Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Can Schools Change Intelligence?

An article from the June 2, 2006 Wall Street Journal: Do School Systems
Aggravate Differences In Natural Ability?
I've reproduced the article below with my comments, because there were so many rebuttals to make. The author's point, or at least her position, seems to be that schools should be able to make everyone equally intelligent.

"In our mobile societies, few of this month's graduating high-school seniors have been with the same classmates for 12 years. But if you know such students, think back to the pupils who, at 5 years old, were pint-size math whizzes and spelling champs. Now match those memories with the seniors at the top of their class. You'll likely find a near-perfect match.

That raises some disturbing questions. Why doesn't 12 years of schooling raise the performance of kids who start out behind? Can you really tell which toddler is destined for Caltech?"

This is the first of a number of wrong-headed questions in this article. Schooling does raise the performance of kids--all of them are performing better academically as high school seniors than they did as kindergarteners, even if they started out behind. Achievement (performance/product-what you know) is not the same as intelligence (process-what you are capable of learning).

"For as long as there has been a science of intelligence (roughly a century), prevailing opinion has held that children's mental abilities are highly malleable, or "unstable." Cognition might improve when the brain reaches a developmental milestone, or when a child is bitten by the reading bug or suddenly masters logical thinking and problem solving.

Some kids do bloom late, intellectually. Others start out fine but then, inexplicably, fall behind."

"Inexplicably." Gifted underachievers, anyone? Schools are very good at producing those.

"But according to new studies, for the most part people's mental abilities relative to others change very little from childhood through adulthood. Relative intelligence seems as resistant to change as relative nose sizes.

One of the more striking findings comes from the longest follow-up study ever conducted in this field. On June 1, 1932, Scotland had all children born in 1921 and attending school -- 87,498 11-year-olds -- take a 75-question test on analogies, reading, arithmetic and the like. The goal was to determine the distribution of intellectual ability. In 1998, scientists at the Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen tracked down 101 of those students, then 77 years old, and administered the same test.

The correlation between scores 66 years apart was a striking .73. (A correlation of 1 would mean no change in rankings; a correlation of .73 is very high.) There is "remarkable stability in individual differences in human intelligence" from childhood to old age, the scientists concluded in a 2000 paper.

In the U.S., two long-running studies also show the durability of relative intelligence. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, launched in 1998, tested 22,782 children entering kindergarten. As in the Scottish study, individual differences in mental ability were clear and persistent. In math and reading, when the children were sorted into three groups by ability, ranking stayed mostly the same from kindergarten to the end of the first and third grades. Some gaps actually widened.

The National Education Longitudinal Study tested 24,599 eighth-graders on several subjects, including math and reading comprehension, in 1988 and again two and four years later. "There was a very high correlation between the scores in eighth grade and in 12th grade," says Thomas Hoffer of the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago. Again, rankings hardly budged."

So clearly the science says that intelligence is stable over time and should be at the same distribution at age 18 as it is at age 5. But we're getting into trouble again:

"[Hoffer] suspects that the way schools are organized explains some of that. Eighth-graders who show aptitude in math or language are tracked into challenging courses. That increases the gap between them and their lower-performing peers. "It's not that [relative student performance] can't change, but that standard practices in schools work against it," says Mr. Hoffer."

Most schools abolished tracking in the 1980-90s "positive self-esteem" movement, so I doubt that had anything to do with Mr. Hoffer's study. And again, we're confusing achievement with intelligence. There is no exacerbation here. The distribution is virtually unchanged. To me this means that, while it has a slightly positive effect on achievement, school has little effect, positive or negative, on intelligence. And author Begley confirms that explanation:

"Now there is evidence that cognitive ability, or intelligence, is set before kids sit up. Developmental psychologist Marc Bornstein of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and colleagues followed children for four years, starting in infancy with 564 four-month olds. Babies' ability to process information can be tested in a so-called habituation test. They look at a black-on-white pattern until their attention wanes and they look away, or habituate. Later, they're shown the pattern again. How quickly they sense they've seen the image long enough, or have seen it before, is a measure of how quickly, accurately and completely they pick up, assimilate and recall information.

The scientists evaluated the children again at six months, 18 months, 24 months and 49 months. In every case, performance mirrored the relative rankings on the infant test, Dr. Bornstein and colleagues reported this year in the journal Psychological Science

Fine, intelligence is set at birth and remains consistent over time. Couldn't have offered much more proof of that theory than you already have. Unless you're trying to massage the data to come up with a more-PC interpretation. Such as:

"Such stability, he says, "can entice" scientists to conclude that inborn, inherent, even genetic factors determine adult intelligence. But he believes crediting nature alone would be wrong.

For one thing, these tests don't measure creativity, gumption, character or other ingredients of success. For another, there are many cases of kids catching up, as when Mexican immigrant children in the U.S. start out with math skills well below their U.S.-born white peers but then catch up, says education researcher Sean Reardon of Stanford University. And as those familiar with management training and military training show, it's possible to turn even the most unpromising candidates into leaders."

Clearly, intelligence does not predict achievement/success. The parent of any underachieving gifted child can tell you this is true. Just as many studies as support the idea of set intelligence tell us that it's the bright-but-not-gifted high achievers with strong emotional intelligence that most consistently achieve success, as it is defined by our culture. (For an overview, click here.) These facts do not contradict the theory of set intelligence.

"That leaves the question of how current education practices (and, perhaps, parenting practices) tend to lock in early cognitive differences among children, and whether those practices can be changed in a way that unlocks every child's intellectual potential."

Argh! According to your own review of the research, intelligence is something we are born with. It does not change. And if you really can "unlock every child's intellectual potential," guess what? Everyone will perform at a higher level but there will still be a distribution of achievement and intelligence! The only way for everyone in a given high school graduating class to achieve equally is to actively dumb down the students in the top half of the class and concentrate on improving performance in the bottom half. "Actively dumb down?" you say. "That's absurd!" It is, but as the research shows, even if we do nothing with these high performing kids, they'll still end up at the top of the class. All else being equal, intelligence will not be equal. And there is nothing the schools, or the social scientists, can do about that.

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