There’s Nothing Natural about Inequality

Margaret Wente (“For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls”, today’s Globe) argues, based on a new book by Charles Murray that “educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap.” Some people are just dumb, and there’s not much that can be done about it, she would have us believe.

Charles Murray’s deeply conservative idea that there is a fixed Bell Curve like distribution of individual abilities independent of social context simply does not fit the evidence. Standardized international studies of student achievement, such as the International Adult Literacy Survey which measures literacy levels among young adults, finds that the distribution of test scores among students varies quite strikingly between different countries.

An excellent StatsCan study by Doug Willms shows that literacy score gradients by socio-economic status (measured by parental education) are far steeper in more unequal societies – just as others have shown that health status gradients are deeply affected by the extent of inequality at the national level.

In Canada and, to an even greater extent, the US, there is indeed a Bell Curve like gap between the low literacy scores of the bottom third or so and the average, but the literacy gap among young adults is much narrower in many European countries, especially Sweden. Scores at the top and the middle differ little between Canada and Sweden, but the bottom third in Sweden do much better.

Wente might choose to believe that the bottom third of Swedish youth are somehow “naturally” smarter than the bottom third of Canadians. But is surely much more plausible to believe that social context matters deeply and that equal societies which invest in equality do manage to achieve the desired results.

http://www.statcan.ca/english/research/89-552-MIE/89-552-MIE1999006.pdf

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