Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

You know Malcolm Gladwell from The Tipping Point and Blink. Last night I had the opportunity to read Outliers: The Story of Success, and thought it might be of interest to some of the readers here.

This is a different kind of book, more in the mode of Freakonomics than anything else. While trying to discuss success, Gladwell outlines a series of interesting data points that suggest that our cultural story of how someone becomes successful is (at best) incomplete.

Some of the data-driven anecdotes are interesting -- why hockey players are more likely to be born in the month of January suggests that the notions of equality of opportunity are mistaken. Some are poignant, as he discusses in the end chapter the influences that led his mother to success. Some are merely intriguing -- why some birth years mattered for successful computer programmers, Jewish lawyers, and wealthy capitalists. (You're left at the end of these chapters with a sense of knowing something you didn't know before, but feeling that this knowledge is essentially trivial -- it has no predictive or replicative power, can't be used to design program or policy, and doesn't do you any individual or collective good in searching for how to be successful.)

The chapters that would seem to hold some promise for discussion about community-level indicators make these points:

1. There's no substitute for hard work. Success takes 10,000 hours of investment before it pays off. Those that succeed have a level of competence, the opportunity for those 10,000 hours, and the drive/diligence to accomplish the hard work. While Gladwell doesn't get prescriptive here, this implies something for those involved in community-building about access to opportunities for practice and investment of time in a given arena.

2. Culture matters. He traces the influence of Scotch-Irish immigration patterns into Appalachia on codes of honor and honor-related violence and murder rates in the American South. (He stops much too soon on this topic: read this with Code of the Street and you may start drawing conclusions that the inexplicable internal urban violence we face may have its roots in culture transfer from Scotch-Irish slaveholders. I'd love to see more work on this topic, and means to move beyond explanatory to actionable policy.) He also takes Asian proficiency in mathematics back to the differences in rice and wheat cultivation, differences in language systems, and differences in length of the school year. I found useful the point at which he began to describe how Korean Airlines crashes were reduced once cultural deference patterns were identified and pilots trained specifically to operate in a different cultural milieu, but this section ended much too soon again to get into how one addresses disadvantages of culture.

3. Summer vacation hurts poor children. This section on public education is worth exploring further, as he suggests that public education systems are working for poor, middle-income, and upper-income children who all make roughly equivalent learning gains during the year, but upper-income children also make learning gains over the summer while poor children slide backward. He traces a large portion of the achievement gap in public education to summer breaks, and touts the KIPP schools as an answer to this problem. I suspect the answer is a little more complicated (see JCCI's Eliminating the Achievement Gap discussion), but if we're serious about improving educational opportunity, using an outdated agricultural model to schedule class hours doesn't seem to make sense.

Overall, an intriguing book -- not likely to have the impact of The Tipping Point, but worthy of reading and prompting more discussion, especially among community indicators practitioners. The book suggests that we need to be doing a better job of mining the data for unexpected patterns -- I'd love your thoughts on that.


Post a Comment