Fighting the War Against Intelligence

Let’s try out a couple phrases:

Elite Athlete
Elite Model
Elite Entertainers
Elite Vacations
Military Elite
Elite Smart People

Recently Rick Santorum made headlines with his statement that the “elite smart people” would never support the Republican party. According to Wikipedia, “An elite in political and sociological theory, is a small group of people who control a disproportionate amount of wealth or political power.”  Clearly under that definition, many of the elite are supporters of Republican candidates just as some are supporters of Democratic candidates.

Mr. Santorum’s disdain is not for the elite. His derogatory comment was a slam against smart people.

United States society and our governmental policies have been waging a war against intelligence for over a decade. Formally codified as No Child Left Behind, our nation’s educational policies have specifically focused on and funded initiatives for low achievers while deliberately neglecting students at the upper end of the curve. This neglect disproportionately hurts gifted and talented students from low-income and middle class families. High potential students from families with means have numerous options from tutors, to moving to districts with better public schools, to sending their kids to exclusive private schools. Students from less affluent families are not so lucky. Congress has chosen not to fund the only U.S. Department of Education program aimed at finding and nurturing gifted and talented students, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

Across our nation, the policies and funding that define public education are deliberately ravaging programs, initiatives, and even standards that can help our smart students thrive. Quality public education is under attack from Texas where the Republican Party opposes the teaching of critical thinking skills, to science classes countrywide that teach creationism alongside evolution. Regardless of people’s personal beliefs, one of the main benefits of science classes is teaching students how to take a hypothesis, break it down, and thoughtfully and systematically examine supporting and non-supporting evidence. Schools need to teach students how to use their intelligence to make sense of the world. More than ever before, science and reason are a force in the global economy. The major issues of our time from global warming to natural resource depletion, to mass population expansion and world hunger, are problems that will be addressed through a smart combination of science and public policies.

Around the world, nations are nurturing their gifted and talented youth, supporting rather than denigrating their elite smart people. Due to the war against intelligence in the U.S., our high-potential students are being left behind. Just consider two of many statistics cited by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development:

  • The United States has among the smallest proportion of 15-year-olds performing at the highest levels of proficiency in math. Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and the Czech Republic have at least five times the proportion of top performers as the United States. (McKinsey & Company, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools; April 2009)
  • About one-third of all jobs in the United States require science or technology competency, but currently only 17 percent of Americans graduate with science or technology majors … in China, fully 52 percent of college degrees awarded are in science and technology. (William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, Congressional testimony July 2005)

Chester E. Finn Jr., an expert in public gifted education in the U.S. has documented how we are systematically neglecting our high-ability students. He calls for an end to the “bias against gifted and talented education.”

Where do we start? How do we change the cultural tide to make it okay, even revered to be a thinking intellectual?
We can begin with some basic initiatives.

  1. First our news media needs to stop pretending that an argument fully supported by documented, proven facts, is no more valid than an opinion that the opposite is true. They need to demonstrate their support of intelligence by publicly weighing the proof behind statements and showing, by example, that it is okay to be critically thinking, smart people.
  2. We need to demand that our national government fully and increasingly fund science programs and education for our elite, smart people.
  3. Parents should stop hiding the sacrifices they make to support their exceptionally gifted children. Too often we conceal a child’s giftedness to avoid embarrassing social situations. This public denial of the challenges associated with raising children on the high end of the curve is similar to the way physically and mentally handicapped children once were invisible in society, and it is just as unacceptable.
  4. Schools need to stop pretending that all students have equal intellectual potential and should start providing real educational opportunities for high-potential students.
  5. Communities should be as publicly proud of their elite smart people as they are of their elite athletes.

We need to embrace the reality that we, all Americans, will be better off if we fully support and educate our future scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. It is time to call out anyone who uses the terms “smart” and “intellectual” as put downs and label the speakers what they really are, un-American.

Loving School Again

My second grader started at a new, to him, school this week. The school is an alternative, public school for gifted kids.  The school is small with a combined student body, 1st through 12th grade, of just over 100 students. It is not in our district which means in order for my kids to attend the program I get to spend 2+ hours a day driving them to and from school. This gives me time, lots of it, to ponder, “Is it worth it?”

Right now the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

Yesterday when I picked up the kids, the seven-year-old bounced with excitement and enthusiasm. He wanted to know if he would be able to work on his Rosetta Stone Spanish at home that night. He was more confident than I have seen in a long time. In fact, earlier in the day I had commented to another parent that he used used to be the most positive child but that over the last year or so he had become increasingly pessimistic.

So I asked him if he was enjoying the new school and how it compared to his old school. He was emphatic that the new school was “way” better. Now, keep in mind, his old school was no slouch. It is a very high performing, blue ribbon school in a well-funded suburban school district. The K-6 student body of 1,000 has many high performers. The building is well-maintained and the school has new technology, dedicated teachers, and highly involved parents who value education and donate their time and money to support the teachers, students, and school. We chose to live here in part because the schools are so good. Yet, our kids did not thrive in the local schools.

In the words of a second grader here is why the school for gifted kids is better than the high-quality, local school.

  1. No Bullying.
  2. Everybody is nice.
  3. You need to get work done.
  4. You get a couple of breaks.
  5. You get to have a snack whenever you want.

Taking each of the above points one at a time shows why significantly gifted kids have a better chance of thriving when they are able to enroll in full-time programs with similar kids, designed for the special needs of the population.

No Bullying. Like it or not, kids on the playground are frequently mean. Especially at a big school, like his old school. During after lunch recess there are over 100 students on the playground and only a couple of adults supervising. My son, who is small for his age, was teased constantly. He was called names and physically bullied. Because he views the world a bit differently than a regular kid, he could not navigate the huge social pecking order. Due to lack of numbers and lack of understanding, no adult had his back. He was on his own and he spent a great deal of time obsessing about how he could defend himself.

At the smaller gifted school there is a better ratio of adults to kids on the playground but that isn’t the only improvement. Being smart isn’t a social negative. The kids value intellect as much or more than athletic prowess and the hockey/soccer/football stars do not rule the playground. This allows him to be himself without automatically becoming a target.

Everybody is nice. While this may sound like a rephrasing of the first point, it goes beyond that. It is one thing to not get picked on, it is another to connect. He is having good conversations and making friends with kids of all ages. He is finding common ground and gaining confidence because the other kids accept him.

You need to get work done. This statement struck me as a bit funny. Of course he got work done in his old school as well. The new school includes a heavy component of self-directed learning and personal responsibility. I think he is starting to take more ownership of his education. He feels like his is working and learning, instead of merely following the teacher’s directions.

You get a couple of breaks. In their quest to maximize test scores, his old elementary school structured the school day to maximize seat time. Although studies do not bear this out, there is a feeling that school days need to be crammed full of academics to maximize student success. The only “break” time allowed in his old first grade classroom was recess right after lunch. The new school divides the school day into work blocks interspersed with break times. Different people need different types of breaks. Introverts may need to go read a book in a corner, extroverts may need to catch up with friends. Different days you may feel like walking outside or just playing a mindless game of solitaire. The new school allows for this. Within reason and weather permitting, students can use their break times however they wish. This leaves students feeling like they have really had a break and they then tackle the next work block with renewed focus and energy.

You get to have a snack whenever you want. This is so basic. Regular elementary schools and classrooms only allow students to eat at specific times. Many students, and especially, many significantly gifted students, have cranked up brain metabolisms. They may need a more steady stream of food, especially protein, throughout the day. If they can’t eat when their bodies and brains need nourishment, their thinking can get foggy and they lose emotional resilience. The new school recognizes that hunger and nutritional needs are not dictated by a clock. Allowing students to eat when they are hungry makes the students more aware of, and in tune with, their bodies. It also makes them more productive during work blocks.

Could some of these changes be implemented at the local school? Perhaps, although in a school with 1,000 students it is difficult to meet the needs of a small group that march to the beat of a different drummer. Full-time programs dedicated to highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted students fulfill a huge need that even the best neighborhood schools fail to meet. The need to get these kids together with each other. They know they are different and can have a difficult time finding meaningful connections with regular kids in regular schools. In gifted programs they discover that they are not alone. As one student put it coming back to (the gifted) school after summer break, he is once again with “his people.”



Elementary School Cooperation, Pressure, and Harvard Cheating

On Friday the news broke that Harvard University is investigating what may be the largest student cheating scandal in its history. 125 students in a course titled “Introduction to Congress” are suspected of cheating on the take-home final exam. All jokes aside about it being sadly funny that a course about Congress was one which inspired cheating, how did we get here? How did students who are some of our nation’s best and brightest, students who will go on to lead in businesses, academics, and government, either cheat intentionally or fail miserably at understanding the basic social contract behind a final course exam?

The fact that the students collaborated on the exam and that their answers were similar is not under dispute. The students are defending their shared exam work, stating that they felt the professor and teaching assistants encouraged cooperation and collaboration, or tolerated it, or at least did not explicitly state it was against the rules. Some have even said they will sue Harvard if they are punished.

The defense the students are putting forth is that the course was represented to them (apparently by the professor and some other students) as an easy “A”. These students went into the class feeling as though attending lectures and doing the reading was optional. There were take-home assignments and exams during the course that did allow some collaboration. Then they got the final exam. Some felt the final was confusing with trick questions and at least one term that had not been obviously defined in class or in the readings. Students being questioned about cheating chatted about the exam specifics with each other and went to teaching assistants for guidance on how to answer the questions. Given the perceived unfairness of having to work hard for a grade in an “easy” class, deal with ambiguous questions, and think on their own, many students just chose to work together. No word yet on how the other 154 students in the course managed to complete their exam without outside help.

Students are claiming that the exam instructions were confusing and didn’t explicitly ban collaboration. This is a disingenuous argument. If the instructions were confusing, they should have clarified the instructions, not worked together on the answers. The exam instructions, as posted by the Boston Globe, explicitly state that the students may not discuss the exam. An open book, open note, and open Internet exam is not the same thing as a “discuss with your neighbor and write down your combined best answer” exam. Perhaps the students have never had true, in-class, proctored, open-book exams so they don’t understand what that means? Harvard has moved away from traditional in-class exams.

Clearly this extreme form of cheating does not suddenly emerge out of  a vacuum. Harvard graduates have, from time-to-time, spoken out about the culture of cheating occurs when kids used to success and under pressure to achieve high GPAs, start feeling like they might fail. This need to bend ethics and the truth to win is evident elsewhere in society from politics to the Libor interest rate scandal.

Yet the uptick of both cheating and rationalizing that cheating represented in the current Harvard scandal is something new. It is one thing to cheat, it is another to blatantly do so in mass numbers, threatening to sue a university if you are punished. To me this is the sad but natural progression of two trends that are taking over our school systems, starting at the elementary level.

The first trend is the growing worship of shared, group work over individual effort. Many, if not most, elementary school classrooms have desks arranged in collaborative workgroup “pods” rather than in straight lines, facing the teacher. In these pods the students face each other. This increases peer interaction (and distraction), minimizes the authority and role of the teacher in the classroom, and gives burgeoning bullies more opportunities to pick on classmates without getting caught. Teachers arrange their rooms this way to make it easier for students to work together. While everyone agrees that we want our future workforce to be excellent at getting along with each other and working together, is a heavy emphasis on group projects in school the right way to achieve that goal? Actual research shows that individuals perform better than groups.  People in groups tend to be lazy, letting others do more work than themselves. Rather than fostering more ideas, groups tend to create a type of groupthink where individual ideas are suppressed and peer pressure rules. The work and creativity of introverts especially suffers when they are forced to work in groups. By emphasizing group work so early in school we are de-emphasising individual effort and ability. We are encouraging the type of thinking that can lead to students at an Ivy League university seeing nothing wrong with a group effort on a final exam. We are short-changing our kids and their future employers by teaching them that there is no difference between an individual knowing the correct answer and that individual’s peer group knowing the correct answer. We are systematically reducing the numbers and quality of thoughts and ideas in our world just when we need an increase of creativity to find solutions to our 21st Century problems.

The second trend is more obvious and just as disturbing. It is the win at all costs, my child must be the best, of the best, of the best or he/she will be a failure, parenting style. When parents coach their kids to make sure they gain entry to gifted programs and call teachers to complain about test scores, their kids notice. Kids are learning that resources and success are limited and the stakes are so high it is permissible to bend the rules. The idea that your life will be irreparably ruined if you fail a course, in college or even K-12 is widespread. Parents, and therefore their kids, do not seem to believe that America is the land of limitless opportunity anymore. Instead everything matters, everything is life or death, and grades matter more than what you have actually learned. Our school system has created an environment where everyone is accountable, as judged by graduation rates and test scores, not by knowledge. Colleges used to hold the line on true academics, but they too are under pressure to turn out students with high GPAs and amazing resumes, regardless of actual learning. Grade inflation is rampant and frequently it isn’t until the stellar, always above average students gets into the workforce that the gaps in their ability and knowledge are obvious.

Getting into “the right” college isn’t as important and learning how to think and write. Statistics that show the amazing success of graduates of top universities fail to acknowledge that the smart, talented students accepted into those institutions will be successful no matter where they go to school. Parents all need to take a deep breath, stop worrying about the future and start teaching that integrity and hard work will be as important in the future as they were in the past.