I recently reread Jared Diamond's excellent book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is an excellent overview of how a variety of factors gave some geographic regions the natural advantages that allowed them to dominate the rest of the world. He beautifully shows that, up until fairly recently, where you were born, rather than your lineage or "race" determines how rich your society would be. However, now that the world is flat and everyone has access to the same guns, germs, and steel; why have the differences continued? Why aren't African kids competing on par with European kids?
The question became even more intriguing after I read Malcom Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He looks at successful people from Mozart to Bill Gates and concludes that these people became so successful by spending the 10,000 hours required to master a skill and then being in the right time and place to take advantage of the mastery. This was the case with Bill Gates who, as a high school student, had nearly unlimited access to a mainframe computer when few computer professors did. It was also the case of Mozart, the son of a composer, who was forced to put in his ten thousand hours while still a young child.
The beauty of putting together the thoughts outlined in these two books is that they make the case that anyone in the world could succeed if they put in the time to master the skill. Except it doesn't work that way. With a few rare exceptions, Africa does not produce many "Outliers."
The best answer that I have found lies in the story behind the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). As described in the This American Life episode, the HCZ CEO, Geoffrey Canada, was raising his second family in the 1990s are realized that the thinking about childrearing had dramatically changed from his first try at it. The new thinking was that parents had to be involved with their kids from even before the kids was born--eating the right foods, singing to the womb. Once the baby was born, there was a whole new philosophy of discipline and care. He encouraged his social workers to go out into their neighborhoods so see if this new thinking had caught on in Harlem. They found that it had not. Geoffrey then reworked the HCZ strategy to focus on helping the children by creating a "conveyor belt" to take them (and their parents) from baby college to college. The HCZ helps parents to care for their kids and prepare their kids for success. By not waiting until the children are reach the traditional school age, they are able to impact the children when they are easiest to touch.
The results that the HCZ has achieved are nothing short of amazing. They have transformed the neighborhood from one of underachieving kids to overachieving ones. They are proving that it is possible to transform education. The Obama administration is looking to duplicate the success through "Promise Neighborhoods."
What if we could take this idea global? What if we could launch baby colleges and develop conveyor belts to take kids to college? Could this be the missing key that would allow children from poor families from all over the world to finally be able to compete in this global economy? Is the biggest mistake that we make in education that we wait too long to begin educating our kids and thereby deny them the chance to achieve mastery?