Richard Posner, Voldemortean Educational Realist

Terrible confession: I have not always been clear on the difference between Richard Posner and Kenneth Feinberg. It’s not so much that I think, “One’s a famous judge, one’s the guy who did the 9/11 settlement” as it is that I make the famous judge the guy who did the 9/11 settlement. Someone got dropped in the duplicate data key, and I think it’s Posner, because I would recognize Feinberg if I saw him on TV, but Posner doesn’t look familiar. (You’re thinking um, they’re both New Yorkers who work in the legal profession with names that seem more than a tad Jewish? But that can’t be it, because I’m very clear on who Alan Dershowitz is, to say nothing of Ruth Ginsburg.) So even though I’ve read and enjoyed articles by both, I have traditionally conflated them into one guy.

But no more. In Rating Teachers, Posner takes fewer than a three hundred words to clearly articulate the major idea of my little blog, when I can never get a single entry below a thousand words. I bow to greatness.

Finally, I am not clear what we should think the problem of American education (below the college level) is. Most children of middle-class (say upper quartile of households, income starting at $80,000) Americans are white or Asian and attend good public or private schools, usually predominantly white. The average white IQ is of course 100 and the Asian (like the Jewish) almost one standard deviation higher, that is, 115. The average black IQ is 85, a full standard deviation below the white average, and the average Hispanic IQ has been estimated recently at 89. Black children in particular often come from disordered households, which has a negative effect on ability to learn and perhaps indeed on IQ (which is only partly hereditary) as well. Increasingly, black and Hispanic students find themselves in schools with few white or Asian students. The challenge to American education is to provide a useful education to the large number of Americans who are unlikely to benefit from a college education or from high school courses aimed at preparing students for college. The need is for a different curriculum and for a greater investment in these children’s preschool environment. We should recognize that we have different populations with different schooling needs and that curricula and teaching methods should be revised accordingly. This recognition and response should precede tinkering with compensations systems.

I do not call for greater investment in preschool , because most people who hold this view believe that better preschool would close the achievement gap. It almost certainly would not. However, I do wonder if preschool that removes poor kids from their often incompetent parents and physically dangerous environments would simply better prepare them to learn to their best ability and give them more resilience, more faith in the larger world and willingness to try to play a part in it. On that basis and with that goal, I would support more preschool funding.

Other than that, I could have written this if I weren’t distressingly verbose, nowhere near as disciplined and, though it pains me to say so, not quite as smart.

And just to prove it, I’m going to recall the times I’ve said so, because otherwise my word count will fall below 1000:

The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform:

No one has ever made an effective case that non-native speakers can be educated as well as native speakers, regardless of the method used. No one has ever established that integration, racial or economic, improves educational outcomes. No one has ever demonstrated that blacks or Hispanics can achieve at the same average level as whites (or that whites can achieve at the same level as Asians, although no one gets worked up about that gap), nor has anyone ever demonstrated that poor students can achieve equally with their higher-income peers. No one has ever established that kids with IQs below 90 can achieve at the same level as kids with IQs above 100, or examined the difference in outcomes of educating kids with high vs. low motivation. And the only thing that has changed in forty years is that anyone who points this out will now be labelled elitist and racist by both sides of the educational debate, instead of just one.

Algebra and the pointlessness of the whole damn thing:

In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.

The Sinister Assumption Fueling KIPP Skeptics:

I am comfortable asserting that hours and hours of additional education time does nothing to change underlying ability. I’m not a racist, nor am I a nihilist who believes outcomes are set from birth. I do, however, hold the view that academic outcomes are determined in large part by cognitive ability. The reason scores are low in high poverty, high minority schools is primarily due to the fact that the students’ abilities are low to begin with, not because they enter school with a fixable deficit that just needs time to fill, and not because they fall behind thanks to poor teachers or misbehaving peers.

And if that’s not enough, Posner further makes my day by pointing out that not all good people are competitive, and that teaching isn’t the only job that pays everyone the same salary.

Richard Posner, I’ll never think you’re Kenneth Feinberg again.

And HT to the uber-voldemortean Steve Sailer for pointing his readers to the Posner post.


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5 responses to “Richard Posner, Voldemortean Educational Realist

  • Michael

    A couple of qualms:
    Anyone seeking to discuss the effects of IQ on success in the wider world has to be careful not to overestimate it. My personal experience is that mental health and socialization problems can undermine even a highly intelligent mind and the old description of FDR as “a second-class mind with a first-class temperament” points to the potential of superiority in these areas to compensate for IQ issues.

    Discussion of race and IQ arouses painful memories of times when racial stupidity was both broadly assumed and used as an excuse to marginalize large chunks of society. As long as that’s the case, I’m not sure there’s any point of discussing it beyond a personal fondness for discussing the undiscussable–individuals have high or low IQ, not populations, and failing to act accordingly risks depriving society of a useful resource. Put another way, I’m not sure Voldemort needs to be named in this case.

  • Janon


    You are an idealist. The race difference in IQ matters because intelligence does affect life outcomes and certain historically marginalized groups that also have lower average IQ’s have been conditioned to expect equality of outcome. When it isn’t achieved by merit, there is a reflexive assumption of hidden racism and the power of the state is invoked to “correct” the natural outcome. This is a zero-sum game, and the losers disfavored by the government have every right to be upset. Moreover, such policies tend to push inferior candidates into positions for which they are unprepared, which is a disservice to them and to the people that depend on their work.

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