Schooling makes kids smarter

Schooling Makes You Smarter, argues Richard E. Nisbett, a University of Michigan social psychology professor,  in the new American Educator.  Actually, lots of environmental influences make people smarter — or duller.

People’s intelligence is greatly affected by prenatal and immediate postnatal factors; by home environments; by education, inclding early childhood education; and by changes in the larger culture. How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.

As years of schooling rise — from eight years in 1910 to an average of 14 in 2010 — IQs rise too in what’s known as the “Flynn effect.”

. . . in nations that were fully modern and industrialized by the beginning of the 20th century, IQ has increased by about 3 points per decade from the end of World War II to the present.10 That amounts to a gain of 18 points, which is equivalent to moving from a 50th percentile score (IQ equal to 100) to a score at the 93rd percentile (IQ equal to 118).  . . . Nations that have only recently begun to modernize, such as Kenya, Sudan, and the Caribbean nations, have begun to show extremely high rates of gain.

In addition to more years of schooling, curriculum asks more of students and society has become more complex, making greater demands on  intelligence, Nisbett writes.

Culture matters. A study of high school graduates in 1966 found Asian Americans had slightly lower IQs than whites but scored 33 points higher on the SAT — they took more math in high school — and achieved more career success.  “The picture that results is that Asian Americans capitalize on a given level of intellectual ability much better than do European Americans,” Nisbett writes.

Children from low-income families may not match the achievement of children with educated parents, but “most children in poverty aren’t living up to their genetic potential,” he writes. In experiments, “persuading minority students that their intelligence is substantially under their own control” can raise their academic performance.

“School affects intelligence,” Nisbett concludes. “Better schools produce better effects, and . . .  the caliber of the individual teacher is of great importance.”


About Joanne


  1. Florida resident says:

    About 2 weeks ago I posted on othe web-site:
    Can somebody kindly advise on the (better short) recent source of info on the question of “Malleability of IQ”.
    I have certain work-related need of this info.
    From what I read, it is malleable in this sense:
    one takes blacksmith’s hammer and hits a person with high IQ on head, thus changing IQ in the direction of making it lower.
    Eventually I have got the answer.
    Jason Malloy kindly provided me with this reference:
    “How to Make a Young Child Smarter:
    Evidence From the Database of Raising Intelligence”

    Now, after I read the paper (but not the references therein),
    my main concern is the same as Jason Malloy’s:

    1) On the influence of LC-PUFA Supplementation on IQ, there are a lot of studies in this meta-analyses, which date as early as 2001, several on 2003,some 2008 and 2009. Most of them show positive influence. But none of them (repeat, _NONE_ ) have a 2013 (i.e. about a decade later), or any other date, follow-up study.

    2)The studies of “early interventions” have dates 1968, 1971, 1972, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1990, 2001, etc. Those studies
    2a) did not show very definite effect,
    2b) in all those years passed none (repeat, _NONE_ ) of them have follow-up study of “fade effect”.


    Compare to Dr. Charles Murray’s short 1998 brochure
    “Income Inequality and IQ”,
    It is based on NLSY, ie.
    National Longitudinal Study of Youth.
    By the very meaning of the word “Longitudinal”,
    that study had about 1979 through 1993 follow-up.
    Read it and make your own conclusions.

  2. palisadesk says:

    This is not new information, but it’s useful to be reminded of the known from time to time. IQ is one of the more consistent and validated constructs in behavioral/cognitive science; however, it is frequently not well understood even by the educated public. Where individuals are concerned, IQ is best thought of as a range rather than a point — one is indeed genetically determined to have intellectual ability within a certain range, but whether the individual ends up performing at the upper or lower ends of that range is something that is largely due to other factors (epigenetics and environmental influences). IQ is not the only such trait — physical height and musical aptitude are parallel genetic characteristics; Mozart obviously had a genetic propensity for high musical talent, but his environment provided maximal development for that trait. Had a similarly-gifted individual been raised in a strict religious culture where music is forbidden, that propensity would have had no opportunity to develop or manifest.

    Most of us are fortunately in between. However, there are decades of data that show that IQ’s of middle-class and affluent children are more stable over time (less variable) than are IQ’s of disadvantaged children. IIRC, environmental effects account for about 30% of a middle-class child’s IQ development over time but 70% of a disadvantaged child’s IQ development. Separated identical twin studies show the general consistency of IQ between the separated twins — but in most cases they are also raised in similar environments. Where they raised in *radically* different cultural/socio-economic environments (for example, rural Appalachia vs. a professional urban family) their IQ’s as adults varied by as much as 40 points.

    It also has to be reiterated that schools have limited “IQ” data available on students. The only reliable instruments are individually administered and cost, conservatively, $1000 apiece; group assessments are sometimes useful for screening purpose but have limited test-retest reliability. As a trained psychometrician, I was firmly warned that any psychometric result on a young child was at best a snapshot of his/her functioning at that time, and was not necessarily indicative of overall potential or future achievement. Where testing of very young children is most reliable is at the extremes: identifying highly gifted individuals and severely delayed ones (this indeed was Binet and Terman’s original objective). I have found teacher referrals to be wildly inaccurate in identifying either “gifted” or “retarded” students: most often the teacher is off by 1-2 standard deviations. Achievement, in the early years, does not track closely with IQ. The correlation is about .3 overall.

    I read “Real Education” and found that Murray made some valid points, but he was also unaware of some important variables: he has little to no knowledge of the parlous state of much public education, especially (but not limited to) that of the least advantaged, and no knowledge of the advances in learning science that make it possible to teach very deprived/disadvantaged/ seemingly “stupid” children to a much higher level of functioning than would be expected. DI, used over a period of years, regularly has this effect (and so do other approaches). It will not turn a cognitively disabled child into a genius, but it may raise this child’s level of cognitive functioning into the low average range. I have seen many cases like this, and unfortunately have also seen the opposite: cases where, due at least in part to no or ineffective schooling, a child’s IQ went down from the bright average range — 118-120 — to the “slow learner” range (85-95) over a period of years when the child failed to learn to read.

    Consistent good teaching over a period of years can certainly enable students to rise to the top of their genetic range, rather than sinking to the bottom. Since we cannot reliably (empirically) sort children by IQ in the early elementary years, the most logical course is to teach all of them as aggressively and effectively as possible. Grouping by *instructional level* in a consistent way would seem to be an approach worth trying. Very little data exists on this model however.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    In Nisbett’s own book, he discusses evidence that kids from upper income families actually gain almost as much academically over the summer as they do in the other 10 months of the year. Middle-class kids neither gained nor lost ground over the summer. Poor kids lost ground academically over the break.

    To me that suggests the important thing is to be in an environment conducive to learning. For certain kids, a classroom provides a better place than home for that. For others, it is the opposite.

    I have much higher academic expectations in our family’s homeschool than what they would get in our zoned school. My 5th grader is using a 7th grade pre-algebra book, an 8th grade vocabulary book, a 9th grade grammar book, a 9th grade literature program, a high school world geography book, and a science text that is designed for non-STEM undergraduates. My 1st grader is using a 3rd grade math book, a 3rd grade grammar & writing program, 4th grade spelling, and geography and science books that are designed for mid-to-late elementary students.

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear CrimsonWife:
      You are talking about
      how much knowledge gain in this or that conditions.
      The title of the post by our beloved Joanne Jacobs is
      “Schooling makes kids smarter”.

      “Smarter” is not equivalent to “more knowlegeable”.

      Your truly, Florida resident.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        If schools do not do as good a job helping upper income kids gain academic knowledge as their parents do, are you seriously making a case that they boost those kids’ IQ? Wouldn’t the two be expected to show a positive correlation?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “In Nisbett’s own book, he discusses evidence that kids from upper income families actually gain almost as much academically over the summer as they do in the other 10 months of the year. “

      Per month over the summer compared to per month during the school year?

      • Crimson Wife says:

        In the two summer months, they gain almost exactly the same total as the other 10 months of the year combined (or about 5x the school-year rate).

        • Mark Roulo says:

          So the school is value subtracting for these kids versus just letting them do what they do during the summer? Three years of summers (summer = 3 months, so 3×4=12) only would equal 12 years of school education? Given that the kids already get summers off, it would take four years to get the 12 summer equivalents in, but this suggests that leaving these kids alone through 4th grade would be equivalent to 12 normal years with 9 months of schooling per year.


          That seems surprising …

          • Crimson Wife says:

            Most parents, unless they were super-wealthy, would be hard-pressed to keep up the pace of enrichment year-round as they can in the summer. But studies of homeschoolers have found that the typical 8th grade HSer is 3 grades ahead of his/her public school agemates.

  4. On the contrary side:…
    Albert Einstein
    “Force and Fear Have No Place in Education”

    To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity and self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. …It is comparatively simple to keep the school free from this worst of all evils. Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.

    Albert Einstein
    “Autobiographical Notes”
    Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Paul Schilpp, ed.

    It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

    Marvin Minsky
    Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery

    … the evidence is that many of our foremost achievers developed under conditions that are not much like those of present-day mass education. Robert Lawler just showed me a paper by Harold Macurdy on the child pattern of genius. Macurdy reviews the early education of many eminent people from the last couple of centuries and concludes (1) that most of them had an enormous amount of attention paid to them by one or both parents and (2) that generally they were relatively isolated from other children. This is very different from what most people today consider an ideal school. It seems to me that much of what we call education is really socialization. Consider what we do to our kids. Is it really a good idea to send your 6-year-old into a room full of 6-year-olds, and then, the next year, to put your 7-year-old in with 7-year-olds, and so on? A simple recursive argument suggests this exposes them to a real danger of all growing up with the minds of 6-year-olds. And, so far as I can see, that’s exactly what happens.
    Our present culture may be largely shaped by this strange idea of isolating children’s thought from adult thought. Perhaps the way our culture educates its children better explains why most of us come out as dumb as they do, than it explains how some of us come out as smart as they do.

    Clive Harber
    “Schooling as Violence”
    Educatioinal Review

    “…It is almost certainly more damaging for children to be in school than to out of it. Children whose days are spent herding animals rather than sitting in a classroom at least develop skills of problem solving and independence while the supposedly luckier ones in school are stunted in their mental, physical, and emotional development by being rendered pasive, and by having to spend hours each day in a crowded classroom under the control of an adult who punishes them for any normal level of activity such as moving or speaking.”

  5. “teach all of them as aggressively and effectively as possible”

    I agree with palisadesk. Unfortunately, many K-6 schools use a “trust the spiral” approach that is anything but aggressive and effective. My son’s fifth grade Everyday Math class had bright kids who still didn’t know the times table. IQ doesn’t work by osmosis. Even for my son, who is a sponge for knowledge, I had to push mastery of the basics at home. Natural learning seems, well, just so natural, but it’s not enough.

    Again, those who point to IQ as some sort of major variable always fail to calibrate it to any specific levels of content, skills, or learning, and fail to explain exactly how school or public policy should change. They also don’t deal with the variation due to hard work or effective teaching. They seem to think that if only people would accept this inconvenient truth, everything would be magically better. No. We would still have Everyday Math.

  6. Look at it from a different angle. Our K-6 schools use full inclusion and differentiated learning. This is really all about IQ and natural learning. Schools vary the material for students so that they can rise to their own natural level. They “trust the spiral”. The onus is on the child. This is not about them ignoring IQ. They claim that even in mixed ability groups, kids at different levels can get something of value at their own level. The problem is that the expectations are low and it just doesn’t work, not that the are ignoring IQ.

    Our high school is all about different levels of courses (basic, college prep, honors, and AP). Students are sorted into different levels. This takes into account IQ and hard work. There is no need to isolate IQ as a factor. Either you can and will do the work, or you can’t or won’t.

    A K-6 charter school in our area uses a full inclusion environment that mixes all kids together except for a few core courses, where they are grouped by level. However, they tend to use enrichment rather than acceleration as a differentiator. This is often a problem with TAG programs. Even if they do separate kids by IQ (or something), the curriculum could be junk or they ignore acceleration. Besides, all kids at all IQ levels need something extra …. but what is that something, higher expectations, pushing, or more natural learning (which is really nothing extra)? Unfortunately, most discussions about these things never get to that level of analysis.

    Then there is the issue of natural learning versus having a teacher set a high bar and pushing. This seems to be a very personal thing, but details make a lot of difference. I definitely back the “aggressively” philosophy at all levels of IQ, especially in this competitive world, but I know that others have the view that a natural (IQ), student-driven approach will work best. Perhaps the only solution to that is to increase the number of charter schools. This is a fundamental difference in educational philosophy. If others want a natural or unschooling approach to education, that’s fine by me, but I’ll pass on that. I want a school that sets high expectations and is aggresive about the basics, but has time and is natural about enrichment, perhaps as after-school options.

  7. Mike Steinberg says:

    ***How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.***

    Not sure about that. The Flynn Effect doesn’t appear to reflect an increase in g (te Nijenhuis, J., Is the Flynn effect on g?: A meta-analysis, Intelligence (2013).

    For a more realistic assessment of intelligence research I’d recommend some of the slides by Steve Hsu who is part of the Beijing Genomics Institute Cognitive Genomics Project. Intelligence is about as heritable as height.