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

Friday, August 22, 2008

More on Murray and Education

Apparently National Review has a series of short interviews with authors of newly released books. Yesterday I ran into this one with Charles Murray about his new book on education. (I wrote a bit about a Murray WSJ column discussing his proposals in this post.) It's just a ten minute interview, and it's worth a quick listen if you get the chance.

This is the sort of thing that can easily feed Darwin dinnertime conversation, though the girls can get a bit antsy when we spend too much time discussing topics other than princesses and dinosaurs. Murray proposes four "simple truths" about education, two of which are "Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average".

Both of these are obviously true (at least, outside of Lake Wobegon) and yet I wonder if focusing on them can lead us to give up on far too many people far too early. Murray argues that only 30% of students are capable of ever meeting the standards for math and reading set forth in No Child Left Behind. Not being a fan of Left Behind novels or legislation, I'm not familiar with the reading and math standards involved, but I'm a bit dubious that any significant portion of the population is inherently unable to perform at what we would consider a decent high school level of reading, writing and math. (Though I'm willing to admit, this may be the result of imposing the experiences and abilities of myself and those I know on lots of people that I don't.)

Apropos of that, I also ran into yesterday this article from the American Thinker entitled "Why Shakir Can't Read". (Avoid the comments, they can lower your intelligence.)

One hopes that what the article describes is an exaggeration or is at least rare, but one fears that it is not. It wouldn't surprise me if, by age nine, or even age six, a child raised amidst instability and neglect, never read to and left to amuse himself with television and whatever action he can find on the streets of the 'hood, has been rendered unable to progress (at least without effort more intensive than most schools will ever be capable of giving) beyond a certain point. So maybe its problems like the ones Shakir faces in the article that create the 70% unable to meet standards that Murray talks about.

However it strikes me that although there is a real, inherent educational attainment limit for people, what we are generally seeing in current statistics is a created limit which results from bad parenting, bad culture and bad schools. And so while Murray is doubtless right that there is a limit beyond which it is not possible to push people, it does seem to me that there is still room for broad-based improvements in education if we manage to clean up American cultural attitudes (and particularly those of some sub-cultures in America) towards education -- and also refocus our schools on real teaching.

While there are doubtless limits (both inherent and created through early mis-formation) to educational attainment, I can't help fearing that focusing too much on them encourages us to only solve some problems (like better education for the "gifted") and not others like our overall cultural attitudes toward education, the family and child rearing.


Anonymous said...

There is something of an equivocation on the meaning of "proficient" when applied by the No Child Left Behind act. As far as the law goes, it is the second level of achievement from the top, but that level isn't specified by NCLB, the states determine that for themselves.

The levels are: advanced, proficient, nearing proficiency, and beginning step. When Murray says that only 30% of students are capable of meeting this standard, he is thinking in terms of all the students performing to the limits of their abilities, and the scales being set by that maximum range, such that the truly gifted would be advanced, bright but only above average students are proficient, and so on.

This is generally not what proficient means when test results are reported. In general, this is not tied to any specific level of achievement, i.e. being able to read or perform calculations. Instead, some cutoff is applied to the scores on the test in question, and everyone above score X are counted as proficient. How this is defined varies widely. And this does represent the actual level of achievement among the students, which is probably depressed across the board from what the students could achieve under ideal conditions.

From what I can tell, I think Murray would agree that most of the people would be able to perform at what we would consider a decent level of reading, writing, and math. For Murray, that simply isn't called "proficient".

Daddio said...

Sorry to nitpick, but "average" has been confused with "median".

Unknown said...

That isn't right daddio. Murray would probably assume something closely matching a gaussian distribution of abilities. In that case the mean would be the average.