I've written on this topic before, and here's the first part of a three-part series by Charles Murray about how the facts of intelligence thwart the best intentions of educators and politicians.
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.
Mr. Murray goes on to explain that no matter what standards you set for students, if the standards are meaningful then there will be some significant proportion of students who will not be able to meet them no matter how much money we spend.
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.
It's time for educators and the politicians who are so keen on spending our money to address these scientific facts... but alas, there doesn't seem to be much interest in critical analysis.
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%.
Before we throw money away trying to solve a problem that has no solution, someone should analyze the politically incorrect facts and determine exactly what our limits are. Putting a low-intelligence child through years of useless education is pointless and will probably do more harm than good. As Mr. Murray notes near the end of this essay, intelligence doesn't correlate very closely with happiness; there's nothing preventing low-intelligence people from having perfectly happy and fulfilling lives if we let them "be themselves" rather than forcing them into a politically correct box.