Why are English soccer professionals more likely to be born in the months of August-October, while Canadian hockey professionals are more likely to be born in the months of January-March? Why are children born between September and November more likely to excel academically than those born between June and August? And why are the children of wealthy families more likely to succeed in school - and later in life - than the children of poor families?
When it comes to success, it's not a question of "Is he good or just lucky?" Recent research suggests that if you're lucky, you're far more likely to be made good.
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Streaming into Success
This week Morning Feature looks at Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, in the context of the Narrative Fallacy: the human tendency to construct simple, cause-effect stories from complex, partly-random events. Today we'll look at streaming, developmental programs that mistake luck for potential and create self-fulfilling prophecies. Tomorrow we'll examine how social networks and social skills influence our "opportunity windows," opening or closing off possibilities for success. Saturday we'll conclude by exploring whether and how we as a society can make "opportunity windows" less capricious.
Professional sports are often presented as a pure meritocracy, where the best athletes rise to the top regardless of race or heritage. Indeed, Pat Buchanan made that very argument on The Rachel Maddow Show two weeks ago, in defending his claim that Judge Sonia Sotomayor is "an affirmative action baby" who doesn't deserve to be on the Supreme Court. That Mr. Buchanan was wrong about Judge Sotomayor is a matter of public record, as Ms. Maddow made clear a few days later. But he was also wrong about sports.
Indeed as many studies have shown, athletic success seems to depend as much on blind luck - specifically, the month of birth - as on any other single factor. It's called the Relative Age Effect (RAE) and it results from a process Malcolm Gladwell calls streaming. And it's not limited to sports.
What is streaming?
Streaming is a developmental process where young children are evaluated and selected for special treatment based on the perception of greater ability or potential. It's what happens when 300 5-6 year-olds show up at your community soccer club and 24 are chosen for the "competitive" squad. The "competitive" squad will often practice five days a week and play a full season against other local clubs' "competitive" squads. The other 275 kids are assigned to "recreational" squads that practice two days a week and play a shorter, intramural season within the club.
Typically the same kids progress from one "competitive" squad to the next as they move up the age brackets. Does that prove that the coaches who selected the "competitive" from the "recreational" players were right, and those 24 kids really were the most talented 5-6 year-old players in the club? Can coaches really spot standout athletic talent that young?
More likely, the RAE research suggests, they were the oldest 5 and 6 year-olds: kids born in the three months after the league's cutoff date. Most leagues require U7 "competitive" squads to be evenly split between 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds, and the cutoff date for soccer is usually August 1st. The children born in August, September, and October will be a few months older, bigger, stronger, and faster, and thus will seem to be better athletes. How strong is the RAE? English professional soccer players are twice as likely to be born in August-October as in the other months of the year.
Skeptics initially dismissed these studies by citing other possible causes for athletic excellence in Autumn-born children, such as better infant nutrition because they were born at harvest time, but they were quickly proven wrong. In Canadian hockey, for example, the youth league cutoff date is January 1st ... and children born from January-March are far more likely to be selected for their clubs' "elite" squads ... and far more likely to eventually play professional hockey. The same RAE pattern has been found in other sports that select "competitive" squads from each age cohort.
The self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many youth coaches still reject this evidence, insisting they're just good at spotting young talent. And as proof they cite their players' advancement from one "competitive" squad to the next as the players get older. But the research suggests their talent-spotting is a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. Children selected for the "competitive" squads get 3-6 times more development time each year. They have more practices per week, a longer season, the club's most experienced coaches, and usually assistant coaches as well. ("Recreational" squads often make do with a lone volunteer parent as a coach.) Given all that extra developmental time, the players' excellence is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If that happened only in sports, perhaps it might not matter much in the big scheme of life. But it's not limited to sports. Many school systems now have "gifted" classes as young as 2nd or 3rd grade, when it's likely "gifted" children are more often those who were "given" the best birth month: the first three months after the cutoff date. Not surprisingly, the same children tend to progress from one "gifted" class to the next, and not surprisingly that may owe more to the self-fulfilling prophecy: smaller class sizes, better teachers, and higher expectations leading to more homework. The school year for "gifted" children may be the same number of days, but total up to 30% more hours given the extra homework assignments.
Extra developmental time is that important.
Look at any elite university or graduate school and you're likely to find a disproportionate number of students from wealthy families. It's not just that they're better able to afford college or graduate school; more of them will often be on academic scholarships or have placed in the top quartile on SATs and other admissions tests. Conservative educational commentators often point to the students' parents - who are more likely to have advanced education themselves - suggesting it's simply a matter of the genetic "cream rising to the top." That's a reassuring story for those who want to celebrate the privileges of wealth.
Again, research suggests it's only a story, and those students' academic excellence owes more to their summer vacations than to their genetics or their performance in school. Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander tracked 650 students in the Baltimore public school system, starting in the first grade. The city schools administer the California Achievement Test to each student twice each year: in September and June. Based on those data, Alexander was able to assess the students' progress both during the school year (change in score from September to June) and overall (change in score from September to September). His results were startling.
The children of poor families actually made more progress during the school year than children of wealthy families, an average gain of 37.8 points per year from Grade 1-5 for children of poor families vs. an average gain of 36.8 points per year for children of wealthy families. But that all changed during summer vacation. On average, the children of poor families lost 0.5 points per year over the summer, while children of wealthy families gained 10.5 points per year over the summer.
Indeed, Alexander found that all of the wealthy kids' academic excellence - their gains over poor and middle class children - happened during their summer vacations. That's when the wealthy kids were in summer tutoring programs, exploration camps, traveling to educational sites, and the like ... while poor kids were more often sitting at home watching TV (or worse). The children of wealthy parents keep learning throughout the year, and over the course of K-12 that adds up to two extra years of education.
So look again at the "best and brightest" in elite universities, more likely than not the children of wealthy parents. Are they really the "best and brightest," or simply the students whose parents could afford to give them an extra two years of education by the time they finished high school? Like the older kids in youth sports - but for a different reason - they got the benefit of more developmental time, and excellence became a self-fulfilling prophecy.