Mind the Education Gap

The Science Journal article, Do School Systems Aggravate Differences in Natural Ability (WSJ 6/2/2006) is a fascinating case study in journalistic activism, thanks to its author, Sharon Begley.  The headline is enough to tip off a reader that schools which “aggravate” are clearly suspect.  Then she asks herself a disturbing question: “Why doesn’t 12 years of schooling raise the performance of kids who start out behind?”  After quoting a few longitudinal studies totally unrelated to her question, she suggests that current education practices “lock in early cognitive differences among children”.  The notion clearly floating around in her head is that all children are created equally, and if they are not, the schools should make every effort to see that any gaps in performance are closed.  Such poppycock is wishful thinking by an individual who knows little about education.

Consistent with liberal thought, she readily drops terms such as developmental milestone, creativity, gumption, and character as being the markers of unpredictable progress in school.  She even suggests that a child may “suddenly master logical thinking or problem solving”.  The man on the street knows that suddenly mastering any endeavor is unlikely, except for the rare idiot savant, or possibly science editors who suddenly master educational issues.

Begley confuses two fundamental concepts in education: intelligence and achievement.  First she misinterprets malleable intelligence (natural ability) as being unstable, when, in fact, intelligence is one of the most stable and enduring of human capabilities.  Most all of the data presented in the article supports this conclusion.  The second concept, achievement, is what individuals choose to do with their natural abilities.  These concepts are like (1) a container and (2) what one puts in the container.  These are two quite separate functions.  Containers (mental ability, intelligence) vary in size and access, while what one learns (achievement) is determined by the individual, his environment and the choices he or she makes.  The schools contribute heavily to achievement. They have little impact upon mental ability.

For example, some individuals are born with such impoverished ability that they will never acquire an understanding of many basic concepts, ideas, or abstractions.  Addition, for instance, may be entirely beyond their capacity, and any attempt to teach them numbers, let alone addition, is wasted effort.  Many of these children are in schools.  Expending time and effort to remedy such a fundamental deficiency is a misguided priority.  Likewise, to expect the schools to make them as proficient as students in advanced courses is living in wonderland.  One should first accept that a great deal of intelligence is inborn, inherited, or genetic.  The capability must be there as a pre-condition, and little that happens after birth compensates for this deficiency if it is not there.  Liberals and activist judges fail to understand the data which supports this fundamental belief.

Attempts to remedy these deficiencies do not make kids smarter, and are in no way a reflection upon the schools.  Monumental schooling efforts have been expended on the at risk students over the past few decades, and their successes have been dramatic in many cases, producing performance levels that are at or above what might be expected.  If Begley looked at and understood the data, she would know that kids who are behind in performance have achieved nicely, and are being educated consistent with their abilities.  The performance of kids who are behind is raised very nicely by the schools, and a considerable body of evidence is available to support this conclusion.

When one refers to a gap in performance, virtually all such gaps are comparing the less bright with the brighter, the at-risk with the not-at-risk, the good students with those who are not such good students.  These gaps exist when students enter kindergarten and first grade.  These gaps may have little to do with mental ability, as such, and more to do with the home, the parents, and the predominant culture in which each child lives.  The homes, parents, and cultures are not created equally, and may not value the contribution of an education equally.

In the name of understanding a simplified science, an example may illustrate this gap.  Suppose that two runners, one slow and one fast, participate in a footrace.  In a short race the gap between them may be quite small.  The longer the race, the larger the gap becomes.  Much of what happens in education is cumulative in exactly the same way.  The longer the race, the longer the schooling, the greater the gap in performance becomes.

One must accept that a part of running fast is genetically endowed.  While training, conditioning and nutrition may contribute to running fast, it will never make up for a deficiency in neurological wiring, coordination, muscle structure and development with which one is born.  Mother nature is a cruel master for those who are left out.  It is often better to discover areas of individual performance where relative strengths exist, rather than to try to compensate for weaknesses.  This is often the key to the education and rehabilitation of individuals, including the handicapped.

Focusing upon differences in performance between students fails to acknowledge, as all sciences should, that relevant contributors are not equal to begin with.  The science of gaps is a flawed science applied without controls by persons who have an axe to grind.  It lends itself more to politics, promises, and magical solutions, rather than to science and education.

A real life example may clear up some related confusion.  As we all know, professional basketball teams are often 100% black Americans, with occasional token white players.  Given the relative population distributions of white and black Americans, such blatant bias suggests serious discrimination against white students.  To the contrary, this result may be directly related to how white and black students spend their time (what they put in the container).  When you spend large blocks of time shooting hoops, this develops outstanding basketball players, knowing basketball (cognitive).  If black athletes spent as much time on their academic work as they do shooting hoops, their academic performance would be vastly improved.  Unfortunately most do not.  Given this example, the equivalent question becomes: “Why doesn’t twelve years of schooling raise the performance in basketball of white students”?  The self-evident answer is that black students excel in basketball because that is where they choose to spend their time and effort.  This is largely independent of mental abilities, the ability to develop knowledge or skill.

Those with a liberal bias refuse to accept that inheritance plays a major role in learning in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  Those with small containers or limited access to the container (blind or deaf) are at a significant educational disadvantage throughout their lives.

The schools must guide learning for each according to his abilities.  The student who is interested in a subject, goes to class, listens to the teacher, reads the daily assignments, does his homework, turns in all papers, takes all examinations, and receives top grades in a class is expected to outperform his classmates who are not as dedicated.  This is as it should be.  To believe that any student who has no interest in the subject matter, does not go to class, does not listen to the teacher, does not read the daily assignments, does no homework, does not turn in papers, and misses examinations, should perform just as well as those who do, is living in fairyland.  To expect otherwise is confusing mental (natural) ability with achievement by waving a magic wand.  Professional educators recognize the work required in being a good student, and for them magic is called hard work.  Sharon Begley appears to believe that spending 12 years in school should make everybody the same, regardless of all the things that good students do.

The answer to the headline is NO.  Schools do not aggravate differences in natural ability.  Schools do their best to fill the container with achievement for all those according to their ability, and provide a foundation for lifelong learning.  Rather than to focus upon the gap, a revolution in education could be inspired by enhancing the education of those at the top of the distribution, by increasing the gap, which would make the country more competitive in a global economy.  Some evidence supports the idea that we are losing our competitive edge in higher education, and it will not be those at the bottom of the distribution who lead us into this future.  We currently graduate far fewer scientists than China (1 to 8), and graduate an equal number of lawyers (1 to 1).  This untended gap may be critically important in coming decades.  Cognition might also be improved by graduating far fewer journalists who spew their own private agenda regardless of the evidence.

Begley presents continuing confusion when she uses early cognitive differences and intellectual potential as virtually interchangeable concepts.  Given identical twins, the child raised by wolves is just as bright as the one raised by humans.  In the beginning they are equally bright.  What they acquire based upon learning has little to do with intellectual potential.   Why can’t the child raised by wolves learn math as well as the child raised by humans?  Maybe language and concept development are fundamental to these early differences.  Just possibly, these early concepts are so fundamental that the deficiency (the gap) will never be erased, because the concepts on which subsequent education is built are simply missing.

Education practices do not lock in early cognitive differences.  The schools are responsible to provide each according to his or her abilities, and to teach each child to learn from the schools’ programs at their own pace.  This, as a school priority, would widen the gap in performance of the better students over those who are not equal in the beginning, and will not be equal in the end.  Any question about impaired school performance over the last few decades is more likely because scarce resources have been diverted from the brighter to the slower students in order to keep the gap as small as possible.  The Begley’s of the world have impaired the entire educational system.

The biggest gap in learning discovered here is between Begley’s ears.  She would profit immeasurably from basic courses in descriptive and inferential statistics, testing, and a thorough course in research design.  What she offers in the WSJ Science Journal on education is pure journalistic baloney!  No science here!

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