As a book about the roots of success, you can be sure Malcolm Gladwell Outliers would have something to say about education. He concludes that the well-documented "achievement gap" between the most affluent and the poorest students can be almost entirely attributed to summer vacations. Standardized test scores of Baltimore public school students at the beginning and the end of the school year suggest that poorer students keep up with their richer peers during the school year, but fall behind during the summers. Presumably the richer students have more intellectually stimulating summers – parents that talk with them, books to read, special summer camps and programs – while the poorer students just watch TV for three months. Gladwell gives an enormous shout-out to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, whose fundamental philosophy is to fill up the students' lives with non-stop academics – class from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, and homework until 10:30 pm or 11:00 pm every night, and class on Saturdays and through most of the summer as well.
I don't doubt that the KIPP schools work . . . depending, of course, on your definition of "work." Gladwell's analysis is far too pat, too "presto," to be the whole truth of the matter. Yes, the Asians have a reputation for being good at math, and perhaps the only reason they are is because of the sheer volume of work they do. Then again, they also have a reputation for being uptight hacks with high teen suicide rates. They might have the high IQ scores, but they might have sacrificed some creativity in the process of their non-stop "cultivation." Gladwell himself pointed out in earlier chapters that high IQ did not necessarily correlate with creativity, or practical intelligence, or social savvy. It surprises me, then, that Gladwell immediately accepts that work is the magic ingredient in the KIPP schools. Aren't there other explanations that could work equally well here? Lots of questions come to mind:
Maybe KIPP students do so well because they don't have time to get into any trouble that would derail an academic career. Teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, incarceration, and early entry into the workforce often sidetrack poor teens from finishing school; KIPP ensures that won't happen, by just keeping them so darn busy. Not to mention keeping them away from TV, which is the ultimate brain-suck.
Even if extra academic time is the key to success, don't you think there might be a threshold – a point beyond which more study won't help? Gladwell clearly sees there is a threshold for requisite talent . . . so why not a threshold for study time?
Gladwell's theory could be tested against lots of data, other than the little he provides. There are lots of schools in the U.S. that have already converted to a year-round schedule instead of large summer break (not because of the academic arguments that Gladwell cites, but the economic incentives to make more efficient use of the school facilities, rather than letting a huge physical plant lie dormant for a fourth of the year.) Surely we could look at their test scores and see if the achievement gap has disappeared. The absence of such data, or even the mention of the possibility, strikes me as somewhat suspicious.
In passing, Gladwell mentioned lots of little details about the daily life at a KIPP school – that the students wear uniforms, that they held to high standards for decorum and appearance, that they are constantly surrounded with the expectation that they will go to college, that the teachers tell them to get more sleep, that the students only social life is with other KIPP kids who reinforce all the same values. Gladwell himself mentioned that the coaching and support the middle-class parents are giving their children could be a key differentiator in their success in life . . . and it sounds like KIPP is providing exactly that. So why doesn't he latch onto that as the magic ingredient, instead of fixating on the sheer amount of work?
Just because KIPP's form of intervention "worked" for kids in ultra-poor contexts, does not necessarily mean it is an ideal form of education for all students. KIPP has gotten a lot of kids who would otherwise be trapped in poverty to go to college and get ahead in the world – great! But does that mean that we should do this for every young student? Gladwell should hope not . . . because that would sabotage the wonderful story he told of young Bill Gates sneaking out at night to program at a nearby college. Bill Gates would never have gotten his 10,000 hours of programming in, had he been going to a school with a KIPP philosophy.
An even more subtle distinction: just because you get students to excel at something does not mean they enjoy it. I can't locate the reference right now, but my wife told me the Wall Street Journal had pointed out that while Asian students were consistently scoring highest on math, they were also consistently the least likely to enjoy the subject. At some level, most people would agree that worldly success is not the only goal of education. We also hope that it will enrich our children's lives, that they will be happier, wiser, more free. If we make every student in the U.S. a perfectly competent academic, who absolutely detests everything he's learned . . . have we really succeeded? The KIPP students will gladly accept that bargain to get out of the ghetto, but that doesn't mean we've found the perfect educational model, either.
While Gladwell is singing the praises of organized sports and classes and lessons that the middle class are soaking their children in, a lot of research is now questioning the wisdom of scripting out our children's lives. Free, self-directed play, (the kind Gladwell dismisses as a happy but useless phenomena of the lower classes) is in fact found to directly correlate with the development of executive function and self-regulation. Gladwell asserted that persistence was at the root of mathematical ability; it turns out the best way kids develop that kind of persistence is by playing with themselves and other kids, with no direction at all. How does that fit in with KIPP's model?
I'm not saying that Gladwell is wrong, exactly. But he's a long, long way from having proven his case.
All I know of this is what I just read in your blog, so don't take this for more than it's worth. But it does sound like KIPP is a tremendous improvement in the lives of students for whom the summer vacation alternatives are TV, drugs, and gangs. For students who might spend their summer vacations exploring the woods, I think KIPP would be a step down.
Very interesting. I have a friend who is a teacher who, unsurprisingly, has nothing good to say about No Child Left Behind. He recently mentioned that the focus on testing in his school has resulted in a big push to get kids who are "left behind" in math to spend more time on it. The result: kids who hated math but loved music (and maybe had potential there) are being taken out of music class to spend more time doing math. Now instead of just hating math they hate school.
One question: are KIPP students self-selecting? If so, I would add #8 saying that Gladwell proved correlation without proving causation. It could be the parents who push their kids into KIPP programs are more likely to drive their kids to success.