Charles Murray makes a number of useful points in a WSJ editorial on education. First, IQ is an important part of measuring educational outcomes. Without some knowledge of where kids are, what they’re capable of, and what historical results look like, any evaluation is likely to be hopelessly optimistic or critical.
Second, there is a kind of utopian hopefulness about education based on a myth about the schools of the past. While discipline and patriotism were certainly superior in the schools preceding the 1970s, we sometimes forget huge numbers of people dropped out of school in the past–even in the recent past–and this “left behind” much higher quality students for schools to work with. Even today, all the talk of “good schools” in the suburbs elides over the fact that high IQ, stable families tend to have higher IQ and more stable students ready and itnerested in learning.
Finally, our national myth of equality is now enshrined in the No Child Left Behind Act, and equality movement from aspirational goal to practical mandate is creating real, impossible problems in schools. By affecting all students, these problems are now metastasizing. Like affirmative action and its demands of lockstop equality, the inevitable outcome of No Child Left Behind will likely be the lowering of standards; this terrible choice, one that would dumb down gifted and high IQ kids, is the only way to prevent our society from facing up to the reality: one half will always be “below average” by definition.
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.