Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The True Defeatists

vonzastrowc's picture

Last week, I took a couple of swipes at Charles Murray's fatalistic, offensive, and oddly persistent claim that many children (by which he generally means poor children and children of color) are largely ineducable.

Richard Nisbett does a much better job of tackling Murray's arguments in his recent book, Intelligence and How to Get It. (The New York Times reviewed Nisbett's book on Sunday.) IQ is malleable, he argues, so it makes all the sense in the world to help struggling students excel academically.

Any educator worth his or her salt subscribes to this view. Still, Murray's work lives on. It earns respectful reviews even from people who generally know better.

Murray's persistence should focus the mind of anyone interested in improving the lot of children. Overblown media reports of battles between school reformers and those who believe schools alone cannot easliy close achievement gaps are distracting attention from the true enemies of improvement.

Some commentators have compounded the confusion by lumping Charles Murray and major proponents of the schools-plus Approach together in the same "defeatist" camp. The latter argue that schools cannot close achievement gaps without strong community and political supports. The former argues that neither schools nor communities--nor anyone else--can close achievement gaps, because those gaps reflect students' immutable intellectual abilities.

In fact, the true defeatists abhor both in-school and out-of-school strategies to close achievement gaps and promote equal opportunity. And they're not going away any time soon.

Please keep blogging on this

Please keep blogging on this disturbing trend. There is something very anxiety-producing when the loudest voices in the "reform" community have shifted to a kind of "we know he's right, but can't say it out loud" tacit approval of Murray and his ilk.

In the past week, I have read several pieces claiming that schools are wrong when they say they need parent support to make gains--that parents will come in droves when educators fix the urban schools. They portray poor urban parents as savvy consumers-- a clever way of pushing all responsibility for the education of poor children on to schools. And when the children of wealthy families decide to "give back" to poor children for two years, before going on to their real careers or graduate school, it's seen as a viable solution to upgrading the teaching force.

Underneath all of this is a bedrock of belief in a meritocracy, and a desire to provide enough "cost-effective" support for poor children to salve the national conscience.

Thank you, Nancy.  Like you,

Thank you, Nancy.  Like you, I worry that some of the reform strategies that are gaining the most attention right now will still leave many students and families behind.  There may indeed be those who believe that such reforms have succeeded only if they have separated the wheat from the chaff--by rewarding the most gifted students or the most motivated families.

Still, I believe that the majority of school reform advocates across the ideolgocial spectrum find Murray's ideas abhorrent, truly believe all children can learn if given the opportunity to do so, and see schools as essential tools in the effort to ensure equal opportunity. It's important to remind such advocates--whether they subscribe to the Education Equality Project model, the Broader, Bolder model, or both--that they have common convictions about students' potential and a common passion for equity.

Sometimes it takes people like Murray and his followers to bring us back to essentials.