Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 38: Educational Giving

Education is very important to me, and in fact to my whole family. Both of my parents were teachers. (My father still is.) My grandmother was a teacher.  I've worked in the educational field for over a decade ... five years in the classroom with Project SEED, and now for over five years with an educational publishing company that focuses on educational assessment.

In my opinion, education is the single most important political issue there is. Every election, my most intense analysis goes to the candidate's stance on education (assuming the position has anything to do with education - for example, I don't really care too much about the county coroner's educational stance).

Why is this more important than the wealth of other issues? Because, simply put, a good educational system, which teaches young people to think critically (a skill often sadly neglected at home), puts us on a firm foundation for solving all other problems ... including the problems that haven't even come up yet! Raising an ignorant, unthoughtful generation of students just pushes problems off so that the next generation can mess things up worse.

The Status of National Education
As I mentioned, my current occupation is in educational assessment. This is at the heart of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. One of the issues, though, is that each state has different standards to be assessed. In addition to creating inconsistencies in American education, this also increases costs, because each state has to create (or pay a company to create) educational and assessment materials.

Recently, several states (along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have decided to voluntarily join together and work on a set of common standards. The Common Core State Standards Initiative has just released their draft version of English-Language Arts and Mathematics standards that would apply across most of the country. These are not federally-mandated standards, though ... they're a voluntary set of standards that are being developed to provide a foundation for the instruction in each state  (except for Texas and Alaska, who aren't a part of the process, probably in part be because they feel they already have adequate standards).

The draft versions are now open to the public for comment, so one of the best things that I can think of to help education nationally is to review the standards and offer my own expertise by commenting on them ... and to urge everyone else out there to do the same. This may well provide the basis for the next wave of educational reforms, so it's important that we see that these common core standards reflect the education we want our children to have.

Project SEED
Another way to help is to support programs that promote academic excellence. Project SEED is a great non-profit, and since I worked for them for five years, I fully know that they get great results. SEED has been using Socratic teaching methods to provide instruction in advanced mathematics to elementary and middle school students since the 1960's. This program really enhances the ability of students to think mathematically, and has been shown in a number of research evaluations to have a powerful, prolonged positive impact on student performance. The following video, which shows some student activity, is probably the best way to get an idea of how the program works.


Unfortunately, I also know enough about how Project SEED works to know that small donations don't really do much toward getting more instruction in the classroom. Even a donation of $500 (a very large donation on my budget) wouldn't do a ton to help actually provide any additional benefits to students (although I'm sure it would be appreciated as a way to defray some of their operational expenses). It takes several thousand dollars to fund a class, which means their funding needs to come in bigger chunks - either from portions of school budgets allocated toward this excellent classroom instruction (and professional development) or possibly grants to cover the costs.

Having said that, I certainly don't mean this as a discouragement for any educators (or parents and citizens, for that matter) out there who want to seek Project SEED expertise in their own community. These grants do exist, and since Project SEED provides both classroom instruction and professional development, this means that professional development funds can be used to help train the teachers in these instructional methodologies. If you're interested, then I urge you to contact Project SEED to find out more and perhaps get a demonstration at a local school.

Every Child is Gifted
Growing up, I was always tagged with the label "gifted." I was in the advanced classes, and excelled at them. I sought out learning experiences for fun. At age 16, I left home to attend the Indiana Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state-run residential high school for the top gifted and talented juniors and seniors in the state.

I was a geek, in other words, and (eventually) proud of it.

However, my time in Project SEED convinced me of one simple truth - every child is gifted, and it's only because we draw such distinctions that we become convinced that any child is not gifted. Any child - if given the proper opportunities and encouragement, would find and embrace their gifts ... and even if the child doesn't display gifts in a certain area, if nourished, they will at least develop skills in those areas.

In other words, I now hold the firm belief that there is no such thing as a child who is inherently bad at mathematics ... or, for that matter, anything else.

Would every child be gifted in science or mathematics? Would every child want to be? No, of course not. But they would all grow to cultivate the unique gifts that they do have. And it is the cultivation of these gifts that turns them from gifts into brilliance, as beautifully described time and again in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success.

If the Beatles hadn't practiced for many hours, they may have been gifted musicians, but they wouldn't have been able to revolutionize rock and roll. All great musicians are great because they have devoted themselves to music. No one just lucks into it on the basis of exceptional natural ability alone.

If Bill Gates hadn't been able to cultivated his computer skills, he may still be a bright guy, but he wouldn't have been able to transform our modern world with technology.

The fallacy that Gladwell ably debunks is the idea that some people will succeed no matter what environment they're placed in. There is no such thing as a true prodigy, who will thrive even in a situation where their gifts are not nurtured. A gift that is not nurtured will wither ... no matter how great its potential.

Similarly, a withered ability that is nurtured will begin to flourish. The brain, which contains the skill sets that we develop in life, is amazingly flexible. The plasticity of the brain (as it's called) means that we can always pick up new skills, and research is showing that while it may get more difficult as time goes on, this ability never really stops.

For example, I'm a horrible musician, but that's in part because it's never been particularly important to me to develop musical skills. Despite some time in middle school band as a percussionist, I never devoted as much time to learning music as, say, reading. But if I decided - even now at age 33, or a decade or two from now - that it was really important for me to play the guitar or piano, or even to sing, I would be able to do learn how to do it. It might be tough, but it's a skill that's reachable. I could even, I'm sure, become competent or even good at it, if I put the proper time into the developing the skill. It would, however, take me years to develop this into an instinctive ability and master the skills.

Compare this to, say, a Miley Cyrus or a Mozart, whose musical ability has been nurtured since childhood. Both began working in music early so that, by young adulthood, they were each expert professionals in their particular musical crafts. (Gladwell discusses Mozart but, understandably, doesn't draw the parallel between him and Miss Cyrus.)

While Project SEED utilizes innovative strategies to reach the gifted mathematician within each student, an organization called All Kinds of Minds is dedicated to major school reform, seeking to transform the educational methodologies of American teachers so that they can connect with the many ways different students learn. It is rooted in the principles of Dr. Mark Levine, as outlined in his book A Mind at a Time, which lays out recent research in learning styles. By teaching educators about the profound variability in student learning styles, they hope to create a school system where every student will actually have a chance to thrive. That is certainly a goal worthy of support, which is why they got a check as part of today's give.

Local Education Support
In addition to giving to a national educational non-profit, I'm also offering up a donation to the Anderson Education Foundation, which provides grants for classroom instruction opportunities in my local area. There are a lot of these private non-profit foundations created for the purpose of supporting the local public school system ... and as we all know, our school systems need a lot of help.

If you live in Indiana, you could go to the Indiana Association of Public Education Foundations (IAPEF) to find out whether there's such a foundation in your area.

Outside of Indiana, you can look into the National School Foundation Association to see if there is a local chapter listed among their affiliates. (Some Indiana public education foundations, such as in my hometown of Vincennes, are listed on the NSFA site but aren't members of IAPEF.)

These would also be great organizations to approach about the possibility bringing consultants from Project SEED, All Kinds of Minds, or other innovative educational programs into your local communities to help with professional training and development. Where the school system falls short in providing adequate funding, maybe these organizations can help ... if their local communities support them.