Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success(New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008 ) aims to debunk the common mythology of self-made greatness, arguing instead that behind every great man or woman is a host of factors we often don’t think about that made his or her success possible. The book is not directly about homeschooling at all, but many of its examples and insights are highly relevant to homeschooling.
Gladwell’s approach in chapter after fascinating chapter is to begin with a story of success that makes it sound like the profiled individual or group has some innate greatness. But then he probes into the deeper sociological backdrop that make the example’s success seem much less remarkable. The examples make for gripping reading, showcasing Gladwell’s knack for extrapolating page-turning human-interest elements from obscure academic studies and synthesizing seemingly disparate bodies of knowledge into a seamless, even inspiring whole. Very little in Gladwell’s work is new with him–it’s all borrowed from other researchers. But what borrowing! There’s a reason the guy sells lots of books. He takes the straw of academic research and spins it into popularly accessible gold. In my next two posts I’ll mention a few of his examples and draw connections to homeschooling.
In his first chapter Gladwell demonstrates that one of the major factors contributing to whether or not one becomes a professional hockey player in Canada is date of birth. Why? Because in Canada boys are grouped as youngsters into teams by age, and the cut off date between one age group and another is January 1. Thus a boy born on December 31 is the youngest kid on the team, playing alongside a boy a year older who happened to be born on Jan 1. Boys born closest to January 1 tend to be biggest and strongest, so they get more playing time, get chosen for all-stars, get more attention from coaches. These early advantages compound over time, making early birthday boys far more likely eventually to become professional hockey players.
Interestingly, the same thing happens in American schools. A few months can make a big difference in academic ability when a kid is 5 or 6. Older kids tend to do better in kindergarten and first grade–getting put in the advanced reading group, doing more advanced math, getting more attention, getting recommended for gifted programs–and these early advantages have measurable effects for the rest of a child’s education. As Gladwell puts it,
most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years. (p.28)
Children in the youngest cohort of their kindergarten class end up being “underrepresented by about 11.6 percent” in college. The arbitrary choice of a cutoff date for kindergarten impacts the life course of tens of thousands of people.
Parents may not know this on a scientific level, but many of them intuit it, which is why so many parents hold back their children, especially their boys. As I was reading this chapter it occurred to me that another way to avoid the academic disadvantage that comes from having a birthday late in the year without sacrificing a year of a child’s education would be to homeschool. The younger homeschooled child doesn’t experience the shame of being put in the lower-level reading or math group or the intimidation of being the smallest kid in the class.
But homeschooling might do more than that. In a later chapter Gladwell describes a study examining test results from Baltimore, where students were tested at the beginning and end of each school year. The study found that the achievement gap between rich and poor grows not during the school year but during the summer. Why? Because wealthy children have parents who practice what Annette Lareau (in a wonderful book called Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life) calls “concerted cultivation:” they fill their children’s leisure time with loads of enriching activities, producing the omnicompetent if overstructured child David Brooks has called “The Organization Kid.” Poor parents, in contrast, operate under a “natural growth” parenting philosophy that largely leaves children alone. The result is that over the summer wealthy children make huge gains in reading comprehension and many other areas while poor children either stagnate or even decline academically as they wile away the hours in front of the television or playing.
Gladwell’s point here is that poor children need longer hours of school all year ’round to keep up with rich children’s more enriching home lives. He might have also noted the opposite–homeschooling prosecuted on the “concerted cultivation” model might continue to produce greater literacy, numeracy, and other gains in children than they get at school. All of this might help explain why it is not uncommon for homeschooled children to be accelerated a grade or two when they decide to return to traditional schools.
In my next post I’ll draw out more implications for homeschooling from Gladwell’s remarkable book. If you are one of the few Americans who hasn’t purchased it already, I highly recommend that you do. After I read it my wife did, then my 12 year old daughter, and now my mother-in-law is reading it. It’s one of those books for which you put the rest of your life on hold until you’ve turned the last satisfying page.