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?