Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blogging Outliers : "The Roseto Mystery"

I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I've taught The Tipping Point and written about its application in education settings. I'm finally getting around to reading Outliers: The Story of Success, his most recent book. In Outliers Gladwell tries to suss out the combination of genetics, individual effort, and community structure that leads to excellence. I'll blog chapter-by-chapter, trying to draw out implications for education.

The question I have in mind is this: If you wanted to design a system of education that would lead to success, what would it look like? (No cheating by pulling a Harvard and relying on the best inputs in the world.)

The Introduction to Outliers describes a small town in Pennsylvania that by measures of public health, was one of the most successful communities in the US. Death rates from heart disease were will below those at the national level, even though risk factors (smoking, poor diet, genetics etc.) were close to the national average. Why so healthy? Gladwell identifies two types of factors:
  1. Common culture--nearly all of the settlers of Roseto were originally from Roseto Sicily. They shared religion, language, and family ties. Common culture created a common set of expectations, among which was the belief that successful people had some obligation to the community, and that those who were struggling at one time or another could expect support. (Gladwell calls the culture egalitarian. I'm not sure it was in the way we tend to define egalitarianism today. People weren't financially equal, but their inequality did not have major social or health implications. And the gap between rich and poor was not huge.)
  2. Rich connections--Rosetans were connected to each other in many ways. It was common for three generations of a family to live together; for extended family networks to cut across the town. Most worshipped at the same church. Many belonged to civic groups--22 civic organizations in a town of 2000. The sociologists who studied the town noted informal connections as well--people cooked for each other, visited each other, and maintained their common culture by means of their connections.
Lessons for education? Gladwell doesn't talk about schools in this chapter, though given how Catholic the community was you can guess that there were public and parochial schools in town. But you can see how certain community characteristics--common expectations, mutual support based on connection not obligation--would make it possible to host schools with the same values. It is interesting also that the community became successful in public health without that being an explicit goal of the community. It was a by-product of how they lived, not a result of a plan.

A key question for school-builders is whether in the absence of common culture and rich connections in the community, a school could help create them. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is trying to use schools to build a healthy community in Harlem, and then use that community to strengthen schools. The schools in HCZ have had some success. Less is known about the impact of the schools on the community.

In cities and towns there are likely still these clusters of good communities--perhaps not the whole town, but rich connections and common cultures that stretch across the geography. IF that is the case, school-builders ought to seek them out, and locate schools at the intersection of culture and connection

1 comment:

Bryce said...


This post made me wonder what we might learn from good rural schools. While they, in many cases, lack resources and may present a number of other challenges, it seems like they might be places where we could see common culture and rich connections.