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.