Most bookstore patrons of the last couple of decades probably know who Malcolm Gladwell is. A New Yorker staff writer, journalist, and three-time TED Talk presenter, he’s published a number of books since his debut, The Tipping Point, was released in 2000, including Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath. His writing largely focuses on hidden truths about human behavior—and that includes research about education. The Sidwell Friends Faculty Professional Development Committee invited him to speak to the entire staff about his thoughts on increasing learning opportunities for all.
Gladwell opened his talk by explaining that, while not a teacher himself, he’s been surrounded by educators all his life. “I’m the son of two teachers, the brother of a teacher, and the nephew and grandson and cousin of countless teachers,” he said. “I want to talk about why what you do is important. We take it for granted that the role of teachers is crucial, but I want to give a more complicated and involved theory about why this is so.”
That theory begins with the story of Gladwell’s mother, Joyce, who made her way through high school and college—first in Jamaica, then in England—despite incredible odds. “The tuition [for high school] was twice what both of my grandparents made in one year,” explained Gladwell. Amazingly, both Joyce and her twin sister managed to get scholarships, and a grocer down the street agreed to loan Gladwell’s grandmother the rest of the tuition. Then, to pay for college, Gladwell’s aunt split a second scholarship in half with Joyce, and his mother got a part-time job at a garment factory.
The chances of all that working out and Joyce graduating from college, Gladwell said, were miniscule. “The name for these odds is the capitalization rate. You’d think that the capitalization rate in America would be much higher than Jamaica in the ’40s—but it doesn’t seem that high here, even in 2017.” The American capitalization rate is lower than it should be, he said, because kids often have struggles that we don’t address as a society. One example is the way race and racism affect education. Research shows that students do better when they have a teacher in whom they can see themselves.
“A Vanderbilt economist interested in gifted and talented programs noticed there were three times as many white kids as black kids [in these programs],” said Gladwell. “The way kids get in is through the recommendation of a teacher. A black child with a black teacher is just as likely to get in as a white kid. But a black kid with a white teacher has half the chance. And there’s huge literature on this now—a black male student’s chance of being suspended drops by 25 percent if they’ve had a black teacher in high school. And their chance of graduating from high school increases by 39 percent if they’ve had just one black teacher between 3rd and 5th grade.”
Many of these stunning statistics stem from the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Although integrating schools was certainly a victory, no provisions were made for educators of color, which ultimately resulted in the firing of 38,000 black teachers. “To this day, the levels [of black teachers] have not recovered from this atrocity in the 1950s,” said Gladwell. “And atrocity is the right word for it. An entire generation of black students have not had the kind of voice and protector that they need, the kind that white kids have every day. We’ve been living with the consequences of this decision for 60 years.”
Gladwell used another part of his talk to discuss timed testing, which he believes causes problems for students who aren’t prepared to rush their thinking. “You can divide tests into two categories: speed [which is about how fast you can go] and power, which is about how much you get right,” he said. “They’re separate variables. A good example of this is chess, which is a power game. If you introduce speed, you change the rankings; in different circumstances, different people emerge as being the best.”
The LSAT, a test whose scores largely determine law school admissions, Gladwell said, is a great example of this phenomenon, if a bit esoteric. “It’s a power test, but also a speed test. Imagine you have two applicants for law school: a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise only gets through 80 questions—but gets all of them correct. The LSAT still says his score is identical to the hare’s, who [answered more but] got 20 questions wrong. We might have had a really good [future] lawyer—a legal genius—but because we slapped a three-hour time limit on the test, we’ve lowered the tortoise’s capitalization rate.”
Gladwell added that this problem doesn’t just apply to law school. “In the education system, we’re constantly imposing artificial restraints on how we evaluate students. We do this in class exams, in essays. An essay is a pure power test, but an in-class essay is a test of speed and power. Depending on how much weight you give to each, you will dramatically change the outcome for students. It can make life harder for a very, very able kid who is simply put in a situation where they are not allowed to shine.”
His speech ended with an encouragement for the Sidwell Friends staff to keep working hard to understand students who might be struggling. “At the end of the day, we’re not going to be judged by what we care most passionately about now,” he said. “It will be about how good a job we did at allowing the people in our society to fulfill their destiny.”