Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Are American Educators Living in a Fantasy World? A review of “Real Education” by Charles Murray

I enjoy reading books by Charles Murray. Although he identifies himself as a libertarian conservative, he’s an independent thinker. His books The Bell Curve and Human Accomplishment are examples of his unique perspective. A central point of the The Bell Curve is that intelligence, which is determined by genes and early childhood experience, is a major factor in determining who succeeds in life and who doesn’t. Since whether a man is intelligent or not is outside of his control, there’s no basis for the libertarian argument that those who are financially successful have “earned” their money. A less intelligent person can work just as hard as a more intelligent one, sometimes harder, but only make a fraction of what the smart person is making. In Human Accomplishment, which celebrates past creative achievements in the arts and sciences, Murray doesn’t find any correlation between political/economic freedom and rate of achievement. I’d expect a conservative writer to argue that living in a free and democratic society promotes achievement, but that would ignore the facts of history. Most great achievement occurred by men living in monarchies and aristocracies that had very little freedom or liberty in the modern sense.

In his latest book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, Murray again stakes out an independent position. While one would expect a conservative writer to extol the virtues of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, Murray is very critical of it. Murray also is realistic about the limitations of conservative initiatives such as school choice, charter schools, and tuition vouchers.

Murray’s 4 simple educational truths are:
  1. Ability varies
  2. Half of the children are below average
  3. Too many people are going to college
  4. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted

I’ll discuss Murray’s arguments for each of these truths. In the case of “ability varies,” Murray focuses on academic ability, which correlates highly with intelligence. The simple truth is that “half of the children are below average” in academic ability. Research has shown that there’s a normal (“bell curve”) distribution of academic ability. It follows that half the children will be on the left side of the bell curve, i.e. below average.

Murray next argues that there’s not much that schools can do to improve performance of below-average ability children. This is much more controversial than the statement that half of the children are below average. Murray presents actual questions from standardized tests that below-average ability children have problems answering. These are pretty simple questions, and it’s surprising that so many children have difficulties with them. The fact that they can’t answer them, however, could be indicative of a problem with the schools, not their lack of intelligence.

Murray then discusses various programs designed to improve students’ test scores, including preschool programs (Abecedarian Project and Infant Health and Development Program), and elementary/secondary school programs (Title I and No Child Left Behind). His conclusion is that these programs produced little to no improvement in student achievement. His case is bolstered by the results of the Coleman Report, which studied the effects of inequality of educational opportunity on student achievement. The Coleman Report found that quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Family background is more important a determiner of student achievement than any educational measure. What about the terrible quality of many American public schools, including chaotic and sometimes violent classrooms, incompetent teachers, low standards, and dearth of teaching resources such as textbooks and computers? Murray states that these “worst of the worst” inner-city schools only affect about 2 to 3 percent of all students. Based on the failure of programs to improve test scores, the results of the Coleman Report, and the small percentage of students attending failing public schools, Murray says that “[t]o continue to assert that major improvements are possible in the academic test performance of the lower half of the distribution through reform of the public schools is more than a triumph of hope over experience. It ignores experience altogether. It is educational romanticism” (p. 62).

I have a few criticisms of Murray’s argument. The first has to do with the way the book is structured. In a chapter that focuses on below-average students, Murray makes his case that schools can’t do much to lift student achievement. Murray separately discusses gifted children in another chapter. He doesn’t have much to say, however, about average and above-average (but not gifted) children. Wouldn’t better schools help improve scores of average and above-average students? Wouldn’t these students have more potential to achieve than below-average students?

I’m also not convinced that schools can’t do better for below-average students. Murray says that failing public schools only affect 2 to 3 percent of all students. But these are the “worst of the worst”, the most extreme examples of poor schools. Is he implying that no other public schools have problems with lack of discipline, gangs, violence, incompetent teachers, and low standards? In other words, that 97% of American public schools today have absolutely no problems? I think that many schools have similar problems, but not just as extreme as the worst of the worst inner city schools. Students in these moderately bad schools can perform better if their schools had higher standards.

In a book on education, it’s surprising that Murray ignores international comparisons. I constantly read articles and charts showing how poorly American students compare to students in some other countries. Based on his argument that schools can’t do much to lift ability, it follows logically that the reason why Singaporean students perform so much better than American students is that their students are a lot smarter than ours are. This might be true, but I would have liked to see Murray discuss this in his book. Is the fact that Singaporean public schools have very high standards, excellent teachers, a demanding curriculum, and no discipline problems completely unrelated to the fact that Singaporean students score higher than American students? I find it hard to believe.

Murray’s next educational truth is that too many people are going to college. He makes some good arguments that many people, including some who have the ability to get a bachelor’s degree, would do better in some other type of post-secondary education. He uses an example of a young man deciding whether to become an electrician or white-collar manager. He’s smart enough to get his bachelor’s degree in business, but is this the right choice? He has special small-motor and spatial skills that would make him a good electrician. He’d probably be an average manager. Based on his abilities, interests, and future career opportunities (mediocre managers are much more likely to be laid off than top electricians), becoming an electrician would be a good option. In fact, skilled technicians and artisans are in high demand even in this recession, while many white collar jobs have been downsized and outsourced.

There are many students such as the one described in the above paragraph, who choose a 4-year college over other options (e.g. technical school, community college, or apprenticeship). The reason why they choose college is that their parents, teachers, and guidance counselors push them in this direction. The reason why adults push children into college is that our society has made the bachelor’s degree a requirement for professional success. Murray questions this cultural worship of the bachelor’s degree. There are some for whom college is appropriate. This includes good math and science students who major in engineering and the hard sciences. It also includes good students who want to study pre-med or pre-law. But for the vast majority of students, especially those who become liberal arts or business majors, college is not the best option. It’s not good for their personal development, as they don’t learn much self-discipline or self-restraint with their light workload or partying lifestyle. It’s not good for their professional development, as their BA degree doesn’t give them the specific skills to get good jobs after they graduate. When I graduated college over 20 years ago, I was basically a liberal arts major with no job skills. My first job out of college was a management trainee at a shoe store. I eventually got a job at a computer help desk, which gave me my start in IT, but it was at near-minimum wage. Today, it’s even tougher for liberal arts majors. The recession has hit them especially hard, leaving them with a lot of student debt and little opportunity for a good job.

Murray next discusses education of the gifted. America’s future depends on the (unelected) intellectual elite, those who have risen to the top jobs that directly impact the nation’s culture, economy, and politics, along with those who influence smaller communities. “The members of the elite are drawn overwhelmingly from the academically gifted. We had better make sure that we do the best possible job of educating them” (p. 107).

Gifted children should be allowed to advance at their own pace, not be held back by their peers. This could include skipping grades, or getting advanced material within their age-appropriate grade. I found myself unchallenged as a gifted public school student, and would have been better off being pushed to take more demanding classes.

Murray focuses on training the gifted to be good citizens. This training should continue through college. “We need to structure their education so that they have the best possible chance to become not just knowledgeable but wise” (p. 112). Murray’s wisdom training of the gifted includes improving their verbal skills, teaching them how to make sound judgments, teaching them how to think about ethical issues, and teaching them humility. I’ll discuss each of these points below:
  • Verbal skills—SAT-Verbal scores never recovered from their decline in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. SAT-Math scores did recover, indicating that educational priorities led to a toughening of the math and sciences curriculum. These priorities didn’t result in improvement in humanities and social sciences education, fields that depend heavily on verbal skills. Part of this failure to teach verbal skills is a result of the progressive education movement, which emphasized creative self-expression over correct spelling and grammar. When I was in high school in the early and mid-1980’s, my school had very good math teachers, but mediocre English and social sciences teachers.
  • Sound judgments—Members of the elite make decisions all the time, judgments that affect the culture and nation. The Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq still impacts us eight years later. When music company executives decide to sign a gangster rap artist, and ignore a quality musician, they weaken our culture a notch. When the FDA approves a psychiatric drug for children that has been inadequately tested, it jeopardizes our children’s mental health and development. Some components of sound judgment are unteachable, such as intuition and common sense. A teachable component includes how to evaluate data, especially the knowledge of basic statistics. Another one is pattern recognition, including knowledge of history. Personal and vicarious experience is also important in being able to see patterns in different situations.
  • Ethical issues—Schools used to teach morality and virtue. Today, there is a widespread moral vacuum at all levels of education. This moral vacuum leads to nonjudgmentalism and ethical illiteracy. While there is more tolerance today than ever before, this tolerance extends to behavior that should not be acceptable in any society, including greed, selfishness, dishonesty, irresponsibility, and intemperance. It’s the function of the intellectual elite to help promote ethical behavior by example, by policy, and by writing and speaking. The default of the elite in this area has led to anomie and anarchy. We need to teach the gifted about virtue and ethics. This can be done by using examples from the great religious traditions and secular philosophers. These traditions and philosophies are in remarkable agreement on core issues (e.g. “the golden rule”).
  • Humility—The self-esteem and individual rights movements have led to a widespread decline in student humility and personal responsibility. If a student gets a bad grade, it’s not his fault, but the fault of his teacher. The teacher is violating his “right” to a good grade. Students are supposed to feel good about themselves, no matter what they do or how well they perform academically. Criticism should be avoided at all cost. Research has shown that improving self-esteem doesn’t raise grades, promote good achievement, or have any positive effect. While there’s nothing wrong with praising gifted children for their successes, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing them for their failings, either. Many parents and teachers do the former, but not the latter. To gain perspective, and acquire humility, the gifted need to be challenged enough so that they fail sometimes. A little humility goes a long way in promoting sound judgments and ethical behavior.
In conclusion, Real Education provides a different and valuable perspective on the failings in American schools. We need to be more realistic about the capabilities of below-average students, we need to offer more students an alternative to college, and we need to provide better wisdom-training of the gifted. I feel that Murray is too pessimistic about the capability of public schools to improve student academic performance, especially for average and above-average students. I recommend this book as an independent perspective on American education.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't know that Charles Murray wrote the book Bell Curve. That one had been around when I was a young teenager.

    Great points especially the last three (among them: ethics, humility and sound judgements).