Outliers Part 1:Misguided conclusions about cut-off ages and ability grouping?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

            Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell isn’t a book about education per se, it’s about how successful people became successes and as such it dabbles in education.  As a best-selling sensation, Outliers influences education policy within the masses in way that many educational authorities don’t and this is unfortunate.  Don’t get me wrong—Gladwell is a smart guy and good writer, but he is not an experienced educator.  Millions of readers are likely to be taken in by his prose and to push for the changes he advocates, but doesn’t have the personal experience to support.  To compound this, some of his conclusions are clouded by cherry picked research and logical fallacies that could push education in the wrong direction. Today, I begin a series of blogs that address some of the educational implications of Outliers
            One issue that Gladwell addresses is that cut-off ages in schools result in skewed distributions that favor the older kids in the age range.   He proposes that teachers mistake maturity for giftedness resulting in the older kids in each grade level being more likely to be streamed into advanced classes.  This error perpetuates itself, such that those deemed talented early on have access to better teachers and a more demanding and engaging curriculum. Over time this gives them an even greater advantage over their younger peers, eventually to play out such that those born in the months just prior to the cut-off age are even underrepresented in colleges. 

Gladwell makes two suggestions to rectify this inequity.  One suggestion is to group students by birth month when placing them into classrooms such the age distribution in each class is several months rather than a year.   In this way students would be competing with others at the same developmental level and differences in ability would mean something more than a mere difference in age.  The other suggestion he makes is to delay ability grouping until students are older at which time many of the maturity differences would have leveled off.  He points out that schools in Denmark wait until age 10 begin ability grouping. 

On a personal level, Gladwell’s conclusion worries me.  My daughter has a birthday three weeks before the age cut-off.  By sending her to kindergarten “on-time” am I relegating her to a lifetime of being over-looked?  Additionally, “red-shirting” kindergarteners is a common strategy in the neighborhoods around my home, which only worsens the effect in that some of the children in her kindergarten class could be over a year older.  Yikes! 

So I mull, I research, I think, and I’ve grown concerned by the assumptions Gladwell makes and the conclusions that he reaches.  First, Gladwell indicates that developmental differences are age related and while on some gross level this is true I’ve taught students with birthdays the same month and year and at widely different developmental stages—a gap that might widen, narrow, or even flip-flop over time.  Separating students by birth month wouldn’t necessarily account for that.  Next, if students are in developmentally different places, then I’m not really sure why we need to level the playing field.   Shouldn’t they be receiving different instruction?  Also, some of his research confuses me.  Here’s why…many of the test scores that school systems use to place students into advanced programs report their data by grade as well as by age.  The Otis Lennon, for example, breaks the data into three month ranges.  If students are competing with others born in the same quarter for spots in gifted programs, Gladwell’s theory hardly accounts for a skewed distribution in such programs.  In fact, while Gladwell goes to great lengths to prove the effect of cut-off dates in sports, his argument on the same effect in schools is considerably scantier.  I’m left wondering how strong the correlation actually is between age and academic performance, as well as the methodology in the few studies he references. 

Second, Gladwell assumes that the classroom is in its very nature a competitive place.  Perhaps, he is right; perhaps he isn’t, but the real question is should it be competitive?  Competition is an easy motivator, but does it produce the best results for everyone?

Third, he holds Denmark up as the only national school system that doesn’t utilize any ability grouping until age ten as if they have the right idea.  Hold up— and check this out.  Or don’t, but know that it implies that Denmark’s test scores by international standards are “mediocre” and that Demark is concerned about the shortage of high performing graduates.  Hmmm. 

If there really is a correlation between academic performance and birth month, then I’d suggest the answer is not found in Outliers.  Instead, I’d look toward a student-centered, multi-age classroom that revolves around cooperation rather than competition. Montessori?  I’ve read a few articles on multi-age classrooms. Studies indicate that such classrooms when done correctly produce gains in both academic performance and in social skills.  I, however, lack personal experience in a multi-age classroom.  If you have any, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Alan Sheriff said...

I fully buy into this guys premise as it relates to sports, but I agree that it sounds a bit off as it relates to education... Don't really have much to say about it unless you want to talk about sports rather than education, but I know you are getting used to my commenting and I don't want to disappoint, haha.

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