»  New English Review

December 2006

  The Dream Palace of Education Theorists


Education is a subject I find hard to contemplate without losing my temper. In the present-day U.S.A., education is basically a series of rent-seeking rackets. There is:

Towering over all these lesser scams is the college racket, a vast money-swollen credentialing machine for lower-middle-class worker bees. American parents are now all resigned to the fact that they must beggar themselves to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paid outsource-able office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paid, un-outsource-able work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.

(Professionals have their own credentialing systems: You may have graduated law school, but you'll still have to pass the bar exam, and so on. Then why make aspiring lawyers go to law school? Presumably for the same reason we insist on cube jockeys having bachelor's degrees from accredited four-year colleges. Why not let them study up at home from Teaching Company DVDs, then sit for a state-refereed common exam when they feel they're ready? Why not let lawyers learn on the job from books and as articled clerks, the way they used to? I don't know. College-going is just an irrational thing we do, the way upper-class German men used to acquire dueling scars, the way women in imperial China had their feet bound. Griggs vs. Duke Power probably has something to do with it. Since, following that decision, employers are not permitted to test job applicants to see how intelligent they are, the employers seek a college degree as a proxy for intelligence.)


And then there is the strange, precious little world of education theorists. Readers of the New York Times were given a glimpse into that world on November 26th, when the Sunday magazine of that paper ran a piece titled "What It Takes to Make a Student," by staff journalist Paul Tough. The story is billed on the magazine's cover under the different heading: "Still Left Behind — What It Will Really Take to Close the Education Gap." Which gap would that be? "[T]he achievement gap between black and white students, and the one between poor and middle-class students." Ah. So, two gaps then, actually.

Let's cut to the chase here. What will it take to close those gaps? I turned to the end of Mr. Tough's article.

The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he will almost certainly come out poorly educated. What the small but growing number of successful schools demonstrate [sic] is that the public-school system accomplishes that result because we have built it that way. We could also decide to create a different system, one that educates most (if not all) poor minority students to high levels of achievement. It is not yet entirely clear what that system might look like — it might include not only KIPP-like structures and practices but also high-quality early-childhood education, as well as incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools — but what is clear is that it is within reach.

"KIPP" is an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program, a network of intensive college-preparatory schools for inner-city kids started up in 1994 by two idealistic young teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston. There are now 52 of these schools nationwide. They get good results, but this is not very surprising. KIPP schools have long hours (typically 7:30am to 5:00pm), a longer than average school year, and strict standards of behavior. KIPP schools are covered in Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's 2003 book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, where more of the game is given away: "[T]here is an application process that tends to — and is intended to — discourage families unlikely to cooperate with the school. Indeed, one of the five pillars upon which the KIPP schools rest is 'choice and commitment.' … the fact that these are schools of choice is not incidental to their success." For sure it is not.

All the recommendations offered by Mr. Tough — and by other education theorists, like the Thernstroms — have little trapdoors built into them like this. Look back at Mr. Tough's prescription: "… but also high-quality early-childhood education." Oh, like Head Start? That landmark Great Society educational program, launched in 1965, is still going strong. The Thernstroms reported that 20 million children had passed through it when they wrote their book, at a cost to the federal taxpayer of $60 billion. They go on to report that while there is some slight, disputable evidence of marginal benefits for white children from Head Start, "It does not seem to have improved the educational achievement of African-American children in any substantial way." Whether it has done anything for Hispanic children is not known.

Similarly with "incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools." Setting aside the fact that you are dealing with a line of work whose labor union is armed with thermonuclear weapons, even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools — inner-city schools serving black neighborhoods — ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those "best teachers"? And how many "best teachers" are there, anyway? As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of "saints and masochists" — teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.


If you read much Ed Biz theorizing, you find yourself wondering how a single field of human enquiry can contain so much error and folly. One answer is that educationalists wilfully — ideologically, in fact — ignore the understanding of human nature that the modern human sciences are gradually attaining, and cling doggedly to long-exploded theories about how human beings develop from infancy to adulthood. From false premises they proceed to false conclusions.

The long and short of this new understanding is that human beings are much less malleable than everyone supposed half a century ago, and much less malleable than "blank slate leftists" — a category that includes practically all education theorists — have ever, for reasons not difficult to fathom, been willing to contemplate.

Reading recent results out of the human sciences always brings to my mind those "shape memory alloys" that so fascinate materials scientists. These are metal alloys that "remember" their original geometry, and can be made to return to it, or something close to it, usually by heating, after any amount of deformation and pressure.

So it is with humanity. We come into the world with a good deal of our life course pre-ordained in our genes. At age three or so we begin to interact with other children outside our home, with results that depend in part on us, and in part on where our home is situated. We pass through various educational processes — formalized extensions of that out-of-home environment, and also highly location-dependent. We end up as adults with personalities and prospects that are, according to the latest understandings, around 50 percent innate and pre-ordained, around 50 percent formed by "non-shared environment" (not shared, that is, with siblings raised in the same home by the same parents — a somewhat controversial concept in its precise contents, but clearly consisting mostly of those out-of-home experiences), and 0-5 percent formed by "shared environment" — mainly parenting style.

(And we then, having reached adulthood, regress a little to our pre-ordained shape, like one of those peculiar alloys. It is a curious fact, well supported by a mass of evidence, that the heritable components of our personality and intelligence become more marked as we age. The IQs of 40-year-olds correlate better with those of their parents or siblings than do the IQs of 20-year-olds. The advice traditionally given to young men contemplating marriage — "Get a good look at her mother" — is very sound.)

You would never know any of this from reading Ed Biz propaganda pieces like Paul Tough's in the New York Times magazine. For example, he gives good coverage of some research on parenting. However, all the research he cites is premised on the notion that parents can mold their children in different ways by treating them differently. Parents do this and the kids turn out like this; if the parents had done that, then the kids would have turned out like that.

He does not cite any of the research showing that aside from very extreme approaches — e.g. locking a child in a broom cupboard for the first four years of its life — parenting style makes very little difference to life outcomes. (Though parental decisions influencing the non-shared environment — e.g. where parents choose to live — may make a great deal of difference.) Parents behave aggressively towards children; the children grow up aggressive; See! — the parents' aggression caused that outcome! Well, not necessarily. What about child-to-parent effects — innately difficult kids drive their parents to aggressive distraction? What about genes? The kids have their parents' genes, and most features of human personality — including aggressiveness — are highly heritable.

None of that for Mr. Tough. Genes? What are you, some kind of Klansman or Nazi? No, no, no, the kids are little blank slates for teachers, parents, and politicians to work their magic on, These undesirable outcomes — these mysterious test-score gaps, these dropping-outs and delinquencies — arise only because we are chanting the wrong spells!

A very good rule of thumb when reading child-development literature is that any study that has not taken careful account of heritable factors — by comparing identical twins raised together or separately, fraternal twins ditto ditto, non-twin siblings ditto ditto — is utterly and completely worthless. That sentence is (a) true, and (b) guaranteed to get you thrown out of a high window if spoken aloud at any gathering of education theorists.

Certainly Mr. Tough will have none of it. The child is a blank slate. Parents act on it, causing this and this. Then teachers act on it, causing that and that. Bingo! — you have a finished adult. Or, as Mr. Tough summarizes the interesting (but perfectly gene-free) work of sociologist Annette Lareau: "[G]ive a child X, and you get Y." So simple! One wonders if there has ever been an education theorist who has actually raised children, or retained any memory of his own childhood.


In the end, all left-liberal prescriptions for educational improvement end up with two demands: that governments should spend more money on schools, and that parents should work harder at parenting.

Never mind that the spending-improves-education theory has been tested to destruction. Never mind that the demographics of the Western world are in free fall because of the ever-increasing demands in time and money placed on parents. (Raising two children in suburban America, I dream fondly but futilely of my own 1950s English childhood, when by far the commonest words I heard from my parents were: "Go out and play. Make sure you're back in time for supper." How on earth did civilization survive?)

Never mind that obstructionist, feather-bedding teacher unions firmly control one of our nation's two big political parties. Never mind the mountains of evidence from the human sciences that everything education theorists and their liberal camp followers like Mr. Tough believe about human nature is false. Never mind, never mind. The Ed Biz show must go on — for the sake of the children, you know.