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The Cult of Smart:
How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

by fredrik deboer
all points, 288 pages, $28.99

The academic achievement gap has been the subject of thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of articles during the past six decades. Do these persistent gaps arise from discrimination on the part of educational systems, or on the part of society in general? Or, do they arise from cultural patterns among the underachieving and the overachieving? The debate continues. And what is the remedy? Increase public funding for schooling? Been there, done that on a massive scale since 1965, with meager effects.

Other reforms have shown more promise: Train teachers more rigorously; reduce class sizes; devise more effective pedagogies; make room in the bureaucratic structure of the public schooling monopoly for more focused autonomous schools; apply new technologies; extend the school day and year; work with families to increase the support received by at-risk youth at home; allow parents to choose schools in which they have confidence, including those with a religious character. Each of these reforms has produced positive effects, and the measured achievement of American youth in these cases has improved significantly in recent decades. But the gap remains between black, Latino, and Native American students on one hand and their white and Asian peers on the other.

The subtitle of Fredrik deBoer’s new book might seem to suggest yet another prescription for how to make American schools function effectively, but he shows no interest in practical reforms. His intention is much more ambitious: to persuade us that we should stop trying to produce better measurable results. Instead, we should acknowledge that genetics determine academic outcomes and it is therefore unfair to allow any consequences to follow from whether students do well in school or not.

At the heart of this annoying book is a valid observation: To propose academic accomplishment as the only path to a successful life is unfair to those individuals who, for whatever reasons, are incapable of high levels of academic performance. DeBoer rightly urges that we not “use academic performance as shorthand for a person’s overall human value.” Amen to that.

Educators tend to talk as though every student should go to college—the sky’s the limit if you apply yourself! Though meant to be encouraging, this message is profoundly demoralizing for those who lack academic ability. It also fails to recognize other useful abilities. Having made that important point, however, deBoer goes on to argue that life outcomes are determined almost solely by genetic factors, while taking great care (not very convincingly) to avoid linking genetics to racial differences. This fatalistic argument enables him to dismiss the various remedies proposed for the unequal outcomes of our educational system. One of the most pressing domestic policy concerns of the past half-century thus magically disappears.

In fact, deBoer asserts, “it doesn’t make much sense to even think in terms of school quality,” since “educators just don’t control much compared to the impact of inherent ability.” Nor should we seek to improve the quality of teachers, or hold them accountable, since “assumption of teacher responsibility for student outcomes . . . runs up against a basic reality of education: most students sort themselves into ability bands at a very early age, and they tend to stay in those ability bands throughout their academic careers.”

Equally vain, according to deBoer, are efforts to help parents become more effective in supporting their children, since “all of the many things that parents do to shape the personality and behavior of their children are likely an inefficient use of time and energy.” And “neither pre-K nor afterschool programs can be justified on the basis of the research record.”

Efforts to make the educational system fairer are misguided, deBoer argues. Indeed, even if “we make the meritocratic race entirely fair in terms of race, gender, economic class, and similar, the stakes of that race would remain as high as they are now, and the competition our young people face would stay just as brutal.” The only just policy, from his perspective as a Marxist believer “in revolutionary socialism,” is to eliminate testing altogether, abolish academic requirements, and “accept lower standards in order to keep more students in the system and to spare those who will never meet the more rigorous standards from the frustration and humiliation of failure.”

DeBoer’s denial of human agency needs to be rejected both on theological grounds and as a basis for public policy. He asserts that “poverty, addiction, and crime are the product of chance and environment” and that “these conditions have nothing to do with the character of those caught up in them.” This may be intended as a progressive refusal to “blame the victim,” but in fact it denies the dignity and significance of the decisions poor people make. My years of ministry in inner-city churches gave me a respect for how certain decisions can have a profound effect on families and their children, as anthropologist Reginald Clark documents in Family Life and School Achievement: Why Poor Black Children Succeed or Fail.

DeBoer’s cavalier dismissal of efforts by educators to make schools more effective for at-risk children is equally objectionable. For more than two decades, as the Massachusetts state official responsible for educational equity, I had ample opportunity to observe how schools with similar resources and similar students produced very different results. The most promising development in urban education has been charter schools, whose remarkable results are evident in many cities. Typically, deBoer urges that charter schools be abolished, since “for change to be socialist it must entail the destruction of markets,” including the opportunity for parents to choose schools for their children without paying tuition.

Any reader who has been swayed by the argument of charter school opponents—especially in the teacher unions—that any advantage in their test scores is thanks to the fact that charter schools serve a different clientele should read Charter Schools and Their Enemies by the distinguished economist Thomas Sowell. In New York City, declining enrollments in district public schools have in a number of cases allowed charter and district public schools to share the same facilities, serving students of similar racial-­ethnic character at the same grade levels. Sowell identifies sixty-five such cases and provides in each case the actual grade-by-grade results on required state tests. The proportion of students attaining “proficiency” in language arts was nearly five times greater for charter school students than for their peers in district schools in the same buildings. In mathematics, the proportion was seven times greater.

Charter schools do have several advantages, which explain these strong outcomes. They are almost as free as private schools to develop a distinctive educational mission and express it in every aspect of school life, developing character alongside academic skills. And they tend to draw their students from families who, despite social disadvantages, are strongly motivated to support the education of their children.

Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns is an engaging account of a year in one charter school. It shows us in day-to-day detail how classrooms, teachers, and families lay the foundations for the present and future happiness of children growing up in one of the poorest communities in America. What a contrast with deBoer’s patronizing insistence that such efforts can have little real effect!

Perhaps deBoer’s book indicates a loss of nerve in progressive circles, a recognition that their decades-long promise that if we simply increase by tens of billions—nay, hundreds of billions—the funding of public-­school systems and relieve teachers of the burden of producing measurable academic results, then the stubborn differences in academic outcomes and in consequent life chances will melt away. Or perhaps it reflects a growing unwillingness to compete with private and charter schools on the common ground of measurable results.

DeBoer is correct that we have allowed a single measure of achievement—performance on standardized tests of academic skills and knowledge—to play too large a role in the allocation of societal respect. Rather than abandoning achievement as an appropriate expectation, however, it would be more consistent with human dignity to recognize other forms of accomplishment that draw upon disciplined effort and contribute to the common good. After all, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor.” So should a just society.

Charles L. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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