Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2004 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Laura Vanderkam

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Online learning: A smart way to nurture gifted kids | Chintan Hossain used to dread walking down his middle school's halls. Students teased him for taking eighth-grade math in the seventh grade, but the classes still bored him senseless. "I wondered how I would make it through five more years of school," he says.

He could have buried his talents. Instead, five years later, Hossain has won national recognition for such projects as using non-linear mathematics to predict a pacemaker's effect on cardiac cells. He landed on the U.S. Physics Olympiad team last year and helped it win first place internationally.

Hossain credits the change to one thing: attending the Charter School of Wilmington, Del.

Unlike his middle school, this high school for gifted students paired him with master teachers — experts in their subjects who know how to train talented young people — and let him race through math and physics lessons as fast as his mind could go.

So I thought of Hossain when the National Science Board issued a report this spring warning that the U.S. was losing its scientific edge. More and more jobs, the board said, require science skills that few Americans have. In the past, gifted immigrants filled the gap, but as China and India become science powerhouses, and as visa rules tighten here, we need more homegrown talent — and most U.S. schools aren't up to the job.

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Occasionally, though, schools grow scientists by matching bright students with master teachers and letting them zoom ahead. Every community needs a school like Charter, but until then, technology can reproduce the conditions that helped Hossain learn.

Nurture top talent
With online learning, the newest wave of education, gifted students can take classes local schools can't offer and learn at their own frenetic pace. Though Hossain lived near a school that met his needs, not all young scientists have that luxury. Maintaining America's scientific edge means nurturing top talent wherever the student resides.

Pundits love to lament U.S. educational woes, but with all of the failing schools these days, few point out how much we bore the kids on top. Consider:

    86% of U.S. students do worksheets or read textbooks most of their time in math class; internationally, 59% do.

  • 74% of U.S. students start their math homework in class; internationally, 42% do.

  • U.S. eighth-grade science textbooks repeat 75% of the topics covered in fourth grade; in top countries, it's 25%.

While more than half of U.S. high schools offer some Advanced Placement classes, almost no schools offer math courses beyond that, or have the teachers or equipment to accommodate an interest in independent scientific research.

So it's little wonder that Bernard Khoury, executive officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers, reports that three of five 2003 U.S. Physics Team members attended public schools for the gifted, like Charter. These schools "recognize that the kid is extraordinary — and get out of the way," he says. They create courses, send kids to universities, or do whatever it takes to keep them challenged.

These are extraordinary schools. But virtual learning can help ordinary schools replicate their methods. For the past few years, back-to-school feature stories have predicted a surge in online education.

True, 90% of public colleges offer online learning, but only 25% of public K-12 schools have caught on, Education Week reports.

This is slow progress, given what distance learning can do. Stanford University, for instance, reaches more than 3,000 youngsters through its Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY). Students take anything from grammar to quantum mechanics, grouped by mastery, not by age. Interactive programs mimic a classroom vibe, and virtual sessions let students and teachers chat in real time.

Any state education department could team up with a university to create content as Stanford has, and hire master teachers who shine online. Schools could identify their most promising scientists and mathematicians and urge them to enroll. Students could meet their teachers and fellow students at area university labs once a month to learn how science really works.

Schools already have the technology to make this happen. All states have Internet access in more than 90% of schools; in all but five states, more than 70% of schools have high-speed Internet lines. "Schools don't need to make huge new investments," says Chris Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "They don't need to pass another bond issue" to make virtual learning reality.

Few options available
Yet, most of the students who could handle more rigorous online classes will be stuck with whatever local schools offer. EPGY, for instance, rarely sees kids whose parents haven't found the courses and paid the tab (generally $450-$700 a course) themselves.

Few schools even think these advanced courses are an option. Talk to those in distance learning, and you hear three explanations:

"The biggest barrier is funding," says Tim Stroud of the North American Council for Online Learning. But with high-speed lines in place, the marginal cost is small — a school rate of roughly $250 per pupil — and cheaper than hiring a teacher for a small group.

Few schools know that online programs exist or realize that learning doesn't require traditional classrooms.

But, after interviewing scores of gifted kids, I'm inclined to believe the third reason.

Truth is, despite National Science Board alarms, training young scientists isn't a national priority. We seethe when our Olympic athletes lose, but when China beat the U.S. in the International Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry Olympiads this summer, no one blinked.

"Because gifted kids learn the normal curriculum, we sense that their needs are being met," says Ray Ravaglia of EPGY.

So solutions are piecemeal — a charter school to rescue kids such as Chintan Hossain here, EPGY for students who have the resources there. Science and technology can help us regain our edge, but only if schools make finding challenging courses for their brightest students as important as ensuring there's "No Child Left Behind."

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02/22/03: SAT talent searches lead nowhere for many
10/08/02: Young, jobless? Skip law school, visit reality

© 2003, Laura Vanderkam