“…but anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about education reform knows that kids experiences between the time they are born and the time they enter kindergarten at age five matter a whole lot in terms of how well they are going to do once they are in school, and I would say that even hardened cynics would concede that high quality preschool programs could make a dent in our mile-wide achievement gaps.” — Michael Petrilli, around the 1:24 mark.
As of 2013, no one knows how to use government programs to provide large numbers of small children who are not flourishing with what they need. It’s not a matter of money. We just don’t know how. — Charles Murray
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” –Philip K. Dick
You know how every one mentions the Perry project as the gold standard, a small “hothouse” study that had good results but the fear is the results can’t be replicated? Here’s the data they’re talking about comparing cohorts at age 27 and age 40 (click to enlarge):
So all those people tweeting and posting excitedly about the pre-school initiative—this is what they’re worked up about? “Hey, if we take really incredibly at-risk kids and spend billions on them in pre-school and manage to replicate the very best outcome we’ve ever managed, only 1 in 3 of them will be arrested five times by their 40th birthday, instead of 1 in 2!”
That’s the gold standard, the “good news” in preschool programs: the achievement gap moves barely a nudge, measured cognitive ability goes up a tad, and the jail gap isn’t quite as spectacularly awful. Pick your own personal favorite preschool research and you’ll still get the same results: not anything to complain about, but the subjects are still much more similar to the control group than to any middle-class norms.
And yet, do-gooders keep talking up preschool, despite Russ Whitehurst‘s appeal for hardheadedness. They blow past the so-far indifferent results and talk up the happy day when we’ll do it right. Then they combine that dream with the current meme on the Vocabulary Deficit—currently in vogue because of E. D. Hirsch and the NAEP results—and so you see folks on the right, left, and even the supposedly unbiased talking up the possibility that vocabulary instruction, or the lack thereof, is causing the achievement gap.
But I’m going to ask everyone to think about Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox, sort of.
Say a single welfare mom has a sixth baby that she doesn’t really want and in a moment of grief and despair she sticks the baby in a box with a subatomic parti….no, wait, that won’t work. But she puts the baby in a box and leaves it on a street corner in front of a security camera—and then, right after she drops the baby off, the camera breaks and the last shot we have is of the foundling sitting in the box, while a rich, childless couple approaches, just after having been rejected by their ninth adoption agency, in search of a child to whom they can devote their lives and considerable income.
We don’t know what the child’s ultimate fate is. Maybe the rich, childless couple happen upon the baby and raise it as their own. Or maybe the single welfare mom comes to her senses and returns to her baby, which she raises with her other five kids by different fathers. The security camera image doesn’t say, so as with Schrödinger’s cat, we can imagine either outcome.
According to the vast majority of educated elites, the adopted version of the child would be successful and happy, starting preschool with a rich vocabulary and, after an academically demanding high school career, embarking on a successful adult journey. The version raised with the welfare mother would, in contrast, start preschool with a vocabulary deficit in the thousands of words, which a struggling public school with incompetent teachers won’t be able to fill, and embark upon adulthood in a life of poverty—assuming that adulthood didn’t start earlier than eighteen with either a pregnancy or a jail term.
According to the experts who actually study these outcomes, the environment in which the child is raised would have relatively little impact. Adoption studies don’t usually track granular academic achievement such as grades and test scores, but they do track IQ and personality and long-term academic outcomes (highest degree received, etc), and all available evidence from adoption studies says that by adulthood, IQ tracks more closely to the biological parent than the adoptive parents.
So if we were staring at that last frozen image from the security camera, wondering if the rich parents or the struggling welfare mom ended up with the baby, we could console ourselves on this point: academically, the outcomes would probably be a wash.
For the past twenty years or so, our educational policy has been devoted to ignoring the considerable mountain of data that suggests neither government nor parents can do much to mitigate the academic and life outcomes of children living in poverty, because the outcomes aren’t really caused by the poverty. All research suggests that the child’s IQ is linked closely to the biological parents’ and IQ, not poverty, has the strongest link to academic outcomes.
To point this out in public is to commit heresy or, as Steve Sailer puts it, to invite a “point and sputter” fest. Blah blah Richard Nisbett, blah blah French adoption study, blah blah blah BLAH Malcolm Gladwell, blah blah Duckworth (who did, after all, find that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation”).
If you are genuinely wondering what to believe, don’t cherrypick. Read a summary of generally accepted understanding (Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns). Definitely take any claims of making young children smarter with a big dollop of skepticism, since fadeout is a nearly universal downer when looking back at early childhood studies. And if you ever see a mention of the Flynn Effect, go ask James Flynn himself:
The most radical form of environmental intervention is adoption into a privileged home. Adoptive parents often wonder why the adopted child loses ground on their natural children. If their own children inherit elite genes and the adopted child has average genes, then as parents slowly lose the ability to impose an equally enriched environment on both, the individual differences in genes begin to dominate.
(I guess Nisbett missed that, given his liberal appeal to the expert Flynn, coupled with what seems to me a major misrepresentation of adoption studies.)
Actual experts, in other words, will point out that E. D. Hirsch and all the pre-school advocates probably have it backwards, that vocabulary deficits don’t cause low cognitive ability, but that low cognitive ability is the source of vocabulary deficits. Knowing more vocabulary doesn’t make you smarter. Smarter people know more vocabulary.
But time and again, the world will be assured by some well-meaning elite that really—no, really—all IQ really measures is a person’s education. People with high IQs were given a good education, people with low IQs were not. Preschoolers with high vocabularies are just reflecting their superior education. But here’s a nice overview of three recent studies that specifically test whether education drives cognitive ability or the other way around. All three found that cognitive ability (IQ) drives education achievement to a great degree. (Richard Nisbett doesn’t mention those studies, either. But then, he also says that The Bell Curve was widely acclaimed by an uncritical press. Um. What?)
We don’t have a lot of research on IQ and specific educational outcomes—say, correlating reading ability or middle school algebra results with IQ. You’d think that the people who wince at the very mention of IQ would be pushing for unequivocal research on IQ and test scores of school age kids. After all, research would prove all these pernicious myths about IQ were wrong once and for all, right? Take, say, a longitudinal study of 10,000 children, from preschool to adulthood, of all incomes and races. Test their IQ, vocabulary word bank, and other cognitive markers as appropriate. Collect parental SES, parental education, parental marital status, parental behaviors (do they read to their kids? Do they beat their kids? Do they have drugs in the house? and so on), early education status, race, location….pick your demographic data. Then yearly collect their GPA and test scores, their transcripts as they move through high school. And see what pops up. How well did IQ predict test scores and GPA? How much did poverty impact the scores kids with high IQs? How much did parental wealth influence the outcomes of kids with low IQs?
But there won’t ever be that kind of study. Why?
Because poor white kids outscore non-poor black kids so consistently that it would make the news if they didn’t. Here’s a cite from 1991 test scores, back before the College Board stopped sorting by both income and race: (As well as my usual standby cite)
and here’s a recent study that establishes the SAT as a reliable IQ predictor.
But it’s not just the SAT; low income whites outperform “not-poor” blacks everywhere—the NAEP data ruthlessly collects this data every year:
California’s CST scores show the same thing: economically disadvantaged whites outperform non-economically disadvantaged blacks and basically tie with non-economically disadvantaged Hispanics.
So no one in the educational policy business is in any hurry to call for long-term research on income, IQ, and test scores (state, SAT, AP, whatever). Much easier, really, to continue talking about poverty, environment and really crappy teachers, secure in the knowledge that anyone observing the naked emperor will be castigated as a racist.
But just suppose we completed this study I propose, and tracked school/NAEP/SAT test scores by IQ over a long period of time. Tracked from age 2 on, imagine the study shows that low-income kids with higher than average IQs have test scores and academic skills comparable, if not quite as high, as higher than average middle and high income kids. Likewise, high-income kids with low IQs have test scores and skills similar to low income kids with equivalent cognitive abilities. Imagine that we remove every shred of a reason to blame poverty for anything more than a high distribution of kids with low cognitive ability, thus making the schools hard to manage and blunting slightly the brightest kids’ ability to learn in such a loud environment.
In other words, imagine the unthinkable: the achievement “gap” is just an artifact of IQ distribution.
Do I hope this hypothetical study would result in this finding? No. I would, in fact, be pleased to learn that poor, high IQ kids faded due to lack of development and support in their schools, drowning in low ability kids, and that rich kids with low IQs do substantially better than poor kids with the same IQs. That’s a problem we could fix. But I worry that for the most part, such a study would end with the hypothetical results I propose, because based on available data, it seems the most likely finding.
But again, all I’m asking here is that you imagine this outcome. Here’s what I’m trying to get at: what conclusions would we be required to accept, however reluctantly?
If IQ is the root cause of the achievement gap, the vast majority of those low income children with vocabulary deficits have cognitive abilities much lower than average. It would also follow that blacks and Hispanics, on average, have cognitive abilities lower than whites and Asians. Coupling those facts with previous research, it would mean the achievement gap can’t be closed with the tools we have at this time.
It would not follow that all poor kids are unintelligent, that “blacks/Hispanics aren’t as smart as whites/Asians”, or that IQ is genetically linked to race.
Okay. So let’s continue through this hypothetical and posit that we accepted these conclusions. (ha ha! this is me, laughing at my hopeless optimism. But work with me.)
For starters, we could accept that academically speaking, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment would not yield dramatically different outcomes and that preschool isn’t even a tiny bit of a magic learning pill. We might be satisfied with preschool that, as Charles Murray says, “buys some [low income children] a few hours a day in a safer, warmer and more nurturing environment than the one they have at home”. Maybe we’d stop holding preschool responsible for long-term academic outcomes and ask instead how it helps poor kids with unstable home environments and parents with varying degrees of competency, convincing these kids that their country and community cares about them and wants them to be safe.
Maybe we’d get to the point where we start exploring the best educational methods for kids with low cognitive ability. Sure, we’d start with Direct Instruction, although I can’t be the only teacher who doesn’t see a miracle at work in this old video. Show me the part where they remember it a month later and I’ll be impressed. And if you add “for kids of low to mid-cognitive ability” to the end of every E. D. Hirsch sentence, you’d have a perfect prescription for elementary and middle school education. The problem with Hirsch, as I mentioned to Robert Pondiscio in the comments of this post, lies in our “cultural diversity”—that is, teaching specific content leads to “cultural homogeneity” and no, no, no, that just won’t do. Better to not educate our low ability blacks and Hispanics at all then educate them in a useful content knowledge that wasn’t Afro or Latino-centric.
Someone’s going to chime in when I finally post this and say “But Ed, you don’t understand. If we teach them with Direct Instruction and Core Knowledge, the achievement gap will disappear! Look at KIPP’s results! Look at Rocketship Academy!” and I warn him to beware the false god of elementary school test scores. If the achievement gap is a function of IQ distribution, then effective education methods will not fix the gap, but rather help us educate low-IQ kids in a way they find meaningful and interesting, which will keep them invested in the process rather than giving up.
Let’s leave what to do about high school for a different post, because this one will be long enough.
What the results of such a study would do, I hope, is force everyone to stop thinking of low test scores as a missed opportunity to create more computer programmers or doctors but rather as a natural outcome of IQ distribution. With luck, well-meaning reformers will realize that they must stop looking at low test scores as an indictment of the educational system. Well-meaning progressives might cease their declarations that poverty and the evils of income inequality are stopping our poorest children from achieving college. Perhaps the results would stop educators from making low IQ kids feel utterly hopeless by declaring that more school, more learning, is their only possible chance for success, and end permanently the moralistic drumbeating for “lifelong learning”. Maybe we’d start using our considerable creativity to address the obvious pitfalls that could come about if we accepted the reality of low IQs. We don’t want to return to a educational world in which such kids are relegated to dreary, regimented education, because we must give all our kids as many skills and as much knowledge as they can absorb. Acceptance does not mean resignation and abandonment.
And most of all, I hope, any reasonable person who understood the impact of IQ on academic and life achievement would instantly realize that we must stop importing low-skilled competition to further reduce the opportunities for our own citizens. Once everyone stops fooling themselves about the quality of American education and realizes that we aren’t doing all that badly once we control for IQ, surely immigration enforcement and even reduction must follow. If enforcement means more illegal Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Chinese head on back home, then our own unskilled and low-skilled workers have more opportunities, even if it raises restaurant prices to pay for legal cooks and busboys, forces homeowners to take care of their own lawns, and makes farmers finally invest in mechanization, or whatever other dire outcome businesses currently predict. Reducing immigration flow means low ability children have less competition for funding, because lord knows our current generous immigration policies forces schools to channel a whole bunch of money into teaching low-IQ kids, both legal and illegal, who weren’t born here and to whom we owe allegiance only because of our own generosity. Maybe we’d even get toughminded enough to realize that the best DREAM Act legislation would send the well-educated undocumented kid back to their country of origin with a little note saying “Hey, this one’s really bright. Give him a job!”
But of course, I’m just positing a hypothetical. We don’t know that the bulk of our kids living in poverty have low test scores because they have low IQs. And we don’t want to find out. Instead, we’ll just refuse to believe in IQ and pray it goes away.