Bell Curve Author to Question College Goal in New Book

By David J. Hoff — June 17, 2008 6 min read

Charles Murray is about to publish a book about education—and he promises that educators won’t like it.

Fourteen years after The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure drew wide condemnation for its racially charged arguments on achievement, the author’s latest book, Real Education, will dispute the premise underlying much of education policy: All children should be challenged to achieve at high levels during their K-12 careers and pursue further education after high school.

“It’s just idiotic,” Mr. Murray said of such beliefs in a recent interview.

Relying on the thesis of The Bell Curve—that intelligence, and therefore prospects for academic achievement, is determined by heredity—Mr. Murray’s new book argues that education policies should recognize that not all students can be expected to take high-level academic courses, and that some students should concentrate instead on vocational training to prepare for the workforce.

We’re talking about [college] material that only about 10 percent of high school graduates can understand.”

The ideas “all fall from the recognition that ... variation in [intellectual ability] has enormous relationship to what you can and should do educationally,” said Mr. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Although Mr. Murray predicted that most educators and politicians will object to the ideas in Real Education, he said it won’t be as controversial as The Bell Curve. In that 1994 book, he and co-author Richard J. Herrnstein, who died shortly before the book’s publication, wrote that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, saying that 84 percent of blacks score below the average score of whites, and that educational interventions won’t narrow the achievement gap between the races. Other scholars strongly reject that contention.

“This [new book] doesn’t deal with race,” Mr. Murray said. “Anything that does not deal with race doesn’t get as much blowback as something that does deal with race. ”

‘Simple Truths’

Still, Mr. Murray’s book, scheduled for publication in August by Crown Forum, an imprint of Random House Inc., will probably generate more attention than if anyone else had written it, one education policy expert said.

“If this book were put out by anyone who didn’t have the reputation of Charles Murray, nobody would pay any attention to it,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.

Mr. Murray previewed some of the ideas in Real Education last month in the journal The New Criterion. In the article, he wrote that education policy based on the idea that schools can dramatically improve student achievement is unproductive.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act’s goal that all students will achieve proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year is an example of what he calls “educational romanticism.”

Although Mr. Murray touches on such ideas in Real Education, most of the book deals with issues related to higher education.

The book is structured around what Mr. Murray calls “the four simple truths” in education. He outlined those ideas in a series of opinion essays published early last year in The Wall Street Journal.

Although Mr. Murray dedicates a chapter to discussing the educational implications of the variation in intellectual ability, he doesn’t reargue that point, he says.

But the book mischaracterizes the NCLB law, said Mr. Rotherham, who has read a prepublication version. Mr. Murray, he said, doesn’t acknowledge that although universal proficiency is the law’s stated goal, the law has several ways that schools can meet accountability goals until 2013-14 without ensuring universal proficiency.

“It’s a fundamental misreading of No Child Left Behind and where we are on education reform,” said Mr. Rotherham, who was an education adviser to President Clinton at the end of his second term.

Other critics say that Mr. Murray’s emphasis on the immutability of intelligence distracts from efforts to improve academic achievement.

“The fixation on the fixedness of intelligence is probably wrong and in any case cannot be helpful,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington research and advocacy organization that supports policies such as high academic standards and the creation of charter schools as ways to improve student achievement. “Our kids could learn more than they are learning, and that’s the key point that should drive our education policymaking.”

College for Some?

Because some students don’t have the intellectual ability to handle college-level work, not all students should go to college, Mr. Murray asserts in another of his “truths.”

In the book, Mr. Murray publishes excerpts from college textbooks and suggests that the texts are too difficult for the vast majority of students.

“We’re talking about material that only about 10 percent of high school graduates can understand,” he said in the interview last month.

Instead of paying expensive college-tuition bills, he said, some students should pursue vocational training to win certification for specific skills that are useful in the workforce, such as accounting.

“It doesn’t make a difference if you got your C.P.A. at the University of Virginia or an online school,” Mr. Murray said of preparation to become a certified public accountant. “If you got a good score, you got a good score. You can take that to an employer, and the employer knows what that means.”

Most students shouldn’t consider a four-year college degree that covers the liberal arts and other challenging material, Mr. Murray said.

One researcher said that he agrees with the assertion that not all students should enroll in college. But schools, he said, shouldn’t track students into classes or other programs based on perceptions of their intellectual ability.

“What concerns me is someone making the decision about a kid very early on” in his or her educational experience, said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of sociology at New York University and one of the organizers of a statement, released last week, that says schools need support from social and health programs to ensure high levels of student achievement. (“2 New Coalitions Seek Influence on Campaigns,” this issue.)

“What we should be striving for is to use education to help poor kids out of poverty,” Mr. Noguera said. “For many of them, that means college.”

Another researcher suggested that many higher education institutions are already largely offering the type of education focused on knowledge and skills needed for specific professions.

“Our system is producing something very close to what [Mr. Murray] wants,” said Jay P. Greene, the chairman of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, who has read portions of Real Education.

Predicting Backlash

Another “truth” outlined in the book is that half of students will always be below average, regardless of overall gains in student achievement. The fourth tenet is that U.S. prosperity depends on the education provided to gifted students.

Mr. Murray predicts that many educators will dislike his book because it criticizes the “typical progressive curriculum.”

But one educator said he agrees with the ideas Mr. Murray presented in The Wall Street Journal last year.

“There were pieces of it that made a lot of sense,” said Thomas J. Hanson, a retired superintendent of two Maine school districts.

“He had some very valid points” about not all students going to college, Mr. Hanson said. “There needs to be more than one option available for students.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Bell Curve Author to Question College Goal in New Book


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