Kevin directed me to the first part of Charles Murray’s three part article about the effect the Bell Curve has on classrooms and resources. It’s extremely un-PC, but to anyone with an iota of logic (or a history of passing through the public school system, as I did), it’s absolutely correct:
Education is becoming the preferred method for diagnosing and attacking a wide range problems in American life. The No Child Left Behind Act is one prominent example. Another is the recent volley of articles that blame rising income inequality on the increasing economic premium for advanced education. Crime, drugs, extramarital births, unemployment–you name the problem, and I will show you a stack of claims that education is to blame, or at least implicated.
One word is missing from these discussions: intelligence. Hardly anyone will admit it, but education’s role in causing or solving any problem cannot be evaluated without considering the underlying intellectual ability of the people being educated. Today and over the next two days, I will put the case for three simple truths about the mediating role of intelligence that should bear on the way we think about education and the nation’s future.
Today’s simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.
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. Suppose a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, is getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Now suppose the boy sitting behind her is getting a D, but his IQ is a bit below 100, at the 49th percentile. 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.
Some say that the public schools are so awful that there is huge room for improvement in academic performance just by improving education. There are two problems with that position. The first is that the numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP’s “basic achievement” score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.
Most public schools do something parents call “teaching to the middle.” (I’m sure educators have a high falutin’ word for it, but that’s exactly what the school does.) It makes sense, of course, because factory schooling cannot tailor itself to each student, so the bulk of the bell curve is what you have to aim for. (As an aside, I’ll say that Montessori, which costs less per child as cash-pressed public school districts have discovered, is able to teach to the child, not to the curriculum.)
This system works well for the kids floating around the middle, but utterly fails those kids at the extremes of the bell curve. It’s why I failed math (no one taught down to me enough), and was bored out of my mind, although I didn’t fail, in the humanities (no one taught up to me enough). It’s why I have a visceral distaste for the public school experience being visited on my children, because I watch them repeating the pattern of alternating failure and boredom (depending whether the particular lesson ignores their strengths or their weaknesses).
Murray’s unpalatable point is that, while in theory all kids are created equal, academically some kids are more equal than others. This takes me back to something I’ve been arguing for for decades: trade schools. I think one of the travesties of public education is the burden it places on kids whose very real gifts are not academic. Pretending everyone is book smart or math smart utterly ignores the fact that there are kids who will never be more than usefully basic in these areas, but who have tremendous ability in the area of crafts and trades. You don’t need to be able to write a 500 word essay about Melville in order to be the best mechanic in town — and our education system should acknowledge these differing types of intelligence, rather than making these useful kids feel like idiots.
And as another aside, this may be one of the military’s great virtues, since it is a trade school extraordinaire. While book snobs such as Kerry may look down on those who don’t read Voltaire in the original French, and may use their snobbery to keep public education in its current mode to help aggrandize those who do care about Voltaire, the military just churns out useful, often fulfilled citizens.