14 May 2008

Getting Real on Educational Romanticism

In Lake Woebegone, all the children are above average. But in the real world classroom, a sad reality is that approximately half of children must by definition be below average. American education has been living in a world of "educational romanticism"--the idea that every child's potential is necessarily much greater than he displays. For many children, it is true that today's schools do not draw out their inner potential. For other children, they may simply be stupid!
Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways. 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. 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.

...No one disputes the empirical predictiveness of tests of intellectual ability—IQ tests—for large groups. If a classroom of first-graders is given a full-scale IQ test that requires no literacy and no mathematics, the correlation of those scores with scores on reading and math tests at age seventeen is going to be high. Such correlations will be equally high whether the class consists of rich children or poor, black or white, male or female. They will be high no matter how hard the teachers have worked. Scores on tests of reading and math track with intellectual ability, no matter what.

...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. To put it another way, we have every reason to think—and already did when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed—that the notion of making all children proficient in math and reading is ridiculous. Such a feat is not possible even for an experimental school with unlimited funding, let alone for public schools operating in the real world. By NAEP’s definition of proficiency, we probably cannot make even half of the students proficient. __TNC__via_inverted-world
What Murray is saying is that we are pouring billions of dollars into pursuing phantom goals that cannot be met. If true, it should be no surprise when teachers, principles, and educational bureaucrats cheat on test scores so as to inflate the progress of their schools.

Being aware of instances where Catholic schools improved the performance of former government school students who had been written off as lost, and similar situations where Charter schools achieved similar improvements, I am not prepared to accept Murray's blanket assessment at face value. Some improvement is possible--and it should be pursued by rational means.

But natural limitations on human achievement exist and must be acknowledged so as not to go off the deep end trying to achieve the unachievable. We evolved in semi-isolated breeding groups, with a somewhat random assortment of genes. Our ancestors competed on different testing grounds than we do, but the natural selection process that determined the breeders of our ancestors also helped determine which of us would score at 99 per centile and which would score at 19.

We at Al Fin believe in maximising the human potential. Otherwise, this blog would not exist. But we do not believe that all humans possess exactly the same potential, nor do we believe that human potential is limitless. Those are the beliefs of romantics who do not actually take their beliefs seriously enough to test them in the real world.

H/T Aschwin de Wolf at Depressed Metabolism


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Blogger SwampWoman said...

Having children in the same 9th grade classroom that can read on the senior high level in some cases and on the second grade level in others is challenging, to say the least.

Mainstreaming a lot of the ESE kids is also a nice experiment but, in my opinion, not doing them or the other kids in the classroom any favors.

Wednesday, 14 May, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

I can only imagine the challenge of meeting the needs of children of such diverse preparation and ability.

The more schools try to provide a one size fits all product, the harder it will be to succeed.

Thursday, 22 May, 2008  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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