Is Gladwell’s Perspective on K-12 an Outlier?

I just finished up Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, with a rather unconventional take on the U.S. public schools.  The girl he is discussing, Marita, is from a single-parent, low-income household.  He is concluding a chapter on an experimental public school program in New York City, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP, for short).

Marita doesn’t need a brand-new school with acres of playing field and gleaming facilities. She doesn’t need a laptop, a smaller class, a teacher with PhD, or a bigger apartment. She doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as Chris Langan’s (a genius discussed earlier in the book). All those things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance.

That is both a conclusion about our schooling, as well as a conclusion about how our society produces talent.  Gladwell is the master storyteller, and in Outliers he writes convincingly how a combination of arbitrary advantages mixed with an extraordinary work ethic can compound to produce “outlier” talents ranging from Bill Gates to Canadian professional hockey players.

My way or the Norway?

Indeed, Gladwell is explicitly discounting exceptional talent as a significant factor in determining exceptional success.  Instead, he contends that there is some threshold level at which incremental improvements don’t matter.  So, there are many people who could have been Bill Gates, but Bill Gates was the only one with that level of ability that happened to fall into a situation that allowed him to become such a dominant captain of industry.

Those interested in a discussion on this point far outside of my research domain might consult the special issue of Behavior Genetics on people with high cognitive ability.  In that issue, psychologist David Lubinski addresses Outliers and concludes: “The vast majority of scientists in talent development would say that it takes at least ability, ambition, and opportunity; there is no need to minimize the importance of any of these when it takes all three.”

I am certainly not qualified to discuss the literature on talent development, so I will leave it at that.  My feeling is that Gladwell consistently conflates more mundane successes associated with someone like Marita with extraordinary successes of someone like Mario Lemuiex.  This makes it both easier and more difficult to attack his argument.  On the one hand, I completely buy the argument that most successful people are a product of chance and of hard work — there are few truly self-made men.  On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that truly great scientists and mathematicians aren’t blessed with a skill set far beyond the domain of the 95th-percentile student.