Monday, October 22, 2012

Real Education by Charles Murray

 Charles Murray really seems to like to take on some of the pressing issues of our times with a sometimes unconventional and almost always unpopular point of view, but one that I feel is unfortunately all too realistic. He talks about Howard Gardner's seven different types of intelligence: bodily-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal and how they relate to our ability (or perhaps I should say inability) to deliver optimum education to all children with a one-size-fits-all approach.

"Educational measures such as test scores and grades tend to make differences among schoolchildren look as though they are ones of degree when in reality some of them are differences in kind. For example, a timed math test limited to problems of addition and subtraction, administered to a random cross-section of fourth-graders, yields scores that place children along a continuum distributed in a shape resembling a bell curve. These scores appropriately reflect differences in degree: Some fourth-graders can add and subtract faster and more accurately than others, but they are all doing the same thing and almost all children can be taught to add and subtract to some degree.
The same is not true of calculus. If all children were put on a mathematics track that took them through calculus, and then were given a test of calculus problems, the resulting scores would not look like a bell curve. For a large proportion of children, the scores would not be merely low. They would be zero. Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability. Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study. It is a difference in kind."

While Gardner and Murray have some hard data to support this, I can only confirm that this matches my experience with real world results. I have a fairly high level of logical-mathematical intelligence, and studied higher mathematics in college - until I reached linear algebra, and suddenly discovered that past a certain point, I just wasn't capable of doing much more than memorizing a few problem types and their solutions. I also have a very low level of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and it didn't matter how much instruction I got in the techniques of striking a tennis ball or hitting a baseball pitch, I was never going to be as good as someone with native talents in that area. My wife and children have an innate musical ability that I will never possess, and they can pick up instruments and play a tune on them without any prior experience - not me.

Murray says,
"For understanding an individual child and what that child's educational needs might be, you want as much disaggregation of the child's abilities as possible. For understanding the overall relationship of the components of academic ability to educational performance and later outcomes in life for large groups of people, you are better of using a combined measure."

These combined measures might be found by taking standardized tests such as the ACT, SAT, or ASVAB.

I've become a somewhat convinced of a Bell Curve theory of just about everything these days. For example, in politics, you will see a distribution of people from one end of the spectrum, from radical left to radical right, where (IMHO) most people fall into either center-left or center-right, perhaps mixing and matching their convictions between positions readily identifiable as from both sides, while a smaller group on either end might hold nine out of ten beliefs identifying them as conservative or liberal, while a very tiny group are so far out there that their beliefs may even lead to irrationality or violence.

So, it's my hypothesis that in each area of Gardner's intelligences, we'll find - over large groups of people - that the distribution of each ability follows a bell curve pattern, with some out at the far ends of the curve having either infinitesimal abilities in that area, or amazing natural abilities, and the rest scattered from mild, to average, to pretty good, in the middle of the curve. There are, unfortunately, certain folks who just aren't going to "get" mathematics, engineering or science, and others who aren't going to comprehend classic literature or write coherent research papers. Some will excel in sports or music, others in winning the popularity contest.

Murray says,
"For any ability, the population forms a continuum that goes from very low to very high. The core abilities that dominate academic success vary together. Schools that ignore those realities are doing a disservice to all their students."
I always wondered what all the complaints were about "teaching to the test". There are lots of good tests out there, especially in the professional certification arena, where they are a very good measure of actual skills and knowledge acquired. The actual material of the tests change regularly, so even the "cheat" sites can only give you examples of what types of questions you are likely to find, and it's not really productive to attempt to memorize answers for them, you just have to know the principles and have the skills in order to pass.

The author explains,

"If teachers know that a state competency test will include on item of this particular type (calculating percentages), they can drill the students and raise the proportion that answer it correctly. But if the test uses a new context and puts a different twist on the is up to the students to generalize their knowledge, and that calls upon logical-mathematical ability."

A couple of interesting points:

"Literacy requires not just the linguistic ability to decode individual words, but also the logical-mathematical ability to infer, deduce and interpolate."

"Limits on logical-mathematical ability translate into limits on how much math a large number of children can learn no matter what the school system does."

I also found it interesting that the greatest "leap" in education in the U.S. came between 1900 and 1950. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only about 25% of adults ever reached the fifth grade, and 50% never made it past the eighth. By 1940, the percentage of students still in school up to the eighth grade had risen to 95% and by 1951, 99%. The biggest progress came with the availability of universal K-8 schooling. Gains since that point in time have been incremental.

There's a belief that the quality of schools makes a huge difference in children's educational outcomes. Sociologist James Coleman led a study that examined 645,000 students nationwide and discovered that the quality of schools "explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement." The mean scores of students on academic achievement tests are not affected by the credentials of their teachers, the curriculum, sparkling new facilities, or money spent per student.

"Once a school reaches mediocrity, a lot of the slack has been taken out of the room for improvement in academic achievement for the average student."

Granted, a good teacher can make a great deal of difference in the life of an individual child, but over the long haul, for the vast majority of students, it appears that hiring better teachers will make little difference.

Politicians may promise this and that in order to improve education in this country, and we can throw all the money in the world at the problems we believe exist, but feel-good solutions can't trump reality. You would think that the Head Start program begun back in the Johnson administration to help disadvantaged children get an educational boost would have shown some results by now, but a study by the Consortium of Longitudinal Studies found that "the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent."

"Responding to children in need is about as instinctive as human responses get, and as emotionally charged. But deciding how to use scarce resources to help disadvantaged children is not a matter of caring. It is a matter of deciding what works and what doesn't.

Murray wanders off into a discussion of statistical illiteracy, which is rather interesting in its implications.

"Widespread statistical illiteracy among the gifted is cause for immediate concern because none of us, no matter how thorough our training, has the time to assess the data independently on every topic. We all have to rely on the quality of the information we get from the media - and, as of today, that quality is terrible."


Whether you agree with Murray's solutions (you'll have to read for yourselves to see what they are), you can't argue with his facts, gathered over the decades from study after study on education. I always find his work enlightening.

No comments: