Wednesday, March 05, 2014
I've been fascinated to read the media coverage of Debbie Stier's new book, The Perfect Score. As her teenage son prepared to apply to college, Stier decided to uncover the secrets of the SAT, and took it 7 times herself in the course of a year. She went through lots of coaching and SAT prep too in her quest for (as the title notes) the perfect score. What's most fascinating to me, though, in light of the debate about the role of the SAT in college admissions, and hence society, is that she didn't actually succeed. The SAT began to be used, many decades ago, as a way to compare students from various backgrounds. In some ways, such a standardized test was supposed to be an equalizer. A kid from a rough background could still score well on a test of intelligence, and hence could open up elite colleges to students not from the Andovers and Exeters of the world. Of course, the idea of testing intelligence has gone in and out of favor over the years. The SAT has broadly been changed to test more of the material covered in high school. In theory, it can still be a way to compare kids from different backgrounds. Some high schools are much harder than others. Straight A's at one school may mean little in terms of how prepared for college you are, whereas straight A's at another school may mean a great deal. I experienced this myself in my two different high schools. A good college admissions test should be able to show this. But people can prepare for tests. And so, one widespread criticism of the SAT is that well-to-do kids can spend thousands of dollars on test prep. They can be coached to higher scores, and take the test numerous times, and hence appear more prepared than they are. Which may be true. But stories like Stier's also show that the SAT may still mean something. After her year of coaching and prep, she did manage to get a perfect score on the writing component. And guess what? Having worked in publishing for years, and as a published author of a book, she probably is quite competent at writing! On the other hand, she never managed to boost her math SAT score higher than 560 (out of 800). This is after a year of studying the high school math covered on the SAT and taking the test numerous times. Given that, isn't it possible to believe that a high schooler scoring in the 700s on the math section is, in fact, showing serious mathematical promise? Whether she's been coached or not? If the SAT were perfectly "coachable," you'd see a lot more perfect scores. As it is, only a few hundred students per year score perfect 2400s. It's fashionable to trash the SAT, but it may mean something despite its flaws.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
In the internet era, everyone loves provocative titles. So Newsweek obliged with a recent essay called "America Hates Its Gifted Kids." The piece offers up the usual arguments: the focus on bringing people up to minimal standards means bright kids get little attention. Teachers who try to differentiate face an uphill battle because, well, it's hard. All this is true. But does America actually hate its gifted kids? I'd say that hate is a strong word. I think the emotion is more nuanced. Certainly, we have our narratives. We like the story in which no one expects great things from someone -- and then that person goes on to succeed. Someone who shows a lot of potential from the get-go doesn't fit this narrative as well. We also have a very strong egalitarian impulse. While good in some ways, people are obviously more or less talented in many regards. The problem is that we also dislike the concept of people who think they're somehow more special and better than others. We tolerate this in athletic pursuits (usually -- though sometimes not judging by the reaction to Richard Sherman's NFC championship game rant). But the language of someone being gifted implies this specialness. And sometimes we like to see the tall poppies cut down. But more I'd say it's just neglect and bad incentives. I was at a conference on educational philanthropy a few years when attendees were asked what they thought were the big issues people should focus on. Gifted children was an option, and got about 2% of responses (and I answered that, so I'm a chunk of that 2%). Teachers wind up with a huge range of academic levels in classes, and have to triage what to address. Weighing options, it's easiest to assume that gifted kids can fend for themselves. The Newsweek essay does suggest that people be grouped by ability, not age, which is something many of us would love to see happen more broadly. The organization of schools has little to do with the reality of what people can handle. But changing the way 50 million school children are organized is not an easy thing to pull off. And so that's why many parents wind up doing what they can on their own. Do you think America hates its gifted kids?
Friday, February 14, 2014
Like many other communities on the East Coast, we've had a large number of snow days this year. Yesterday (and today!) was another. Our sitter was snowed in and my husband was stuck in Europe, so I spent the day with the kids. We re-read Graeme Base's Uno's Garden, a book with a number of number games. The plants in the forest decrease in squares (100, 81, 64, 49...) and the number of buildings increase by the power of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64...) You can see how quickly numbers can change through different functions as opposed to basic counting sequences. Uno's Garden starts with 10-squared, and goes down. My 6-year-old and I spent our afternoon working on the concept of "squares." We drew dots to show why these numbers are literally "squares." Then we realized that, hey! They go up from 10 squared. You can square 11, and 12 and so on. We also figured out that multiplying larger numbers is really about multiplying the tens place and the ones place -- that 12 x 12 can be figured out as 12 x 10, and then added to 12 x 2. I told my son I'd draw the correct number of dots in a square if he could figure out the squares and, sure enough, I wound up drawing 121 dots, 144 dots, 169 dots, etc. Once we'd figured them out, he decided to write his own book about Uno in a forest, with 225 plants and 15 buildings, and 196 plants and 14 buildings and he spent hours illustrating this thing. It was a good way to pass the time (we even managed to talk through the concept of prime numbers) but what was a bit sobering to me was how happy he was about it. He was beaming the whole time and not insisting on playing Mario Kart. Eventually we lost steam as the 4-year-old and 2-year-old demanded attention. But we kept going for a good long time, and he was more excited about this project than I've seen him much lately. So...what to do. We're not going to homeschool but I purchased Hard Math for Elementary School and I think we'll schedule a regular time to do it together. Extra-curricular homeschool as it were. I'm curious when other families make such enrichment work with their schedules.
Friday, February 07, 2014
The upside of the string of snow/ice days we've had recently is that I've gotten a chance to talk more with my 1st grader about school and what he's learning. He's quite enjoying the graphing unit they're in with math, but talking through some problems with him over lunch, I can see that we really need to be challenging him more. So I've been looking for math resources to use at home with him. The idea is that he and I would do some math projects together. I'd really like them to be fun because getting him to do homework is occasionally like pulling teeth. I don't need more basic worksheets. But I'm not sure I'll come up with particularly fun or inventive things on my own. Has anyone found such a book or online resource that's really good for gifted early elementary school aged children? We worked through Bedtime Math and are looking forward to the sequel coming out in March!
Monday, January 27, 2014
A little over a week ago, the New York Times printed Seth Stephen-Davidowitz's analysis of Google search data. One result? Parents are 2.5 times more likely to search for the phrase "Is my son gifted?" than "Is my daughter gifted?" Parents are also more likely to search for "Is my son behind?" or some other phrase implying that a child is having academic problems than searching for similar phrases about their daughters, but the difference is less pronounced, he notes. So what are we to make of this? Stephen-Davidowitz notes that girls tend to have more developed vocabularies at a younger age. He also notes that in schools, girls are more likely to be in gifted programs than boys. It may be that parents are, at least in the privacy of their internet searches, more concerned with their sons' intelligence than their daughters'. Parents turn out to be more likely to search phrases like "Is my daughter overweight?" vs. "Is my son overweight?" -- implying that people are more concerned about girls' looks than their brains. That would be unfortunate -- though probably not terribly surprising. Of course, as some parents have mentioned here, sometimes gifted girls very much want to fit in, and so will hide their intelligence or do their best to act like all is well in school. If boys are more likely to act out when frustrated and bored, this might create a crisis situation that then triggers an internet search for answers. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think of this article. In your experience, have you seen parents be more likely to advocate for gifted sons vs. gifted daughters?
Thursday, January 23, 2014
I'm back after a holiday hiatus, and ready to start posting (occasionally) on Gifted Exchange, now in its 10th calendar year. That is starting to be some serious longevity in the blogging world! My 6-year-old got a Wii for Christmas. He is particularly enamored with Mario Kart. On Christmas he started trying to play, and had a hard time getting through many a course. He'd steer wildly, fall of the course, and often end up in 12th place (out of 12 in each game). But, video games being designed to keep you playing, he persevered. We let him play a fair amount -- it was holiday break, after all -- and within 72 hours, he'd improved a lot. He'd come in near the top of races, and pretty soon was winning against the computer. Something similar happened with the 4-year-old. He plays less often (he can't turn on the system by himself) but he can complete most courses and occasionally does so with reasonable speed. It is one of the great wonders of the world that when we devote time and attention to something, we can improve. Often dramatically. Video games are designed to make this fun. But we can figure out a lot about our interests if we observe when we willingly do this in other spheres. The 6-year-old also turns out to love lists and charts. He spent weeks studying his school phone directory, figuring out which classes were the biggest, which had the kids with the first last names in the alphabet, etc. Over the past few snowy days, he's been making a Star Wars dictionary. Each page has a letter, and each letter is illustrated by a character (What, you say, there aren't any Star Wars characters starting with some letters? He got around this by making up his own). He's also given each character a strength rating, and charted this in a color coded system. Of course while doing this he's practicing writing and graphing. But I'm not having to nudge him to do this, the way I have to nudge reading actual stories right now. When we're intrigued by something, we practice without it being a chore. That's not to say we don't need to practice things that do feel like a chore. Sometimes joy comes later on in the process. But it's even more fun when it comes early. Blogging has, over the years, become my writing practice activity of choice. I don't post often here, but I'm posting close to daily at www.lauravanderkam.com, and 3x/week for Fast Company. What activities do you most enjoy practicing? What do your children practice without nudging, and what have you learned about their interests from that?
Monday, December 16, 2013
To many people, gifted education is perceived as a life boat. In struggling schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. The kids are supposedly well-behaved, and they'll keep standards high. So the push is always to expand a little, to take the hard-working kid who's on the margins and "reward" him with the gifted class. He'll be better off, right? An interesting new study out of Michigan State University shows that may not be the case (here's a link to the full paper). Scott Imberman and colleagues looked at the test scores of children who were right on the margins of qualifying for gifted classes. They did not do any better on standardized tests than children with similar qualifications who were not placed in gifted programs. As Imberman said in a press release about the study, "This paper is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that just because you have stronger peers doesn't necessarily mean you are going to perform better." The press release itself goes on to hint that this is a strike against gifted classes. After all, they have no effect on one group of children vs. a control. So that's a problem, right? Well, not so fast. Is the purpose of GT programs to raise the standardized test scores of marginal students? I think most of us would say that the point is to meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met well in a regular classroom. Ideally, scores in all classes will be rising as every kid is pushed to learn to the extent of their abilities. Gifted kids aren't learning proportionally more -- every kid is being challenged. Gifted classes aren't meant to be "better." They're meant to meet outlier children's needs. It is interesting to note that stronger peers don't give kids an extra boost, though. One reason GT classes sometimes wind up being watered down or expanded (to take in 25% of kids, in some districts) is that it is viewed as a reward. You're giving a hard working kid a little extra that will help him. But perhaps one's peers aren't quite as critical as some believe. And if having students more on the margin in these classes causes the teacher to aim to a different level (many naturally teach to the median) this could wind up changing the class in ways that wouldn't necessarily help anyone.