half the kids are below average

Charles Murray, notorious for The Bell Curve and other provocations, has a new book entitled Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. I haven’t read the book, so I shouldn’t criticize it. But I have read the promotional materials and the op-ed version of Murray’s argument, which I can criticize as independent texts.

Murray emphasizes that “Half of the children are below average. Many children cannot learn more than rudimentary reading and math.” It supposedly follows that “too many people are going to college,” and our schools are diverting too many resources to the impossible task of preparing everyone for higher education. “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. … It is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country. The task is not to give them more advanced technical training, but to give them an education that will make them into wiser adults; not to pamper them, but to hold their feet to the fire.”

The op-ed version of this argument makes a very simple error. True, half the kids are below average, and it’s impossible to “Leave No Child Behind” if that means leaving no one below the median. But it is very possible to raise the actual skills and knowledge of the whole student population so that the median student in 2010 knows more than the median student knew in 1990. Certainly, the median student of today knows a whole bunch of things that nobody knew a century ago (even as he or she has lost some knowledge that used to be more common, such as some grasp of Latin). If the goal of education reform is to remove variation in student outcomes, it is–as Murray argues–doomed. But if the goal is to teach all students more, that can be achieved.

I do, by the way, agree that education is partly a positional good–there are always people who obtain more of it than others do, and they always have social and economic advantages. Thus raising the quantity and quality of an educational system will not necessarily reduce inequality. I also agree that some kind of elite is inevitable and that it’s important to teach them to connect their self-interest to the public interest. But neither of these doses of realism should discourage us from educating all kids better.