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Another Lie We Tell Ourselves About Education

There’s lots to agree with in John Tierney’s piece [1] about the failure of standardized testing and related public education reforms. In fact, I think I agree with all, or nearly all, of the criticism he levels against the testing regime. But he loses me with this:

What, then, do the critics of the corporate reform agenda propose? Surely they can’t be defending the status quo, content with the current state of schools. No. Without being too unfair to the diversity of views on this, the key consensus is that the most important step we could take to deal with our education problems would be to address poverty in the United States. We don’t have an “education problem.” The notion that we are “a nation at risk” from underachieving public schools is, as David Berliner asserts [2], errant “nonsense” and a pack of lies.

Rather, we have a poverty problem. The fact is that kids in resource-rich public school systems perform near the top on international measures. However, as David Sirota has reported [3], “The reason America’s overall scores on such tests are far lower is because high poverty schools produce far worse results — and as the most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores accordingly.” Addressing poverty and inequality are the keys to serving America’s educational needs.

OK, we have a poverty problem. But do we really think this is a problem that can be ameliorated by moving more money around? What are the most important resources that “resource-rich” public school systems offer? My guess is that there are no more important resources than intact families raising their kids with discipline. Countries and societies much poorer than ours do better in schooling than America. What is it about their culture that helps them to succeed?


Now, does poverty break families up and encourage habits of mind and of action that increase or perpetuate poverty? Sure. But isn’t this a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing? Is it really the case that opening the floodgates of money into a school system that serves children of poverty is going to change everything? Do we really believe that if we educate children in safe, beautiful, orderly schools, with first-rate, highly paid teachers, yet send them home to badly dysfunctional homes where nobody cares about how they do in school, that they’ll score well on tests? Look: [4]

You would think $30,000 a year would get you a decent education. For just a few thousand more, you could cover the cost of Harvard’s yearly undergraduate tuition [5] or send your child to the prestigious Sidwell Friends [6] School, which the Obama daughters attend.

But spending $30,000 to cover the cost of a child’s education in a district that has one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation and produces some of the country’s lowest achievement scores? Seems a bit steep. But this is the hefty per-pupil bill taxpayers are made to foot for D.C. public schools every year.

Despite this astounding price tag—$29,409 for the 2009–2010 school year, to be exact [7], compared to the national average of just under $12,500 (both figures are total expenditures calculated on a per-pupil basis, including capital outlays)—the graduation rate for D.C. students hovers around 60 percent, well below the nationwide average [8] of 74 percent. Math and reading scores are also among the lowest in the country [9].

Yes, we have a poverty problem in this country, and it has a hell of a lot to do with why so many of our public schools are in such bad shape. And it’s why blaming teachers for poor test scores can be extremely unjust. But how do we fix this? It’s not credible to believe that all we need to do is reallocate resources in a Robin Hood fashion, and all will be well. Rich kids who come from dysfunctional homes will not do well in school; poor kids who come from orderly homes in which they are loved and encouraged to do well in school will tend to succeed. My sister Ruthie was, by everyone’s account, an amazing teacher, and she told me once that so many of her students struggled with such messed-up situations at home that it was a wonder they even got to school in the morning. Through no fault of their own — but very much the fault of the adults who were supposed to care for and nurture them — these kids were under so much pressure, and with so little real help from home, that it took all they had just to do minimally acceptable work.

But there is no policy fix for a screwed-up culture. So the Right and the Left tell themselves stories that fit the narrative they want to hear. There is truth in both sides account, but the thing that nobody knows how to fix gets left out.

In an interview [10] I did with him years ago for his amazing book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy Of Desegregation [11], the lawyer and education reform analyst Stuart Buck talked about the hidden social and cultural history of integration, black educational achievement, and racial conflict. Excerpt:

It was remarkable to me, reading your book, to come across the testimonies of African-Americans who had gone to segregated schools, and who remembered with great love the institutional role their schools played in their communities — something that disappeared with integration. And some of the stories blacks quoted in your book tell about how emotionally searing it was to have those schools destroyed or otherwise taken away from them, were not only surprising, but also heartbreaking. Why have these stories been suppressed all these years — and what can we learn from hearing them today?

Let me give an example of what you’re talking about here. Second Ward school in Charlotte had been important to the black community there. A former student said, “I don’t advocate segregated schools today. But there are attributes of that time that need to be in place today. Our teachers, they’d look at you, almost as if they were wanting to will a good education into your head.”

That school was demolished during desegregation, as can be seen in this poignant picture:

Students were devastated by the closing of the school. Said one person: “An institution was being closed. And not necessarily for progress, but because of integration. . . . Well, it was heartbreaking. It really was. It really was.” Another person said, “We thought that it was the utmost in betrayal.” A former teacher said, “I still kept contact with those kids from Second Ward, and they would call and sometimes cry.”
I’m not sure these stories have literally been suppressed as much as they’ve been ignored. I found plenty of such stories, but they tend to appear in relatively unnoticed local newspaper articles, interview transcripts from university “oral history” programs, and the like.

Why don’t we pay more collective attention to these stories? Probably because it upsets the traditional narrative wherein everything that happened under segregation was unremittingly evil while desegregation via Brown v. Board of Education was a national triumph. When we as a society have settled on a narrative with clear good guys and bad guys, we don’t like to be bothered by nuance and complexities.

Stuart, I hasten to say, is absolutely not a supporter of segregation (and if he were, it would make life difficult at home, given that he and his wife are the adoptive parents of black children). His point here — and in the book [11] — is that when it comes to black students’ performance in the classroom, culture and psychology plays an underappreciated role — a role that we don’t want to acknowledge because it introduces nuance and complexity into a story where we prefer there to be simplicity.

I bring this up to make a broad point, which is this:  I think Stuart’s point about willful blindness to nuance and complexity is true when we talk about public schooling among people of all races and backgrounds. But then, poverty isn’t simply a matter of money, but also a matter of culture and psychology. Putting more money into failing public schools would likely help around the margins, but to what extent can a given public school that’s failing be in trouble because the public it serves is failing to do its part to raise up the children, and to help the teachers carry out the mission of educating their children? I’m thinking now of the young, energetic, idealistic teacher friend of mine who finally resigned because she couldn’t get through to kids, most of them poor, whose culture told them there was no point to school, that their lives were determined by fate, and in which 14 year old girls talked enthusiastically about having babies.

Are we even capable of having an honest, full conversation about education? I doubt it. So we’ll exchange one set of fabulists whose theory has gotten threadbare for another set of fabulists who tell us, or at least a majority of us, what we want to hear.

77 Comments (Open | Close)

77 Comments To "Another Lie We Tell Ourselves About Education"

#1 Comment By John On April 28, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

The one thing students need to thrive more than anything else is the one thing schools cannot give them – intact, functioning families.

I live in a neighborhood filled with immigrants. Most of them are not rich, many are very poor…yet they move heaven and earth every day to make sure their kids get an education. The idea of doing otherwise would never occur them. Most live in intact, two-parent mom and dad families, the kind NYT readers curl their lip at.

It’s the culture, plain and simple. And ours is rotting from the feet up.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 28, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

Patrick offers more data than Spite does, and offers it more soberly. (I don’t say that as a fan of Sirota — as far as I’m concerned Sirota and Spite can get in a boxing ring together while the rest of us get to work). Glaivester’s response, way down the thread, is a complete non sequitir. Eliminating public education is the solution to white flight from the public schools?

Broken families have more impact on low levels of education than anything else. This I believe — having spent some years in the library of a Boys and Girls Club. I loved many of the kids, I loathed others, and quality of parents made nearly all the difference.

Ampersand has a point that seems to have gone totally over Rod’s head. Another reason for integration was precisely the fact that the “white” schools got better funding, equipment, buildings, maintenance… I know someone who was on the student council committee from the “black” high school in Memphis who met with the committee from the student council at the “white” high school to prepare for integration… who recalls noticing the advance science labs in the “white” school and the surprised exclamation from the “white” students, “Oh, you don’t have those?” Nope, they didn’t.

Its really not about the bon-bons.

And I can’t sum it up better than James Q. did. We should not just throw more money at the public education status quo that shouts inspirational trifles at now-jaded kids, wrings its hands over standardized test scores, and threatens to fire more teachers. I would so be on board with more funding for schools that actually invested in the future prosperity of poor students.

I will just add this:

Any reference to Brown v. Board of Education, whether liberal, conservative, reactionary, or racist (those are four different philosophies children), needs to start with this:

Rev. Brown sued to get his daughter into her neighborhood school, a one-block walk from the family home, rather than her being required by law to walk a mile through an industrical district crossing several railroad tracks to catch a bus to the “colored school” several miles away.

A good argument has been offered that to make a fetish of counting the number of heads of this or that race at every school in the country was not a good follow-up on the Brown decision.

But, it was also true that those who wished to keep children like Rev. Brown’s daughter in “colored schools” USED the same arguments made in all sincerety by Stuart Buck and those he quotes. Incidentally, another good book on this subject is Civility and Civil Rights about the desegregation of the Greensboro, NC public schools. Except, this book is no comfort to ideologues, since it puts on display the venal resistance, the sincere purposes, the belated regrets, instead of painting a two-dimensional picture of the halcyon days of yore.

And it is true that many public schools were defunded once “colored” were allowed into them, while private “academies” took all the “white” students.

What’s the solution? Stop pretending that their IS a solution. Stop publishing academic papers and start teaching. Some of the kids will learn something. Let a hundred schools compete, but leave the public schools in the equation. The private alternatives won’t do nearly so well without them, and won’t take even half of those who need an education.

#3 Comment By Turmarion On April 28, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

I second Charles that focusing on any one cause is pointless and misleading. Engineer Scotty and KateLE are also right on the money. It certainly doesn’t help that sterilization of those “most likely to be dysfunctional” is being seriously suggested here. Nazi methods (and yes, I’m invoking Godwin’s law) should be non-starters in a civilized society.

FWIW, here’s a complex situation that I observed first hand: I worked for two years at a high school, the first year of which was the first year of a district merger. Formerly there were two separate districts: a city and a county. The city district was about half the size or less of the county; it was also mostly black. The county was largely farm kids with a mixture of other socio-economic levels, and few blacks. The city school actually had higher test scores because of the following factors:

1. The black community In town was very tight-knit and had an unusually high number of middle-class families.

2. Since the county was rural and had mostly farm jobs and some light industry, there was more of an incentive to get an education and get out (the white kids mostly stayed on the farm, while few of the black families were farmers).

3. The sense of community spilled over to the schools, where there was a lot of individual attention, not in terms of formal policy, but in how they did things. E.g. the high school made up special gift packets for every kid at prom and graduation. Not necessary, but a sort of community tradition.

The merger was prompted, I think, largely because of the perceived inefficiency of resource allocation with two districts. My understanding is that it was put to a vote, and though most of the city families were against it, the votes of the county school (since it was a much bigger district) carried the day. The feeling was, among the city parents (including some white families that I later heard from) was that the bigger school was absorbing the smaller one in order to serve its own agenda.

Well, several teacher were let go, because of the duplication, and most of them were from the city school. The personal touch around prom time and graduation went out the window. The whole sequence was restructured, with the ninth grade being put into a building by itself and the two high schools being crammed into one building. As I said, the county district (the larger and whiter one) had lower scores, but after the merger they got a ruling allowing them to post the higher scores of the smaller district they’d absorbed, so that the county students didn’t drag the average down.

As I said, the city parents viewed the whole situation as a sort of hostile takeover. Once in the teachers’ lounge, I overheard a conversation between two teachers who’d been in the county system. One said, “They [the staff and students of the former city school] keep complaining that they have to do things our way. Well, we merged, and it’s one school now, and they just need to get over it.” Which does sound like the exact attitude the city school families had feared.

Finally, the last year I was there, they decided to solve the crowding problem in the high school (which happened because they put all the high schoolers in one building, when formerly they’d been in two) not by expanding the existing building (eminently doable) but by building a multi-million dollar new building, in which most of the funds were going into “smart” classrooms (projectors, computers, “smartboards”, etc., in every classroom). It got built, but it came out that the now-unified district had gone from a budgetary surplus of a million dollars when the districts first merged, to a nearly three million dollar deficit two years later. The board couldn’t actually explain why this happened, though there were rumors of payoffs and kickbacks to contractors, stiffing of payments to other contractors, and the eventual forced resignation of the superintendent. From what I’ve heard over the last five years since I left that district, it’s been going steadily downhill since.

I think people could look at this story through the lens of their own hobbyhorses, or look at it and say that it’s a complicated situation. The only things I’d add are the following: One, the expectations are cracked. When I was in high school, college-bound kids took the SAT or ACT, and there were relatively good jobs available for non-college-bound kids. When I taught at the aforementioned school, all high school students were required to take the ACT—the district was graded on this. Of course, kids who knew they weren’t going to college often just filled the answer sheets in randomly. In any case, the drying up of good-paying blue collar jobs does not mean that the aptitude of kids has changed. There are large numbers who just aren’t college material, and we deny that, forcing kids to college careers of frustration and failure, with fewer good jobs left.

Second, as I think the new high school building I spoke of shows, much of the issue with spending more per student, in my opinion, isn’t the amount, but the way it’s spent. I think a lot of districts spend oodles per head because they have bought into the pernicious myth that more technology will improve performance. Having seen kids who can’t write in cursive or spell because of word processors, who can’t do arithmetic because of calculators, and who can’t even tell time on an analogue clock because of digital displays, I’d have to say I’m a little skeptical about his theory, which in my mind is just a way for big tech to scam huge amounts of money out of struggling districts.

#4 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 28, 2013 @ 11:56 pm

@EliteCommInc, to answer your question, by “race” I meant socially constructed races in America, not skin color per se. By cultural differences, I meant differences relating to views on academic success, studying hard, and so on. For instance, I think (correct me if I’m wrong) East Asians tend to emphasize those more than Hispanics. I also think, but don’t know, that that variation is influenced by biological differences.

Similarly with socio-economic class. The big news, which seems to be ignored by race realists such as Steve Sailer, is that class is becoming more important than race as an explanatory factor. My impression – and again, correct me if I’m wrong – is that upper-middle class parents put more emphasis on academic study than poor parents. I think that might also be partly biological.

Even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that cultural solutions won’t work. As people repeat over and over again, heritability isn’t lack of malleability. But the question of biological influence is relevant in practice.

#5 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 12:46 am

It certainly doesn’t help that sterilization of those “most likely to be dysfunctional” is being seriously suggested here. Nazi methods (and yes, I’m invoking Godwin’s law) should be non-starters in a civilized society.

Paying people a substantial amount of money to have themselves sterilized is not Nazi, and to suggest that it is is utterly vile. A truly disgusting comment.

#6 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 1:05 am

To those harping on race: There is a very long list of controlled (in the experiment sense) and peer reviewed research that shows no causation between race and academic achievement, and significant causation between physical and emotional environment and academic achievement. All you have to do is remove your skin color filters and look at them. That a race is embedded in a detrimental or injurious environment traps you in the classic correlation is not causation mistake.

Not sure what you mean here. Race is in fact highly correlated with academic achievement. Nobody is saying that there are no black people who do well in school, just that there are, on average, fewer of them.

#7 Comment By VJ On April 29, 2013 @ 3:56 am

I’m in whole hearted agreement with others that intact and Involved parents are the most crucial ingredient to any student’s ultimate success. They are not a panacea for all the mounting ills and dysfunction of today’s society. And yes, good parents have always supplemented their kids schooling with extra curricular opportunities and yes, spending. See:


How about ending the war on just the younger kids, hmm? Fully funding Head Start and SCHIP (child health programs)? State funding for vital preschool programs is the lowest on record:

and most states have been cutting both primary school funding and post secondary education for the same period. Drastically & dramatically, and this belies all the slogans ‘well we’ve already tried full funding, so it must be…’.

And again, yes, there’s certainly a racial, class, poverty and even a genetic component to all these problems. It’s a huge complex ball that has a long history, and plenty of sad attempts at reform. (Hello, ‘NCLB!’ and More high stakes testing!) Ditto for the cultural dysfunction of illegitimacy & out of wedlock births. And may we be reminded that’s a top to bottom an issue now, and not just lay it on the ‘wet libs’ or ‘women libbers’? It now infects all of society somehow. See the powerful book, “Red families v Blue families”:


And again call it the ‘Bristol Palin effect’. How shameful is a non marital birth, even if it’s known the dad’s unsuitable for a husband or much of a dad (at the moment)? Those are choices being made increasingly by ‘moral’ teens, who are staunchly RTL, but somehow do not seek adoption options. Not too many have famous millionaire moms to be able to afford nannies either. And really need we celebrate each and every one of them even on various ‘Preachers Daughter’s’ TV shows? Just how many Teen Mom TV shows are there now?


The facts as we know them for a bio-social context? Younger & poorer teen moms are more likely to have more sickly & underweight babies. This is especially true if they do not get or have access to adequate nutrition & pre-natal care. What’s the likelihood of relative ‘success’ for this for a poor/ immigrant parented teen mom already living on the margins? You want to see the cycle of poverty repeat itself? Just follow the teen moms, their moms and their kids. Any child bearing a child while still in primary (yes!) or HS has locked themselves into a near certain spiral of decades of dependency and despondency. It comes as a tremendous expense and burden to themselves, their children and their loved ones trying to ‘fill in’ with the care the struggling family will require. Educations are often forgone or halted for decades, and their children suffer sub-optimal outcomes in often the best of circumstances, even without the stigma.

The good news is that we’re now making progress with the teens only to loose the battle later with burgeoning populations of single moms at later ages. The same cautionary tales may not apply to many of these richer folks, but the dangers and risk factors are still ever present.

Strangely enough as we might be reminded here in Ga., the military/National Guard runs HSs where inductees can get to finish out their schooling if they’re behind in grades. They do well with simple goal oriented and a common agreement on objectives. They’ve got a near spotless graduation record. So it can be done with adequate resources, common purpose, and a goal that’s realistic and obtainable.

So again a complex problem with huge cultural antecedents. Lincoln may have only had Shakespeare and the Bible to read much, and his infamous charcoal stick pencils for writing. But reading more deeply, he was always involved in a close knit, loving community that often saw fit to supply much of what he needed. So yes, 1820 is quite a bit different than 1920 or even 2020. Being a popular, funny kid helps. So does being a genius. Cheers & Sorry for the length again, ‘VJ’

#8 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 29, 2013 @ 10:30 am

Thursday, it comes down to having the full context and appropriate facts in any mix. As Mark Twain was said to have written, “There’s lies, damn lies, and statistics.” I am not a credentialled statistician, I don’t have the theory and terminology at my fingertips, but I use statistics every day in my job and I know how dangerous they can be on the flip side of their benefits.

So, when statistics are cited, there are some first critical questions (from which one may, for example, level the charge of correlation without causation): What were the controls in the collection and analysis of the data? (Do you even know what a control is, would be a prequel question to anyone doing the citing.) What confidence can the statistics give that the cohort in question is actually representatively valid to any general case? What was the predefined (before the study) margin of error and was it satisfied or violated?

The only valid assumption anyone can make out of statistical analysis is that it is a generally poor source for drawing conclusions. Laypeople (myself included) just won’t know or understand those limitations. They will draw conclusions that will only randomly turn out to be correct, and worse point to previous correct guesses as their justification for continuing to make them.

Statistical analysis is a very important starting point for further investigation. It offers us the facility of limiting our possible choices of conclusions, painting (sometimes with an overbroad brush, ’tis true) the unlikely conclusions out of the picture. It nonetheless doesn’t tell us what the correct conclusion is out of the remaining choices.

So, race correlates with certain outcomes. Why? Do you give sufficient attention to other factors, like local and regional conditions (economy, employment opportunities, etc.)? Has due attention been given to generations-long forces and influeces?

My personal ire is directed at the knee-jerk assumptions people make out of the projection of personal experience (the criticism of anecdotal “proof”). “I would do this or that to help myself” is the common refrain. Well, that’s nice, but unless you (general) are of that race, living in that location and raised under the same environment and circumstances, I can have only one reply (with our without the “respectfully” part): Bulls**t. That is a direct violation of the basic principles of statistical analysis, a demonstration of ignorance of the concept of controls, and a clear lack of effort to examine the context.

#9 Comment By Turmarion On April 29, 2013 @ 10:59 am

Thursday, prostitution, for example, is wrong no matter how voluntary, no matter how high the price–refer to the [16]. In some ancient societies, it was legal for a person to sell himself into slavery to satisfy a debt. Even if he did so voluntarily and made a huge amount, that doesn’t make slavery OK. Likewise, “voluntary” (the meaning of which is a whole other can of worms that I won’t open) sterilization can’t be made right no matter how much money is involved.

Really, I’d say your viewpoint is about the most un-conservative thing I’ve ever heard. Isn’t putting a price on everything, even the most intimate parts of one’s body or life, reducing them to just things, not parts of a person? Isn’t that what traditionalist conservatives accuse the other side of? And frankly, I’ll nuance the Nazi analogy–I think such a voluntary payment-for-sterilization program is worse. At least the Nazis didn’t sugar-coat their brutality and try to make nice about it.

Finally, any time there are discussions like this, those who hold such views always consider it to be other people who should be sterilized or kept out of the country or segregated or not get funds for their schools or whatever. They never seem to think that they or their group might have to sacrifice. So how about it, Thursday? If it could be convincingly demonstrated that you or your kids had some genetic factor that would be harmful to society if passed on, would you take one for the team? And how much would they need to pay you? If the answer to the first question is “no”, or an attempt to weasel out by saying it’s “too hypothetical”, then I call BS on the whole notion.

Nazi comparisons aren’t vile–looking at other people as if they’re defective animals to be gelded is what’s vile.

#10 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 29, 2013 @ 11:02 am

Re: But it is. I saw it with my own eyes in the Dominican Republic, as kids walked out of literal huts surrounded by chickens, in their neat uniforms, to sit attentively in their shack of a school (we were there to paint it and install doors). It’s cultural, and culture can be changed.

I’m sure you’re right. When I was in college I had a job at a charter school in Boston, and I got to know a Dominican student there. He wasn’t high performing academically, but he was one of the hardest workers, most genuinely nice and warm people you could imagine.

It’s interesting that you *don’t* point out, though, that the Dominican Republic has a *far* greater proportion of children born out of wedlock (around 85%, last I checked) than any major subgroup in America. No doubt many of those kids are raised in two parent households, but their parents aren’t typically *married* (and social conservatives usually aren’t big fans of cohabitation either).

Culture may be a big part of the problem, but the primary cultural issues that are at stake don’t boil down to ‘people having sex when they aren’t married’, as much as some would like to believe they do.

#11 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 29, 2013 @ 11:12 am

Re: Not sure what you mean here. Race is in fact highly correlated with academic achievement. Nobody is saying that there are no black people who do well in school, just that there are, on average, fewer of them.

Thursday, that’s quite correct. I will point out though two things.

1) It’s not clear those differences are caused by genetics. They might be caused by epigenetic or prenatal influences, and might thus be overcome (including in the heritable sense) by several generations of improved nutrition, improved public health measures, etc.. Randy Thornhill (yes, the one who Susan Brownmiller called out as a rape apologist around 15 years ago) has recently written a study where he claims you can predict the IQ of a population by looking at parasite stress in their homeland, and if that’s the case then lower IQ in some groups might be the result of prenatal parasite stress or poor nutrition, not genetics.

2) Whether or not the gap is partly genetic in origin, it seems that it can be largely overcome by *extreme* interventions in early childhood and later (when the kids are older, this essentially means taking them away from their parents and raising them in educational bootcamps 24/7 or close to it). I don’t have the studies, but a friend of mine who is a strong believer in race realism as it pertains to IQ, was quite impressed by them.

I do agree that we should jettison the somewhat silly idea that some groups perform poorly because ‘white people designed the test’ or something like that. I am for left wing solutions, but ones that address the actual problem, not spurious ones.

#12 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 11:46 am

wrong != Nazi

#13 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 29, 2013 @ 11:47 am

Re: I don’t agree that rich kids from dysfunctional homes do poorly and poor kids from functional homes do well. Adoption studies show that when middle-class/upper-class parents with college degrees adopt kids whose biological parents are not those things, their children’s behavior (in terms of education and then later income) mirrors the biological parents more closely than the adopted ones. All other things being equal, having a functional family is definitely better – but if it’s that or biological parents who are fairly dysfunctional but were bright enough to get through college, better to have that.

This is also worth repeating. Genetics (or non-genetic stuff that looks a lot like genetics, e.g. maternal effects) has a much bigger effect than ‘nurture’. If you’re adopted, you are probably going to resemble your bio-parents more than your adoptive parents (including in terms of academic achievement).

#14 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

Franklin, the achievement/IQ gap between racial groups is one of the most stable and well established findings in the social sciences. The dispute is about the cause.


you can predict the IQ of a population by looking at parasite stress in their homeland

No doubt there are correlations, but parasites are not a problem in First World countries. Epigenetics wouldn’t help explain this.

A big problem for these kinds of theories is that we have a natural control group: white moms with half black kids.

it seems that it can be largely overcome by *extreme* interventions in early childhood

No. Any gains from this kind of thing vanish as the kids get older.

Ever read James Heckman. He’s basically come to the conclusion that your IQ is fixed by birth. Character on the other hand is considerably more malleable.

#15 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

And frankly, I’ll nuance the Nazi analogy–I think such a voluntary payment-for-sterilization program is worse.

Worse than the Holocaust? Frankly, you’ve just revealed yourself to lack any judgment, moral or otherwise, at all.

I mean really, wow just wow.

#16 Comment By Thursday On April 29, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

Do you give sufficient attention to other factors, like local and regional conditions (economy, employment opportunities, etc.)? Has due attention been given to generations-long forces and influeces?

Yes, those things have all been considered, and while superficially plausible as explanations, they tend to evaporate on closer examination.

#17 Comment By Ampersand On April 29, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

“[Note from Rod: It’s “easy to avoid the public education problem”? Too right. As I keep saying to my wife the homeschooler, “Ain’t it great that you get to sit around eating bonbons all day and going out for manicures while the kids watch Nickelodeon till their brains leak out their ears?” Yes, we who are involved in homeschooling sure are high-stepping down Easy Street. I wish you hadn’t told anybody, though! — RD]”

I’m not exactly certain why you’re acting so indignant, aside from your usual, reflexive self-victimization. All I’m saying is that, when you can choose Option B instead of Option A, the problems of Option A are much less relevant to your life, and you don’t mind hurting Option A if it benefits you. Whereas if everyone has to do Option A, people are going to have more of a stake in how it turns out.

#18 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 29, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Franklin, the achievement/IQ gap between racial groups is one of the most stable and well established findings in the social sciences. The dispute is about the cause.

This is anecdotal, but four IQ tests, which don’t cluster on either end of the scale, clearly established that my IQ is somewhere between 70 and 145. That about sums up my faith in the ability of IQ to represent anything real.

What at most is established, if you credit IQ as worth paying attention to, is that the aggregate curves are somewhat shifted in one direction or another, and as we all know, Asians are way ahead of Europeans. If you think about how Chinese people were considered backward in the 19th century, that should tell you something about jumping to racial conclusions. Justice Harlan’s dissent from Plessy v. Ferguson contains a reference that the Chinese are so different from us that we don’t let THEM become citizens.

An aggregate curve tells you nothing about any given individual. There are millions of “white” dummies and not a few “black” geniuses. So the condition of our schools is not hardly the result of all the black faces in the desks.

Parasites are not a common problem in the United States today, but they WERE in the southern states during the time that 90 percent of Americans of African descent lived there. If we had a convenient way to accurately identify poor-white-trash-moved-north we might well find similar stats.

More important, parasites as probable cause ditches the argument “but Africans in Africa score just as poorly as African Americans.” Parasites is a sound explanation for lack of development in Africa. In fact, those humans who left Africa, left behind a host of parasites specialized in living off of us, moving into territory where it took a few thousand years for the native parasites to adapt to our physiology.

Then, we have other sources of stress in America. Epigenetics shows that if your grandparents or great grandparents lived through a famine, your children may be obese, or subject to higher likelihood of heart attacks. Do you suppose chronic malnutrition, living in unheated shacks, living your whole life in fear of night riders, might put some epigenetic strain on future generations?

Finally, assuming arguendo that black Americans are on average less intelligent, more indolent, less motivated… I have a theory for why that might be. In conditions of enslavement, particularly the way it played out from 1820 to 1860, the more intelligent, ambitions, hard-driving, motivated people were most likely to be killed before reproducing. All the good genes would have been removed from the gene pool, except those who managed to make their way north. (It was different in the 18th century, when slavery was brutal enough, but intelligent, skilled, slaves were highly valued and cultivated).

What Thursday has to offer cannot be ruled out or tossed off the table as unworthy of consideration. But neither his alleged facts nor his proffered conclusions are by any means well established. There is quite a lot to consider — which is precisely why social engineering, from any ideological motive, is so dangerous.

I will stipulate that every time a child of African descent does poorly on a test, the reason is not automatically “because he’s black — give him another chance.” Maybe he just hasn’t learned the material, or isn’t motivated to try. But among those who are failing, some, even many, with the right motivation and assistance WOULD succeed.

Heck, my nephew, who is pink-faced and has two married parents with college degrees and good incomes, was utterly unmotivated and obsessed with video games, plus often rude to his family and such like behavior, until he got to a school that gave him challenges that really grabbed him. I wouldn’t rule that out for people with dark skin.

Read Arthur Jensen… not the study that got him all the bad press… the later study where he found that the older children got growing up black in rural Georgia, the lower they tested for IQ… like maybe something about growing up black in Georgia DEPRESSES the IQ a child is born with.

#19 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 29, 2013 @ 3:29 pm


Yes, those things have all been considered, and while superficially plausible as explanations, they tend to evaporate on closer examination.

As an existential reaction — I don’t write this expecting a personal, detailed response — on whose authority do you draw those conclusions? Who determined that they are superficially plausible? What evidence has been presented demonstrating this tendency to evaporate? What data and from where has been gathered to support those quasi-assertions?

I’m worthy of the opposite critique — my posts tend to be very long — but your short post strikes me as a non-answer. Indeed, withholding any charity for the moment, you seem to exemplify my original criticism that can be summarized with the Mark Twain quote.

#20 Comment By Turmarion On April 29, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

Thursday, I notice you have copped out on answering my question, to wit: If it could be persuasively demonstrated to you that passing on your genes would be bad for society, would you take one for the team and get sterilized? Inquiring minds want to know.

As to the rest: If one says that a whole class of people–those who aren’t smart enough (by whatever criterion) or healthy enough or whose genes aren’t good enough (once more, by whatever criterion) or who are of the wrong ethnic/racial/religious group, etc., ought to be encouraged to allow themselves to be sterilized, then one is in effect saying that they ought not produce more people like themselves. This is tantamount to saying that people “like them” ought not to exist. And saying that Group X ought not exist is the mindset of genocide.

Sure, one might not actually go out and kill scads of people; but the same kind of thinking motivates those who do. Sterilization might be much more humane; but while I might be “civilized” enough to keep it voluntary and give the “defective” big cash payments not to breed, somebody else might decide that voluntary isn’t good enough and start forcing sterilizations (see laws at the turn of the 20th Century). Somebody else might think that’s not reliable enough and go for euthanasia. Pretty soon we are on the primrose path that leads right to the Holocaust.

Once more: No matter how voluntary encouraged sterilization might be, and no matter how much you pay for it, that doesn’t make it right. Voluntary, well-paid evil is still evil. Second: Trying to get rid of entire categories of people (seemingly always categories to which the proponents thereof never belong) for the supposed greater good of society is simply genocide–maybe genocide without death or killing or blood, but genocide nonetheless. If anyone doubts that, ask how you’d think if someone encouraged the sterilization of people like you: blondes, brunettes, Christians, tall people, short people, diabetics, etc. How would it feel if the shoe were on your foot? Certainly, I can’t see how someone proposing such policies can claim to be congruent with Christian ethics.

Far from abandoning the Nazi analogy, I think this type of thinking is a perfect example of Nazi thinking; and the fact that some are unwilling or unable to see that is indeed frightening.

#21 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 29, 2013 @ 5:23 pm


Re: If you think about how Chinese people were considered backward in the 19th century, that should tell you something about jumping to racial conclusions.

The Chinese weren’t considered *less intelligent*, they were considered *uncreative*. And yes, backward. Simply as a point of fact, Chinese culture *was* backward compared to Europe. Incidentally, there is some evidence that a considerable part of the Chinese IQ advantage isn’t *genetic*, but rather the effect of learning their byzantine writing system from a very young age, and the substantial intellectual exercise that gives them. Chinese kids in China tend to have higher IQs than Chinese kids in America (if you believe the Chinese government data, which is a whole nother issue) and that differential is probably due to the fact one set learns Chinese characters, and the other doesn’t.

Re: No doubt there are correlations, but parasites are not a problem in First World countries. Epigenetics wouldn’t help explain this.

Siarlys Jenkins deals with your point admirably, and I don’t have much to add. As he points out, epigenetic effects *look like* genetic ones, even though they really aren’t (they involve heritable changes to the chromosomes that affect how genes are expressed). It could take multiple generations to overcome epigenetic suppression of IQ under high parasite, malnourished conditions. And as we know, up until two generations ago, large numbers of African Americans lived in fiercely poor Deep South conditions where parasite stress *was* a fact of life. (Hookworm, in particular, used to be quite common in the South).

Also, even today, Black babies don’t enjoy the *same* prenatal conditions as White babies; they’re likely to gestate in the wombs of mothers who are less healthy, less well nourished, more burdened by disease, and more exposed to lead and other environmental hazards.

That being said, I don’t want to rule out that there are genetic IQ differences between the races, just to state that I’m not personally convinced *yet*. I would also agree with you in dismissing some of the sillier explanations for the gap, like “white people designed the IQ tests” or “racism makes Black people stressed out so they can’t do well on the tests.” You’d be right to say those arguments are absurd. I think the reasons are probably environmental, but at a more subtle and intractable level than people usually think, which is why I’d like more discussion of possible epigenetic and/or gestational environment effects, maybe very early childhood effects as well.

#22 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 29, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

Re: No. Any gains from this kind of thing vanish as the kids get older. Ever read James Heckman. He’s basically come to the conclusion that your IQ is fixed by birth

1) “Fixed at birth” =/= “genetic”, although it’s easy to confuse the two. Maternal (=gestational environment) and epigenetic effects can play a role. A lot of physical and behavioural traits are very heavily affected by the hormonal environment we are exposed to in the womb.

2) I don’t think it’s accurate to say ‘fixed at birth’. (To take the most extreme and obvious example, the child of a genius raised by wolves, will end up severely retarded and nonfuctional). To take some more realistic examples, we *know* that it’s possible for some environmental influences to strongly *depress* IQ.

I agree that the influence of early childhood interventions has typically, in the past, faded as the kids get older. But a decrease in the effect size =/= no effect at all, and it’s possible that newer forms of early intervention, possibly supplemented by biochemical therapies, will have greater effects. I don’t know much about the Harlem Children’s Zone, but my race-realist friend is very impressed by it, and thinks that it *may* pose a challenge to the idea that the Black/White IQ gap is genetic.

#23 Comment By stef On April 29, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

You know, I wish people would stop turning this into an issue about African-American students, as if only African-American children did poorly in school.

Also, it’s specious to compare the USA to other countries, especially poor and/or second-world ones. In many of these countries, they do *not* have a policy where all children must go to school, no matter what. If for whatever reason children can’t be accommodated, they’re tossed out of school – and thus don’t muck up the statistics.

A good example of this is the book, “My Left Foot.” The young man with cerebral palsy was literally left at home to languish. In the USA, he’d be in a wheelchair, on the bus, and at school, even if people in general thought it was a “waste” to spend huge amounts of money per year to educate him.

We used to not be like this. If you look at state compulsory education laws, older versions often give the superintendent great latitude in rejecting students. But in the early 1970s we got the IDEA law, mandating special ed be available to all who need it, from age 3 on.

And superintendents threw kids out for other reasons, too – discipline, extreme poverty (i.e. the kid didn’t have shoes or school clothes.) None of these excuses fly anymore.

So before we wax nostalgic about the good old days, and how awful things are now, keep in mind that we have far more kids even in school than would have been before.

Further, compulsory education laws themselves have changed. Fifty, seventy years ago, kids of 14 and above could leave school and find jobs, menial as they might be. Now many cities and states mandate education till 18. These kids have no motivation to be there; see no point in continuing school, yet the law forces them to stay. In the best case, they are bored and cause minor problems. In the worst (like in TX), they get shoved on the “school to prison” pipeline, and actually charged and convicted for school rule offenses.

Perhaps more kids would care about education if they knew what they were supposed to be educated for – and if they continued to want to be educated, even when they knew that the few #s of jobs they might get were being whittled away daily by automation, outsourcing, etc.

#24 Comment By Glaivester On April 29, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

Thursday, I notice you have copped out on answering my question, to wit: If it could be persuasively demonstrated to you that passing on your genes would be bad for society, would you take one for the team and get sterilized? Inquiring minds want to know.

Yes. Although as a 34-year-old virgin, it might be a bit redundant. And there are lots of people who decide not to breed or who to breed with for eugenic reasons (e.g. people with Huntington’s disease, Jews who get tested for the Tay-Sachs gene).

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 30, 2013 @ 12:56 am

Sterilization might be much more humane; but while I might be “civilized” enough to keep it voluntary and give the “defective” big cash payments not to breed, somebody else might decide that voluntary isn’t good enough and start forcing sterilizations (see laws at the turn of the 20th Century).

There is a significant barrier to mandatory sterilization in our constitutional jurisprudence today: it is entitled Roe v. Wade. People have a right to make such decisions without the intervention of the police powers of The State.

Glaivester has taken a principled position, unequivocally, and I admire it as he states it. Haven’t heard Thursday respond to Turmarion yet though.

#26 Comment By JonF On April 30, 2013 @ 6:00 am

Re: I don’t know much about the Harlem Children’s Zone, but my race-realist friend is very impressed by it, and thinks that it *may* pose a challenge to the idea that the Black/White IQ gap is genetic.

The fact that IQ scores have gone up across the board for all groups since the test was devised suggests something other than genes is at work– unless one wishes to posit that evolution is working in overdrive. I really doubt humanity in 1913 was significantly stupider than we are today– but that is what the numbers claim.

#27 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 30, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

JonF: I’ve got cliches and pithy sayings romping chaotically around my mind, wanting to get out and haunt you. I’ll refrain from opening the flood gate.

Measurements of intelligence, IQ just being the one with the highest public profile, generally fail on one key concept: They all measure potential or behavior, and remain invalid as comparisons between cohorts and emphatically over a span of time.

“Handsome is as handsome does.” The line from Forrest Gump is “Stupid is as stupid does.” (Hence my brainstorm, larger than average for all the open space in my skull.) Tolkien found it important enough to make it a key plot element.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

Rod’s recent post about theory and practice brings me full circle to my dispute with Thursday. Statistical analysis has its value. It can be an accurate predictor. It loses its value — all of its value — at the moment that one identifies a child out of that prediction. It fades to nothing when we ask the question, “Okay, what do we do next for this child?” Any physician will tell you that diagnosis by itself never cured anyone.