Search This Blog

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Richard Rothstein and Charles Murray -- the Odd Couple?

I’ll bet you didn’t know it, but Richard Rothstein, author of Class and Schools, and Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, are soul mates. Or, as Jay P. Greene puts it in the fall issue of Education Next -- complete with a ridiculous photo illustration of the liberal Rothstein and right-wing Murray in matching cowboy hats and boots -- “The Odd Couple.”

You see, both Murray and Rothstein say there’s a strict limit to what school reform can do to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, and whites and minorities. Rothstein attributes this limit to poverty; for Murray, it’s all about IQ.

There is a small measure of truth to Greene’s argument -- very small. Some on the left cite Rothstein’s work to argue that schools don’t need to improve that much, that it’s all society’s fault.

Similarly, on the right, Murray’s acolytes contend that that no matter how much schools improve, there’s only so much a low-IQ child can achieve. This argument makes some sense when you consider the illogic in proclaiming that all students must meet “high standards” on state tests: Ether some students won’t meet the standards, or these standards aren’t really all that high after all. You can’t have it both ways.

Where Murray goes off the deep end, of course, is to attribute these IQ differences to race. And this is why the supposed comparison to Rothstein is so unwarranted. In fact, the two could not be more different.

Murray believes IQ is immutable, largely fixed at birth. It makes a convenient pretext for not investing in poor kids, who, on average, perform lower on IQ tests than rich ones.

Rothstein, by contrast, says that for poor children, school achievement -- read IQ or activities that presume to reveal IQ -- is highly influenced by a myriad environmental factors: lead in drinking water, poor nutrition, the explosion of asthma cases, and the lack of adequate dental care in poor communities. His point is not that schools can’t improve, but that meaningful achievement gains will not occur among disadvantaged children until America makes a commitment to alleviating the conditions of poverty.

Fortunately, Rothstein has some compelling research on his side. Years ago, studies of identical twins raised separately showed little environmental impact on intelligence. Such research helped inform controversial books like The Bell Curve, which claimed that, on average, African Americans have lower IQs than whites. However, because these studies were done almost exclusively on middle class twins, they failed to account for the impact of poverty. When Eric Turkheimer, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, looked at a wider cross-section of twins, he made a groundbreaking discovery: For the poor kids, environment was the key.

Just like an elementary school experiment in which one bean plant fails to thrive because it’s put in a cupboard rather than on the windowsill (the apt analogy of a writer at UVa’s Oscar magazine) poor children fail to thrive to their genetic potential.

“We found that for the poorest twins, IQ seemed to be determined almost exclusively by their socioeconomic status, which is to say their impoverished environment,” Turkheimer told Oscar in 2005. “Yet, for the bet-off families, genes are the most important factor to determining IQ, with environment playing a much less important role.”

Murray looks at the bell curve of student achievement and says, “Why bother?”
“There is no reason to believe that raising intelligence significantly and permanently is a current policy option,” he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “no matter how much money we are willing to spend.”

Rothstein looks at that same bell curve and sees a national imperative to address the poverty and inequality that have kept too many disadvantaged children from reaching their potential.

He is a much different thinker than Charles Murray.
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

No comments:

Blog Archive


Subscribe Now: Feed Icon