Saturday, February 03, 2007

No Child Left Behind

I have many friends who are or were teachers, administrators or school board members and they generally complain about No Child Left Behind. The NCLB Act of 2001 is a federal law that aims to improve the performance of schools by increasing the standards of accountability. Who could argue with the need to increase educational performance in light of the ongoing dismal performance of US students on international tests?

Yet, many educators object to the specific requirements and implementation of the program. NCLB requires States to create an accountability system of assessments, graduation rates, and other indicators. Schools have to make adequate yearly progress by raising the achievement levels of subgroups of students such as African Americans, Latinos, low-income students and special education students to a state-determined level of proficiency.

NCLB requires that by the end of the 2005-2006 school year all teachers will be “highly qualified” as defined in the law. All students must be “proficient” by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Schools identified as needing improvement are required to provide students with the opportunity to take advantage of public school choice. Congress has appropriated a substantial increase in Title I funding to enable school districts to implement the parental choice requirements. (from Wikipedia)

I’m still searching for an objectionable provision of the law. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

In a recent series of articles in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 16, 17, 18, 2007), The Bell Curve author Charles Murray described how “education is becoming the preferred method for diagnosing and attacking a wide range of problems in American life,” with NCLB as a primary mechanism. Murray objects to the dirty little secret that “education's role in causing or solving any problem cannot be evaluated without considering the underlying intellectual ability of the people being educated.” Intelligence is the most significant factor yet the one that nobody mentions.

Murray begins with a truism that is nonetheless commonly denied: “Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them.” The first part is a law of nature: Like the distribution of heights, weights, and athletic ability, intelligence is distributed from low to high in a bell-shaped curve with 50% below and 50% above the mean. But unlike heights and weights, there is very little one can do about basic intelligence. As Murray put it, “We do not live in Lake Wobegon.”

Furthermore, academic accomplishment is dependent on intelligence, as well as motivation, and intelligence sets the limits. Murray uses the example of a girl in the 99th percentile of intelligence, corresponding to an IQ of 135, but getting a C in English. She is underachieving, and someone who sets out to raise her performance might be able to get a spectacular result. Many of us have had similar experiences with our kids.

What about the boy sitting behind her getting a D-? His IQ is 90, at the 25th percentile? Better instruction and increased effort are not going to enable the boy to “follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity.” If the course is adequately rigorous and the grading is honest, it may not be possible to give him more than an E for effort.

Of course, we hope the boy becomes functionally literate, as that will have an effect on the jobs he can hold. “But still he will be confined to jobs that require minimal reading skills. He is just not smart enough to do more than that.” Do we help the boy by holding up unrealistic standards? Do we really believe that the great middle class of intelligence, the 50% from 90 to 110 IQ, should take college prep courses and attend traditional colleges?

Murray points out that performance of public schools may well be reflecting the innate ability of the students. For example, in the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2005 tests, 36% of all fourth-graders were below the “basic achievement” score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95. If the proficient level (“basic achievement”) requires the innate ability of a 96 IQ, the results are not surprising.

So, what does proficiency in NCLB mean, and what does it require? Remarkably, it appears that no one has asked what IQ is necessary to give a child a reasonable chance to meet the NAEP's basic achievement scores?

Why has such an important factor been ignored in policy discussions? High intelligence is a gift, like good looks or athletic ability, and those with high IQ are not superior human beings, just lucky ones. By and large God’s gifts are distributed. Take the short, chubby, older gentleman with a 45 golf handicap: wouldn’t it be nice if he had an IQ slightly above the mean? Be fair. But political correctness and the law have made any discussion of the most important factor in educational achievement all but impossible.

The US Civil Rights Act, as interpreted in the 1971 United States Supreme Court decision Griggs v. Duke Power Co., prevent American employers from using cognitive ability tests as a controlling factor in selecting employees whenever (1) the use of the test would have a disparate impact on hiring by race and (2) where the test is not shown to be directly relevant to the job or class of jobs at issue. Since IQ tests fail the first requirement they are disallowed. Schools have largely adopted the same restriction, except in special cases. And academic rigor, or even classroom discipline, are sometimes rewarded with law suits brought by unhappy parents.

Murray is making the case for a more realistic, more practical approach to education policy. The Bell Curve set out to prove that American society has become increasingly meritocratic, wherein incomes and other positive social outcomes are distributed more and more according to intelligence and less and less according to social status. That is a trend to be applauded.

The Bell Curve evidence came largely from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a federal project that tested over 10,000 Americans in 1980, with follow-up interviews regularly thereafter. Each participant completed an intelligence test and was then evaluated for subsequent social outcomes (high-school graduation, success in college, level of income, likelihood of being in jail, likelihood of getting divorced or being on welfare, and so forth). As a rule, a person's intelligence turned out to predict such trends rather well, and when intelligence was statistically controlled, many differences among ethnic groups vanished.

Thus, when considering education policy, whether it be No Child Left Behind, the expansion of colleges or the promotion of charter schools and vocational schools, it would be well to include all pertinent factors, most especially the intellectual capabilities of the customers.

Consider the information in the following table that pertains to education policy and expectations.

Grade .....IQ......% Pop....Pop M.....Ed. Potential........Job Potential
A........ >125........5.........15........Prof. School.......Professions, Science
B........ 110-125....20........60..........College.............Sales, Engineering
C..........90-110.....50.......150........Jr. College...........Clerical, Crafts
D..........75-90......20.......60........High School...........Trades, Service
E.......... <90........5........15.........Vocational.........simple & supervised

The first column is a model grade scale reflecting increasing information processing demands (from E to A) for appropriately rigorous school courses. The student populations expected to possess the requisite levels of ability are in the second and third columns. Thus the middle group of student abilities (90–110 IQ) should be expected to achieve a middle grade of C in legitimate courses aimed at the general population. The top 5% of the population is expected to excel and earn “A” grades while the bottom 5% should not pass such courses. Note that in America there are millions of people in each category. Is it reasonable to expect the bottom 25% of the students to perform adequately in such courses? Is it fair?

The education potential of each group is listed in the fifth column. Generally speaking, an IQ of 110 or more (25% of the population) is needed to be successful in a traditional four year college. This is a threshold, but particular disciplines (eg. engineering and most of the hard natural sciences) require much higher levels of intelligence. Yet more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college. This is a serious mismatch of expectations and reality, not to mention marketplace demand.

All the above says nothing about the quality of the lives that should be open to everyone across the range of intellectual ability. As Murray points out, there has been “an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, mason --- is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India.”

Many agree that the K-12 education system is failing the lower half of the intelligence distribution, preferentially inhabited by low income children and minorities (Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans). The fallacy was in ever expecting that group of kids to be able to compete or even be comfortable in a traditional college prep school setting. Far better would be to segregate the top 25% of students in classrooms and courses away from the much larger group that do not have the smarts to compete in traditional four year colleges and in high skilled occupations. For their sake, the lower 75% would be better served taking courses suited to their abilities and then moving into career programs at trade schools or community colleges.

Then when the college educated car salesman needs to paint his house, he may be able to find his former classmate who, with a crew of minimum wage workers, charges $10,000 for a weeks work. And next week the painting contractor may visit his salesman friend at the Porsche dealership.

Let us close with Murray by looking at the upper end of the IQ distribution. Do they need any help? I have several friends with kids in high school sporting averages of 4.4 or higher. Since all A’s equates to 4.0, the extra 0.4 comes from getting A’s on advanced placement courses. One friend’s daughter had a full semester of college courses finished before she graduated high school. It sounds good, but what it means is that the courses are too easy for her, even the AP courses.

Bright high school students are not being challenged, and many will find college to be a cold deluge. A recent report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce recommends creating state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum. The system as constructed is failing the majority of students across the spectrum of intelligence.

If “intellectually gifted” is defined to mean people who can stand out in almost any profession short of theoretical physics, then research about IQ and job performance indicates that an IQ of at least 120 is usually needed. That number demarcates the top 10% of the IQ distribution, or about 15 million people in today's labor force--a lot of people.

People in the top 10% of intelligence produce most of the books we read and the television programs we watch. They invent our new pharmaceuticals, computer chips, software and every other form of advanced technology.

The top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital, our culture healthy, our institutions secure and our nation safe. “Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.”

But we live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist. Our gifts bring along obligations to be worthy of them and the most important and most difficult to achieve is wisdom. The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. Most of all it requires recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities -- in a word, humility. Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall.

The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks including the details of grammar and syntax and of logical fallacies. The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius, and an advanced knowledge of history. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.

The gifted should be taught to be judgmental since they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks. In short, Murray is calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare elites to do their duty. I can think of only a few colleges (Chicago, Hillsdale, Dallas, Liberty, Biola, Thomas Aquinas) that serve such a purpose.

Murray’s goal here was not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education. In order to make the massive changes that our educational system requires, honest and brave people will need to slay the basilisk and do the right thing.

Please do not think that my emphasis on intelligence and school performance means that I am an apologist for the teaching profession. I believe that the large majority of students underachieve in school and there is plenty of blame to go around. A system based on teacher tenure and lacking pay for performance is seriously flawed. However, the students and their parents must shoulder the major portion of the burden and the blame.

The right to a free education comes with responsibilities: To behave in class, to respect your teacher and classmates, pay attention in class, to do your homework and study. These are listed in order of importance and should be non-negotiable, but in many schools the poor teacher cannot even rely on the first priority. School boards, principals, teachers, mayors, PTAs and parents must stand up and demand discipline even if it means fighting parent-initiated lawsuits, the government and the ACLU.

Finally, the schools need to start again to teach what is important and worry less about student’s self esteem. In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued a report that influenced a generation of teachers to “let children explore their own solutions to problems, write and draw pictures about math, and use tools like the calculator at the same time they learn algorithms.” Consequently, only 50% of 10th graders pass the math part of state assessment tests and our students get slaughtered in international competitions. Fuzzy math, following the last fad called “new math,” has crippled students by de-emphasizing basic drills and memorization in favor of allowing children to find their own ways to solve problems. A back-to-basics movement in math and reading (phonics) is imperative.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard "No child left behind criticized & ridiculed. But I've never heard any criticizers propose an alternative. In that, it reminds me of Iraq.

The only comment I have is that, until I was in my mid-twenties I had never heard of a child finishing high school and not being able to read. I never ran accross it in school.

I'll say this for the nuns: They didn't teach just religion. And, whatever they were teaching they drilled the hell out of us. We were always standing up and reading, reciting or answering questions.

I'm emphasizing questions because a local public school teacher told me, 2-3 years ago that no one ever recites anymore. I hope that's not true.


P.S. My father (born in 1907) never made it to high school. Most of his education was in public schools, and he never had any problem with the three "Rs." Reading, Writing & Arithmetic. He asked me how someone could get through high school and not be able to read. I couldn't give any satisfactory answer.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Billy, Margaret Spellings, author of No Child Left Behind, is being honored by the Travis County Republican at a dinner here in February.

I am also curious why engineering would be a B....the 5 year engineering degrees that I am familiar with are as difficult as many professions.

Nancy Jo

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, this is a very important analysis. I read the series in the WSJ, but you provide an extra dimension.

Thanks.... Gene

10:41 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks for your comments. Will you attend the Spellings dinner?

Your point about engineering vs professions is well taken. The table is meant to show minimum IQ requirements for very general career categories. I taught engineers in college for 20 years and managed a few hundred in my industrial life. On the technical side they were uniformly bright. However, only a few had strong verbal ability. Overall I saw them as above average mentally, clustering around 125 IQ with many much higher. An IQ below 110 would be a severe handicap. Thus my threshold category for engineering is 110-125 = B. For most professions like medicine, law and college professor, I thought that an IQ of >125 was needed. It is subjective but probably not too far off. I hear from a teacher friend that K-12 teachers cluster around 105 -- probably too low for the good of our kids.

Hope to see you on the Zone.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, very good. If I recall correctly, the OECD conducts a test of 15 year olds in participating OECD and any other accepted countries, called PISA. They do these tests once every three years. Each tri-year's set of tests are broken into three main sectors: literacy, math literacy and science literacy. They accent the term literacy to emphasize that they're looking for more than just the correct answers, they're searching for understanding of the concepts. On a rotating basis they very-much emphasize a single discipline with many more questions than the other two areas which are also being tested.. I believe last year it was science; the entire analysis will be completed and published later this year.

So far we have placed in about the average for the 50 or so countries that have volunteered to participate. And about equal to the average for Europe. I'm surprised that so far it hasn't been worse. Another surprise is that the UK is 2nd in Europe--Tony Blair's emphasis on education appears to be paying off for them. The reason I decide to knock out these few paragraphs has to do with the top country each time so far in the world (Finland averages tops in the three fields though both the Koreans and the Japanese tend to be 1, 2 or 3 in math and science).

Now the shocker: Finland completely blew apart their educational hierarchy some ten years or so ago. The national educational administration is nil. All the important decisions on how and pretty much what to teach are made by the local school administration with very heavy inputs from teachers (everyone belongs to a strong teachers union!) and somewhat by the parents.

In almost all cases, they've dispensed with textbooks and the teachers--who are paid about average for all of Europe and less than the USA--act primarily as facilitators; they do negligible teaching as we know it! The students are encouraged to do their own study projects, with heavy emphasis on using search engines, etc.. much more, but I have a presentation to prepare for tomorrow.

(And Dan Blatt, who doesn't have email, has read the WSJ articles and will be referring to them as well as to some of the letter responses in his session tomorrow.)


1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting....two of our kids are lawyers, both with good verbal and writing skills....another is an electrical engineer who is probably the brightest of the bunch excelling in math but with great communications skills. He had a career with AMD, but left because the travel was killing his family.

We probably will not attend the dinner for Margaret, but our oldest daughter and her husband will. Our daughter is a very close friend of Margaret's. When Margaret was Gov. Bush's Education Advisor, our daughter chaired the Texas Employment Commission. They keep in touch and go walking together when Margaret is in town. We will be on a cruise. We have taken all of our grandchildren to Washington and Margaret has been generous in arranging tours through the West Wing, White House and a city tour for George and I and the kids. Karen Hughes lives around the corner from our daughter but is only an acquaintance of hers.


6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me.... but does this mean you have finally seen the light? :-)

NCLB encourages mediocrity. As do most of the state sponsored mandates. Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to raise abilities (and scores) of kids that are frankly not worthy of the effort. And the best and brightest are woefully underchallanged.


7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David-Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to raise abilities (and scores) of kids that are frankly not worthy of the effort.

I would think that in a great country like ours trying to challenge and teach all children is worthy of the effort.

The difference between a high scoring public school and a low scoring school is almost always the parents. The parents of children in low achieving schools are mostly poor and do not involve themselves in their kids education.

Conversely high scoring schools have parents that are not only involved by helping their kids with homework but are involved in school functions like PTA to raise money to improve the school. Have you ever wondered why schools in the same district can have vastly different facilities and equipment?

So trying to put it all on teachers is unrealistic. Teachers should be well qualified even in schools that are in poor neighborhoods, but the parents in those schools are not involved enough to demand better teachers.

NCLB will not get to the root of the problem which is parental involvement.


9:04 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

Excellent post Bill. The state of education today is beyond frustrating as a parent. I attended public schools growing up. We had IQ testing and offered the smarter kids GATE classes ("Gifted and Talented"). My son attends a public high school that offers "small learning communities" offering everything from the honors and AP classes to the "qualified students," to Fire Science and Art school. If a kid doesn't "choose" a school he gets placed. If my son didn't participate in the honors program (HISP - Humanities and International Studies), I would let him go there. It's an inner city jungle.

And the program that's supposed to be so acclaimed for their honors and AP classes is merely what I took in GATE classes 30 years ago. And because these are the "smart" kids they get away with murder. No follow through from the teachers on homework, threats, etc... And no creative teaching! 30 year old textbooks in some cases! Lazy teachers beget lazy kids.

It's no real challenge after all. It's been up to us to keep him focused, challenged and on top of his education.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Pretty tight piece. A few comments. As I said Sunday, I’m not sure I’m ready to reserve the achievement of wisdom for the intellectually gifted. I think that history is clearly full of non-examples of that being the case. There were gifted tyrants and wise simple folk. Wisdom, as Huston Smith taught me, is the ability to discern the essential and important from the knowledge that is contained in all the information that we are overwhelmed with. I also think that “goodness” can be taught to the vast majority of people.

One slight editorial correction, I believe that you meant to say that people should be trained to make judgments rather than be “…judgmental….” To be judgmental means to form judgments before the evidence/facts are presented. Your sentence ends well, but the term miss-communicates your meaning.

My biggest concern with your argument is the notion of segregation of the talented. This will not go over well in most venues. It is fundamentally undemocratic and non-“liberal” in the traditional sense. I think that gifted kids need to learn how to be around ordinary kids and vice versa. Some combination of challenging curriculum based on readiness combined with just being with their peers is probably best.

Anyway, I really appreciate having such an articulate friend, especially for a physicist.


4:47 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

Thanks for the feedback. Sorry if I conveyed the idea that only the gifted need to be taught wisdom. Across the spectrum of abilities, I was concentrating on the highest order bit: basic skills for the low end, wisdom for the high end. In fact, wisdom and goodness should be a primary concern from the lowest grades, right along with reading and math. I need to make that clear and explain how I'd do it.

I did mean "judgemental" because I wanted to stress the non-PC, brave exercise of judgement in the public square. Your point is well taken.

I would not segregate the talented until high school, and then only by course/class. For example, at my Jesuit high school, the entering students took IQ tests and a rigorous entrance exam. Then the top 30 were assigned to homeroom A, the next 30 to homeroom B and so on. Since the profs came to our homerooms, we were left to compete with our intellectual peers for all four years. Dropping down to a lower level homeroom was possible but looked down upon. What pressure!

We were all around each other everwhere else, in sports where I got my clock cleaned, in clubs, in competition for girls, etc. The brains were not better, only different. Just like in the marketplace, it was the ultimate meritocratic democracy.

I appreciate having an articulate psychodoc friend.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

02 10 07

Hey Bill:
I finally posted my thoughts on some topology and a bit of representations for elementary schoolers and higher. I don't usually fall lock in step with IQ discussions, but you make some valid points here. Furthermore, your exposition of the Finnish educational system versus what is going on in the rest of the world was quite well written and proves a big point: PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT IS CRUCIAL! You can throw all the money in the world at a failing enterprise, but if its failing it is failing!!!

As I have mentioned, I am an NCLB tutor for a few agencies (including my own). One of most common threads that I have seen in ALL successful students is parental support and discilpline.

You may know that an AMS affliated group (for math teachers) took back any support for the fuzzy math approach and said it was a failure.

I can honestly tell you that the California State Board of Education Standards in Mathematics are totallly based on the fuzzy approach.

That is why my older kids know that 7*8=8*7 but still don't know that it is 56!

8:14 AM  

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