Tag Archives: outliers

Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

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“Outliers” – My Response 2

Aside from his epilogue about his mother and grandmother, Gladwell ends his book with the story of Marita and this statement: “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success… with a society that provides opportunities for all… The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for. Marita doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as [Bill Gates]. All those things would be nice of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance.”

I agree wholeheartedly that Marita just needed a chance. I’ve spent many years encouraging students to participate in Talent Search, whereby they take out-of-level tests as a means of showing their need for an accelerated curriculum. All of the Talent Search-based programs – nationwide – give children the kind of chance Marita received at her special high school. Just as Kipp promises it will give kids stuck in poverty a chance to get out, WCATY promises the same. We call it cumulative advantage. Going to one program is an advantage that opens doors to another and then another, and so on. And students who have attended WCATY programs on full scholarship have written the exact same message as Gladwell’s in their letters to their sponsors: “thank you for helping me to break the cycle of poverty that has imprisoned my family by giving me a chance.”

I also like Gladwell’s use of the term “academically minded” in his final chapter. I encourage our schools to say a resounding “yes, that’s cool,” to the academically minded, rather than causing children to hide their talents, dumb down, and lower their aspirations.

Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell’s book about outliers is thought provoking and disturbing to me. Maybe successful smart people are “outliers,” but they shouldn’t be. The first flaw of the book, in my opinion, is narrowing the concept of smart and successful to the level of genius. My whole career has been about finding talent, recognizing it, and developing it. If we did that broadly rather than labeling a few children gifted, we would find many smart children who need help in order to achieve their dreams and potential. I am not anti-gifted; I just don’t think smart and outlier should be used synonymously. And, I am anti-labeling.

In talking about the children studied by Lewis Terman in the early 20th century and called Termites, Gladwell says: “If you had met them at five or six years of age, you would have been overwhelmed by their curiosity and mental agility and sparkle. They were true outliers. The plain truth of the Terman study, however, is that in the end, almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves. What did [they] lack? Not something expensive or impossible to find; not something encoded in the DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. [They] were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.” Gladwell, Outliers, p. 112.

Of course I agree with his conclusion to that paragraph: unrealized talent is squandered talent. Maybe I both need to finish the book (I will) and read it more carefully (I plan to do that too). But right now I am disturbed in two ways. First, I don’t think smart kids are outliers and I think we need to stop labeling them as such. Second, I have not given up on society ever helping the poor children who are curious, smart and motivated to make it. It may almost seem like picking up sand one grain at a time to save a what could have been a pristine beach – nearly impossible. But let’s do it. And with each grain, let’s add a few more and then more and more. And then, let’s change the rules for saving the shoreline. Let’s enthusiastically put into practice – in our schools as well as our homes – an optimal match curriculum or experiences that will allow each child to learn at his or her own pace and grow into who he and she wants to be. If the pace is fast and the end result is different from the expectation, that’s wonderful – let the kid fly!  That is success, not necessarily making a name for oneself.