I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  It was very cool, I knew a lot of the information provided in it but some of the things had a fresh perspective and were collected in one place.

He starts off with an observation, which I’ve known for a long, long time (from even when I was in school) that kids whose birthdays fall immediately after a cut-off deadline in our society are way more successful than the kids who are near the other end of the spectrum in that area.  Suppose a child is born in January, and the age limit for a sport is 10 years old with a cut-off of January 1st.  The kid born in January will be nearly 10% older than a child born in December if the season starts in December.  At that age, there is a huge advantage to being slightly older, some of the 10 year old kids will even be starting puberty and could be much larger than their peers.

Of course if you look at school themselves, the same problem exists.  Each school has a date they choose, usually somewhat arbitrarily, which determines whether or not they accept students into the school.  In this case a student who is deemed too young has to wait a year, and the students who are just before the cut-off end up starting school almost a year younger than their peers.  Can you imagine how much of a difference this makes?  This results in a 20% age difference between the students on one side of the date to students on the other side.

The solution Malcolm suggests, which makes sense to me, is to create multiple dates during the year for these cut-offs and run simultaneous systems along side each other.  Instead of everyone starting school in September for example, students would start in one of 3 or 4 streams during the year.  You wouldn’t need very much more money to support this system since the number of students wouldn’t change, but it might make a much more equitable system.

There are a lot of areas which Malcolm decides are problems.  He points out that cultural differences and differences in how people of different socioeconomic status react to setbacks and communication are even larger barriers to success.  His argument is pretty complex, but I can see his point.  One example of this is in measurement of reading scores.  If you measure reading scores during the course of a year, kids tend to make about the same amount of progress during the year.  It’s the summer vacations during which the poor kids tend to fall behind the richer kids.  Apparently their school experiences are pretty similar, but what happens outside of school can be quite different.  Over time, these differences tend to amplify.

The solution here is to make the summer vacations shorter.  I know it’s not a popular move for teachers, we really like our 2 month vacations.  We can get course work done, finish building our house, all sorts of projects.  Take this away and you will definitely decrease the quality of life for teachers.  That being said, the improvement on the quality of life and equitability of our system would be dramatically improved.

For the rest of his argument, I strongly suggest reading his book.