Tag: K-12

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.

More on Teacher Performance

We recently posted a piece on the controversy surrounding the publication of teacher performance evaluations in Los Angeles.  There are a couple of interesting follow ups circulating in our trusted news sources.  The first piece is from the always contrarian and sometimes cantankerous Jack Shafer of Slate.com.

Nobody but a schoolteacher or a union acolyte could criticize the Los Angeles Times‘ terrific package of stories—complete with searchable database—about teacher performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

You probably don’t need to be a communications major to figure out where that piece is headed.

Shafer rightly applauds the LA Times FAQ page on what value-added analysis is, its strenghts and weaknesses, and other, well, FAQs.

A second piece plucked from the New York Times compares the pros and cons of value-added analysis in a more straightforward fashion.  On the one hand:

“If these teachers were measured in a different year, or a different model were used, the rankings might bounce around quite a bit,” said Edward Haertel, a Stanford professor who was a co-author of the report. “People are going to treat these scores as if they were reflections on the effectiveness of the teachers without any appreciation of how unstable they are.”

On the other hand:

William L. Sanders, a senior research manager for a North Carolina company, SAS, that does value-added estimates for districts in North Carolina, Tennessee and other states, said that “if you use rigorous, robust methods and surround them with safeguards, you can reliably distinguish highly effective teachers from average teachers and from ineffective teachers.”

Certainly, the two sides each have a point.  Even as a man of numbers (or perhaps, especially as one), I worry that people put too much faith in a quantitative rating.  That said, it seems the cat has squirmed its way out of the bag on this one, and it is going to be difficult for opponents to get it back in.

Fallout Friday

I had seen some headlines earlier in the week about teachers unions being up-in-arms about an LA Times investigative series on teacher quality, but I hadn’t seen anything concrete until I saw Alex Tabarrok’s post at Marginal Revolution this morning.

All I can say is, wow!

The basic storyline is that the Times accessed data on changes in student performance from year-to-year and was able to match that up at the individual teacher level.  The entire analysis isn’t published yet, but if you check out the snippet in the graphic below it is clear that the proverbial you-know-what is about to hit the you-know-where in the LA school system.  And, yes, that is the real Miguel Aguilar and the real John Smith in there.


This is the sort of thing that might get Mr. Smith (and his union) to go to Washington (or Sacramento) — to quash this kind of information being revealed.

Tabarrok sums up his thoughts and I will simply repeat them because I have trouble disagreeing:

I don’t blame the unions for being up in arms and I feel for the teachers, for some of them this is going to be a shock and an embarrassment. We cannot simultaneously claim, however, that teachers are vitally important for the future of our children and also that their effectiveness should not be measured…  Moreover, I see this as a turning point. Once parents have this kind of information who will allow their child to be in a class with a teacher in the bottom ranks of effectiveness? And if LA can do it why not Chicago and Fairfax?

Stay tuned on this one.