Federal Opinion

The Dumb Class

By Susan B. Neuman — August 11, 2009 5 min read

If we reversed the usual image of the school as mirror of society to make society the mirror of the school, and then tracked the school/society into an ability group—you know, high, high-average, average, low-average, high-low, low-low—the poorest undoubtedly would come out in the low-low group. That school, and all those in it, would be identified as failures, members of the dumb class. And with economic stimulus money flying out of Washington, some conservatives might legitimately wonder, Why put good money after bad?

After all, these kids are in the dumb class because they cannot achieve. They lack skills and cannot concentrate. They have low attention spans and are culturally deprived. They are brain-damaged, nonverbal, unmotivated, and lazy. Try as one might, making the dumb class learn to do what we say is impossible, despite hiring experts, devising strategies, and raising standards. Even if there were no limits to our budget, the dumb class couldn’t learn the standards or achieve proficiency in them.

Children in the dumb class are just not smart enough to succeed in school, at least according to Charles Murray’s best-selling book Real Education. It’s educational romanticism even to think they can learn what the school has to teach. In fact, let’s act on Murray’s recommendation and not be phobic about saying it out loud: There are reasons these kids are in the dumb class.

But wait. Might just being in the dumb class have something to do with it? In a 1984 study of math comprehension, researcher Michael Murtaugh asked his dumb class whether they could produce, without question, an algorithmic, place-holding, school-learned technique for solving problems, even when they could not remember why they were doing it. The answer: Absolutely not. Given adding, subtracting, basic multiplication, and division, almost half the class couldn’t do it. Even when they calculated the right answer, they still couldn’t figure out why it came out right. Scores on the test averaged a predictable 59 percent. Boy, this Charles Murray is really on to something; this class is dumb as doornails.

Some figured it was dumb luck, then, when Murtaugh and his colleagues accompanied these very same folks as they went about buying groceries at the supermarket, and found that they made pretty sophisticated calculations—more than 200 of them, with 98 percent accuracy. They formulated problems, calculated ratios in their heads, and solved problems taking into account a whole host of relevant inputs, such as limited storage capacity and unit prices, with considerable skill.

A second researcher in the study, Olivia de la Rocha, had a similar experience as she watched women from the same area plan and maintain a diet to lose 35 pounds. The women somehow managed to do 1,262 measuring calculations, producing correct arithmetic results 99 percent of the time. That these calculations were made with both speed and accuracy is surely due to the concreteness of the tasks, right? Or perhaps there was something in the water. …

Because everyone knows that the correlation of achievement and IQ is sizable, about 0.5 to 0.7, and that this relationship is driven by the general mental factor known as “g,” which usually accounts for 80 percent to 90 percent of the predictive variance in scholastic performance. This, of course, reflects an ability to think in the abstract—to develop representational thinking, like anticipating moves in the intricate dance of a chess game, or mastering many of the nuances in some of our most complex sports. Surely we wouldn’t want to leave it to the dumb class to figure these things out. Better to depend on the cognitive elite, those academically gifted students who do all things so well.

But it seems as if another researcher, Wolfie Schneider, tried to do just that. He gave students in grades 3, 5, and 7 a pretty complex text about soccer, and placed all sorts of contradictions within the text to fool any of those readers who thought they could get away with just a quick read. Like any good teacher, he grouped these kids into high- and low-ability levels (you got it, the dumb class). Then, even better, he further divided them into subgroups of “experts” and “novices.” And wouldn’t you know it, the experts (who knew a lot about soccer) were able, regardless of what class they were in, to figure things out, think out plays in their heads, and not be fooled for a minute by Schneider’s sly shenanigans in the text. Seems as if the students in the dumb classes who happened to know a lot about soccer did better than those so-called super-smart, academically gifted novices. Don’t these dumb kids know there’s not much even the best schools can do for them?

Just maybe, I’m not sure, this notion about a simple “g” doesn’t quite get it right. But Charles Murray’s argument is persuasive: Above an IQ of 130, you’ll find school easy; above 140, you’ll fill the adult achievements of Who’s Who; above 150, well, you’ll duplicate the life histories of Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Franklin, and others. And, of course, this is where we should spend all our stimulus money.

But somehow that doesn’t square with the work of New Zealand researcher James R. Flynn, who, after studying generational trends in IQ from more than 30 countries, found massive year-after-year IQ gains throughout the world. In the Netherlands alone, there are 300,000 geniuses with IQs over 150, a group the size of which should usher in a cultural renaissance too great for anyone to overlook. Based on these past eight years, however, most would find it difficult to say that we are radically more intelligent than the generation before us.

But let us remember, it is the dumb class we are concerned about. The class that can do complicated mathematical equations in their heads when there is reason for it, the class that can predict, summarize, analyze, and evaluate strategies when they have knowledge about how things work. The class that, when given a curriculum that is complex, accelerated, and challenging, can achieve beyond all expectations.

Could it be that all this intelligence buzz measures only a weak correlate of ability? And that giving these kids a fighting chance by providing rigorous standards and a strong knowledge base is really what getting smart is all about?

Or perhaps Murray’s right. There’s no reason to expect that these kids can learn anything. As long as they’re in the dumb class.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Dumb Class


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