Friday, February 06, 2009

Education, real and unreal

A review of "Real Education," by Charles Murray

Speaking obvious but uncomfortable truths . . . in the history of philosophy, Socrates might come to mind. In contemporary psychiatry, I think of Thomas Szasz. But when it comes to social policy, the name that immediately springs to mind is Charles Murray. Murray's "Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980," published in 1984, revolutionized the way in which social scientists looked at welfare policy by pointing out that those in poverty, including minorities, actually had done better by many standard parameters in the 15 years before enactment of the major Great Society welfare policies than in the 15 years afterward. Many people credit this book for laying the groundwork for the major welfare reforms of the 1990s.

"The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America," which Murray co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, explored facts about intelligence (facts that, contrary to heated denunciations at the time, were not controversial among experts who studied this area), and what their implications were for optimal social policy. Highly controversial at its publication in 1997, its claims are considered more mainstream a decade later.

Now Murray turns his ability to obvious if uncomfortable truths in education. This is not a book about problems with a government monopoly in primary education; it is not a rant against multiculturalism or political correctness in our nation's educational system; it is not even an assault on the current fad of "maintaining self-esteem" among young students (though this is discussed in passing). Instead it is a call for fundamentally rethinking what does and doesn't work in education, both public and private. It is a call for ending the endearing but false romanticism involved in believing that every child can excel in academics.

Murray begins with a discussion of intelligence, dissecting Howard Gardner's "multiple intelligences," the idea that there are seven, eight, or more "core intelligences," and that people who seem unintelligent according to ordinary measures may actually be as intelligent as others. Murray focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. And he makes two claims that cannot be denied, while at the same time cannot be stated in polite company:

* Level of ability varies.

* Half of all children are below average.

Murray notes (he has mentioned this in earlier works, but it is well worth repeating) that although most of his readers understand that there is wide variability in some of Gardner's other "intelligences" - such as the musical and the bodily-kinesthetic "intelligences" - his readership does not appreciate the wide variability that actually exists in mathematical and linguistic intelligence. While people we know vary widely in their ability to play sports or musical instruments, people we know usually do not vary widely in their mathematical and linguistic abilities. But this is not evidence that mathematical and linguistic abilities vary only slightly. It is evidence that the people we know are a highly filtered subset of society.

For example, the fact that a professor of English feels he didn't do well in math most likely means he "only" got a 600 on the math SAT, while most of his friends in the math department got over 700. But a 600 on the math SAT puts the English professor in the upper third of the country in math skills.

Murray explains in gory detail what it means to be "below average" in intelligence. Here are some examples.

"There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10%. How many employees are in the company this year?" A) 9, B) 81, C) 99, D)100

This is a basic math question from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), on a test given to nationally representative samples of children in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. It has been used for 35 years by the federal government to track academic progress. Murray notes, "The test is . . . the gold standard for measuring academic achievement" in elementary and secondary education.

Sixty-two percent of eighth-graders got the above math question wrong. If you include those who didn't know the answer but guessed correctly, over 77% of eighth-graders didn't know how to figure out the answer. Twenty-seven percent of these eighth-graders didn't know "how many sides are there to a cube." Forty percent didn't know "what is 4 hundredths written in decimal notation."

Now, we can blame this on poor schools, doing poor teaching. But if academic ability varies (and it does), and half of all students are below average (and they are), approximately half of all students won't be able to answer questions of average difficulty. Those of us who read books about social policy may not have a clear understanding about what a question of "average difficulty" is, since we probably don't know anyone who is below average in mathematical and verbal intelligence, or at least know that person well enough to get a sense of the person's intellectual world. But as anyone who has watched Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" or recent responses from Miss America contestants can affirm, "average difficulty" questions are much easier than most readers of this article anticipate. Objections can be made, as follows.

* The measurement of academic ability is invalid. But Murray notes that "g," the general mental factor measured in IQ tests, accounts for 80-90% of predictable variance in scholastic performance - a conclusion based on more than 11,000 citations of studies on the relationship of IQ scores to educational achievement listed in "Psychological Abstracts."

* We can raise academic ability. But, summarizing a wealth of data accumulated over decades, Murray says, "The most we know how to do with outside interventions is to make children who are well below average a little less below average."

* The schools are so bad that even low-ability students can learn a lot more than they learn now. This view, which is characteristic of libertarians, has a kernel of truth. Some inner-city urban schools are so bad that they are physically dangerous. No learning can occur there. But that's not true of the majority of schools. And while it is true that most public schools are a poor value - they are economically inefficient; they charge far more than is justified for the educational value they provide - that is not the same as saying students can learn a lot more than they do. U.S. mail delivery is inefficient as well. Mail could be delivered faster and more cheaply. But the fact is that virtually all of the mail does get through. Students could be educated faster and more cheaply, but Murray cites extensive data to back up his claim that most below average students in most schools are learning all they can learn. As regards private or charter schools, Murray, a strong advocate for school choice, says that while these alternatives may nurture gifted students, "the evidence does not give reason to expect that private or charter schools produce substantially higher test scores in math and reading among low-ability students who would otherwise go to normal public schools."

He then goes on to discuss two other obvious truths:

* Too many people go to college.

* America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

To gain the benefits of a classic "liberal education," one must be intellectually prepared to read and digest material significantly more challenging than what one is given in high school. So it is not surprising that Murray can cite evidence that no more than 20%, arguably no more than 10%, of students truly benefit from this type of four-year residential college experience. Yet 28% of adults 25 years of age or older have a B.A. Not surprisingly, many drop out of college; many find themselves facing adulthood with no training in vocational skills that really could have helped them make a better life for themselves; and too many people attempt to get a B.A. by means of economically inefficient investments in "easy" courses of no use to them, solely to signal to employers that they have the B.A. employers now use as evidence of persistence and at least a minimal level of intellectual achievement. Murray argues that society would be better off with less emphasis on a B.A. and more standardized certification (not, attention libertarians, licensure) for a wide variety of employment.

As for the intellectually gifted, Murray notes, as an empirical fact and not as a value judgment, that these are the elite who will be running our country in the future. He argues that they are by definition intelligent. We would be better off if we had mechanisms in place that could also make them wise. He argues for improved attention to many things: verbal expression, judgment formation, thinking about virtue and the good, and humility. His arguments are nuanced and not easily summarized, but they quickly give the lie to suggestions that Murray is a 21st-century Social Darwinist.

Murray has written a book about human happiness ("In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government," 1988). He noted there, as the literature supports, that people are happiest when they are challenged by what they do, but not so challenged that they cannot realistically succeed. "Real Education" forcefully argues that we are not merely wasting large amounts of money, we are not merely ignoring the reality of what social science has to teach us about education, we are not merely doing poorly at preparing our children for the future, but we are also making both low-ability and high-ability children unhappy (miserable, inconsolate) by pretending that the former can be force fed intelligence while ignoring the latter's insatiable need for guided knowledge.

People don't need to be intelligent to be happy. But they do need not to be puppets in the plays of social reformers, lab rats in the experiments of the well-intentioned but ignorant educational romantics who have harmed both halves of the bell curve our children inhabit.


It's the children at the bottom of the heap who have been hurt most by turning British education into jargon-laden twaddle

The subversion and disintegration of the education system in the interests of social engineering have now reached a stage well beyond parody. For the past four decades and more, the education establishment has been in the grip of the `all must have prizes' orthodoxy which holds that in the interests of `equality' everyone must be said to achieve equally. Since there can be no losers, there can be no winners - or to put it another way, everyone must be said to be a winner.

From this ludicrous and deeply ideological belief that equality actually means `identicality' has flowed such disasters as the un-teaching of reading. Structured reading schemes which actually teach children to decode the words on the page were discarded on the grounds that some children made faster progress than others - whose self-esteem would thus be destroyed. So they weren't taught to decode words, but taught to guess or memorise words instead. The result has been hundreds of thousands of children who are functionally illiterate - including some, as was reported recently, who actually leave school nevertheless with a clutch of GCSEs.

How could it possibly be, you may well ask, that GCSEs can be awarded to candidates who can't read or write properly? The answer is that, in order to accommodate and conceal the progressive disintegration of education standards under the `all must have prizes' philosophy, the standards of all public examinations - SATs, GCSEs, A-levels and even university degrees - have been progressively lowered so that more students can be said not only to have passed them but to have done so with good grades. Thus the government has been able to boast that standards are rising, whereas in fact they have been going through the floor. It has also been able to shoe-horn record numbers into university, on the grounds that restricting university access to those who are most academically able is `elitist'.

The government's ruthlessly pursued goal has been to bump up the number of young people in university who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But since it has done nothing to improve the teaching they receive to enable them to function at the academic level once expected by the universities, it has dumbed down the entire examination and university system in order to massage reality into a politically and ideologically expedient fiction. The result of that has been record numbers of students who can't cope and drop out of their university courses, and the dumbing down of degree standards across the board.

One result of all that was that A-levels - the famous `gold standard' examination which once acted as the most efficient gatekeeper to university entrance and the maintenance of the highest academic standards in the world - were devalued so badly that universities were unable to tell which candidates were truly fitted to their courses, since all had scored A grades at A-level. So a new grade was introduced, the A*. But now - guess what?! Top universities are being advised to ignore the A* grade A-level on application forms - to avoid recruiting more pupils from middle-class backgrounds. A report by the Higher Education Minister David Lammy published this week says: `There are concerns that this could disproportionately impact on students from non-traditional backgrounds.'

But `students from non-traditional backgrounds' have been betrayed and abandoned by a political and intellectual elite which, in the interests of abolishing elitism, has systematically destroyed the core idea of a liberal education - the transmission of knowledge - and replaced it by jargon-laden twaddle, psychobabble and outright propaganda.

The very idea of a meritocracy has been replaced by `identicality', and so the ladder that once enabled children to rise out of social disadvantage has been kicked away. The wicked truth is that it is those children at the bottom of the social heap who have lost out the most from all this. Meanwhile, those from the middle-classes are punished more and more as the government progressively blocks up all the escape routes - such as the A* - through which merit and achievement have been ever more desperately and fruitlessly struggling to survive. There are now profound concerns that this whole de-education lunacy could `disproportionately impact' upon the very future and survival of this nation.


1 comment:

Robert said...

I came across this article on America's educational competitiveness in the world. The picture is not pretty. I see from this article yet another way that the current wave of social mood at Grand Supercycle degree has significance to U.S. survival:

One Last Ride on the Merry-Go-Round