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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Mom was right: School makes you smarter

There has long been a terrible assumption about school success: It largely depends on the genetic code with which you were born.

That is, kids are either naturally smart or they aren’t. Society mythologizes the one-in-a-million genius born into a broken or impoverished home, who, by the power of his or her God-given intelligence quotient and old-fashioned hard work, rises up from the dire conditions in which he or she was raised. Such kids become our heroes.

Look at Presidents Clinton and Obama. Their intelligence is unquestionable. Each grew up in less-than-ideal conditions. Yet they not only survived, but also achieved mind-numbing success in academia and in life.

Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein and American Enterprise Institute political scientist Charles Murray laid out the case for the IQ’s primacy in their 1995 best-selling book “The Bell Curve.” Herrnstein and Murray argued that intelligence is genetically controlled and virtually immutable, can be accurately measured by standard IQ tests, and is the key predictor of academic performance.

Nearly two decades later, America is still feeling the monumental effects this single book has had on our educational system, according to Richard Nisbett, co-director of the University of Michigan’s Culture and Cognition Program.

There isn’t much a school can do to bolster a child’s IQ, according to the logic behind “The Bell Curve.” Many fiscal conservatives thus argue that academic interventions such as early-childhood education, full-day kindergarten, summer school, even smaller class sizes don’t make much of a difference and are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

New York state must not consider any of the above to be particularly important because none of them are mandated. In fact, in these times of fiscal restraint, all are on the budgetary chopping block. Struggling to meet a state-mandated 2 percent property-tax cap for the past two years, many school districts have already been forced to cut one or more of these services.

The anti-tax crowd is rejoicing, promulgating the “The Bell Curve’s” genetic-code-is-everything mantra. The trouble is, “The Bell Curve” was wrong.

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