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”.