The Leveling of American Education - Living Together - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part IV. Living Together

Chapter 18. The Leveling of American Education

Most people think that American public education is in terrible shape, and any number of allegations seem to confirm it. But a search of the data does not reveal that the typical American school child in the past would have done any better on tests of academic skills. An American youth with average IQ is probably better prepared academically now than ever before. The problem with American education is confined mainly to one group of students, the cognitively gifted. Among the most gifted students, SAT scores started falling in the mid-1960s, and the verbal scores have not recovered since.

One reason is that disadvantaged students have been “in” and gifted students “out” for thirty years. Even in the 1990s, only one-tenth of 1 percent of all the federal funds spent on elementary and secondary education go to programs for the gifted. Because success was measured in terms of how well the average and below-average children performed, American education was dumbed down: Textbooks were made easier, and requirements for courses, homework, and graduation were relaxed. These measures may have worked as intended for the average and below-average students, but they let the gifted get away without ever developing their potential.

In thinking about policy, the first step is to realize where we are. In a universal education system, many students will fall short of basic academic competence. Most American parents say they are already satisfied with their local school. The average student has little incentive to work hard in high school. Getting into most colleges is easy, and achievement in high school does not pay off in higher wages or better jobs for those who do not go to college. On a brighter note, realism also leads one to expect that modest improvements in the education of average students will continue as they have throughout the century except for the aberrational period from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.

In trying to build on this natural improvement, the federal government should support greater flexibility for parents to send their children to schools of their choosing, whether through vouchers, tax credits, or choice within the public schools. Federal scholarships should reward academic performance. Some federal funds now so exclusively focused on the disadvantaged should be reallocated to programs for the gifted.

We urge primarily not a set of new laws but a change of heart within the ranks of educators. Until the latter half of this century, it was taken for granted that one of the chief purposes of education was to educate the gifted—not because they deserved it through their own merit but because, for better or worse, the future of society was so dependent on them. It was further understood that this education must aim for more than technical facility. It must be an education that fosters wisdom and virtue through the ideal of the “educated man.” Little will change until educators once again embrace this aspect of their vocation.

The education of the young is something that all human societies are committed to do. They can do it well or poorly. Many billions of dollars are already available for education in America. Can we spend them more wisely and produce better results? Our corner of the topic is how cognitive ability fits into the picture.

It seems self-evident: Education is what intelligence is most obviously good for. One ideal of American education is to educate everyone to his or her potential. The students with the most capacity to absorb education should get the most of it—most in years, breadth, depth, and challenge. But what should be self-evident is not. For thirty years, IQ has been out of fashion among American educators, and the idea that people with the most capacity to be educated should become the most educated sounds dangerously elitest.

It needs to be said openly: The people who run the United States—create its jobs, expand its technologies, cure its sick, teach in its universities, administer its cultural and political and legal institutions—are drawn mainly from a thin layer of cognitive ability at the top. (Remember—just the top 1 percent of the American population consists of 2.5 million people.) It matters enormously not just that the people in the top few centiles of ability get to college (almost all of them do, as we described in Chapter 1 ) or even that many of them go to elite colleges but that they are educated well. One theme of this chapter is that since the 1960s, while a cognitive elite has become increasingly segregated from the rest of the country, the quality of the education they receive has been degraded« They continue to win positions, money, prestige, and success in competition with their less gifted fellow citizens, but they are less well educated in the ways that make smart children into wise adults.

Letting people develop to their fullest potential is not the only important goal of public education. Since the founding of the republic, thoughtful Americans have recognized that an educated citizenry is vital to its survival. This chapter therefore examines how well our country fares in educating the average student—not the one who is likely to occupy a place among the cognitive elite but the one most representative of the typical American. We find that the average American youngster is probably doing better on tests of academic skills than ever before. We will try to understand why a sense of crisis nevertheless surrounds American education despite this unexpected good news.

We begin with quantitative evidence that shows the general outline of these trends and their connection to each other. Then we switch to observations of the kind that do not lend themselves to survey results or regression equations but that we believe to be justified by everyday experience in our schools and colleges.


A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal devoted its op-ed page to a reproduction of an examination administered by Jersey City High School in 1885.1 It consisted of questions such as the following:

Find the product of 3 + 4× + 5×2 − 6×3 and 4 − 5× − 6×2.

Write a sentence containing a noun used as an attribute, a verb in the perfect tense potential mood, and a proper adjective.

Name three events of 1777. Which was the most important and why?

The test was not for high school graduation (which would be impressive enough) but for admission to Jersey City High School. Fifteen-year-olds were supposed to know the answers to these questions. Of course, not many people went to high school in 1885. But could even the cream of the 15-year-olds in Jersey City’s middle schools pass that exam today? It seems unlikely.

Bits of national memorabilia like this reinforce an impression that is nearly universal in this country: American elementary and secondary education used to be better. The 1983 report by the Department of Education, A Nation at Risk, said so most famously, concluding that “we have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”2 Its chairman concluded flatly that “for the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”3

We begin by affirming the conventional wisdom in one respect: The academic performance of the average American student looks awful at first glance. Consider illiteracy, for example. Some authorities claim that a third of the population is functionally illiterate.4 No one really knows—when does “literacy” begin?—but no matter where the precise figure lies, the proportion is large. As of 1990, 16 percent of the 17-year-olds still in school were below the level called “intermediate” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test—in effect, below the threshold for dealing with moderately complex written material.5 Then one must consider that more than 20 percent of 17-year-olds had already dropped out of school and were not part of the sample,6 bringing us somewhere above 20 percent of the population who cannot use reading as a flexible tool of daily life.

There is a profusion of horror stories in other subjects. Fewer than one in three American 17-year-olds in a nationally representative sample could place the Civil War within the correct half-century of its actual occurrence.7Fewer than 60 percent of American 17-year-olds could correctly answer the item, “A hockey team won five of its 20 games. What percent of the games did it win?”8 More than 60 percent of adults in their early twenties cannot synthesize the main argument of a newspaper article.9 Forty-four percent of adult Americans cannot understand “help wanted” ads well enough to match their qualifications with the job requirements. Twenty-two percent cannot address a letter well enough to make sure the post office can deliver it.10

Critics of American education also point to international comparisons. Between the early 1960s and the end of the 1980s, six major international studies compared mathematical competence, science knowledge, or both, across countries.11 The National Center for Education Statistics has conveniently assembled all of the results for the first five studies in a series of twenty-two tables showing the United States’ ranking for each scale. The results for the industrialized countries are easily summarized: In seven of the twenty-two tables, the United States is at the very bottom; in eight others, within two countries of the bottom; in four of the remaining seven, in the bottom half.12 The most recent study, conducted in 1991, found that the United States continued to rank near the bottom on every test of every age group for the math tests and near the middle on the science tests.13

International comparisons need to be interpreted cautiously.14 But the most common defense for America’s poor showing is losing credibility. For years, educators excused America’s performance as the price America pays for retaining such a high proportion of its students into high school. But Japan has had as high a retention rate for years, and recently many European nations, including some that continue to outscore us on the international tests, have caught up as well.15

The picture is surely depressing. But as we look back to the idealized America of the earlier part of the century, can we catch sight of American school children who, on average, would have done any better on such measures than the youngsters of today? A growing number of educational researchers are arguing that the answer is no.16 With qualifications that the chapter will explain, we associate ourselves with their findings. According to every longitudinal measure that we have been able to find, there is no evidence that the preparation of the average American youth is worse in the 1990s than it has ever been. Considerable evidence suggests that, on the contrary, education for the average youth has improved steadily throughout the twentieth century except for a period of decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s (which justified to some degree the alarming conclusions of the early 1980s) but from which the educational system has already fully recovered. How can we get away with these statements that seem so contrary to what everyone knows? We do it by means of that innocuous word, “average.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, education for the average American young person improved steadily, partly because the average American young person spent more time in school than previously (Chapter 6). But much other evidence, marshaled convincingly by economist John Bishop, indicates a steady, long-term improvement in what Bishop calls “general intellectual achievement” that extended from the earliest data at the turn of the century into the 1960s.17 Even if we discount some of these results as reflections of the Flynn effect,18 it is impossible to interpret the data from 1900 to 1950 as showing anything other than some improvement. Then in the mid-1960s began a period of decline, as manifested most notably by the fall in SAT scores. Many people are under the impression that the decline was deep and permanent for the entire population of students. In reality, the decline for the average student was modest and recovery was quick. We know this first through the NAEP, begun in 1969, which we discussed with regard to ethnic differences in Chapter 13.19 When the first NAEP tests were given, the SAT score decline was in its fifth year and would continue for most of the next decade. The SAT is generally for a population concentrated at the upper end of the cognitive ability distribution, whereas the NAEP is for a nationally representative sample. While the scores for the population taking the SAT were still declining, the trendlines of the NAEP results were flat. The differences between the earliest NAEP scores in reading, science, and math (which date from 1969 to 1973, depending on the test) and the scores in 1990 are a matter of a few points and small fractions of a standard deviation, and scores often went up rather than down over that period.20

SAT scores had started declining in 1964, but the NAEP goes back only to 1969. To reach back further for nationally representative data, we turn first to five almost completely unpublicized studies, known collectively as the national norm studies, conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 1955, 1960, 1966, 1974, and 1983. In these tests, a short version of the SAT (the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT) was administered to a nationally representative sample of American high school juniors. The results are summarized in the table below, adjusted so as to represent the mean score that all American juniors would have received on the SAT had they stayed in school for their senior years and had they taken the SAT.

What SAT Score Decline? The Results of the National Norm Studies, 1955-1983


Verbal Mean

Math Mean

Sources: Cole 1955; Chandler and Schrader 1966; Katz and others 1970; Jackson and Schrader 1976; Braun, Centra, and King 1987.
















These results say that American eleventh graders as of 1983 were, as a whole, roughly as well prepared in both verbal and math skills as they had been when the college-bound SAT scores were at their peak in 1963, and noticeably stronger in their verbal skills than they had been in the first norm study in 1955. The decline in verbal scores between the 1966 and 1974 tests was 15 points—only about .14 standard deviation. About half of that had been recovered by the 1983 test.21

A third source is the Iowa Test of Educational Development (ITED), a well-validated test, equated for stability from year to year, that has been administered to virtually a 100 percent sample of Iowa’s high school students for fifty years. What may one learn from rural, white Iowa? For examining trends in educational outcomes over time, quite a bit. Iowa’s sample of students provides socioeconomic variance—even Iowa has single-parent families and welfare recipients. Paradoxically, Iowa’s atypical racial homogeneity (the population was more than 97 percent non-Latino white throughout the period we are discussing) is an advantage for a longitudinal analysis by sidestepping the difficulties of analyzing trends for populations that are changing in their ethnic composition. In examining Iowa’s test scores over time, we may not be able to make judgments about how the education of minorities has changed but we have a good view of what happened over the last several decades for the white population.

Test scores for high school students in Iowa increased from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s, dropped sharply from 1966 to 1978, but then rebounded, as shown in the figure below. We show the ninth-grade scores, which have been least affected by changes in dropout rates during the last fifty years. They show a steep rise through 1965 and an equally steep rise after 1977, reaching new heights from 1983 onward.22 The improvement has been substantial—on the order of half a standard deviation since the mid-1970s, and about .2 standard deviation above the previous high in 1965. The increase of 5.3 points from 1942 to 1992 may be interpreted as approaching one standard deviation.

Evidence from other, independent sources is consistent with the story told by the national norm studies and the Iowa data. Project TALENT, the huge study of high school students undertaken in 1960, readministered its reading comprehension test in 1970 to another sample and found that a nationally representative sample of eleventh graders had gained slightly over its counterpart of 1960, during the same decade that saw the steepest decline in the SAT. Other data on state tests in Virginia, New York, Texas, and California, summarized by the Congressional Budget Office in its study of trends in educational achievement, cannot match the time range of the Iowa or SAT norm data, but, within their limits, they are generally consistent with the picture we have sketched.23 Even the international assessments are consistent. The United States had some of its worst results in the first international assessment, conducted in the early to mid-1960s when American SAT scores were near their peak.24 Since then, the national American averages have been, on balance, rising and the deficit in international comparisons shrinking.

A half-century of Iowa tests: Improvement as the norm, the slump as a twelve-year aberration


Source: Iowa Testing Program, University of Iowa.

Taken as a whole, the data from representative samples of high school students describe an American educational system that was probably improving from the beginning of the century into the mid-1960s, underwent a decline into the mid-1970s—steep or shallow, depending on the study—and rebounded thereafter. Conservatively, average high school students seem to be as well prepared in math and verbal skills as they were in the 1950s. They may be better prepared than they have ever been. If U.S. academic skills are deficient in comparison with other nations, they have been comparatively so for a long time and are probably better than they were.


Having questioned the widespread belief that high school education today is worse on average than it used to be, we now reverse course and offer some reasons for thinking that it has gotten worse for one specific group of students: the pool of youths in the top 10 to 20 percent of the cognitive ability distribution who are prime college material. To make this case, we will focus on the best-known educational trend, the decline in SAT scores. Visually, the story is told by what must be the most frequently published trendlines in American educational circles, as shown below.25

The steep drop from 1963 to 1980 is no minor statistical fluctuation. Taken at face value, it tells of an extraordinarily large downward shift in academic aptitude—almost half a standard deviation on the Verbal, almost a third of a standard deviation on the Math.26 And yet we have just finished demonstrating that this large change is not reflected in the aggregate national data for high school students. Which students, then, account for the SAT decline? We try to answer that question in the next few paragraphs, as we work our way through the most common explanation of the decline. To anticipate our conclusion, the standard explanation does not stand up to the data. We are left with compelling evidence of a genuine decline in the intellectual resources of our brightest youngsters.

Forty-one years of SAT scores


Source: The College Board. Scores for 1952-1969 are based on all tests administered during the year; 1970-1993 on the most recent test taken by seniors.

The most familiar explanation of the great decline is that the SAT was “democratized” during the 1960s and 1970s. The pool of people taking the test expanded dramatically, it is said, bringing in students from disadvantaged backgrounds who never used to consider going to college. This was a good thing, people agree, but it also meant that test scores went down—a natural consequence of breaking down the old elites. The real problem is not falling SAT scores but the inferior education for the disadvantaged that leads them to have lower test scores, according to the standard account.27

This common view is mistaken. To make this case requires delving into the details of the SAT and its population.28 To summarize a complex story: During the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the SAT pool expanded dramatically, but scores remained steady. In the mid-1960s, scores started to decline, but, by then, many state universities had become less selective in their admissions process, often dropping the requirement that students take SATs, and, as a result, many of the students in the middle level of the pool who formerly took the SAT stopped doing so. Focusing on the whites taking the SAT (thereby putting aside the effects of the changing ethnic composition of the pool), we find that throughout most of the white SAT score decline, the white SAT pool was shrinking, not expanding. We surmise that the white population of test takers during this period was probably getting more exclusive socioeconomically, not less. It is virtually impossible that it was becoming more democratized in any socioeconomic sense.

After 1976, when detailed background data on white test takers become available, the evidence is quite explicit. Although the size of the pool once again began to expand during the 1980s, neither parental income nor parental education of the white test takers changed.29 After factoring in the effects of changes in the gender of the pool and changes in the difficulty of the SAT, we conclude that the aggregate real decline from 1963 to 1976 among whites taking the SAT was on the order of thirty-four to forty-four points on the Verbal and fifteen to twenty-five points on the Math. From 1976 to 1993, the real white losses were no more than a few additional points on the Verbal. On the Math, white scores improved about three or four points in real terms after changes in the pool are taken into account. Or in other words, when everything is considered, there is reason to conclude that the size of the drop in the SAT as shown in that familiar, unsophisticated graphic with which we opened the discussion is for practical purposes the same size and shape as the real change in the academic preparation of white college-bound SAT test takers. Neither race, class, parental education, composition of the pool, nor gender can explain this decline of forty-odd points on the Verbal score and twenty-odd points on the Math for the white SAT-taking population during the 1960s and 1970s. For whatever reasons, during the 1960s America stopped doing as well intellectually by the core of students who go to college.

Rather than democratization, the decline was more probably due to leveling down, or mediocritization: a downward trend of the educational skills of America’s academically most promising youngsters toward those of the average student. The net drop in verbal skills was especially large, much larger than net drop in math skills. It affected even those students with the highest levels of cognitive ability.

Does this drop represent a fall in realized intelligence as well as a drop in the quality of academic training? We assume that it does to some extent but are unwilling to try to estimate how much of which. The SAT score decline does underscore a frustrating, perverse reality: However hard it may be to raise IQ among the less talented with discrete interventions, as described in Chapter 17, it may be within the capability of an educational system—probably with the complicity of broader social trends—to put a ceiling on, or actually dampen, the realized intelligence of those with high potential.30


One more piece of the puzzle needs to be put in place. The SAT population constitutes a sort of broad elite, encompassing but not limited to the upper quartile of the annual national pool of cognitive ability. What has been happening to the scores of the narrow elite, the most gifted students—roughly, those with combined scores of 1400 and more—who are most likely to fill the nation’s best graduate and professional schools? They have gone down in the Verbal test and up in the Math.

The case for a drop in the Verbal scores among the brightest can be made without subtle analysis. In 1972, 17,560 college-bound seniors scored 700 or higher on the SAT-Verbal. In 1993, only 10,407 scored 700 or higher on the Verbal—a drop of 41 percent in the raw number of students scoring 700 and over, despite the larger raw number of students taking the test in 1993 compared to 1972.31 Dilution of the pool (even if it were as real as legend has it) could not account for smaller raw numbers of high-scoring students. But we may make the case more systematically.

The higher the ability level, the higher the proportion of students who take the SAT At the 700 level and beyond, the proportion approaches 100 percent and has probably been so since the early 1960s (see Chapter 1). That is, almost all 17-year-olds who would score above 700 if they took the SAT do in fact take the SAT at some point in their high school career, either because of their own ambitions, their parents’, or the urging of their teachers and guidance counselors. It is therefore possible to think about the students who score in the 700s on the SAT as a proportion of all 17-year-olds, not just as a proportion of the SAT pool. We cannot carry the story back further than 1967 but the results are nonetheless provocative, as shown in the next figure.32

The good news is that the mathematics score of the top echelon of American students has risen steeply since hitting its low point in 1981. Given all the attention devoted to problems in American education, this finding is worth lingering over for a moment. In a period of just twelve years, from 1981 to 1993, the proportion of 17-year-olds scoring over 700 on the SAT-Math test increased by 143 percent. This dramatic improvement during the 1980s is not explainable by any artifact that we can identify, such as having easier Math SAT questions.33 Nor is it due to the superior math performance of Asian-American students and their increase as a proportion of the SAT population. Asian-Americans are still such a small minority (only 8 percent of test takers in 1992) that their accomplishments cannot account for much of the national improvement. The upward bounce in the Math SAT from 1981 through 1992 was a robust 104 percent among whites.34

Now let us turn to the less happy story about the SAT-Verbal. The proportion of students attaining 700 or higher on the SAT fell sharply from 1967 to the mid-1970s. Furthermore, SAT scores as of 1967 had been dropping for four years before that, so we start from a situation in which the verbal skills of America’s most gifted students dropped precipitously from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Unlike the Math scores, however, the Verbal scores did not rebound significantly. Nor may one take much comfort from the comparatively shallow slope of the decline as it is depicted in the figure. The proportional size of the drop was large, from about eight students per 1,000 17-year-olds in 1967 to three per 1,000 in 1993, a drop of about 60 percent.35 The other major source of data about highly talented students, the Graduate Record Examination, parallels the story for the students scoring 700 or above on the SAT.36

Among the most gifted students, there is good news about math, bad news about verbal


Source: The College Board.


How might these disparate and sometimes contradictory trends be tied together?

One important part of the story begins with the 1950s. Why didn’t the scores fall, though the proportion of students taking the SAT went from a few percent to almost a third of the high school population in little more than a decade? The answer is that the growing numbers of SAT takers were not students with progressively lower levels of academic ability but able students who formerly did not go on to college or went to the state university (and didn’t take the SAT) and now were broadening their horizons. This was the post-World War II era that we described in Chapter 1, when educational meritocracy was on the rise. As the path to the better colleges began to open for youngsters outside the traditional socioeconomic elites, the population of test takers grew explosively. During this period, we can safely assume that the pool opened up to new socioeconomic groups, but it occurred with no dilution of the pool’s academic potential, because the reservoir of academic ability was deep. Then, as the 1950s ended, another factor worked to sustain performance: From the Sputnik scare in 1957 through the early 1960s, American education was gripped by a get-tough reform movement in which math and the sciences were emphasized and high schools were raising standards. Education for the college bound probably improved during this period.

Softened Standards

Then came the mid-1960s and a decade of decline. What happened to education during this period has been described by many observers, and we will not recount it here in detail or place blame.37 The simple and no longer controversial truth is that educational standards declined, along with other momentous changes in American society during that decade.

The educational change is epitomized by the title for this section. “Dumbing down” has become a term of art for the process by which the vocabulary in a textbook is deliberately simplified. We use it in a broader sense. One of the chief effects of the educational reforms of the 1960s was to dumb down elementary and secondary education as a whole, making just about everything easier for the average student and easing the demands on the gifted student.

The dumbing down of textbooks permeated the textbook market, as publishers and authors strove to satisfy school boards, which routinely applied “readability” formulas to the books they were considering.38 Thomas Sowell has described a typical example of this process, in which the words spectacle and admired were deleted from a textbook because they were deemed too difficult for high school students. Sowell compares such timidity to the McGuffey’s Readers, the staple text of nine-teenth-century children in one-room schoolhouses, pointing out that the Third Reader used words such as species, dialogue, heath, benighted—intended for 8-year-olds.39

Dumbing down also occurred in the high school’s college track. More electives were permitted, and the requirements for credits in science, mathematics, and literature were relaxed. There were exceptions, such as the high-quality Advanced Placement courses offered in a minority of high schools, taken by about 1 percent of American students.40 But the broader result was that the number of courses in the core disciplines declined. Educational specialists agree that grades inflated—it took less work, and less homework, to earn good grades41—and that less homework was done.42

In this context, it comes as no surprise that SAT scores declined even among the diminishing proportion of high school seniors who took the SAT during the last half of the 1960s. Indeed, it was not just students who took the SAT who suffered during that period. For a time, educational preparation got worse for everyone, as reflected in the Iowa data and the SAT national norm studies, not just for the college-bound tracks. But why was the size of the drop smaller and the rebound quicker and more complete for the population as a whole than for the SAT population? And why, in the SAT population, do we observe such a large difference between Math, where decline was small and the recovery substantial, and Verbal, where the decline was large with no apparent recovery at all? Why were these contradictory trends most pronounced for the most gifted students?

Competing Agendas

Our explanation is consistent with the facts as we understand them, but we should emphasize that our explanation is interpretive as well. It goes like this:

Since the late 1970s, the public dissatisfaction about the state of American elementary and secondary education has produced some changes. From 1982 to 1987, for example, the proportion of high school graduates who completed a solid program of four years of English, three of social sciences, three of the hard sciences, and three of math more than doubled.43 The average course loads in all the academic areas went up, most dramatically in foreign languages but with sizable gains in science and math as well.44 Many people wanted higher standards in their schools, and the schools tried to respond.

But other pressures were (and are) put on the schools, and they created a gulf between what happened to courses in mathematics and to courses in every other academic field. If a school, trying to have higher standards in math, began to require a basic calculus course for its college prep students, there were limits to the amount of fudging that could be done with the course content. Somehow a core of analytic techniques in calculus had to be part of the course. There was no way around it. Furthermore, there is a well-established standard for deciding whether calculus has been learned: Can the student solve calculus problems?

Another feature of math skills at the high school level is that they can be increased independent of the student’s development in other intellectual skills. A student may learn to manipulate quadratic equations even if he is given not a glimmer of how formal logic might relate to expository prose or to the use of evidence in civics class. It is good that math scores have risen, but it remains true that raising math standards can be routinized in ways that cannot be applied to the rest of the curriculum.

How, for example, does one decide that the standards for an English literature course have been “raised”? In the old days, it wouldn’t have been seen as a difficult question. Standards would be raised if the students were required to read a larger number of the Great Books (no one would have had much quarrel about what they were) or if students were required to write longer term papers, subject to stricter grading on argumentation and documentation. But since the late 1960s, such straightforward ways of looking at standards in the humanities, social sciences, and even the physical sciences were corrupted, in the sense that the standards of each discipline were subordinated to other considerations. Chief among these other considerations were multiculturalism in the curriculum, the need to minimize racial differences in performance measures, and enthusiasm for fostering self-esteem independent of performance.45 We assume that a politically compromised curriculum is less likely to sharpen the verbal skills of students than one that hews to standards of intellectual rigor and quality. We make these observations without belittling the issues that have been at center stage in American secondary education. But if the question is why the downhill slide in verbal skills has not reversed, here is one possible explanation: The agendas that have had the most influence on curricula are generally antagonistic to traditional criteria of rigor and excellence.

These influences come together when textbooks are selected by large school systems. A school board runs no risk whatsoever of angry historians picketing their offices. They run grave risks of pickets (and of being voted out of office) if a textbook offends one of the many interest groups that scrutinize possible choices. Publishers know the market and take steps to make sure that their products will sell.

There are doubtless other culprits that help explain the difference between the recovery in math scores and the failure to recover in verbal scores. Television, rather than the printed page, became the primary medium for getting news and recreation at home after mid-century, and that process was also reaching full flower in the 1960s. Telephones displaced letter writing as the medium for long-range communication. Such trends are hostile to traditional definitions of excellence in verbal skills. The simple hypothesis of this story is that these pressures existed across the curriculum and in society at large but that math skills were less susceptible to them. (Math skills may instead have been getting a boost from the accessibility of computers, calculators, and other high-tech gadgetry.) When parents demanded higher standards, their schools introduced higher standards in the math curriculum that really were higher, and higher standards in the humanities and social sciences that really were not.

The same dynamics provide a hypothesis for explaining why the rebound was more complete for the nation’s overall student population than for the SAT population. A textbook that is dumbed down is in fact helpful to the mediocre student. A recent study of six textbooks over a twelve-year period demonstrated that they had indeed been simplified, and students performed significantly better on the current, dumbed-down texts.46 Subjects that were traditionally not included in the curriculum for the lower end of the distribution—for example, exposure to serious literature—have now been so simplified as to be accessible to almost all.

The same dumbed-down textbook can quite easily have a depressing effect on the talented student’s development. And while the textbooks were being simplified, subjects that would push the best students to their limits, such as the classical languages, were all but dropped. Offered this diluted curriculum, talented students do not necessarily take the initiative to stretch themselves. Plenty of students with high IQs will happily choose to write about The Hobbit of Pride and Prejudice for their term paper if that option is given to them. Few of even the most brilliant youngsters tackle the Aeneid on their own.

The Neglect of the Gifted

Another factor in the declining capabilities of America’s brightest students is that the decline occurred when, in policy circles, disadvantaged students were “in” and gifted students were “out.” When the first significant aid went to secondary education at the end of the Eisenhower years, it was for the brightest students who might become scientists or engineers. In 1965, with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the funding priority turned 180 degrees, and it has remained anchored in the new position ever since. As of 1993, the ESEA authorized forty-six programs with budgets that added up to $8.6 billion. Most of these programs are specifically designated for students in low-income areas and students with special educational needs. Even the programs that might apply to any sort of student (improvements in science and mathematics education, for example) often are worded in ways that give preference to students from low-income areas. Another set of programs are for support services. And, finally, there are programs designated for the gifted and talented. This is the way that the $8.6 billion budget broke out for fiscal 1993:47

Programs for the disadvantaged


Programs that might benefit any student


Support and administration of ESEA programs


Programs for the gifted


This breakdown omits other federal programs with large budgets aimed at the education of the disadvantaged—more than $2 billion for Head Start (funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Education), more than $3 billion for job training programs, plus a scattering of others.48

Theoretically, programs targeted at disadvantaged students could also be programs for the cognitively gifted among the socioeconomically disadvantaged. But that’s not the way it has worked. Disadvantaged as used by three decades of administrators and school boards using ESEA funds has consistently meant not just students who are poor or living in an inner-city neighborhood but students who exhibit learning problems. Programs for the intellectually gifted but otherwise disadvantaged attract little support and, occasionally, hostility. A case in point is Banneker High School in Washington, D.C., a special academic high school in the middle of the black northeast section of the city, established by a former superintendent of schools with the school board’s reluctant permission in 1981.

The establishment of Banneker High followed a proud tradition in Washington, where once-elite Dunbar High had turned out many of the nation’s black leaders. But throughout the 1980s, Banneker was underfunded and repeatedly threatened with closure. Banneker was “elitest,” said an influential school board member, a luxury for parents who “had their children in private school and can no longer afford it and bring them back to essentially a private school at the public expense.”49 Banneker’s “elitest” admissions policy? Applicants had to write an essay, be interviewed, be in the top 18 percent of their class, and read and compute at grade level—a broad conception of “elitist” indeed. Throughout it all, teachers competed to teach at Banneker and students competed to attend. Banneker placed large proportions of its graduates in college and had no significant problems with discipline, drugs, crime, or the other ills of contemporary urban schools.50 And yet, as we write, Banneker continues to be barely tolerated by the school system. Banneker’s story has numerous counterparts in other urban centers. Funds for the economically and socially disadvantaged have meant, for practical purposes, funds concentrated on the cognitively disadvantaged as well.


What are the implications for policy? The pros and cons of the specific reforms on the table—national achievement tests, national curricula, school choice, vouchers, tuition tax credits, apprenticeship programs, restoration of the neighborhood school, minimum competency tests, ability grouping, and a host of others—involve nuts-and-bolts issues that are better argued out in detail, on their merits, in works that are specifically devoted to them. We also leave for other settings a discussion of the enormous potential of new technologies, from the personal computer to laser disks to the information superhighway, to enrich and broaden educational resources. Here we concentrate on certain strategic implications about educational reform that flow from our account—first, regarding attempts to upgrade American education as a whole, and then regarding the education of the gifted.

Realism About the Limits of General Improvements in Education

We begin with the first and most widely accepted conclusion: The extent and quality of learning for American students in general is low—lower than in most other industrialized countries but also (it would seem) low by basic standards of what a person of ordinary ability ought to learn. Before jumping into any particular set of solutions, however, policymakers need to be more realistic about what can be done to improve the education of students in a heterogeneous, nontotalitarian country. Specifically, critics of American education must come to terms with the reality that in a universal education system, many students will not reach the level of education that most people view as basic. Consider again the example of functional illiteracy mentioned earlier: that over 20 percent of 17-year-olds are below the intermediate reading level on the NAEP, meaning that they are marginal readers or worse. This is usually considered a failure of American education, and perhaps it is. But most of these nonreaders come from the bottom of the cognitive ability distribution. How well should they be able to read after a proper education, given the economic, technological, and political constraints on any system of mass education?

The United States has not yet completed the first half-century of human history in which universal secondary education became a goal. It was not until 1963 that the dropout rate fell below 30 percent of all 17-year-olds. Already we have seen improving performance in academic tests for the average student as educational opportunities have spread across the population. At about the same time, educators—and educational critics—stopped thinking hard or openly about variation in intellectual abilities. It is time to reopen the issue. What constitutes educational success for persons at various points along the cognitive ability distribution? The aspirations of educational reformers should be accompanied by a realistic and systematic assessment of where the room for improvement lies, taking the cognitive distribution into account.

Some critics blame students who do not work hard enough, rather than schools that fail to teach, for the shortcomings of American education. One hears repeatedly about students as couch potatoes. The average American student, it is said, takes the easy way out compared not only to the fabled Japanese but to children in countries such as Norway, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Italy.51 The obvious policy implication is to do something to make students work harder. Lengthen the school year. Lengthen the school day. Require homework every night. Toughen the grading.52 The proposals fill the air. We think many of them are good ideas. But: the closer one looks at the reasons why students do not work harder, the less it seems that they are to blame.

First, most American parents do not want drastic increases in the academic work load. Some of the evidence for this lies in quantitative survey data. In Harold Stevenson’s landmark cross-national study of Chinese, Japanese, and American education, 91 percent of American parents said their school is doing an “excellent or good job,” compared to only half that proportion of Taiwanese or Japanese parents.53 It has become a truism in survey research: Americans tell interviewers that American education in general is going to the dogs, then in the next breath give high marks to their children’s own school.54 In surveys, many American parents are either apathetic about school or hostile toward more homework and tougher grading.55 In this climate, more demanding standards cannot easily be imposed from above.

But if you live near a public school, you need not search the technical journals to verify the point. Visit the school and talk to any teacher about the last half-dozen parents who have complained to him. For every parent who visits the principal to tell him that Johnny isn’t getting enough homework are several who visit to complain Johnny is being overworked. Parents who are upset about inflated grades seldom make a teacher’s life miserable. Parents who are upset about their child’s low grade do.

Parents do want orderly classrooms, no weapons, no violence, no drugs, and other safeguards for their children that many schools, especially in large cities, no longer provide. These urgent needs are fueling much of the shift into private schools and political backing for the “school choice” movement. But the average parent seems unprepared to support genuinely stiffer academic standards.

A second point is that the average American student has little incentive to work harder than he already does in high school. Economist John Bishop has taken the lead in making this case, emphasizing two points.56 Bishop first observes that a demanding high school curriculum is not necessary for admission to most colleges. For most college-bound students, finding the money is harder than amassing the necessary high school record. And it’s their parents who typically need to find the money. Why bother to take tough courses? This is true even of talented students applying to selective schools; only a handful of schools at the summit routinely turn away students with SATs in the 1200s and up (see Chapter 1). A student who tests reasonably well (he knows this by the time he gets to high school) and doesn’t have his sights set on the likes of Yale does not have to be too careful about which courses to take as long as his grades are decent. Only youngsters who aspire to colleges that usually take students with higher scores than their own have a strong incentive to study hard—and however common this situation may seem at the school attended by the children of most of our readers, it describes a minuscule proportion of the national high school population.

Bishop also shows that achievement in high school does not pay off in higher wages or better jobs. Many employers assume that the high school diploma no longer means much more than that the student warmed a seat for twelve years. Others are willing to look at high school transcripts as part of the hiring process, but though schools are legally obligated to respond to requests for transcripts, hardly any transcripts ever reach the employer, and those that do usually arrive so late that they are useless.57 Using the NLSY, Bishop found that better test scores in science, language arts, and math were associated with lower wages and employment among young men in the first ten years after high school.58 Students, like everybody else, respond to what’s in it for them. There’s close to nothing in it for them in working hard in high school. Ergo, they do not work hard in high school.

How might policy changes reconnect high school performance with payoffs after graduation? For students not continuing to college, Bishop recommends a variety of measures to certify competencies, to make transcripts understandable and available to employers, and to build up data banks, national or regional (private, not federal), to enable youths to send their “competency profile” to potential employers.59

Such programs may work if employers of high school graduates had a shortage of competent workers applying for jobs. Some pilot projects are underway that should tell how much such data banks are needed and used.60 But in thinking about linking up performance in high school with the job market, here is a dose of realism: When it comes to predicting job productivity in most common jobs, an employer who routinely trains new employees in specific job skills anyway hasn’t much reason to care about whether the applicant got an A or a C in high school English or, for that matter, how well the applicant did in high school vocational courses, except perhaps as a rough measure of how bright and conscientious the applicant is. On the average, and assuming no legal restrictions on testing, an employer can get a better idea of how well a job applicant will perform in job training by giving him an inexpensive twelve-minute intelligence test than by anything that the high school can tell the employer about the applicant’s academic record.61 This puts sharp limits on how interested employers will be high school performance.

As far as colleges are concerned, what incentive do they have to raise admissions requirements if it means fewer students? During and just after the baby boom years, private colleges added many students to their rosters and now face an oversupply of places for a shrinking market. Few prefer to go out of business rather than take students with modest credentials. Public universities make their admissions policies in response to political pressures that generally push them toward more inclusiveness, not less. When neither buyer nor seller profits from higher standards, why would standards rise?

Realism About How Federal Reforms Will Work in the American Context

In ways that few people want to acknowledge, America does not want its schools to take a large leap in what they demand of youngsters. Our conclusion is that if parents, students, and employers do not broadly support a significantly more demanding educational system, it’s not going to happen. Nonetheless, a variety of sensible reforms are on the table—more homework, a longer school year, and the like. Why don’t we at least recommend that the federal government mandate these good things? On this question, the experience of the 1960s and 1970s serves as an object lesson for today.

Educational reformers in the 1960s and 1970s were confident that their ideas were good things to do. They were impatient with the conservatism of local school districts. They turned to a responsive White House, Congress, and Supreme Court, achieved many of their objectives, and thereby contributed to a historic shift in American education. On balance, the turn was for the worse as far as academic excellence was concerned, but that doesn’t mean the ideas were bad in themselves. Ideas such as more racial integration in the schools, more attention to the needs of disadvantaged students, and more equitable treatment of students in disciplinary matters do not seem less obviously “good” to us than ideals such as more homework and a longer school year. It was not the core ideas that were at fault (in most instances) but some basic problems that go with reforming American education at a national level.

We characterize the situation as follows: Slow improvement seems to have been a natural part of twentieth-century American education until the 1960s. This slow improvement had great inertia, in the sense that a slow-moving freight train has inertia. It is very difficult for an outside force to accelerate the freight train but comparatively easy for an outside force to derail it. In the United States, the federal government tends to be an outside force, more often derailing than pushing along, for reasons that are peculiarly American.

In countries such as France and Germany, with more homogeneous populations and more authoritarian and unapologetically elitest educational traditions, the national government can get away with centralized school systems that educate their brightest youth well. In the United States, it cannot. Federal standards, federal rules, and federal curricula, were they to be established, would inevitably be watered down and educational goals would be compromised with social and political ones. The federal government responds to pushes from all sides and gets equally nervous about affirming the genius of either Huck Finn or Charles Darwin. Powerful teachers’ organizations will not tolerate certification tests that flunk large numbers of teachers. Organizations that represent minority groups will not tolerate national educational standards that cause large numbers of minority children to flunk. These are political facts of life that will not change soon, no matter who is in the White House.

With America’s immense diversity and its tradition of local control, Washington is the wrong place to look for either energy or wisdom on educational reform. In our view, any natural impulse toward educational improvement will be best nourished by letting the internal forces—the motivations of parents for their children and teachers for a satisfying career—have their head. We will state our recommendation in broad terms:

The federal government should actively support programs that enable all parents, not just affluent ones, to choose the school that their children attend. Current movements to provide increased parental choice in schools are a hopeful sign, whether it be choice within the public school system, vouchers, or tuition tax credits. Without being any more specific than that, we urge that increased parental choice extend to private as well as public schools, and to religious private schools as well as secular ones.

Will increased parental choice help, given the modest academic goals that many parents have for their children? There are reasons for thinking it will First, the learning that goes on in a school depends on the school environment as well as on its curriculum. Here, the great majority of parents and teachers stand on common ground. Orderly classrooms and well-enforced codes of behavior do not need to be mandated but simply permitted; parents, teachers, and administrators alike will see to it, if the control they once had over their schools is returned to them. To have America’s children, poor as well as rich, once again attending safe, orderly schools would be no small achievement and would likely foster more learning than the often chaotic public schools do now.

Gifted youngsters would also benefit by restoring local control. While most parents do not want an authentically tougher education for their children, some do, and they tend to be concentrated among the parents of the brightest. Policy should make it as easy as possible for them to match up with classes that satisfy their ambitions.

To the extent that the government succeeds in this first goal, the others that we have in mind become less important. But as long as the current situation prevails, in which federal money and the conditions surrounding it play a major role in shaping public education, we recommend two other measures:

A federal prize scholarship program. This is one instance in which a specific, federal program could do some good in restoring educational excellence. As the law stands, federal scholarships and loan assistance are awarded almost exclusively on the basis of financial need, leaving the administration of standards to the colleges that admit and teach the students. That program may continue as is, but Congress should add a second program, not contingent on financial need but awarded competitively—for example, a flat one-time award of $20,000 to the 25,000 students in the country earning the top scores on standardized tests of academic achievement, over and above whatever scholarship assistance the student was receiving from other sources. How much would such “American Scholars” (the Congress might call them) cost? Five hundred million dollars a year—an amount equivalent to a rounding error in the national budget but one that would dramatically transform the signal that the federal government sends about the value it places on academic excellence.62

Reallocate some portion of existing elementary and secondary school federal aid away from programs for the disadvantaged to programs for the gifted. The objective is to make sure that public school systems have roughly the same capability to provide for students at the high end of the distribution as they have for helping students at the low end. A collateral part of this reform should be to rescind any federal regulations or grant requirements that might discourage local school systems from experimenting with or supporting programs for the gifted. At present, there is an overwhelming tilt toward enriching the education of children from the low end of the cognitive ability distribution. We propose more of a balance across the cognitive ability distribution.

Restoring the Concept of the Educated Man

Why should the federal government shift money from programs for the disadvantaged to programs for the gifted, when we know that a large portion of the gifted come from privileged families? Why not just support programs for the gifted who happen to come from poor families as well? In Part I, we went to some lengths to describe the dangers of a cognitive elite. And yet here we call for steps that could easily increase the segregation of the gifted from everyone else. Won’t programs for the gifted further isolate them?

The answers to such questions have nothing to do with social justice but much to do with the welfare of the nation, including the ultimate welfare of the disadvantaged.

The first point echoes a continuing theme of this book: To be intellectually gifted is indeed a gift. Nobody “deserves” it. The monetary and social rewards that accrue to being intellectually gifted are growing all the time, for reasons that are easily condemned as being unfair. Never mind, we are saying. These gifted youngsters are important not because they are more virtuous or deserving but because our society’s future depends on them. The one clear and enduring failure of contemporary American education is at the high end of the cognitive ability distribution.

Ideally we would like to see the most gifted children receive a demanding education and attend school side by side with a wide range of children, learning firsthand how the rest of the world lives. But that option is no more available now than it was during the attempts to force the racial integration of urban schools in the 1960s and 1970s. The nation’s elementary and secondary schools are highly segregated by socioeconomic status, they will tend to become more so in the future, and the forces pushing these trends are so powerful, stemming from the deeply rooted causes that we described in Part I, that they can be reversed only by a level of state coercion that would be a cure far deadlier than the disease.

Most gifted students are going to grow up segregated from the rest of society no matter what. They will then go to the elite colleges no matter what, move into successful careers no matter what, and eventually lead the institutions of this country no matter what. Therefore, the nation had better do its damnedest to make them as wise as it can. If they cannot grow up knowing how the rest of the world lives, they can at least grow up with a proper humility about their capacity to reinvent the world de novo and thoughtfully aware of their intellectual, cultural, and ethical heritage. They should be taught their responsibilities as citizens of a broader society.

The educational deficit that worries us is symbolized by the drop in verbal skills on the SAT. What we call verbal skills encompass, among other things, the ability to think about difficult problems: to analyze, pick apart, disaggregate, synthesize, and ultimately to understand. It has seldom been more apparent how important it is that the people who count in business, law, politics, and our universities know how to think about their problems in complex, rigorous modes and how important it is that they bring to their thinking depth of judgment and, in the language of Aristotle, the habit of virtue. This kind of wisdom—for wisdom is what we need more of—does not come naturally with a high IQ. It has to be added through education, and education of a particular kind.

We are not talking about generalized higher standards. Rather, we are thinking of the classical idea of the “educated man”—which we will amend to “educated person”—in which to be educated meant first of all to master a core body of material and skills. The idea is not wedded to the specific curriculum that made an educated man in the nineteenth-century British public school or in the Greek lyceum. But it is wedded to the idea of certain high intellectual goals. For example, to be an educated person meant being able to write competently and argue logically. Therefore, children were taught the inner logic of grammar and syntax because that kind of attention to detail was believed to carry over to greater precision of thinking. They were expected to learn Aristotle’s catalog of fallacies, because educators understood that the ability to assess an argument in everyday life was honed by mastering the formal elements of logic. Ethics and theology were part of the curriculum, to teach and to refine virtue. We will not try to prescribe how a contemporary curriculum might be revised to achieve the same ends, beyond a few essentials: To be an educated person must mean to have mastered a core of history, literature, arts, ethics, and the sciences and, in the process of learning those disciplines, to have been trained to weigh, analyze, and evaluate according to exacting standards. This process must begin in elementary school and must continue through the university.

Our proposal will sound, and is, elitist, but only in the sense that, after exposing students to the best the world’s intellectual heritage has to offer and challenging them to achieve whatever level of excellence they are capable of, just a minority of students has the potential to become “an educated person” as we are using the term. It is not within everyone’s ability to understand the world’s intellectual heritage at the same level, any more than everyone who enters college can expect to be a theoretical physicist by trying hard enough. At every stage of learning, some people reach their limits. This is not a controversial statement when it applies to the highest levels of learning. Readers who kept taking mathematics as long as they could stand it know that at some point they hit the wall, and studying hard was no longer enough.

The nation has been unwilling to accept in recent decades that the same phenomenon of individual limitation applies at every level of education. Given the constraints of time and educational resources, some students cannot be taught statistical theory; a smaller fraction of students cannot be taught the role of mercantilism in European history; for even a smaller fraction, writing a coherent essay may be out of reach. Each level of accomplishment deserves respect on its own merits, but the ideal of the educated person is in itself an ideal that must be embraced openly. By abandoning it, America has been falling short both in educating its most gifted and in inculcating, across the entire cognitive distribution, the values we would want in an educated citizenry.

But what do we want to do? What courses should be required of educated persons? Do we want to have separate schools for the gifted and average student? Tracking systems? A national Great Books curriculum?

We will say it again: Different parents will want to make different choices for their children. We are not wise enough—and neither are any of our colleagues wise enough, nor is the federal government wise enough—to prescribe for them what is best for their children. The goal of developing educated persons, like the goal of improving American education in general, will best be served by letting parents and local communities make those choices.

Educated, Not Credentialed

If we have not already made it plain, let us state explicitly that we are proposing a traditional ideal of education, not glorifying academic eredentials. To he an educated person as we use the term will ordinarily entail getting a degree, but that is incidental. Credentialism—unnecessarily limiting access to jobs to people with certain licenses and degrees—is part of the problem, not a solution. Because academic credentials are so overvalued, America shies away from accepting that many people have academic limitations—hence, the dumbing down that holds back the brightest youngsters.

But parents and communities must turn to educators to implement their hopes for their children, and here is the problem: Too few educators are comfortable with the idea of the educated person. A century ago the notion of an educated person was an expression of a shared understanding, not of legal requirements. That understanding arose because people were at ease with intellectual standards, with rigor, with a recognition that people differ in their capacities. The criterion for being an educated person did not have to be compromised to include the supposition that everyone could meet it. The concept of the educated person has been out of fashion with the people who run elementary and secondary schools and, for that matter, with too many of the people who run universities.

Our policy goal? That educators who read these words change their minds. It is a reform that is at once impossible to legislate but requires no money at all. It a reform that would not jeopardize the educational advances of the average student. All that we ask is that educational leaders rededicate themselves to the duty that was once at the heart of their calling, to demand much from those fortunate students to whom much has been given.