The Richwine affair once again brings up the misconceptions about (and low expectatios for) the potential of our children that are at the heart of the nation's education crisis.

The Richwine affair once again brings up the misconceptions about (and low expectations for) the potential of our children that are at the heart of the nation’s education crisis.

Jason Richwine’s forced resignation last week from the Heritage Foundation amid controversy over the anti-immigration report he co-wrote with political scientist Robert Rector and revelations of pieces he had written that had racialist and IQ fundamentalist overtones (including his doctoral dissertation on using IQ to determine which immigrants should be allowed into the United States) continues to capture attention this week. The former education policy and immigration policy analyst defended his work in an interview with Byron York of the Washington Examiner, while others such as Robert VerBruggen of National Review (along with the conservative biweekly’s editorial board) defended Richwine’s perspective as well as the report that led to Richwine’s ouster. [Ron Unz of The American Conservative takes plenty of issue with Richwine’s views, while Daniel Drezner of Foreign Policy notes that a cursory review of Richwine’s dissertation shows that it is riddled with errors.]

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngMeanwhile Heritage has remained quiet about the whole matter even as it has been criticized by all sides for its handling of the Richwine affair and the politically driven nature of its research as of late. The American Enterprise Institute, which also employed Richwine, has also remained silent. For good reason. After all, Richwine wrote his now-infamous dissertation while working at AEI. More importantly, AEI gave implicit support to Richwine’s efforts to use IQ data in research, including the study on teacher pay Richwine co-wrote with Andrew Biggs, one of AEI’s  scholars, as well as allowing Richwine to recycle aspects of the dissertation (albeit without the more-offensive references to the cognitive ability of Latino émigrés) on its own site (as well as in National Review). Richwine also declared at an AEI forum that blacks, Latinos, and American Indians could not supposedly assimilate into the American mainstream; the fact that blacks and American Indians have been the key players in shaping mainstream American life — including music, food, and art — should have made his peers at AEI jump down Richwine’s throat and call him on the carpet for such bigoted thinking.  The last thing AEI needs is to be placed into the harsh media spotlight.

Certainly Richwine’s role as one of Heritage’s foremost (and most controversial) analysts on education policy makes his resignation a matter of interest for the school reform movement, especially for those in the Beltway who either worked with him or considered his arguments on teacher compensation. [Your editor doesn’t wish ill on Richwine at all; I do hope that he learns the right lessons from what has happened, and emerges the better for it.]  But there are three more reasons why the Richwine affair should be of interest to the movement. All of them have to do with the perceptions of the intelligence of our children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, which still shapes the failed policies and practices in American public education that reformers are working to put asunder.

For one, the Richwine affair is a reminder that IQ fundamentalist thinking remains in vogue in some intellectual circles, and especially in some of the nation’s leading think tanks. This is especially true at AEI, which has long backed the work of Richwine’s former colleague, Charles Murray, an IQ fundamentalist whose infamous book, The Bell Curve (along with its theories on race and intelligence), essentially endorsing the view among that crowd that that cognitive ability is genetically-driven and doesn’t change based on environment. Decades of research, including the work of James Flynn of New Zealand’s University of Otago, along with data on education and early childhood learning initiatives, have long ago proven that the views espoused by Richwine and Murray don’t stand up. [The fact that so many IQ fundamentalists have also touted racialist thinking, and that their views are often shaped by the times in which they live as well as by the groups that are considered non-white and thus, ethnic minorities, also makes IQ fundamentalist thinking rather suspect.] Yet AEI continues to give legitimacy to this thinking.

This is problematic for the school reform movement because AEI is one of the most-important players in shaping the ideas driving it. It is also troublesome because some of the thinking embraced by a few reformers — especially those who defend gifted-and-talented programs — is based on in part on IQ fundamentalism. It is to say that it is hard to say that you want brighter futures for all children and still embrace a theory that has been used almost exclusively to deny some kids the high-quality education needed to do so. Amid the Richwine controversy, it is hard not to ask tough questions about the positions of some of AEI”s current players on the education policy front on such matters as the importance of focusing on achievement gaps. Whether those questions are legitimate or not, they will be asked. It is time for AEI to fully disavow the IQ fundamentalist views of Murray, Richwine and others. [It will be interesting to see if AEI players such as Rick Hess, who was Richwine’s colleague and from whose shop the teacher compensation piece was released, will say anything on his eponymous blog.] And for conservative reformers, it is also time to call out those fellow-travelers, both within the school reform movement and in the conservative movement, who embrace theories on intelligence and race that are empirically false and are damaging to the futures of children.

The Richwine controversy also reminds us once again that IQ tests (and the data gleaned from them) are still used in decisions within American public education (as well as in research). Districts and school operators use IQ tests in deciding which children are worthy of being admitted into gifted and talented programs that are supposed to be cordons solitaire from low quality teaching and curricula endemic within American public education, as well as in deciding whether certain children (particularly young men of all backgrounds as well as those from poor and minority backgrounds) should be condemned to special ed ghettos. In fact, the use of IQ exams and cut scores on other tests (along with the perceptions of teachers and guidance counselors, who serve as gatekeepers of gifted-and-talented programs, of poor and minority kids), explains why 3.4 million children from poor backgrounds who were top performers in school were excluded from gifted and talented programs.

Yet IQ tests are terrible at determining the academic potential of children. As University of Iowa psychologist David Lohman and Katrina Korb (now of the University of Jos in Nigeria) pointed out in a 2006 report, just 45 percent of first-graders who scored higher than 130 points on the Stanford-Binet test used by many to determine cognitive ability would have scored at that level on other IQ exams. Most first-graders considered gifted in first grade don’t keep that label two years later. And, according to Lohman, only 25 percent of four year-olds scoring 130 on the Stanford-Binet will do so as 17-year-olds. This shouldn’t be surprising. Cognitive ability (or academic talent) is dynamic and not a constant. Especially for children in the preschool and early elementary grade levels, cognitive ability is as much influenced by the quality of learning environment (especially in school), along with the amount of  challenge (academically and otherwise) provided in those environments, as it is by any innate ability.

There’s also the reality that IQ tests probably don’t measure cognitive ability. As Flynn noted in his book, What is Intelligence?, IQ tests actually show what children and adults have learned over time, the context in which they are accumulating knowledge, and even the modernity of one society compared to another. Because the questions behind tests such as Stanford-Binet and the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (along with variants such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) are shaped by those contexts, the ability to correctly answer questions on them depend largely on the time and place in which one lives and the amount of exposure they receive to the world around them. A 19th century European émigré to the United States from a rural community, for example, would respond to the question of “in what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike” by answering that one uses the former to hunt the latter; this would be a sensible (if incorrect) response given the time in which they live, along with the dearth of elementary and secondary education for that time, and the fact that they didn’t benefit from 20th century advancements in sorting experiences according to new abstract categories. An adult living in the United States today, living in a modern society with a flourishing K-12 system and having benefited from those advancements in cognition, would give the correct answer that both are mammals. These contextual differences, along with the low quality of teaching and curricula within traditional public education, would also explain why a poor white child from a rural community who has never attended classical music concerts would struggle mightily to correctly answer questions about Vivaldi and Rachmaninoff, while a middle-class black child whose has learned to play violin would ace them.

[The fact that IQ tests and exams used as proxies for IQ such as the SAT don’t really measure cognitive ability is one reason why the Richwine-Briggs study — which used SAT scores to conclude that aspiring teachers (and those who worked in the profession) were cognitively inferior compared to their colleagues headed down other career paths — is so flawed. At best, the results show that teachers are less-knowledgeable than their peers and have likely garnered less in the way of academic curricula. But the reality the fact that performance on the SAT is shaped by how much one has learned means that it is a poor proxy for determining cognitive ability.]

There are far better ways of measuring how much children are learning and what is contributing to their achievement — including standardized tests and the use of Value-Added assessment of student test score growth — than IQ tests. More importantly, if we believe that all children are worthy of high-quality teaching and curricula, then we shouldn’t be using IQ tests to determine which kids should be provided it. Weaning American public education off the use of IQ tests in deciding the futures of children must be as much a goal of the school reform movement as expanding school choice, enacting Parent Trigger laws, and overhauling how we train and compensate teachers.

Finally the Richwine controversy is one more reminder of the wrongheaded thinking about the potential of children that is an underlying culprit of the nation’s education crisis. As Dropout Nation noted last month in its commentary on why school reformers and immigration reform advocates should work together, arguments about the perceived cognitive ability of immigrants of that time (whose descendants are now among the nation’s political and social elite), along with racialist views about the potential of black children, have been an underlying justification for nativists and others to enact the array of immigration quotas that remain in place today, as well as for denying children high-quality education. Ability tracking, the comprehensive high school model, gifted and talented programs, and even special ed ghettos are all derived from early 20th century beliefs of teachers, school leaders, and education theorists that only some kids were capable of mastering what was then considered to be college preparatory curricula. The consequences of such thinking can be seen today in the high levels of black children overlabeled as special ed, as well as the high levels of white middle class peers being put onto the college track; as Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools end up labeling black and Latino children as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way.

These beliefs still remain prominent among traditionalists today, especially among those who adhere to the Poverty Myth of Education (which proffers that poor kids are incapable of learning), as well as similar views from the likes of Murray and his ilk. Few in education would infer race and ethnicity today. But many still offer the poverty-is-destiny argument in justifying the failures of traditional districts in improving student achievement; because black and Latino children are among the very poor in our schools, the racialist thinking of the past continues to wreak havoc on our children now.

The controversy over Richwine (along with the overall ire over Heritage’s immigration study) will eventually pass. But the issues about race, ethnicity and intelligence raised by the controversy over Richwine will remain. And as reformers, we must tackle the faulty thinking that continues to contribute to far too many children being put on the path to the economic and social abyss.