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Not More Time, Better Time

In advance of his keynote this Sunday at NECC, I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Overall it was a very good read, about on par with The Tipping Point and much better than Blink.

As always, Gladwell is a great story teller and does an excellent job of helping us get to know the people he calls outliers.

Unfortunately, as with his other works, he also works way too hard to stretch his anecdotes into fitting around his thesis, which in this case essentially can be summarized as “chance favors the prepared mind”*.

But there’s one example late in the book that had me yelling at the pages.

In that chapter, Gladwell is discussing a study showing the change in reading scores over summer break for students in different socioeconomic classes.

Now take a look at the last column, which totals up all the summer gains from first to fifth grade. The reading scores of the poor kids go up by .26 points. When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. [his emphasis] The reading scores of the rich kids, by contrast go up by a whopping 52.49 points. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.

From this he concludes: “Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”


The reasons for the large gains made over the summer by wealthy kids is not more of the same traditional schools. The explanation is provided by Gladwell right there on the same pages.

Those “rich kids” went to summer camps, museums, and “special programs”. They had “plenty of books to read” at home and parents who both encouraged and modeled reading.

Their parents “see it as their responsibility to keep [them] actively engaged in the world” around them.

Gladwell may be right that some kids need more time in school in order to raise their achievement levels (aka test scores). However, that’s not what’s happening here – or what should be happening.

The students who showed the most gains over the summer did so because of the alternative learning opportunities they received, that active engagement with a variety of sources, guided – not taught – by their parents.

Just extending the school year, one of the school reforms most loved by politicians and education “experts”, will do absolutely no good for any socioeconomic group of kids if that additional time is filled with more of the same test-prep-driven activities used during the current calendar by most schools.

And, no, I’m not convinced that the extended school day/week/year, highly regimented KIPP model Gladwell discusses in the same chapter is one that should be replicated for all students, not even for all low achieving kids.

More time is not the answer to better education. Better time is.

* The more commonly used version of Louis Pasteur’s original observation that “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind”.


  1. Scott McLeod

    I’m with you on this, all the way. But I also must comment that the more time disadvantaged kids spend in school, the less time they spend in other disadvantaged environments, no?

  2. Scott S. Floyd

    “Those “rich kids” went to summer camps, museums, and “special programs”. They had “plenty of books to read” at home and parents who both encouraged and modeled reading.”

    Amen to that. We are not rich (both educators), but we value education. Our son does all of those things because we see the benefit in it, and he really enjoys it. If there was a way to mandate parenting….

    As for Scott’s comment, I would say no. That statement only holds true if the child is there to learn and not to avoid a disadvantaged environment. There is a town near where the JP regularly hears from parents during truancy hearings: “Why do I have to send my kid to school if I don’t have to work that day?” Seriously.

  3. Doug Johnson


    I am guessing that access to reading materials of high interest has a lot to do with the improvement. I wonder if a push to get more less advantaged kids into the public libraries in the summer would help?

    I don’t think we can just complain about the injustice, but seek solutions.

    On a side note – good read this post. Thought about you when I heard of the metro disaster in DC. You never know who might be on a train.


  4. Dave

    I think you both are reading the data the same way, but your solutions are informed by different beliefs. You don’t say, but seem to imply, that parents of disadvantaged students should provide better alternative learning opportunities to their children. I think Gladwell would agree, but would take the extra step that telling parents how to parent (even when it’s pretty clearly good advice) isn’t always effective in the real world, hence his suggestion that schools take over more of the time that those parents are not using well.

    I think the happy medium is something I’ve seen some school districts already doing: offer very low cost summer day camps for elementary students. The students involved are having an edutainment-type experience. They’re playing and socializing and going on field trips, but they’re doing it under the guidance of certified teachers who are interjecting teaching moments and asking critical thinking questions throughout the day. It’s definitely not test prep, and it’s not sitting on the couch watching TV.

  5. Jessica

    @Scott S. Floyd

    So the big question is, do the poor value education? Is that what we’re asking?

  6. Jessica


    I am in love with the idea of the district offering low cost summer camps! Think it should be mandatory for districts to offer, because we know there is not a correlation between economic status and devaluing education. It’s absolutely a matter of resources.

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