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.