Summary: Chapter Nine: Marita’s Bargain
Gladwell discusses the formation of the KIPP school in the South Bronx in the 1990s. This middle school serves almost entirely minority students, of which three-quarters are from single-parent homes and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. After ten years of operation, KIPP is one of the most desirable schools in New York City: by the end of eighth grade, 84 percent of students are at or above grade level in mathematics. More than fifty KIPP schools have opened across the United States.
Public schools in the United States were heavily reformed in the early nineteenth century. The reformers wanted to ensure that every child had the opportunity to go to school and learn the skills required for productive citizenship. The reformers also believed that students should not get too much schooling: thus, the specifically American long summer vacation was instituted. Gladwell points out the similarity to agriculture in America, where fields must lay fallow for stretches of time to stay fertile for cultivation.
Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, studied first-grade public school students in Baltimore. Comparing test scores at the end of a school year to results from the following fall, he discovered that during the school year, students of every socioeconomic background make similar progress, but over the summer, students from the poorest homes either regress or remain stagnant, while students from middle-class and affluent families make more progress. Schools are not failing underprivileged students—it is the lack of learning when they are not in school.
Asian schools do not have long summer vacations. The average United States school has 180 classroom days; the average South Korean school has 220; the average Japanese school has 243. The success of the KIPP schools is found in adapting the lessons from rice paddy farming.
David Levin, one of the founders of the first KIPP school, describes the rigorous schedule. During the week, students attend class from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m. and have afterschool activities until 7 p.m. School on Saturdays is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. During July, there are three weeks of school, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The longer days permit teachers to take longer to explain concepts and give students more time to digest the information. One of the math teachers states that standard math education in America is so rapid-fire that only students who understand concepts quickly succeed.
Marita, a KIPP student, wakes up at 5:45 a.m. and gets home after 5:30 p.m. She does homework until 9 or 10 p.m., stopping only to eat dinner. If she stays up later than 11, she has difficulty staying awake in class. Her school and sleep schedule is standard for KIPP’s middle school students.
Marita’s experience is not typical for most twelve-year-olds, and not what most parents would want. Marita has chosen to exchange part of her childhood for a chance at success. Where she used to have friends in the public school system, she now only has friends at KIPP. Ninety percent of KIPP students receive scholarships to private high schools, and 80 percent of KIPP graduates go to college.
Gladwell revisits the various cases throughout Outliers: “Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” Instead of fixating on the myth that only the best and brightest can succeed, society should endeavor to create more opportunities for everyone.
Analysis: Chapter Nine: Marita’s Bargain
If an individual does not come from a culture that encourages and supports success, society can help by creating a culture that does. Gladwell suggests that true academic success requires more than 180 days of class per year, which is the average for schools in the United States, but not elsewhere around the world. Using KIPP, Gladwell offers another example of the relationship between hard work and success. He shares the story of a fifth-grade student who was so bad at math she cried during class. With a teacher and a school who believe in slowing down to increase understanding, not simply rewarding the students who learn quickly, she succeeds and becomes an accounting major in college. Gladwell and notes that Marita’s life is not typical of most kids her age from her community. Marita wants to succeed, but to get the tools she needs to do so, she needs to separate herself from her old friends and community to make her school, KIPP, her culture. Gladwell states, and Marita seems to agree, that the difficult work KIPP demands is worth it. Without a naturally occurring cultural legacy to guide her success, Marita relies on a culture of success built by her school and the new community the school creates for her.
Success is not an independent study, but a group project. In closing, Gladwell dispels the mythical belief that it’s the best and brightest who rise to the top as if by magic. He returns to the other outliers he discusses throughout the book, noting the good fortune of being born at the right time, being in the right place, and getting a lucky break, even if that lucky break follows years of work no one else wanted to do. He notes the importance of cultural background to success, or the need to address and change cultural legacy to find achievement. He reinforces that success doesn’t come from being the smartest or the most willing to seize the metaphorical bootstraps. Though Gladwell does not dismiss hard work, he emphasizes the vital need for community support and available opportunity to create more success and to build a better world. Success does not occur in a vacuum.