Revising Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”

Does the American Dream exist? Are poor but highly skilled individuals able to achieve their full potential? These questions are at the heart of recent episodes of Malcom Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History.

In “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” Gladwell examines the idea of “capitalization,” or how well America makes use of its human potential. Americans typically believe people are able to climb the ladder to success through hard work and determination, but Gladwell uses the story of one smart, low-income student to express doubts about American meritocracy.

“Carlos” is a bright but low-income student in Los Angeles, who secured a spot at an elite private school thanks to entertainment lawyer Eric Eisner’s YES program. The episode is a stark reminder that low-income students—even the most talented ones—face large barriers to success. Gladwell calls Carlos’ journey a “one in a million shot.” He identifies two large obstacles that smart, low-income students must overcome, but fails to discuss the best solution to these problems: school choice. The public education system traps students like Carlos in underperforming schools that Gladwell likens to concentration camps, but choice policies could help more poor students like Carlos access good schools.

The first barrier to success is a lack of advocates for talented, low-income students. But must it take an Eric Eisner to discover such kids and help them capitalize on their potential? The underlying assumption is that advocates will not be parents or teachers, but only rare, outside forces.

Really? Most parents want the best for their children, and work hard to give them opportunities for success. The problem may well be that wealthier families can access private institutions or choose expensive homes zoned for high-quality public schools, while low-income families are relegated to cheap addresses assigning them to subpar schools. Low-income parents, as Gladwell and others imply, are not necessarily uninformed or uncaring. They just lack the resources of wealthier families.

School choice policies help to give parents those resources. In The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf show that given choices, low-income parents transition from passive clients to active consumers, seeking out information on options for their children.

Carlos’ situation is different: his parents were not in a position to advocate for him, and he spent time in foster care. But choice also benefits students like him by spurring quality improvements in public schools. Thirty-one of 33 studies found that the competition from school choice had positive effects on neighboring public school performance. Moreover, as more talented students take advantage of choice programs, there remain fewer students for the Eric Eisners of the world to discover. Gladwell’s narrative suggests the capitalization issue is predominantly about students like Carlos, but Carlos’ case is extreme, and school choice has the potential to greatly improve capitalization for the majority of low-income students.

Teachers can also serve as advocates for low-income students, but underperforming public schools are less likely to staff and retain good quality teachers. In a study of in-school inputs and educational achievement, Eric Hanushek identified teacher quality as the most important factor to student success and upward mobility. By empowering low-income students to access schools with superior teachers, school choice would position students to capitalize on their potential.

The second barrier to success that Gladwell identifies is geographic location. Carlos had to travel long distances to find the best school. This anecdote squares with research suggesting a negative relationship between urban sprawl and upward mobility. The odds of economic success vary by neighborhood, with the best opportunities for success largely in relatively wealthy neighborhoods. However, residential income segregation is at least partially a result of assigning schools based on home address, with well-to-do families choosing districts with good schools. School choice policies have the potential to sever this link, enabling economic integration in urban areas. Thomas Nechyba sums it up: “To the extent that a voucher causes someone who previously chose public schools to switch to private schools, the same price incentive to settle in the poor rather than the rich district applies.”

Gladwell ends by saying, “Don’t call this story inspirational, because it’s not. It’s depressing.” Carlos was lucky, but Gladwell cites a disheartening study estimating that there are 35,000 smart, poor students every year who don’t apply to top colleges. They don’t have the resources and information to access top schools, and there aren’t enough Eric Eisners to help them all. School choice policies could set such kids on a successful track from an earlier age, giving them the tools to capitalize on their talent.

The story Gladwell tells is depressing, but school choice could make it inspirational.