08/20/2010 11:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell

In his most recent book, Outliers (2009), Malcolm Gladwell presents an interesting thesis on what makes people successful or failures. According to Gladwell, it has less to do with genetics than luck. As I recently noted, willing learners can be more easily developed when their home environment encourages learning. But how does a child "pick the right parents"? Gladwell has a somewhat different explanation for success and failure.

Gladwell cites examples of "windows of opportunity" that promote success as the result of the time of year or historical moment in which someone is born. Athletes born at the beginning of the year have significant physical advantages over those born near the end of the year because at the younger ages -- 6-10 -- there is likely to be a marked difference in physical maturity between an-almost-seven-year old and a recent six year old. The more mature young athletes would be more successful, receive more coaching attention and, ultimately, be provided with a great deal more time to practice than their less-mature peers. For Gladwell, consistent practice for 10,000 hours at a skill produces "expertise," and is found in the history of people we consider "geniuses."

The historical time period in which someone happens to be born is also a factor in determining success. Bill Gates and other successful hi-tech entrepreneurs were all born around 1955 so that they began to use their fledgling AI technology when it was just getting started in the late 1960's, when most all of them were precocious teenagers. (My own independently arrived at theory involves the year 1809, which produced Lincoln, Poe, Tennyson, Louis Braille, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mendelssohn and Charles Darwin -- with Darwin and Lincoln having both been born on February 12. )

I find Gladwell's concept, which also suggests that Asians are better at math than non-Asians because their words for numbers are much shorter and more logical, fascinating, although I seriously wonder whether these effects can be explained by a single cause. And this is what leads me to question his methodology when he concludes that KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), one of the charter school franchises, is an example of a successful method of education, based on the results of test scores which, as I have frequently pointed out, along with countless other educators, can be manipulated in many ways to produce outcomes more favorable than the actual learning that has occurred.

In the case of KIPP, which has had some recent scandals, one in Fresno, California last year where the principal was accused of physically abusing some of the students and the behavior code was very rigorous, I would hope that Gladwell had examined more deeply the nature of what makes for good learning rather than relying on the statistics. As we recently found out from the "re-evaluation" of NYC standardized tests, the "data" can vary radically from one year to another depending on the scoring of the test. If Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein -- who was given an opportunity to promote his version of public education on WNYC without being seriously questioned about his "data" -- were really interested in finding out what students have learned, they would allow teachers to develop many alternate methods of testing to those that are diminishing the quality of education for so many willing as well as difficult learners in New York City.

I see the restrictive regimen of KIPP, which requires that parents agree to certain conditions to help "control" their children's learning practices as a "weeding out" process to eliminate the less willing learners and less committed parents from the program even before their children enroll. But the problem with our schools does not center on what can be done with the willing learners but with those who are reluctant and even hostile to conventional methods of learning; this significant part of the school population is the most challenging to the public school system. These are not the kind of students that Gladwell would consider in his evaluation of the "success" of a charter school system that in part relies on strict behavior modification practices. Of course, discipline and class decorum are absolutely imperative for successful teaching, but how these goals are achieved can make the difference between a program that "reaches" most young learners or only the self-selected.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that motivation which leads to academic success is largely a product of socio-economic class in the case of young learners who are "born into success," but can also come from less-economically fortunate learners who have hope that their efforts will "pay off" in their future. As our economy fails increasingly to produce good-paying jobs for an expanding proportion of the population, the quality of life of all Americans will decline, even for those who seem to continue to prosper despite the economic downturn. Because no citizenry with a history of successful living in its past will abide by the status quo indefinitely. What measures it will take to have restored to it a just distribution of wealth is at this point a question that deserves some serious consideration.