Understanding Innovation in Education

In his new book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell holds up the successes of charter schools while ignoring the principles that make them successful. The result is a disservice to all who wish to see children succeeding.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, a New York Times bestseller by one of our most prominent authors of non-fiction today.

The book emphasizes the extent to which life circumstances, rather than personal effort and initiative, determines success in life.

He documents how most professional hockey players were born between January and March, and makes a compelling case that this is due to the fact that the youth hockey leagues in Canada have a December 31st age cut-off, so throughout their youth hockey career the players born in the first few months were the biggest, strongest, most successful players — in part just because they happen to be a few months older than the other players in their league.

The penultimate chapter of the book tells the heart-wrenching story of Marita, the child of an uneducated single parent, and how getting into a KIPP Academy changed her life.

Again, theme is that had she not had the opportunity to attend KIPP, then she would most likely be less successful than otherwise. Gladwell uses this anecdote to emphasize how important it is for our society to provide all children with great learning opportunities.

KIPP Academies are the most famous chain of charter schools, profiled in The New York Times Magazine for their positive impact on the lives of children in the inner city.

The KIPP Academy profiled by Gladwell, a middle school, gets 84 percent of its students up to or above grade level in mathematics, 90% of the students get scholarships to parochial or private high schools instead of, in his words, “having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx.” And then 90% of the students will go on to college, a remarkable track record for a cohort of inner city students.

What disappoints me most about Gladwell’s account is that he fails to mention the critical fact that KIPP Academies exist only because of charter school legislation.

The charter school movement began in the 1990s as an attempt to provide innovative educators with more autonomy.

They are called “charter” schools because the basic idea is that any group of parents, teachers, or community members are allowed to propose a “charter” or contract for a new kind of school and, if the charter is approved by the appropriate legal entities (in some cases the local school district, in other cases the state department of education, in yet other cases universities or other “charter school authorizers”) then the proposers of the charter are given permission to start their own school.

Funding then follows the student, so that if a public school student transfers to a charter school, the per pupil funding (or a portion thereof) is taken away from the public school the student had been attending and is then given to the charter school.

Parents thus have a free public education at a new kind of school and innovative groups of educators and others have the autonomy to create new kinds of schools.

The pervasive failure to support charter schools among those who care about children continues to surprise me. And yet Gladwell’s neglect of the importance of charter school legislation is typical.

Why is it that we don’t have a more vocal moral community advocating for charter schools?

KIPP is an interesting case study because at this point everyone acknowledges that they are great schools that are doing great things for young people in the inner city. And there is really no doubt that these schools simply would not exist were it not for the charter school movement.

There are a few states that still do not allow charter schools, and there are no KIPP Academies in those states. There are many other states in which there are limits to the number of charter schools which are allowed, and in those states no matter how many children are on waiting lists for KIPP Academies or others (and there are other excellent charter schools with long waiting lists), because the government does not allow for more excellent schools to open, there are many thousands of students forced to attend schools at which they do not have great opportunities to learn.

Because human nature was designed to work well within tribes of 150 people or so, there are countless ways in which our natural impulses do not function well in the modern context.

For instance when one takes the natural male impulse to be attracted by a female body and creates a technology that allows anyone with a computer to access images instantaneously with no social sanction, then one creates the conditions in which pornography becomes one of the largest industries on the web.

Without being moralistic about this fact, it is clear that the original evolutionary function of visual stimulation has been rather substantially diverted.

It is in this context that I have come to regard much of the public moralizing that goes on regarding Wall Street greed as a form of moral pornography.

If we still lived in a tribe of 150, and someone was greedy and thoughtless of society, then the direct moral sanctions that we would impose on these individuals would provide a very powerful behavioral corrective: because of our moral sanctions, those greedy people would not behave in the same manner in the future!

But in a world of six billion people, perhaps 1% of whom may be genetically inclined to be unscrupulous, we have a pool of some 60 million unscrupulous people who will seek those opportunities in which their lack of scruples will have the highest pay-offs, and the financial world, “Wall Street,” is among those.

In our pluralistic world in which people don’t have to hang out with people who don’t approve of their behavior, many of our moral impulses to criticize are as misdirected as are our sexual impulses when directed towards pornography.

Yes, it may feel good, but morally criticizing Wall Street greed is as closely related to improving Wall Street behavior as excitement over a photograph is to creating children.

We would regard it as delusional if someone looking at pornography believed that they were “making a difference” in terms of creating new human life, and yet countless people still seem to believe they are engaged in morally useful behavior when they froth at the mouth over Wall Street greed.

Of course greed is bad; but saying so over and over again will have precisely zero impact on the future of the world one way or another.

By contrast, we have a clearly proven strategy for providing new and better schools for young people, many of whom face very difficult life circumstances, and few people spend much energy supporting the charter school movement.

One of the great exceptions is President Obama, who deserves credit for his political courage on this point. During the heat of the primaries last year, when Hillary Clinton looked as if she might beat him, he came out in public in favor of charter schools.

Given that the teachers’ unions are one of the largest Democratic Party political supporters, and that they are inveterate enemies of charter schools, I was shocked at the risk he was taking by alienating such an important constituency during a close primary.

Real political courage is very rare, but this act counts. In addition, just before his inauguration he called for a doubling of funding for charter schools; he seems to be serious about his support for charter schools.

In order to make the world a better place, those of us who are inclined towards moral language, to speaking in terms of moral praise and blame, need to become more thoughtful and sophisticated regarding which behaviors we praise and which behaviors we blame.

While there are specific policies that are praiseworthy or blameworthy, blaming “greed” strikes me as not only a waste of time, but worst yet it becomes a substitute for real thinking and positive action — like supporting charter schools.

On the other hand, Gladwell’s praise of KIPP, while simultaneously failing to praise the legal structure that gave birth to them, strikes me as lacking in a different manner. Because he aspires to improve the lives of inner city youth, he should provide a coherent account that leads to improving more lives.

In his account of KIPP he focuses completely on the content of the KIPP program. But the content only exists in scalable form because of the gradual legalization of charter schools, bit by bit, state by state, over the past twenty years.

Without charter school legislation, we would not even be discussing KIPP — because KIPP simply would not exist.

I say this as someone who created a successful charter school and who aspired to create a chain of charter schools that would have been a competitor to KIPP (after the tens of thousands of inferior government schools had gone under).

As I read Gladwell’s wonderful account of the cultural characteristics that are necessary to succeed in the contemporary economy, I find that they map quite accurately onto the habits and attitudes that I was working on to develop in students.

KIPP mostly improves students’ abilities to be disciplined, focus, and follow orders, all of which are useful. And yet Gladwell makes a compelling case that the ability to think for yourself, to ask questions, and to master upper middle class social norms is really the differentiator between successful people and unsuccessful people.

I was developing these characteristics in the students at my schools; KIPP does not.

In addition, I was working on fundamental cognitive skills, which KIPP does not. Applying my Socratic approach in Anchorage inner city schools, minority female students gained as much in four months on a test that is highly correlated with IQ tests as the average American high school student gains in four years of high school.

David Perkins, author of Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence and arguably the world’s leading expert on IQ gains, responded to these results by saying that he was “quite impressed.”

From my perspective, I had developed a means of improving minority IQ and SAT scores, and thought that my programs would receive significant moral and political support from Perkins and others.

But again — as with almost all mainstream experts on education — as I made the case that the results were due to distinctive practices that I was training teachers to do, the results became less interesting to Perkins.

Gladwell, Perkins, and others are focused entirely on innovations such as “methods” and “curricula” that one can then scale across mass government education by means of legislative fiat.

They don’t want to hear that KIPP Academies are successful because of individual leadership driven by a distinctive vision, expertise, culture, and execution of the strategy set in place by the school's leadership.

They don’t want to hear that I need to train teachers for a year in Socratic Practice and control the entire school organization in order to create excellence.

But excellence cannot be created by means of legislative fiat. That is just not the way the world works. Everything that is excellent, exquisite, beautiful, or “insanely great” (to use Steve Jobs’s wonderful expression) is due to the vision of individual innovators and entrepreneurs, scaled up by means of distinctive organizations with distinctive cultures.

It is simply not possible for an entrepreneur to create extraordinary outcomes when her every act is controlled by means of conflicting interest groups constantly jockeying for power.

No Silicon Valley executive would want her company to be governed by local school boards nor by the California State Legislature. Why, then, do they want schools to be governed by local school boards and by state legislatures and departments of education and by the federal government?

Everyone knows having to report to three different bosses is a bad thing; imagine having to report to three of the very worst bosses imaginable.

If we don’t advocate for those legal structures that give birth to innovation, then we are not supporting innovation. If online auctions had been illegal (as they were in France), then Ebay, one of the largest and most democratic economies on earth, would simply not exist.

If only certified electrical engineers with master’s degrees had been allowed to create computers, then the entire generation of computer entrepreneurs — including Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, and Paul Allen — would not have been allowed to create the IT revolution of the 1980s.

If only members of the Royal Society in 18th Century Britain had been allowed to invent machines, we would not have had the industrial revolution. Ninety-nine percent of us would be poorer today than the average Bangladeshi or Rwandan, with a lower life span and higher infant mortality.

The moral case for supporting legal structures that allow innovation is profoundly powerful, because the benefits of innovation are extraordinarily large for billions of people whenever entrepreneurs are allowed to scale up innovations.

By contrast, much of the moralizing that takes place in our society today is self-indulgent — and irrelevant to any kind of meaningful change.

Let’s move from a society characterized by vacuous moral babble and move towards creating vibrant moral communities that support innovation.

Michael Strong is the CEO of FLOW, which he co-founded with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. FLOW’s mission is “Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good” by promoting free market solutions around the globe. Mr. Strong's newest book, published in March 2009, is Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the Worlds Problems.

4 comments from readers  

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Andrew S
0 points
Thank you for an informative and inspiring column.
I'm somewhat surprised that a main moral contradiction has gone unobserved in this article. Taxation (i.e., extortion) is immoral and unjust, a violation of individual rights. This is Objectivism 101, and it involves the virtue of integrity, something that little people tend to learn from adults, or not. The (educational) end doesn't justify the (coercive) means. Charter schools have numerous problems, not the least of which is that they operate via expropriated wealth.

The Alliance for Separation of School and State has done a fine job refuting the alleged efficacy and goodness of charter schools.

The Socratic Method can be useful in certain contexts, but the preeminent pedagogical goal should be to foster intrinsic motivation in learners, which is a necessary condition for enlightened student-directed learning (John Holt's "unschooling" process).

For those wanting to better understand innovation in education (according to basic principles of objectivism), have a listen to my six-part podcast series on the subject--Episodes 46 thru 51.

To a better educational future for kids,
Way too wordy. Could have made the point in half the words. Transitions to examples or correlaries are unclear - coming and going. Doesn't speak well for the book.
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0 points
This review is all over the place. I read Outliers (twice) and do not agree with the comments that the author does not understand the importance of individual effort. I guess the reviewer skipped over the many references to how 10,000 hours of working at one's craft is a common denominator of people breaking through to successful heights.

I think the author's main point is that classical views of what the critical factors are in determining likely successful outcomes should be peeled back. Digging beneath the surface, gathering additional evidence and statistics, and re-evaluating often leads to more meaningful understanding.

Canadian hockey players are tracked very early with the most promising receiving the benefit of many additional practice hours and coaching. These kids work very hard. The author's point is that they are selected at a very young age from groups that are comprised of boys born in the same year. Those who are a little older do better in the competitions and then become exceptionally trained players feeding the Canadian teams. This approach is different from here in the US where we are increasingly moving away from a meritocracy and catering to the lowest common denominator. Our approach does not build superior teams.

I recommend the book highly as a means of rethinking some premises while at the same time understanding that outrageous successes are not just a matter of hard work but also somewhat arbitrary combination of accidental opportunities.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.