Tag Archives: IQ

Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….

Pause.

RobLongUncomfortable

I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?

[Crickets.]

Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?


Restriction of Range

I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd. For reasons I don’t understand, he periodically gets raves from writers way up the food chain, so he’s clearly writing about sensitive subjects without activating their panic buttons.  I once read this book on Highly Sensitive People, and the author was like “OK, this may be painful, so stop and take a breath before you move on. Sense how you’re feeling. Breathe again. Now turn the page.” I found this extremely irritating, and Scott reminds me of that author. Who, by the way and despite the offputting habits and an entirely unscientific theory, provided me with a successful frameworks and some useful tips. Yes,  I am a Highly Sensitive Person. Go ahead, laugh; it’s 20 years and I still think it’s funny.

Anyway. While this may seem like insider baseball, I’m writing this because the issue at hand illustrates an important point.

Recently, Scott wrote a soothing reassurance to the many people writing him “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs”.

See, the correct response to “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs” is a gagging noise or, perhaps more maturely, a discreet eye-roll. But that’s just me.

Scott quotes a Reddit commenter echoing a typical concern:

I never got a chance to have a discussion with the psychologist about the results, so I was left to interpret them with me, myself, and the big I known as the Internet – a dangerous activity, I know. This meant two years to date of armchair research, and subsequently, an incessant fear of the implications of my below-average IQ, which stands at a pitiful 94…I still struggle in certain areas of comprehension. I received a score of 1070 on the SAT, (540 Reading & 530 Math), and am barely scraping by in my college algebra class. Honestly, I would be ashamed if any of my coworkers knew I barely could do high school-level algebra.

Scott does something like five paragraphs on the measurement and meaning of IQ and how it’s great for groups but not terribly valuable for the individual. All that is just duck and weave, though, because basically, his response is “Well, your IQ test wasn’t accurate”.  But Scott’s worried that if he says that, it will undo all the hard work he’s put in convincing people that IQ has meaning.

********************************************************************

So reading the post, the reddit thread, and the comments, I’ve concluded that my–well, somewhat undue–frustration has two sources. First, I  believe abrupt, brusque and occasionally rude responses are not immoral and frankly necessary. But more importantly, I’m dumbfounded that Scott would treat these queries as worthy of a treatise, so I’m wondering why.

I don’t usually quote Malcolm Gladwell unless it’s his ketchup piece, but this is instructive:

Of course, Gladwell was actually quoting someone with actual expertise, Arthur Jensen:

While individual IQs are irrelevant, the tiers are pretty useful. Those who interact regularly with all three tiers can place people pretty accurately in those tiers.  My various occupations have given me access to the entire range of  IQs, from the occasional low 80s to third standard deviation and possibly beyond. As a result, I don’t know a 98 from a 105, but I would never place either in the below 90 or above 115 group.

And from that vantage point, I can’t figure out why Scott is equivocating, because there is simply no way the Reddit poster, or indeed anyone who reads Scott’s blog, has an IQ much south of 115. The idea is ludicrous. Instantly risible.

Alexander is clearly aware of this. His characterization: “Help, I got a low IQ score, I’ve double-checked the standard deviation of all of my subscores and found some slight discrepancy but I’m not sure if that counts as Bayesian evidence that the global value is erroneous” oh so gently mocks his emailers–and mocks them in a manner that only higher IQs could understand.

But why would he spend so much time on the topic? Maybe it’s my (extremely low) opinion of the SSC groupies, but it’s pretty obvious that the emailers are looking for validation from their hero.

“I’ll tell Scott or random people on the internet that I’ve got a low IQ and they’ll go, pish tosh! and tell me how smart I am.” . Write an intellectual email, tossing in all the right buzzwords, worrying about their IQ, in order to get a reassuring  “Don’t be silly! You’re far too intelligent for a 90 IQ!” that they can brag about.

In short, I think Scott’s emailers are lying to get an ego boost.

Sure, it’s possible that IQ tests are routinely handing out scores of 90 to  people with 80th percentile SAT results. It’s just extremely unlikely.  Alternatively, these folks could be IQ-denialists lying to seed doubt and confusion about IQ tests. “We’ll be, like Russian agents and post fake news through Scott. No one will trust these foul instruments!”

I’ll take “Needy Validation” for $1000, Scott.

He may simply be too polite to say “I don’t believe you”. But no one else did, either, in all the megabillion comments he gets on each blog. Some of the reddit folks gently pointed this out, but their views didn’t catch on.

Hence I wonder about restriction of range. Are the people in the discussion, from Scott Alexander on down, so unfamiliar with the intellectual capabilities of a 94 IQ that he thinks it merely unlikely that the IQs are inaccurate, as opposed to a possibility that can be instantly dismissed?

Maybe that’s it. After all,  most of the educated world is setting their intellect standards like the second graph of this grip strength study illustrating the essay title:

 

restrangepic

As the author says, note the change in the x axis.

In perhaps his most famous piece, Scott characterizes the other, the people outside his inadvertently constructed social bubble as “dark matter”. These people exist. They are legion. But somehow he never runs into them, never has any contact.

It’s a neat little metaphor, but really all he’s describing are social bubbles that restrict your range pf experience or understanding. Just as most progressives never run into a conservative, so too are most college graduates who aren’t teaching in high poverty districts rarely going to meet an average IQ,  much less sub-90 intellects.

Steve Sailer, with the ruthless accuracy and snarkiness that (wrongly) inspires disdain for his excellent observational skills,  once observed that Rachel Jeantel, who testified at George Zimmerman’s trial  was a high school student. Steve, who notices things, was pointing out that our expectations for high school students must include Jeantel, when in fact most people yapping about at risk black high school students have Will Smith in mind. Wrong. Smith is a bright guy.

Rachel was 19 when she testified, and graduated the next year from high school at 20. The media reports that “extensive tutoring” helped her graduate, but high schools will graduate anyone who tries hard enough. In my opinion, the support and the attention, not the tutoring, is what helped Jeantel graduate.  I can’t find much about her life since then, but no news in this case is pretty good. I’d guess Jeantel below the 90 tier, but she might be right above it. She’s pretty functional. She’s savvy about how to handle her moment in the sun. She took advantage of the support offered her.

Listen to some of Jeantel’s testimony. Go back up and read that Reddit post that Scott says is typical of the worried emails he gets from people who are saying that they have roughly the same IQ as the young woman in that video.

Perhaps then you’ll see why I think the emailers deserve derision, gentle or otherwise.

Derision not because a low IQ is to be mocked or dismissed.  Derision in part because I believe these people are seeking validation and ego boosts. But mostly, derision to reinforce  and educate people about these tiers. The more people understand the basic realities of a 90 IQ as opposed to one of 115, the more we’ll understand the challenges of educating and employing them. The more people who engage in these debates understand how cocooned they are, the less foolishly optimistic they’ll be in considering education policy debates.

Educators, the peasants of the cognitive elite, can offer some guidance. Many educators deliberately ignore cognitive reality; I’m not saying we all have the right answers, or that I do. But I would like all educated people who think they understand American education to look at the whole picture, rather than be allowed to ignore the “dark matter”.

I really don’t  know if Scott himself is refraining from mocking these IQ queries or if he really doesn’t understand that their fears are impossible.

Ending where I began: I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd that prides itself on its skeptical humanism.  Unfortunately, either interpretation of his behavior is consistent with that set.  I remain befuddled.

 

 

 


The Available Pool

(This is by far the most Voldemortean topic I’ve taken on in a while. Brace up.)

Some readers might have noted a potential flaw in my observation that ed schools can’t commit affirmative action. If the average elementary school SAT score is 500 per section, and the average content SAT score is 580 in the relevant subject, then there shouldn’t be a shortage. Plenty of African Americans have those scores, right?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “plenty”.

Just ask Malcolm Gladwell.

Four words I’d never thought I’d say. I liked Gladwell’s article about ketchup. I also find him useful as a predictive sorter: when I meet someone who admires his work, I run like hell.

But recently I came across a page I’d either missed or forgotten about since the last time I flipped through his book.

gladwelliqbarriers

Gladwell even cites Jensen.

Conceding what he sees as a minor aspect of IQ to make a larger point, Gladwell acknowledges that regions, or thresholds, of IQ exist. But beyond these broad ability differentiators, IQ differences are irrelevant compared to factors like luck, birth, language, rice paddy history. Given certain thresholds, IQ is relatively unimportant in outcomes.

And given certain thresholds, Gladwell’s not terribly wrong, as Jensen confirms.

There’s just one pesky little problem still left to plague modern society: the thresholds. The regions, as Jensen describes them, that differentiate between broad ability levels. The ones that even an IQ pishtosher like Gladwell accepts as given. They’re kind of an issue, if by “issue” you mean the fatal flaw lurking in most of our social and education policies.

Jensen’s regions correspond to the IQ standard deviation markers. The average IQ is 100, with a standard deviation of 15. An IQ of 70 is 2 SD below the average of 50 (2nd percentile), 85 is 1 SD below average (16th percentile), 115–the marker for graduate level work, according to Gladwell and Jensen—is 1 SD above the mean.

Translating Gladwell and Jensen into standard deviations: in order for an American student to be ready for a college graduate program, he needs to have an IQ at the 84th percentile, with “average” (this is Gladwell’s word) as the 50th percentile. Give or take. IQ tests are finicky, no need to be purist. These are broad strokes.

Using those broad strokes, we know that average African American IQ is a little less than one standard deviation below that “average IQ” (again, Gladwell’s term), which means that the 84th percentile for all IQs is attained by just 2% of blacks. Test scores consistently prove out this harsh reality. While the mean African American IQ has risen five points since 1970, test performance has often remained stubbornly 1SD below that of whites. As Chistopher Jencks observes, “typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on most standardized tests”, and often as much as 85% (or 1SD). Much has been written about the 1 SD difference; you can see it in the SAT, the GMAT, and the LSAT. (The SAT is much easier these days; before the recentering, just 70 blacks got over 700 on the verbal, whereas today it’s 2100, or 2%. In 1995, 90% of African Americans scored below 430 on the verbal section whereas the unrecentered LSAT has a score distribution chart registering no black scores over 170.)

(You’re thinking oh, my god, this is Bell Curve stuff. No, no. This is Gladwell, remember? Secure position in the pantheon of liberal intellectual gods. It’s all good.)

We are oversupplied with whites with IQs over the 115 threshold, all of whom have the requisite tested ability to be lawyers and doctors and professors. Since these fields are highly desirable, the educational culling process weeds out or rejects all but the most cognitive elite candidates. Thus all the cognitively demanding fields have a sorting process for whites: medicine, law, academia, science, technologists, executives, politicians, venture capitalists, mathematicians, yada yada yada all the way down to high school teachers, the peasants of the cognitive elite.

The available pool of blacks with the requisite Gladwellian-approved IQs to test into graduate education is barely toe deep.

To build cohorts with blacks exceeding single digits, graduate schools in law, medicine, and business, to name just a few, commit deep discount affirmative action, regardless of legal bans. Ed schools can’t, for reasons I described in the last post. Given the wide range of choices blacks with anything approaching the requisite cognitive ability have, it’s hard to say if any sorting occurs at all.

Much has been written of the supposedly low standards for teacher licensure exams but what do we know about the standards for becoming a lawyer in Alabama or a doctor in Missisippi?

I often ask questions for which data is unobligingly unavailable. Sometimes I just haven’t found the data, or it’s too broad to be much good. Sometimes it’s like man, I have a day job and this will have to do.

Med school: Not much data. See Razib Khan’s efforts.

Law school: For all the talk about mismatch or the concern over dismal bar exam passing rates for blacks, the reality is that low LSAT scores, law school, and persistence can still result in a licensed black lawyer. State bar exam difficulties aren’t uniform (which is also true for teaching). This bar exam predictor says that a law school graduate with an LSAT of 139, three points below the African American mean, attending an Alabama lawschool not in the top 150, graduating in the bottom tenth of his class, has a 26% chance of passing the bar. In Iowa, the same person has a 17% chance–in California, just 4%.

If that predictive application has any validity, the cognitive abilities needed to pass the average high school math or science licensure test in most states are higher than those demanded to pass a bar exam in states filling out the bottom half of the difficulty scale. Passing the math or science licensure exams with an SAT score below the African American mean would be next to impossible in most states. English and history probably compete pretty well on that front as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the cognitive demands needed to pass elementary school licensure tests in tough states (California) are greater than those needed to pass the bar exam in easy states (Alabama). (sez me, who has passed the tests in three subjects, and sez all available information on average SAT scores for passing candidates).

Here we are back at the cognitive dissonance I mentioned in the last post. Received wisdom says teachers are stupid. Reality says teacher credential tests have significant cognitive barriers, barriers that appear to exceed those for law and may do so as well for medicine—and the other professional tests are presumably easier still.

Before I looked into this, I would have assumed that licensure tests for law and medicine weeded out a “smarter” class of blacks than those weeded out of teaching. Now I’m not as sure. It seems law schools and med schools keep out the “not-as-smart”whites and Asians while admitting blacks and Hispanics who would only be “not-as-smart” if they were white or Asian. The med and law school licensure exams, in knowledge of this weeding, are gauged to let in the “not-as-smart”, secure in the knowledge that these candidates will be mostly black and Hispanic. (A number of “not-as-smart” whites and Asians will make it through, assuming they paid a small fortune for a low-tier law school, but jobs will be much harder to find.) Understand that I’m using “smart” in the colloquial sense, which means “high test scores”. And most evidence says these are the same thing. I’ve said before now I’m not as certain of this, particularly with regards to African Americans.

This isn’t enough to prove anything, of course, and I wanted more. What else could I could use to—well, if not prove, at least not disprove, what seems to me an obvious reason for a dearth of black teachers?

Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and ethnicity

I made some predictions going in:

  1. Blacks would be a higher percentage of elementary/middle school teachers than of high school teachers. I couldn’t sort out academic teachers from special ed and PE teachers, and I wasn’t sure whether sped teachers would be included in the count. But given the easier licensure test, I was betting the percentage would be higher.
  2. There would be more black school administrators than black high school teachers.
  3. The ratio of black lawyers and doctors to black high school teachers would be higher than the ratio of white lawyers and doctors to white high school teachers (in absolute numbers).
  4. The ratio of black social workers to black teachers would be much higher than the same ratio for white teachers.

So this table shows the total employed in each category, the percentage black and white, the absolute number black and white:
blackwhiteprofs

This table calculates the ratio of each non-teaching occupation to K-8 and high school teachers by race. So the number of black high school teachers is 25% of the number of black K-8 teachers, and the population of black high school teachers is 65% the number of black education administrators, and so on.

blackwhiteprofscomp

I didn’t want to over-interpret the data, so this is just simple Excel, pulling the numbers right off the table (calculating white percentage by subtracting the other races). And I was right about a lot, except I underestimated the number of black professionals in the highly cognitive fields of doctors, dentists, and lawyers and I didn’t know this basic fact:

There are more white lawyers than white high school teachers!

Still, this data mostly bears out my predictions. I threw in some other categories: entertainment/media, and nursing, just for compare/contrast.

Many blacks become social workers, far more than become high school teachers or even K-8 teachers. Now, I know teachers complain about low pay, but social work has really low pay, less attractive vacations, and a client base even less cooperative than the average high school student.

I was wrong about lawyers, obviously, but less wrong on doctors. White and black doctors/dentists have roughly equal parity compared to white and black high school teachers–black doctors and dentists are about 85% of black high school teachers, whites about 87%. In med school, Whites have to compete with Asians, who are 20% of doctors (and just 5% of lawyers), but if the professions were cognitively sorting on anything approaching an equal basis, there should be a lot more black high school teachers, shouldn’t there? And if you go the less cognitively demanding but still intellectual field of nursing, black nurses outnumber black high school teachers by nearly twice the ratio that white high school teachers are outnumbered by white nurses.

So blacks are choosing skilled health care work over teaching at considerably higher rates than whites are making that same choice, and the number of black doctors/dentists have near parity with black high school teachers compared to whites in the same professions.

Then there’s my amazing perspicacity in predicting the overrepresentation of black education administrators. Pretty obvious, really. Districts can only practice affirmative action in teacher hiring to the extent they have black candidates. But administrative positions are wide open for affirmative action. While I’m sure there’s a test, it’s got to be a piece of cake compared to the high school subject credential test. I can’t really take all the credit, though.

CJ Cregg first alerted me to affirmative action in principal selection. But before you shed all sorts of tears for Tal Cregg, remember that the Brown decision resulted in thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs, all in the name of racial equity and equal access.

I only had one surprise. When I started this effort, I figured that I’d include a snarky remark like “Want more black teachers? Raise the cut scores for the bar exam.” But no, lawyers, it turns out, are whiter even than high school teachers. That might explain why the cut scores are set so low on the bar exam, and it suggests that the predictive application knows its stuff. The legal profession in many states is doing its best to bring in more black and Hispanic lawyers by lowering the cut score—in others, not so much.

Steve Sailer noticed something I’d missed in my original post on teacher SAT scores—namely, teachers had strong verbal scores regardless of the subject taught. Law, too, is a field heavy on the reading and talking. So maybe whites are drawn to fields that reward this aptitude. It’s arguable, in fact, that America’s entire educational policy through the century was informed, unknowingly, by its unusually large population of unambitious smart white people who like to talk. We might want to consider that possibility before we start demanding diversity.

Anyway.

Step one in investigating the lack of black teachers should start with the oversupply of black social workers and see why, given their strong interest in community work, they aren’t going into teaching. The uninformed yutzes who presume to opine on education policy think ed schools are either prejudiced against or just uninterested in recruiting black teachers. Those actually interested in creating black teachers think it’s the licensure tests. I’m with them.

So go find out. If I’m right, we can start talking about lowering the cut scores for k-3 licensure tests. Once we realize that the Common Core goals are a chimera, we might create high school teaching tiers, with easier tests for basic math and English classes. (In exchange, maybe, for loosening up the affirmative action grip on administrative positions, if such a grip exists.)

Given the tremendous overrepresentation of blacks in our prisons, I’d argue we need to spend our time and policy creating more black lawyers, not black teachers. Better pay, better status and who knows, maybe better justice.

The available pool of black cognitive talent is small. Tradeoffs must be made. If we want more black teachers, we’ll have to lower the cognitive ability standards required for teaching or reduce the number of black professionals in better-paying, higher-status jobs. To a certain extent, the first of those options make sense. The second one’s just stupid.

I got into this because of that damn TFA announcement saying that 1 in 5 of their teaching corps was black, and the congratulatory nonsense that spewed forth in the announcement’s wake. And you still should be wondering how TFA is getting so many blacks that can pass the licensure tests. Next up, I promise.


Finding the Bad Old Days

Michael Petrilli wrote an extremely aggravating article suggesting we tell unqualified kids they aren’t ready for college and go to CTE and then a much improved follow up that acknowledges the racial reality of his idea.

In his first piece, Petrilli only mentions race once:

PetrilliCTEquote3

This is a common trope in articles on tracking, a nod to “the bad old days” right after the end of segregation, that time immediately after Brown and ending sometime in the late 70s, or when Jeannie Oakes excoriated the practice in Keeping Track.

In the bad old days, the story goes, evil school districts, eager to keep angry racist white parents from fleeing, sought a means of maintaining segregation despite the Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act. So they pretended to institute ability grouping and curriculum tracks, but in reality, they used race. That way the district could minimize white flight and still pretend to educate the poor and the brown. That’s why so many brown kids were in the low ability classes, and that’s why so many lawsuits happened, because of the evil racist/classist methods of rich whites keeping the little brown people down.

The bad old days are a touchstone for anyone proposing an educational sorting mechanism. So you have Petrilli advocating a return to tracking, who tell us the bad old days are a thing of the past: yeah, we used to track by race and income, pretending to use ability, but we’ve progressed. Districts pretended to use IQ, but they were really using culturally biased tests to commit second-order segregation. Today, we understand that all races and all incomes can achieve. Districts don’t have to distort reality. The bad old days are behind us, and we can group by ability secure that we aren’t discriminating by race.

Before ed school, I accepted the existence of the bad old days, but then I noticed that every reading asserted discrimination but didn’t back it up with data. Since ed school, I’d occasionally randomly google on the point, looking for research that established discriminatory tracking back in the 60s and 70s. And so the Petrilli article got me googling and thinking again. (What, buy books? Pay for research? Cmon, I’m a teacher on a budget. If it’s damning, the web has it.)

I first reviewed Jeannie Oakes, reaffirming that Oakes holds tracking itself, properly applied, as the operative sin. Discriminatory tracking isn’t a main element of Oakes’ argument, although she points out that “some research” suggests it occurred. Oakes’ third assumption, that tracking is largely made on valid decisions (page 4) is accepted at face value. So the grande dame of the anti-tracking movement has completely neglected to mention the bad old days—which, at that time, would have been contemporary.

On I move to Roslyn Mickelson, who does charge Charlotte Mecklenburg schools with discriminatory tracking.

mickelson5

In Capacchione v Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Judge Richard Potter eviscerates her expert testimony, finding faults with her credibility, her accuracy, and her logic.

Mickelson’s research shows that high achieving scorers in year one are not consistently placed in high achieving classes six years later. While both whites and blacks with high scores end up in low tracks and vice versa, more whites get high placement than blacks. But generally, her data shows something I’ve documented before, that achievement falls off each year because school gets harder.

Both whites and blacks experience the falloff, even though Mickelson seems to think that the pattern should be linear. The achievement scale simply gets larger as kids move up in grade levels, and fewer blacks make the top tier. This is consistent with cognitive realities.

There might be a smoking gun in research. But I couldn’t find it.

Then I suddenly realized duh, what about case law? If districts were tracking by race, there’d be a lawsuit.

I started with three legal articles that discussed tracking case law: 1, 2 and 3. They were all useful, but all failed to mention a significant case in which the district routinely used different standards or sorted directly by race or zip code.

From these articles, I determined that Hobson vs. Hanson was the original tracking case, and that the McNeal standard was for many years (and may still be) the test for ability grouping.

So I created a reading list of cases from the late 60s to the early 90s:

Only two of these cases involved schools directly accused of using race to sort students. In Johnson v. Jackson, the schools were forced to integrate in the middle of a school year. The black kids were ported over to white schools and the classes kept intact. The court ordered them to fix this. From first integration order to the fix order: 4 months.

The second case, Rockford, was decided in the early 90s, and the judge directly accuses the district of intentionally using race to ability group. However, Jeannie Oakes was the expert witness, and the judge drank every bit of Koolaid she had to offer and licked the glass. Oakes is presented as an expert witness, with no mention that she’s an anti-tracking advocate. Her testimony appears to be little more than readings from her book and some data analysis.

The proof of “intentional racism” was pretty weak and largely identical to Mickelson’s described above. Major difference: the judge accepted it.

Leaving aside these two cases, I couldn’t find any case in which the district was found to misuse the results of the test, either by using different racial standards or ignoring the tests entirely. The tests themselves were the issue.

In the south, school systems that weren’t “unitary” (that is, were previously segregated districts) couldn’t use ability testing. Since blacks would have lower scores based on past racial discrimination, the use of tests was discriminatory, an intent to segregate.

For school systems that were found to be unitary, ability testing isn’t in and of itself invalid and racial imbalance isn’t a problem (see Starkville case for example).

In all these cases, I couldn’t find a district that was tracking by race. They were guilty of tracking by test. Everyone knew the tests would reveal that blacks would have lower ability on average, and therefore ability grouping was by definition invalid in previously segregated schools. This was an era in which judges said “The court also finds that a Negro student in a predominantly Negro school gets a formal education inferior to the academic education he would receive, and which white students receive, in a school which is integrated or predominantly white.” (Hobson)

Once the system is declared unitary, or that was never an issue, the record is mixed. When judges did accept the results as valid, they ruled in favor of the school districts (Starkville, Hannon). In Pase v Hannon, the judge actually reviewed the test questions himself and determined they were unbiased with few exceptions, all of which were far above the IQ level in question.

In California, on the other hand, where de jure segregation wasn’t an issue*, the mere existence of racial imbalance was still a problem (Pasadena, Riles). In Riles, Judge Robert Peckham banned all IQ testing of blacks in California for educational purposes. He later extended the ruling even if black parents requested testing, but later withdrew that order. Peckham’s reasoning is much like the other judges who believed in cultural bias:

Even if it is assumed that black children have a 15 percent higher incidence of mild mental retardation than white children, there is still less than a one in a million chance that a color-blind system would have produced this disproportionate enrollment. If it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed towards black children.

Notice the reasoning: of course it’s not possible that blacks have a 50% greater incidence of an IQ below 75. Except it’s worse than that.

This image is from The Bell Curve (borrowed from here) reflecting the frequency of black/white IQ distribution:

BCFreqblkwhiteIQ

As many blacks as whites populate the sub 75 IQ space, but the population distribution being what it is, blacks are far more likely to have low IQs.

When Charles Murray researched this for The Bell Curve:

In the NLSY-79 cohort, 16.8 percent of the black sample scored below 75, using the conversion of AFQT scores reported in the appendix of TBC and applying sample weights. The comparable figure for non-Latino whites was 2.2 percent. In the NLSY-97 cohort, the comparable figures were 13.8 percent for blacks and 2.7 percent for non-Latino whites. (Charles Murray, personal communication)

 

Blacks didn’t have a 50% higher chance of an IQ below 75 when Peckham made his ruling, but rather a several hundred percent higher chance, a chance that is still in the triple digits today.1 Peckham couldn’t even begin to envision such a possibility, and so no IQ testing for blacks in California.

(As for the lower frequency of blacks in the “trainable” mentally retarded division, as it was called then, an interesting but rarely discussed fact: Low IQ blacks are often higher functioning that low IQ whites. They are less likely to be organically retarded, and more likely to be capable of independent living. This despite the fact that their IQ tests and academic outcomes are identical. Arthur Jensen discovered this phenomenon, and I highly recommend that article; it’s fascinating. I wonder if the difference is somehow related to crystallized vs. fluid intelligence, but haven’t read up enough on it.)

So there it is. Obviously, if I missed a key case in which a major district was found to have deliberately tracked kids by race, please let me know.

I couldn’t find the bad old days of discriminatory sorting. What I found, instead, was a judicial rejection of IQ and other ability tests, coupled with an inability to conceive of the actual distribution patterns of cognitive ability.

Please understand my limited objective. Many Southern districts did everything they could to avoid integration. See, for example, US v Tunica, where the school tried to assign students based on test scores, but were denied because of the achievement testing ban and required to reassign students and teachers to achieve integration. The teachers refused assignment to integrated schools and resigned, white parents withdrew their kids, then the white schools set up shop at local churches, classes largely intact. Money? Not an issue. They used taxpayer dollars, since the district paid the teachers who resigned and the kids took all their school books with them.

But believe it or not, there’s no mention that the district was only pretending to use test scores, actually assigning students by race. And this is a place where I’d expect to find it. Opposition to integration, absolutely. Achievement testing used as a way to minimize racially mixed classes? Sure.

In many other cases, schools or districts instituted tracking as a genuine attempt to educate a much wider range of abilities, or even had a tracking system in place before integration.

The inconvenient realities of cognitive ability distribution being what they are, the test scores would be depressingly indifferent to intent.

Then there’s the messy middle, the one that Mickelson probably found in Charlotte and Oakes found in Rockford and any one looking at my classrooms would find as well. All tracked classrooms are going to have inconsistencies, whether the schools use tests, teacher recommendations, or student choice. The honors classes fill up or a teacher suddenly dies or all sorts of other unforeseen situations mean some kids get moved around and it’s a safe bet high income parents bitch more about wrong assignments than poor parents. Go through each high score in a “regular” class and each low score in a tracked, and each one of those test scores will have a story—a story usually doesn’t involve race or malign intent. The story occasionally does involve bad teachers or district bureaucracy, but not as often as you might think.

Teacher recommendations are supposed to mitigate the testing achievement gap but teachers are moralists, particularly in math, as I’ve written before. It doesn’t surprise me that new study shows that controlling for performance, blacks are less likely to be assigned to algebra as 8th graders by teacher recommendation. I can’t tell you the number of bright Hispanic and black kids I’ve run into (as well as huge number of white boys, including my son) who don’t bother with homework and have great test scores. So their GPA is 2.7, but their test scores are higher than the kids who got As–and the teacher recommendations.

Parents: some parents insist that their kids need to be in the top group to be challenged. Others feel that their kids do better when they feel secure, able to manage the challenge. Then there are the parents who don’t give a damn about their kids’ abilities but don’t want them in a noisy classroom with kids who don’t give a damn about education. White and Asian parents are disproportionately represented in the first group, black and Hispanic parents take up more than their share in the second, and all parents of all races worry about the last.

So let’s stop using teacher recommendation, stop allowing parents or students to ask for different placement. Test scores are destiny.

But test scores today still reflect the same reality that the judges assumed, back then, could only be caused by racism or bias.

The tests haven’t changed. The kids haven’t changed much.

The judges are another story.

Richard Posner, in a much-quoted 1997 decision on an appeal to the People Who Care v Rockford did what he has done before–made my point with much greater efficiency:

Tracking is a controversial educational policy, although just grouping students by age, something no one questions, is a form of “tracking.” Lawyers and judges are not competent to resolve the controversy. The conceit that they are belongs to a myth of the legal profession’s omnicompetence that was exploded long ago. To abolish tracking is to say to bright kids, whether white or black, that they have to go at a slower pace than they’re capable of; it is to say to the parents of the brighter kids that their children don’t really belong in the public school system; and it is to say to the slower kids, of whatever race, that they may have difficulty keeping up, because the brighter kids may force the pace of the class. …

Tracking might be adopted in order to segregate the races. The well-known correlation between race and academic performance makes tracking, even when implemented in accordance with strictly objective criteria, a pretty effective segregator. If tracking were adopted for this purpose, then enjoining tracking would be a proper as well as the natural remedy for this form of intentional discrimination, at least if there were no compelling evidence that it improves the academic performance of minority children and if the possible benefits to the better students and the social interest in retaining them in the public schools were given little weight. The general view is that tracking does not benefit minority students…although there is evidence that some of them do benefit… All this is neither here nor there. The plaintiffs’ argument is not that the school district adopted tracking way back when in order to segregate the schools. It is that it misused tracking, twisting the criteria to achieve greater segregation than objective tracking alone would have done. The school district should be enjoined from doing this not, on this record, enjoined from tracking.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg case mentioned above cited Posner’s reasoning. The third of my case law articles discusses Holton v Thomasville II, which doesn’t mention Posner but does say that racial imbalance in ability grouping isn’t of itself evidence of discrimination, and points out that the time for judicial interference in educational decisions is probably over:

holtoncase

Most districts ended tracking out of fear of lawsuits. It may be time for parents to demand more honors classes, test the limits.

So what does this have to do with Petrilli? Well, less than it once did, now that Petrilli has acknowledged the profound racial implications of his suggestion.

But if the bad old days of racial tracking never really existed, then Petrilli can’t pretend things will be better. Yes, we must stop devaluing college degrees, stop fooling kids who have interest but no ability in taking on massive loans that they can never pay off. And with luck even Petrilli will eventually realize as well that we have to stop forcing kids with neither interest nor ability to sit in four years of “college preparation” courses feeling useless.

So what comes next? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

*************************
*Commenter Mark Roulo points out that California did commit de jure segregation against Hispanics and was ordered to stop in Mendez v. Westminster. See comments for my response.

1See Steve Sailer’s comment for why black IQs might have been biased against lower IQ blacks and the 97 data more representative.


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.


Learning Math

Jessica Lahey’s In Defense of Algebra, in which she describes her adult triumph over math, reminded me of my own experiences learning math and how they might be relevant. This is long, but if I make what I did sound too easy, people will get the wrong idea.

I struggled in math during high school, but was simply too clueless to quit. I got As and Bs algebra in 8th grade, got Cs and Ds in the subsequent courses until senior year, when I held onto a B the entire year in AP Calculus and, in what remains one of the great academic shockers of my life, passed the AP Calc test with a 3. Many years later, I took the GRE for my first master’s. I spent a month slogging through math, relearning enough of it to get by, and was very pleased with my 650 quant score, which was the 65th percentile on the GRE. Good, but not great, which is pretty much how I did on the SAT many years earlier. (Verbal, which I spent no time on, was 790).

My math turnaround began after I started grad school, when my son was failing geometry. After reading his book and working dozens of problems, I was able to help him (he went on to pass both the AP Stats and Calc AB tests, and is stronger in college math than I am). Needing a part time job for grad school, I auditioned for a job at Kaplan.

I originally hired on to teach GRE classes, but within a month I was working close to 40 hours a week teaching the high school tests. Two months later, I was teaching Math 1c and Math 2c, which was ridiculous. I had to learn the SAT math by rote at first, and the SAT Subject math tests required trig and second year algebra. I protested to no avail, and my manager’s decision was prescient—within a few months, parents were emailing me for private homework tutoring in high school math. It turns out I’m very good at explaining things; when I didn’t know how to do a problem in the early days, which was often, I’d go look it up or ask a student who did understand the problem. Ah, that’s the part I missed! Anyone else do that? I could see students nodding. I made the process very transparent, showed students where the glitches in my comprehension were, helped them find their own glitches and, it turns out, students would rather be tutored by someone who knows where the understanding glitches are.

I told parents I didn’t have a clue what a log was if it wasn’t in an Ingalls story, but even after raising my rates as an attempt to scare them off, I was getting lots of work. Still, for my own peace of mind, I decided I needed to learn more math instead of literally learning it while teaching others.

I started with test math, my strength. The REA and Kaplan test prep books served as my educational foundation. Between the two books, I learned how to recognize the subject and how to solve a number of common problems. When I was tutoring students, I would recognize the type of problem it was. Then, using their textbook, I’d help them work problems by example and explain. In explaining the math, I learned a great deal. My students learned and got improved grades, more confidence, and better test scores. Me, I kept getting more clients.

After four years of this, I had an excellent understanding of high school math through pre-calc, and routinely scored 800 when taking practice Math 2c tests (which I did for the first few years to keep me alert to weak spots). I not only knew the material cold, for the most part, but was by this point extremely familiar with the curriculum and sequencing for pre-algebra through algebra II/trig, and somewhat familiar with the same for math analysis (pre-calc) and calculus.

Seven years after my first GRE and untold decades after high school, I aced two of the three teacher math credential tests, and passed the third, in calc, with what can be called a gentleman’s C—the conceptual questions, the trig and the math history questions pulled me through. I scheduled my ed school GRE with two days’ lead, and got an 800 on the quant—by that time I was getting 800s on the practice test without a pencil, sitting around the Kaplan office with 15 minutes to kill. (Verbal: 780, but I was distracted and finished in 12 minutes.)

As I was studying for the calc credential test (which I took twice), I suddenly had an epiphany about why I was now able to learn math, when I’d done so poorly in high school, and for this, boys and girls, I must go back even further, back to the dark old ages of the mainframe and the earliest days of my previous career:

I was unfocused after college, having done well in English lit classes and nothing else. I started as a data entry clerk, but got a contract at IBM using a mainframe product that everyone in its customer base hated, but had to use. While entering the data, I noticed a few short cuts, asked for a manual, and began customizing the product in ways very few people knew was possible. The boss was impressed and made me responsible for product demonstrations, showing my work and explaining how the product could be customized. I got a job from one of the companies that came to the demo, a major brokerage firm. It was my first real job after five years of temping in admin jobs, during and after college. (Irony alert: I’d taken, and nearly flunked, one computer programming course in college and was convinced it wasn’t the career for me. I was three years into my new job before I felt comfortable saying I was an applications programmer, much less a computer programmer.)

And the first day I got to my new job, my boss said to me, “So I need to put you on a different project first. Our systems management application needs to be installed on the NYC machine.We have this automated process that moves the source code out of Panvalet, automatically builds the compile JCL based on the program—you know, if it’s CICS or batch, IDMS or DB2, and so on, and compiles it, linkrefs it, and installs it in the right library. It’s already working here; you just need to transfer all the code, change the libraries, and so on. You know CICS, right?”

“No.”

“Oh, it’s a transaction server environment. We mostly use COBOL here, but we’ve got some assembler routines. You know COBOL or assembler? No problem, I’ll sign you up for a class. The code itself is mostly ISPF calls with EXEC, although I’d like to upgrade to REXX.”

It’s not just that I didn’t know COBOL, and had no idea what CICS was. It’s that I didn’t know what compile meant, or source code, or batch, or JCL, much less IDMS or DB2. And I didn’t have the foggiest clue what REXX or EXEC was, and ISPF to me was an application, not something I programmed with.

Baby, I brought that motherf***er in on time. Two and a half months. I got a bonus, too, because by the time it went live, my director had figured out a small fraction of how much I didn’t know, and was extremely impressed. She never grasped the sum total of my ignorance, thank god. Nor did she ever realize that I still didn’t know what the difference between CICS and batch was and didn’t realize that (at the time) a program couldn’t be both, only vaguely understood that “compile” meant translating code I could read into weird symbols I couldn’t read but presumably the computer could, never did learn COBOL, and only vaguely understood what JCL was or what it did. All that was in my future. The only thing I was pretty confident about after those two and a half months was that I was pretty darn good at EXEC and ISPF dialogs, and that these things weren’t what the brokerage products ran on.

So my epiphany was this: Working with computers had taught me how I learned. How I learned. Which was not like most people. When books don’t work as a learning tool, then I have to learn by a particular type of doing. Explanations won’t help. Learning in a vacuum won’t help. I need to learn by trial and error. And then, I learn like Wile E. Coyote traverses the desert; I just keep on going until something blows up in my face. Go this way? Boom! Okay, that way doesn’t work. File it away. Go that way? Two steps, yes, then BOOM! Okay, the two steps, file away, then don’t go that way because BOOM! how about this way? Tiptoe, tiptoe, try this, ha! It worked! Done. On to the next. Make sense of the chaos, bit by bit, understanding the rules by the reaction.

When I’m learning something, I neither know nor care about why. Understanding will usually come. So just as I ultimately understood CICS only several months after I started making changes to a mission critical CICS transaction, I didn’t bother with understanding what, exactly, trigonometry was. Two years after I first learned how to work trig problems, I read that trigonometry was the study of the ratio of right triangle sides, and I was like Holy Crap, that’s exactly what trig is. What a trip. One day soon I’ll internalize the fundamental theorem of algebra, but give me time. If not, I’ll wave the dead chicken over the problem because that’s what worked the last time. And it usually works again. (Note: Ironically, as a math teacher, I am big on explaining why, but that’s because I’ve realized that most people aren’t like me.)

Of course, theory, whether it be math or computers, is usually beyond me. And yet, in both math and computers, I am capable of occasional insights that please actual mathematicians and computer scientists, even though most of the time I don’t care, as they are working on things that I find utterly incomprehensible.

Why did I struggle with math in high school? The usual reasons don’t apply. I was an A student, and remained one in English and history. Unlike Jessica, I never felt labelled, nor did I give up. I had excellent math teachers, all of whom knew that my intellect was considerable and took the time to reach out—each one sat me down at some point and asked why I wasn’t doing better, given my obvious brains.

I just know that some people are going to read my post, as they read Jessica Lahey’s, and conclude that, by golly, we prove that anyone can learn math, and that labelling kids based on early progress is cruel and wrong and demoralizing. Lahey herself clearly holds this position.

Well, no. Lahey and I are both extremely bright and I know I say this a lot, but that’s because people persist in ignoring the relationship between “smart” and “academic achievement”. Lahey clearly has excellent verbal skills, strong at writing and foreign language (she’s a Latin teacher at an elite middle school), whereas I’m a hybrid who, in addition to excellent verbal skills, tested high on every computer aptitude test that came out back when I was in college. On the other hand, I can’t speak any foreign languages, and I suspect Lahey isn’t as strong on logic and pattern recognition, which is why she needed an algebra teacher to get through first year algebra, whereas I self-taught myself the entire high school curriculum.

What Lahey and I both demonstrate is that it’s possible to be well above average in smarts, yet still struggle in math when later experience proves that we were entirely capable of grasping it.

Why, then, does an otherwise smart person struggle with math?

I have a theory, involving my layman’s understanding of IQ, which I’ll go into briefly.

Two visual aids to categorizing or measuring intelligence: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale subscores and subtests and Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory. In both, you can see what most people know on a casual level: intelligence has a verbal component and a visual/spatial component (known as performance in Wechsler). Logic seems to cut across the categories. It’s not terribly controversial to point out that advanced math, even that found in high school, requires more visual spatial and logic ability. I don’t know, specifically, how my intelligence maps to these categories. But I’ve always known that my verbal abilities were very high, my pattern recognition and decision processing equally so, and my visual-spatial relatively weak.

Imagine smart kids who has really strong verbal skills but unknown weaknesses in either logic or visual spatial abilities. These kids would coast easily through elementary school, where the skills needed are almost exclusively verbal—reading and arithmetic. By the end of of 8th grade, they’re bored out of their minds. Most of elementary school is time spent teaching them things they already know and developing social skills.

So for 8 years, this type of smart kid hadn’t ever had to struggle to learn something—in fact, learning itself is pretty alien to smart kids. (This, parents of smart kids, is why you should make sure your kids have to struggle with something—cooking, art, horseback riding, making nice with other people, whatever.)

And then, math. Algebra and beyond can come as a big shock. When school has come easily all your life, it’s hard to even know what “learning” is, much less how it applies to you. I’ve talked to countless people who qualify as Really, Really Smart, and every one of them has agreed that at some point in their lives, they realized that they had no idea how to learn. Some figured it out in high school or college. Some, like me, didn’t figure it out until they got a job that required them to learn something. Others, like Lahey, had access to a math teacher and went back and learned it because they wanted to fill in a gap that they felt was necessary for parenting.

So the otherwise smart kids who struggled with math did so in part because their particular intelligence was strong on verbal, and lighter on the spatial and (probably) visualization skills that are helpful in math. Plus, math was, to quote the Great Barbie, tough. And these kids had never once faced “tough” in a school subject. Many folded.

This was particularly true in the era before we began demanding higher math of all students (say about a decade or fifteen years ago). Before the 90s, math teachers weren’t held responsible for their students’ failures, and we accepted that not everyone was “good at math”. Kids with strong verbal abilities just took less math—in those days, it didn’t end your hopes of college, even of elite college. It was quite normal to get into an excellent school with a strong performance in history or English with little more than second year algebra on a transcript.

Today, of course, any white or Asian kid who wants to go to an elite college has to have advanced math, so the smart verbal kids who don’t have the requisite math skills have a much stronger incentive to either compensate or fake it, with or without a tutor. Moreover, math teachers these days are far more likely to reward effort over ability, so it’s easier for a student to get As in math by religiously doing homework and extra credit, even if they do poorly on tests. And of course, math teachers are also less likely to dismiss the effort involved in teaching math to those who aren’t necessarily strong in the subject. Thus, for many reasons, smart kids today with primarily verbal skills are less likely to have given up on math and are at least willing to fake it. Many learn to compensate, as I did much later in life, by using their other cognitive abilities to make up for their relative weakness.

(Compensation: Picture a circle inscribed in a square. Can you estimate the ratio of the circle’s area to the square’s? Or would you, like me, be completely incapable of a reliable guess and so calculate the difference by creating a radius of length r and work it as an algebra problem? I contend that people who can make an accurate estimate and do the algebra have an easier time in math than the people who can only do it with the algebra.)

Back in the day, the kids whose intelligence was strong in the math aspects but weak in verbal got a similar shock when they were expected to write an analytical essay on Hamlet and offer some original insights. Unfortunately, as has been noted before, our history and English curriculum has never recovered from the dumbing down it suffered through in the interests of multi-culti, giving kids who are strong at math little reason to ever struggle to access their verbal abilities.

This has obvious implications for the big algebra controversy kicked off by Hacker. But it involves recognizing that underlying cognitive ability is a huge determinant when deciding who should, or perhaps shouldn’t, take algebra.