What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View

As I mentioned earlier there’s eduformers (it’s culture!) and progressives (it’s the legacy of racism!) and then there’s the View That Must Not Be Spoken.

Steven Pinker, on IQ:

Question: Thus, I think IQ tests merely measure a pedestrian or functionary level of intellect. What are your thoughts on its efficacy in measuring real human intelligence? ….

Pinker: I think you’re wrong about IQ tests in general. They’ve been shown to predict (statistically, of course) a vast array of outcomes that one would guess require intelligence, including success at school, choice of intellectually demanding professions, income (in a modern economy), tenure and publications in academia, and other indicators, together with lower crime rates, lower infant mortality, lower rates of divorce, and other measures of well-being. The idea that IQ tests don’t predict anything in the real world is one of the great myths of the intellectuals.

…. It’s an empirical fact – massively and repeatedly demonstrated – that people who do well on tests of verbal intelligence also do well on tests of spatial and quantitative intelligence, and vice-versa. The correlation is nowhere near perfect (some people really are better at math, others with words), but it is undoubtedly a positive correlation. General intelligence in this sense is a real phenomenon.

(emphasis mine)

Average African American IQ is 1SD below average white IQ, average Hispanic IQ a little less than 1SD below. Asian groups with the highest mean IQ are slightly higher than the average white IQ. I imagine if we went out and tested IQ scores by income, after controlling for race, we would see that mean IQ raises with income.

The Voldemort View: Mean differences in group IQs are the most likely explanation for the academic achievement gap in racial and SES groups.

That opinion could get a person fired. It could particularly get a teacher fired. Pinker has tenure, legitimacy, and fame. I’m 0 for 3.

Why is it so risky? In an excellent essay, Affirmative Distraction, Shelby Steele once offered his idea of the real motivation for affirmative action:

It is important to remember that the original goal of affirmative action was to achieve two redemptions simultaneously. As society gave a preference to its former victims in employment and education, it hoped to redeem both those victims and itself. When America—the world’s oldest and most unequivocal democracy—finally acknowledged in the 1960s its heartless betrayal of democracy where blacks were concerned, the loss of moral authority was profound. In their monochrome whiteness, the institutions of this society—universities, government agencies, corporations— became emblems of the evil America had just acknowledged. Affirmative action has always been more about the restoration of legitimacy to American institutions than about the uplift of blacks and other minorities.

Steele is not thinking of IQ here (in fact, I think he holds that culture is the cause of the gap), but I believe that the rush to crucify anyone who points out the possible role of IQ in our society is likewise about institutional legitimacy. The elites, broadly defined, can’t accept an intelligence gap–particularly a racial one–so they have to constantly push for equal representation in any job but their own (mild sarcasm, there–but only mild). I think that many elites would argue that America can’t accept that gap, but at this point–speaking of gaps–the chasm between what our business, media, political and intellectual leaders want and the average American wants means that the elites don’t speak for America any more.

My opinion about the achievement gap is founded on the fact of consistently measured mean racial IQ differences. Alas, as Pinker points out, most people are completely ignorant of this fact. Thanks in no small part to determination to avoid any mention of IQ in public discourse, most people think that the difference in average racial IQs—a well-established fact—is a bogus pseduofactoid straight out of the Big Would-Otherwise-be-Black Book of Racist White Folks. So simply mentioning the IQ difference carries the risk of the Racist Scum label.

I have no idea why the difference exists. I only know that it does exist, and that simplistic explanations (legacy of racism, culture of poverty, low expectations, enrichment activities, lack of Head Start) have largely been eliminated. I suspect, but don’t know, that IQ is a combination of innate characteristics and environment broadly defined (plenty of iodine, not getting dropped on the head, not being subjected to drug use in utero) and hope, but think it unlikely, that a rich cognitive environment can have some effect. But the cause is largely irrelevant, in my view, and doesn’t make any difference to educational policy.

The Voldemortean nature of this opinion has relaxed slightly in recent years. While no media outlet would ever acknowledge the IQ facts without recasting them as opinions, more and more scientists and opinion makers at the top of the heap are able to mention this–gingerly–without risking public dismemberment. I do mean “recent years”; just four years ago, William Saletan was roundly and publicly slapped for Liberal Creationism, in which he simply stated the facts. The resulting beatdown traumatized Saletan so badly that he now calls for complete elimination of racial categorization of student achievement (Race and Test Scores).

Only slightly better, though. So if someone wanted to make trouble for me, they could simply demand that I be taken to task for “racist statements about IQ differences”, and the crucifixion would begin.

It wouldn’t matter that the racial IQ averages are fact, not opinion. It wouldn’t matter that this fact doesn’t preclude people of all races having the entire gamut of IQs. Most of all, it wouldn’t matter that the IQ differences and the achievement gap are about groups, not individuals.

My top students are white, Hispanic, black, and Asian. My weakest students are white, Hispanic, and Asian. (No, I didn’t forget a group there.) Like all teachers, I don’t care about groups. I teach individuals. And the average IQ of a racial group doesn’t say squat about the cognitive abilities and the thousand other variables that make up each individual.

I dedicate a good deal of my spare time each spring to helping low income under-represented minorities to improve their college admission test scores, and I’m very good at it. Every year, some 8-10 kids escape remedial math and English, saving time and money and dramatically improving their chances of graduation. I teach at a Title I school and am passionately committed to helping every one of my students negotiate the crazy world that educational policy has made of public education and, not incidentally, become more competent at math.

But none of that would matter if someone decided to make an issue of my opinions in this matter. A whole bunch of people who haven’t ever done a thing personally to improve educational outcomes, regardless of gaps, would demand I be fired and stripped of my credentials simply because I think cognitive ability has a lot to do with academic outcomes.

It’s a weird world we live in.

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16 responses to “What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View

  • Jordan Trejo

    I’ve just started reading your blog, so forgive me for the late response to this post. I’m very intrigued by these ideas because my visceral response to a racial gap has been to assume it’s caused by a history of disadvantages and a culture that tells blacks they are dumber. But you claim, “I only know that it does exist, and that simplistic explanations (legacy of racism, culture of poverty, low expectations, enrichment activities, lack of Head Start) have largely been eliminated.”
    Do you have any citations for these claims?
    Thank you! I really appreciate your lucid, no-nonsense approach!

    • educationrealist

      One of the most persistently discouraging stats is the fact that poor whites outscore high income or even non-poor blacks on every academic metric you could think of–from the SAT to the NAEP to even simple state test scores. It’s everywhere. I gave some of the cites in this post, which shows not only this data, but also establishes that blacks are more likely to get test prep than whites.

      Only 6% of African Americans get above 600 on any section of the SAT. That’s a fifth of the number of whites or Asians. (I don’t have the cite handy, but every year the College Board releases the percentage in each score range by race).

      If it were the legacy of racism, we’d see better performance among high income blacks and worse performance among Asians of all incomes. If it were the culture of poverty, we wouldn’t see poor whites doing so well. If it were the legacy of slavery in America, then we would expect blacks in Africa to have a better IQ and academic performance, when instead they have a lower IQ. Even recent black immigrants do poorly relative to whites, Asians and (to a lesser degree) Hispanics–and do about the same as native blacks. (Cite, but I’m reading up on this and may find more.)

      It’s very difficult to spend any time looking at the numbers and accept a “legacy” response. The deficit is consistently a full-standard deviation. I believe the ansewrs are more likely to be “genetic”–not in the sense of being linked to race, though, but rather something like sickle cell anemia or Tay Sachs. My current reading is on crystallized intelligence, which may be distributed differently throughout racial groups. IQ tends to measure one’s ability to think in abstract terms, which seems (in my reading) to be linked to fluid intelligence. But this is just a layman’s guess.

      • Jordan Trejo

        “If it were the legacy of racism, we’d see better performance among high income blacks and worse performance among Asians of all incomes.”
        When people believe they are less competent or are treated as though they are less competent it shows in test scores. We wouldn’t see high income black doing better unless high income black were treated as just as competent as whites. Here’s a link to an abstract about stereotype threat and african american performance, unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall:
        “Studies 1 and 2 varied the stereotype vulnerability of Black participants taking a difficult verbal test by varying whether or not their performance was ostensibly diagnostic of ability, and thus, whether or not they were at risk of fulfilling the racial stereotype about their intellectual ability. Reflecting the pressure of this vulnerability, Blacks underperformed in relation to Whites in the ability-diagnostic condition but not in the nondiagnostic condition (with Scholastic Aptitude Tests controlled).”

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7473032

      • Jordan Trejo

        Sorry, I should’ve checked better that that was a good article, it’s outdated and they apparently controlled for SAT scores in their analysis (thus not explaining the original differences in SAT scores). I only found this out by reading followup research, since the methods for that one were behind a paywall.
        Here’s a similar article:

        http://www.sciencemag.org/content/313/5791/1307

        This isn’t to say that I don’t believe there could be genetic or biological factors involved, but that the cultural explanation can account for a significant part of the difference.

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