Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Our Schools... are fine? Sort of, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell

Yesterday, I read "Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell. The book attempts to examine factors that influence peoples' successes and failures when traditional explanations don't make sense.

I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the book thoroughly; I'd heard that as a stat guy, I'd get mad at some of the conclusions and the manner in which they were drawn. And yes, there are parts of the book where the conclusion was fundamentally flawed (the portion of the book on affirmative action at Michigan Law School drove me particularly nuts), but overall, the book has a lot of interesting observations and things to think about.

However, there was one portion on education that I thought was particularly interesting and worth sharing here. An educational test was administered to elementary schoolers at the beginning and end of every year, and data were split into low, middle, and upper classes.

As one would expect, there was a moderate difference between the classes in the first grade, and a larger difference between the classes in the fifth grade; Conventional wisdom is that educational quality differs for the classes, so the more years of education, the bigger the difference should be (this is why I roll my eyes whenever anyone complains that Harvard's student body is not socioeconomically representative - it comes at the end of a long educational career, so the best students should, on average, be better off. Harvard is not only full of rich kids, there are plenty of lower-income students here, but the average is quite a bit higher than the population - as it statistically should be for a high calibur school.)

However, the interesting part is that the component of education in which the children differed in their rate of improvement was the portion between June and September, not between September and June. In other words, the children progressed almost equally while in school, even though the lower class children attended worse schools. In fact, if summer did not happen but each school year brought the same rate of improvement as in the study (a large assumption, but even if it's not true, it doesn't completely invalidate the point), the lower class children would have almost caught up with their richer counterparts by the end of fifth grade - a larger gain than their rich counterparts.

Summer vacations, however, show a MASSIVE divergence. Poorer kids show no advancement over the summer on average, while richer kids show an advance roughly equivalent to spending those three months in school. Gladwell attributes this to the differing parenting styles of richer parents vs poorer parents - richer parents schedule their children heavily and encourage them to engage their superiors, while poorer parents leave their kids in unstructured time.

Maybe the answer, then, to issues of education is not to throw more money at improving the process of school, but instead to throw more money at prosperous summer activities. Less conventionally... what if children were forced to attend school in the summer? Or even more interestingly, what if children were forced to attend school in the summer unless they could propose a more worthwhile use of their time? This latter option allows children to explore a number of other opportunities not available in school but which may be important to them, and if they don't have anything, puts them somewhere where they can continue to learn (I know that I, personally, have benefited just as much, and probably more so, from my summer activities than my school ones because I could pursue what I was interested in, but I also know that I was lucky enough to have a mother who encouraged me to think in terms of how I could use my free time to learn new things).

Gladwell has a number of anecdotes about schooling, and other ones about the benefit of spending time learning something (he claims it takes 10,000 hours of cumulative practice to become a master at something, and those hours must be completed by the time you need to be considered a master to advance). Don't believe everything he says, think critically, but it's an interesting book that I liked a great deal.

1 comment:

  1. That is a very interesting finding and, at least in my mind, makes a ton of sense. During the summer, kids in wealthier areas are going to camp, playing organized sports, etc. but very rarely just sitting around all day free to do as they please; they are constantly engaged. I am not from an urban area so I cannot speak for experience but, assuming that the parents in lower income areas do not have the money for camp or organized sports, the kids are likely left to "fend for themselves" during the summer months, left to do as they please with little structure or intellectual engagement. Touche Mr. Frankel, touche.