Book Review: Danger: Bell curve ahead

Danger: Bell curve ahead

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray. New York: Crown Forum, 2008.

Michael J. Feuer

When I was in my junior high-school play, one of the parents in the audience was overheard saying that there were only two things wrong with our performance: The curtain went up, and the seats faced the stage. Similarly, there are only two things wrong with Charles Murray’s latest book: The logic is flawed, and the evidence is thin. Were it not for his claim that his earlier work (Losing Ground, 1984) changed the way the nation thought about welfare, there would be little reason to dignify the current polemic with a review in a magazine of the National Academy of Sciences. But on the off chance that Murray’s ideas might influence the way the nation thinks about education, it is worth a response even at the risk of affording him undeserved attention.

Here is his basic argument, presented in the form of “four simple truths” and an equally simplistic proposal: Ability varies, half the children are below average, too many people go to college, our future depends on how we educate the academically gifted, and privatization will fix the schools. Space constraints prevent me from undoing the errors of omission and commission in each of these claims, so I’ll concentrate on one or two and ask readers to extrapolate from there.

A good place to start is with ability, a complex concept that Murray chooses to simplify by focusing on IQ, which for him captures most of what matters to academic achievement and, for that matter, success in life. IQ is certainly a component of academic ability and a predictor of future performance; on those facts the science is well established. But Murray seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge the preponderance of evidence showing that IQ is only one measure of ability, that it covers only a small subset of what we now understand to mean by intelligence, and it is neither the sole nor the most important correlate of adult success. The observation (simple truth no. 2) that it varies in the population is utterly banal, but Murray unabashedly uses it as a building block for his core argument: Let’s stop wasting our time with children at the low end of the ability continuum, concentrate our resources on those whose IQ scores suggest they can handle rigorous intellectual material, encourage the remaining 80 to 90% to become electricians and plumbers, and stop clogging our colleges and universities with people who don’t have (and will almost certainly never develop) what it takes to benefit from a liberal education.

Murray correctly anticipates that this radical proposal might invite criticism, so he launches an early preemptive strike: “As soon as I move beyond that simplest two-word expression, ability varies, controversy begins.” Well, not quite. Everyone knows that ability varies, and thanks to Garrison Keillor (and introductory statistics courses), almost everyone knows that half the children have to be below average. The controversy begins when Murray moves from that truism to this mischievous accusation: “Educators who proceed on the assumption that they can find some ability in which every child is above average [sic] are kidding themselves.” This statement warrants some unpacking.

First, where is the evidence that this is what educators assume? When teachers work with children to improve their reading and mathematical skills, that doesn’t signify an attempt to make every child “above average,” any more than when physicians strive to improve their patients’ health they are motivated by a naïve desire to make them all “above average” (whatever that might mean). Murray ridicules a completely defensible goal—improving the academic skills of children even at the lower end of the ability distribution—by intentionally confounding improvement with the end of variability. If we accept Murray’s strangely nihilistic logic that raising the average reading or math performance of low-achieving students is futile because some of them will still be below average, then yes, we should stop wasting our time and money. But the premise is flatly wrong—the goal of education is not to undo the basic laws of statistics and make every student above average—and therefore so is the conclusion.

Second, the smug allegation that educators are “kidding themselves” suggests that ability (as measured by IQ) is mainly a fixed trait and kids either have it or they don’t and that we know how to measure it accurately enough so that we can decide ex ante which kids are worth investing in. Here too Murray is on thin ice. Although he concedes that “environment plays a major role in the way that all of the abilities develop, [and] genes are not even close to being everything,” he seems either unaware of or unimpressed by a substantial and growing body of research on the plasticity of brain structure and cognitive functioning over the lifespan. Eight years ago, in its landmark report From Neurons to Neighborhoods, the National Research Council established that “gene-environment interactions of the earliest years set an important initial course for all of the adaptive variations that follow, [but] this early trajectory is by no means chiseled in stone” (italics added). With the advent of magnetic resonance imaging technologies and advanced computational methods, cognitive neuroscience now affords greater appreciation of the interactions between nature and nurture and of the ways in which exposure to education, training, and other stimuli can be associated with changes in the parts of the brain responsible for various cognitive and behavioral tasks.

And even if all that mattered was IQ (a claim now discredited by the scientific community), research evidence should give Murray something to be more hopeful about. As James Flynn has reported, based on his extensive analyses of IQ test data in 20 nations, “there is not a single exception to the finding of massive IQ gains over time.” Clearly something must be contributing to this trend, and though we don’t have enough evidence to support specific causal claims, rejecting the possibility that education makes a difference is a bit premature. As Flynn notes, “every one of the 20 nations evidencing IQ gains shows larger numbers of people spending longer periods of their life being schooled and examined on academic subject matter.” Flynn is a careful scientist and doesn’t allow that finding to obscure counterfactual evidence suggesting that some educational reforms might actually impede IQ gains. None theless, he cautions against the overly deterministic view: “The fact that education cannot explain IQ gains as an international phenomenon does not, of course, disqualify it as a dominant cause at a certain place and time.” This nuance is glaringly absent in Murray’s simplified model of the brain, mind, and cognition.

What about Murray’s willingness to rely on IQ tests to figure out which kids have, for lack of a better metaphor, “the right stuff”? Here Murray challenges the overwhelming consensus in the measurement community concerning the limited validity and reliability of conventional intelligence measures. The bottom line in a vast and easily accessible literature is that almost no one in the testing profession, regardless of political predisposition, is as convinced as Murray of the utility of IQ scores for the kind of lockstep sorting and selection that he envisions.

Moving beyond IQ, is there evidence that investments in human capital can yield significant and sustainable gains in other valued outcomes? Murray sees a glass much less than half full, and based on his cursory summary of evaluations of programs such as Head Start, he sinks to yet another dismal bottom line: “Maybe we can move children from far below average intellectually to somewhat less below average. Nobody claims that any project anywhere has proved anything more than that.” Really? Apparently Murray does not know about, or chooses not to cite, the work by James Heckman and others, which supports a more hopeful conclusion. In a recent interview, Heckman (a Nobel laureate in economics) noted that “the [Perry Preschool] program had substantial effects on the earnings, employment, [involvement in] crime, and other social aspects of participants, compared to non-participants. But what we also find is that the main mechanism through which the program operates is non-cognitive skills” (italics added). This is an important point, as it argues for a broader definition of ability than what is encompassed by IQ, and it emphasizes again the potential value of school-based programs in the development of a wide range of skills that correlate with academic achievement and longer-term success. Heckman is hardly an “educational romantic”(Murray’s label for people who disagree with him about the futility of education) and cautions that “an under-funded, low-quality early childhood program can actually cause harm. But a high-quality program can do a great deal of good—especially one that is trying to cultivate the full person, trying to develop in every aspect the structure of cognition and non-cognitive skills.”

Evidence from other programs, such as Success for All, New York’s District 2, and the famous Tennessee class-size reduction experiment, along with data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that indicate upward trends (especially in mathematics), clearly undermine Murray’s bleak forecast. One wonders what motivates someone supposedly trained as a social scientist to so willfully ignore large quantities of evidence and to declare categorically that the dream of uplifting children from impoverished intellectual and economic environments is just a lot of romantic nonsense. I leave that question to psychologists better equipped to address it. Meanwhile, I expect that Murray’s book will spur debate and cause people to focus on real research, for which I suppose we should be grateful. It’s the minimum we should demand for enduring Murray’s mean-spirited rhetoric and faulty science.

Michael J. Feuer () is executive director of the National Research Council’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.

Cite this Article

Feuer, Michael J. “Danger: Bell curve ahead.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 2 (Winter 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter 2009