Gadwell’s Revisionist History

Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell has a history of embellishing and omitting the truth in his writings, as I have discussed numerous times here. The same is also true for his podcast, ironically titled Revisionist History.

In response to the excellent Noah Smith Bloomberg article America Lets Too Much Young Talent Go to Waste (which I will discuss later), someone in the comments linked to the Malcolm Gladwell Revisionist History podcast episode, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, which is about how personal and social circumstances, such as broken families, poverty, and violence, limits the effectiveness of gifted education and prevents talented young people from reaching their full potential. Carlos, the protagonist, copes with these challenges by compartmentalizing them and pretending to forget, hence the title. I had known about Gladwell’s podcast, but given his dubious intellectual credentials, have never listened to it, but I figured I would anyway since it is related to the Bloomberg article, which is quite good.

Carlos’ story is probably real, but Gladwell exaggerates the awfulness of Carlos’ middle school, Lennox, and misconstrues a study of how economically disadvantaged academically talented youth are underrepresented at top colleges. The transcript can be read here.

From the transcript:

MG: A few years ago, two prominent economists, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Chris Avery of Harvard, published a really important paper called The Missing One Offs. Hoxby and Avery start up by talking about something that happened 10 years ago, that’s when some of the elite US colleges, the Harvards and Princetons of the world, announced that they’d give free tuition to any deserving student who came from the bottom of the economic ladder. At the time, the cut off was a family income of $40,000 a year; now it’s 65,000. In other words, if a poor kid is smart enough to get in, she can attend for free. And what happens after the elite schools make this announcement? Not much. To use Harvard as an example, they ended up taking in about an additional 15 or so low-income students a year after changing their policies. That’s out of a freshman class of more than 1600. It’s a drop in the bucket. Let me quote directly from the paper now, because this is a crucial point, “Interestingly, this very modest effect was not a surprise to many college admissions staff. They explained that there was a small pool of low-income, high achieving students who were already fully tapped so that additional aid and recruiting could do little except shift them among institutions that were fairly similar.” In other words, the admissions officers felt they had gone out of their way to look for these kinds of kids. They had made special visits to high schools with lots of poor students, they’d sent out letters to kids with high test scores living in bad neighborhoods, they had built a network of guidance counselors, they sponsored free campus visits for low-income students, and they made a tuition free. But if you do all those things and you only get an extra 15 smart, poor kids a year at Harvard, that must mean that there aren’t a lot of poor, smart kids out there. They’re talking about Carlos; they’re saying that kids like Carlos are pretty rare.


Hoxby and Avery decide to fact check this, is it true? They go to the college boarding and get the entire database of college test scores, SAT and ACT. Then they take those scores and match each score to a high school and a neighborhood and a zip code and to all that they could to find about where the student comes from and they end up with a giant map of every high achieving, low-income high school senior in the country. And here’s what Hoxby and Avery discover, the admissions officers are totally wrong. Actually, there are a huge number of poor, smart kids in the United States. There’s probably 35,000 students a year who score in the 90th percent or above on their SATs, and who also come from families living on less than $40,000 a year. Now, keep in mind these are kids who don’t have tutors, who don’t go to high schools with a million Advanced Placement courses, and who probably took the test once, not two or three times like upper-middle class kids. So these scores are on the low side, these are kids who could ace a test in one shot.

Something just didn’t seem right. The Hoxby and Avery study can be found here. First, as shown below, Hoxby and Avery define a “competitive college” as being one of 236 colleges from Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, which is much less exclusive than as just the top-20 or so colleges as implied by Gladwell when he says “elite US colleges”; top 236 is not “elite” and are not the “Harvards and Princetons of the world” (at least not by my definition of the word ‘elite’). Gladwell omits this detail because it weakens his thesis.

1. Hereafter, “low-income” and “high-income” mean, respectively, the bottom and top
quartiles of the income distribution of families with a child who is a high school senior.
“High-achieving” refers to a student who scores at or above the 90th percentile on the ACT
comprehensive or the SAT I (math and verbal) and who has a high school grade point average of A- or above. This is approximately 4 percent of U.S. high school students. When we say “selective college” in a generic way, we refer to colleges and universities that are in

the categories from “Very Competitive Plus” to “Most Competitive” in Barron’s Profiles
of American Colleges. There were 236 such colleges in the 2008 edition. Together, these
colleges have enrollments equal to 2.8 times the number of students who scored at or above
the 90th percentile on the ACT or the SAT I. Later in the paper, we are much more specific
about colleges’ selectivity: we define schools that are “reach,” “peer,” and “safety” for an
individual student, based on a comparison between that student’s college aptitude test scores
and the median aptitude test scores of students enrolled at the school

How come? Because a top 10% SAT score is not that high and would not suffice for admissions to a top-20 school (as opposed to a top-236 one). A top 75-percentile SAT score (a competitive score for a top-11 university) on the 2015 SAT is 1569 (math + verbal). How rare is such a high score? Very. It is the top 99.84-percentile of test takers, meaning that only 1/625 test takers score that high, a far cry from the 1/10 figure implied by Gladwell as being sufficient to enter Harvard. So out of the “35,000 students a year who score in the 90th percent”, just 560 would presumably score high enough to get into a top-11 school. When divided by 11, that means just 51 additional low-income students being admitted into Harvard, versus 15 additional students admitted, so it’s not like that many are talented poor students are being denied entry, because the number of people who score high enough to get into Harvard, which has the lowest acceptance rate of all elite schools, is so small. The point is though, when one considers actual elite schools, the pool of talented poor students who have competitive enough scores for consideration falls dramatically. Gladwell’s deception is lumping top-236 schools with top-11 ones.


How about Lennox Middle School, which Gladwell describes it as resembling a ‘concentration camp’:

Lennox Middle School has 600 kids per grade. The classrooms are these standalone wooden and cinderblock huts, row upon row of them. They only put in windows in the huts last year, tiny, little windows high on the wall. There’s a big fence around the outside, a guard in a hut at the gate. I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but Lennox looks like a concentration camp. When I was there, a police cruiser drove slowly back and forth between the long rows of huts. Oh, and next to the principal’s office, there are what looked like six narrow closets, solitary confinement cells, where they stash a kid until the cops come. Remember, this is a middle school. You go to a place like Lennox and you can’t help feeling hopeless. This is as bad as LA gets. But right from the beginning, when he came there looking for bright kids, Eric Eisner hit pay dirt.

Lennox has 600 kids per grade, but there are only three grades (6-8th), for a total of 1,500 students. Although that is higher than the state average (600 students), the student-teacher ratio is actually slightly above the California state average (19:1 vs. 24:1). As for the physical description, a Google search shows a lot of happy students, and although the buildings look kinda grey and drab, it does not all resemble “wooden and cinderblock huts”. According to the school’s website, they also have a robotics lab, and placed well “Lennox Middle School students recently competed and placed high in the rankings at the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Tech Challenges.” Gladwell cannot even be counted on to give an accurate description of something that can easily be verified by Google, let alone correctly interpret a study, so what does this say about his credibly as a journalist?