America's Real Education Woes

Despite ever-growing educational spending and endless experimentation to discover magic bullets, the recent news from the education front is depressing. For example, scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (the NAEP) showed a lack of progress in reading and math proficiency -- only a third of the nation’s eighth-graders were “proficient” (or above) in math while the figure was only slightly higher for fourth-graders. Even worst news comes from Washington DC and New York City. Both have made expensive efforts to uplift students and close the race-related academic achievement gap. In DC eighty-two percent of white students met the proficiency standard in English; the corresponding figure for Hispanics was 8%, for blacks it was 4%. Meanwhile, in New York City the school Chancellor tried to spin truly dreadful outcomes into a “success.” She hailed the substantial uptick in blacks and Hispanics taking the Advanced Placement (AP) tests but her celebration failed to mention that 95% of the Hispanic students and 97% of the African Americans students could not pass a single AP test (and this despite Hispanic students being able to take an AP test in the Spanish language and culture).

Needless to say, these disappointing outcomes (and there are many others) will only further energize professional educators to demand yet more “investing in our future” and countless budget busting panaceas and, I suspect, much of this clamor will be heeded. After all, who could deny that America requires an educated workforce in today’s cutthroat global economy?

Let me now offer the really unspeakably bad news about these disappointment outcomes. In a nutshell, given the failure of all past uplift efforts (see here for one comprehensive study), such scores strongly suggest that America has reached a brain power plateau and all the tea in China, let alone the billions in countless Washington initiatives, cannot make us any smarter. Thanks to multiple conscious policies (e.g., porous borders) and long-term demographic trends (e.g., brainy women having fewer children) we have created a nation, on average, doomed to mediocre educational attainment.  

To understand this middling outcome, begin by recognizing that test scores largely reflect cognitive ability. To be sure, diligence and training are relevant but you cannot push youngster with modest IQ’s to perform college level work. Nothing, absolutely nothing, everything from intensive pre-school to the wonders of modern technology can reverse this awkward reality. Arthur Jenson’s 1969 essay in the Harvard Educational Review argued that major limits exist on boosting academic achievement since such achievement depends on raising IQ and that is nearly impossible (for an update, see here and here). His argument is as valid today as it was in 1969, though Jensen has been widely demonized for this heresy. If Jensen were wrong, America’s educational woes would have long vanished thanks to massive government intervention.

It would not take much to demonstrate how this stagnation strongly reflects immutable IQ. Just give every student an IQ test and then correlate IQ with his or her academic test outcomes. No question, the correlation would be substantial -- smart kids perform better (the good news here is that this exercise would identify those minority students who performed below the level predicted by their IQ score and thus would benefit from extra attention).

Alas, the education industry would loathe this harsh but accurate IQ-based conclusion. What reformer, whether those preaching free market choice to Progressives demanding yet more “investment” would admit that given available human talent, additional progress is very unlikely? Even worse would be the condemnation from the racial egalitarians who insist that there are zero race-related cognitive differences so the dismal test scores of African Americans merely reflect racism, low teacher expectations, rotten schools, white privilege, and all the other usual suspects to be rounded up.  

The upheaval from linking IQ and test scores hardly stops with agitated educators and racial egalitarians. Inescapably, the discussion of “improving education” will shift from arguing about ephemera like Common Core to America’s shifting demographic profile, i.e., the ratio of smart to stupid people entering the U.S., and how this mix can be altered by, for example, only admitting more intelligent immigrants. (Recall that U.S. immigration screening once tested for mental deficiency). Fixing education thus becomes entangled in immigration policy, the current disincentives for high IQ women to have larger families (or any children, for that matter) and the opportunity costs of trying to help achievement bottom dwellers. This is all about eugenics though that word is absolutely verboten. Thus understood, policies such as Obama’s push for schools to admit illegal immigrant children will lower test scores given the troublesome nature of these students.

Now, what began as how to properly calibrate America’s educational tribulations becomes, with the addition of an IQ baseline for what is possible, a contentious public controversy. Picture a presidential debate where the moderator asks each candidate about how America can reverse our declining average IQ? (See here for a tiny taste of such a discussion.) What if some brave candidate volunteered that the best cure for our second-rate test scores was returning the mandatory school attendance age to 15? Or another candidate admitting that the “college ready” standard was fantasy for most of today’s students?

Obviously, scientific honesty guarantees discord. But on the other hand, while it is deceitful to keep publishing misleading test score statistics all the while raising taxes to “solve” intractable problems, this IQ-avoiding charade keeps the peace. Who needs yet more name-calling in today’s already contentious politics? Think of how honesty will bring massive unemployment, particularly in urban areas such as New York City and Washington DC. Who will advocate that? In today’s political climate, ignorance is bliss when it comes to acknowledging deeply rooted unequal cognitive ability.  All and all, very few educators are “proficient” when it comes to acknowledging that you can’t get blood from turnips.