Thursday, September 18, 2014

What makes a gifted program a success?

Much of education is focused on data these days. Reformers want to move to a world in which teachers and schools are held accountable for helping students achieve gains on tests.

It raises the question for me: How would you define an effective gifted program? What would be a metric that would show it is successful?

I was thinking of this while reading some new research on how different kids perform in gifted programs. In a working paper published with the National Bureau of Economic Research, David Card and Laura Giuliano looked at what happened when children were placed in self-contained gifted classes after achieving certain criteria. You could be a "non-disadvantaged student" with the standard selection criteria of IQ>130. You could be a student receiving subsidized lunch, or an English language learner, with an IQ>116. Or you could have missed these IQ cut-offs, but scored very high on grade level achievement tests.

The researchers then looked at test scores at the end of the year. The first two groups (those selected by IQ) had not seen improvement in scores. The latter group did, with the gains most concentrated among lower income black and Hispanic students.

The conclusion is that separate, self-contained classrooms are most effective for children chosen on the basis of past achievement, "particularly disadvantaged students who are often excluded from gifted and talented programs."

Past performance on achievement tests could certainly be a criteria for gifted programs. Frankly, I'm thrilled to see any separate classes aimed at high-achievers, no matter how participants are chosen. So many schools fail to create any such environments where kids' minds can be stretched, and they can learn with their intellectual peers. It's also great to find that self-contained classes are effective at raising scores among disadvantaged students who are already doing well. Again, many schools do nothing for such children because teachers have limited time, and must concentrate their attention on kids who need a lot more help to pass grade level tests.

That said, this brings us back to the question of what makes a gifted program effective. Should it be the criteria from this study: that children's test scores on achievement tests rise over the year? What kind of tests? Grade level tests? On those, gifted kids often max out anyway, so we'd need to be looking at out-of-level tests or those without ceilings. Or should it be something else, and if so, what? Ability to create an intense, independent project? Being more satisfied with school?

I don't really know. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The new Davidson Fellows

Every year, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development awards thousands of dollars in scholarships to recognize great work by young people. The 2014 Fellows have just been announced, and you can read all about them by following this link.

As usual, they're a pretty amazing bunch. Sara Kornfeld Simpson, for instance, built a mathematical model that provides insight into cognitive functioning. (I thought that name sounded familiar and it turns out her sister was a fellow in 2010). Eric Chen (who I interviewed for Fast Company) did work that identified potential targets for flu drugs. While most of the fellows did science-related work, the Davidson Fellowship is unique among major awards for young people in that people can win for music, literature, and other topics too.

The top awards are extremely competitive, of course, but what's cool about big prizes for big projects is that it can lure schools into creating programs that give kids space to try such things. Many of the winners of the Davidson Fellows awards, and Intel and Siemens awards tend to come from certain schools that have exceptional research programs. But given the kind of recognition such schools get when their students win, prizes can induce other schools to try to build such programs. When kids get the chance to throw themselves into difficult, long-term projects, they often learn a lot more than they would in 45-minute science classes.

Did you ever attempt a big project during school? My sophomore year of high school, I wrote a book of short stories (they were pretty bad!) I also wrote a series of sonnets. What have you or your children worked on?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The after-school solution

Long ago when I was writing about education, and the idea of separation of church and state, someone made an interesting point to me. What people got most up in arms about, he said, were the core school hours of 9 to 3. Outside that, people were a lot less doctrinaire. So people might be absolutely against vouchers that would send kids to religious schools at taxpayer expense from 9 to 3. But they were far more willing to subsidize an after-school program run by a church. Districts happily provided busing, snacks, workbooks, etc. Some even paid some chunk of the cost. That was all fine. So were summer programs, before school programs, weekend programs, etc. It was the hours of 9 to 3 that required lines in the sand. (Or 8 to 2, or whenever the local schools held core classes).

I thought of that as I read a story about the Clarkdale-Jerome school in Arizona starting an after-school gifted program. The school didn't have anything for gifted kids. One of the teachers earned an endorsement in gifted education. So they decided to start an after school program to serve kids' needs.

From the perspective of those of us who think gifted kids have educational differences that deserve to be accommodated, this story can invite some smacks on the forehead. Why after school? Why not decide that we're not doing anything for gifted kids now, so let's identify them and see if some acceleration might be in order? Or maybe we decide to do self-contained multi-grade classes for these kids. Or even a twice a week pull-out. But something during the school day, when kids are supposed to be doing the bulk of their learning. Gifted kids should be challenged to the extent of their abilities in an environment with their intellectual peers.

But viewed from the perspective of "core hours" vs. other hours, this makes some sort of sense. Gifted education is a controversial thing. So it needs to be done outside of school hours, just like letting a religious group run an after school program.

I'm not sure how this will play out from a practical perspective. On one hand, many families of young kids have two working parents (or a single working parent) and hence need to do something with the kids after school anyway. A gifted program probably beats a lot of after school options. Unfortunately, it might also pit gifted education against art, music, sports, etc., which plenty of kids would also like to do. It's nice to do something for gifted kids, as opposed to nothing for them. But the decision to use an after-school solution says loads about how gifted education is often viewed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Do AP exams prepare kids for college? Should colleges "count" them?

The concept of Advanced Placement classes and tests is a good one. Some high school students are ready for college-level work. However, there's little that's standardized across high schools. Advanced level classes with standardized syllabi and exams can give high school students a way to show colleges what they know, and hopefully place out of entry-level classes as well.

However, this ideal isn't always achieved in practice. An article in the Deseret News looks at some colleges shying away from accepting high scores on AP exams as evidence that a student has done the equivalent of college level work. Some let students get elective credit, but not credit for the classes themselves (which might help you graduate early if you major in that particular subject).

There are various ways to look at this. Cynical sorts might note that colleges often get paid by the credit hour, so not giving credit for courses is one way to ensure students don't get too much of a break on tuition.

But there are other factors at play too. For starters, different universities have different expectations, even in entry-level courses. I earned a 5 on the AP Chemistry exam my senior year of high school, so Princeton allowed me to place into organic chemistry. Let's just say it was not my most shining academic moment of college. There are various reasons for that (I took it as a "freshman seminar" which meant instead of 3 1-hour lectures, I got 1 3-hour lecture -- which I just couldn't focus for) but it's also quite possible that Princeton's general chemistry class was more advanced than the AP version. Likewise, my 5 on the BC Calculus exam allowed me to place into a math class that was over my head. I passed it and orgo, but I'm pretty sure I was not as well prepared as I could be.

Second, it's really hard to standardize. The exam helps on this quite a bit. A school can call a class "AP Physics" but if most students score 1s or 2s on the exam, then it's pretty clear it's not covering what it's supposed to cover, and colleges will not view those students as prepared. There is some accountability, though I'm not sure how many schools do anything about it. Nonetheless, it's possible that a student in a generally poor quality class could score a 3 or possibly even a 4 on a fluke (or if he/she crammed before with some independent study). Over time, if colleges see enough of this, it starts to water down the AP concept.

The Deseret News story covers some of this. As more and more students have AP classes on their transcripts, it becomes less of a marker for selective colleges. Though I do think that the advice one person gives in the article -- that getting a low grade can be a black mark, and may not be worth it -- must be taken with a grain of salt. If you're applying to selective colleges, you need to be taking the most rigorous classes your high school offers -- and getting good grades in them. This is not a question of choosing one or the other.

Have your children gotten credit for AP exams?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Clusters vs. Pull-out

The best approaches to gifted education are self-contained classes and acceleration. But given that neither approach seems to win popularity contests with education authorities, what other approaches might work?

In the Humboldt Unified School District (in Arizona) elementary schools had been using a pull-out approach. This usually means that kids identified as gifted are pulled out of their classrooms once or twice a week for a short period of time for accelerated or enriched material. According to a recent article in the Prescott Valley Tribune, Lake Valley Elementary School will be moving to a cluster model. The students identified as gifted in a particular grade will be placed together -- or "clustered" -- in a classroom (with other kids).

Is this a better approach? It's not perfect. You could "cluster" 2-3 grades worth of gifted kids in their own self-contained classroom and do better by these children. Even in a class with a cluster, such kids won't be the norm, and classes are almost always taught to the middle. So the kids will be bored.

But clustering has its benefits. For starters, kids like to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers. Having at least a few other kids in your classroom with similar readiness levels can make more engaging interactions possible.

Second, a cluster allows for more ability grouping as these kids can be easily grouped together for math or reading instruction, or for projects. If kids have to switch classrooms, that's one more barrier to ability grouping happening.

Many teachers find it tough to find time to differentiate for advanced students. Having 6-8 such children in your classroom might make you more likely to find time, vs. viewing it as something that's nice to do, but not a top priority.

In addition, since only one teacher will have the cluster at a grade level, schools can concentrate training on that one teacher. Since funds are always low for such things, it's better not to need to spread it around.

Does your school district use clusters? Does it work, or at least does it work better than other approaches?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Parenting blogs and resources you enjoy?

It's summer and I seem to have more time available to read. Partly that's because I'm taking some vacation time, and partly that's because I don't feel like working as much when I can sit on the porch reading!

I'd like to add some new parenting blogs, websites, and maybe magazines to the mix. What have you found interesting and useful? What do you read daily, or at least weekly? What useful ideas have you gotten from these resources? They don't have to be focused on gifted kids, though they can be.

Please share your favorites in the comments so others can check them out too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

It's all in the details

I have no particular fondness for pull-out gifted programs. They're of limited duration -- an hour a week, or 45 minutes twice a week. They are often the result of a district's desire to do something to meet a state requirement of serving gifted students without actually devoting many resources to it. One teacher can wind up covering a vast number of students, often at vast numbers of schools, which is cheaper than having a teacher teaching a self-contained class.

But at least pull-out programs are visibly there. Something is happening. It's a step above the idea of simply attempting to differentiate in the regular classroom and hoping that happens. Indeed, an interesting question could be this: If your individual education plan for gifted kids is to serve them in the regular classroom, do you actually have a gifted program?

I was pondering this while reading a story about a controversy in the Norwalk City Schools (in Ohio). An article in the Norwalk Reflector noted that -- contrary to rumors! -- the district was not ending its gifted program (known as ABLE). It was changing how it was delivered. According to an official, "This means students will not be pulled from the classroom, but serviced in the classroom with a differentiated curriculum that will provide additional assignments and projects with alternatives based on a student's individual needs. Students will continue to have W.E.P.s (written education plans) and assessments of their progress provided to parents."

In other words, we'll try to individualize work in the classroom. Which is hopefully what teachers are doing for all kids anyway.

Some parents were calling this a subterfuge. If you scroll down to the first comment on the article, you see this assertion: "Despite what the school board may be saying, the reality is that, after the levy was passed, they made a last-minute decision to eliminate a teaching position. One fourth grade teacher was leaving, and rather than replace that teacher, they chose to reassign the gifted intervention specialist to fill that position. That is an undeniable fact. They ARE ending the ABLE program. They may try to cover the situation up by saying that gifted education will be 'delivered differently', but who is going to oversee their curriculums and make sure that the needs of these children are met when the school will not be employing anyone to do so?"

The truth is, differentiating in a classroom is incredibly hard. It's hard even for excellent teachers with tons of experience. Even if you do manage to provide some challenge, you don't hit the other half of what gifted kids need, which is the chance to learn in an environment with their intellectual peers.

Gifted education is never going to be the top priority for many districts. Many of us have wondered if creating state mandates or even national mandates for identifying and serving gifted kids will push districts to offer better programming. But the problem is that when districts don't want to do something, they can come up with a way not to. Officially, this district in Ohio still has a gifted program. It is identifying and serving gifted kids. That it probably won't happen in practice -- that it is set up to fail to give kids what they need -- is just a detail.