Friday, January 19, 2007

Educating the Elite

Policy, culture, and education expert Charles Murray is at it again. I commented on Murray’s infeasible plan to reform our welfare state in this post. I discussed Murray’s criticism of NCLB in this post. This week Murray ran a three-part series in the Wall Street Journal (part 1, part 2, part 3) that is critical of many of our efforts to improve education.

Murray’s entire thesis revolves around the politically incorrect but obvious fact that not all Americans share the same IQ level, and cannot, therefore, be expected to achieve the same academically. Murray admits that this rubs against the grain of the basic American concept that anyone can accomplish anything in this country. But he says that we have to deal with an immutable fact. “Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.”

I can remember how angry I was in junior high school with a teacher’s policy that each class be graded on the Bell Curve. Regardless of statistics, this seemed terribly unfair. This teacher insisted on applying the curve at the end of the term with the result that nobody knew what was required to get an A, other than to be perfect. The difference between an A and a B could be 0.1%. What I later realized was that this teacher was stupidly applying a broad statistical standard to a very small population without allowing for the skew of that population. I felt much better about teachers that clearly outlined what kind of performance would result in a given grade without worrying about how it fit into a statistical model.

Murray says that many schools can and should be improved, but that “even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.” He says that “even a perfect education system is not going to make much difference in the performance of children in the lower half of the distribution…,” and he claims he has the empirical evidence to back it up.

Murray says that ignoring the fact that real base IQ does exist in each person “has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.” Moreover, he says the “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.”

One of the lines that caught my attention was, “A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.” We can see others’ limitations, but are sometimes (honestly and physically) incapable of realizing our own.

Murray thinks we have too many people attending college. He asserts that a four-year college degree is really only useful for certain professions where it effectively constitutes certification. Murray holds that “a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing.” It shows persistence but does not specifically certify the graduate for a career. I think some would heartily disagree. Murray believes, “There are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers.”

Moreover, Murray argues that college is ill suited to those with IQs less than 110. He thinks it makes sense for only 15-25% of the population. He notes that 45% of high school graduates enroll in college, but he doesn’t provide statistics about how many actually graduate. People go to college to fulfill social purposes and to improve economic prospects. But studies show a higher correlation between IQ and earnings than between a college degree and earnings. Murray thinks it’s just fine for higher IQ individuals that aren’t interested in college to do something else, but not for lower IQ individuals to go to college.

Murray argues that IQ dilution at colleges causes our higher education institutions to offer less useful courses suited to lower IQ levels. He says that government programs exacerbate the problem “by making college scholarships and loans too easy to get….”

Murray’s final piece criticizes the way we deal with our most gifted students. Because it is elitist to note inequality of abilities, we try to treat all students the same. But the gifted ones are smart enough to know that they are smarter than average. They regularly outperform their peers without grappling with the intellectual limitations their peers face every day. Their performance is rewarded in a variety of ways. The result is a class of elitist snobs that believe themselves to be superior humans.

This is a great disservice to everyone. Murray says that they need to be told “explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that … they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones.” He says that the gifted need to understand that due to their abilities, they have special responsibilities. They need to know what it means to be good. They need to develop wisdom. And they need humility. They need to have some classes only with other gifted students so that they can be challenged and can learn what it is like to hit an intellectual wall.

Murray is “calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.” He claims that all of this is assiduously neglected and “antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today's schools at every level.” He admits that it is antithetical to our modern culture to promote this kind of distinction, but he seems to argue that the cost of not doing so is costing our society plenty. He asserts, “Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.

Lest anyone misconstrue Murray’s reliance on IQ, he says, “I am among the most emphatic of those who think that the importance of IQ in living a good life is vastly overrated. My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence.”

Murray makes some provocative points. But there are plenty of people that would argue (see here) “that IQ is a social construct invented by the privileged classes used to maintain their privilege.” Others will admit that IQ is real enough, but that it is a poor measure of an individual or of an individual’s ability to achieve. Perhaps so, but IQ is a very good predictor of academic capability, and we are talking about our education system here.

I do not know my IQ or that of anyone else with whom I am personally acquainted. I have two kids that I think it’s pretty safe to say are gifted. The school district wanted us to send them to a magnate school for gifted kids. We weighed the need for them to be challenged against their social needs and opted to keep them at their regular school. Besides, it didn’t make logistical sense for my family.

I would like my gifted kids to be challenged. That doesn’t often happen during the regular course of the school day. So we work to involve our kids in extracurricular and outside activities that provide these kinds of challenges. For example, I wrote here and here about NAL, I have kids currently involved in the USFIRST Robotics Competition, and I have kids enrolled in a variety of music courses (piano, violin, guitar).

But what about families that can’t pull off these kinds of things? Murray claims that the vast majority of gifted kids get help somewhere along the line, but he maintains that we are still shortchanging them on teaching them about their responsibilities.

I also have a son that has a type of learning disability. Oh, he seems bright enough, but he struggles with speech and reading. In the first four months of his first grade year, the school’s specialists have worked wonders with him. What if his IQ is in the bottom 49%? Should we simply give up? Although I’m sure Murray would say that he never said such a thing, the tone of his series seems to come across to me that way.

My kids go to good schools, but the kind of intervention my first grader is having wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen five years ago before NCLB. We need to continue to pursue educational innovation. Every child deserves to be helped to achieve his/her best regardless of IQ. My guess is that Murray would say he agrees with me but would say that we’re falling short on helping our gifted kids do their best.

Murray wraps up his series by saying, “The aim here is not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education.” Right now nobody is even talking about this, so maybe getting a discussion about it started is the right thing.


Bradley said...

Fabulous summary and commentary. I agree with Murray that too many people are going to college and that it won't be too long before the importance of a college degree starts to diminish. Right now, it is used as a weeder by HR folks who are trying to narrow down a field of applicants. We need better, less expensive, weeders. College isn't right or necessary for everyone and I wish we'd get past the social stigma that has become associated with not going.

Jettboy said...

I agree with much of what Murray has said. What must be done is go back to the days when education was the track toward employment. Right now all it consists of is very basic and completely arbitrary skills that might have a useful function for the right people.

More than half of students, especially post-college, simply go as a requirement. They don't learn anything unless by near osmosis because they don't see the importance of going. Add to it the students who are low IQ and parents who think of school as babysitting and you end up with a disaster of an educational system. The ones who end up left behind are the students who take education seriously and the parents who recognize the ignored potential. Many of them decide private or home education trump the so-called social reasoning for going to public schools.

Anonymous said...

Moreover, Murray argues that college is ill suited to those with IQs less than 110.

I agree with this. Why are so many below-average students even in college?

Because they HAVE to go to get any sort of job that isn't menial or a pure service position.

Bring back IQ tests as a weeder.

Tom said...

Too many of us don't understand statistics. =) It's entirely possible for the vast majority of a population to score below average (or above average) ... although by definition that couldn't be true for a median. To use an example from Wikipedia in a paragraph on asymmetric distributions, nearly everyone has an above average number of legs.

In Utah, college participation declined 4 percentage points from 1990 to 2000 (ages 18-24) to 36.6%. The numbers are even lower nationally. (Perlich, 2006 [pdf]) In Utah in 2000, only about 26% of the population 25 and older were college graduates, compared w/ 24% nationally.

Raliat Kafidipe said...

IQ is God gift. Expecting all children/people to perform at the same pace level and achieve at the same is grossly unrealistic to say the list. Yes college is not for everybody nor every profession, so provide for the need of all. And I agree that for far too long this system has neglected the gifted, or at least taken them for granted at the risk of loosing them. The points on both sides are valid to varied extents, making this discussion necessary so we can find a common ground.