January 16, 2007

Charles Murray is not on a roll

Charles Murray has another education-related OpEd in the WSJ. He whiffs this one too. This time he doesn't get past the subhead:

Intelligence in the Classroom
Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them.

Murray's problem is that he underestimates exactly how much can be done with the lower half. He made this same mistake in his last OpEd, as did John Derbyshire in his last article.

Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. It is a matter of ceilings.

It is a matter of ceilings, but that ceiling isn't reached until after the K-12 level. We can get most kids, regardless of their IQ, up to a basic 8th grade literacy and numeracy level, which is about the level that is tested on the 11th grade NAEP. You have to dig pretty deep in the education literature to get to this point, but if you're going to be writing OpEds for the WSJ you need to do your research.

This is an unfortunate misstep because Murray's (and Derbyshire's) premise is fundamentally sound. IQ plays a big part in how much a student is capable of learning. There will always be an achievement gap between the smart and the dull. And, to the extent that some groups are smarter than other groups means that there will always be educational achievement gaps between groups just like there are athletic achievement gaps between these same groups.

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.

Nonsense. There is no doubt that reading comprehension depends on background knowledge. It is this lack of background knowledge that is the constraining factor not the underlying cognitive ability (though certainly a student's cognitive ability plays a large role in acquiring this background knowledge in the first place). When students have the background knowledge assumed by a passage, they do just fine comprehending it:

For example, in one study (Recht and Leslie, 1988), the researchers tested junior high school students who were either good or poor readers (as measured by a standard reading test) and who were also knowledgeable or not about the game of baseball (as measured by a test created for the study by three semi-professional baseball players). The children read a passage written at an early 5th-grade reading level that described a half inning of a baseball game. The passage was divided into five parts, and after each part the student was asked to use a replica of a baseball field and players to reenact and describe what they read. The researchers found that baseball knowledge had a big impact on performance: Poor readers with a high knowledge of baseball displayed better comprehension than good readers with a low knowledge of baseball.

Murray may know a lot about IQ, but he doesn't seem to know much about how the brain works. Here's how a real cognitive scientist explains what's going on when children read the passage:

[T]he students with a lot of knowledge of baseball were able to read a series of actions and chunk them. (For example, if some of the text described the shortstop throwing the ball to the second baseman and the second baseman throwing the ball to the first baseman resulting in two runners being out, the students with baseball knowledge would chunk those actions by recognizing them as a double play--but the students without baseball knowledge would have to try to remember the whole series of actions.) Second, because they were able to chunk, the students with baseball knowledge had free space in their working memory that they could devote to using the replica to reenact the play as well as providing a coherent verbal explanation. Without being able to chunk, the students with little baseball knowledge simply didn't have enough free space in their working memory to simultaneously remember all of the actions, keep track of their order, do the reenactment, and describe the reenactment.

Murray also doesn't seem to know much about the current state of education reform.

The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind. We have never known 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 (education of the gifted is another story), 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."

This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved. Many of them, especially in large cities, are dreadful. But even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.

Murray doesn't seem to be aware that the largest educational experiment in American history flatly contradicts his assertion that "[w]e have never known how to educate everyone." Project Follow Through showed us that not only can we get low IQ kids to learn, we can get them to learn at a pace that teaches them a year's worth of material in a year's worth of time. Here's some of the Project Follow Through data broken down by IQ:

Notice how the low performers are keeping pace with the smart kids and how by third grade all the groups, even the ones with IQs below 70, are performing above the median.

While it's true that smart kids can learn significantly faster than this pace, this pace is sufficient to get kids up to the point where they can pass the NAEP exams and the much easier state exams, which is all that our current law requires.

This is going to be a three part series for Murray. Let's hope parts two and three are better than part one.


Dr. P. said...


Reading your column has been an education for me.

I think I just passed my mid-term:
I read the Murray piece this morning and had the same reaction you did.

TurbineGuy said...


I wonder if you both might be right. It seems to me that the examples you used are mainly concentrated around reading comprehension.

Could intelligence be more of a limiting factor when it comes to mathematics (especially higher level math such as algebra) and other subjects such as science, biology, history, social studies etc...

While I agree that given proper instruction, most students will be able to learn the basic skills (K-8) level, there will come a point when the background knowledge required simply becomes to much for lower IQ individuals.

I do agree that Charles Murray does appear to have a very limited amount of knowlege on educational/learning theories.

Unfortunately he is also one of few prominent people out there talking about the "white elephant" in the room which is IQ.

Effective instruction seems to me to be most effective if children are abiilty grouped, and ability grouping is probably going to be closely correlated with g.


Alex B. said...

Can you tell me where you obtained you PFT data?



KDeRosa said...

Alex, one place, but not the only place, to find the chart is in Engelmann's CSSP acceptance speech. It's also loacted in an edition of direct instruction news.

KDeRosa said...

Found it

TurbineGuy said...


there is more info on pft at



http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adiep/ft/151toc.htm (links to several articles with tables and graphs, probably much the same that Ken already linked to)

sorry to lazy to embed links.


KDeRosa said...

Rory, as to math, intelligence is not a limikting factor at the K-12 level. Math instruction can be accelerated, though not as much as, say, reading instruction can be. We don't have a lot of good data on the high school subjects since most lower preformers rarely have the pre-skills needed to do well in such courses. However, I know of a few studies where lower IQ kids have performed as well as higher performers when the instruction was good.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you posted about this topic. Speaking as the parent of an autistic 10 yr old son with an IQ in the 70ish range, this particular post strikes a personal chord with me. If I had dime for every time I got a odd look or a "yeah,right"-type remark (instead of acknowledgement) in response to the suggestion to school officials that the lower IQ kids should be reading at a third grade level by the end of third grade... well, it's no small wonder that the public buys into this nonsense, even many of the parents of the lower IQ/disabled kids themselves.

The education of special ed kids makes the education of the economically disadvantaged look like a Cadillac. At least the educrats believe those kids could achieve if we can solve the problem of poverty. With disabled kids, they just don't think it can be done, period, and act like society is doing all us parents a great big favor by dealing with them at all.

Anonymous said...

Murray's problem is that he underestimates exactly how much can be done with the lower half.

Yes, thank you Ken. As the mother of a child who pretty consistently scores below the 10th percentile in most cases, I can tell you that indeed he can and does learn.

Now will it look like what a higher IQ kid produces? No, but exposure and good teaching go a long way with people of all IQ's. I know this from experience.

What disturbs me about what he is saying is that it almost gives permission for schools to give up on lower IQ kids. There's no point. I don't sense that he knows kids at that level.

It really is hard to wrap your brain around the idea of a much lower IQ, but we parents finally learn to after so many years of living with it. There is as much range of intelligence going on there as with any high achiever.

A commenter over at Joanne Jacobs mentioned that he/she didn't know anyone in the 36th percentile, but I assure you most people do and don't realize it. They sat next to you in school when you were growing up. They are in all kinds of jobs. We mostly notice when we're speaking to someone at around low 80s and below.

But giving up on them by not teaching them at their level with the same drive and passion as you would any other kid means, however, that they will produce at a much lower level. I have no doubt that this would be true for my son.


KDeRosa said...

I know of a few studies where lower IQ kids have performed as well as higher performers when the instruction was good.

Let me clarify. The lower performers got the good instruction. The high performers got the typical instruction. See here.

Jenny D. said...

Ken, I've been too busy to really write about the Murray op-eds, so I'm glad you did. He is just a little bit correct, just enough so people might believe the bulk of his argument that is not correct.

Thanks for getting to this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the critique. I've read Murray's first two columns so far, and it's great to get a reality check.

Anonymous said...

"While it's true that smart kids can learn significantly faster than this pace, this pace is sufficient to get kids up to the point where they can pass the NAEP exams and the much easier state exams, which is all that our current law requires."

Smart kids get completely robbed as a result. They are not being taught to their potential. They are being taught "what the law requires." That is the problem with NCLB and why it makes this country destined for failure.

KDeRosa said...

To the extent there is some truth in this statement, this sorry state of affairs predates NCLB. The full inclusion movement is no freind to kids at the tails of the distribution. Smart kids don't get a break until high school where they are finally permitted to take classes with kids of similar ability.

Also, the fact taht NCLb sets minimum standards does not prevent any school from exceeding them.

Catherine Johnson said...



Anonymous said...

How about this take ...

If the lower IQ kids can be taught so that they learn as much as the higher IQ kids, then the higher IQ kids aren't learning as much as they are capable of.

KDeRosa said...

I agree with that statement. With the same instruction, the higher performers should learn at an even faster pace than they are are currently. bascially, better instruction should shift the entire curve to the right.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why there is not more concern about our country turning itsback on its best and brightest while leaving no child behind. It is a national travesty that we forego the gifted mind in an attempt to close an achievement gap. The parents of the gifted should be screaming from the rooftops!!!!