Friday, January 26, 2007

Is some people unsmart?

Disclaimer: I don’t profess to be an expert on education. I know that there are some readers of BFS who are. Feel free to critique my opinions vigorously, but please be kind. I’m just a guy trying to keep his blog from becoming irrelevant. Some of these local bloggers are posting several times a day and I just can’t keep up.

As a society, we tend to lament children who do poorly in school because of their wasted potential. A student who struggles to achieve Cs or settles into a pattern of doing D work is said to be the product of one of many factors: a lack of effort on their part, a lack of involvement from their parent(s), unqualified teachers, under-funded schools, mercury in the drinking water, Pepsi in the vending machines. A recent three-part article in the Wall Street Journal suggests another possibility, however, one that most of us would be uncomfortable in accepting – perhaps the D student simply lacks the intellect to do any better.

It’s easy to reject this theory at hand because it seems to unfairly denigrate a certain segment of the population. And, of course, we’ve all heard stories about how a very gifted teacher, who will later be portrayed on screen by Edward James Olmos or Ashley Judd, has been able to transform a classroom of half-witted layabouts into standardized-test-taking whizzes. So the problem, we presume, isn’t with the children, it’s with society.

But maybe the author of the article, Charles Murray, is on to something. His theory isn’t based on empirical data; he has science to back it up. It involves the general intelligence factor, which is said to be a widely accepted but controversial construct used in the field of psychology. I’m not smart enough to completely understand the precepts behind the construct, I blame my Kindergarten teacher Ms. Blackburn for that, but it’s related to intelligence quotients.

I’m sure there are plenty of researchers chomping at the bit to debunk the author’s conclusions, perhaps some already have, but in the interest of being progressive thinkers open to the challenge of considering unconventional and uncomfortable theories, let’s assume for the moment that some people just don’t have the intellect to perform at the level we think they should at school. What would this mean?

Well, for one, it would mean that No Child Left Behind is futile, something that a lot of people already feel, but for different reasons. But it would also mean that our entire education system is inadequate. Instead of educating children in groups based on age, they should be grouped by cognitive ability. This way, kids with less ability wouldn’t constantly be meeting with failure and those with greater ability would be continually challenged. It seems cruel to segregate children based on intelligence, but it also seems cruel to require kids to perform at a level that they aren’t capable of attaining.

One of the points the author makes in the article is that far too many people are attending college and far too many jobs require a college degree. This, perhaps more than anything else in the article, rang true to me.

Several years ago, the Illinois Department of Revenue made a four-year college degree a prerequisite for being hired as a Revenue Tax Specialist, those useful souls who answer our questions about the arcane system of taxation. But the degree didn’t have to be in finance or accounting, it could be in theology or physical therapy as well.

The department continues to train the specialists as they had in the past, teaching them everything they need to know, but they use the degree requirement as a screening process. The thinking goes, as it does in many organizations, that a person who puts it the commitment to earn a degree can generally be assumed to have a bit more going for them in terms of reliability and intellect than someone who ended their formal education after high school. And there is some truth to this, but only because so many kids today are told they must go to college if they want to get a good job.

But why should a person have to pay $40,000 for a degree that in no way aids them in doing the job they are eventually hired to do? There must be some less expensive way to find employees who possess both the analytical skills and work ethic to succeed in a job that they will be trained to do anyway, regardless of their educational background.

Back to the question of whether some people lack the intellect to do well in school, at least in its current structure, I think that there must be some truth to it. Most of us have no problem admitting that people such as Stephen Hawking are a lot smarter then we are. And even if we’re too humble to say it aloud, we believe that some people just don’t measure up to our own impressive intellect. So why is it so taboo to suggest that the reason Susie does better in school than Johnny is because Susie has a higher functioning brain?


brunettechicagogal said...

Dan, I am too brain-dead right now to offer my opinion (but not so fried that I've missed the irony in that statement!), but check out this link, where you can find plenty of commentary on Murray's piece:

Gene Klein said...

I seem to remember a debate in your blog some time ago where two readers took sides on what the outcome would be of pouring more money into public schools. One party, the more intelligent of the two, suggested that some students are incapable or unwilling to learn no matter what you do for them. The other had strong feeling that this was not true, that more funding could make a difference. I think Mr. Murray is on to something good.

Anonymous said...

I hate to pick nits, but I believe the proper term is "wizzes" - they of the standardized-test-taking variety mentioned in your third paragraph. "whizzes", I believe, implies something different altogether.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...


Interesting that you should pick at that particular nit. I had originally written “wizzes”, but spellcheck suggested I add the “h” and who am I to argue with technology. After reading your comment, I consulted Merriam-Webster and they too seem to prefer “whiz”. They do have an entry for “wiz”, defined as an abreviation for wizard, but they use the “h” variation in their entry for “whiz kid.”

Thanks for commenting,

i d said...

Don't forget one of the big factors is simply age. Many people who average C or D work in elementary and high school go on to A average in college. Some people can do the work, they just take longer to decide when they are going to grow up and determine what is important in life.

nancy said...

I think "i d" is on to something. My hubs, who is in the education field said there is research that shows that a lot of high school dropouts are not incapable of doing quality school work, they're simply uninterested in doing it. I would put money on the fact that some of the craftiest cons out there are drop outs who use their powers for evil instead of good. If that's true, throwing money at schools to make programs more innovative and appealing to non-traditional students might actually make a difference.

Hey Dan, I'll be out of the loop for the next week or so. If this gets real heated and nasty, give me a call, would ya'? I don't want to miss anything good.

vic said...

On a recent trip to Graceland we were met at the door by a guide who introduced herself by saying: "Good morning, my name is Tayana and I be your guide." Would more money have helped this persons education.

nancy said...


Did you mean to end your last sentence with a question mark and add an apostrophe to "persons"?

Gene Klein said...

i d and nancy,

Your comments still do not account for the students who have low IQ's. I believe that is Murray's focus.

I am willing to bet that those who choose not to perform well in school for whatever reason, yet have the capability, have high IQ's. Any studies on that?

i d said...

It is against Stupidity in every shape and form that we have to wage our eternal battle. But how can we wonder at the want of sense on the part of those who have had no advantages, when we see such plentiful absence of that commodity on the part of those who have had all the advantages?

Author: Booth, William

brunettechicagogal said...

Regarding "throwing money at schools," research shows that most often, it's not a matter of more money but whether it's spent wisely. Case in point: New York City Public Schools recently won a long-fought legal battle to win back unfairly distributed state education funds. But Those Who Know(i.e., education experts including my academic advisor and a few of the economic profs in my department) says they'll squander it.

brunettechicagogal said...

That should be "Those Who Know SAY they'll squander it." Lest I be accused of subject-verb disagreement.

I also mean to add that if Murray's argument is indeed aimed at those with low IQs, let's pretend his argument is "right." So then what is the minimum IQ score that decides whether our system educates you or not, and who makes that decision? A pretty slippery slope, I'd say. And one that I personally find morally repugnant.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

I agree that there are many kids who are intelligent and do poorly in school for a variety of reasons. I also think that most (some) teachers can tell who these kids are. But I also think there might be kids who do poorly despite giving it everything they've got.

I don't believe Murray was advocating giving-up on these kids, and if he was, I agree, it is morally repugnant. But I think his point was they we shouldn't use the same curriculum and standards for success upon all kids if some of them simply aren't capable of doing the work. That doesn't mean you send them home to watch TV, you just teach them along a more suitable track. Maybe this isn't possible in a public school system.

And there's also a good possibility I know not of what I blog.

Anonymous said...

Is Dan dead?

This blog is so old there is mold on it.

brunettechicagogal said...

Dan's not dead; just trying to feed his kids ;->.

This is from one of his posts last month: "As mentioned in my last posting, I’ve been neglecting This Old Blog while I try to land more writing assignments of the paying variety (not that writing for you good people isn’t rewarding, it just doesn’t pay my kids’ tuition.) I did, in fact, receive a paying assignment yesterday, along with one from my daughter’s school that I’m doing for free. Add this to my regular gig for the SJ-R and guess where BFS lands on the list of priorities. I still have no plans to close up shop here, but my visits will be brief for the time being."