Nov. 21, 2010
“The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
I’ve recently finished reading the outstanding book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, so much so, that I don’t want to give away too much of what makes it an essential book for educators. I do want to “zoom in” on one of the final chapters that discusses what could be one of the most glaring and obvious ways to “fix” the current problems that “ails” the US school system.
There’s a lot of great discussion going around thanks to the documentary, Waiting for Superman, MSNBC’s Education Nation, as well as rhetoric in recent elections. I haven’t had the chance to see Superman yet, and admittedly, I saw little of Education Nation, but I’ve read plenty about both. My informal assessment is that both avenues shine positive and negative light on the systems we have in place at present. There’s some bashing going on, but there’s also praise. It seems universal, however, that most people agree that they want things to get better. Fair or accurate representations from the media are important, but even if they get it wrong, this is an excellent opportunity for national conversation.
The chapter I’m referring to in Gladwell’s book Outliers, seems to me to be one of the most obvious places to start the conversation. As Gladwell states,
“Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom.”
He 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?
Bob Sprankle is a Technology Integrator in Maine, writer, blogger, podcaster, iphoneographer enthusiast, and father. He is humbled and honored to be asked to be a guest blogger for November Learning. To learn more about Bob, head on over to www.bobsprankle.com.