Category Archives: Cumulative advantage

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Color Me Purple

“Color Me Purple,” my just-published 2016 children’s book, illustrated by Madison artist Donna Parker, is a fictionalized story of real kids from Wisconsin. Some of the characters are based on a single child. Many of them are composites of several children. All of these children were lucky because someone recognized that they had a talent. In addition, that someone did something about it. Whatever the child’s economic, ethnic, or social background, and whether he or she was thriving or starting to slip through the cracks in school, someone said, “It’s time to intervene, to encourage this child to become all that he or she can become!”

Children are smart in many different ways. Yet, too often, they are stereotyped based on their deficits and discouraged in their learning rather than encouraged. Color Me Purple is intended to help children and those who care for them understand that it is good to be smart. They can be proud of what they do well. They should work to use and improve their abilities rather than let them languish. They can dream big. But dreaming big alone is not enough. As their support systems help them to gain confidence and feel good about themselves they can hone their skills, define their goals, and help themselves and others to say “yes” to thriving in a multicolored, multicultural, multitalented world.

I have written this book as a way to help children, along with their teachers, parents, and caregivers, understand that there are many, many children who should be encouraged for different combinations of talents or kinds of smart. Based on the theory of multiple intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University, the story presents 8 children between the ages of 7 and 18, from 8 different ethnic backgrounds, who are smart in 8 different ways. Text boxes, interspersed throughout the book, explain the educational and psychological theories behind the story for readers who wish to delve deeper into the concepts being introduced.

From the last chapter, a bit of what has occurred in the main character’s thinking is presented: “Before the whole Kennedy thing came up, I was just me. Remember? I’m browned-eyed, brown-skinned, and so on? I thought I was ordinary, and in some ways I am. So are Kennedy and Sameer, Bambi and the others. I’m glad to know that we can be ordinary and smart at the same time… There is so much more to me than what you see on the outside. What makes me smart is that I like thinking about hard questions in about the same way Gommgi likes playing the piano…

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I am happy in this rainbow world of smartness. I’m learning about my inside colors. I think they are what make me the me I want to be.”

To meet Angie, Kennedy, Sammy, Bambi, and the others, you can buy “Color Me Purple” by contacting me at ellieschatz1@gmail.com. Directions are on the “Contact Ellie Books” page.

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

Let the Children Learn, Dream, and Reach Out for More

I read an article in the New York Times this week that made me nostalgic and hopeful at the same time that I continue to be alarmed by statistics that show little progress in three areas that greatly concern me.

First, we’re no closer to realizing an education system that will challenge all children than we were when I started my career (many years ago). With gifted children, this means that if they come to the classroom knowing what is about to be taught, the school has an obligation to find a way to take them to new levels of knowledge/understanding. When we know that happens in scattered schools across the nation, why can’t we ever learn to get it right?

Second, we continue to under-identify disadvantaged children from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In NYC, “black children made up 11 percent of this year’s gifted kindergarten classes, down from 15 percent in 2009-10. Representation of Hispanic students was 12 percent in both years. The school system as a whole is roughly 70 percent black and Hispanic.”

Third, why do we under-identify? Because we continue to rely on testing, not authentic testing of what is important in a child’s real world, but rote testing of facts and skills that disadvantaged children have had little or no opportunity to learn.

So why am I nostalgic and hopeful? One article stood out from all the rest. Entitled, “A Sleepaway Camp Where Math Is the Main Sport,” it immediately caught my eye. Is this a Talent Search-based program? Is it even WCATY (the program I founded) today? No to both questions. It is a program for NYC public school students entering 8th grade, where at least 75% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. They represent a diverse population and their past experiences with challenge and opportunity were sadly lacking, but they have three positive characteristics in common: they love learning; they love math, and they are good at learning! Add to that, they love this program and are “cruising” through mathematical concepts that ordinarily most students wouldn’t see before college.

One of the criticisms of the program is that these children cannot catch up with their more privileged peers in the short time they attend the program. As I told parents of underachievers when they were considering attendance at a WCATY summer “camp,” it is true that their school may not have changed and that there will be a hard road ahead, but the children will have changed. They will dream bigger dreams; they will be aware of possibilities; they will refuse to stand still; they will seek additional opportunities; and they have found advocates who can help them to made valuable connections. I can tell many heart-warming stories of WCATY students who have done just that.

Early Learning: Not a Fast Track to Kindergarten or College

On May 13, one month to the day after psychologist Sharyl Kato and I did a presentation for our 500-member Rotary Club on early learning in honor of “Week of the Young Child,” The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Fast-tracking to Kindergarten?” I certainly hope, and believe, that our audience knew that Sharyl and I were suggesting no such thing. To say this article is disturbing to me is putting it lightly. From this blog, it is clear that I am someone who believes in the importance of early childhood learning, so why am I loathing what I read? Because it tells the story of a 3-year old child being reprimanded by a teacher for sloppy writing. Because the children in these preschools are being forced to learn, sitting with workbooks, and being given homework. “Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said a leader of one of these organizations that tutor small children. He continues, “If they’re out of a diaper and can sit still … for 15 minutes, we will take them.”

I’m glad my point of view was expressed in the article by  Kathy Hirsh- Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University and the author of “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.” Kathy states, “When you’re putting blocks together, you’re learning how to be a physicist.” When you’re learning how to balance things and calculate how tall you can make your building, you’re learning how to be a physicist. Having your kid drill and kill and fill in worksheets at 2 and 3 and 4 to the best of our knowledge so far does not give your child a leg up on anything.”

Some people, thankfully not too many that I personally know, get the wrong idea that because I wrote a picture book entitled, Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart, I am promoting ‘pushing’ young children to learn. If you look at the illustrations in the book and listen carefully to the message, it’s clear that I am in Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s camp. Early learning is about talking, exploring, experimenting, imagining, asking questions, and doing all the things that just come naturally. A child in the book dances with her imaginary friend. A boy builds with his erector-set-like blocks. He hangs upside down from a tree. She imagines horses flying through the sky. Grandma asks them what if.. and other open-ended questions.

Early learning is about reading with your children, and sharing a love of books. It’s about catching young children in the act of noticing something they love and encouraging their curiosity about the world around them. It is encouraging their questioning with more questions as well as a search for answers. It’s helping them to dream about all the things they can be when they grow up and knowing that they can follow those dreams.

Early learning is not a fast-track to kindergarten or college. It’s about establishing a life-long love of learning. I’m not against early admission to kindergarten or college if it’s right for the  individual child. But early learning is good for all children. Learning to value their talents and abilities is good for all children. Realizing that learning is fun is good for all children. Fast-tracking is good for some. Negative feedback, dull workbooks, and sitting still for inappropriate lengths of time is good for none.

Urban Prep: A Model for Excellence

I had the opportunity to hear several young men from Urban Prep Academies of Chicago speak this morning of their high school education. Their all-boys inner-city school expects the best from them; slacking off is not an option. The first graduating class experienced a 100% enrollment in college this past year, and it is expected that every graduating class to follow will achieve the same. One of the young men explained, “I wasn’t thinking of being college bound when I started at Urban Prep. But they kept saying, ‘college bound’ along with ‘we believe.’ Now I see why it is they repeat this over and over. They want us to become leaders. And, we’re going to college to graduate.”

Here are a few more words of wisdom shared in the presentation.

From the school leader, “We hear people refer to ‘those’ kids, but they’re really ‘our’ kids.” And, “You cannot demand exceptionality without showing them what it is. The key to our success [in addition to modeling] is passion. We discipline hard, educate harder, and love hardest.”

From the panel of three high school juniors: “Talent without character doesn’t cut it in the world. Urban Prep develops the character as well as the talent.”

“I was unguided and undecided when I arrived as a freshman. At Urban Prep, it all fell into place. I gained confidence in myself because of the resources I was given and the assets I see in the people around me. We all come in as raw materials, but we learn that we can become gemstones.”

“Knowledge is power; education is power; wisdom is power.”

A member of the audience commented, “It shouldn’t be necessary for these articulate young men to tell us this, it should be automatic to us. Excellence should be a way of life.” I agree that it should be a way of life, but unfortunately for the majority, it isn’t. Special services would not be necessary if all children were alike. Our age-grade paradigm might work if all children of the same age were alike. Mentors and corporate sponsors might not be necessary if all families could support their children academically, psychologically, socially, and of course financially. Gifted programs would not be necessary if every child could learn at his or her own pace. But these ‘ifs’ describe an ideal that does not exist in our society. It takes extraordinary commitment, compassion, discipline, and support for a whole school to turn every learner’s story into a success story.

As Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League summed up, with 52% of our black and Latino boys not graduating from high school in Madison, and with only 7% of the very few boys-of-color who even take the ACT demonstrating that they are college ready, we are in crisis mode. Madison Prep, like Urban Prep, will turn these statistics around. We need to do in Madison what it seems to the clear-headed thinker to be common sense. We must put forth the passion that Kaleem models so well. We must rise to the challenge of turning a plan that is well into the making into reality. We must turn the ‘ifs’ of excellence into every day occurrences.  I can’t wait to hear that 100% of our boys from diverse backgrounds are graduating from Madison Prep as they are at Urban Prep, with graduation from college as the next goal for each and every one of them.

Young men from Urban Prep in Chicago

Can Your Child Read a Menu?

Recently the Madison Urban League shared the trailer for an upcoming film, “TEACHED: A Film about Education in America.” Howard Fuller begins the 3 1/2 minute trailer by pointing out that students of color can now “sit at a lunch counter where they are welcomed, but they can’t read the menu.” To add to the appalling statistics we already know about the achievement gap/the numbers of poor children who end up in prison rather than college, the trailer states: “Of the students [of color] who do graduate it is estimated that 1 in 5 is still functionally illiterate despite the diplomas in their hands.”

Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart is currently being reprinted. Having sold 800 copies in the first year, some of them to community centers that serve poor families and provide educational resources to the children, my goal for this third printing is to reach more poor children in Madison, Milwaukee, and other communities. Talking about the text and the whimsical illustrations will encourage not only reading, but also questioning, imagining, and dreaming as well as vocabulary building. Talking is a skill not discussed in the book but one that precedes reading in the developmental process. For poor children, a structured reading setting will introduce vocabulary that they otherwise might not hear at this critical stage of learning. Statistics demonstrate that by age 3, children talk as much, but only as much, as their parents. These same studies point out that while professionals talk an average of 3,000 words per hour with their children, welfare families talk an average of 500 words per hour, with most of those words being in the form of commands.

Michelle Rhee states in the film that 3 good teachers in a row can change the trajectory of development for a poor child. I agree that excellent teachers can have a profound impact. That is what WCATY was all about from day one – 20 years ago! But, starting in kindergarten or first grade is too late and too little. The earlier they talk, the earlier they read, and the earlier they come to realize that there are high expectations for their achievement, the better our children’s chances for success. Let’s join Howard Fuller in addressing the issue of not only welcoming the children to the lunch counter, but assuring they can read the menu.

Link to the trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0k5TF7PJbo

Advanced Placement (AP) Classes

Yesterday, students at West High School in Madison staged a protest against the district’s response to a complaint filed with the department of education by parents of gifted students. I understand the students’ desire to have a voice in decisions regarding their own curriculum, but I don’t understand the negative reaction to the district’s plan. As some of the parents have stated, the plan doesn’t go far enough, but it seems like a viable first step. Students district-wide would have an opportunity to take advanced or regular classes, as well as to complete work for honors credit in regular classes. If the issue for the students is the opportunity to take elective classes, the district administrator declares that current electives are not on the chopping block. Why would they be? Isn’t the district proposing to simply add more electives, i.e., Advanced Placement (AP) classes?

As one of the parents who filed the complaint pointed out, this newly announced plan addresses the need for more Advanced Placement classes at West High School, but it does not address the question of access. This might be the students’ issue also. Will freshmen and sophomores be able to take Advanced Placement classes if they have completed the prerequisite learning? This is what the parents want. Will any student who can demonstrate motivation as well as completion of prerequisites for an Advanced Placement class be allowed to register without formal identification as gifted or talented? Readiness and interest should be the factors under consideration, not identification. Is there an Optimal Match philosophy in the school plan that will guarantee all students the right to advance as fast as they are able and wanting to complete the curriculum in all areas of learning? Optimal Match is an issue of instruction – how and when the courses are available. Beyond committing to a more rigorous curriculum, the district must assure that it is well taught and available when and to whom it is appropriate. The “to whom” aspect must be clearly defined as any student, regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, age, or economic background, for whom a curricular match is possible. This should be viewed as an opportunity to further close the achievement gap, not broaden it.