Mediocrity for all, and the necessity of realism-based education policy

The Quilette article Mediocrity for All! makes some good points about the diluting of America’s education system and lowering of standards

In subsequent decades, it became clear that academic greatness is not what generous dollops of self-esteem promote. In 1963, the liminal margin of America’s national experiment in teaching self-love, there began an uninterrupted 18-year slide in SAT scores. But in that same period, the contingent of college-bound seniors who boasted an A or B average jumped from 28 percent to an astonishing 83 percent, as teachers systemwide felt increasing pressure to adopt more “supportive” grading policies. Tellingly, in a 1989 study of comparative math skills among students in eight nations, Americans ranked lowest in overall competency, Koreans highest—but when researchers asked the students how good they thought they were at math, Americans placed highest, Koreans lowest. (What the system had actually wrought were school-kids who believed the hype about themselves and took new pride in the same old mediocre performance.) Meanwhile, 1999’s omnibus Third International Mathematics and Science Study, ranking twelfth-graders from 23 nations, put U.S. students in 20th place, besting only such historic hotbeds of innovation as South Africa, Lithuania, and Cyprus.

It’s hard to make an apple-to-apples comparison between small, high-IQ, ethnically homogeneous countries such as South Korea or Singapore, with large, more diverse countries such as the US, in which everyone takes such tests. A better comparison would be: Korean-Americans (or second gen. Koreans) vs. Koreans, and adjusting for population. In that case, the US may come out ahead. Imagine if a country has just a single child with an IQ of 130 who gets top scores on all the tests. Then this hypothetical ‘country’ would have the highest per-catpita achievement and be the envy of the world over.

The better approach would be to invest meaningfully in the lousy schools that leave minority children so ill-prepared to compete. But that step is hard, costly and time-consuming. It is so much easier and politically expedient to make a grand gesture—simply doing away with programs and assessments that make minority children look bad. At its outer limits, SEL-based thinking opens the door to some truly bizarre curricula. Seattle, a historic hotbed of progressive-inflected education, has implemented in its public schools its Ruler program, a customized version of SEL. One manifestation is “Math Ethnic Studies, a K-12 slant on the “power dynamics” underlying arithmetic. Check out some of the topics listed here. Aside from wasting class time in a subject that’s difficult enough for some to master as it is, such coursework undermines the pursuit of an all-important STEM lingua franca by stoking suspicion of math and science…by blaming the tools for the misuse of those tools.

I think the author puts too much faith in schools. Education spending is already very high yet the racial achievement gap persists, and this gap holds for all SES, as discussed in The Persistence of the Black-White IQ Gap. You can improve the curriculum, but the quality of of students also matters greatly, and I think even more so. The US scores as bad as Lithuania but if Lithuania’s education system does not have all this PC dumbing-down and dysfunction as the US has, will changing that make things dramatically better for the US. That would imply that low-scoring US students have some major potential that can only be unlocked with higher standards. That is what no child left behind tried to do, yet the gaps persist, ad the US still scores low relative to Korea. There are many countries, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, that have no concept of political correctness and may even be considered culturally conservative and religious, that score abysmally low on academic achievement tests, but also in terms of economic metrics such as inflation-adjusted GDP growth. This shows that the success or failure of nations has more to do with the biological qualities of the people than even the culture or politics. Now contrast that to New York, Seattle, and Silicon Valley, which are as ideologically ‘blue’ as possible yet are economic, intellectual, and wealth-creation powerhouses.

Some of this dumbing-down and self-esteem boosting is probably to mollify parents and students rather than just failing them and leaving them with no recourse but to dropout and potentially become delinquents. By virtue of the distribution of IQ scores, about 20% of pupils will never gain proficiency and maybe only 20% will attain mastery, and there is nothing that can be done about the curriculum to change this, and this is even worse for low-scoring groups such as Hispanics and blacks. Vocational training isn’t a panacea either and there is also a lot of certification and training involved, which for people with IQs below 90 may still be cognitively out of reach. And the supply of labor often exceeds demand for these type of jobs. I think a better solution for low-achievers is independent contracting, such as gig jobs on Uber or Task Rabbit, in which the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply. Someone who is not that smart may never be able to provide even a minimum wage equivalent of economic value, and low-skilled salaried jobs often have more applicants than open positions, which tend anyway to be filled by smarter applicants of the applicant pool. Gig work fills the inefficiencies of the labor market that arise due to regulation and mismatch of skills.

Educators and policy makers, on either side of the aisle, need to come to terms with the reality that most people are destined for mediocrity, not necessarily because of lowered standards but rather due to genes (and also, because individual ability lies on a distribution, it is a mathematical certainty that most people have to be mediocre (the middle of the curve), so even if standards for everyone were raised equally and everyone saw improvement, there would still be mediocre people in terms of relative ability). It’s like these people forgot their childhood memories of school or have spent no time in a classroom. It’s evident that in any classroom setting there are smart kids, who pick up the material quickly and make progress, and those who struggle. And in spite of the best effort by teachers, seldom do the struggling students catch up. Even if they make progress, they are still behind the average-ability students and way behind the smart ones.