Teach the children well

Both D-Ed Reckoning and Education Gadfly take on Charles Murray’s arguments on IQ and education.

Reckoning focuses on the evidence that good teaching enables lower-IQ students to learn at grade level.

Low-IQ kids are not cognitively crippled. They just learn at a slower pace. They are capable of learning sophisticated, complex material at a grade level pace given adequate instruction. At least up to the K-12 level. But the fact of the matter is that these kids aren’t getting anything close to adequate instruction at the K-12 level. This instructional inadequacy taints Murray’s underlying premise and renders his conclusion spurious.

Had Murray qualified his argument by stating “It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity given the typically crappy instruction present in most schools,” he’d be much closer to the truth.

Gadfly doesn’t believe IQ tells us all we need to know about a student’s ability to learn, pointing to schools like Amistad Academy that succeed in educating low-income minority students.

It is notable, though, to see fatalism and educational determinism (and NCLB pessimism) emerging, for wholly different reasons, from both left and right.

I saw Fordham’s Checker Finn last night at a Koret Task Force debate at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He moderated a debate on whether improving curriculum or expanding school choice is most likely to advance school reform. E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch argued for a common, coherent, content-rich core curriculum. Caroline Hoxby and Paul Peterson argued that choice is the mechanism to achieve better curriculum. Hoxby scored with me when she pointed out that Hirsch and Ravitch wouldn’t be, in all likelihood, the ones writing the core curriculum they advocate.

Ravitch and Hirsch capped their rebuttal with a rap — a very white rap — on the primacy of learning content: “Choice is cool but it’s not enough. We’ve got the stuff! We’ve got the stuff!”

Caught by surprise, Peterson bounced back by citing Sinatra’s ode to “love and marriage” which “go together like a horse and carriage.” According to the song, “you can’t have one without the other.” (Of course, you can, but never mind.)

Afterwards, the debaters were asked about Murray. Hoxby said the IQ evidence is a lot murkier than Murray thinks; Ravitch and Hirsch said IQ is influenced significantly by culture and education.

My book, Our School, which I urge all you new readers to buy, tells the story of a charter school that recruits disadvantaged Mexican-American students who’ve done poorly in school and tries to get them caught up academically and prepared for college. Most need to be taught basic skills they missed in the lower grades and lots of content — especially vocabulary — so they can boost their reading comprehension. Some have very short attention spans and huge gaps in background knowledge. Very few aren’t smart enough to do the work. I tutored some kids who were frustrating. But they weren’t dumb.

By the way, a lot of new readers are coming over from Salon’s Daou Report, which lists this blog as “from the right.” (There’s no “in the middle” category.) That’s why some new commenters assume the Murray posts are about the knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping, knee-jerk right vs. the intellectual left. I think left-right arguments are irrelevant when it comes to how best to help low-income and minority students get a decent education.

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Comments

  1. “Low-IQ kids are not cognitively crippled. They just learn at a slower pace.”

    I’m sorry, but distance = rate*time, they are not “crippled” but the slower someone learns the less they will learn during the time spent in public schools.

    I agree that students of all abilities could be taught much more effectively in public schools, but I think one of the important first steps to improvement is the one Mr. Murray is making, reminding everyone that not all children are academically equal. Resources are limited, the less money wasted on college prep and college for all, the more money for education programs that have a chance of working. More vocational education would be a big benefit to low income students and society as a whole.

  2. Barry Garelick says:

    Hoxby scored with me when she pointed out that Hirsch and Ravitch wouldn’t be, in all likelihood, the ones writing the core curriculum they advocate.

    They won’t be writing the curriculum under the school choice scenario either.

  3. ben nails it.

    If low IQ students learn at a slower pace then the only way for them to keep up with higher IQ students is to hold back the high IQ students.

  4. the slower someone learns the less they will learn during the time spent in public schools.

    Unless you accelerate their performance, i.e., teach them more efficiently, which you can do for most skills. Using the same resources. And, this doesn’t have to be college prep, just plain old K-12 skills. Isn’t that what we’re paying for already?

  5. “Unless you accelerate their performance, i.e., teach them more efficiently, which you can do for most skills. Using the same resources”

    Two problems here. First, using the same resources for students who need substantial remediation and social services won’t be enough. Second, however much you accelerate the performance of hard-to-reach kids, students ready to learn will have the ability to accelerate even faster.

    How about real differentiated instruction? Those who pick it up faster get to move more quickly. Those who are willing and able to work harder get more instruction at the level appropriate for their ability to “get it”. Some kids get longer school days; others more time on the soccer field — we respect that different people have different needs and priorities.

  6. First, using the same resources for students who need substantial remediation and social services won’t be enough. Second, however much you accelerate the performance of hard-to-reach kids, students ready to learn will have the ability to accelerate even faster.

    using the same resources for students who need substantial remediation and social services won’t be enough

    First, they won’t need “substaintal remediation” if they are taught correctly in the first place.

    Second, your judgment on the required level of resources assumes that the current resource level is somehow insufficient. This does not seem to be the case in the vast majority of public schools.

    Third, you’re assuming that the goal is to get all kids to the same educational end point or that there won’t exist a normal distribution in student performance at the end of high school. Neither will necessarily be the case. As you point out, higher IQ kids can be accelerated faster, so they will almost achieve higher. This was not a point I was attempting to make, nor is it a point I need to make to prove my position.

    How about real differentiated instruction?

    How about flexible homogeneous grouping?

    we respect that different people have different needs and priorities.

    That’s great so long as they’re all getting an education that imparts K-12 skills which is what we’re paying for.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    But – but – that would not be FAIR!

  8. “How about real differentiated instruction? Those who pick it up faster get to move more quickly. Those who are willing and able to work harder get more instruction at the level appropriate for their ability to “get it””

    Careful, you almost said the forbidden “T” word.

    (tracking)

  9. Some kids are smarter than others, just as some kids are taller, stronger and faster than others. This doesn’t mean they are better than others but it does mean they are not all equally suited to intellectual tasks, such as mastering complex analytical skills.

    That such observations are controversial is one manifestation of the topsy turvey world of social utopianism and self-righteous moralism that has blinded a couple generations of education “thinkers.”

    My humble opinion is simply that education–a discipline without standards–has attracted masses of confused people who sense that they don’t know what’s going on but who nonetheless desperately want to feel they are heroic, transformative intellectuals valiantly trying to lead us to a brave new world. . .

    One interesting question is who Murray’s audience is. He can’t be unaware that that his arguments won’t work for most practitioners of educational leadership. Since he’s publishing in WSJ I assume he’s not really talking to them. . .

    If we were a wise people, our general education would pay as much attention to the folkways as to the formal content of the curriculum. The two would be harmonious, in the sense that both taught the basic insights needed to live a good life and to avoid the worst sorts of self-destructive mistakes. Our platitudes, our songs and dramas, and our daily habits would be in harmony with our most cerebral explorations of the frontiers of moral philophy and cognitive science. We would teach all our chilren the same basic truths, though with increasing resolution for the more analystically gifted.

    But we are not a wise people. We are not a people at all. We are a gaggle of zealots and anarchists temporarily entangled in a disintegrating web of binding myths and fables, beyond which lie dark ages.

  10. Walter E. Wallis says:

    It is marginally acceptable to say some children are smarter than others, but never say some children are dumber thsn others, or else.

  11. My grandmother taught middle school special education (students ranging in age from about 13 to 16, in effect). Throughout the years, due to being in an entirely different state with a different school calendar, I’ve had the chance to sit in her classroom and interact with her students. I first sat in when I was about 6, and the last time I was a college student.

    These people will never be able to read Dickens or Shakespeare. They just are not capable as they have trouble with the concept of cause and effect in regular life, much less in trying to read a story. That said, they could learn some basic literacy. My grandma taught reading (yes, heavily phonics-based), grammar (on the level of subject/verb), and arithmetic, as well as deal with proper behavior in society. They were given vocational education in high school, but at a very low level in terms of how to do some very unskilled manual tasks. Of course, this is not even the lowest human intelligence can be at — my grandfather, when he retired, taught the “trainable retarded” (as opposed to grandma’s educable retarded) who had to be taught how to dress themselves, for example.

    Most people have no trouble recognizing that people such as these will never be able to meet a reasonable standard for a high school diploma. But some people would rather not think that there is a continuum of ability from this level up to the highest — there are different levels of potential.

    When I was in elementary school, the “gifted” classes were mainly playtime for kids who got their classwork done quickly. If they didn’t let us out of class, we’d be trouble for the other kids as we’d distract them. I got into trouble because I kept reading ahead in the texts and would keep bringing up stuff that came several chapters later, which really messed up lesson plans and was of no help whatsoever to the other kids.

    I don’t think students need to be separated by ability level for everything, but for the core academic skill subjects of reading, writing, and math, they should be. Everybody can be together in other stuff like PE and history, but lumping everybody together when there are some kids reading chapter books and others are “reading” picture books is not going to help either group.

  12. Some kids are smarter than others, just as some kids are taller, stronger and faster than others. This doesn’t mean they are better than others but it does mean they are not all equally suited to intellectual tasks, such as mastering complex analytical skills.

    I’m worse at physical tasks, such as mastering talking clearly, than the average person (I have a minor case of dyspraxia).

    I still learnt how to talk clearly. It took a lot longer than my brothers took, and turned my mum’s hair a lot greyer, but it was worth it. Talking is a highly useful skill even for those of us who are slower at learning it.

    It may take low-IQ kids longer to master complex analytical skills. Higher-IQ kids may learn far more in the same amount of time. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach low-IQ kids complex analytical skills. Those kids will have the vote as adults, they’ll have opportunities to find jobs, to marry, to have children, to take out mortgages. Complex analytical skills are important for them just as much as the smarter kids.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    “My grandmother taught middle school special education …. These people will never be able to read Dickens or Shakespeare.”

    Who are “these people”? Special education isn’t a diagnosis; it’s a catch-all. Are we talking about Down’s syndrome? Asperger’s? ADD? Dyslexia? Children with all those diagnoses end up in special education, but they have very different abilities.

    Quite a lot of kids in special education will be able to read Dickens and Shakespeare.