Variations in IQ scores are one reason schools should stop trying to squeeze every student into the same academic mold 

Fredrik deBoer, author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, believes IQ scores can say something significant. They’re one indicator that some students will never succeed in the classroom, and thus they point to the crying need for change in the education system, he says. The New York-based writer, an avowed Marxist, sat down with Luckbox and shared his thoughts on how the nation’s schools can accommodate kids who aren’t inclined or equipped for the academic life. He was filled with ideas that could appeal to people anywhere on the political spectrum. (For more on his new book, click here.)

You’ve called the American educational system broken. What’s wrong and how can we change it?

deBoer: Our system is now failing to provide the good life for everybody, in large measure because it was never intended to. College now receives an enormous amount of pressure as the sole means through which we can move people en masse from lower- and middle-class backgrounds into upper-middle-class futures. And the system is straining under the weight of all that. 

Famously, for a period of decades in this country, people who were not college-educated could go to the factory at the edge of town, get jobs in manufacturing—often with a union—and be able to support themselves, a spouse and a couple of children. They could own a home, own a car, etc. The ability of people with only a high school diploma to secure that future has died out over the last 40 or 50 years, largely due to automation and offshoring. 

What we’re doing instead—because that system has failed—is we’re now pushing more and more people into college to try to get them ready for the workplace of tomorrow. But college is a relative advantage. In other words, part of what makes a college degree valuable is its scarcity. 

So if you make degrees less scarce, you’re going to have less value for the people who have them. Also, not everyone is meant to go to college, and the system is really straining under the many new enrollees who lack the basic prerequisite ability to get through a college program. That results in spiraling costs for mediation, ever-higher tuition costs and people saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. So the system is failing in that sense.

How might IQ scores factor into employment?

The evidence is quite strong that there are certain kinds of cognitive tasks that are captured in an IQ test, or an SAT test or similar tests. They capture some ability that those people have to solve certain kinds of cognitive tasks, and those tasks are useful in many places in society.

Some people have these intellectual abilities that will benefit them economically, no matter what. But not everyone has those abilities. And the response to that fact in the policy domain has been to say, ‘Well, let’s just blame our educators, and let’s put more and more pressure on the education system to make everyone have these cognitive tools.’

My position is to say, ‘Look, you’ve been trying that for decades. You’ve invested hundreds of billions of dollars into it. You’ve enlisted the manpower of millions of people. You’ve spent countless hours on this. And yet, we have not seen anything like the kind of changes that you want to happen at scale.’

“We must create an education system that works for everyone—not just the intellectually gifted.”

We’re continuing to fail at the most basic desires of the education reform movements. Rather than trying to beat our heads against the wall and say, ‘How can we change this reality?’ I want us to accept reality and not use a narrow lens—to broaden our conception of what makes someone a valuable human being by looking beyond just those cognitive tasks that tend to be, to some degree, inherent.

I want us to be a society that inculcates our children not just intelligence, not just academic aptitude, but also compassion, creativity, curiosity, grit, etc. We should expand the definition of what it means to be educated and what it means to be a valuable human being culturally and economically, so that more people in our society can be deemed worthy of the good life.

How can we move the system in that direction?

The system right now is set up—to a greater and greater degree—to narrow the potential paths forward for our students. There is an educational standardization movement, which has been remarkably successful in this country, which is epitomized by the Common Core.

Isn’t Common Core just a set of goals?

The Common Core is a set of requirements designed to create a universal public school curriculum in the United States. For example, you have to have X number of math credits by this age, or you have to take Algebra II in a certain year.

That concept that everyone should be viewed with the same metrics is the opposite of what we want, right? If we have the courage to accept that different people are good at different things, that everybody has something to contribute but not everyone has the same things to contribute, then insisting on having a Common Core, insisting on having all these difficult-to-meet education standards, is just creating misery in our population of students.

They’re completely arbitrary barriers to academic success for these students. And there’s no research to indicate that these standards are actually promoting educational excellence. So, part of that is loosening those standards, giving students more electives, more choices in their classes, letting them avoid classes where they know they’re going to do poorly.

Doesn’t society have a responsibility to help students achieve academic competence?

We have to acknowledge from the beginning that a number of our students are going to emerge into menial jobs that don’t provide a great deal of life satisfaction and don’t provide a living wage. That’s how things are going right now, and that’s going to be true regardless of whether or not we are forcing them through a particular curriculum at school.

We have this break in the system where wealth is being generated. Such a vast portion of that wealth is going to such a small percentage of the people that there just is not enough money in the pie for regular people to be able to live their lives. And there’s no education policy that can fix that.