There is a middle school in New York City called KIPP. It is in a poor neighborhood, and its students are largely from financially disadvantaged families and members of racial minorities. But KIPP has, against what has become the general expectation regarding the quality of low-income schools, become one of the most desirable middle schools in the city. And it is most famous for mathematics. Now there are more than 50 KIPP schools across the United States, and more are on the way. And Gladwell attribute’s KIPP’s success to its dedication to taking cultural legacies seriously.
The final chapter of Gladwell’s book tackles an issue that’s clearly very important to him: the American educational system. Gladwell tells the story of one particularly successful public school, which is successful because it “takes cultural legacies seriously.” Implicit in this assessment is the suggestion that, in the future, schools could—and should—strive to be more like KIPP.
2. The American school system evolved according to ideas about the balance of work and rest. Summer vacation is so ingrained into our culture we hardly think to question it. But recall what was said earlier about the cultural notions surrounding the importance and meaning of work in Asia. The proverbial Chinese wisdom discussed in the previous chapter could not be more at odds with the notion that effort must be accompanied by rest. But the institution of the distinctly long American summer vacation has remained, and has an enormous effect on our country’s educational system.
In just the same way that rice paddies (and their lesson about perseverance) make up a certain part of China’s cultural legacy, the American institution of summer vacation is part of our own culture. We believe work ought to be followed by rest. This is notably a departure from Chinese cultural wisdom, which emphasizes that constant work leads to great rewards.
3. Summer vacation has not been at the center of any debates about the American school system. But, Gladwell argues, it really should be. High performing and low performing schools record the same or very similar levels of improvement over the course of a school year. In other words, a student from a top school and a student from a bottom school both record better test scores at the end of each year than at the beginning, and their scores are better by about the same degree. But over the summer, low-income schoolchildren lose ground that middle class children do not. If your family cannot provide for your engaging, enlightening summer vacation, if no one is present to encourage you to keep reading or join clubs or play educational games, summer vacation is a huge disadvantage to you.
Gladwell begins to direct his argument toward a possible solution to America’s education crisis. Whereas most arguments about education reform focus on teachers and students, Gladwell zeroes in on summer vacation, a seemingly tangential issue. But Gladwell convincingly demonstrates that the achievement gap is in many ways attributable to the existence of a summer break, which drives apart higher income children from lover income children and allows months of schooling to be undone for children who cannot afford to have a productive summer vacation.
America’s problem is not that its schools are bad. America’s problem is that its summer holidays are too long—and this is precisely the problem that schools like KIPP have set out to solve.
Gladwell makes his point in no uncertain terms: the problem with American education is not bad schools or bad teachers—it is summer vacation; a highly solvable problem.
4. KIPP’s students have a long school day, but this allows for longer classes. Teachers don’t have to rush through material, and as a result, students don’t feel pressure to be first, to be the fastest. Students don’t fall behind simply because they need a little more time to figure a problem out.
Gladwell begins to dissect the inner workings of KIPP in order to sketch out what a successful school schedule might look like in the future.
5. Gladwell examines the life of one specific student at KIPP, named Marita. She is a middle schooler who wakes up at 5:30 AM and doesn’t get home from school until 5pm. She then starts her homework, and rarely takes a break, often eating her dinner as she works instead of sitting down at the table with her family. Sometimes she doesn’t get to bed before midnight. She is working like a lawyer or medical resident, and she is only twelve.
Gladwell is careful not to overlook the effect of a schedule like KIPP’s on the individual children who attend this school. They don’t lead what many Americans consider to be “normal” childhoods. In order to accept the success of schools like KIPP, we must let go of some of our own cultural norms, like summer break.
6. The lesson Gladwell wants us to learn from Marita is that her community cannot give her what she needs. Communities like hers do not have the resources or time to make her into a great student in contemporary American culture—not when wealthier students are using their summers to get ahead. So she must give up a lot: friends, vacations, evenings and weekends off. She must replace these things with KIPP. This is a lot to ask of a child, but Marita has made a kind of bargain. 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go to college, many of them being the first person in their family to do so. It is not a bad bargain. We have learned that outliers come from seized opportunities—students like Marita cannot succeed without being given the chance to—and KIPP will give her that chance.
Gladwell wraps up his argument by noting that the solutions he is suggesting will require sacrifice. They require us to confront our misconceptions about success, to let go of certain beliefs about how children should grow and learn, and to accept a certain kind of trade off. But Gladwell is emphatic that these sacrifices are worth it. Marita proves that these sacrifices are worth it. He draws the various elements of his argument together: if we know that success can only come from equal opportunity, then we must expand opportunity to those who don’t currently have it. This is the only solution.