Outliers in Education

What really intrigued me about this particular chapter while reading “Outliers” for Malcolm Gladwell is the underlying factors that govern the success of certain “privileged” individuals. These factors such as their children’s lifestyle, educucational background of their parents or their wealth contribute in granting these children .

Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book “Ouliers” under the chapter of”Marita’s Bargain”: “Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent outlet shop and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom. But take a look at the following sets of elementary school bracelet test-score results, and see if your faith in the value of long summer holidays isn’t profoundly shaken. These numbers come from research led by the Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. Alexander tracked the progress of 650 first graders from the Baltimore public school system, looking at how they scored on a widely used math- and reading-skills exam called the California Achievement Test. These are reading scores for the first five years of elementary school, broken down by socioeconomic class — low, middle, and high.

Class

1st Grade

2nd Grade

3rd Grade

4th Grade

5th Grade

Low

329

375

397

433

461

Middle

348

388

425

467

497

High

361

418

460

506

534

Look at the first column. The students start in first grade with meaningful, but not overwhelming, differences in their knowledge and ability. The first graders from the wealthiest homes have a 32-point advantage over the first graders from the poorest homes—and by the way, first graders from poor homes in Baltimore are really poor. Now look at the fifth-grade column. By that point, four years later, the initially modest gap between rich and poor has more than doubled. This “achievement gap” is a phenomenon that has been observed over and over again, and it typically provokes one of two responses. The first response is that disadvantaged kids simply don’t have the same inherent ability to learn as children from more privileged backgrounds. They’re not as smart. The second, slightly more optimistic conclusion is that, in some way, our schools are failing poor children: we simply aren’t doing a good enough job of teaching them the skills they need. But here’s where Alexander’s study gets interesting, because it turns out that neither of those explanations rings true. The city of Baltimore didn’t give its kids the California Achievement Test just at the end of every school year, in June. It gave them the test in September too, just after summer vacation ended. What Alexander realized is that the second set of test results allowed him to do a slightly different analysis. If he looked at the difference between the score a student got at the beginning of the school year, in September, and the score he or she got the following June, he could measure—precisely—how much that student learned over the school year. And if he looked at the difference between a student’s score in June and then in the following September, he could see how much that student learned over the course of the summer. In other words, he could figure out—at least in part—how much of the achievement gap is the result of things that happen during the school year, and how much it has to do with what happens during summer vacation. Let’s start with the school-year gains. This table shows how many points students’ test scores rose from the time they started classes in September to the time they stopped in June. The “Total” column represents their cumulative classroom learning from all five years of elementary school.

Class

1st Grade

2nd Grade

3rd Grade

4th Grade

5th Grade

Total

Low

55

46

30

33

25

189

Middle

69

43

34

41

27

214

High

60

39

34

28

23

184

Here is a completely different story from the one suggested by the first table. The first set of test results made it look like lower-income kids were somehow failing in the classroom. But here we see plainly that isn’t true. Look at the “Total” column. Over the course of five years of elementary school, poor kids “out-learn” the wealthiest kids 189 points to 184 points. They lag behind the middle-class kids by only a modest amount, and, in fact, in one year, second grade, they learn more than the middle- or upper-class kids. Next, let’s see what happens if we look just at how reading scores change during summer vacation.

Class

1st Grade

2nd Grade

3rd Grade

4th Grade

Total

Low

-3.67

-1.70

2.74

2.89

0.26

Middle

-3.11

4.18

3.68

2.34

7.09

High

15.38

9.22

14.51

13.38

52.49

 The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.

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. They go to museums and get enrolled in Summer camps. When they get bored at home, there are lots of books around to read.”

Extra Read

Bob Sprankle writes in his blog “He [Malcolm Gladwell] goes on to smash this untouchable tradition by citing the work of Johns Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander (his research into “Summertime Learning Loss”),and then hits us smack in the head with numbers that are indisputable: Number of school days for the South Korean school year is 220 days. Japan: 243 days.

United States: 180 days.

The whole point of Gladwell’s book is that more time to practice skills is what leads to the “outliers” —those that reach high levels of success. He provides anecdotes and evidence that those with the opportunity for more time, will undoubtedly rise to the top. Gladwell refutes the idea that talent is what makes great basketball players, musicians, mathematicians, writers, fill-in-the-blank, etc. It is time that makes greatness. Time to really learn and practice a skill, as well as not having an unjustifiable and extended break (such as summer vacation) to unlearn or become rusty at skills attained, is the difference between good and great.

243 days – 180 days = 63 days of advantage.

There used to be a reason for summer furlough (and Gladwell explains the difference between Western agricultural needs vs Asian agricultural needs), but students are clearly no longer needed to be home to help get the crops in during the summer months. Again, I refer you to the research Gladwell cites from Karl Alexander to illustrate the damage that this time off has on students —most notably, on lower income populations who suffer a larger loss, as evidenced in the data. In short, students of lower income lack the opportunities for “continued learning opportunities” that more affluent students have access to during the summer months.

Perhaps “No Child Left Behind” would have been better served with the title: “Leave no Month Behind.”

As Gladwell points out, “Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates.” Counter-arguments or conversation-stoppers on the subject most likely come in the form of “We’ve always done it like this,” or “High School students need summers off to make income for college tuition,” or “This would have a severe impact on the economy as dollars are no longer put into summer vacation circulation,” or even, “Give me Summers Off, or Give Me Death!”

These and other arguments are not to be treated lightly. There are some very important decisions that would have to be made, and perhaps even hardships incurred that changing to a year-long school curriculum would require.

I surely don’t have the answers to the infinite conundrums that could be caused by giving up summer (read Gladwell; he makes a better argument than I can make, and he’s not alone), but the numbers don’t lie: the data from Alexander’s research are impressive, and, I think we can all agree that a 63 days difference between American school days and Japanese school days is by no means insignificant. There’s got to be some “out of the box” thinking for restructuring our school year to either include more days, or perhaps distribute more evenly the large gap of nearly 3 months that depletes learning across the year, rather than keeping that time lumped together in its current summer vacation embodiment.

Here’s my biggest worry, however. Let’s say a “magic wand” is waved and somehow we expand our school days to a number closer to Japan’s. What I fear is that rather than finally having time to master (even “conquer”) the curriculum we already have in place (that is already given short shrift), even more will be added on. This won’t help at all, will it? We’ll be in a worse situation: still not enough time to accomplish the curriculum, and now even more curriculum to not have enough time to accomplish.

Gladwell gives an excellent example towards the end of the book from the KIPP Academy where students are given extended time to solve math problems. He demonstrates that the extended time allows for the teacher and students to make “mathematics meaningful.” After all, what’s the rush? Is it more important to make sure we cover the required content, or make sure that the students are given all the time necessary to acquire the content?”

For more information please buy your copy of Outliers, a truly enlightening book for Malcolm Gladwell.

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About Abdul Rahman Alieh

I use this space to share interesting videos and snippets from articles and books I come across. I hope you find this blog interesting. Can't wait to read your comments! Abdul Rahman

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