this makes the usual 2-year-old bedtime (like 7:30 p.m.) kind of nutty. If the kid is taking a 2-hour nap, this means it would be quite normal for the child to wake up at 5:30 a.m. Or earlier! My 2-year-old falls asleep around 9:30pm. He wakes up around 7-7:30 a.m. He takes a 2-hour nap. This adds up to exactly the right amount of time. It's just later. But why would I want to be up with him at 5 am? So I'm glad to know it's not worth fighting to get him down earlier.

My baby is shaping up to be a better night-time sleeper than the other two. She is usually asleep before 8pm and sleeps until 6:30-7am. She doesn't take great naps during the day - they tend to be short - which I was slightly worried about at first. But it turns out that the sleep guidelines for babies are 14-15 hours, plus or minus 2 hours. If my baby is sleeping close to 12 hours at night, she just doesn't need that much daytime sleep.

On one parenting list-serve I'm on, people use the abbreviation "YMMV" all the time. It took me a while to figure out that means "your mileage may vary." Meaning that what works perfectly fine for one kid won't work for another. Children, like adults, probably need varying amounts of sleep, and some kids are larks and some are night owls. I'm happy that at least my older two are now at the age where they can look at books in bed, which seems to keep them happy enough during the hours that other 4- and 2-year-olds are asleep.

How much sleep do your children get?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Teaching Self-Reliance

Things are a wee bit chaotic in my house these days. There are 3 kids under age 5, for starters. I have a book coming out in a little over 2 weeks. My husband has a busy time at work as well. We've called in lots of help, but there is still a lot to be done.

So I've been pondering ways that my 4-year-old, at least, could start to do a few more things on his own. He knows how to get himself dressed...but doesn't always want to. He could wash himself better in the bath. He could bring his dishes from the table to the sink (and throw any garbage away). He could put his and his little brother's dirty clothes in the hamper.

Thinking I would try to get buy-in on this project, I asked him what jobs he'd like to do around the house. The answer? "I want to take care of Cutie." That's his nickname for the baby. A nice idea, but a 4-year-old doesn't make a good baby sitter.

So where does that leave us? A sticker chart helped with the potty training project a few years ago, but I have a sense that it wouldn't be as motivational in this circumstance. I'm trying to talk in a polite way that makes expectations clear, such as "Thank you for bringing the Legos back to the basement" as he's standing there pondering whether he's going to do it. But I'm really curious if people have had success with anything in particular. He's a smart kid, so I've pondered just explaining what I have here. Mom and Dad are swamped, and we would really appreciate it if he could be a big boy and do some things to help. But who knows...

Friday, February 10, 2012

Science at the White House

We have an impressive system for seeking out basketball talent in this country. One reason promising kids are found young and -- this is key -- trained, is that there is much fame and fortune involved in being good at basketball.

The fortune part is partly a matter of entertainment value. Much of science doesn't lend itself to televised spectacle in the same way sports do. But fame is a slightly different matter. Every year, I see photos of the president meeting with the NCAA tournament champion basketball teams. But what about brilliant young scientists?

That's why I really appreciate what President Obama has been doing with the visibility of young scientists. He's been meeting with the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search, bringing them to the White House. He's also been hosting a White House Science Fair for the past two years, and trying to make good news clips out of it. For instance, a number of news outlets wrote about Taylor Wilson of Reno, NV (a student at the Davidson Academy), who developed a low-cost way to detect radioactive material. This clearly has security implications, and Obama made sure to point that out.

Who knows what will become of Wilson's project, but we do know this will come of it: young people will see him on television and in the newspaper and get the message that if you do something really cool in science, fame of the sort often associated with sports stars can be yours. If we're really trying to "win the future" as folks keep saying, that's a good thing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Community relations

As long time readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of the residential math, science (and occasionally humanities) high schools that a number of states have created for gifted students. These schools offer advanced classes and let young people learn in an environment with their intellectual peers.

The problem, of course, is that in an era of tight funding, such schools look suspiciously like "extras" that are not strictly necessary to fulfill state constitutional requirements of offering students a K-12 education. So they are a tempting target for cuts.

But what if you could extend the reach of your resources, and create a larger constituency? Would that incline the larger community toward you? It's an interesting political question, aside from being an interesting thing to do in general to further educational goals. So I was happy to see that the Indiana Academy, where I went to high school, is offering summer classes to kids in elementary to high school grades, and some for adults too. People can learn about biomedicine, programming, Legos, Japan, etc. Indiana Academy students are also available for tutoring kids in math and science subjects.

It's a smart move. Every child tutored will potentially do better in school, but beyond that, every child tutored creates another family that may or may not ever send a kid to the Indiana Academy, but will think fondly of the school nonetheless.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Owning one's mistakes

Last night I went to hear Trevor Eissler speak at my 2-year-old's Montessori school. Eissler, an Austin, TX-based pilot, wrote a book called Montessori Madness: A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education. Eissler is certainly a Montessori enthusiast, and regaled us with tales of the great happenings in Montessori classrooms. I do think there are great things that happen in such classrooms, though there is always the correlation vs. causation issue. Though Maria Montessori may have tested her theories in a slum, in this country, at least, many Montessori schools are private. In the case of the one my son attends, it was actually written up in Philadelphia magazine as being the snootiest pre-school in the area (Note: I am not paying $12,000 a year for it, but then again my kid only goes 2 days a week). So...I am not sure it is entirely fair to compare it with schools that have to take all kids, where some kids are showing up hungry and may have stayed in three different places in the past month. While I also like discovery-centered education in theory, I have seen constructivism done horribly. Bad teachers could make a mess of Montessori too. Private schools have more control over who they hire.

But one concept I have been intrigued by, educationally, is the idea of learning from one's mistakes. One of the problems of traditional education is that you take a test, then learn several days later what you got wrong. You may not even know why. Sometimes you get a chance to redo wrong problems, but the feedback isn't immediate, and the consequences are artificial (bad grade) rather than natural (the toy house you're building falls over when you measure the pieces wrong). Done right, the Montessori method aims for immediate feedback and natural consequences.

Of course, Montessori isn't the only way to get at that concept. One of the great promises of digital learning is that you not only meet the child at his level, you give immediate feedback. The child can learn from his mistakes in real time, seeing what works and what doesn't. In general, we fear errors too much. Sometimes there are bad consequences (medical mishaps come to mind). But trial and error is a great way to make new knowledge, and once you own your mistakes, knowing why things went wrong, you know how to do things differently in the future.