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, www.lauravanderkam.com 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 www.LauraVanderkam.com for more.