The Bell Curve & Charter Schools: The Not So Odd Couple

Yesterday the NYTimes ran an interesting Op-Ed piece on Charter Schools by Charles Murray entitled, “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test.” I read through it quickly and thought it to be arguing two main things: standardized tests were weak measures and that school choice was a democratic right. Both of these things meshed well with my ideology and then I arrived to the bi-line and read Charles Murray. I froze, kept reading and sure enough it was the Charles Murray. Murray’s name not ringing a bell? Well Murray was one of two authors of the uber-controversial book The Bell Curve. The Bell Curve, of course, ultimately argued that there were racial differences in intelligence, no matter how you “sliced the pie.” So this may lead one to wonder, “Why or how on earth would Murray be writing about Charter schools and supporting them?” Well to answer that you have to understand his back story.

The Bell Curve’s most controversial chapters (13 and 14) really drove home their message that intelligence (g-factor) was more prevalent among certain racial groups and lower among others. Rightfully so, many top scientists rose up to strike down the Bell Curve’s thinly veiled statements of racial superiority and inferiority. The Bell Curve was not Murray’s first set of handiwork, he is often regarded as the man who dismantled the welfare system. In Losing Ground, he essentially argued that the welfare system enabled bad behaviors and used national dollars to invest in the entrenchment of poverty. This argument, I often hear parroted by people, the catch is a great deal of research carefully demonstrates the contrary (please see any of William Julius Wilson’s or Sheldon Danziger’s bevy of books on the subject). The common sensical nature of Murray’s argument have allowed him to stay around and advance arguments that dance along and get close to idea of eugenics (the science of “bettering humans” usually by “trimming the gene pool” -this was one of Hitler’s goals during the Jewish Holocaust).

Murray in the editorial takes a step back to the question of education which he addressed in Real Education a couple of years ago. I admittedly could not stomach the whole book as he argued “four simple truths”: 1) ability varies, 2) half of america’s children are below average, 3) too many people are going to college and 4) America’s future relies on how we educate the academically gifted. They seem benign enough, right? Well put them together with his past work and you get a neat line of logic suggest (my interpretation):

Ability levels vary, so not all kids are going to do well, in fact half of kids are poor students, the other half are doing okay. So of the half that is okay, there’s really about 10 percent that should be going to college and let’s invest in those 10 percent rather than investing in the other 90 percent.

Still not seeing why it connects to the Bell Curve. If you asked Murray, what do the races of the top 10 percent look like? He’d honest respond earnestly and with his “scientific evidence” to say they’re majority White. Ah, do you see it now? The folks at the top are White and should be invested in, the folks at the bottom are non-White and shouldn’t be getting all those “hand-outs” and “special programming.”

Murray has been consistently attacked for this type of reasoning, so charter schools mark a quaint respite for his ideas. He points to the Milwaukee evidence that demonstrated that charter school and traditional public schools performed roughly equal. He suggests that home environment means a great deal for intelligence ( he doesn’t think standardized tests measure intelligence (g-factor) so they’re a weak measure) and school thus can do little to shift what students walk in. He, like many mis-readers of the Coleman Report, suggest schools CAN DO little, when Coleman actually argued schools DID DO little to affect student achievement. For Murray, choice is good because you no longer have to suggest that poor people get few options. In fact, charters are cheaper on state’s to operate and offer the basic democratic right of choice. He’d likely concede that we shouldn’t expect these schools to do anything for the children who are part of the deeply impoverished and severely unintelligent (this is his reasoning not mine).

In the end, you get a well crafted Op-Ed that says, “despite lack of success Charter schools are good.” But what operates behind the veil matters the most! His piece is animated by a lack of belief in the students within these schools and he doesn’t think schools can to move these youth towards prosperity intellectually, socially or materially. While I’m neither a fan nor hater of charter schools, I realized that who is in your camp matters. Murray’s commentary reminds me of the adage, “Everyone on the sidelines is not cheering for you.” The question is, are we savvy enough to know who is for us and against us?

Filed under: Black Men, Black Women, Class, Education, Food for Thought, General, Hate, Health, Race, Racism, Schools, Whiteness

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  • http://twitter.com/iDXR Donovan X. Ramsey

    An analysis of the literature that Dr. Jann Adams would be proud of.

    • dumilewis

      I was never smart enough to take an Adams class or get in her lab, but I heard great things!

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  • http://www.twitter.com/newilli Noel

    Great post bruh! However, as an active proponent of charter schools and a parent who witnessed the positive impact of a particular charter school on a number of children, I have to say that fundamentally I agree with Murrays statements. That is, despite the fact that he goes on to marginalize the lack of improvement in test scores when weighed against the right to school choice. I do take issue with Murrays seeming self-contradiction when he states that “Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home” and that smart & motivated children will always do better in spite of the school. This appears to be a veiled reference to the genetics of an individual and excludes any environmental factors, which I disagree with.
    Lastly, to directly address your post, I think that Murray’s tepid endorsement of school choice can still be used by advocates, even if it is somewhat misdirected.
    At any rate, I appreciate you bringing the conversation to me and look forward to more!

    • dumilewis

      So I think there are about a million folks you should stand with before you stand with Murray or use Murray’s op-ed for support of charter schools. The portion of his argument that you like has been made 100 times over by people who actually care about Black children, Murray is not in that camp. If I have a choice between Sharpton and Murray, I’m going Sharpton any day! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/iDXR Donovan X. Ramsey

    An analysis of the literature that Dr. Jann Adams would be proud of.

  • http://www.twitter.com/newilli Noel

    Great post bruh! However, as an active proponent of charter schools and a parent who witnessed the positive impact of a particular charter school on a number of children, I have to say that fundamentally I agree with Murrays statements. That is, despite the fact that he goes on to marginalize the lack of improvement in test scores when weighed against the right to school choice. I do take issue with Murrays seeming self-contradiction when he states that “Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home” and that smart & motivated children will always do better in spite of the school. This appears to be a veiled reference to the genetics of an individual and excludes any environmental factors, which I disagree with.
    Lastly, to directly address your post, I think that Murray's tepid endorsement of school choice can still be used by advocates, even if it is somewhat misdirected.
    At any rate, I appreciate you bringing the conversation to me and look forward to more!

  • dumilewis

    So I think there are about a million folks you should stand with before you stand with Murray or use Murray's op-ed for support of charter schools. The portion of his argument that you like has been made 100 times over by people who actually care about Black children, Murray is not in that camp. If I have a choice between Sharpton and Murray, I'm going Sharpton any day! ;)

  • dumilewis

    I was never smart enough to take an Adams class or get in her lab, but I heard great things!

  • http://troupepost.blogspot.com BryanTroupe

    You make some really great points. Individuals like Murray may seem to have our best interests in mind at first glance; however this is anything but the case. The bad thing about this is there is an entire class of individuals that will agree with Mr. Murray’s point of view, which in my opinion, only hinders the topic of progression.

  • bryantroupe

    You make some really great points. Individuals like Murray may seem to have our best interests in mind at first glance; however this is anything but the case. The bad thing about this is there is an entire class of individuals that will agree with Mr. Murray's point of view, which in my opinion, only hinders the topic of progression.

  • http://liferequiresmorechocolate.blogspot.com/ sunt97

    I can’t get behind the charter schools, well at least the ones in my district. They are terrible. The only reason why parents are sending their kids to them is that they provide door to door service with a bus. Yeah parents are too lazy to take their kids to the public schools. I hate the fact the get funds, get frustrated with unruly kids, kick them out, they come back to the public schools without the $3000 dollars the state grants each student. Now there are some gems in other districts that have turned kids grades around and have been a huge difference. I just have a problem when they close down a public school because of low enrollment due to these charter schools which are lacking in every way.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate
    Tiffany

  • http://liferequiresmorechocolate.blogspot.com/ sunt97

    I can't get behind the charter schools, well at least the ones in my district. They are terrible. The only reason why parents are sending their kids to them is that they provide door to door service with a bus. Yeah parents are too lazy to take their kids to the public schools. I hate the fact the get funds, get frustrated with unruly kids, kick them out, they come back to the public schools without the $3000 dollars the state grants each student. Now there are some gems in other districts that have turned kids grades around and have been a huge difference. I just have a problem when they close down a public school because of low enrollment due to these charter schools which are lacking in every way.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate
    Tiffany

  • rianaelyse

    We must discuss this one on my venture to NY! I had quite a semester challenging the Murray text, both as a TA in my Intro to Psych course and as a future psychologist/former teacher to the Harvard Law School shenanigans. As you stated so eloquently, that “bell curve” graph of intelligence is sickening at “above average” levels, but you were absolutely right to cite past performance, rather than ability and school impact, on such a model. Both Murray and the Harvard student refuse to address the “what ifs”…afterall, they note, it is impossible to imagine a society that does NOT have discriminatory practice, so why even construct it in the scenario? Well, quite simply, for the policy analyst and future lawyer, imagining the society in that realm is a major part of your motivation! If you’re only operating on past conditions, your policy recommendations and practice of the law will reflect an inability of people of color to achieve academically. Granted, I am the child of public school championers, so charters were never my cup of tea, but it is allowing an option to make a change in the lives of these children. And all we are asking for (well, some of us) is the chance for our children to succeed. To answer your question then, in order to be savvy enough to know who is for us and who is against us, we need to build up the networks and information on these subjects in a NON-ACADEMIC way for community members to digest, rather than go back and forth in Dyson dialect (which even leaves me starry eyed)! Keep it simple (academic) sillies!

  • rianaelyse

    We must discuss this one on my venture to NY! I had quite a semester challenging the Murray text, both as a TA in my Intro to Psych course and as a future psychologist/former teacher to the Harvard Law School shenanigans. As you stated so eloquently, that “bell curve” graph of intelligence is sickening at “above average” levels, but you were absolutely right to cite past performance, rather than ability and school impact, on such a model. Both Murray and the Harvard student refuse to address the “what ifs”…afterall, they note, it is impossible to imagine a society that does NOT have discriminatory practice, so why even construct it in the scenario? Well, quite simply, for the policy analyst and future lawyer, imagining the society in that realm is a major part of your motivation! If you're only operating on past conditions, your policy recommendations and practice of the law will reflect an inability of people of color to achieve academically. Granted, I am the child of public school championers, so charters were never my cup of tea, but it is allowing an option to make a change in the lives of these children. And all we are asking for (well, some of us) is the chance for our children to succeed. To answer your question then, in order to be savvy enough to know who is for us and who is against us, we need to build up the networks and information on these subjects in a NON-ACADEMIC way for community members to digest, rather than go back and forth in Dyson dialect (which even leaves me starry eyed)! Keep it simple (academic) sillies!

  • Anonymous

    half of our children go to public schools and the other half to charter schools. From experience, I have seen public schools that are great, some okay, and some that are horrible. I have seen the same thing with charter schools.

    in many economically deprived areas, most schools ARE charter schools. in those areas, the schools are meeting the fed and state requirements can only accept so many students so the parents are forced to go to poorer schools or charter schools. I really don’t see the choice in that UNLESS you make enough $$$ to send them to a private school.

  • dantresomi

    half of our children go to public schools and the other half to charter schools. From experience, I have seen public schools that are great, some okay, and some that are horrible. I have seen the same thing with charter schools.

    in many economically deprived areas, most schools ARE charter schools. in those areas, the schools are meeting the fed and state requirements can only accept so many students so the parents are forced to go to poorer schools or charter schools. I really don’t see the choice in that UNLESS you make enough $$$ to send them to a private school.