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2012 April 15

Flexible ability grouping

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About a month ago Charlie Boss wrote an article in The Columbus Dispatch: Students benefiting from new measures, which talked about a school using “flexible ability grouping” successfully.  The school uses data from standardized testing to try to match up students and teachers.

The ability grouping idea is an old one: it is as lot easier to teach a group of kids if they are all at about the same level and need to learn roughly the same things.  This was the original impetus for having kids in separate grades, rather than mixing 3rd graders and high schoolers in the same classroom.  Over the years, it became popular to group kids first by age (a rough predictor of academic level) and then by ability level (a method called “tracking”).

In the 1970s, it was noticed that the grouping by “ability” often relied on very subjective or distorted estimates of ability and resulted in fairly severe discrimination by race and social class.  This resulted in a “detracking” movement that grouped kids purely by age, independent of ability.  In recent years, this movement has dominated educational policy, resulting in “mainstreaming”, where even kids with severe emotional and cognitive disabilities were thrown into the mix.

Teachers have been expected to “differentiate” instruction across an ever wider span of ability and prior achievement.  An 8th grade teacher might have in the same classroom kids ready for college-level work and those who can barely read at a 1st or 2nd grade level.

Some educational policy makers are trying to eliminate the impossible demands on the teachers by clustering the kids so that the kids in a class have more closely matched instructional needs.  They need to do this without bringing back the racial and cultural prejudices that killed off tracking.

The solution is fairly simple and fairly obvious, nicely summarized in one sentence:

Hannah Ashton also allows students to move up or down through the groups, depending on their needs and abilities.

The problem with tracking was that kids were classified once (often wrongly) and then kept in the same “track” forever.  Ability grouping (or, as I prefer to view it placement by achievement) results in kids moving from group to group as they progress.  Some kids will race through the material, changing groups often, while others will take longer to master the material.

Each subject should have independent grouping, so that a kid who struggles with math while racing through literature does not have to be held back in the English classes, and vice versa.

The Hannah Ashton school does one other thing—trying to match the teachers to the students.  Some teachers excel at teaching the slower learners, having the enormous patience and multiple teaching approaches needed to get through to them, but would flounder when faced with a class full of very bright kids who perpetually challenge the teacher’s authority and knowledge.  Similarly a teacher with the deep content knowledge and quick wits needed for the very fast students might lack the patience and pedagogic techniques needed for the slower ones.

It isn’t a matter of assigning the “best” teachers to the slowest students or the fastest students, but of trying to match the strengths of the teachers to the needs of the students.  There is no global “best”—the best teacher for my son may be the worst one for yours.

Of course, I have no idea how good a job of matching teachers to classes the school administration does, but I’m impressed that they are trying it at all.  Even if they don’t get the matching quite right, the simple act of clustering kids into groups with roughly the same needs should make the teaching much more effective for all the students.

2012 March 11

CS Summer Camp

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On the mailing lists for parents of gifted kids, people often ask about the best computer summer camps.  Even more often, they ask for people’s experiences with nationally advertised programs.  So far, the general consensus has been that none of the computer camps work particularly well for gifted kids:  the pace is too slow, the teachers don’t know enough, and most of the kids in the camp aren’t passionate enough about computers to be good peers.

That was my son’s experience a few years ago when he tried an idTech camp, and it seems to be a common experience for gifted kids in almost all the summer computer camps, no matter who is providing them.

There are several summer math camps that don’t have this problem, so it is not just a matter of gifted kids being hard to please. Rather, I think it is a deliberate attempt to reach the “average” kid that makes the usual computing summer camp useless for gifted kids.

Mark Guzdial, in his blog post The Best CS Summer Camp Paper: Sustainable, Effective, and Replicable, talks about a paper by his wife, Barbara Ericson, Sustainable and Effective Computing Summer Camps.  The paper talks about programs at Georgia Tech that are self-supporting and not very expensive (after a whole lot of initial expenses covered by grants). Since this was a paper for SIGCSE (special interest group in computer science education), the paper talks about the measurable outcomes as well as how the camp was funded and organized.

There is good evidence that their summer camp programs are doing what they set out to do:

improve access to computing, increase students’ confidence in their ability to succeed in computing, increase students’ knowledge of computing concepts, and change students’ attitudes about computing.

The programs themselves sound a lot like all the other summer camps: fun for average or above average kids, but offering nothing for the passionate gifted kids who want something more than playing with Scratch or App Inventor.

Where are the computer equivalents of Awesome Math Camp  (which I blogged about a couple of year ago) or RSI (Research Science Institute)?  I’ve not found them.

2011 November 30

What is giftedness?

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Over the past two weeks, I’ve read two articles talking about gifted children more from the standpoint of defining what giftedness is than what needs to be done for them educationally:

In the NYTimes article, David Z. Hambrick  and Elizabeth J. Meinz argued that the “10,000 hours of practice” documented by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers were not a sufficient recipe for excellence. In their own research “working memory capacity, a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities” One study on sight-reading music by piano players (a similar, but not identical task to the evaluation of musicians in Ericsson’s work), they found that amount of practice had a large effect, but that there was also a “medium-size effect” from working memory.  Their claim appears to be that working memory is largely independent of practice time.

Furthermore the “smart enough” meme that Gladwell pushes (that IQ over 120 does not correlate with better performance in the real world) does not hold up to careful study.  They cite work by David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow that ‘compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile—the profoundly gifted—were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal, or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.’

While Hambrick and Meinz seem to be arguing for the value of innate intelligence as contributing to talent beyond what practice alone can provide, the paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Rena F. Subotnik, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, and Frank C. Worrell seems to be arguing for different definitions of giftedness based on age:

Giftedness is the manifestation of performance or production that is clearly at the upper end of the distribution in a talent domain even relative to that of other high-functioning individuals in that domain. Further, giftedness can be viewed as developmental, in that in the beginning stages, potential is the key variable; in later stages, achievement is the measure of giftedness; and in fully developed talents, eminence is the basis on which this label is granted. Psychosocial variables play an essential role in the manifestation of giftedness at every developmental stage. Both cognitive and psycho-social variables are malleable and need to be deliberately cultivated.

“Eminence” seems to me to be a very weird criterion for giftedness in adults, as it usually means “fame or recognized superiority.” Fame and recognition rely more on luck than on talent. Is someone not gifted if they choose to do good work in obscurity? Of course, the authors do not use the standard definition of  “eminence”, but they “characterize [it] as contributing in a transcendent way to making societal life better and more beautiful,”  whatever that is supposed to mean.

I don’t think of myself as “eminent”, but I’m certainly in the upper 1.6% of my age group for educational attainment (according to the 2010 US census there are about 300,000 people 55–59 years old with a doctoral or professional degree, out of a total of 19,172,000 []). I’m one of 164,843 faculty at a PhD-granting university in the US [], which puts me in the top 0.12% academically of 30–64-year-olds.   Does this make me “gifted” by their definition?  Probably not, since I’ll never have a Nobel prize (and probably not even a lesser prize). I’ve contributed to society—a couple of patents, dozens of journal papers (some of them well cited), a number of students taught, … —but not in a “transcendent way”.

For the authors, the whole point of gifted education is to produce eminent adults (according to their rather nebulous definition). The authors begin with this production of eminence as a premise, not subject to discussion and certainly not open to scientific testing: “outstanding achievement or eminence—with its attendant benefits to society and to the gifted individual—ought to be the chief goal of gifted education.”  This premise seems to argue for a pressure-cooker approach to teaching the gifted—that it is better to burn out dozens of gifted kids if one eminent individual results, rather than getting them all to be productive and happy, but not getting any superstars.

At least they recognize that they are outliers in their insistence that eminence is the only worthy end goal: “Disagreements in the field emerge about what the underlying causes of gifted performance are, where the line between gifted performance and performance that is not so labeled should be drawn, what the best way to turn childhood potential into outstanding accomplishments in adulthood should be, and whether the development of eminence should even be a goal of gifted education.” [italics added]

The paper by Subotnik et al. is very long (51 pages) and full of inflated diction. Who uses “psychological science” rather than “psychology” in normal writing—someone with an inferiority complex about being a psychologist, perhaps?—this is further illustrated in their choice of examples: “it is important to distinguish between those whose talent is expressed by way of (a) creative performance, as exemplified by athletes, musicians, actors, and dancers, and (b) creative producers, such as playwrights, choreographers, historians, biologists, and psychological scientists.” [italics added]

They start by defining giftedness somewhat differently from  everyone else.  They describe (with what looks to me like fairly accurate summaries) five previous definitions: “high IQ; emotional fragility; creative-productive giftedness; talent development in various domains; unequal opportunities; and practice, practice, practice”, then introduce their own idiosyncratic definition:

Our focus here is on giftedness as a developmental process that is domain specific and malleable. Although the path to outstanding performance may begin with demonstrated potential, giftedness must be developed and sustained by way of training and interventions in domain-specific skills, the acquisition of the psychological and social skills needed to pursue difficult new paths, and the individual’s conscious decision to engage fully in a domain. The goal of this developmental process is to transform potential talent during youth into outstanding performance and innovation in adulthood.

They base the need for a new definition on their claim that children identified as gifted often don’t achieve eminence and that eminent adults were often not identified as gifted when they were children.  Since eminence of (some) adults is the only endpoint they care about, all parts of their definition must serve that goal.

Some of the policies they propose make sense:

This process of talent development can be conceptualized as having two stages. First is talent identification: continuous targeting of the precursors of domain-specific talent and the formal and informal processes by which the talent is recognized and identified. Second is talent promotion: how the person demonstrating talent is instructed, guided, and encouraged—a process too often left to chance rather than to strategic and targeted societal effort. This process also involves recognizing that domains of talent have different developmental trajectories and that transitions from one stage to another are influenced by effort; opportunity; and instruction in content, technical, and psycho-social skills.

But the underlying reasoning seems to be circular—they define their terms so that they will support the conclusions they want to reach.

The authors frame the discussion in terms of 4 questions:

  • First, what factors contribute to giftedness?
  • Second, what are potential barriers to attaining the gifted label?
  • Third, what are the expected outcomes of gifted education?
  • Fourth, how should gifted students be educated?

I wonder a little about the significance of the second question.  Why should the “label” matter, and why should barriers to getting the label matter?  Perhaps they meant to ask how gifted children can be identified, but phrasing it as “barriers to attaining the gifted label” seems to presuppose that the gifted label is a thing to strive for.  The other questions seem more normally phrased.

In discussing whether or not IQ is innate or environmental, they correctly point out that both genetics and environment are involved, but they use the technical term “epigenetics” incorrectly, and make the somewhat bizarre statement: “General ability or g is derived from both genes and environment. Both are modifiable.”  Sorry folks, but gene therapy is certainly not at the point where we can modify genes in order to improve general intelligence.

Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, and Worrell do address the “smart-enough” meme,  which the refer to as the “ability-threshold/creativity hypothesis”.  They cite several studies that refute it, pointing out the studies that supported it generally had low ceilings for performance and short time frames, so that differences in adult performance at the high end were not distinguishable.

One rather terrifying aspect of the article is that they serious consider whether emotional trauma is important to achieving eminence and whether parental push to achieve eminence is crucial: “However, encouragement and stimulation were not necessarily accompanied by emotional support. Despite this, and to the extent that outstanding achievement was the goal, the parents seemed to have contributed to their children’s attainment of eminence.”  Given the authors’ single-minded insistence on eminence as the only worthy goal of gifted education, this section of the paper sounds remarkably like they suggest child abuse as a form of gifted education!

I eventually finished the 40-page article, though I did not bother with the additional 14 pages of citations (far too many of which were self-citations [Correction: only 43, about 9%, were self-citations]).  I found the authors rather narrow-minded about the goals of gifted education, and so their policy and research suggestions seemed rather narrow-minded as well. I hope that Subotnik et al.’s document does not become a guideline for future gifted education policy and research, though that was clearly the intent of the authors.

2011 October 8

Debate about how schools treat gifted students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:50
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In the NY Times, about a week ago, a debate was started about educating gifted students: Are Top Students Getting Short Shrift? – Room for Debate.  The two sides each have very simple positions.

On one side, there are those pointing out that NCLB (no child left behind) forces the schools to focus most of their resources on those children who are near the threshold of competence that NCLB dictates.  Given the very limited resources of most schools there is little attention left for those students who a well past that threshold and need more.

On the other side, there are those who claim that differentiation works, and that any teacher should be able to teach students where they are at, no matter how large the disparity in skills between different students in their classes.

As you can probably tell by the way I have summarized the two positions, I fall strongly on one side of the debate: most public schools provide far too little education for the brightest students. The debate should not be about whether the schools are doing a good job for the gifted students (in most places, the answer is a resounding “no!”), but what the role of a public school is.

For some people, the purpose of a public school is to move the bottom up as high as possible.  These people tend to focus on the “achievement gap”—the difference in performance between different groups of students (often defined by race or economic status).  Reducing the achievement gap is seen as the primary goal of a public school—maximizing equality of outcome.  Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to reduce the achievement gap by keeping the top down than by moving the bottom up, and that is the unfortunate result of many of the policies aimed at maximizing “equity”.  The goal here often seems to be like in “1984”—to make everyone as much the same as possible.

For some people, the purpose of a public school is to prepare students for a useful role in society.  This means that every student should get the skills necessary to do productive work and be able to make rational decisions when voting.  In this view, it is not necessary for public schools to provide a great education to anyone—good enough to get a job is all that is needed.  Unfortunately, the loss of unskilled jobs that pay a living wage has raised the bar over the past 50 years, so that what used to be good enough no longer is.  There has also been an unfortunate tendency for schools to steer kids away from blue-collar skilled jobs (plumber, auto mechanic, electrician, … ), and force everyone onto the college track.  If college were cheap, this would just mean a delay for entering the work force, but with colleges having all moved to the high-fee/high-loan model, the result is a generation saddled with enormous debt.  (I could also argue that the California initiative process and the success of the Tea Party shows that schools have failed miserably at creating citizens capable of rational decisions when voting also.)

For some people, education should be fitted to each student, with each one getting as much education as they want and can use.  The goal in allocating educational resources is not to make everyone the same, nor to make everyone minimally productive, but to get the maximum total return on the investment.  Although I’ve expressed this as if it were a financial question, one problem is that the return is not monetary but cultural, and so almost impossible to quantify. In this model, a fairly large amount of effort is spent on making students near the bottom self-sufficient (since otherwise there is a huge cost later on in supporting them), but another large amount is spent on students at the top, who can make the most productive use of college and grad-school education.   This was pretty much the model for educational spending before NCLB chopped off the top end, and it worked fairly well for society.

Of course, all the above arguments are from the standpoint of society—where should we as a society be putting our educational investment.  But in addition to education as a public good, there is also the view of education as a private good (which unfortunately is becoming the driving model in university financing).  In the private-good model, education is a personal or family investment, and the goal is to optimize the return on the investment to the individual.  Each parent wants to have the best possible education for their child, provided free, but wealthier parents are often willing to invest in private schools, summer educational camps, after-school classes, SAT coaching, and other tools to get an advantage for their children.

As the parent of a very smart child, I have tried many different forms of education, trying to get the best education I can for him (the private-good model). We have done public school (for K–3 and 9th grade), private school (4–6, 7–8), and home-schooling (10th grade).  We have also supplemented a lot with books, computer programs, after-school activities, educational summer day camps, and even some online courses.

We have generally found that the schools did not have available programs and courses that were at the level and pace he needed, but that flexible schools could be made to (sort of) work.  For example, for K–3, we had him take Spanish literacy classes with the native Spanish speakers, although he initially had no Spanish, since the English literacy classes were way below the level he needed.  We also bought the Singapore math curriculum for him, and had him work a year or two ahead in that, rather than plod along at the pace of the rest of the class.

For 4–6, we had him in a private school that prided themselves on small class sizes and adapting to the individual students.  That worked fairly well—for example, they taught everyone in the school math at the same time, so that each class scattered to different math groups, and one math group might have students for 3 different grade levels in it. Differentiation worked at this school, in part because all the students were above average and classes were quite small (no larger than 16).  This private school cost about $8–9k a year, about the same as the per-student spending at public schools.

The private school for 7–8 was less flexible overall, but did do math placement by initial testing and allowed middle-school students to take high school classes (so he got geometry and honors algebra 2 in 7th and 8th, plus high-school level Spanish and computer programming).  This school did have a couple of phenomenal history teachers for the middle school—better than any history teacher I ever had. Although they were willing to place him in math at the right level, their science instruction was weak and the pace of many of the courses too slow.  Unfortunately, the school was more than we could comfortably afford ($18k a year), and they laid off his favorite math teacher (which the teacher attributed to him being too strict on the grading).

The public school for 9th grade was not a very good fit—classes were enormous and the teachers had no time for differentiation, as their workloads were enormous even if everyone was doing the same thing.  Science worked out ok (after he was moved at the teacher’s recommendation from freshman bio to honors physiology), but the math course was a disaster (see Trig and Anal Geo) and English was worse (not the teacher’s fault, just a mismatch between my son and the teaching style).  Theater was ok (though half the class was just taking up space, having no interest in acting) as was video production.

I’ve seen what is available in public and private education in a small city, and none of it is really optimized for gifted students (the school he was in for 4–6 was the closest approximation).  I believe that the public schools could do a better job for gifted students by clustering students by their current achievement level (see Placement by achievement) and encouraging subject acceleration, without spending any more than they currently do.  But this would require moving from a “raise the bottom” model of public education to a “fit the education to the student” model, which would require a change in educational politics and some changes in teacher training.


2011 September 23

The Innovative Learning Conference

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 16:39
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My wife (a school librarian) was given a copy of the program for The Innovative Learning Conference, October 20–21, 2011, which teachers at her private school can be subsidized to attend (if they find a substitute to cover their classes).  She does not plan to go, but it looks like they have assembled many of the best-known names in gifted education to give talks.

The conference is open to parents as well as “educators”.  At first I thought that “educators” was just a puffy way of saying “teachers”, but then I realized that they wanted to include school administrators and school board members—anyone who sets policy for gifted education—as well as teachers.

I briefly considered going, but I have to be in Washington, DC for an NSF grant review panel on those days.

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