Friday, May 30, 2014

Does a "good" school need a gifted program?

New York City has long built gifted education into the structure of its schools. A few entrance-by-exam schools (Hunter, Stuyvesant) have long offered gifted kids the chance at an education that challenges them to the extent of their abilities, in an environment with their intellectual peers. The system is far from perfect, but at least gifted education exists in a way that hasn't been easy to get rid of.

Since I left New York City three years ago, I've been paying somewhat less attention to the schools. But it turns out the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has an interesting track record and thoughts on gifted education. Namely, "As principal of P.S. 6, Fariña famously eliminated the school's gifted and talented program," a recent article in Capital New York noted, "initially alarming parents who wanted their children in high-level classes but who were, according to a parent at the time, eventually reassured by Fariña."

Why did she do that? According to the article, "Fariña has not spoken in detail about her philosophy on gifted and talented, but on Monday alluded to the issue of inequality within schools that caused her to toss out the gifted program at P.S. 6 in the first place. 'How do you tell a child that he is gifted but his brother or sister isn't?' she asked."

Since people tell one child that he/she qualifies for special education services, while another child in the same family does not fairly frequently, if gifted education were viewed as what it is -- an intervention for children who need it -- this would seem fairly straightforward. But many educators do not view gifted education this way, Fariña included, it seems. The meeting discussed in this article was held in Manhattan District 2. This is widely perceived as a "good" district with "good" schools. It's in a relatively wealthy part of the city that includes the Upper East Side and midtown. When "a suit-clad father of a district 2 student complained to Fariña that his daughter didn't test into a gifted and talented program, Fariña was not overly sympathetic. 'If you're in district 2, the feeling is that every school is one that's gifted and talented,' she said."

Note this quick mental jump. Programs for gifted kids are basically just "good" schools -- so if a school is "good" gifted kids don't need anything else.

I'm not surprised to hear this, in the sense that many people hold this belief. Gifted education programs are just sops for well-to-do, reasonably smart kids in lousy systems. Once you've solved the lousy system part, then gifted kids in this "good" district don't need anything because their schools are "good." Isn't that just what parents wanted?

Unfortunately, a number of gifted programs set themselves up for this sort of criticism by employing various questionable strategies: forcing parents to request testing (meaning only the connected or in-the-know parents do so), putting the cut-off low enough that it includes kids whose needs probably could be met decently in the regular classroom, or being about fun stuff (trips to science museums!) that all kids can do.

I tend to think that even "good" schools need gifted programs because it's not just about discipline and challenging grade-level work. It's about challenging kids whose brains are far enough ahead of their peers that even the best teacher will have trouble meeting their needs in class. It's about putting kids with others who will show that they are not the brightest kids in the room.

Since NYC is so big, even 1 in 1000 kids can have 1000 kids like them. It's been a bright spot in the system that the city has tried to recognize this and put these kids together as much as possible. So it's unfortunate that the people in charge have a different conception of what gifted education is about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"If you're always the smartest person in the room, you need to find another room."

That's a quote from Art of Problem Solving founder Richard Rusczyk, on what he tells gifted kids. The quote is in an excellent article on the online resources available to gifted kids that ran at Mind/Shift today.

One of the biggest problems facing gifted kids is that too many come to think that life should be easy. School work is boring, easily finished, not too taxing. Other kids in their grade-level classes aren't raising critiques of their ideas that would force them to rethink and argue. Then when life and work do get difficult -- as they certainly will at the high reaches of college -- they don't know how to cope. People change majors or even drop out. That's a waste.

So how do you find another room? AoPS aims to be one, as do online courses from EPGY and other places. The article has a list of options. Finding another room is slightly easier now when the other room can be virtual. If you live in a small community, it's just going to be difficult to create another room right around you.

What is the other room for you and your children? Where do you go to find places where there are lots of smarter people?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reading between the lines: A principal on gifted children

I'm always happy to see gifted education covered in the press, especially when not under the headline "the myth of giftedness" (or some such). But reading how people write about giftedness is sometimes a reminder of all the narratives that are out there, and that may or may not be true.

That was my thought while reading the "Your gifted child" column from Lenore Hirsch in the Napa Valley Register. (Curiously, I was actually in Napa in California when the column ran, though I read it later, not at the time. I certainly would have clipped it if I'd seen it!)

Hirsch writes that gifted children often have difficulty if they're intellectually years older than they are, but sometimes behave like their real age. This can indeed be frustrating for parents and teachers (not to mention the kids themselves). But then that sage observation is followed with this: "I have known children who were so far beyond their age-mates academically that they were bored in school and their parents wanted them to skip a grade. But parents and staff must consider the social ramifications before making such a move."

Here we have someone who is profoundly sympathetic to the issues of gifted education writing in a way that implies that skipping a grade is a risky and drastic move -- as opposed to one of the best (and cheapest!) ways available to challenge gifted kids. The reason it's risky? The "social ramifications." Except that one of the best summaries of the research (the A Nation Deceived report) found that social worries were widely overblown. Most kids who've been accelerated turn out fine.

Hirsch's preferred solution is this: "Sometimes the best route for the gifted child is to stay in class with others his own age, but have the curriculum and teacher expectations tweaked to give him an academic challenge. He can read a harder book or write a longer report, while still exploring the same topic as his classmates."

I'm not sure that assigning a child a 7-page report instead of a 4-pager is all that's required to meet a child's needs. But unfortunately this mindset is quite prevalent. I don't know why acceleration gets such a bad reputation. But given how even people who support gifted education write about it, there's no doubt that it does.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Learning new words

My oldest son -- who turns 7 today -- loves making his own books. Part of writing is knowing the right words to use, and a great way to learn new words is to read other people's writing. You expand your vocabulary as you see words that are unfamiliar, and figure out what they might mean from the context.

My kid loves a challenge, so as he's been thinking about learning new words, he thought maybe he should figure out the hardest, longest words possible, and make a word wall for himself of these new monstrosities. We also figured he could look through books with lots of unfamiliar words -- a dinosaur encyclopedia, for instance -- and choose new words as he came across them. This method produced "determine" and "intimidated," among others.

This seems to me to be a more natural method of learning new words than flash cards or, as I once saw, a novel written around the frequent usage of SAT-type vocab words. Of course, it's probably still more forced than simply having conversations and learning new words as part of that.

The last method has something going for it from a writing perspective. I do the occasional editing job, and often wish people stuck more to words they'd use while talking to someone. Often, a simple word is best. It's good to know a lot of words...and then not use all of them.

Do you and your children have conversations about words and how they're used? Have you ever been surprised to hear them use words (nice words!) you didn't think they'd know?

Monday, May 05, 2014

Baltimore's Ingenuity Project: who should pay?

Back in 2008, I wrote about Baltimore's Ingenuity Project for USA Today. A number of specialized high schools, or famous suburban ones, have research programs that link students with scientist mentors and lab space. These students then produce amazing research projects that win them awards, get them into great colleges, etc. The cool thing about Ingenuity is that it is part of the Baltimore City Schools, and so taps scientific talent that too many urban public schools fail to nurture.

Of course, special programs that target the most academically capable students cost money and are easy to cut. Baltimore's schools have myriad other problems and funding isn't infinite. So according to this recent article from the Baltimore Sun, the Ingenuity program (and the IB program) are facing district cuts.

To be sure, it's not that the district doesn't want these programs. It does. But the idea is that they should be school supported or self-sustaining through fundraising.

It's hard to know what to think of this idea. The district isn't wrong that something like Ingenuity might be attractive to donors. The Sun article starts with the tale of a young man who's got a Gates Millennium scholarship that will pay his way to Harvard and through getting a doctorate. The cost of that would likely cover a big chunk of the Ingenuity cost, and that's just one person! Baltimore may be thinking hey, we are shouldering the cost of creating extremely competitive college applicants that other people are excited about. It would be nice to see some of that cost spread.

But the whole point of public education is shouldering the cost of creating extremely competitive college applicants (or career-ready citizens). Other parts of education don't necessarily have to pay their own way, and it's frustrating that programs targeting bright, ambitious, hard-working students need to think about that.

What do you think?