Saturday, May 17, 2008

Educational Romanticism

Charles Murray recently wrote an essay describing "the age of educational romanticism":
Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement.
It's a simplistic definition, particularly in relation to the last point - what does it mean to have "huge room for improvement"? But fair enough, there are people who adhere to this type of thinking. Of course its far easier to find people who do not. For generations, allusions to gender roles aside, people have been nodding their heads to Atticus Finch's argument,
We know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe - some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies bake better cakes than others - some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
So I'm not going to give Charles Murray any great credit for coming to a similar conclusion almost fifty years later.

Murray then explains how and why, in his view, "Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right", commenting first,
Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education.
I'll present my usual challenge: Name one. Oh, he might be able to do so after some thinking, but it's sheer fiction to present this as representative of education reformers on the political left. But I've met a lot of teachers in my life, and I can't think of one who held this view. Instead, I typically hear about the impact of a child's home environment and parental attitudes toward education and classroom discipline.
Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.
Is this fair, either? I mean, truly? The advocates of vouchers and privatization claim to be concerned about school quality and choice, but they have no interest in extending onto private schools the supposedly "objective measures" they impose on public schools (such as "No Child Left Behind") even when allowing those schools to accept public money. When they talk about education the conversation usually seems to focus on cost, not quality. Breaking the unions seems to be much more a priority than quality. And here I include many of the proponents of "No Child Left Behind", despite Murray's seeing it as the "apotheosis of educational romanticism".

We probably could find a small number of "purists" on both sides of the ideological divide, who truly fit Murray's definition, but it seems Murray defines his terms more to suit his argument than to reflect reality. I will grant Murray this much: If we take G.W. Bush's words at face value, he fits the definition.

Murray speaks of the "common experience of parents", in seeing their children display various cognitive strengths and weaknesses even in their early years, as part of his "case that educational romanticism is in fact out of touch with reality". Are we to assume, then, that proponents of educational romanticism aren't parents? That their experience is uncommon? Or is this yet another false construct - "Look how obvious this is, and why don't the group of people who I am ridiculing not see how obvious it is?" The question is not so much, "Isn't it obvious that children achieve at different levels, and have differing levels of aptitude", as it is, "Who really believes otherwise". Murray has a remarkable ability to introduce and defeat straw men. And moving along to his next one:
That brings us to an indispensable tenet of educational romanticism: The public schools are so bad that large gains in student performance are possible even within the constraints of intellectual ability. A large and unrefuted body of evidence says that this indispensable tenet is incorrect.
Again, who says this? What you might actually hear is that improved schools can improve school performance, and in specific cases an individual child may show significant gains in educational performance. A good argument can be made that improved schools could be of particular benefit to gifted students. But, save for the worst of the worst schools, I can't recall ever hearing it suggested that improving schools may result in large improvements in performance for most or all students.

Moving back to the importance of the home, Murray writes about the findings of sociologist James Coleman following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Before Coleman’s team set to work, everybody expected that the study would document a relationship between the quality of schools and the academic achievement of the students in those schools. To everyone’s shock, the Coleman Report instead found that the quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Family background was by far the most important factor in determining student achievement.
I'm not going to try to dig up the history of the report, or of reaction to the report, but I suspect Murray's claim of what "everybody expected" is just so much hot air. And now Murray gets to the definition of what constitutes a "bad school".
In thinking about the explanation for this counter-intuitive result, it is important not to confuse your idea of a bad public school with the worst-of-the-worst inner-city schools that are the subject of horror stories. When schools are as bad as they are in the inner-city neighborhoods of Detroit, Washington, and a few other large cities, they certainly have a depressing effect on student achievement. Getting students out of those schools should be a top policy priority. But only a few percent of the nation’s students attend such schools. In what might be called a “normally bad” public school, a lot of the slack has been taken out of the room for improvement. The normally bad school maintains a reasonably orderly learning environment and offers a standard range of courses taught with standard textbooks. Most of the teachers aren’t terrible; they’re just mediocre.
We're apparently grading on a harsh curve: by this standard, a mediocre school is a "bad school". Murray agrees that student performance can be improved in the worst schools by fixing their shortcomings. And I tend to agree with him that when we're talking about schools at various levels of mediocrity, ratcheting a school up a notch or two on the quality scale won't have a profound affect on student performance.
To sum up, a massive body of evidence says that reading and mathematics achievement have strong ties to underlying intellectual ability, that we do not know how to change intellectual ability after children reach school, and that the quality of schooling within the normal range of schools does not have much effect on student achievement.
I suspect we weren't supposed to notice the sloppy construction of this conclusion, and how Murray has elided the problem of truly bad schools. He retreats to his recurring theory, that IQ is all-important and is predictive of intellectual ability "for large groups", that we don't know how to raise IQ's, so what's the point in improving schools?

Although the subjects merit some comment, I'm going to skip over Murray's discussion of educational fads and Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. I'll just say this much: Murray provides an interesting look at the origins of the "self-esteem" movement in school. He does not appear to be aware of the fact that high self-esteem in the sense he scorns ("having a favorable opinion of oneself, independently of objective justification for that favorable opinion") appears to be negatively correlated with academic performance, and lots of low-performing kids think very well of themselves.

Following that discussion, Murray gets back into the sort of analysis that created so much controversy (and probably a huge number of sales) for The Bell Curve.
The effects of the triumphant Civil Rights Movement gave a special reason for white elites in the 1960s to start ignoring the implications of intellectual limitations.
Whose limitations?
The Civil Rights Movement prior to 1964 created a change in the consciousness of white elites that was felt viscerally, and it included an embarrassing awareness of just how unremittingly whites had violated every American ideal when it came to blacks.
Murray's still tiptoeing around the issue, but can you really doubt that he's reiterating his belief that African Americans are intellectually inferior?
Elite white guilt explains much about all kinds of social policy from the last half of the 1960s onward, but especially about education. Until the 1960s, white educators and politicians could look at a class of white children in which a number of students were doing poorly and shrug. The schools try to teach everyone, but some kids can’t handle the material. That’s just the way the things are; it is not a problem that can be fixed. But when the class consisted of black students who were doing poorly, that reaction was not acceptable. These were children growing up in a society where all the odds had been stacked against them, and their failings couldn’t be passed off as “just the way things are.” Elite white guilt made it impossible to say that a lot of black children were going to continue to fail in school and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. Once it could not be said of black children, neither could it be said of white children. In that context, educational romanticism did not just become fashionable during the 1960s. It became emotionally mandatory.
Wait a minute. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, looking at the big picture, the African American story is a success story. By what measure is that the product of "white guilt" as opposed to the fruit of extending better social and educational opportunities to African Americans? And by what measure are African Americans disproportionately enrolled in the worst schools in the nation, something Murray admits impedes student performance?

But that's "little stuff". Murray betrays something here - the fact that he knows essentially nothing about education, and has paid virtually no attention to changes in society between the 1950's and 2008. In the 1950's it was much less of a concern if a student "only" got a high school diploma. The student could reasonably expect to get a job and support a middle class lifestyle on the basis of that diploma. That is no longer true. The reason people are much more concerned about academic performance across the board is that the threshold for entering into the workforce at a middle class wage is enormously higher. This isn't "white guilt" - it's self-interest. People want their kids to do well in school, because they know that education has become the best path to the middle class.

Murray presents a cutesy comparison of "No Child Left Behind" to Soviet economic policy, but actually what he's proposing is a lot closer to Soviet or communist-style educational policy than the worst of G.W.'s reforms: test kids, sort kids by the test results, channel them into vocations or college based upon test results, and pick their future careers for them.

Toward the end of the piece, Murray makes an interesting concession - that "hardly anybody really believes in educational romanticism even now". The "then", when people believed in Murray's construct would have been... when, again?
No one but the most starry-eyed denies in private the reality of differences in intellectual ability that we are powerless to change with K-12 education. People are unwilling to talk about those differences in public, but it is a classic emperor’s-clothes scenario waiting for someone to point out the obvious. Starting that process can be as simple as more articles like this one.
Does blogging count as "in public"? I don't have to look very far to find arguments about the need for, and neglect of, education for gifted students. I openly argue that public schools cater to the lowest common denominator, and that we owe smart kids a lot better than that.

Murray concludes,
For the good of our children, educational romanticism needs to collapse, and quickly. Its effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways. The fourth-grader who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears. The eighth-grader who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a B.A. The senior with terrific SAT scores gets away with turning in rubbish on his term papers because to make special demands on the gifted would be elitist. They are all products of an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.
For that fourth grade class, the kid who can't read is probably getting substantial academic support, testing for learning disabilities, and perhaps even one-on-one assistance. The gifted kid? Gets to be bored. I don't know what that has to do with "educational romanticism" - I doubt that there's a person in the world who would see those two kids as having equal aptitude for reading. It has more to do with social promotion, and concern that the weak reader might become totally discouraged if he's kept in first or second grade until his reading skills reach grade level. Murray, of course, offers no solution. Take the poor reader out of the class and the gifted kid is still bored.

The eighth grader? Does Murray not recognize that a kid who has a "mystical knack with machines" might in fact benefit enormously from having a college degree? That in fact it might be a requirement for many jobs he would find enormously rewarding? Murray seems to again be taking us back to the 1950's, where the kid could take "auto shop" classes in high school, graduate, and get a middle class job as an auto mechanic or on an assembly line. Realistically, what job would the kid get now based upon a (presumed) high school diploma? A factory job at $10 - 15/hour? Where, to put it mildly, his abilities are neither challenged nor appreciated?

Here, Murray seems to be displaying the same sort of contemptuousness for manual labor that he projects onto others in relation to intellectual capacity. He seems to believe that the manual trades are something that "anybody can do" and "anybody can succeed in". He also seems to believe that math and computers aren't invading the manual trades, just as they are with every other workspace, such that more advanced skills are needed even for many entry level workers. He seems to believe that a manual trade is a good trade, for now and forever, and is apparently completely blind to the layoffs and downsizings that are leaving many people once able to support a middle class lifestyle struggling to find work at even half of their former wage.

The last example is just plain silly. It's also contrary to his entire thesis, that academic performance is tied to innate ability and cannot be significantly improved. If in fact schools are full of slouching seniors, it really shouldn't take much cracking of the whip to attain significant improvements in pretty much any school.

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