Overlooking the Obvious by Bob Sprankle

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“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.


  1. This is what happens when individuals with very little understanding of education get hold of a tiny piece of information and blow it up. Gladwell is out of his league on this one.

    This is a pretty simple argument of quantity over quality and it simply won’t work. More of the same (as you point out towards the end) won’t work. The interpretation of the sited research mis-correlates causation and generalizes the problem to offer a simple, quick fix.

    This is exactly what the education debate doesn’t need: more shallow, misconstrued (albeit good intention) quick fixes.

    Eliminating summer vacation will not solve the education issue. We have a problem of methodology and pedagogy here, not a problem of time. Of course we can look at optimizing the school year, but there are much bigger fish to fry before we get to that point.

  2. Tim,

    I agree: there is no one quick fix. I merely offer up summer vacations (and Gladwell’s/Alexander’s data) as something that can clearly be pointed to as a weakness in all this mess: “Look at that gaping (and agriculturally no longer needed) hole in the school year and how it affects students, primarily those of lower income.”

    Though it may be a “smaller fish,” I believe it speaks volumes to our students and community at least by providing a message that school just isn’t important enough to continue throughout the entire year. It also provides a definite interruption to the idea that a curriculum could be continuous and strengthens the notion that learning can only happen within graded (meaning grouping by age) environments.

    We live with the false idea that learning must commence in the fall, come to a screeching halt in the summer, and start again at an entirely *new* level the next fall. Don’t *forget* anything over the summer, because ready or not, we’re moving you up a grade.

    I’d love to hear from readers their estimates of how much time we also lose to testing and preparation for testing.

    These “small fish” start to add up.

    Thank you for your comments,


  3. I agree that this gaping hole is a problem (but not THE problem) when we want to keep a set of skills in top form.

    For example, being a trumpet player for many years, building up and maintaining my chops came with day in and day out practicing from 5th grade all the way through college. Each summer, I slacked a bit and definitely felt it in the fall. Now, I have the same problem since I’m not regularly playing anymore. I play about once a year now for my college alumni game, and it’s just not pretty anymore. The fingers and the brain know what to do, but the muscles lose their form.

    My son, too, continues to practice with his team in between soccer seasons, because his coach knows the importance of keeping his players skills from declining through a long break.

    I would certainly be in favor of extending the school year, however if the purpose of extending is just to do MORE worksheets or write MORE spelling words three times each, I don’t see the benefit.

  4. i disagree:
    i know a handful of people that have success without going to college, and not too much school. A person can accomplish greatness without all of the education, as long as they have the determination to do something. Too less school doesnt seem like the problem to me, the problem may as well be the teachers. some teachers dont give the students enough attention or direction like they should be giving them, which could cause a child not to learn what they should.

  5. I am a 5h/6th grade math teacher and a scuba instructor and I know a handful of people who scuba dive without dive buddies too. Yes, many of them make it back to the surface safely, but I would never teach solo diving to my scuba students. I’m sure this seems like an overly simplified analogy, but success without education is the exception, not the rule. I don’t believe for a minute that the most important things we learn in school or institutions of higher education are related to content knowledge, but rather the process of learning. These opportunities that students need to take advantage of teach them to be lifelong learners. This term has come to be quite cliché in the world of education, but the fact remains, most of the jobs that our students are going to be competing for do not yet exist! In order for our students to be successful, they must be able to adapt and learn continuously. I believe that hard work and perseverance are important, but not ENOUGH by themselves to ensure success in tomorrow’s world as they once were.

  6. I would be all for year round school, and have Friday-Sunday off 🙂



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