Some Children are SmarterMay 7, 2008
We are entering a new era in Education in this country; unfortunately, the reason for this emergence into unknown territory is quite by accident.
The “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2002 required that by 2014, all children in the public school system reach a mean average in ability. That means that all children are legally required to become average by 2014. You can immediately see that this is one of two things: a) Mathematically impossible, since “average” means you are in the statistical middle and you can’t have the middle as the bottom standard; or b) Philosophically impossible, since you cannot achieve a goal when it ignores societal relationships and the fallen nature of man. “No Child Left Behind” assumes that all children are relatively on the same playing field with regards to ability.
As we study how far we have come since 2002 in achieving the goals set in the act, the realities are depressing. We are at a statistical dead-heat: we have not progressed at all, especially in math. Perhaps the reason is that we are ignoring a simple fact. Some kids are smarter than others and some will never do well in school by any measuring rod (other than the mother’s measuring rod where she sees all of her children with rose-colored glasses). But we don’t like to come to that conclusion. Why? Because we want to hold onto the concept that all students can achieve academic success.
Three studies have helped to foster this idea. First came the landmark book “Pygmalion in the Classroom” which claimed to study children and teachers and found that when teachers were told their students were smart, the children’s grades improved. When they were told they were stupid, their test grades dropped. Hence, it is not the ability of the student that determines what the grades will be, it is the expectation of the teacher. The problem that has emerged from this study in years since is that it has never been shown to be repeatable by other researchers. There is no doubt that teacher expectations can have an effect for a year or two, but not over the life of a person.
The second study taught that poor self-esteem lead to poorer grades. But since that 1982 study came out, it has been clearly shown that good self-esteem does not raise grades with anyone! That was depressing, but it is reality.
The final study is not wrong, just not helpful. It showed that most kids have abilities in some area, but not always in language and math. This has been shown to be consistently true, but most schools are not equipped (and may never be) to train in the arts, cooking, relational skills and building trades that would release kids to their full potential. Also, we have been told that the only real route to success in America is through a college degree and a vocational plan. To alter that stereotype is going to take decades if it happens at all.
Charles Murray, writing in the “New Criterion” has a simpler answer:
Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.
In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can. Whether analyzed by the news media, school superintendents, or politicians, the problems facing low-performing students are always that they have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or have gone to bad schools, or grown up in peer cultures that do not value educational achievement. The problem is never that they just aren’t smart enough….
There is much more to be said about these harms (and I have said it, in a book that will appear in a few months). For now, it is enough to recognize that educational romanticism asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top. It short-changes all of them.