17 January 2007

Intelligence in the Classroom

The opinion page from the Wall Street Journal has a headline that, at first, made me chuckle: Half of All Children Are Below Average. Hey, there's some real news. Half are below average? Gosh, I bet half of them are below the median, too. But reading further gave me pause to think a bit more about the unfortunately titled article.

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...

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.

Certainly gives some pause for thought, doesn't it? The author includes some interesting examples in the article, and this is only the first of three installments on the topic this week. "Intelligence" is not something easily defined or measured. Is it possible that there are hard-working students from advantaged homes out there who aren't bright enough to earn an A? Having intrinsic motivation and a loving family with money doesn't ensure that a kid will be any smarter than a box of rocks, but I am hard pressed to think of a single student I've had in that situation. I can, however, think of previous students who had no advantages, were highly motivated, and quite successful in school. Does what happens in a classroom have anything to do with intelligence on the part of the students? And yet there are so many variations of "brightness" among the kids in our classes. Is our system set up to punish the dimmer ones with our grading scale or is that as it should be? Do we need different standards, depending on the intelligence of the child?

I need to ponder these things some more. I'm looking forward to reading the second and third installments and gathering information. Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Dana said...

At a high school level, there is also the issue of motivation due to personal goals not matching up with teacher/state expectations. I've got some smart cookies who don't do their work because they'd rather help out on the farm or in the garage. That's where their skills and interests are, it's where they want to work, and they have no desire and see no need to shoot for an A in English - though they could get it if they tried.