Test Scores Aren’t Set in Stone
At [email protected], Andrew Coulson discusses Charles Murray’s ideas about education. Murray advocates competition in education because he believes competing schools will offer safer environments and impart more knowledge, but he does not expect choice to raise test scores significantly. He thinks that students could learn more information than they do now, but he doesn’t think that reading comprehension or math test scores could rise much — according to Murray, those scores depend too greatly on IQ and family background for schools to make a difference.
Coulson cites research findings that private and charter schools do raise test scores, and that the effect lasts. Test scores really can go up. Then he makes this important point:
What’s more, this should be intuitively obvious. The current mean of the bell curve of educational achievement is not some inescapable fact of nature, like the value of pi. It is a symptom of the monopoly school systems that have stifled educational efficiency and innovation for more than a century.
That’s something that bothers me about Murray’s reasoning: He holds stagnant test scores under a monopoly system as evidence that mean test scores can’t change under any system. This extrapolation is unwarranted without evidence from competitive education systems. And, as Coulson notes, studies of competitive systems don’t support Murray’s argument.
In the book Real Education, Murray suggests another kind of study, one that he claims would put the debate to rest. First, he says, shower some below-average students with resources and attention. Next, give them a test. This, Murray writes, will determine “the outer limits of what can be accomplished with the current state of knowledge.” It would be futile to ask anything more of below-average children.
The fallacy here is readily apparent if we imagine an analogous experiment: Take some highly gifted people, and shower them with resources. Then see what they can do. Would you find the limits of human accomplishment?
Besides, Murray overlooks the fact that competition creates knowledge. As competing schools experiment and try new things, they gain knowledge of what works in education and what doesn’t. When we debate what a competitive market in education could achieve, we shouldn’t assume that knowledge of teaching will remain at current levels.