2005 February 27 Sunday
Bill Gates Joins Governors In Lake Woebegone Educational Fantasy

The education debate among political leaders in America is increasingly becoming a fantasy reminiscent of Lake Woebegone Minnesota. Lake Woebegone, an invention of Humorist Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion, is a mythical American town which Keillor enters as a story teller by saying "Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." Well, our educational debate sounds like it is conducted by people who live in Lake Woebegone. Along Lake Woebegone's citizens are America's governors and Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates who met together recently to jointly fantasize that all American children are above average and therefore capable of doing college level work.

"The key problem is political will," he said, discussing resistance to change. He said it was "morally wrong" to offer more advanced levels of coursework to high-income students compared with that offered many minority and low-income scholars. And he trumpeted the goal of preparing every high-school student for either two- or four-year college programs.

"Only one-third of our students graduate from high school ready for college, work and citizenship," he said. Gates spoke bluntly about the high dropout rates in America compared with those of other developed countries, and the differences between America's high-tech graduate degrees and those in India and China.

Never mind that over half (and rising) of the American population have IQs less than 100. In Lake Woebegone America the mainstream fantasy is that everyone can and should go to college. His argument amonts to asserting that all children are above average. I seriously doubt he really believes that though.

Gates says the current structure of high schools is obsolete and he is correct.

"Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age," said Gates, whose philanthropic foundation has committed nearly a billion dollars to the challenge of improving high schools. "Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year."

Speaking of another age: I think our immigration system is designed for a previous age when manual labor and less skilled labor were more valuable.

Governor Warner of Virginia speaking at the same meeting sees terrible economic ramifications in the performance of US students.

Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who is chairman of the association, said: "Three out of 10 students who enter high school do not graduate. Four out of 10 who do graduate lack the skills and knowledge to go on to college or to succeed in the work force. The economic ramifications of that could be devastating to our country."

Why does the United States have such a low rate of high school graduation? Only 50% of blacks and 53% of Hispanics graduate from high school. If politically correct dogmas didn't reign in the mainstream of America's press and higher education institutions one might expect Governors to get together and call for an end to immigration of groups that have low high school graduation rates and low college graduation rates even among 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation descendants of those immigrants.

Warner goes along with the charade that all students can excel in school.

“We can’t keep explaining to our nation’s parents or business leaders or college faculties why these kids can’t do the work,” said Virginia Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, as the state leaders convened for the first National Education Summit aimed at rallying governors around high school reform.

Does he really believe what he is saying? Warner and others of his ilk are going to have to keep on explaining why some students do poorly in school because they insist on putting the bulk of the blame for poor performance on the schools. Obvious causes such as low intelligence, low motivation, and other causes that lie within the students are ignord in their Lake Woebegone fantasies. So the mainstream debate about educational policy in America remains very unrealistic.

Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas also spins a fantasy about the primacy of environmental stimulation.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., said the most reliable predictor of success in college is a student’s exposure to challenging high school courses — and that governors know they must act.

Oh come on Mike. What do you think is being measured? Did you even consider the possibility that much brighter kids might be far more inclined to take "challenging" classes in high school? And what are "challenging" classes? To a kid with 90 IQ simple algebra is very challenging. To a kid with 160 IQ it is unlikely that anything taught in 99.9% of American high schools is challenging at all. They sit in high school classes bored out of their skulls at the slow rate that course material is taught. Governors are elected officials with considerable prestige and power in American society. But it is hard to take them seriously when they get together and peddle predictably wrong conventional wisdom.

Is there a bottom half of the Bell Curve? No, can't say that. At least publically Bill Gates essentially rejects psychometric research.

"Only a fraction of our kids are getting the best education," Gates said. "Once we realize that we are keeping low-income and minority kids out of the rigorous courses, there can only be two arguments for keeping it that way: Either we think they can't learn, or we think they're not worth teaching.

"The first argument would be factually wrong. The second would be morally wrong."

This is kinda funny coming from him. On other occasions he has talked in a very un-Lake Woebegone fashion.

Here is Gates in a book of his:

A collaborative culture, reinforced by information flow, makes it possible for smart people all over a company to be in touch with each other. When you get a critical mass of high-IQ people working in concert, the energy level shoots way up.

Here is Gates in a 2003 interview:

MM: Last night [at the Fall Comdex 2003 keynote address] you were talking about certain other companies who you think are real competitors, who are doing good work: Sony, Nokia, Google. What about those companies makes them the companies that you admire? What can Microsoft learn from them?

BG: Well, they have high-IQ engineers. We do too. A lot of great things happen when these companies that can take a long-term approach, and have real research, and have good engineers, go after interesting problems.

Here is Gates in 1996:

Here's another quote from the days when America's richest man could be more honest. A November 25, 1996 Fortune article by Randall E. Stross, entitled "Microsoft's Big Advantage - Hiring Only the Supersmart," featured some surprisingly frank statements by Bill Gates that sound like The Bell Curve on steroids:

Gates is blunt. "There is no way of getting around [the fact] that, in terms of IQ, you've got to be very elitist in picking the people who deserve to write software." … Microsoft could teach its employees in specific skill areas, but it could not instill intelligence and creativity - those, Gates said, were "reasonably innate." The best programmers, in Gates's view, are people who are "supersmart." … His self-confessed "bias" in hiring - "toward intelligence or smartness over anything else, even, in many cases, experience."

Where his own business is concerned Bill Gates is super realistic and we all know how well that realism has worked for him. If he wants to help our country he ought to try being realistic about the entire American population.

Restructuring elementary schools and high schools is not going to result in the creation of more high IQ students who are smart enough to appeal to Bill Gates as potential employees. The vast bulk of the super-brights are going to graduate from high school and go to college. However, there is one way in which educational restructuring in America could help Gates: If smart kids were allowed to get educated on much more rapid learning tracks via use of technology then they could graduate from high school and college years sooner and have easily 4 years added to their younger and smarter work years.

If Gates wanted to promote educational reforms that are in his company's economic interest he ought to push for the high resolution video recording of many college-level courses in scientific and technical fields so that bright teens could learn college material at a greatly accelerated rate while still living at home. He should fund the writing of college-level textbooks that can be downloaded for free by pre-college students. He also should fund the development of testing software that would automate tests delivered over the internet. Then bright people could enter the work force with younger minds and work more years while their minds are youthful and most vigorous.

The chattering class that discusses educational reform spouts lots of nonsense. Some do this out of ignorance. Some do so because they fear to break the taboos that must be broken in order to be able to discuss human minds realistically. Still others have a variety of self interests for propagating falsehoods. While some want to deceive and some are ignorant those who are more realistic in their own minds ought to try harder to promote policies that would work well for what humans are like in reality. For example, the idea of creating specialized personal curricula by use of technology would be a good idea even if everyone had the same intellectual capacity. Technology can deliver content that caters to specific interests of each student and could deliver course content in much more flexible, higher quality, and cheaper ways.

Another way that schooling could be made more realistic without the promoters of new policies violating liberal taboos about human intelligence would be to promote vocational learning by admitting that not everyone wants to go to college. Even among those who do go to college some do not learn anything useful there and, well, the carpentry work, electrical work, steel work, and other vocations are still there and there is a market demand for people to do these sorts of jobs. The schools are not serving these people well by providing them with the opportunity to learn marketable skills in occupations that they either can or want to do.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 February 27 09:13 PM  Education

PacRim Jim said at February 27, 2005 10:09 PM:

Gates dropped out of Harvard. Why take his suggestions seriously? He seeks to mold every student into a Microsoft drone.

eh said at February 28, 2005 4:10 AM:

Bill Gates is proof that you do not have to be smart to get rich.

eh said at February 28, 2005 4:36 AM:

Regarding "minority" students, Gates et al might want to take a look at the countries where these kids (or their parents) come from (assuming they are immigrants), and then explain to us just what is holding these nations back; I think we can safely eliminate the US educational system as a factor in the underdevelopment and poverty found in most of these places. Personally, I think there is a reason why, say, Haiti is Haiti, and Iceland is Iceland.

"Gates spoke bluntly about...the differences between America's high-tech graduate degrees and those in India and China."

After working for more than 20 years in Silicon Valley, and meeting people educated literally all over the world, I have no idea myself what these differences might be. My personal experience is that those educated in America are more technically reliable, never mind certain...behavior problems foreigners seem to bring in with them. However, I'm sure Mr Gates' company has benefited handsomely from the depressed wages caused by the influx of foreign high tech workers, most of whom are of course competent.

But, I mean, really: What can these men, nearly all of them politicians, be expected to say? Especially in what has become an almost hysterically politically correct America? Witness the recent treatment of Lawrence Summers.

Ralph Phillip said at February 28, 2005 6:23 AM:


You obviously feel that IQ is a remarkably important factor in individual, community, and national success.

I wonder if you would mind sharing your own IQ test score? I'm very curious -- if I had to guess I'd put it at 140.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2005 9:56 AM:


I think the evidence from psychometric research on the importance of IQ is overwhelming and has been for years. If you haven't read such books as The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray or g Factor by Arthur Jensen then I strongly encourage you to do so.

I also think that most liberal academics at elite universities understand the importance of IQ and are IQ snobs. There is a real contradiction between their beliefs about the power of IQ and their positions on a whole host of issues.

As for my own IQ: I do not know. I would not put it as high as 140. I would guess it is somewhere in the mid 120s to low 130s. I wish it was 140. Then upper division math classes in college would have been a lot easier.

crush41 said at February 28, 2005 10:55 AM:

Randall, do you have an opinion on the reliability of SAT/ACT to IQ conversions? Also, what of the arguments that programs like HeadStart raise the IQs of children who participate in them over the short term?

My mother is an OT for the local school district and I frequently get into it with her over why the district spends up to $30,000 a year in some cases on severely handicapped students and yet even those in the "gifted" programs are put on an identical course of study as the mainstream with the exception of a couple hours a week in which they can pursue "independent study". At both ends she says the movement is to assimilate them into the mainstream--she was hired specifically to work with handicapped students so that they can attend regular classes with the mainstream. Further, the district cut the admission to the gifted program from the top 5% to the top 2.5%. Basically, the specialization you are rightly advocating is exactly the opposite of what is happening. The higher a child's IQ, the more resources he should have allocated to him. That's what happens in secondary education and in business, but the public school system seems to do everything possible not to allow for differentiation of any kind.

When I tested for the gifted program in high school, the test administrator told me IQ is static, but subsequently I've read that it is more analagous to physical ability; relatively set but can be moderately improved by mind puzzle exercises, etc or can lapse due to lack of mental stimulus, much like physical athleticism with conditioning (or lack thereof). Finally, doesn't IQ by definition have to average 100 (and so must be adjusted over time), even as the results change/progress?

Perhaps you could just refer me to a good site for IQ 101. I haven't yet read Bell Curve but am planning to this summer.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2005 11:23 AM:

SAT/ACT to IQ conversions: At an individual level the results are not highly reliable. But then if you were to repeat the SAT or an IQ test you could get a big difference in test scores. I do not know what the correlation is between SAT and IQ.

HeadStart is a waste of time. HeadStart should be converted to a reading program.

Specialization could be done cheaply for the brightest kids because they could learn alot on their own if given access to good books and technology that delivers course content. Education really ought to be automated. Better software and videos would even be beneficial to the less bright. Instructors present in person would still be useful. But computers and videos could deliver a much larger fraction of all instruction and assistance.

Here is a pretty good selection of articles on IQ.

IQ average 100: It is normalized to the white population. So the white average is 100. But, for example, the Ashkenazi Jewish population has a much higher average and various other groups have different averages above and below whites. Also, you will find different averages at various lower levels of aggregation. For articles on national IQs start here and click thru to the various links provided.

John said at February 28, 2005 12:55 PM:

India and China combined have a population of over 2.2 billion people. Even if the average IQ in these countries is only 85, nearly 350 million people in these countries have IQs over 100. That's more than the entire population of the U.S., more than the population of all the industrialized nations of East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) combined, and more than the population of the major nations of Western Europe combined.

India and China also have very low labor costs. Hiring a programmer in India often costs 1/10th the price of a programmer in the United States.

Given the large populations and relatively low wages in China and India, it's inevitable that both nations will be able to compete with the U.S. and other industrialized nations if they pursue the correct economic and social policies.

John said at February 28, 2005 1:09 PM:

Whites in the United States actually scored somewhat below whites in the Netherlands and Finland on the math section of the TIMSS test. Whites in those countries actually scored as well as (or even better than) the Japanese and Koreans. Since there are probably no major IQ disparities between whites in the U.S. and whites in those countries, the differences in test scores among white populations probably reflect differences in educational systems and possible cultural differences.

That leads me to conclude that at least whites in the U.S. are performing below their academic potential.

Many of the predominately blacks and Hispanic urban school districts are often very violent and chaotic. Maybe enforcing stricter
discipline in those schools could raise achievement.

Also, many there are many areas of the country with rural white populations with low academic achievement and high dropout rates. Maybe investing more in those rural areas could help.

Rick Darby said at February 28, 2005 2:02 PM:

I don't expect any serious institutional reform of public schools -- from the grade school to the college level -- because that would involve acknowledging certain realities that, as you suggest, are taboo in our fanatically egalitarian culture. We would have to admit that, whatever quibbles might be made about measuring intelligence, there is a wide variation in intelligence among people, and no feel-good program can change that except in the most marginal degree.

We would have to admit that some students lack the cultural and family background to value learning. I'd like to believe that "better" schooling could make up for this, but it's questioable. What I'm certain of is that "mainstreaming" everyone who can't learn side-by-side with those who can will just reduce the motivation of the more able students forced to limp with the lame.

We'd have to recognize that there are different personality types and temperaments, which the ideology of radical egalitarianism can't admit, and that some people are more gifted intellectually, some more attuned to helping people (an intelligence of the heart, so to speak), some naturally mechanically inclined, and almost everyone "bright" in some respects and "stupid" in others. The old educational system that sent some into "shop" or "vocational" courses and others into academic courses may have been too arbitrary and crude, but it was more honest and realistic than today's conventional wisdom that everyone should take the same curriculum and get a college degree, and that every dropout is a failure of the schools.

Is the education establishment going to admit it is on the wrong track, with its goal of squeezing everyone into a box labeled "college graduate" (even if the college degree must be made almost meaningless to enable it)? Does the leopard change his spots?

The only remedy I can see is encouraging in every way possible alternative education -- home schooling, charter schools, whatever can be devised so that teachers and administrators who don't follow the party line have a chance to provide education geared to individuals, not a mythical Everystudent who is just like all the others.

John S Bolton said at February 28, 2005 9:28 PM:

The quotes remind me of the fake moral dictum that says that you cannot give to some what you will not give to all indiscriminately. Harvard and MIT, and indeed every institution of renown, would be shut down, on such a policy, and that would be the grossest immorality; as low as the Khmer Rouge. If Gates believes that you cannot give to the few what you will not give to the multitude, he is morally handicapped, and in the same way as the governors quoted. If they are just lying for political image adjustment, that is also a clearcut violation of morality. They have spoken with a swinish moral blindness; everything of value depends on the more meritorious getting more and better at each stage. It also shows that equality and public education don't mix; it is the government schools which must be privatized.

David Govett said at February 28, 2005 10:54 PM:

IQ seems to be a zero-sum quantity. It seems that others have low IQs because mine is so amazingly high. ;>}

Stephen said at February 28, 2005 11:10 PM:

I've got my doubts about IQ measuring anything 'real'. I've done the test three times over about 10 years and its varied from 141, 130, and 138 (most recent one taken late last year). I can understand the IQ test hovering around 138-141, but the 130 score is quite an outrider, and I wouldn't expect such an outrider if the test was measuring some innate capacity.

My personal experience in hiring people is that the important thing isn't a high IQ, rather its actually finding someone who isn't scared to think for themselves (whether at all, or even better, critically). I think that being willing to 'think' flows (with limits) from one's personality and not one's IQ.

Finally, John makes a good point about a low average IQ country with an enormous population having more high IQ people in absolute terms than a high IQ average country with a small population. A society doesn't need everyone to be brainiacs - it simply needs just enough to ensure the trains run on time.

Invisible Scientist said at March 1, 2005 7:16 AM:

The IQ tests have sub-sections such as quantitative, verbal, logical. And even the
so-called mathematics section has sub-sections for visual and algebraic reasoning.
It is entirely possible for a very accomplished programmer like Randall Parker to
have a very score in the logical and verbal section, and also in the algebraic reasoning
section of the IQ test, but a low score in the visual section. This is why there is a lot
of room for improvement in the IQ tests. This is why the SAT and GRE tests have separate
scores for logical, verbal, and quantitative ability. And some of the questions in the IQ
tests are so standardized that it is possible for the student
to study for such tests and raise the score by 5 to 10 points, or even more.

GUYK said at March 9, 2005 12:29 PM:

Many years ago I read an article in Playboy ( I did do more than look at the pictures ) regarding IQ. The writer claimed that the only true IQ test was to give someone who had been totally isolated from social conditioning a board with holes, matching pegs, and a hammer. The time that it took for the individual to figure which peg matched which hole would equivilate to an IQ score. In short, the writer didn't think much of IQ scores. I tend to agree.

I found during my many years in the military that aptitude test scores only gave an indication of ability and in no way were a guarantee of success. I do think that educational test scores an IQ test scores are the same. In fact, social conditioning has more to do with educational achievement than does an exceptional high IQ. Children from educated parents tend to become educated. Children from uneducated families tend to be high school drop outs. That doesn't mean that either are "smarter" than the other. It just means that social conditioning to learn is in practise among more ofthe educated families than in the less educated families.

Most teachers will tell you that when parents are positive about little Johnny learning to read, Johnny learns to read. They also will tell you that when the parents blame the school system and the teachers for Johnny's failure to learn to read little Johnny learns to blame the system for his failure. It could be that there are not really that many bad teachers and bad school or even bad students. Could be that the blame should be placed on bad parents.

Of course there are many other varables in the educational problem. Lack of discipline and courts that limits disciplinary actions by teachers is one that should be addressed. Mainstreaming mentally challenged students does little to help either the handicapped child or classmates. And, lets not forget lack of funding.

Randall Parker said at March 9, 2005 1:20 PM:

Stephen, GUYK,

You ought to read more deeply on IQ and the field of psychometrics before passing judgement on it. Start with The Bell Curve. Also read Intelligence,Race, and Genetics: Conversations with Arthur R. Jensen by Jensen and Frank Miele and The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability by Arthur Jensen.

The key point to keep in mind is that IQ is highly predictive for group differences. Take a group that scores 120 IQ in childhood and another group that scores 100 IQ with the same socioeconomic status and familiy situations and the 120 IQ will, on average, perform way differently than the 100 IQ group on many predictable measures. If you haven't read a book length review of the field of psychometrics then any claims you make about the lack of utility of the field are based on ignorance. It is one of the most rigorous fields of social science and has produced many results that have great predictive value.

At the same time, the neurological correlates with IQ are becoming stronger. For example, brain scans show a .7 r correlation between gray matter size and IQ.

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