Review of “Cult of Smart” by Fredrik deBoer

Selection Bias Can Only Explain So Much

My favorite education book of the year is The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer. It’s fantastic because it effectively attacks so many orthodoxies of education reform while still ultimately putting forward an egalitarian and deeply humane explanation of modern inequalities in educational outcome.

The idea at the heart of the book is that educational success — along with the financial security that closely follows educational outcomes — is mostly a function of natural characteristics that are out of the control of individuals. And so, because educational outcomes are so dependent on uncontrollable factors, deBoer argues for extensive reforms to the system with the ultimate goal of making it commonly understood that meritocratic success is unfair and absurd; that education, as it stands, is ultimately an engine of inequality.

DeBoer’s initial arguments are primarily built on the work of Behavioral Genetics and Psychology which basically concludes that there are massive differences in intelligence within groups that are most likely explained by heritable factors. So although we can argue that the differences between groups are often caused by non-genetic factors, modern Behavioral Genetics argues that heritability plays a clear role in determining the natural ability of different students within specific groups. For example, the book argues that genes have no influence on the difference between the test scores of a black student and white student, but genes can play a part in explaining the difference between two wealthy white students since they have similar backgrounds.

On top of this acceptance of differences in natural ability, the book also accept that systemic factors like racism and classism have massive effects on the outcomes of students that go well beyond the natural capacity that students possess. So as previously mentioned, the differences between black and white students can’t be explained by heritability, however they can be explained by sociocultural factors like economic inequity and systemic racism. Thankfully, this is one of the first education books I’ve encountered that deals with psychology and genetics without also hinting of eugenics and scientific racism.

The first part of the book focuses on an honest assessment of commonly ignored research in psychology, economics, and genetics, that has convincingly debunked the idea that educational success primarily depends on “hard work and a little grit.” I loved this part because it basically co-opted a lot of research from more conservative education books like Bryan Caplan’s Case Against Education, and turns the research on it’s head, taking work that can often come off as elitist and misanthropic and interpreting it into a far more egalitarian and even hopeful conclusion.

The trouble is that the book completely falls apart once it transitions from its original thesis into its policy prescriptions. The careful intellectual rigor seen at the front end of the book is thrown away and turned into cherrypicking polemics aimed at attacking the modern education reform movement without really any regard for an honest assessment of the evidence.

The section that really stands out is his attack on charter schools. To be fair, charter schools are not in any way a savior for the system and their connection to dark money donors like the Koch brothers is understandably concerning. Charter school enrollment accounts for only 1 to 6 percent of public school attendance, and out of the meta-analyses on charter school success, they have resoundingly concluded that charters have positive effects on students in urban areas. I teach at a charter school. I defend them but I do not have rose colored glasses about them. They don’t work in rural areas and they aren’t going to save the education system. But, an attack on charters will only hurt urban students who already benefit from them.

I can appreciate a criticism of charters that fairly attempts to assess the research. What frustrates me is an ideological attack on charters that tries to pass as academic while not even attempting to deal with contrary research. DeBoer drops the ball on this, and instead of dealing with the meta-analyses he falls back on a broad methodological criticism: selection bias. The idea is that charter schools strongly select for the best students and work very hard to exclude the most difficult and at-risk students in order to juice their test score numbers. This selection bias, deBoer argues, is the primary cause for any charter school success.

Charter school selection bias is a common topic for bad faith hit pieces. The problem for these hit pieces is that there is a lot of research already assessing selection bias (also called “cream skimming” in the research literature) that basically concludes that it’s not a significant factor in charter school success. DeBoer doesn’t mention this research or even attempt to deal with this fact. Instead he recycles this argument throughout the book to attack many other evidence based reforms.

To be fair, selection bias and survivorship bias must be considered as possible factors that help explain the positive effects of charter schools. I will not deny that this can be an issue, and we should make sure that charter schools are fairly and reliably educating ALL students, not just the ones who fit the charter mold. We should take the anecdotes about negative experiences in charter schools and choose to improve our systems rather than wrongly generalizing it to the entire practice.

We need education books that accept that complexity and decide to fairly assess both sides while maintaining some healthy degree of uncertainty…instead we got a Marxist polemic that’s sprinkled with good ideas amid a lot of under-researched, socially desirable nonsense.

He pushes so many arguments about education that sound good, but are ultimately wrong. Despite the contrarian start to the book, deBoer pushes so many of these ideas without much regard for their side effects. Most notably DeBoer lays out a plan for Universal State Pre-K and Universal State Child Care. He argues that all children should be able to have a a place to go after birth as a right. It’s one thing to support families in having sufficient maternity leave and enough subsidies to support burdensome childcare cost. It’s another thing to ensure that children live in state sanctioned structures until they are 18. What he is describing is prison. He is describing turning every single child into a ward of the state. We’ve done this before, it’s called the Indian schools. They were known for being tremendous sources of sexual and physical harassment from teachers as well as being a not so secret ploy to try and make Native Americans more white.

This issue gets to the heart of the problem in this book → deBoer is so busy being revisionist and angry about the system that he fails to fairly assess the significant externalities of the MANY social programs he suggests. He attacks examples of bad behavior in charter schools, but doesn’t begin to account for the psychological and physical trauma created by compulsory public schooling. He pushes for more egalitarian social policy aimed at remedying racial and income based gaps while not mentioning the long and problematic history of public education for black and indigenous youth. He continually criticizes the actions of large governments as a member of the anti-war movement, but wants to give the government more power to completely control the childhood of all children. He is too busy pushing for reform to consider how his reforms can and will backfire.

Extra Unorganized Comments:

  1. DeBoer seems to really like singular explanations for big complex issues. In education reform it’s selection bias, when it comes to the moral philosophy and economics of meritocracy, it’s moral luck. Moral luck “describes circumstances whereby a moral agent is assigned moral blame or praise for an action or its consequences even if it is clear that said agent did not have full control over either the action or its consequences.” It’s an important issue to deal with, but even if you accept the full conclusion that moral luck would lead us to believe that we should not privilege talented people because their talent arises from factors out of their control, we can still easily see how the society as a whole may be better off by giving extra status to the most talented. Whether we like it or not most of us are fairly selfish and mostly motivated by status and greed, there’s no doubt that, as a country, it may lift all boats if we can fairly reward those who bring value. Think of your most talented citizens as a valuable resource. We all benefit if our most talented are working tirelessly to create innovation and push forward the advanced parts of our economy. That drive to work hard doesn’t seem to exist without some extra incentive.
  2. I think he fundamentally misunderstands human motivation and happiness. He pushes equality of outcome with the idea that everyone has a right to the “good life.” Everyone has a right to dignity, equal rights, and equal treatment under the law, but we are inherently status-oriented animals, our happiness is built on our relative position compared to those around us. There is no such thing as everyone having the good life because we are so awful at appreciating what we have. I think it’s fairly easy to imagine how deBoer’s egalitarian fantasy could end up being a much more unhappy place
  3. He argues for children to be able to drop out at 12 and that we should critically revise our curriculum with the intention of maximizing the graduation rate. I like the drop out idea, weirdly enough it has a lot of benefits. I also think that a radical reassessment of the K12 curriculum could be helpful. He talks about how the latter idea could cause massive credential inflation, which is obviously right, but I feel like the real conclusion to that issue is making everything noncompulsory so that a graduation can at least still be some signal of academic potential. In fact, these same issues could easily lead someone down the path of actually wanting more testing in the way that Pinker argues.
  4. I love trade school for a ton of reasons. Most notably, I despise the common belief that the trades are less intellectual or valuable than going to college and I think that the trades should have a higher cultural status. In addition to that our infrastructure needs rebuilding and we have a shortage of highly skilled trade labor. The total process requires thousands of jobs, and a revamping of our country requires millions of jobs. DeBoer dismisses trade education without really trying to assess the research. He just says without any evidence that “trade jobs can be subject to fluctuations” and expects the reader to dismiss the movement altogether. Wow.

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Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things. coreykeyser@gmail.com

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