Getting real about academic ability

Once in a long while, the truth emerges about education in this country (“ ‘The Cult of Smart’ Review: Social Justice Goes to School,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19). The reality is that not all students possess the same capacity to excel in school no matter how much help they are given. Intrinsic differences exist and are not amenable to significant change.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I remember my Psychology 1 professor’s stressing the importance of little “g.” Yes, socioeconomic factors explain in part differences in scholastic achievement.  But they do not play the exalted role that many people believe.  Look around. There are students who come from dire poverty and yet excel academically.  By the same token, there are students who come from affluence and yet are thick as a brick.

It’s time we accept these realities and accord vocational education the stature and respect it deserves. Learning a trade can mean a fulfilling and prosperous life.  The wage premium historically attached to a college degree is much less today after the cost of attending a four-year institution is fully factored in.

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2 Replies to “Getting real about academic ability”

  1. Agree that US society irrationally channels too many students into traditional college rather than voc ed options.

    But, re determinants of academic success — remember that socio-economic status (SES) is more than just $. We use SES to represent some combination of $, educational attainment, and attitudes towards life (particularly towards parenting). Statistically speaking, there obviously will be significant overlap between high $, high educational attainment, and productive attitudes towards life. But, the overlap will not be anywhere near perfect. Particularly, there will be some families with low income and low parental educational attainment but very productive parental attitudes towards life — for example, the stereotypical recent Asian immigrant or the early 1900s Jewish immigrant. The kids from these families will — on average — have much stronger academic achievement than what would have been predicted by their family income or parental educational attainment. Conversely, there will be families with a lot of $ and even a lot of parental educational attainment who for whatever reason have counterproductive parental attitudes towards life. The kids from these families will have much weaker academic achievement than what would have been predicted — although it’s possible that parental $ might get them into prestigious private schools and even prestigious colleges.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Socioeconomic factors certainly play a role in academic success. But innate intelligence (“g”) and culture are given far too little weight in the debate. Asian and Jewish students are the best examples. Yet reformers refuse to acknowledge this fact.

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