Murray's new article is a response to what he describes as "educational romanticism", encapsulated by the beliefs of the UK's former schools minister Andrew Adonis. In August, Lord Adonis wrote "There is no genetic or moral reason why the whole of society should not succeed to the degree that the children of the professional classes do today, virtually all getting five or more good GCSEs and staying on in education beyond 16."
Murray argues that study after study has shown that improving schools actually makes very little difference to children's academic success. For example, he cites the Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, an American project which compared 11 of the best pre-school interventions. "The consortium's bottom line" he writes "was that 'the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent'".
He also discusses The Coleman Report, published in 1966, which observed the relation between school quality and academic success among 645,000 students. "To everyone's shock," Murray writes, "the Coleman Report found that the quality of schools explained almost nothing about differences in academic achievement." Instead, family background was by far the most important factor explaining academic success.
Murray argues that IQ is the strongest influence on academic success and that some children simply aren't equipped to excel at the highest levels, no matter how excellent the schooling they receive. The children of parents from the professional classes tend to do better academically, he proposes, because they inherit higher IQ from their parents, and because the households of professional couples are more conducive to learning - for example, more intelligent parents are more likely to read to their children.
"This is not a counsel of despair," Murray concludes. "The implication is not to stop trying to help but to remove the ideological blinkers and stop pretending that all children can or should pursue the academic track. There is a healthier and attainable goal of education: to bring children to adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well. The goal applies equally to every child, across the entire range of every ability."
What do Digest readers think? Does the psychological literature support Murray's controversial claims? A previous Digest item that seems to undermine his claims described a study showing that self-discipline matters more than IQ when it comes to academic success.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
Other related Digest items include:
The long-term effect of streaming on children's self-esteem.
Reading to babies gives them a head-start.
How ambitious mothers breed successful daughters.
Link to Charles Murray's article: We can't all make the grade.