Some Students Are Smarter Than Others

We should admit that not all students have the talent to flourish in college.


By Fredrik deBoer

I’m in my Ph.D. program at Purdue University. It’s 2013 or so.  I am enjoying being part of the kind of large educational machine that a Big Ten university represents, the scale of it all. I’m teaching freshman comp again, spring semester. As I approach the door to class, I notice that one of my students waiting outside is crying, while friends comfort her. I know better than to say anything to her directly; the last thing an emotional undergraduate wants is an instructor offering consolation. After class I caught up with one of her friends to check if everything was alright.

“It’s just first-year engineering,” she said. “Everybody cries.”

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What had seemed like cruelty to me was, in fact, an act of mercy.

I was a little concerned, and a little curious, so I poked around a bit and talked with a grad student I knew in mechanical engineering. He told me that only one in three students who started as an engineering major would finish with the degree, and that early courses in the major were actually designed to be “weed out” classes, meant to compel students to drop the major and choose another. Why? Because the rigor of the engineering programs was so high that a large percentage of students was guaranteed to drop out eventually, and it was far better for them to do so early, before they had accumulated a lot of credits.

What had seemed like cruelty to me was, in fact, an act of mercy, an artifact of a pragmatic and necessary acknowledgment that not all students possess the underlying ability necessary to flourish in some fields. In time I would learn that many college classes, such as calculus and organic chemistry, function in much the same way. And I grew to think that rather than representing a failure of educators to do their jobs, these classes, which screen out students, perform a necessary if unfortunate function for colleges dedicated to training young people for their futures.

Experiencing these moments as an educator, and observing many others as a student, deeply influenced my thoughts on how teaching does and should function in the real world. And these experiences dovetailed with my deepening academic and professional interest in education. When I made up my mind to go back to school and get my M.A., I knew that I wanted to focus on pedagogy. I loved to teach; I had a lot of experience, it gave me a sense of purpose, and I felt that I had a knack for it. I went to study in a writing department because I believed that it was a field where I had the most to offer to students. By the time I was doing coursework in my Ph.D. program, I was focused primarily on the measurement of student learning,

and I took classes in statistics, research methods, educational measurement, and psychometrics.

I busily went about the work of being a doctoral student, and in time would write a dissertation about a major test of college learning, publish in conventional academic journals, and try to professionalize. But my sense that something was wrong in our basic conception of education gnawed at me. The rigid ideology of education, and particularly of the education “reform” movement, was that there were no natural constraints on student growth — and that any suggestion that students had limits to their potential was an excuse ginned up by lazy instructors. By contrast, my own teaching had demonstrated that different students varied significantly in their underlying ability, and that this difference in talent profoundly shaped academic outcomes.

Yet so much of the pedagogical literature had nothing at all to say about differences in student ability. In research originating from departments of education, there frequently seemed to be some sort of gentleman’s agreement against speaking frankly about differences in natural talent among individual students. In the humanities, the philosophy on pedagogy seemed to militate against judging student accomplishment at all, treating the assessment of student learning as just another tool of hegemony. And the academic discourse on teaching seemed suffused with a cheery know nothing optimism that insisted on seeing every student as an endlessly moldable lump of clay.

T whatever he academic topic reason, abilities. is fraught. different That, Even still, I people hope, I end is would indisputable. up with point profoundly this Not out: everyone For different is equally good at various academic tasks. Not everyone has the same ability to do calculus; not everyone has the same grasp of grammar; not everyone has memorized the same facts. Even if you reject the idea that there is any inherent difference in ability, you must accept that there are summative

differences in ability. And these differences seem to defy any simplistic categorical explanations; within any group of students you choose — by gender, by race, by type of school, by geography — there is vast variation, with some students from the same group (even sometimes from the same families) handily outperforming others from the same group. Thousands of experts, millions of dollars, and countless hours have been brought to bear on trying to create equivalent educational outcomes among individuals, and all have failed. We can continue to beat our heads against the wall, or we can face facts and start to grapple with a world where levels of achievement will differ despite our best efforts.


To say that everyone should go to college presumes that everyone has the aptitude and desire to go to college. We have every reason to suspect that isn’t true. Already today, the national college-graduation rate tends to hover around 60 percent. And that’s among students who start college; the many millions who don’t attempt college are surely among those least likely to succeed in higher education. What would happen to the graduation rate if millions of people who previously did not attempt college were to flood our campuses? I have no doubt that some of them would flourish, but on balance we can certainly expect more dropouts, more remediation costs, more debt, and more stress on colleges that already struggle to graduate an adequate percentage of enrollees.

It’s been argued that the value of college stems largely from its function as a screening mechanism. By instituting admissions criteria like standardized tests, grade requirements, and the ability to pay, the thinking goes, college acts as a sieve, allowing employers to pick through those who have the underlying academic talent and soft skills, like time management, needed to succeed at work. This is particularly useful because in many states, employers are barred from using certain criteria, like intelligence testing, to judge applicants. I certainly don’t think that college’s value is only screening. But I do think that making college less exclusive necessarily means making its signaling value to employers much less useful and thus undercuts the economic value of the degree.

It also strikes me that if the inevitable outcome of significantly greater college participation rates is lower standards, then our national response to hordes of new college students would be to make college significantly easier to get through. To an extent, I suspect this is already happening. The late Donald T. Campbell, an expert on research methodology, coined Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Campbell’s Law tells us that if graduation rate becomes the singular focus of college bureaucracies, inevitably those bureaucracies will engage in chicanery (explicit or implicit) to move that number. I’ve often said that our national conversation calls for colleges to chase two contradictory goals at once — higher standards, such as when people complain about grade inflation, and higher graduation rates. If we believe — and we should — that there are actual limits to how much students can learn and how effectively colleges can bring every student to the same proficiency level, then we also have to accept that we can have higher standards or higher graduation rates, but not both.

And given how the machine functions, and how much pressure there is to move students through the system, I think it’s likely that we’ll err on the side of raising graduation rates to the detriment of standards. Take it from a former administrator in a large university system: Graduation rates and time-to-graduate are relentlessly emphasized. The pressure that professors face to move students through the curriculum, regardless of ability, is very real. A decline in standards will only further reduce the economic value of the degree.

We have, in the world of education, borrowed a term from agriculture to describe our students and their talents: We cultivate them. It’s the kind of metaphor that’s been used so much it’s no longer really a metaphor. But the comparison is a good one. Each student is a seed, and each seed grows in the soil of the student’s environment. In the world today, some seeds are sheltered and nourished, while some are neglected and underfed. We should strive for a world in which all seeds grow in healthy, well tended soil, out of a fundamental commitment to the equal moral value of all. But just as no plant can grow in full from poor soil, no amount of tending to the soil can make some seeds taller than some others. Some seeds are meant to spawn taller plants. That is the way of things. All plants have their own beauty, and all human beings have something of value to contribute to society. But to act as though every human being has the same potential in academic life is no more sensible than expecting every sapling to grow to the same height. It’s a pleasant expectation, and one we can’t keep believing.




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