Thursday, January 18, 2007

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

CHARLES MURRAY speaks some unpopular truths

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.



The number of teachers taking early retirement in England has almost doubled in the past seven years, with the majority coming from state secondary schools, newly published figures show. The number retiring has shot up from 5,580 in 1998-99 to 10,270 last year. Early retirement rose in state secondaries by 93 per cent, compared with a rise of 52 per cent in primaries. Most complained of having to juggle poor classroom behaviour with endless new government initiatives.

The figures, which came from a parliamentary question posed by the Conservatives, emerged as Tony Blair and Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, doubled the number yesterday of aspiring "chief executive" heads and deputies to work in London's toughest inner-city secondaries.

After a year training 20 teachers under the American- inspired Future Leaders programme, the Government decided to expand the course, having received positive feedback from schools and staff. The expansion, announced by Mr Blair and Mr Johnson, is designed to recruit more candidates into the classroom from outside education. The aim of the scheme is to break the cycle of poverty and educational failure in inner-city areas.

With a quarter of all head teachers retiring in the next decade, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has applauded the move.


Australia's mathematics teaching below India's

The quality of maths and science education in Australia has been ranked below countries such as India, where 40 per cent of the population cannot read or write. In its annual report on global competitiveness, the World Economic Forum ranks Australia 29th for the quality of its maths and science teaching and 12th for the quality of its educational system. Singapore, Finland and Belgium lead the 125 countries assessed on the quality of their maths and science education, with India ranked in seventh place, the Czech Republic in eighth and Tunisia ninth. Other countries ranked higher than Australia include Romania, Estonia, Barbados, the Slovak Republic, Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania and Indonesia, as well as OECD countries including New Zealand.

The assessment by the WEF, an independent organisation that hosts an annual gathering of global political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, is at odds with other international studies assessing the performance of Australian students in maths and science. These include the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, which ranked Australian students fourth among 41 countries in scientific literacy in 2003.

The world's longest-running study of maths and science - Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study - also assessed the mathematical and scientific knowledge of Year 4 and Year 8 students in 2003 and ranked Australia in the top 15. But the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia said yesterday the WEF rankings were based on an assessment by industry and major business of Australia's maths-science capabilities. APESMA chief executive John Vines said the lack of confidence expressed by business in the standard of Australian education reflected workforce issues. "It's consistent with the concerns we've been expressing for some years about the shortage of qualified maths and science teachers in the classroom," Mr Vines said.

He said the federal Government's failure to address the problem by providing incentives for scientists to retrain as teachers indicated it was not "fair dinkum" about solving the problem. "It's a clear strategic issue for Australia whether it wants to be a country that has the capacity to design and develop its own infrastructure and resources defence capabilities," he said. "They're all underpinned by strong skills in science and there doesn't seem to be the evidence that the Government is taking that issue seriously enough."

The Australian reported earlier this month that a big package of initiatives in school education and science taken to cabinet by Education and Science Minister Julie Bishop was rejected. The newspaper has also reported on the low prestige attached to studying science, reflected in university entrance scores that require a higher mark to study fashion design, sports management or traditional Chinese medicine than a science degree.

The WEF report, released late last year ahead of next week's Davos gathering, calculates a global competitiveness index based on factors judged critical to driving economic productivity and competitiveness. They are grouped into nine pillars that include health and primary education, and higher education and training. The rankings are based on an analysis of available data as well as the results of an executive opinion survey of more than 11,000 business leaders last year. The quality of education measures secondary and tertiary enrollment rates as well as the quality of education as assessed by the business community. "In particular, we take into account the quality of science, maths education, and management schools, as well as the availability of specialised training for the workforce," the WEF says.

The report says education and training are emerging as key drivers of competitiveness: "Today's globalising economy requires countries to nurture pools of well-educated workers able to adapt to their changing environment."


20 years needed to fix Australian science education

Australia has already lost its scientific knowledge base, creating a problem that will take two decades for the education system to redress. CSIRO chief of mathematical and information sciences Murray Cameron said yesterday the decline in maths and science skills would take 20 years to solve. "We haven't generated enough of the next generation (of scientists and mathematicians) and our capacity to do so will decline markedly over the next 10 years," he said.

President of the Australian Council of Deans of Science John Rice said the knowledge base of science and maths teachers in schools was 20 years out of date and said governments were doing little to upgrade their skills. "We have lost our level of scientific and mathematical knowledge. It's already gone," he said.

A study by the World Economic Forum, reported yesterday in The Australian, ranked Australia 29th out of 125 countries for the quality of its maths and science education as assessed by business and industry. The rankings by the WEF, an independent organisation of global political and business leaders, placed Australia behind India, the Czech Republic and Tunisia. But the WEF report is at odds with international assessments of the academic performance of Australia's students, which rates them in the top 15 or higher out of up to 50 countries.

Professor Rice, dean of science at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the discrepancy reflected the ability of students to perform well academically without skills required by industry. Professor Rice and Dr Cameron said the lost scientific knowledge base was caused by declining numbers of students choosing careers in maths and science. Talented students turned to more lucrative courses such as law and medicine.

A large proportion of science and maths teachers were not qualified in the discipline, meaning students were not taught the same depth of knowledge and were eschewing advanced maths and science courses. "Because people have downplayed science and maths, you aren't getting the higher calibre students taking up maths and science. They're going elsewhere to other jobs, leaving a very large vacuum," Professor Rice said. "The turnaround time to change that is quite long. In the end, it's 20 years." He called for an overhaul of maths and science teaching, which he described as too removed from real world.

Dr Cameron said the WEF findings reflected the loss of high-calibre students from science and maths. While first-year maths at university 30 years ago attracted the top 100 students in the state, today they were doing well to attract 10 of the top 100. "We need more good graduates going into schools to excite students and then become the next generation of good teachers," he said.

Engineers Australia president Rolphe Hartley said the number of engineers trained in Australia was half the OECD average. "Governments have lost the plot in this area. We have a shortage of qualified maths and science teachers and governments need to look at teacher education," he said. Business Council of Australia director of policy Patrick Coleman urged governments to invest in the development of teachers.



For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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