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.