Tag Archives: smartness across diverse populations

Achievement Gap Versus Opportunity: A Success Story

According to the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University: “The best available evidence indicates that children of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds come into the world equally equipped to excel… However, by age three, between-group skill differences are clearly in evidence. Later gaps in school readiness are firmly established by the first day of kindergarten.”

Talking and reading with small children are two parental musts that are often lacking in low-income homes. A third factor, as I noted in my post about “The Other Wes Moore,” is the establishment of high expectations.

Meet Angie, who was born poor and under the influence of the drugs in her mother’s system. Raised by her father, she proceeded to thrive because he was determined that she would be all she could be from day one. Talking, reading and high expectations are a large part of her story.

She relates, “My father read to me and I received speech therapy to help overcome stuttering and slower-than-normal language acquisition. I didn’t understand the reason for these early language experiences at the time but they probably explain my affinity for reading and writing. As a preschooler, I learned to read by memorizing the words of book after book, and by age 8 my speech problems had been conquered. By age 10, I had read Shakespeare. Although I had far from comprehended all that I read, spelling and reading became second nature to me.”

Although it was the early home environment that set the scene for her success, it was her kindergarten teacher who first accelerated her. “I never considered what this acceleration meant in terms of aptitude. All teachers after that advanced me. I first became aware that I was considered academically talented when I was in eighth grade. My guidance counselor approached me about Talent Search, and six months later, I was taking the ACT. I had never heard of such a test, and even after I received my scores, I didn’t expect to hear much about it again. I figured someone somewhere was testing my academic limits for a giggle and never expected it would amount to much. I was mistaken.”

Mistaken is an understatement. At age 13, Angie had received a perfect score on the ACT English test. Going from a fragile beginning in which her language-acquisition skills were delayed to a perfect English score on a college admissions test while still in middle school was an accomplishment in which her father rightly took great pride and joy. I met Angie at this point, and worked with her through her high school years. I’m happy to report that now, as a college graduate, she continues to seek opportunities that match her abilities and interests. She says, “When more opportunities came along, I jumped at every chance. My (early) experiences had given me the courage to open new doors. The catalysts in my life were important to where I am today. Cumulative advantage cannot occur without a beginning. Of the future, I know it will build upon early advantages. I know there’s a way to bring my passions to other people and that words are important. I am living in that spirit right now and will continue to live in that spirit.”

 

Waiting for Superman

I hate to think of myself as a pessimist, but I have been feeling that, as a country, we were doomed to a bleak future. Because of partisan politics, the economy, crime? All of these are among the many reasons to be concerned, but the underlying factor for me is our broken education system. In 1983 the problems were clearly outlined in a book presented by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, entitled A Nation At Risk. Our children were already falling in international comparisons of student achievement. But we were going to fix it, right? Wrong. Today, the statistics that are quoted are worse: 25th out of 30 developed or industrialized countries in math, 21st in science, and 11th in literacy. Doomed is not too strong a word.

Then along came a documentary film: Waiting for Superman. The movie hasn’t come to Madison, and I intend to see it as soon as it does. But I don’t need to see it to have a glimmer of hope. Oprah had two shows devoted to it in one week,  Meet the Press devoted half their Sunday morning hour to it, the news hours are covering it, the talk shows are talking it. A seemingly sincere dialogue has begun. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan called it “A Rosa Parks Movie” because, he said, “the country is compelled to act.” Maybe he’s right. I hope he’s right.

I say go Newark; go Washington D.C.; go Detroit; go New York City! Leaders from these cities have been featured on the shows I’ve seen over the past few days, and I applaud their intentions to act. I join the Madison Urban League in its goals to turn around dismal statistics regarding graduation rates here for children of color. I await news of commitments in community after community, state after state. As in New Jersey may our Democratic and Republican leaders join forces in saying, “Yes, we have some great teachers, but that’s not enough. Every child deserves an excellent education. Every child deserves rigor in the curriculum. Every child’s dreams should be heard and encouraged. And we’re going to work TOGETHER to make it happen.”

High Expectations from Good Role Models

This summer I happened to tune into Oprah on the day she was interviewing Wes Moore, a Rhodes scholar and now highly successful businessman. They were talking about his life and that of another man who shares his name. The second Wes Moore is serving a life sentence for being part of an armed robbery in which a police officer was tragically killed. I knew then and there that I had to read The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.

Moore begins and ends his book with the same statement: “The chilling truth is that Wes’s story could have been mine; the tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

I recommend that anyone who serves as a role model for children – teachers, parents, day care providers, community center staff, civic volunteers—read this story of one young man whose mother was so afraid that his early bouts of trouble in school and in his Bronx neighborhood would lead to a life of crime that, with help from her parents, brothers, and sisters, she sent him away to military school. Of that experience, Moore says, “The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.” From his mother and his grandparents, uncles and aunts, to the military officers and older students at his boarding school, Wes learned that he had great academic and leadership potential. He fought the decision that removed him from the environment that threatened his future when he was a boy. But he ultimately listened, believed, and changed.

The other Wes heard a similar message early in his life. His older brother, already dealing drugs and in trouble with the law at a young age tells him, “Acting stupid isn’t cool. …Tony felt his brother’s life could be saved, even if he felt his had already at age 14 passed the point of no return.”

So what happened? “Wes wanted to be just like Tony.” Although this Wes’s mother moved several times, it was from one disadvantaged neighborhood to another. Try as she did, the help she needed was never there for her. Wes’s  environment never changed. The temptations were always there. Follow in Tony’s footsteps he did. Tony was believed to be the man who fired the lethal shot in that robbery, but Wes was there too, following the brother who was the apple of his eye.

As the successful Wes Moore elaborates at the end of the book, “What changed was that I found myself surrounded by people… who kept pushing me to see more than what was directly in front of me, to see the boundless possibilities of the wider world and the unexplored possibilities within myself. People who taught me that no accident of birth—not being black or relatively poor, being from Baltimore or the Bronx or fatherless—would ever define or limit me. In other words they helped me to discover what it means to be free. My only wish—and I know Wes feels the same—is that the boys (and girls) who come after us will know this freedom. It’s up to us, all of us, to make a way for them.”

I applaud Wes Moore for tracking down and telling the story of the other Wes Moore. I echo Tony’s early message to his brother, putting it in the positive: “It’s cool to be smart!” Although getting that message to all the children who need to hear and heed is a daunting undertaking, it begins with me. It begins with each of us, individual by individual, role model by role model.

Reaching Poor Smart Children

As our nation’s Supreme Court welcomes its newest confirmed member, Elena Kagan’s high school is in a turmoil over questions of diversity according to an article in The New York Times on August 4, 2010. Hunter College High School, for intellectually gifted students, has been ranked the top public high school in the country. Yet it has experienced a significant decline in numbers of black and Hispanic students served in recent years and debate over admissions policy has left a respected principal with no choice but to resign and faculty and students up in arms.

Justin Hudson was chosen by the faculty from among all the graduates of Hunter this year to be the commencement speaker. I read his speech in an attempt to better understand the emotion-laden situation. “I don’t deserve any of this…. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven years old. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally need those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system….”Justin told his classmates.

“We are playing God and we are losing,” he continued. “Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we are smarter than them. We have failed to inspire and uplift an entire generation of children. I am acutely aware of where I would be right now without (Hunter).

“I hope that I will use the tools that Hunter has given me as a means to provide opportunities to others … I hope that in the near future, (quality) education will not be a privilege for the few in this world.”

The problem is not Hunter High School, but the entire broken system to which Justin refers. When I was coordinator of gifted programs in the schools and later consultant for gifted programming at our state department of education, I stated that the ideal would be to eliminate my position. That could only happen if all students received a quality education. All children should be taught the skills of creativity in the regular classroom. All children should be able to learn as quickly and deeply as they are able. No child should be expected to wait for others to “catch up.” No child should be denied an opportunity based on ethnicity or economics. All children should graduate with the same curiosity and sparkle with which they started kindergarten.

My goal now for “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart” is to get it into the hands of poor children through community centers, day care centers, and other community connections. At the same time, I am preparing to submit “Color Me Smart,” the story of children from diverse backgrounds who had doors of opportunity opened to them through WCATY, for publication. I need to reach a broader market. What I can do and what Justin can do are tips of the iceberg. It may seem like I can’t make a difference, but if I don’t try and you don’t try, what are the chances that “schooling” will improve? Wouldn’t it be nice to have children NOT hide their talents in school because they are proud to openly use and develop those talents? Will we ever be first in the world in education again?

Raising Smart Children: Case Stories

Recently someone suggested I should be writing an adult book in addition to children’s books on the issue of being smart. My response was that my original plan was to write a parenting book on raising smart children. And, I did. THEN I wrote “Grandma Says It’s Good to Be Smart,” believing that I could essentially put chapter one of the adult book into basic terms for small children, including my grandchildren. Now I am working on a children’s book on diversity and kinds of talent based on later chapters of that manuscript.

I did not publish the adult book for two reasons. First, it is not about raising gifted children, but rather intended for a broader audience. I believe there are far more smart children out there than we admit. We are losing potential solutions to serious problems when we ignore this fact. And, we are not encouraging children to be all they can be. I’ve never subscribed to the Lake Wobegon idea – “where all the children are smart” –  but I do advocate something much closer to this Garrison Keilor paradigm than what now exists in our schools and communities. Because of this philosophy and the broad approach I take to the topic, my manuscript is not a perfect fit for publication in the field of gifted education.

Second, the market for books in general has been steadily declining. And books about a field as specific as talent development are not in high demand to start with. At the same time, the market for online materials is exploding.

My conclusion? I’ve decided to remake the tips section of my blog into something potentially of greater interest to my readers (and in full recognition that I really had done next to nothing with it up until now).  I have published the table of contents of my parenting book on the tips and preview page of this blog. You will need to help me take the next step. One possibility would be to post some of the stories in the book, based on your requests. Another would be to send a chapter to someone with the desire or need to read a specific topic. Another would be to excerpt information or data based on your requests or questions. Please let me know if and how this might be of interest and use to you and we’ll take it from there.

Learning on Cruise from the Ground Up

On July 4th, ‘The New York Times’ ran a commentary on the pitfalls in identifying a gifted child.  It was precipitated by NYC officials stating that they were looking to identify children as young as 3, and asking what measures to use. I will not go into the whole debate, but if you are interested you can look up the opinions of contributing writers: Susan K. Johnsen, Baylor University; Clara Hemphill, Insidesschools.org; Joseph Renzulli, U. of Connecticut; Tonya Moon, U. of Virginia, and Bige Doruk, Bright Kids NYC.

I agree with Susan Johnsen’s suggestion that what we should be talking about is “talent spotting, from the ground up.” That’s what I encourage when I talk about using the “wow factor” to identify young children. When a child writes a poem, makes an observation, performs artistically, or does anything so extraordinary that it makes you go, “Wow!” I consider that an indicator of talent, or potential giftedness. This “wow factor” is clearly noticeable in children from the day they begin communicating. What you observed in that child may be so different from what you expected at the child’s age or stage of development that you would call it the work of a gifted child. Or, you may not be willing to go quite that far yet, which is fine. What is important is acting on your “wow” feeling.

This is where Susan and I depart from many of the other commentators in the article. As soon as the term ‘gifted’ is applied, the issue of labeling often becomes the focus of discussion or concern rather than the true purpose for acting on your “wow” feeling. That purpose is called “optimal match.” Optimal match is defined as a fit between the characteristics of the learner and what he is expected to learn. This match cannot be made unless the degree of ability is ascertained. Thus, there must be an evaluation of his interests and ability in whatever subject or topic is to be taught. It can be as easy as following up on the “wow” observation with an opportunity for the child to produce more in that area and at a comparable and steadily increasing level. At home, through the use of modeling, materials, space, and time, your goal most likely has always been to provide an optimal match between his interests and abilities and what he is learning. In most cases, a parent does not need formal testing in the early years to be able to feel that appropriate encouragement and support is being provided. But as he moves forward in the educational system, for most children, someone other than you will be determining the curriculum. Your goal doesn’t change, but the system for matching curriculum to learner does.

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are basically grouped according to age. Whether or not this is the best way to group learners, this is the way we have been doing it for years, and changing that system is not easy. When you ask that your child’s teacher provide an optimal match, you are asking for two things: first, that the pace or tempo of learning be appropriate. Second, that the depth and breadth of the subject be appropriate. In other words, you want your child to learn something new and to have to spend no longer doing it than she requires. A diagnostic assessment would be used not to label her, but rather to pinpoint where she is at in her learning and to suggest where she should go from there.

In the debate on identification in NYC schools, the call for identification as early as age 3 was in response to a louder call for identification among diverse populations. Again I agree with Johnsen, who states, “giftedness is exhibited across all racial, ethnic and income levels; however, children from these groups remain underrepresented in gifted education programs. Some of this underrepresentation may be explained by exclusive definitions (required superior performance on a single test), attitudes (teachers or parents do not recognize the gift or talent) and test fairness (characteristics of the norming population, item bias, linguistic demands).”

I remember years ago observing a first day of school for kindergartners in Milwaukee. Did I see eyes alight with enthusiasm and wonder? Yes. Did I hear a buzz of excitement about new learning activities? Yes. Among those children, there were some who needed to be advanced at a faster rate than others. Very few, if any, in this low-income neighborhood probably had developed far in their abilities yet. But they did have the potential to learn at varying rates. They each had the right to have his or her curiosity and readiness fully addressed. One young African American boy told me, “I can cruise.” He didn’t need to be tested for his teacher to allow him to ‘cruise’ through his skill development at a pace that would keep his spark of excitement for learning alive. He did need a teacher who was open to individualized learning and who believed that any child could have an as yet unrealized talent.

Let’s let our children cruise from the ground up. Let’s let them know that to be smart is cool, and that they are indeed smart!

Core Elements of Learning

On The New York Times Op Ed page, February 23, 2010, columnist Bob Herbert talked about Deborah Kenny’s philosophy about improving schools in this country. In setting up the successful charter schools known as the Harlem Village Academies, she explained, “If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well that was just 100 times more important than anything else.”

She went on to tell Herbert, “I had five core things in mind for my kids [her own children], and that’s what I want for our students. I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

Herbert concludes, “It never crossed Ms. Kenny’s mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment.”

Kenny’s hiring philosophy is the same that I used at WCATY and I endorse her learning philosophy 100%. In hiring our WCATY teachers, we used three criteria: they had to be excellent in their field; they had to have a passion for that field, and they had to want to pass that passion on to their students.

I think some people perceive that because I have written a book for young children that emphasizes the importance of being smart I put less value on character. This is far from the truth. If you read “Grandma Says,” all the qualities mentioned by Kenny are in some way described or implied: a passion for learning, the love of reading, being good to the world, sharing with others, and in Kenny’s terminology, a “sophisticated intellect.” Being smart includes respecting and developing one’s own and other’s curiosity, creative thinking, critical thinking, independent questioning, exploration, and problem solving. I agree with Kenny that every child, from an early age, at home and at school, should grow up knowing that learning is cool – something they CAN do with great joy!

Grit, persistence, or the understanding that success involves hard work is the one quality that I may not have emphasized to the degree some would prefer in my children’s book. It will be addressed up front in the next – because children do need to understand that practice and careful attention to the tasks at hand are among the keys to learning. Although Kenny didn’t talk about this in the Herbert interview either, I suspect she  considers it a part of the “sophisticated intellect” as do I.