Science and Public Policy: The Bell Curve and Preschool Education

Table of Contents

  1. Body
  2. Works Consulted

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Throughout The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray present several suggestions for public policy based on their conclusions regarding the cause and consequences of the Black-White Gap (B/W Gap) in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores. Early in the book, they establish that IQ determination is probably 40 to 80% genetic and therefore 20 to 60% environmental, and use this idea, along with studies relevant to the particular issue they are examining, to create ideas for public policy. In particular, Herrnstein and Murray dedicate over 150 pages to analyzing various aspects of education, as improving education is frequently the first response of the public to the idea of the B/W Gap. Herrnstein and Murray’s suggestions for a highly targeted preschool program, based on the “true” effect of preschool programs on IQ, have little or no practical implication in concrete policies.

The goal of education in America is generally accepted to be to academically prepare the nation’s youth for being productive citizens. Some prefer to amend moral preparation or preparation for college to that definition, but these are debatable. Taking a moderate political stance, this definition also contains an implicit “equally”; that is, education in America is to attempt to equally prepare youth to become productive citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status or race. There is only an “attempt”, however, as it is also generally accepted that some will always be smarter than others, regardless of desires for equality or how those differences in intelligence may be patterned among different races or socioeconomic groups.

Controversial in America lately have been preschool programs, such as Head Start or Perry Preschool. The first was a government-funded program that targeted children of low-income families, hoping to break the cycle of poverty (403). The second was a privately-funded experiment in which black children were given instruction in an environment with a high teacher-to-student ratio, and in which most teachers were perhaps overly qualified to teach preschool (404). Both programs required large amounts of money, whether from the government or from private funding. Students in both programs experienced a brief IQ increase, putting them ahead of their peers for the first two or three years of grade school, but the increase faded to statistically insignificant amounts by the fourth grade. From such results, Herrnstein and Murray conclude that the goal of such programs, if they are to exist, should move from the “frivolous claims” (414) of saving money later in education by spending “now” to the more important goal of “rescuing small children from unsuitable, joyless, and dangerous environments” for at least some hours a day (415). They then suggest that a highly targeted preschool program be developed for families at the low-end of home environments, meaning those children “who are at high risk of mental retardation in an awful environment, with parents who function at a very low cognitive level” (415). They further suggest that “such children be enrolled, within a few weeks of birth, in a full-time day care setting until they begin kindergarten” (415). While Herrnstein and Murray admit that such a suggestion cannot be defended solely on the basis of the cognitive benefits, as there are, in the long term, few, they suggest there may be social benefits that would make the program feasible.

The immediate problem with such a plan is this: implementation. If, for the sake of argument, this preschool program is to become mandatory, then in order to create such a program, reliable IQ tests would have to be issued to either everyone living in an “awful environment” or to any woman having a child. The latter is more likely to occur, if either could, due to the rather sensitive state of America on the issue of discrimination based on socioeconomic status or race. If, however, women were to be approached shortly after having a child to take a test that will determine where their child will spend their days shortly, outside influences become important. For example, when is a new mother not fatigued from taking care of her child? That fatigue, on top of the stress of the importance of the test, could easily make for claims of unfair testing environments or underestimation of IQ.

There is the additional issue, besides that of prejudice, of funding for the tests to be administered. The tests must be created by the millions, administered by the millions, and graded by the millions, if all mothers are to be tested, even those only of low socioeconomic status. That is before the children in question are even admitted to the preschool program itself, which must have facilities, equipment, staff and faculty, and administrators. And, if the one percent that represents the cognitive elite in America is composed of 2.5 million people, an equal number of people are in the bottom one percent. If, as Herrnstein and Murray suggest in another section of their book, the lower cognitive classes are the ones with higher fertility rates, such numbers rapidly become a fiscal disaster for the government.

Whether such a program would be mandatory or not is an additional issue. If the program is mandatory, then there becomes room for claims of the government usurping the children of the underprivileged. The tests must be administered to all women having children (or adopting children, for that matter) equally. What would the provisions be for a woman that refuses to take the test? Answers to that begin to look either increasingly totalitarian or doom the enforced goodwill of the program to fail. If the program is not mandatory, then there will always be children in “awful environments” who are not being helped by the program, simply due to the parents’ fear of the realities of the program. There is the further, more interesting, problem of parents who are not perhaps in such a dire situation as the program requires attempting to have their children placed in the program. They may attempt to “fake” low IQs, or to demonstrate intolerable living conditions in order to give their child a better chance at a good education.

Despite Herrnstein and Murray’s attempts to seem desirous of the goodwill of the underprivileged, the one suggestion they have for improving the plight of the children at risk for mental retardation is given without much analysis, or, it seems, much forethought for what such a program would entail. Eminently, their plan is not feasible in a society that claims to be democratic and undiscriminating in public education opportunities.

Works Consulted

Herrnstein, Richard and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

taking joy in human unreason