Friday, November 21, 2014

One way to help gifted learners

I've been reading through Jim Delisle's new book, Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation's Brightest Young Minds. I agree with much, and disagree with a few other things, and will be writing about various aspects over the next few weeks.

There is much broken in terms of America's schools, and particularly in how schools nurture kids who need more advanced work. We don't even need to use the loaded "g" word ("gifted") to recognize that. It's common sense that kids develop at different rates academically, and that there is a mean in any given classroom, and kids that deviate far from that mean are going to pose a challenge that effective teachers would do well to think about.

When thinking about how to address the problems in gifted education, it's easy to get overwhelmed. But there are a few practical places to start. One idea Delisle throws out there? Requiring all teacher candidates, as part of teacher preparation programs, to learn about the needs of gifted learners, and strategies for challenging them.

To be sure, many of us who support gifted education would love to see far more self-contained classes taught by teachers who've specialized in the field. However, "most gifted students spend the majority of their time in a regular classroom environment, and their teachers may know very little about who gifted kids are and what to do to challenge them," Delisle writes. "Only six states require that every teacher candidate receive such information, and even that is likely to be minimal."

He recommends the use of the Knowledge and Skills Standards in Gifted and Talented Education for all teachers developed by the NAGC and CEC-TAG. That's a reasonable idea. Though honestly, the more I have looked at teacher prep programs for other projects I've done, the more I wonder if even having the word "gifted" in a curriculum might be problematic. There is a strong political element in many programs, and it's not one that embraces the concept. But meeting the needs of all children sounds good. As a few programs do try to re-orient themselves around practical approaches to teaching, pushing states to require instructional strategies for advanced learners and struggling learners alike is not a bad idea.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The kids on the margins

Questions about gifted education often come down to who should qualify. If some people qualify, then some people don't, and given the way humanity often works, there may not be a huge difference between people just over the dividing line, and people just under. So what happens in those cases?

Jay Mathews, in a recent Washington Post column, addressed this issue. He talked with Jim Delisle (whose new book, Dumbing Down America, is on my desk, and which I will get to in another blog post soon!) Delisle argued that gifted education needs to be better funded and more available; Mathews argued that challenging classes should be available to anyone who wants them.

I don't necessarily think these opinions are completely at odds. We've worked ourselves into this world where in some schools, the gifted classes are the "good" classes. Everything else is so mediocre that the only way to get any challenge is to qualify. Likewise, in sinking districts, a GT program can be a way to keep people in.

But that doesn't mean anything is wrong with gifted education per se. It means that everything else has a big problem. Why can't we solve all these problems? Why do they have to be pitted against each other?

To me, the best world doesn't hinge on whether gifted classes exist or don't exist. It's whether we have an education system where every child is challenged to the extent of her abilities in an environment with her intellectual peers. A self-contained class is one way to do that. In some cases, people might be better off with acceleration. Independent online study could help kids who need lots of advanced work in one particular area. Technology is increasingly allowing individualization. There's no reason a group of 10 year olds have to be doing the same thing whether gifted education exists or not. The problem is that doing away with gifted education isn't generally coupled with making things more challenging for everyone, including gifted kids. It's coupled with...nothing.

I know a number of people who likely seem like they would have qualified for gifted programs but were never officially evaluated because it was never really needed. Perhaps they were in schools with a focus on individualization and challenge within that. As long as each teacher was committed to meeting those needs and given the resources to do so, it never became an issue. But that's rare, unfortunately. Which is why gifted education is often needed. And just because there are people who might just miss the cut off doesn't mean it should be denied to those who do make the cut off.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

More on reading routines, and a dilemma

I wrote in a recent post about trying to get into a routine of reading and online math practice with my 7-year-old. I’m happy to report that once I figured out how to log on to the school-specific Dreambox site, my son has been perfectly happy to play with it. He requested Dreambox instead of a TV show a few times this weekend, so I think that’s a win.

The reading routine presented more of a dilemma the other night. It had been a busy day, and he hadn’t done his official 20 minutes of reading. Among the reasons he hadn’t: He’d been constructing his own Harry Potter fan fiction, writing several chapters in this new book, and telling me he’d probably need 800 pieces of paper from my printer paper stash. I think writing is a great way to get better at reading, but it doesn’t really fit on the homework log so well. I hadn’t pushed it until night when we realized he still hadn’t done it yet. I came into his room to tuck him in and check that he was reading. But he wasn’t...because he was constructing his own new language. He’d come up with names of numbers all the way to 120, and had created a worksheet labeling all them, and then started in on the shapes, which all have their own names too.

So the dilemma: tell him he needs to stop and read 20 minutes in a “real” book, or let him continue with this creative project that so fascinated him? What would you do?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Building online math time and reading into the routine

We're a month into second grade now with my oldest kid, and we're figuring out how to build a good homework routine. Fortunately, he has very little in the way of make-work homework. He brings home a few math worksheets (about 4/week) but he has the whole week to do them, and it takes less than 15 minutes, so this is not too onerous. The remainder of the homework has more of a point. His school is now signed up with Dreambox (a math program that is adaptive -- another plus. Previous ones the school has have not been adaptive, and hence got boring very fast). He's supposed to do at least half an hour of Dreambox over the week, though ideally more. He's also supposed to read for 20 minutes a night (much preferable for literacy than worksheets, too!).

Obviously, none of this is particularly time-consuming, but we've been trying to figure out when best to build it in to make it a routine. The reading can happen before bed if he's got a good book. He's in a semi-shared space with his little brother, though, and they often prefer to play at night. Turning on the computer for math homework then inspires requests from other siblings to turn on the TV, the Kindle Fire, etc. for cartoons. Right after school is hard because he doesn't feel like focusing.

So for those of you who've figured out a good time for doing online math practice, when is that? If your kids do daily reading time at home, when do you build it in? I welcome tips.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Screen everyone

Pennsylvania requires that schools serve their gifted students, but to serve students you must identify them. How do you do that?

My district has not had a great system for this. Basically, you had to request to have your child screened. This wasn't advertised, so people learned about this option through word-of-mouth: If you knew people with older kids who'd figured this out, and if you were involved enough in the school to have such lines of communication open.

There are obvious problems with such an approach. I'm not sure that giftedness would be correlated with parents' social capital. So I was pleased to see a notice come home the other day that the district will be changing the approach. From now on, all first graders will be screened.

To be sure, there are limitations with this too. Any screen given to everyone will likely be cursory. Nonetheless, the idea is a good one. Screening everyone is the best way to avoid biases that both parents and teachers can bring to the table.

Does your district screen all students for giftedness? In what grade? Of course, what is then done with the results is often a different matter...

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?