Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Intelligence in the Classroom

Charles Murray (auther of The Bell Curve) is back with more toxic nonsense in an Op Ed in today's WSJ.  Essentially what he's saying -- though he'd deny it -- is that the reason 58% of black and 54% of Latino 4th graders can't read is because they're stupid!  GRRRR!!!
What makes his arguments especially dangerous is that SOME of what he says is true and thus the reader can be lulled into believing it all.  Yes, putting political correctness aside, some people are really smart and some (gasp!) are really slow.  He's right that all the talk about emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences don't change this simple fact.  And yes, half of all people are of above average intelligence and half are below.
But how to people become smart/intelligent?  I'm no expert on the research, but it seems abundantly obvious that it's a combination of nature and nuture.  There was something special about Albert Einstein's brain that made it capable of operating on an entirely different level than the rest of us.  Similarly, there are people who, no matter how much good parenting or schooling they get, simply aren't going to be very bright, however one wants to measure this. 
I hypothesize that, at birth, the intellectual outcome of every human 25 or so years later -- again, however you want to measure it, but for simplicity, let's just say IQ -- is going to be on a bell curve -- even two idential twins, with identical brains at birth might end up with very different IQs (for the average person, the bell curve is centered on an IQ of 100).  But then the nurture part kicks in -- in a HUGE way.  If the child is loved, well fed and healthy, is read and spoken kindly to, is exposed to lots of positive experiences (travel, museums, etc.), has parents (or teachers or other role models) who teach (and lead by example) the values of discipline, hard work, being nice and the importance of education, and, most importantly, goes to a great school with great teachers who excel at motivating, inspiring and imparting knowledge, then the average child is HIGHLY likely to end up MUCH smarter than average (say, an IQ of 120, equal to the 90th percentile).  Conversely, if the child does not have all of these factors -- in particular, a lousy school with mostly lousy teachers -- then he/she will end up with, say, and IQ of 80 (10th percentile). 
This is Murray's first major flaw: the intelligence is somehow immutable.  If Albert Einstein had grown up in a broken family, in which no adult had graduated from high school, in a chaotic and dangerous community, and attended failing schools for his entire life, I have no doubt that Murray would have tested him as an adult and concluded that he was stupid.  My experience is that it's actually quite remarkable how nature spreads out innate intelligence.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who were born into privilege and who’ve had every educational advantage, yet are complete dopes; and, conversely, how many people I’ve met who come from modest beginnings but are brilliant. 
The key is what happens AFTER birth.  There are countless factors that determine where a child ends up (both intellectually and otherwise) and it would be unfair to place the entire burden on schools, but my observation over many, many years and seeing dozens of highly successful schools is that a great school, filled with great teachers, can make an ENORMOUS difference.  I'm talking about schools like KIPP that are taking kids with many, many disadvantages, such that by the time they reach KIPP in 5th grade, they are reading, on average, at the 2nd grade level and doing math at the 3rd grade level.  Put another way, maybe 10-30% are at grade level.  No doubt Murray's intelligence tests would rank these students, as a group, WAY below average.
But if Murray were to test them four years later (in some cases, only 1-2 years later), he'd rub his eyes and swear there was a problem with the test or there must have been cheating (I kid you not -- KIPP students' test scores in Texas were so remarkable and unprecedented that the state launched an investigation, which of course turned up nothing).  The SAME kids would "magically" be far more intelligent (I recognize that an IQ test is not the same as the NAEP math or reading test, but it's hard to imagine a child doing well on an IQ test who CAN'T READ!).
Underlying Murray's argument is that American students' current level of knowledge (ability to read, do basic math, etc.) is somehow closely related to their intellegence.  Did it ever occur to him that there are MILLIONS of really bright kids who aren't learning because they attend lousy schools and are taught by lousy teachers?  This is not a hypothesis, but rather a tragic FACT.  There are more than FOUR MILLION students who today attend schools that have been identified as failing for SIX CONSECUTIVE YEARS!  Of course, most of these students are poor and/or minority, leading dopes like Murray to conclude that they're just stupid.  Thank goodness for KIPP and similar schools, which show that if you give these kids great teachers, set high expectations, and ask (no, demand) that they work hard and be nice, THEY ACHIEVE AT VIRTUALLY THE SAME LEVEL AS OTHER KIDS!!!!
This being said, even the greatest schools, even after four years of intense schooling, can't get 10-20% of kids to grade level.  I don't know why for sure, but I'd hypothesize that it's rooted in some combination of the child's status at birth (a crack baby for example), the intellectual impairment in the child's first 10 years before KIPP, and ingrained dysfuncational behavior patterns that can't be modified.
Murray might look at these kids and say, "Ah ha!  That's my point.  Even the most intense interventions can't help these kids become smart."  (In this article, below, he writes: "even the best schools under the best conditions cannot repeal the limits on achievement set by limits on intelligence.")  But this misses two HUGE points:
1) If we assume that 20% of kids were at grade level entering 5th grade and 80% are at grade level four years later, than SIXTY PERCENT of kids have made TREMENDOUS progress!
2) Even the kids who aren't at grade level are still a WHOLE LOT better off than they were before KIPP (and where they'd be had they remained in their prior failing school).  For example, these kids were likely at the 1st grade level entering KIPP and let's say that by the end of 8th grade, they're at the 7th grade level.  Yes, still below grade level, but they've made SIX YEARS of progress in only four years and are far better positioned to make something of their lives.

I think that nearly every American -- no matter where they are on the intelligence spectrum -- has the intellectual potential to be able to read, do basic math, understand a little bit of history, etc. In other words, enough to function in our society, be a good citizen and hold a job, even if only as a janitor, bus driver or some other professional that doesn't require much intellectual horsepower.  There's no shame in this -- the shame is that our schools are failing so many students in giving them even the BASICS (and that people like Murray are willing to excuse this).


It is so horribly wrong to take millions of low-income minority children (who already have two strikes against them in life), put them in failing schools, and then when -- surprise! -- they don't achieve, to write them off because they're stupid.  Instead, we should be asking, “How can we fix the current K-12 public school system so that EVERY child -- not just the privileged ones -- attends a consistently excellent school and is taught by consistently excellent teachers?”


Here are more comments on Murray's article from some friends:

A) Oh my Lord what a crock. I'd like to see Mr. Murray explain the success of places like Kipp.

B) Charles Murray argues that it is unreasonable to expect significant progress in educational achievement because achievement is constrained by cognitive potential – by IQ.  One (of many) obvious criticisms is that for Murray to be correct, he would have to assume that most students are already approaching the achievement that their cognitive potential would allow.  What evidence does Murray produce that most students are already near their maximum potential?  None.

C) It’s sad what we’ve lost in Charles Murray. He’s clearly an extremely bright guy and a very talented scientist. But he got run out of polite society over the Bell Curve book (partly because of vicious distortions of what he actually wrote), and now he seems to see the whole world through the prism of vindicating that book’s hypothesis. All facts and common sense must be sacrificed on the altar of the IQ gods, so that Charles Murray can nurse his grudge against those who did him wrong.

The word “tragic” has been overused to the point where it doesn’t mean much anymore, but Charles Murray really does come across a lot like Oedipus – a man of great potential, self-ruined.

And there's also the fact that a number of policy interventions (like, ahem, vouchers, but also accountability testing and other policies) have been shown in controlled trials to improve test scores. He says in the op-ed that his Bell Curve thesis was never refuted "with data." What exactly would count as "data"?

D) There's an economist at Brookings, Bill Dickens, who has very strong empirical evidence that IQ moves a lot over a person's lifetime in response to effort and environment.  And if individuals are, in fact, endowed genetically with a maximum IQ threshold, Dickens' research (and examples like KIPP) suggests that it tends to be very high and, as Jay Greene points out, Murray does not and probably cannot demonstrate that students are hitting their thresholds in their current sub-optimal educational environs.

E) I'm puzzled as to why the WSJ would set aside three days for this.   I can't think of a parallel.   It will weaken the very valuable voice that the WSJ has had on education issues.   Unless they editorially take a different position, which would be very odd, given the unusual amount of space accorded to this on their pages.

The tragedy of the Bell Curve is that there was an important point to be made, which was on firm ground, but then they went on to much weaker ground to make further points that got all the attention.   the valid point that was to be made was that test scores are an important predictor of many outcomes (earnings, etc.);  they were right on that and on the fact that social scientists were largely gun-shy about putting test scores in their equations (with a few exceptions, such as June O'Neill, if memory serves).  having made that valid point, they then went on into "g," heritability, etc., which put them on much weaker ground.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

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.

Now take the girl sitting across the aisle who is getting an F. She is at the 20th percentile of intelligence, which means she has an IQ of 88. If the grading is honest, it may not be possible to do more than give her an E for effort. Even if she is taught to read every bit as well as her intelligence permits, she still will be able to comprehend only simple written material. It is a good thing that she becomes functionally literate, and it will have an effect on the range of jobs she can hold. But still she will be confined to jobs that require minimal reading skills. She is just not smart enough to do more than that.

How about raising intelligence? It would be nice if we knew how, but we do not. It has been shown that some intensive interventions temporarily raise IQ scores by amounts ranging up to seven or eight points. Investigated psychometrically, these increases are a mix of test effects and increases in the underlying general factor of intellectual ability--"g." In any case, the increases fade to insignificance within a few years after the intervention. Richard Herrnstein and I reviewed the technical literature on this topic in "The Bell Curve" (1994), and studies since then have told the same story.

There is no reason to believe that raising intelligence significantly and permanently is a current policy option, no matter how much money we are willing to spend. Nor can we look for much help from the Flynn Effect, the rise in IQ scores that has been observed internationally for several decades. Only a portion of that rise represents an increase in g, and recent studies indicate that the rise has stopped in advanced nations.

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.

What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement score? Remarkably, it appears that no one has tried to answer that question. We only know for sure that if the bar for basic achievement is meaningfully defined, some substantial proportion of students will be unable to meet it no matter how well they are taught. As it happens, the NAEP's definition of basic achievement is said to be on the tough side. That substantial proportion of fourth-graders who cannot reasonably be expected to meet it could well be close to 36%.

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.

To say 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 understandably grates. But the easy retorts do not work. It's no use coming up with the example of a child who was getting Ds in school, met an inspiring teacher, and went on to become an astrophysicist. That is an underachievement story, not the story of someone at the 49th percentile of intelligence. It's no use to cite the differences in test scores between public schools and private ones--for students in the bottom half of the distribution, the differences are real but modest. It's no use to say that IQ scores can be wrong. I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a student's underlying intellectual ability, g, whether or not it has been measured with a test. And it's no use to say that there's no such thing as g.

While concepts such as "emotional intelligence" and "multiple intelligences" have their uses, a century of psychometric evidence has been augmented over the last decade by a growing body of neuroscientific evidence. Like it or not, g exists, is grounded in the architecture and neural functioning of the brain, and is the raw material for academic performance. If you do not have a lot of g when you enter kindergarten, you are never going to have a lot of it. No change in the educational system will change that hard fact.

That says nothing about the quality of the lives that should be open to everyone across the range of ability. 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. Refusing to come to grips with that reality has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.

Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This is the first in a three-part series, concluding on Thursday.

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