Category Archives: Excellence in education

Chess Club Versus Football

Freeman Hrabowski, an African American with a Polish heritage (explaining his last name), was arrested at age 12 for participating in the “Children’s March” in Birmingham, Alabama. He also excelled in school, started college at age 15, and became president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). I was intrigued when his story aired on 60 minutes on November 13. Under his leadership UMBC has become known for innovation, interesting students in math and science careers, and for its high standards of discipline, community and achievement.

Of his students and educational philosophy Hrabowski says, “We teach Americans of all races what it takes to be the best. At the heart of it is … hard work. I don’t care how smart you are, nothing takes the place of hard work.” Football? Not at UMBC − no football. One student explains, “You might go to another university and the football team might be top dog. Here, it’s the chess team that’s top dog. Yeah, it’s cool to be smart.”

Hrabowski speaks of a typical first day message on many campuses: a dean saying, “Look at the person to your right and the person to your left. One of you will not graduate.” Being assured that from day one turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, at UMBC they say, “Look at the student to your left. Look at the student to your right. Our goal is to make sure all three of you graduate and if you don’t, we fail; And, we don’t plan to fail.” He explains that he wants his students to keep dreaming about future possibilities while at the same time understanding that hard work, a positive attitude, and getting support from each other are their keys to success.” Underlying his passion for education, it’s clear, Hrabowski truly believes it’s cool to be smart.

PS The list of good books according to Jocelyn from The Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver is growing. Check it out on the Tips and Previews Page of this blog.


Let Us Find and Motivate More Smart Kids

An article in the October 2 New York Times highlighted the success of an incentive program in which low income high schoolers are taking AP courses and earning college credit with high scores on the AP exams. The article emphasizes a rising concern that students and teachers are earning cash incentives as one part of a program that also provides teacher training, student tutoring, and lab equipment. I wonder how many people read it like I did — with a feeling of “YES, another story showing that ‘smart kids’ are not just a tiny predetermined group, but rather children from all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds!”

One teacher from Massachusetts increased his AP class size by 8 times, and 70% of his new, enlarged student population received the necessary 3’s on the AP exam to receive college credit; 25% received a 5, the top score possible. One of the students who got a 5 reported that the after-school and Saturday classes and tutoring sessions helped a lot. When asked about the $100 incentive for getting at least a 3, he said,“There’s something cool about the money. It’s a great extra.”

The fact is, money or no money, the teachers in the program are believing in the kids and the kids, in turn, are believing in themselves. The statistics speak for themselves. A teacher in Arkansas had 9 kids in his AP math class 3 years ago, all the children of professionals. This year 65 kids from his math classes earned college credit with scores of 3 and higher. Organizers of the initiative say that over three years, the program has led to nearly 38,000 AP exams being taken in math, science and English, many of them by black and Hispanic students.

At the same time, an article recently published by the Association for Psychological Science rightly emphasizes that public schools must do a better job of identifying gifted students. It states, “the former president of CalTech observed that one truly excellent scientist is more valuable than 1,000 very good scientists.” Generalizing the statement to any field — writing, sports, investment — the author observes that the most gifted are not only very rare, but also existing within a large pool of high potential candidates, many of whom are not recognized for their potential. He points to opportunity and motivation as necessary to talent development, noting, “cases are legion in which the most unexpected individuals, confronted with a major challenge, rise brilliantly to the occasion.”

Money has not been a part of every equation where disadvantaged students have been given opportunity and motivation. In the new AP initiative, money may be a part of the motivation, but the results are clear. Whatever the motivation, it works. I heartily endorse any program that lets more students show they are smart. Who knows, one of those students may one day have the opportunity to show that he or she is the one who is so truly excellent as to be “more valuable” (we’ll worry about this definition later) than the 1,000 who are very good.

Gifted Pyramid Model Revisited

At the end of the WSJ article regarding Madison’s planned gifted program on August 10, one critic stated, “…the district already requires teachers to develop individual learning plans for every student and the talented and gifted plan duplicates that effort. If that function worked for every child, there would be no need for additional attention given to gifted students.”

I wish we could individualize for every student, but we don’t. When I introduced a philosophical model to DPI, it was to establish a clear pathway toward such an ideal. Here is the pyramid as it was intended to work. Let’s hope MMSD can so integrate their gifted plan that it seems as though “additional” attention is a thing of the past.

The base: Not every state, every district, is known for excellence in education. Wisconsin, including Madison, has earned a reputation for excellence in education. It is necessary that we examine and build on that reputation from the standpoint of these three premises:

  1. All students must develop to their fullest potential.
  2. There must be healthy regular programs in the schools to provide a foundation upon which excellence can be built.
  3. Excellence is attained only when the ideal of meeting differentiated individual needs is met.

Side 1: The model assumes active participation and sincere advocacy by significant players – administration, school board, staff, parents, community, and students.

Side 2: Support functions are a given in the school district now. This model makes clear that talent assessment is a part of individualization, parents must be involved in decision-making, counseling is often important, flexible pacing through any given curriculum is critical, staff development helps define and support each teacher’s roles, and coordination holds the parts together.

Side 3: This is the part we usually see and discuss (see my last post), but it does not exist as a lone triangle, just as one-third of this side cannot exist without the two functions above it. All programming begins in the regular classroom. When sharing this model with classroom teachers I always draw a dark line between regular classroom and special group programming to insure them that this is where their personal time commitment ends. The individual teacher must recognize the need for and help facilitate options beyond the classroom, but that is when the other support roles and functions kick in. Group programming and individualized services must be available to any learner should the regular curriculum not be a perfect fit.

Side 4: Evaluation completes the circle back to talent assessment and flexible pacing. This is outcomes-based education at its best. Talent assessment details the learning needs. Student outcomes should show an optimal match between those needs and the learning process. Pace, depth, and breadth of learning should be a correct match for each child. If not, back to the drawing board. Which support role, which function is not working properly?


I agree with the critic and made a similar statement years ago. If the system is working, I’m a “teacher of the gifted” or “gifted program coordinator,” but rather a learning coordinator ensuring the needs of all learners are met.


Pyramid Model

In the investment world, pyramid is a bad word. A pyramid scheme is structured with an initial recruiter who is on top. This person recruits a second person, who is required to invest money that is paid to the initial recruiter. Then the new recruit must recruit more people under him and so on and so forth.

In gifted education, pyramid is a good word. The Richardson Foundation of Texas originally coined the name and concept in the early 1980s based on sound research. When I was Consultant for Gifted Programs with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in the late 80’s, we developed our own pyramid model for the state. Now the Madison School District, in an attempt to be in compliance with the state standard for gifted programs, is planning to adapt a pyramid plan. Interestingly, the Wisconsin State Journal article on the plan (August 10, 2011) doesn’t label it a pyramid.

With the gifted education pyramid, you start at the bottom rather than the top of the triangle denoting direct curricular options. Enrichment and differentiation options exist for all children in the regular classroom. Differentiation means that each child should be able to proceed through an appropriate curriculum at his or her own pace. For teachers to be able to successfully differentiate for a classroom of diverse learners, training, materials, and support are necessary. The concept of creativity explains the enrichment component perfectly. In the 70’s and 80’s, gifted programs typically followed what was called the pull-out model. Certain children were identified as gifted, usually using test data, and then pulled out of the regular classroom for 1-3 times a week for enrichment. Often this enrichment entailed learning how to be creative and participating in creativity activities. This was neither what the identified children needed nor what the children back in the classroom didn’t need. On top of that, the pulled-out kids were labeled “the gifted.” With the pyramid model, creativity is back where it should be.

The middle of the gifted pyramid is where “pull-out” now occurs. But, if administered correctly, it will be by interest and broad ability as opposed to labeling and narrow ability.   The best way to present it is as the ensemble model. This is where high schools do best and middle and elementary schools could use the upper grades as the model for expanding options. Many children leave the classroom for various ensembles, groups, or teams based on their interests and talent areas.

At the top of the model, an individual child’s learning needs are so great as to go beyond the capacity of the group and its leader. The familiar example is the musically talented child for whom private lessons become necessary. The difference here is that the top of the pyramid is not where individualized education starts. It’s where it leads because of demonstrated interest and ability in the classroom and in the ensemble. The teacher’s obligation – at the bottom or middle of the pyramid – is not to provide the individual lessons or even to necessarily set them up, but to recognize the need and see that the necessary resources are contacted so that the child, regardless of cultural and economic background, has the opportunity to pursue the area at an appropriate depth and pace.

I hope that a comment in the newspaper that “one goal of this [plan] is to sort kids” is not true. The pyramid model de-emphasizes labeling. Of course kids recognize the person with exceptional talent and achievement. But they are more apt to naturally admire and support this person if the pyramid works as it should.

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.

From Curiosity to Mentors to Career

In December 2010, Royal Society Publishing reported on a study completed by 8- and 9-year old scientists under the tutelage of a neuroscientist from University College, London. This morning, I was talking with a colleague about a mentoring program we ran for middle school students at WCATY. This conversation reminded me of the “Bee Study” and the role of mentors in encouraging young learners to pursue their interests.

In a commentary accompanying the children’s scientific report, a scientist wrote, “The perceptual and decisional abilities of insects [bees] are …  shaped as successful responses to environmental challenges. The same can be said of the children who carried out this research. The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us. The insatiable curiosity that characterizes childhood, combined with … scientific method, provides a powerful tool that allows us to prosper and grow.”

Our WCATY scholars and their mentors made similar observations. One student’s story shows how building on early curiosity ultimately defined his personal and career goals. Sebastien reports, “During middle school, I participated in a program that provided a stipend for me to do a mentor-guided project over the summer. That was my first introduction to hands-on, scientific research. I studied the effects of a virus on chick-embryo development with a biology professor at the local college. In retrospect, I recall almost nothing of my actual research at this young age, but I remember the lab and the excitement of doing research vividly.”

He goes on to say, “The summer before my junior year of high school, I became involved in biological research again, this time studying lighting effects on plants… I received a grant through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to work with Ph.D. candidates in plant genetics. I had this full-fledged research experience. That’s when I knew for sure that genetics was my life. That is also why I entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition in science. My [lab] partner and I had pages of graphs and scientific results, and the next step was to figure out how to develop a bibliography and put together a scientific paper. From there we became regional finalists, regional winners, and went on to Washington, D.C. to become national semi-finalists against fifteen other teams and six individuals, the best of the best in the nation.

“I was never a person who as a child said, ‘Wow, I’ve got passion,’ but now people tell me I have it, and I guess that’s true. Passion is about things having a greater purpose. For me, a career in clinical genetics will be a way of giving back. It will be a way to honor all the mentors and people who have helped me, starting with my mom. So it’s more than love.”

Postscript: Last time I talked with Sebastien, he was in medical school pursuing his career goal, as determined and happy in his direction as ever.

Establishing the Habit of Reading

Did you know that 1 in 4 adults did not read a book in the past year? Worse yet, 50% of adults are unable to read an 8th grade level book. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37% of 4th graders and 26% of 8th graders cannot read at a basic level. Reading statistics are grim.

Children learn to read by example. If they see you reading, they will want to read too. Reading to infants establishes a pattern, or habit of reading. Soon, they will be able to read to you. They can then be introduced to more complex literature if someone simply helps in selecting books they can understand and discuss but not tackle alone. By the teenage years or even earlier, students’ growth should start signaling that the oral reading years are coming to an end. As a parent, when that happened I independently read books that my sons recommended to me. Thus we continued to discuss concepts, share ideas and feelings, and enjoy reading ‘together’ until they left the nest. In fact, we still share titles, give each other books as gifts, and discuss mutually-read books today.

The modeling experience involves doing many things together—reading, talking, listening, exploring, thinking, wondering, laughing, and even crying together.

An interest in books may be encouraged through regular visits to the public library. Some smart children have an inherent respect for books from infancy on. Others need to learn this respect through careful instruction on how to treat a book. You will recognize your child’s natural tendencies and thus be able to guide him or her according to individual needs. Little children develop responsibility, as well as awe for storytelling and knowledge acquisition, by picking out their own books, taking them home, reading them (with and without you), learning to treat them with care, and returning them for another set of tales and experiences.

Although books may be attained at no cost through the library, it is good for the blossoming reader to start developing a personal library as well. Children’s books vary in expense. Books can be purchased at garage sales, book swaps, and used bookstores at a very small cost compared to the value of the investment. The possession of some books that can be called  ‘all mine’  brings deep pride and satisfaction.

However, the National Institute for Literacy points out that many children do not have access to books except through their classroom and school libraries. This is why they encourage caregivers to take on this important role. To summarize, reading with young children as the parent or caregiver is important because it:

  • gives children information on a variety of subjects
  • promotes language development and literacy skills
  • helps increase attention spans
  • raises reading levels
  • promotes relationships.

Parents and students ask questions as we read together