Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Intelligence in the Classroom - Charles Murray

The Wall Street Journal is running a 3-part series on the op-ed page from Charles Murray, scholar of intelligence and general gadfly. Since giftedness is so caught up in questions of IQ, we'll be talking about the subject for the next few days here at Gifted Exchange as well. (Unfortunately, Wall Street Journal content is generally only available to paid subscribers online, but I'll do my best to summarize).

In today's installment, "Intelligence in the Classroom," Murray takes on the very American notion that education is salvation. You name the social problem, and "better education" is listed as the way to solve it. The point of the No Child Left Behind act is that, with the right expectations, proper discipline and excellent teaching, any child can learn to function at the kind of level that will enable him or her to succeed in the modern economy. We bemoan that 36% of fourth graders score "below average" on the reading part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, "the nation's report card") and put various standards and accountability practices in place to hope this rises.

But one question goes unasked, Murray says. What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement score? After all, mathematical models tell us that about 36% of fourth graders should have an IQ under 95. We do not live in Lake Wobegon. We can't all have above average IQs. So "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."

Further weighing on the situation, Murray writes, is the reality that a person's general intelligence (which he calls "g" and which may or may not be measurable by current IQ tests accurately) is largely unchangeable at least after you get to kindergarten. It is grounded in the architecture and neural functioning of the brain, he writes. These things are set in the womb and in a baby's first few years of life. "No change in the educational system will change that hard fact."

Americans naturally don't like to hear things like this. Murray mocks the story of "a child who was getting Ds in school, met an inspiring teacher, and went on to become an astrophysicist." That, he writes, is an underachievement story. A gifted child was not being challenged. When challenged, you "might be able to get a spectacular result," he writes of another gifted child example. Neither is a case of someone in the 49th percentile of intelligence. And 49% of us are going to have to be under that bar.

Murray does say that "This is not to say that American public schools cannot be improved." And here I think he massages over a point to get to his raw thesis on intelligence.

The lack of discipline and structure and high expectations at many American schools is so profound that many children who are in the top half of the intelligence distribution are performing as though they were in the bottom half. We have many stories of underachievement going on. Claiming this is just part of the problem of low IQ is like saying that men and women are not equally capable of doing math. At the very, very top end of the intelligence spectrum, maybe there is some difference in brain wiring. But most of us are not there. Most of us aren't even close to the point where the different wiring comes into play. The vast majority of men and women are equally capable of grasping mathematical concepts, and the lower number of women in math programs in college and even graduate schools is likely more related to societal expectations than anything else. Likewise, some children just may not be able to ever read well enough to follow the logic of, say, Kierkegaard's writings. But when schools don't even expect poor children, minority children, or what have you, to be able to read at all by the end of 3rd grade, or 12th graders to be able to read a newspaper, then we have an underachievement problem.

Murray also does not address a few studies we've discussed on this blog last year about adopted children. While adopted children with low IQs who are raised in higher IQ families do not wind up with IQs approaching those of their more intellectually gifted family members, they do wind up reasonably higher. Especially when we are talking about IQs on the lower end of normal, an increase to a normal range can translate into a huge benefit in achievable lifestyle. This suggests that there is at least something one can do to raise intelligence, albeit not by as much as we'd all like. And of course, it suggests social policies that few people would support. While Head Start may be popular for, in theory, giving disadvantaged children a chance to catch up before school, in reality, the time to intervene is immediately after birth. The image of the state rushing in to take babes from their mothers' arms since "we can do better" is a bit too fascist for anyone to tolerate.

Uncomfortable as Murray's statements may be, though, I'm glad he's bringing them up. Innate intelligence is not often talked about in schools. Even gifted education advocates shy from talking about it. The "alternate" methods of identifying gifted students we've discussed on this blog often try to catch and label kids who are trying hard, regardless of IQ or "g" or whatever you want to call it. But sometimes it is best to stare uncomfortable things in the face. It is best to see what they are, so we can then react based on the facts.


Anonymous said...

“Neither is a case of someone in the 49th percentile of intelligence. And 49% of us are going to have to be under that bar.”

I think the bar for most state standardized tests is geared toward the 10th percentile rather than the 50th. It’s not only the children who are under-achieving. In some communities the average level of intelligence really is above average. In prosperous communities where the parents have attained a higher than average education we can assume that the children are also brighter than average. Yet, in some cases, the school personal chose not to work to their highest potential. Instead they teach a very average curriculum to bright and well supported children, then pat themselves on the back for how well these kids blow away the very easy state standardized tests.

noshua watson said...

I have serious problems with the construct of intelligence and the way it is measured. If intelligence is defined as the ability to learn and to reason, then the development of intelligence is why we have formal schooling and intelligence itself is a learned behavior. Presumably, anyone can be taught how to learn and reason better.

Not to deny that some people have a stronger innate capacity to learn and reason, however that's not what IQ tests and standardized tests pick up. IQ tests pick up your ability to COMMUNICATE your intelligence through reading, writing, speaking, sitting still, being quiet and responding when spoken to, all of which are also learned behaviors.

So before we make policy recommendations based on these tests, we should acknowledge what the test results really reveal, which is the distribution of the social skills needed to demonstrate one's intelligence. Again, those skills and the ability to reason in a rigorous manner can be taught to all, gifted or not.

A lot of so-called gifted kids have those social skills in spades, not necessarily an innate intellectual acumen. They know how to express the full extent of what they know, it's not that they're drawing on deep reserves of wisdom. And that's why you have Lake Woebegone type schools where all the kids are gifted.