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?