From the WSJ: First in a three part series:
BY CHARLES MURRAY
Half of all children are below average in intelligence, and teachers can do only so much for them.
... Some say that the public schools are so awful that there is huge room for improvement in academic performance just by improving education. There are two problems with that position. The first is that the numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP's "basic achievement" score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.
What IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement score? Remarkably, it appears that no one has tried to answer that question. We only know for sure that if the bar for basic achievement is meaningfully defined, some substantial proportion of students will be unable to meet it no matter how well they are taught. As it happens, the NAEP's definition of basic achievement is said to be on the tough side. That substantial proportion of fourth-graders who cannot reasonably be expected to meet it could well be close to 36%.
The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind. We have never known how to educate everyone. The widely held image of a golden age of American education when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three Rs is a myth. If we confine the discussion to children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution (education of the gifted is another story), the overall trend of the 20th century was one of slow, hard-won improvement.
We can do a better job of schooling, but not until we start talking honestly about differences in intelligence. Our schools and legislatures are constantly coming up with policies that are based on the Lake Wobegon Assumption, and the left half of the bell curve pays the price.
For example, in California, the state wants all students to have a shot at qualifying to attend the prestigious University of California campuses. So, public high schools are compensated based on how many students they have enrolled in rigorous UC-qualifying college preparatory courses (the "A-G" courses). So, it's common for 9th graders to be dumped into Algebra I even though they are still struggling with fractions, because the high schools get more money the more students they have in college prep courses, even though they are complete waste of time. Thus, in some schools, students can't start taking the remedial math courses they desperately need until tenth grade.
It should be mandatory for all principals, school district officials, and legislators to read The Bell Curve. Of course, the opposite is closer to the truth -- it's a career-damager to read it and talk about it.