Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Acceleration, math, and college standards

California has long had issues with matching up its public K-12 school system with its system of public universities. When I was out there a few years ago doing some reporting, I learned that a number of schools had (until recently, people were trying to change this) not offered the classes that were necessary to attend one of California's 4-year public universities. In other words, young people with perfectly good high school diplomas would find themselves needing to do lots of extra course work in order to enroll, not because they didn't stretch in high school, but because apparently no one was thinking that children from those high schools might wish to earn 4-year degrees from one of the major universities. Talk about low expectations.

Anyway, I was thinking of this as I read an article in EdSource about how districts are choosing to accelerate students. There's been a bit of a rethink about how many 8th graders are taking algebra as it's become clear that many haven't been prepared. If you have trouble with algebra, most higher level math is going to be tough to understand. This impulse brushes up with a different issue, though, which is that in order to attend one of the flagship universities, you really need to have followed a sequence that includes something like calculus your senior year. It's hard to get there without doing algebra in 8th grade.

So this leads to the question: who gets accelerated? Ideally, everyone would be free to work at his/her own pace with no judgements. But if not taking algebra in 8th grade means you're probably not going to have the right classes for a top university 4 years later, it becomes a bit more fraught. You potentially have people making the choice of who seems like college material and who doesn't, quite early.

So, broadly, how should acceleration decisions get made?

The Ed Source article details efforts to make sure the criteria are fair. I remember years ago taking the Iowa Algebra Aptitude Test to see if I was ready for algebra in 6th grade (fun story: the teacher administering it had such a heavy southern accent I thought for a long time that it was the "Owl" Algebra test). Of course, tests have their problems too. So there are other options. Teachers can recommend people who didn't quite get the right scores, though teachers can't recommend against someone who did get the right score. And parents can elect to accelerate children too.

There are arguments for or against these options. Good teachers naturally teach to the middle of a class. They are constantly checking for understanding, and if most of the class isn't getting something, they'll stay there. This means that if enough children who aren't quite ready for accelerated math are in a class, it can get watered down.

On the other hand, questions of who's in/who's out sometimes become so big and fraught that schools decide it's better to have everyone do the same thing. And that's not a win either. So in general I think that if people are willing to try more advanced classes, it's OK to let them, especially if classes are then benchmarked to state or national tests so there's a force against watering them down (a la AP Classes).

What math sequence did your children take? If they took classes post-calculus in high school, what were those?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

More kids take calculus in high school. Is this a good thing?

I took AP Calculus (AB) my sophomore year in high school, and then a semester of the BC version my junior year. While this was certainly considered "advanced," it's not particularly rare to take at least the AB version in high school anymore. According to this article in The Conversation, the proportion of students sitting for an AP Calculus exam has risen from about 5 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent now. Author Kevin Knudson posits that it's unlikely that the talent bench has gotten three times deeper in the intervening years. Instead, he claims that in the rush to stand out for college admissions, more students are pushing to take calculus. However, when they take college calculus classes, they find that they would have been better served by having a deeper understanding of algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus concepts.

I have mixed feelings on this. It is possible that having more students take AP Calculus classes could dilute the class. Experienced teachers have a good sense of what students are grasping and not grasping, and they naturally tend toward the mean. They move on when the majority of the class "gets it." This means the class would move slower if it contained a broad group of students vs. the most mathematically advanced students.

Knudson also points out that the rise of AP classes may be a result of schools failing to offer gifted education to high school students. Advanced classes seem like something, and since they're broadly perceived as a metric of a high school's quality, administrators are happy to offer them.

On the other hand, AP classes are that -- something -- and they're benchmarked for quality and understanding in a way that many other courses are not. If all a teacher's students score 4s and 5s on the AP exam, she is at least covering the required topics. If they score 1s and 2s, something isn't working. That's apparent, even if the students all get A's.

Likewise, one of the things that has always made gifted education easy to cut is that it's seemed aimed at just a few kids. AP classes that enroll 10-15 percent of students are harder to cut. That's a much bigger constituency.

What do you think? Is the expansion of AP classes a good thing, or is the situation more complicated?

Friday, November 20, 2015

How to talk about your gifted kid

In the 10th anniversary post, I wrote that we'd be re-visiting some of the topics that sparked the most discussion over the years. One of those questions was how to talk about your gifted child.

Parents want and need to talk about their kids. I'm sure this is somewhat annoying for people who don't have kids, but parenting consumes a lot of time, and most of us want to do a good job at it. Consequently, kids becomes a frequent topic of conversation. Likewise, kids want to hear you talk about them. My 8-year-old was in a play last night (he delivered his one line with great enthusiasm). In the car on the way home, he said things like "Tell me more about my performance." I guess it's good to ask for what you need!

I was happy to tell him that I was proud of him, and that he'd done a good job remembering his line, and I was proud that he was not nervous in front of the crowd.

But that's a different matter from public conversations. For many parents of gifted children, I've heard from readers of this blog, conversations with other parents can become fraught. Parenting conversations on the playground or birthday parties or school pick-ups require some portion of shared issues. A parent whose kid is really struggling with math doesn't necessarily want to hear about how many grade levels ahead your kid is working. I never like the "misery Olympics" of some parenting conversations (over who has it worse) but even if everyone's talking about the wonderful things their kids did, a parent whose kid got his first B+ on a math test may not want to hear about another child's proof he dreamed up in his bedroom at night for fun.

So what do you do? Obviously, other people's comfort is not the only important consideration in life, but when you're in a community for the long haul, it helps to nurture connections. This is one reason that forums for parents of gifted kids are so important (I'll put a plug in for the Davidson Institute's programs here!) Such discussion groups can be safe spaces for parents to chat with other parents who understand. It lessens the weight of having only the people who are there in person.

Some parents go ahead and talk about their kids and figure if it's said from the perspective that you're proud of your kid -- because you are! -- and not implying that this is because you are better at this parenting thing than other people, then it's all good. Let the chips fall where they may. If other people have a problem, they have a problem. Other parents elect to talk more about extra-curricular activities, where everyone's into different things, and there's less straightforward academic competition. I'm curious what strategies Gifted Exchange readers use.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When to skip a grade, when not to (plus DITD program info)

I had a conversation with a father recently whose highly gifted son had needed more challenge. The school recommended accelerating him a grade. The family didn't want to do that, and wound up putting him in a private school where they thought he could get more individual attention and flexible grouping (there were smaller, multi-grade classes).

Obviously, any situation has its own particular complications. But it got me thinking about when skipping a grade is the right choice, and when it might not be.

My first thought was that this boy's school was pretty rare. Educators in general do not have a positive view of full-grade acceleration. This is why it is a massively under-utilized option, compared to the situations in which it would be useful. Acceleration does not cost anything. It may save taxpayers money! It can be done in different doses (one grade, two grades, etc.) People are often worried about social outcomes, but the A Nation Deceived report addressed those pretty well. There aren't many to worry about. In any case, a quick view around a 6th grade class will show that people mature at incredibly different rates anyway.

That said, it's not perfect for every situation. A child who has extreme gifts in one subject (e.g. math), but is more toward grade level in everything else, would not be made whole by a whole grade acceleration. That child needs an individualized study in math -- perhaps the ability to take college classes early -- and could likely be accommodated in his/her age-grade the rest of the time.

A child who is highly-attuned to fitting in and being like everyone else may rebel at the idea of a whole grade acceleration within the same school. Parents have to make the ultimate decision, but the child's thoughts and feelings need some consideration too. A grade skip may be better done when people would be switching schools anyway, or moving.

Finally, the question is what the other options are. If there is an alternative school available -- a gifted magnet school, perhaps, or a feasible private school that could offer individual attention -- then those options can be thrown into the mix alongside whole grade acceleration.

When do you think skipping a grade is a good option, and when not?

In other news: The Davidson Institute, which sponsors this blog, has several programs with deadlines coming up. Please see below.

2016 Davidson Fellows $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 Scholarships

The Davidson Institute for Talent Development offers high-achieving young people across the country the opportunity to be named a 2016 Davidson Fellow, an honor accompanied by a $50,000, $25,000 or $10,000 scholarship in recognition of a significant piece of work in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Music, Literature, Philosophy or Outside the Box. Applicants must submit an original piece of work that is recognized as significant by experts in the field and that has the potential to make a positive contribution to society. The scholarship may be used at any accredited college or university. The deadline to apply is Feb. 10, 2016. For additional information, please visit

2016 THINK Summer Institute – Three-Week Academic Residential Program

The Davidson Institute is seeking gifted teens to attend the 2016 THINK Summer Institute. THINK is a three-week residential summer program on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno where students can earn up to six college credits by completing two university courses. The 2016 THINK Summer Institute will run from July 9 through July 30. Tuition is $3,500 and covers course credits, books and materials, room and board, and the cost of planned activities. Need-based scholarships are available. To qualify, students must be 13 to 16 years old during THINK and must submit a SAT or an ACT score report. The application deadline is April 1, 2016. To learn more about THINK, please visit

Davidson Young Scholars Application Available

The national Davidson Young Scholars program provides FREE support, information and resources to families of profoundly gifted students. Through an online community and annual event, Young Scholars have the opportunity to meet others with similar interests and abilities, and utilize their talents to maximize their educational potential and make a difference in the lives of others. Parents collaborate with a team of knowledgeable Family Consultants who provide individualized services based on each family’s unique needs, including educational advocacy and planning, social and emotional development, and enrichment opportunities. Once enrolled, Davidson Young Scholars can access exclusive opportunities such as online courses and a summer camp for 8 to 12 year olds. The Davidson Young Scholars application deadline is the first of each month. Please visit the website to learn more:

The Davidson Academy of Nevada - Apply for 2016-2017 School Year

The Davidson Academy of Nevada, a free public day school for profoundly gifted pupils located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, is now accepting applications for the 2016-2017 school year. Classes at the Academy are not grouped by age-based grades, but by ability level, providing profoundly gifted young people an educational opportunity matched to their abilities, strengths and interests. To attend the Davidson Academy, students must be at the middle or high school level across all subject areas and score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ or college entrance tests, such as the SAT or ACT. For admission details, please visit Applications are reviewed on a monthly basis with a final application deadline of April 1, 2016. Interested families can meet current students and parents, faculty and staff, network with others and ask questions at Academy tours. For upcoming tour dates and to RSVP, visit .

Thursday, October 22, 2015

But it's optional...

Homework is a source of friction in many families, and we are not immune to this. Let’s just say that learning to be organized about the homework’s location and completion is a skill that takes time to master.

But one source of friction I hadn’t really anticipated is what to do about optional problems.

My oldest son’s teacher gives weekly homework assignments, and often they have optional harder math problems. In general, my kid likes a challenge. However, when he handed me the homework this morning to sign, I noticed that he’d done all the required problems and none of the optional ones. I asked him about it and, as he has done in the past, he acted like I just didn’t get it. “Mom,” he said. “They’re optional.”

Which is true. Optional does mean that you don’t have to do them. Of course, I was the kind of kid who would have done the extra problems. My husband claims he would have made up extra problems beyond the extra problems just to do them. So what do we do when our kid wants to do exactly what is required and nothing more?

On one level, I get it. Homework isn’t particularly fun, and the problems aren’t so challenging that he really has to struggle with them. He creates his own challenges in terms of dreaming up characters and then creating whole timelines for their lives and their extended families’ lives. Indeed, in his timelines, he’s writing about someone who lives from 1837-1904, and will tell me how old this person was when various life events occurred, which is basically what the extra problems are too (3 or 4 digit subtraction).

I also recognize that my husband and I might benefit from chilling out a bit on the “above and beyond” front. I explained this situation to a fellow parent at a birthday party and she pointed out that my son was already well-versed in the 80-20 rule.

That said, I also told my son that doing none of the extra problems sent a message that he was simply not interested in efforts to do more challenging things. Whereas doing at least a few of the problems would be a show of good faith. It’s more a social message than anything else. We compromised on him doing 5 of them quickly at the breakfast table this morning.

What would you do?

Friday, October 09, 2015

What should you tell your kid?

As promised in my 10th anniversary post, I'd like to re-raise some of the issues from the most-discussed posts of the past. A particularly thorny issue for many parents is what to tell their kids about giftedness.

Parents always have to figure out what's worth sharing with their kids and what's not. I generally don't tell my 4-year-old daughter about playdates until shortly beforehand for a few reasons. One is that she has little concept of time, and so every day I would have to keep explaining that no, it's not today, and deal with that disappointment. Also, sometimes kids get sick or have to cancel, and she'd be devastated by that. So while, as an adult, I know that anticipation accounts for a major chunk of the happiness gleaned from an event, I generally make a strategic choice that she will have less anticipation but also less disappointment by not knowing far ahead of time.

Playdates are one thing. But what do you tell your kids about their own giftedness? Kids pick up on many things. Children may hear other adults say "you're so smart" or realize that adults treat them as curiosities when they do something advanced for their age (like write words in sidewalk chalk as a 3-year-old). If there are lots of meetings with teachers about appropriate challenges, they will pick up on that.

If you have them tested, that will introduce a whole new set of questions. There is nothing normal about going to sit in a psychologist's office to take the WISC. You have to figure out how to explain that one, and then how to explain the outcome. And many children will want to know the outcome. If the child figures out it's a test with numerical outcomes, he might want to know that. So, would you ever tell a child his IQ score?

I'm very curious how Gifted Exchange readers have addressed these issues with their children.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gifted Exchange turns 10!

Believe it or not, this blog turns 10 years old this week (on the 23rd, exactly). If it were a kid, it would be a 4th grader -- or perhaps an accelerated 5th or 6th grader.

My own interest in gifted education came from my experiences in school. I wound up writing about the topic for USA Today, and then Jan and Bob Davidson hired me to help write their book, Genius Denied. I learned a lot in the process.

Years later, my interest in this topic has broadened to raising my own children -- kids who ask questions for which I have no answers, and who must sometimes be distracted in church by asking them to calculate how many seconds are in a week (that occupied a reasonable amount of time with no calculator).

The folks at the Davidson Institute helped pull some examples of the most-read posts over the past 10 years. All of these topics are still ripe for discussion, and I hope to start new posts related to these topics over the next few months. In the meantime, have fun perusing the archives!

Sept. 29, 2011: The Case Against Delaying Kindergarten

Dec. 3, 2007: Gifted Kids, Bad Behavior

Sept. 26, 2005: The Magic of Boarding Schools

Jan. 11, 2006: The Life and Death of a Prodigy (The New Yorker)

June 13, 2012: Summer reading time

August 3, 2010: Take a test, skip a grade?

September 20, 2009: Gifted Children and Sleep

June 15, 2009: Should Gifted Kids Know their IQ Scores?

September 2, 2008: Are 20% of high school drop-outs gifted?

December 22, 2011: Are Legos for girls?

June 20, 2008: Did NCLB hurt gifted students?

July 25, 2010: Time: The Case Against Summer Vacation?

June 24, 2010: How do you talk about your gifted kid?

June 4, 2009: Why do gifted kids drop out of college?

March 26, 2009: The Importance of Preschool

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Intel and the Intel Science Talent Search

Years ago, I had a gig with Scientific American writing a weekly column for the website called "Where are they now?" This recurring feature looked at past finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, later called the Intel Science Talent Search. It was a fun gig for me. Armed with a list of names of finalists since the 1940s, I'd Google them and see who I could find. Some people were easy to find (e.g. Ray Kurzweil) -- others were more obscure. I'd write about their high school projects, and their current careers. I was so taken with some of the stories that I later went back to several people (including Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann) to interview them for the career section of 168 Hours. I attended the finalists event in Washington DC once, where Colin Powell was the guest speaker (that was kind of cool).

Anyway, from a PR perspective, it always seemed like a pretty good deal for Intel. Every one of the 40 finalists would be featured prominently in their local print and broadcast media. Many major national outlets (like the New York Times) did close-to-annual features as well. From a recruiting perspective, it probably didn't hurt to have 40 of the top young scientists have a very fond, perhaps even evangelical view of the company. All this for the price of the scholarships and administration -- a small chunk of change to a Fortune 500 company.

So I was somewhat surprised to learn that Intel has decided to stop sponsoring the contest. According to this story in the New York Times, they're continuing for the next year or so, and then will be stepping back. No particular reason was given for why it's no longer seen as the right move for the philanthropic side of the company.

It's possible some other corporation will step up (the Times article speculated about Google). I hope someone will. While there are other contests out there (for instance, the Davidson Fellowships!) it's never a bad thing to have young scientists rewarded. The existence of prizes and prestige encourages high schools to step up their scientific game, and give kids a chance to do independent research. Indeed, a number of high schools have established research programs precisely to get kids to become finalists in Intel and other programs such as the Davidson Fellows. Here's hoping this is a good thing that will continue.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The skill of performance

My 5-year-old starts "real" kindergarten later this week. Long-time blog readers know that our district is perfectly fine with letting you hold back your child for a year, but his late September birthday means getting around the Sept 1 cut-off involves jumping through a lot of hoops. We chose not to push it. He's a pretty relaxed kid, and indeed, we have friends who just made the cut-off who've decided to repeat kindergarten, partly because so many kids are red-shirted. If you turn 5 in late August, you are literally a year and a half younger than many kids in the class.

He did a full-day kindergarten program at his pre-school last year and is now in "real" kindergarten for half day. The other half he'll attend a kindergarten enrichment program. I think it will be a good fit. He's been on the cusp of reading for a long time. I'm pretty sure he can do it, but doesn't want to. I'm hoping the peer pressure will push that over the edge.

But one thing I was interested to see he's developed recently is some fairly serious skills at performing under pressure. Both my boys tried out for swim teams this summer. The 8-year-old's is a real team, but the 5-year-old's development team try-out was no less nerve-wracking, at least for me. What I didn't realize going in is that it's not just about whether you can swim -- that at least is fairly straightforward (he can do a passable crawl and backstroke). What the coaches were looking for is whether your kid, as a 5-year-old, can leave you, take instruction from a coach he just met, and jump into the pool in front of everyone and do what he's told.

I watched as my 5-year-old calmly listened for his name, went to the edge of the pool, and jumped in when the coach said to jump. Then he swam just as he'd learned in front of everyone. No nerves. He told me afterward he felt very confident about the whole thing. "Of course I can swim, Mommy!"

In life, I think this ability to perform under pressure is an important skill. I'm doing a lot of public speaking these days, which involves similar thinking. You need to be able to get up in front of any crew and talk in a relaxed, engaging manner. It is not in any way natural for me, but if my 5-year-old is already able to just roll with it, he'll do fine.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Congrats to the 2015 Davidson Fellows

This past week the Davidson Institute for Talent Development (which sponsors this blog) announced the winners of its flagship Davidson Fellows awards. Every year, DITD awards $10,000, $25,000, and $50,000 scholarships to young people who've done amazing things in science, music, math, literature, and the arts.

You can read about this year's fellows here.

Some highlights: A young man who proved a mathematical conjecture that had been open for the last decade, a young woman who built some next generation supercapacitors and a young woman who undertook a literary exploration of mixed ethnic identities.

Gifted young people are capable of amazing things when given the space and guidance to develop their skills and talents. Here's hoping that even more children get the chance to do such things in the future.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Collaboration: the agony and the ecstasy

There are lots of trendy management theories out there (believe me -- I get sent a lot of review copies of the books!) But one that seems to get major attention, to the point of trickling down to schools as a “skill of the future,” is collaboration. (See this article for one example of skills master teachers are hoping to inculcate).

Yes, teams are great. People can often do more together than they can on their own, and working with other people can be quite pleasant as you get to know and support each other. I find the current urge to encourage “serendipity” by arranging tables so people bump into each other in particularly hip workplaces to be laughable, but it is true that random conversations can spark interesting ideas. Humans in the future will presumably work together (just as humans do now).

That said, the urge to increase collaboration in schools can, when it comes to gifted kids, often wind up teaching the exact opposite lesson: collaboration is terrible and a waste of time.

When workers are collaborating at, say, Google, or in the education department of a major university, you’re talking collaboration among a small set of similarly intelligent, highly motivated people. The average middle school class, however, is not nearly so organized. Many gifted students have had the experience of being put into a team for a project, and then doing the lion’s share of the work. In this experience, collaboration doesn’t produce something better than you’d do on your own. It slows you down and makes the work worse.

This is exacerbated by the problem that few teachers actually teach how to collaborate. Though humans have been hunting and gathering together for eons, it’s not a natural skill to know how to collaborate well. Specialization plays a big role in effective teams, with each person’s job being understood. Group members have to trust that each member is pulling his or her weight, and respects the outcome. Getting such “buy in” (oh, that word! I have been reading too many business books) is certainly possible in a classroom, but it’s going to be more readily in place when people have applied for their jobs and have an interest in advancing their careers. Few classroom projects involve establishing processes, and reviewing how each step has gone to iterate toward a better outcome. Often, it’s more “work on this problem set together,” with this somehow teaching the miracle of collaboration.

The best way to teach collaboration, so people can see its benefit, would be to do it within ability/readiness grouped classes. Then group projects selected by people who are interested in a specific topic could bring the passion and trust. When those are in place, then the steps of cohesive collaboration can be learned and taught. Without all that, though, the benefit is a lot less obvious.

What’s been your experience with group projects?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Math Olympiad and math education

Every year, various nations gather to compete in the International Math Olympiad. This summer, the US team won for the first time in 21 years. It was certainly cause for celebration, though the headline on the Christian Science Monitor story caught my eye: "US wins Math Olympiad for the first time in 21 years. Is math education improving?"

Well, maybe. Broad measures still put the US pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as international math comparisons go. What may be happening is that the US does what it does very well in many other international competitions (like the athletic summer Olympics). When the country does want to win something, it has a pretty amazing ability to pull together resources, including the best people and practices from around the world, and make it happen. It's wonderful that the U.S. might be treating its young mathematicians with the same nurturing focus that young athletes have long enjoyed.

This is Gifted Exchange, and I'm glad that there are great opportunities for the most extremely talented young mathematicians. That is somewhat a different matter, though, from how mathematics is approached in your average school, where a 1-2 year acceleration is the most a gifted student can hope for. There's some evidence that elementary school teachers are often ill-prepared to teach math to their students, and their biases against it can drive promising people (particularly girls; all members of the winning US team were male) out of it.

Being good at the top and being good all around need not be pitted against each other. But they do require slightly different things. Better math education more broadly requires teachers who know and love math, particularly in the early grades as children figure out what is exciting to study and what is not. People who know and love math, though, often have different and more well-paying options than teaching elementary school. It's a tough problem to solve.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Who's in and who's out

The Davidson Institute sends me a list of headlines related to gifted education each week. I’ve been keeping this blog for almost 10 years, so I see a lot of headlines. And over the years, I’ve noticed something about these articles. So much of the literature on gifted education is about who’s in and who’s out.

Perhaps it’s about the demographic make-up of who’s in and who’s out. Perhaps it’s about a cut-off on a test. Perhaps it’s about a district that has a gifted program, but doesn’t have enough seats for all who qualify so selection is done by lottery (kind of a bizarre approach in general -- how about adding more seats??) Maybe a district is re-evaluating how it chooses children for gifted programs. That may be a worthy endeavor, especially if the new approach is to screen all children, rather than just those whose parents ask. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in the popular imagination, gifted education is all about selection.

Once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing.

But of course, that’s not the case at all. Children can be accepted into a gifted program, and then have absolutely nothing change whatsoever except for a few minutes weekly of a half-hearted “pull out.” (Or an even more half-hearted claim that the curriculum is being enriched for everyone). Even a self-contained gifted class could be taught badly, or not taught at a level that is helpful for the top end of the curve within the class (or the bottom end, I suppose). Acceleration is generally a great idea, but in a worst case scenario, the work isn’t actually more challenging, or the child’s area of greatest need for acceleration still isn’t met.

I really wish there was more focus on what actually happens once someone is identified as gifted. What does a good, accelerated curriculum look like? How do gifted kids learn differently? When work is truly challenging, children struggle -- and that’s a good thing. It’s a wonderful confidence boost to throw yourself into something difficult and find you are making progress.

When the conversation is all about who’s in and who’s out, then giftedness is just a label -- a gold star of worthiness that other people naturally resent. And so article after article talks about districts modifying their programs to keep some people from being in and some people from being out, because while that’s fine for varsity baseball, it isn’t for academics. It’s as if all the coverage on the baseball season was on team selection, rather than how the team plays.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

New methods of school discipline - and how it might affect gifted kids

My friend Katherine Reynolds Lewis has a lengthy story in Mother Jones magazine this month called "What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?" Over the past two years, she visited schools and juvenile justice facilities implementing the theories of psychologist Ross Green. The idea is that reacting to an out-of-control child in anger, and implementing negative consequences, escalates the situation and increases the chances of trouble later on. Children who are punished come to view teachers and principals as enemies. They don't want to be in school. Children who are suspended become less engaged in school over time (naturally) and often wind up dropping out, and often wind up in trouble with the law as well.

The best approach, Lewis argues, is to help children develop the ability to control themselves. Executive function has to be developed over time. We can train ourselves, and children, to develop this function. The children who act out most often have the least developed executive function, so punishing them for outbreaks is like punishing someone for a bad grade on a test. It's one approach, but a more effective one is to change strategies and practice learning the material again.

A key component of all this is discussing with the child what the problem is, and then coming up with solutions for solving that problem. A child who starts throwing chairs when angry can decide that when he gets that feeling again, he can retreat to a safe space somewhere (like a counselor's office) and have some alone time. Yes, having a child rush out of the class might be distracting, but less so than if the same child throws the furniture. And over time, the child will likely learn to calm himself down without viewing the classroom as a hostile place.

At least that's the theory. Unlike many educational theories, this one has some backing in numbers. In schools that try these programs, suspensions decline. In juvenile justice centers that try it, incidents where children are restrained decline, and there are fewer repeat offenders.

So what's the implication for gifted kids? Contrary to popular opinion, gifted kids aren't always the golden children in school. Many act out because they get bored, or they feel misunderstood. A positive discipline approach might involve talking with the child about what the problem is and brainstorming other solutions. Perhaps the student might decide that she wants to read when bored, or get a chance to do a computer game she likes. Having a child do something different when she recognizes a problem brewing requires a lot of wisdom from a teacher. The teacher has to trust that she can still control the class even if a child is implementing her own solution. But experienced teachers can likely do that, and the long term gain is often worth it. Indeed, there are often short term gains. An outbreak disturbs the entire class and derails a lesson. A quiet departure, or a child reading at her desk, does not.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Will a gifted program keep families in (or attract them to) a district?

Plenty of districts have pared back gifted programs in recent years. So I'm always interested to read about districts that are doing the opposite. A recent Washington Post article outlined plans to introduce more gifted programs into the DC public schools for several reasons.

First, many high achieving children in the district are simply not being served. It's no secret that the district has struggled with low performance, and when many children are struggling to get to a basic level, teachers don't have time to deal with the kids who could use more challenge.

But more intriguingly, the article floats the idea of gifted programs being a way to keep families in the district. Many families leave the district around middle school as they start to ponder their children's preparation for college. Others are drawn to high-performing charter schools (of which DC has a few).

One of the original ideas behind charter schools is that the competition would spur district schools to improve. While I certainly think that schools should offer gifted services regardless, if it takes the existence of charter schools to nudge the district to do the right thing, then it seems that the charter schools are doing their job.

I did note, though, that the district is treading carefully. Rather than identifying children for self-contained programs, the article talks about a whole school enrichment model. I know that the politics of these things are always tricky, but still, this at least seems to be a move in the right direction. What I'm curious about is if it will work. Will families stay in a troubled district because of a gifted program? Would it lure families back in?

It might. If people have made it to the school years still living in a city, then they may be city people. In the calculus of this conversation, the short commutes, restaurants, shopping, etc. get weighed against lousy schools. Parents generally decide that the schools will decide the answer. But if there are options, then the suburbs need not be inevitable.

Did you ever choose to live in a district because of a gifted program?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Summer learning

From a parental perspective, summer vacation is a mixed thing. If school has been your primary childcare during the year, suddenly you need a new situation. For some kids, the summer learning slide is real. But there’s also much to like about summer, too. If your during-the-year schooling situation hasn’t been perfect (and even if it’s great, it’s rarely that) summer gives a chance to try out new things. There are new friends, new programs to study certain subjects intensely, or even just a break from the routine. Gifted kids often like to throw themselves into projects, or spend all day reading a really good book.

We’re trying to get a mix this summer of structured and non-structured stuff. My 8-year-old has a week of church camp, a week of Lego camp, and 2 weeks of an outdoor camp. My 5-year-old has a week of art camp, and then the Lego and outdoor stuff too. My 3-year-old has 2 weeks at her pre-school’s summer camp. (The baby will be working on solid foods and sitting up). We’ll be hitting the beach for two different weeks over the summer.

One thing I’m excited about is my 8-year-old’s book club. He and a few other kids at school get together once a month to discuss a book they’ve read. They actually seem to discuss it too! (Unlike at a grown-up book club -- maybe it’s the absence of wine...) Part of the fun was simply discussing what his selection would be for the month we’re hosting. We got to talk about what kinds of books make good book club fare and what might not.

If my kids were slightly older, I think I’d encourage them to try something entrepreneurial for part of the summer. Even a lemonade stand can be a good lesson in math and marketing, and I suspect we will all need a lesson in marketing at some point in our careers. I’m aiming to encourage some more math-related games on my kids’ Kindles, and my 8-year-old has discovered the world of ebooks, which is fun. He’s got a lot of time for reading as he goes to sleep ridiculously late, and I make him go into his room at 8:30. The 5-year-old is deeply into Legos, and I think that some larger, more complicated projects will keep him entertained. Plus, he is just on the cusp of learning to read, so that will make for great discoveries.

What do you have planned for your kids this summer?

In other news: I have a new time management/productivity book out this week called I Know How She Does It. You can visit my personal blog, if you want to learn more about it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Prodigies become performers when work is play

The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” package about child prodigies this week. The question: is it a blessing or a curse? I enjoyed reading Jordan Ellenberg’s take on this. A math prodigy as a kid, he became a mathematician as an adult, a transition that isn’t always easy.

Why is that? “A large body of research shows that when you’re great at something as a kid, you’re likely to be, at least, pretty good at it as an adult. But if the potential becomes a duty, the fun drains out of the enterprise,” he writes. “In my experience, you simply can’t grow from a precocious child into a grown-up researcher unless you can maintain your sense that math is play. When you forget how to play, you're lost. Math is just too hard to be done non-playfully. You'd get tired and resentful, and grow cold to its joys.”

Motivations matter. If someone is performing at a prodigious level because of external forces -- demanding parents and teachers, the desire to improve one’s economic status -- one can achieve a lot. These are legitimate reasons. But they are harder to sustain in the long haul. You might make decent money. You might change teachers and coaches.

But if you find the substance of the work fascinating in its own right, that’s a different matter. You keep experimenting. And that means you can break new ground beyond mastering what’s been done before.

Friday, May 15, 2015

LA and exact proportionality

One common criticism of gifted programs is the over- or under-representation of certain groups. Smart programs try to screen everyone rather than relying on parent or teacher nominations (which may not be entirely objective). To be sure, tests aren't perfect either. But does a program need to have exactly proportional representation compared with a district at large to be acceptable? Who is hurt when such programs are deemed not acceptable?

Those were my questions after reading a recent report about Los Angeles's gifted programs. According to a report in LA School Report, despite Gov. Jerry Brown restoring funding for various programs, "district officials suggested more cuts may be on the horizon for the Gifted and Talented Enrichment (GATE) program, which serves 68,000 children." The worry is that these cuts would cut the ability of the district to test all second graders.

The reason the district did widespread testing was to get services to a diverse group of children, including those with parents who might not know to ask for it. But this broad net did not net perfect representation: "Although Latinos make up 74 percent of the LA Unified population, they only account for 63 percent of GATE students. Similarly, African Americans are 9 percent of the district, but only 6 percent are identified as gifted. Meanwhile, Asians, who make up only four percent of students, represent 10 percent of GATE enrollment, and white children, who account for 10 percent of the total student body, are 16 percent of the gifted program."

My thought while reading this is that while 63 percent isn't 74 percent, it's not completely out of the ball park either. If the LA gifted program were only 5 percent Latino in a district that is majority Latino, that would suggest a major problem. But these numbers are much closer.

It makes me wonder, even if there were perfect representation, would the program be acceptable? For whatever reason, many educators don't like the idea of gifted programs. They're always offered up to the chopping block in tight times. The problem is that when they go, if the LA program is 63 percent Latino, my math suggests that there will be more than 42,000 gifted Latino students who won't be served. That hardly sounds like a victory for these children.

Friday, April 24, 2015

More evidence that skipping grades is OK

When advocates for gifted kids bring up the idea of "whole grade acceleration" -- better known as skipping a grade -- some chunk of people get very concerned. They mention knowing "one child" who skipped a grade, and that kid was screwed up for life.

So it's always good to know that if one kid was screwed up for life, he's in the statistical minority. Gifted kids who skip grades appear less likely to be screwed up than gifted kids who don't.

That's the conclusion from research done by Katie McClarty, and presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting recently.

McClarty compared career outcomes for accelerated and non-accelerated kids of similar abilities 12 years after 8th grade (so roughly in their mid 20s). Per the press release, "The study concludes that students who skipped a grade are more successful, have higher productivity rates, more prestigious occupations and they earn more and increase their income faster compared to older, similar-ability, non-accelerated peers."

To be sure, there are many other considerations in this. Many people in academic and professional careers are still in school in their mid-20s (though the good thing about being accelerated is you can get through all those years quicker!) One could also think of other factors that might contribute to the difference. Perhaps kids who are accelerated had families who were more aggressive in advocating for them. This could affect what children wind up doing later in life as well.

But even so, this does provide evidence that grade skipping does not lead to disproportionately bad effects. Readers of Gifted Exchange know that, but the broader world still does not. It's good to get more evidence of that.

In other news: I've been running a series on my personal blog on the secrets of happier parenting, which might be of interest to some readers. Check out for more.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Student Affluence Test?

Many elite colleges send notice of acceptances right around April 1st. Back when I was applying to college, this was a postal mail phenomenon. Joy came in fat envelopes; tragedy in thin. Now, much is done electronically. Accepted students can join private Facebook groups to get to know each other (and, colleges hope, increase the chances that these admitted students will enroll).

One thing hasn't changed in the intervening 18 (!) years. Colleges use the SAT for part of their decision-making process. While "SAT" used to stand for scholastic aptitude test, of late it hasn't officially stood for anything. Critics charge that it stands for "student affluence test" because scores tend to rise with family income. This then becomes a way that economic inequality replicates itself.

Charles Murray wrote an op-ed about this in the Wall Street Journal last week claiming that it wasn't affluence itself that was causing the effect. (The op-ed requires a subscription to read, so I'll try to describe it). According to Murray, the dominant factor is parental IQ. Smart parents usually have smart children. This no doubt happens through some combination of nature and nurture, but the result is that given a constant maternal IQ, SAT scores don't rise particularly from (relatively) middle class incomes to very high ones. The issue, Murray notes, is that higher IQ people also tend to earn more. "The more strictly that elite colleges admit students purely on the basis of academic accomplishment, the more their student bodies will be populated with the offspring of the upper-middle class and wealthy -- not because their parents are rich, but because they are smart. No improvement in the SAT can do away with this underlying reality."

There are, of course, problems with this argument. There's plenty of evidence that kids with good academic records from schools that don't send a whole lot of people to elite colleges don't know to aim there. Such schools seem expensive, or far away, or unwelcoming. While it's become fashionable to wonder if too many people are going to college, there are still people who could succeed who don't know to go. I've written before of the bizarreness of mismatches between high school graduation requirements and college standards. (In CA, for instance, a reasonable number of children graduate from high school lacking just 1-2 of the courses required for admission to one of the state's 4-year universities. That's what happens when you go to schools where no one is really paying attention).

But there is something to be said for Murray's assertion that "Merit has nothing to do with possessing a high IQ." This has ramifications for gifted education too. One of the reasons gifted programs face on uphill battle in schools is this idea that having a higher IQ means the child is somehow "better" than other kids, and is already destined for success. So why help any more now? "What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well," Murray writes. "What we need is a society that has valued places for people with all combinations of assets and deficits." Children with high IQs learn differently and have needs that often must be met outside the traditional classroom. At the same time, education for those not in the gifted range should be much better and more challenging, and it should be possible to earn a good living with the skills learned as part of that education. These are not mutually exclusive statements.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Oh, the humanities

It's the rare district that has decided to create a gifted program in the past few years if it doesn't have one already. Generally it goes the other direction: a gifted program is changed to "serve more children," which is a euphemism for replacing self-contained classes with in-class differentiation.

Because of this tendency, though, I'm always interested to see in what format gifted programs become palatable. One approach? Take the message that STEM is the wave of the future, and use it to create some more advanced and accelerated classes than children would have access to otherwise.

For instance, I came across this article in the Hudson Reporter about North Bergen, New Jersey, where a group of 8th grade students was just inducted into the new STEM Academy. "Designed to provide a rigorous curriculum to select students in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM Academy will take on a new class each year," the article notes.

The chair of the program noted that “The goal of the STEM Academy is to provide our most talented students with a true challenge in our high school in a specialized program that will help them gain admittance to top colleges and acquire the skills necessary for the careers of the future.”

The caveat? “STEM Academy students will still take humanities classes, electives and extracurriculars with the rest of the school, but they will receive a more advanced level of instruction in science, technology, engineering, and math with a goal of guiding them into a high-paying and successful career.”

I'm happy that these students are getting an opportunity to study more advanced science and math. But it always seems harder for people to get their heads around the idea that gifted kids might need and want accelerated instruction in the humanities, too. Perhaps because there are less objective standards, or recognizable levels (as there is with pre-calculus, calculus, etc.) people assume that it will all work out. But there are massive differences in what people are ready for in these subjects too.

That said, many young people who do have profound gifts in the humanities are pretty good at science and math too. So if districts are willing to offer programs for STEM, then it might behoove such children to sign up for these, and then trust that because of the way school schedules tend to work, they'll wind up in classes with more advanced students for the humanities, too. But wouldn't it be nice if advanced instruction didn't have to only rest on the assumption that STEM careers are the careers of the future?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Common Core and gifted ed

About two years ago, I interviewed several education observers who were amazed at how far the Common Core idea had gone. The vast majority of states had signed on to this set of higher standards, and agreed to teach students according to objectives that would make them "college and career ready."

As with much in education, however, politics eventually reared its head, and now a number of states are backtracking. The Common Core has become an enemy for those on both the left (who've not been as excited about the testing and accountability movements) and the right (who've decided that the Common Core is a threat to local control of education).

Well, now it seems there might be another problem. According to a new paper from the Fordham Institute, some districts are using the adoption of the Common Core as a reason to jettison gifted education.

The idea is pretty straightforward: Common Core is raising standards, so gifted education is no longer necessary! Others use a secondary argument: implementing the Common Core is expensive, so funds must be transferred from non-essential services such as gifted education.

Both arguments are problematic. Raising the floor on American education does little for people who were already well above it. As the Fordham paper points out, the math standards are only fully developed through Algebra 2, while many gifted young people make it through calculus years before age 18.

As for costs, this argument only works if you view gifted education as one of those nice-but-needless expenses, which gets a little closer to the problem with all this. Many districts view gifted education as something extra and special for kids who already have a lot. They don't view it as an educational intervention for kids who really need it.

The reality is that many people in education don't like the idea of gifted education. The Common Core becomes an easy excuse to attack it, but if it wasn't the Common Core, it would be something else. The Common Core may have its merits and drawbacks, but it's an entirely separate issue from gifted education, and should be treated as such.

Monday, February 23, 2015


My 7-year-old has a love-hate relationship with this online math program he’s been doing. It’s just extra practice -- drilling on arithmetic -- and he zoomed through addition and subtraction. Multiplication has been a bit more challenging. The goal is to help him memorize his times tables, and to do that, the program asks you to figure out each problem in less than 3 seconds. Unfortunately, this has been making him rather flustered. He’ll get one wrong, then that will set him off. He’ll hit wrong numbers on the keyboard which, on at least one occasion, led to a massive fit about “I’m so bad at this!”

I’ve been debating how to deal with this. One option is to encourage a bit of a break from the program while he figures out a different way of practicing. The program is supposed to help him memorize times tables, but he can memorize on his own and come back to it, particularly if part of the problem is trouble with the keyboard (more number keys are in play than in single digit addition and subtraction). Since I’m not that big a fan of giving in to fits, though, I’ve also tried to have conversations about how part of practicing is making -- and recovering from -- mistakes. Think about how many times he fell off various tracks in Mario Kart on the Wii, and now he wins most races!

What’s actually seemed to work best, though, was his own suggestion. He wanted me to log into the parent portal and tell him how far he’d gone in the multiplication section. For some reason, learning that his placement score was 24, and he’s now up in the 30s, made him happy. He’s making progress! He’s making mistakes, but that number is going up.

How do you deal with children hating to make mistakes?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When kids qualify for gifted programs, but don't sign up

Given how few districts prioritize gifted programs, one is always suspicious of certain stories. For instance, according to this article, the Moline-Coal Valley school district (in Illinois), plans to alter its set-up from self-contained gifted classes to one that would "mix high performing students with students of various classroom performance levels," according to the story. "The change would create a mix of students who play off of each other, said Matt DeBaene, assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability."

In other words, yet another story of a district setting up a system that may wind up cutting the program while not officially cutting it. Differentiation is very, very hard to do well, and when teachers get busy, it often doesn't happen.

However, the district does have a point that the gifted program was being under-utilized. In 2013-2014, of the 35 kindergartners offered admission to the program, 20 did not enroll. This year, only 17 (of 45 students ultimately offered admission) enrolled.

Why is that?

There are a few reasons families might choose not to participate in any given district's program. For instance, districts might centralize gifted programs at one school, which makes a lot of sense. But, of course, plenty of families prefer to have their children in neighborhood schools that are close by. You get a shorter bus ride, you know the neighborhood, and it might be more possible to drop by for events during the day (if parents work nearby, or are at home).

Another reason might be that a district makes the wise decision to screen everyone. In some districts, parents have to ask to have their kids screened for the gifted program, which means the parents want the kids to participate. If everyone is screened, not all parents might prioritize this. The district can encourage parents to sign up, but probably can't force this.

If your district has a gifted program, do most families that qualify enroll? If not, why not?

Friday, January 30, 2015

New Year, Gifted Exchange's 10th, and learning to read

I apologize for the radio silence these past few weeks. Those of you who read my other blog ( know I welcomed a fourth kid on January 15. His older siblings are enjoying getting to know him, and we're all getting used to being a bigger household!

This blog is celebrating a milestone this year. It pre-dates my own parenting experience, and goes all the way back to 2005. So we'll be celebrating the 10th anniversary this summer. As I look for topics to cover this year, as always I welcome suggestions.

I've been thinking about how kids learn today as I spent this morning touring an enrichment program my school district offers. The district has only half-day kindergarten (which I still find somewhat surprising). However, there's a half-day enrichment program that many students attend because they coordinate busing with the district, and maintain pretty affordable rates.

My second son turned 5 this September, right after the cut-off. We'd talked about trying to push to enroll him in the public kindergarten this year, but wound up not making a stink about it for a simple reason: I don't think it was a rock solid case. He's an incredibly bright little boy (the questions he comes up with!) but in terms of the "school" stuff, he's shown less interest. He doesn't practice writing just for fun. He likes to be read to, which we do frequently, but given his curiosity about the world, I sort of assumed he'd teach himself to read so he could study books on topics that fascinate him. But he's taking his time on that.

It's a reminder to me about how different kids are. I assume at some point he will decide he wants to read and it will all go very quickly then. The enrichment program seems a bit more given to pushing literacy than some other programs I've looked at, which might provide an extra nudge. And at least he'll get to ride the bus with his older brother!

When did your kids learn to read?