Monday, May 10, 2010

The Bell Curve & Charter Schools: The Not So Odd Couple

Yesterday the NYTimes ran an interesting Op-Ed piece on Charter Schools by Charles Murray entitled, "Why Charter Schools Fail the Test." I read through it quickly and thought it to be arguing two main things: standardized tests were weak measures and that school choice was a democratic right. Both of these things meshed well with my ideology and then I arrived to the bi-line and read Charles Murray. I froze, kept reading and sure enough it was the Charles Murray. Murray's name not ringing a bell? Well Murray was one of two authors of the uber-controversial book The Bell Curve. The Bell Curve, of course, ultimately argued that there were racial differences in intelligence, no matter how you "sliced the pie." So this may lead one to wonder, "Why or how on earth would Murray be writing about Charter schools and supporting them?" Well to answer that you have to understand his back story.

The Bell Curve's most controversial chapters (13 and 14) really drove home their message that intelligence (g-factor) was more prevalent among certain racial groups and lower among others. Rightfully so, many top scientists rose up to strike down the Bell Curve's thinly veiled statements of racial superiority and inferiority. The Bell Curve was not Murray's first set of handiwork, he is often regarded as the man who dismantled the welfare system. In Losing Ground, he essentially argued that the welfare system enabled bad behaviors and used national dollars to invest in the entrenchment of poverty. This argument, I often hear parroted by people, the catch is a great deal of research carefully demonstrates the contrary (please see any of William Julius Wilson's or Sheldon Danziger's bevy of books on the subject). The common sensical nature of Murray's argument have allowed him to stay around and advance arguments that dance along and get close to idea of eugenics (the science of "bettering humans" usually by "trimming the gene pool" -this was one of Hitler's goals during the Jewish Holocaust).

Murray in the editorial takes a step back to the question of education which he addressed in Real Education a couple of years ago. I admittedly could not stomach the whole book as he argued "four simple truths": 1) ability varies, 2) half of america's children are below average, 3) too many people are going to college and 4) America's future relies on how we educate the academically gifted. They seem benign enough, right? Well put them together with his past work and you get a neat line of logic suggest (my interpretation):

Ability levels vary, so not all kids are going to do well, in fact half of kids are poor students, the other half are doing okay. So of the half that is okay, there's really about 10 percent that should be going to college and let's invest in those 10 percent rather than investing in the other 90 percent.

Still not seeing why it connects to the Bell Curve. If you asked Murray, what do the races of the top 10 percent look like? He'd honest respond earnestly and with his "scientific evidence" to say they're majority White. Ah, do you see it now? The folks at the top are White and should be invested in, the folks at the bottom are non-White and shouldn't be getting all those "hand-outs" and "special programming."

Murray has been consistently attacked for this type of reasoning, so charter schools mark a quaint respite for his ideas. He points to the Milwaukee evidence that demonstrated that charter school and traditional public schools performed roughly equal. He suggests that home environment means a great deal for intelligence ( he doesn't think standardized tests measure intelligence (g-factor) so they're a weak measure) and school thus can do little to shift what students walk in. He, like many mis-readers of the Coleman Report, suggest schools CAN DO little, when Coleman actually argued schools DID DO little to affect student achievement. For Murray, choice is good because you no longer have to suggest that poor people get few options. In fact, charters are cheaper on state's to operate and offer the basic democratic right of choice. He'd likely concede that we shouldn't expect these schools to do anything for the children who are part of the deeply impoverished and severely unintelligent (this is his reasoning not mine).

In the end, you get a well crafted Op-Ed that says, "despite lack of success Charter schools are good." But what operates behind the veil matters the most! His piece is animated by a lack of belief in the students within these schools and he doesn't think schools can to move these youth towards prosperity intellectually, socially or materially. While I'm neither a fan nor hater of charter schools, I realized that who is in your camp matters. Murray's commentary reminds me of the adage, "Everyone on the sidelines is not cheering for you." The question is, are we savvy enough to know who is for us and against us?

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