Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Murray on Educating The Bottom 50%

Bell Curve author Charles Murray is not stranger to controversy, so it's perhaps unsurprising that his three part series on education in the Wall Street Journal last week featured much that could inspire spirited discussion. The three articles discussed the problems involved in educating bottom of the intelligence curve, the middle and the "best and the brightest" respectively.

Some of what he had to say I thought was very good, and some I found myself disagreeing with rather strongly. There's much of interest to discuss in the three articles, so in this piece I'm going to start with the first and probably most controversial piece. He says in part:

Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.... Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile.

We can hope to raise his grade. But teaching him more vocabulary words or drilling him on the parts of speech will not open up new vistas for him. It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.

Now take the girl sitting across the aisle who is getting an F. She is at the 20th percentile of intelligence, which means she has an IQ of 88. If the grading is honest, it may not be possible to do more than give her an E for effort.... [S]he still will be able to comprehend only simple written material. It is a good thing that she becomes functionally literate, and it will have an effect on the range of jobs she can hold. But still she will be confined to jobs that require minimal reading skills. She is just not smart enough to do more than that....

Some say that the public schools are so awful that there is huge room for improvement in academic performance just by improving education. There are two problems with that position. The first is that the numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP's "basic achievement" score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95....

The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone.... The widely held image of a golden age of American education when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three Rs is a myth. If we confine the discussion to children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution..., the overall trend of the 20th century was one of slow, hard-won improvement. A detailed review of this evidence, never challenged with data, was also part of "The Bell Curve."

I have very mixed reactions to this.

On the one hand, I appreciate the effort to be realist about the fact that people have finite abilities. We all understand that despite the inspiring talk that gets tossed around about "You could be anything: an ballerina, a basketball player, a famous scientist, a great writer, the president, anything you work hard enough to do" that is sometimes tossed around by educators, it is simply the fact that some people possess more or less talent in certain areas than others. Will power and training (in addition to certain basic prerequisites) are usually enough to allow you to achieve mediocrity in a chosen field. But talent as well as effort is generally required to achieve anything like greatness.

However, it does seem to me that his estimation of what the bottom half of the IQ curve is capable of is terribly pessimistic. I'm sure the degree of nature vs. nurture that goes into intelligence is something much debated by scientists in the relevent fields. I am not an expert in any of those fields, and so perhaps I overstep, but based on experience and intuition, it seems hard to believe a 30-40% of the human population is physically incapable (in some neurological sense) of developing good math, reading comprehension and writing skills.

What seems more likely to me is that one's educational attainment limits are a mixture of inborn, physical traits and strength based on very early experiences. By analogy, I would imagine that our US middle class population in 2007 has far less physical strength and endurance, in general, than the US population of 200 years ago. Most us do not perform daily hard physical labor from a very young age, whereas the primarily agrarian population of 1807 did. And although it's certainly possible to build fitness through conscious efforts to get exercise later in life, I would imagine that someone who starts working on building his strength and endurance at 16, much less at 30, will never achieve the degree of strength and endurance of someone who regularly exercised and worked hard from early childhood.

Similarly, it wouldn't surprise me if people who are not introduce to complex verbal and abstract thinking at a very young age find it much harder to learn such things (though any amount of effort) later in life. It may well be that much of this nurture-based formation takes place very, very young, perhaps before by 5 or 6, and that after that one's abilities are more or less within a fixed range. Or perhaps the age at which one's mental abilites (not knowledge, but ability to aquire certain types of knowledge or make certain uses of it) settles somewhat later. I'm virtually certain that by 13 or 14 the die is pretty well cast.

I sympathize with his desire to keep standards and expectations reasonable, but I have a hard time believing that humanity is quite as dim a lot as he seems convinced.


Anonymous said...

I read the same piece. It was the 2nd piece in the set I think. Although I agree with what he said about the upside of vocational school, it doesn't change my view that a solid classical liberal arts education being necessary for learning how to think critically. And the transformative nature of this education can be seen across much of the "intelligence distribution" Murray talks about. I know many people who did well and not so well in their classical liberal arts education, but most would agree it changed their lives. Now it might be that certain people can endure more or less rigorous liberal arts training but I do believe that at some level its universal.

Anonymous said...

IQ is pretty much set (95%?) by age 8, if my memory is right.

What I do remember is that this has been studied BIG TIME...the ability to raise IQ of normal, healthy children has never been demonstrated (of course, malnutrition or abuse lowers IQ) but once you have a healthy subject, we have never found methods of raising IQ more than a few points.

Murray is a pretty smart guy, and he has read IQ research his whole life. I would guess he is referring to grading on a curve - an example is IQ of 100 getting Cs, 105 Bs, 110+ As and 95 Ds, and less than 90 Fs. I do agree with you that effort does matter...but if effort averages out among IQ levels, it's a meaningless point.

If one thinks about it, our version of education (and NCLB, etc.) is sort of silly anyway...we decide grades not on what is learned, but on how we stack up to others. If the whole nation lost 20 IQ points, grades would stay the same, and the quality of work would simply drop. Grades don't say what we know, they tell us how we compare.

Anonymous said...


I could certainly believe that IQ is pretty much set by age 8. What I have a harder time with (and I'll admit that this is more ideology than anything based on any kind of evidence) is the idea that IQ is genetically set from birth. So I can see that public education, which begins around age six, can't do much about improving intelligence. But it seems to me likely that the period of rearing that falls under parents' care (or day care/pre-school depending on one's choices) probably does have a lot of an effect on intelligence.

Perhaps this is partly because I would rather think that my intelligence is the result of rearing and that I can rear others to the same standard than think that it's all simply the result of genetics.

I do agree that any sort of grading on a curve can get silly, though I don't know that I ever ran into it during my school days.

Anonymous said...

I do not trust IQ. I knew a boy who had 230, while I managed only pathetic 180. He did not become a better mathematician than me.