The focus of Gladwell's public policy prescriptions for equal opportunity is K-12 public education. In the last full chapter, he brings the accumulated weight of his arguments to bear on the case of a twelve-year old pupil he calls Marita. Marita is the only daughter of a single mother, enrolled in an experimental public education program known as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) at Lou Gehrig Junior High School in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. Marita does not come from a privileged background; she was chosen by lottery for the program and had to sign an agreement that she would follow the program. She rises at 5:45 in the morning and takes public transportation to school, which starts at 7:25. Rather than ending at 3pm like a normal public school, classes run through 5pm daily. Extracurricular activities begin after that and may run as late as 7pm. Marita gets home by 5:30 or so and starts right away on her homework, which she finishes between 9 and 10pm. "Sometimes my mom makes me break for dinner," she says, implying that there are other times when she works straight through. Before bed, she tells her mother about her day, then she is asleep sometime after 11pm. She follows this schedule five days a week, then comes in to school for four more hours each Saturday. Summer vacation for her and her KIPP classmates is interrupted by three weeks of school in July, six hours a day, to ensure that they retain what they learned the previous year.
Marita's school and study schedule is not one that one would expect from an inner-city public school kid in one of the more crime-ridden areas of New York City; indeed it would seem to top the over-scheduled middle class suburban children who come home with book-laden backpacks on wheels and whose parents are forever shuttling them from soccer practice to dance lessons. When Marita was first selected for the school and a school officer described it to her, she thought she was "going to prison." Despite all this, of course (otherwise the author would not be telling us about it), she likes the school (or is at least amenable to it) and it has a successful track record. Many KIPP alumni attend college and are the first generation of their families to do so.
Gladwell addresses head-on the notion that Marita is keeping the schedule of a workaholic. He compares her situation to the Korean air pilots, who were able to improve their safety record only after they and their company committed to an English-only work environment. The change helped them to let go of the cultural legacy of hierarchical social relationships that is thoroughly coded in Korean linguistic forms of address, and at the same time to gain fluency in the language of air traffic controllers worldwide.
"Marita's life is not the life of a typical twelve-year-old. Nor is it what we would necessarily wish for a twelve-year-old. Children, we like to believe, should have time to play and dream and sleep. Marita has responsibilities. What is being asked of her is the same thing that was asked of the Korean pilots. To become a success at what they did, they had to shed some part of their own identity, because the deep respect for authority that runs throughout Korean culture simply does not work in the cockpit. Marita has had to do the same because the cultural legacy she had been given does not match her circumstances either--not when middle- and upper-middle-class families are using weekends and summer vacation to push their children ahead. Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends--all the elements of her old world--and replace them with KIPP" (266).
So while some might say that her rigorous schedule requires her to sacrifice her childhood, "Marita's Bargain" is that the sacrifice will (she hopes) ultimately be worth it in terms of advancing her socioeconomic position.
The school is especially good in math education. With its extended school day, the curriculum can afford to allot more time on subjects. Pupils spend two hours a day on math their first year (fifth grade) and 90 minutes a day in subsequent years. An instructor mentions but does not elaborate upon another part of the curriculum: an hour and fifteen minutes of orchestra daily for every pupil in the school. "Everyone does orchestra" (261), not just the "musical" kids. I sure would like to know more about that. Why do the administrators devote so many resources to orchestra? Do they think it helps develop math skills? Does it help socialize the children to work together? How does their experience of giving everyone musical training compare with Gladwell's assertion that talent is overrated? After four school years of orchestra class, 75 minutes a day, 5 days a week, do all of the students show musical aptitude and development? The book addresses none of these questions, but then music is my obsession, not his.