Stop ignoring the smart kids

Americans think high achievers don’t need any help to reach their full potential, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. He’s the author of Closing America’s High-Achievement Gap, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Educated, well-resourced parents can provide special help to their gifted children, writes Smarick. The “talented, low-income child” depends on support at school. And teachers pay much more attention to struggling students than to achievers.

When a high-potential child isn’t challenged, she misses “the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge but also invaluable attributes like grit and perseverance, which will be essential when she faces difficulties in higher education or the workforce.”

. . .  the “excellence gap,” the difference in performance at the “advanced level,” is large and growing. Low-income, minority, and English-language-learning students are terribly under-represented at the highest levels of achievement.

. . . new accountability systems should pay more attention to “advanced” and less to “proficient,” or they should calculate the “value-added” gains of gifted children (as Ohio’s does). We should create more specialty schools for high-potential kids (like those identified in Finn and Hockett’s superb Exam Schools).

. . . We need to do a much better job of identifying gifted kids and developing policies requiring that they receive attention. We need more out-of-school supplements, such as distance-learning opportunities and university-based programs. And we need to seriously reconsider how we recruit, train, certify, and compensate those who teach gifted kids. These boys and girls desperately need very, very smart educators.

“We should care about all boys and girls,” Smarick concludes.

Busy with the move to Common Core standards, teachers have even less time for gifted students, reports Education Week. ”In order to differentiate, you have to understand the standards and know what they entail. That’s ground zero,” said Jared B. Dupree, a Los Angeles Unified administrator. “Quality differentiation” for gifted students may be  ”three or four years down the road.”

Challenge teaches perseverance

Challenging classwork teaches perseverance, writes Justin Minkel, who teaches second and third grade at a high-performing, high-poverty school in Arkansas. Non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, collaboration and goal-setting raise academic achievement, research shows.

Children will work hard on complex problems, he writes. “If a problem is easy, it’s embarrassing to get it wrong. If a problem is so complex even the teacher hasn’t figured out the answer yet, failure becomes a step toward success.”

His third graders design, build, advertise and sell a product for an economics unit.

The teams (or “companies”) will spend hours perfecting their design for an animal-shaped sticker book or toy iPhone, rehearsing the script for their commercials, and even spying on other teams with similar products to find out how they’re pricing them.

The first time around, only two of the eight companies made a profit. The kids on those teams didn’t sit back with a smug grin the way some students do when they get an A on a paper. Instead, they figured out how they could improve on their success to make an even bigger profit the next time around.

Kids on the six teams that lost money didn’t hang their heads the way students do when they get a D or an F. They immediately began talking about where they went wrong and how they could make a profit next time.

This what “productive failure” is all about, writes Minkel.

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  ”gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

Is 25 the new 15?

Twenty-five is becoming the new 15, argues Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old.

Young people who’ve grown up in a responsibility-free “bubble” don’t know how to find a job, manage money, cook or care for themselves, write Joseph and Claudia Allen. They’ve been socialized by their peers, not by adults.

We’ve done away with “competition (too masculine, I suppose) and real-world feedback (kids need high self-esteem!),” writes Dr. Helen, a psychologist.

Young people spend more time as college students, often taking five or six years to earn a degree. If it’s a non-technical degree — or they never actually complete it — they’re likely to be living at home at 25.

Boy Scouts lose ‘confident boyishness’

The Boy Scouts will accept gay Scouts — but not gay Scoutmasters. I’d bet parents will be OK with that and critics will not.

Founded in 1910 to promote “self-reliance, patriotism, courage, morality, outdoor ruggedness, and all-around manliness,” Boy Scouts of America has changed along with American culture, write Brett and Kate McKay on The Art of Manliness. 

They cite Kathleen Arnn’s comparison of the 1911 BSA handbook with the modern version published in 2009, which lacks the “verve, punch, and adventurous spirit—the manliness—of the original handbook.”

The Scouts have lost some of the confident American boyishness that loves heroes and makes for heroes.

. . . Whereas the first edition imparts tough-minded common sense, the 12th edition brims with cautionary tales and safety checklists, emphasizing timidity rather than adventure.

Merit badge requirements used to require action, write the McKays. Now they require “more thinking than doing.”

In the 1911 handbook, earning each badge involved the completion of a short list of one-sentence requirements. Modern badge requirements, on the other hand, run to as many as ten paragraph-long sections, the first of which is always a discussion of the need to discuss safety considerations with one’s leader. The gardening badge for example, requires the Scout to discuss with his counselor what hazards he might encounter if he happened to unfortunately plant his tomatoes near a beehive.

. . . The hands-on tasks are now tucked into long lists of requirements that ask the scout to thoroughly Review/Describe/Explain/Illustrate/Demonstrate the underlying principles and context of the badge’s subject matter before trying their hand at it.

The 1911 camping merit badge required Scouts to sleep out for 50 nights, build a fire without matches, pitch a tent without help and construct a raft.  The modern badge requires 20 nights of camping, pitching a tent with another Scout and a great deal of making checklists, creating plans and describing camping guidelines, equipment and, of course, safety procedures.

For the 1911 merit badge, the Scout had to “invent and patent some useful article” and “show a working drawing or model of the same.” Nowadays, the requirements are very, very long — and no patent is required.

The “firemanship” badge is “geared towards preparing the Scout to actually fight the fire and rescue people.” The modern badge — called “fire safety” — focuses on “how to prevent and escape fires.” Scouts learn “how to safely light a candle!”

Of course, today’s Scouts can earn merit badges in “Game Design (which involves playing and describing what you like about your favorite video games), Skating, Traffic Safety, Citizenship in the World (as opposed to just the nation), and Disability Awareness.”

Top ‘challenge’ school faces closure

Oakland’s American Indian Public Charter High School  is the most challenging high school in the U.S., according to the Washington Post’s index, which measures the number of college-level tests taken per graduate. At AIPC, 81 percent of students come from low-income families, yet 86 percent of graduates pass at least one Advanced Placement or other college-level exam.

Yet the high school and the two high-scoring AIPC middle schools face closure in June, writes Jay Mathews. Nobody questions the schools’ academic success, but the Oakland school board thinks the AIPC board hasn’t managed public funds properly.

The Oakland district alleges that (AIPC former director Ben) Chavis, who rented property to the schools, “improperly received $3.8 million in public funding” that “violated conflict of interest laws.” The charges are worthy of adjudication, but is a shutdown the best option? . . . The schools have been at or near the top on state test results. Having one of the nation’s worst school systems kill off three of the nation’s best schools makes little sense.

Ben Chavis turned around a very low-performing charter school, creating three schools that put their students on the path to success. He’s now retired. If he’s profited illegally from his contracts with AIPC schools, prosecute him. But the county or the state board of education needs to keep the AIPC schools operating in Oakland.

Students’ choice: Who picks Moby Dick?

Should children pick their own reading? J. Martin Rochester is dubious. He spoke to a young high school principal with new PhD in education about “the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge.”

The principal said, “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.”

Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense.

Except at a few high school in affluent suburbs, students are studying less, Rochester writes.  ”Most fifteen- through seventeen-year-olds study less than one hour a day,” according to surveys.

A 2011 study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that only 39 percent of incoming college freshmen “report that they studied 6 or more hours a week on average as high school seniors.” . . .  In the 2010 study Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska found an overall 50-percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying from previous decades; less than half of the students surveyed had ever written more than twenty pages for any class, and relatively few had been assigned more than forty pages of reading per week.

How many students will choose to work harder than they must? Diane Ravitch once asked: “What child is going to pick up Moby Dick?”

In an Honors English course at Rochester’s local high school, students were told to pick a “great book” to read for a semester project. One student picked Paris Hilton’s autobiography.

 

The joy of testing

Rigorous exams motivate students and show who needs more help, said Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary of state for education, in an erudite speech that starts by praising the teaching of “French lesbian poetry.”

Now some people will say that if I believe in the adventure of learning and the joy of discovery,  how can I possibly be a fan of testing and examining? It’s like professing a love of cookery – hymning the beauty of perfectly baked souffles or rhapsodising over richly unguent risottos – and then saying the most important thing about food is checking the calorie count in every mouthful. Isn’t an obsession with measurement the enemy of enjoyment, the desire to assess and examine the death of learning for its own sake?

Gove says he understands the argument. Then he refutes it.

. . . Firstly, exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. . . . If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning.

. . . Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practice and which areas they need to work on.

For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.

The fourth reason exams matter is that they ensure there is a solid understanding of foundations before further learning starts.

Gove cited research by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who says Gove got the science right, but not necessarily the policy.

People “enjoy mental activity that is successful,” such as solving puzzles, Willingham writes. However, it’s not clear students will be motivated to work hard enough to pass challenging exams. They could conclude it’s hopeless and give up.

Gove is right about the need for background knowledge, but went astray by using “memorisation,” Willingham writes. That inspired the Guardian to declare Gove is advocating rote learning.

(Gove) emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, but rather should happen through “entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths.”

But whatever Gove may say about rich content and critical thinking, the teachers who most need to improve probably won’t listen, Willingham warns. In the U.S., many teachers felt pressured by No Child Left Behind to teach to the test and cram in facts.

Teachers believed it was necessary because (1) they were uncertain that their old lesson plans would leave kids with the factual knowledge base to pass the test; or (2) they thought that their students entered the class so far behind that extreme measures were necessary to get them to the point of passing; or (3) they thought that the test was narrow or poorly designed and would not capture the learning that their old set of lesson plans brought to kids; or (4) some combination of these factors.

So pointing out that exam prep and memorization of facts is bad practice will probably not be enough.

Testing is unfair to most students, writes Peter DeWitt on Ed Week.  Gove’s call for exams that can’t be passed easily is “not very sporting.”

Teaching a ‘growth mindset’

Students who believe they can develop their intelligence over time — what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” — work harder and learn more than classmates who think intelligence is inborn and fixed.  Dweck and colleague Lisa Blackwell talk about Classroom Strategies to Foster a Growth Mindset with Larry Ferlazzo on Education Week Teacher.

Teachers should set high expectations and tell students they have the ability to succeed, say Dweck and Blackwell.

Let your students know that you value challenge-seeking, learning, and effort above perfect performance, and that the amount of progress they make individually is more important than how they compare to others. Make it clear that mistakes are to be expected and that we can all learn from them.

. . . When you introduce a new topic or assignment, tell students they should expect to find some things confusing and to make initial errors. Ask kids to share their “best” mistake of the week with you, and what they learned from it and do the same yourself.

Useful feedback focuses on “the things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies — not on their personal traits or abilities,” they say. Praising students for being smart can be counter-productive.

Neuroscience research shows the brains develop through effort and learning, they say. Tell students they about the “malleable mind.”

Let students know that when they are practicing hard things their brains are forming new connections and making them smarter. Instead of feeling dumb when they struggle, they will learn to “feel” those connections growing.

Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, founded Mindset Works with Blackwell, a former school leadership coach and the principal designer of Brainology.

Ferlazzo’s list of resources on developing a growth mindset is here.

The growth mindset reminds me of research by psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler.  Peg Tyre summarizes in Don’t trash-talk math:  ”In countries that produce a lot of math whizzes, parents and teachers believed math ability is like a muscle you strengthen with good instruction and practice. In the USA, where kids don’t do that well, parents think of math ability as a talent, not a skill.” Chinese parents see a bad grade as evidence their child didn’t work hard enough, while American parents let their kids get away with saying, “I’m just not good at math.”

When students grade teachers

When students evaluate their teachers, they’re remarkably good at identifying who’s effective and who’s not, writes Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic. Students evaluations have proved to be “more reliable than any other known measure of teacher performance—­including classroom observations and student test-score growth,”  researchers have found, Ripley writes.

Some 250,000 students participated in a Gates Foundation study of student evaluations, using a survey developed by Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson.

The responses did indeed help predict which classes would have the most test-score improvement at the end of the year. In math, for example, the teachers rated most highly by students delivered the equivalent of about six more months of learning than teachers with the lowest ratings. (By comparison, teachers who get a master’s degree—one of the few ways to earn a pay raise in most schools —delivered about one more month of learning per year than teachers without one.)

Students were better than trained adult observers in evaluating teacher effectiveness, probably because students spend a lot more time with each teacher. And there are more of them.

Five items were linked strongly with student learning:

1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.

2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.

3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.

4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.

5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Teachers were surprised that caring about students was less important than controlling the classroom and challenging students, Ripley writes.

At McKinley Technology High School in Washington D.C., the same students “gave different teachers wildly different reviews” on Control and Challenge.

For Control, which reflects how busy and well-behaved students are in a given classroom, teachers’ scores ranged from 16 to 90 percent favorable; for Challenge, the range stretched from 18 to 88 percent. Some teachers were clearly respected for their ability to explain complex material or keep students on task, while others seemed to be boring their students to death.

Memphis now counts student survey results as 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the annual review; 35 percent is linked students’ test scores and 40 percent to classroom observations.

The use of student surveys is spreading to Georgia and Chicago — and possibly Pittsburgh — Ripley writes.