Current/Recent Reading List

01 July 2008

Murray's "Educational Romanticism"

I'm way behind on this (for all I know it's been making internet rounds for weeks), but back in May The New Criterion published an issue dedicated solely to education. While most of the articles involved the sad decline of the humanities in our colleges and universities, there was one lively article on K-12 public schools, entitled "The Age of Educational Romanticism" (sorry, it's a subscriber only article), from none other than Charles Murray. Frankly, I don't know enough about Murray's past arguments (The Bell Curve, et. al.) to comment on them in-depth, though if no less a personage than Shelby Steele has some criticisms, I'm willing to believe that Murray has at least not careful enough in stating his case from time to time. I'm not for genetic essentialism (though I am for recognizing reality, and I've yet to be able to run the 100m dash in under ten seconds!), and in my experience neither race nor sex factors in to who is highly intellectual and who isn't.

However, I've seen Murray interviewed often enough to say I agree with one of his basic premises, which is that our country's education establishment puts too much effort into trying to make everyone a college-bound academic all-star when we know full well only a certain percentage of the population has the ability and/or desire to be that. I would never say this means we shouldn't do our best with all the students we teach, or that those who aren't academic all-stars can't learn at all. But no public school teacher will honestly tell you all his or her kids, no matter their learning styles, will learn equally well.

In this latest article, Murray declares that both those on the left and the right are guilty of a romanticism that is out of touch with educational realities:

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren’t smart enough.

Murray points out that while those factors may affect attitude or application, study after study shows that one's intellectual ability is more or less fixed in place before a child even enters school, regardless of race, sex, or background. He says no programs or strategies make much of a dent in this circumstance:

...There are no examples of intensive in-school programs that permanently raise intellectual ability during the K-12 years (minor and temporary practice effects are the most that have been demonstrated). No one disputes the empirical predictiveness of tests of intellectual ability—IQ tests—for large groups...

...If a classroom of first-graders is given a full-scale IQ test that requires no literacy and no mathematics, the correlation of those scores with scores on reading and math tests at age seventeen is going to be high. Such correlations will be equally high whether the class consists of rich children or poor, black or white, male or female. They will be high no matter how hard the teachers have worked. Scores on tests of reading and math track with intellectual ability, no matter what.

Now, Murray points out that a really, really bad and violent school - or a really, really bad home life - might end up affecting these scores, but that in even a below-average school with below-average funding (like my former school), the intelligent child will almost always show the same aptitude throughout his or her school years. He or she may get lazy, or may get in trouble, and may fail classes left and right, but the innate intellectual ability does not change:

The normally bad school maintains a reasonably orderly learning environment and offers a standard range of courses taught with standard textbooks. Most of the teachers aren’t terrible; they’re just mediocre. Those raw materials give students most of the education they are going to absorb regardless of where they go to school. Excellent schools with excellent teachers will augment their learning, and are a better experience for children in many other ways as well. But an excellent school’s effects on mean test scores for the student body as a whole will not be dramatic. Readers who attended normally bad K-12 schools and then went to selective colleges are likely to understand why: Your classmates who had gone to Phillips Exeter had taken much better courses than your school offered, and you may have envied their good luck, but you had read a lot on your own, you weren’t that far behind, and you caught up quickly.

The problem, as Murray sees it, is that we squander billions of dollars in efforts to make all kids highly intelligent, though this is something nature alone has control of. When they still aren't all highly intelligent after our money and efforts, we in the education business dishonor the less intellectual by deciding that, by God, we've just got to make them like we are (or like we think we are)!. The rationale behind the No Child Left Behind Act (which, Murray points out, "a Republican president of the United States, surrounded by approving legislators from both parties [emphasis mine, b/c Bush always gets all the blame in education circles], signed into law") is that if we just re-double our efforts and make our schools tow the line a little more, all children will suddenly have that high IQ that Antoine and Susie have. So, we pay particular attention these days to the lowest performing students, thinking if they just get even more time and attention and scrutiny, they will be Antoine and Susie. But they aren't, and though they might now score a little higher than they would without this attention, they are not on their way to Harvard. AND, guess what? There's nothing wrong with that.

But wait, people say, what about the good old days when students performed at so much higher levels, and could grasp so much more academic material?:

Wrong. American schools have never been able to teach everyone how to read, write, and do arithmetic. The myth that they could has arisen because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate the least able. When the twentieth century began, about a quarter of all adults had not reached fifth grade and half had not reached eighth grade. The relationship between school dropout and intellectual ability was not perfect, but it was strong. Today’s elementary and middle schools are dealing with 99 percent of all children in the eligible age groups. Let today’s schools not report the test results for the children that schools in 1900 did not have to teach, and NAEP scores would go through the roof.

Again, I would never say we shouldn't be teaching 99% of the population - everyone can learn and improve to some degree - but I must say his point rings true in my exerience.

If, in the past, lower performing students were totally ignored, that was wrong; but then again, principals shouldn't hire teachers who ignore whole blocks of students - that's not our job description. On the other hand, how can we draw a realistic line when it comes to the allocation of our resources, maintain realistic goals, and also do justice to our smartest kids?


Steve Emery said...

Bravo! The article and your post are long overdue. The complete ignoring of blatant facts is almost always the bone-wearying mark of some kind of social fanaticism. I've been involved in adult education during various parts of my career, and I noticed the same things playing out there, as well. Also, not everyone's intelligence is in the few categories we actually measure on standardized tests - something that also needs more widespread acknowledgment. I know brilliant people who would never have done well on an SAT.

School Master P said...

Thanks Steve - Murray even talks about the "multiple intelligences" people have. He points out that educators will say, "Hey, just find out which intelligences a kid excels in, and teach the material to that intelligence." The problem is, when it comes to language and math skills (which show up on standardized test, of course), a couple of these intelligences are far more important to have than the rest. So, certainly someone can be brilliant, but not in the ways that can lead to top-notch facility with language and math. Why force them all there, all the time?

Thanks also, because you gave me a reason to discover your website and wonderful art work, and to see that you are an N.C. guy.