Murray's reality

Kevin Carey rips Charles Murray’s new book, Real Education, which proclaims “four simple truths for bringing America’s schools back to reality.”

Murray actually offers one simple truth, one tautology, and two opinions (one somewhat legitimate, one not). The one (very) simple truth is that “ability varies,” by which Murray means intelligence, or I.Q. All reasonable people acknowledge this; the question is how it varies, and what that variance means. The tautology is that “half of the children are below average,” an odd statement to offer as evidence in support of Murray’s main subject: educability, which is an absolute quality — not, like below-averageness, a relative one. Basically, Murray believes that (coincidentally!) half of all children are more or less uneducable in the traditional sense and thus need to be identified as such via mandatory first grade I.Q. testing so they can be shunted off into vocational education programs for their own good.

Murray thinks that 10 to 20 percent of students have the ability to do college work.

Among the many problems with this line of reasoning is the fact that roughly 35 percent — not 10 percent — of young adults actually do earn bachelor’s degrees. But Murray simply explains this away as prima facie evidence that academic standards in higher education are too low. Real Education is shot through with this kind of circular reasoning; once you decide that variance in cognitive ability = pervasive uneducability, everything else falls in line.

Murray argues that innate ability is destiny: Good schooling doesn’t help; by implication, bad schooling doesn’t hurt. One third of all children are “just not smart enough to become literate or numerate in more than a rudimentary sense,” he writes.

If every child received a first-class education, then we’d know how many are incapable of learning. That day has not arrived.

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Comments

  1. Agreed that he might be full of it. But you do have to ask how practical it is to say that we are going to give those bottom 20% of the kids the same amount of education (at grade level) and that they are going to succeed the same as the top 20%. It might pay to rethink some of our goals in education. I DO agree whole heartedly with your last sentence though.

  2. And NCLB needs to be fixed. Our entire school was rated inadequate in math – the whole school – literally because ONE student in special ed missed AYP by one or two points.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your last statement, until we really commit to first class education across the board, any and all data that derives from that system will be biased.

    But Murray’s ideas are not new. The earliest uses of IQ testing in schools was to stratify the availability of education. No surprise this mostly advantaged the children of the wealthy and white. But we can learn something from the experience of other countries who have moved away from systems stratified based on some notion of ability/achievement. Many of the high performing countries based on PISA and TIMSS have chosen to eliminate tracking systems. Finland is a leading example. Japan has also worked to eliminate early tracking.

    teach5–I gotta ask. Did that one student with a disability miss proficiency for all of the years in a row that are required in order to acquire the “needs improvement” label? I also have to ask, what percentage of students in each subgrouping is required to achieve proficiency at this time in order to meet AYP in your state? How far above the mark are the non-disabled students (that is, how large is the gap that you are comfortable with)? If you were the parent of a child with a disability, how comfortable would you be sending your child to a school that was excellent, even though most students with disabilities lagged far behind? Would you consider that an excellent school?

  4. The day will never come when all will be satisfied that every child has received a first class education, whatever that means. I rather think that the stupid will always be with us and that pretending what they most need or want is wrestling with the abstractions that gifted thinkers hunger for is neither wise nor kind.

    Much of my work is done in emergency medicine. Maybe because medicine is easier to evaluate (corpses are easily counted and hard to deny) medical people are often less sanctimonious and more intelligent in the use of their limited resources. We do triage, recognizing that using finite resources in quixotic quests really does mean withholding help where it might have worked. Education is so filled with sanctimony and platitudes that few can think clearly. We need more rogues such as Murray, to provoke people to think a bit about what we really are doing.

    I don’t know how accurate Murray is in his specifics, but I have no doubt that standards have dropped in universities, and I know quite a few people with degrees who have little skill with reading, writing or thinking. I know a few with graduate degrees who also seem unable to use words and numbers to construct coherent artifacts.

    However, I would hate to see the sort of tracking Murray suggests even more than I hate the denials of reality his opponents resort to.

    For me, the trouble comes from thinking of education as a national plan, with a few czars calling the shots for the rest of us. We have lots of people competing to be one of the czars, trying to make a name.

    What we need are more people trying to build communities that work for all our people, rather than trying to fit all our people to the specifications handed down by global behemoths that really don’t and can’t have our best interests at heart. When we do, we will realize that we need more good plumbers and gardeners, and we will want to be sure such work pays well enough to join the good life.

  5. It’s funny, but NCLB and its over-emphasis on all children reaching a certain level of proficiency is exactly what Murray is talking about in regards to the education system as a whole. Like NCLB critics, he also doesn’t think some kids can be taught to standards. And he also thinks trying to teach all kids to the same standards wastes time and money. Yet because he uses “IQ” as the differential rather than “special” or “disadvantaged” he’s vilified. He’s not saying we should give up on any children, but that we should think more highly of vocational schools and non-college work.

  6. Maybe I’m just showing my age, but since when did high school and pre-high school students get summer reading assignments? How is that enforced? If you move during the summer are you penalized for not knowing who your teacher will be the next fall? When do kids get a chance to be free of school?

  7. I haven’t read Murray’s book (and doubt I will). . .but how does he explain that other countries do a better job than the US in educating the supposedly uneducable? (that is, they have high standards and much narrow standard deviation than we do.)

  8. ucladavid says:

    Skyler,
    When I took AP classes (only about 10-12 years ago), the teacher didn’t have time to cover all of US History or numerous readings for English and had an assignment for it. Thus, we read the stuff over the summer and turned them in on the first or second day of school. I remember reading Grapes of Wrath one summer and doing a bunch of pre-colonial America assignments.

  9. ucladavid says:

    We knew what AP classes we would have before the end of the previous school year. If a student comes in during the summer, when he registers, he would be given the assignment and be expected to do it.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    I haven’t read Murray’s book (and doubt I will). . .but how does he explain that other countries do a better job than the US in educating the supposedly uneducable?

    I haven’t read the book in question, but my guess is that a large part of his explanation is that Singapore, Finland, etc. tend to have fewer Black and Hispanic students.

    -Mark Roulo

  11. Stacy in NJ says:

    “I haven’t read Murray’s book (and doubt I will). . .but how does he explain that other countries do a better job than the US in educating the supposedly uneducable? (that is, they have high standards and much narrow standard deviation than we do.)”

    Is it possible that the better outcomes other countries (Finland & Japan) produce has something to do with the relatively homogeneous nature of their culture?

    In areas in Scandinavia that have high levels of immigration, they are experiencing some of the same social and educational difficulties we are, Malmo, Sweden is a specific example. I believe, but can’t provide evidence, that the deviation between ethnic Swedes and immigrant are considerable.

    I think, to the extent that it’s possible, we should be comparing apples to apples. Can we campare educational outcomes from the US to a country with a similarily complex ethnic/cultural mix?

    I would really appreciate more information on this topic.

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    Can we compare educational outcomes from the US to a country with a similarly complex ethnic/cultural mix?

    Another way to do this is to find a part of the US that is relatively homogeneous. Iowa and Minnesota (and probably North Dakota) probably fit the bill.

    -Mark Roulo

  13. Stacy in NJ says:

    “However, I would hate to see the sort of tracking Murray suggests even more than I hate the denials of reality his opponents resort to.”

    I completely agree with this comment. I’ve read The Bell Curve and Murray’s WSJ op-eds, and while I disagree with his remedies, he has a certain amount of truth on his side.

    Kevin Carey, whom I don’t know at all, does a disservice to the larger debate with this sanctimonious review. He’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  14. Quoth Kevin Carey:

    Among the many problems with this line of reasoning is the fact that roughly 35 percent — not 10 percent — of young adults actually do earn bachelor’s degrees.

    Note that this is after the effects of the Vietnam college deferments and the explosion in hyphenated-studies degree programs.

    How has the fraction of the population receiving bachelorates in areas with well-defined and hard-to-fake criteria for competence — e.g. math, science, and engineering — changed over that period?  I doubt that it has gone beyond about 10%.

  15. But you do have to ask how practical it is to say that we are going to give those bottom 20% of the kids the same amount of education (at grade level) and that they are going to succeed the same as the top 20%.

    Who is saying that?

    The NCLB says that nearly every kid (the bottom 1% can be held to different standards) has to pass tests in reading and mathematics. I don’t know of anything in the NCLB that prevents schools from providing a larger amount of education to any proportion of kids.

    I don’t know anyone who believes that the bottom 20% of kids can succeed the same as the top 20%. I think you are attacking a strawman here.

  16. Another way to do this is to find a part of the US that is relatively homogeneous. Iowa and Minnesota (and probably North Dakota) probably fit the bill.

    -Mark Roulo

    Yes, I’ve seen those data , and they come out as you suggest. Also, the PISA report has an interesting analysis on how first-generation immigrants fare on that test. Their scores are indistinguishable from native-borns in some countries, e.g., Canada

  17. Conception is a crapshoot and some kids come up snake-eyes. The human and canine IQ curves overlap. What resources $r will be needed to bring individual X to some level of performance p is an empirical question. For every level of performance p, no matter how low, above “comatose” and for every amount of resources $r, no matter how great, there is some individual X such that $r is insufficient to bring X to p (try teach my dog Polynomial Ring Theory). Whether it makes sense to spend $r to bring X to p is a question of taste (values) which the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in your locality (the State) is no more qualified than is any other collective.

    North Dakota was some years ago the only US State to achieve a level of performance on a par with Singapore. In the 1996 TIMSS, the Singapore 5th (fifth) percentile score (8th grade Math) was higher than the US 50th (fiftieth) percentile score. If schooling determines income, our valedictorians will shine their janitors’ shoes.

    Whether the college experience is worth the cost in time and money is another value judgment. The level of subsidy and the availabiliy of less time-consuming options (e.g., credit by exam) influence the decision to attend college. If all you want is “education”, read a book or twelve. You don’t need to kiss some professor’s
    toes.