Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Murray 1: All Children Can Learn, Though Half are Below Average

Charles Murray continues the argument he and Richard Herrnstein advanced in The Bell Curve in an interesting three-part series in the Wall Street Journal last week. I will take up each of his three points in the next three posts.

Murray makes the point that half of all children are below average in IQ. This is true by definition. Yet laws such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or the Kentucky Education Reform Act, believe that all children can learn, and many at high levels. These two points do not logically conflict with one another. However, I think Murray is right that in practice Americans take comfort in the idea that just about all children can achieve at the same high level if we just try harder and/or pay more money for schools. This is not so.

Murray's argument rests on a bell curve distribution of "g," the general intelligence thought to underlie IQ. If our school curriculum is good enough to challenge the smartest students, then its hardest courses will be too hard for the weakest students. However, school achievement is not a simple reflection of underlying intelligence. Some students achieve below their ability. They might not be motivated to work hard. Or they might have so many obstacles in their environment, especially at home, that they can't concentrate on school as they ought. Still, if we got up to optimal conditions, there would be a limit to how much the kids at the bottom of the intelligence distribution could learn.

The gap between where we are now and where we should be comes from those environmental conditions. In my opinion, family dysfunction causes most of the educational problems that can be improved. Yes, there is much that can be done to make education better, especially in the worst urban schools. But the main reason that bad schools are bad is because the school has to spend so much energy on just getting the kids there regularly and getting them to do their work. And most of those problems, I believe, come from family dysfunctions.

Murray is right: half of all children will always be below average in school. And if we improve family functioning so that more kids can reach their intellectual potential, the bell curve will become more obvious.

All of which means, though, that we should improve family functioning. Because all children can learn, and many at high levels.

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