Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Born in 1981, Freddie deBoer is an English Ph.D., Nick Gillespie notes, and the author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

He is also a third-generation Marxist who believes that individuals are innately different from one another (probably due to inherited differences in intelligence and physical capacity) and that many of his fellow Bernie Sanders-loving, progressive inhabitants of Brooklyn are hurting the poor when they insist that all K-12 students take college prep classes and have access to higher education. “Education is not a weapon against inequality; it is an engine of inequality,” he writes, sounding like Dirty Jobs‘ Mike Rowe when it comes to promoting well-paying but low-status trade jobs. What deBoer calls “the cult of smart” — the valorization of test-taking and a belief that all of us are blank slates who can be remediated through the right sort of instruction and environment — not only marginalizes the poor and “untalented,” it ultimately blames them for their own condition.

Freddie deBoer gives his own brief primer on the text:

The Cult of Smart is not buttressed by evidence; in fact it is often directly contradicted by evidence. The idea that education is the key to a better economic future for individuals and our country has been promoted by every president going back at least as far as Reagan. Educational achievement has expanded at essentially every level, with better than 90% of American adults now holding a high school diploma, more than 35% now holding bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees exploding, with the number of people holding such degrees increasing by more than 100 people per 100,000 people in less than 25 years. And yet in the last 25 years while we were becoming a vastly more educated nation, working age poverty (the metric of relevance here) barely changed and income inequality rose dramatically. The troubling separation between productivity and real wages continued. The failure of rapidly-rising college participation rates to reduce poverty or inequality in the way typically argued reflect broader dynamics, or so the book argues: college creates inequality rather than reduces it, and if everyone got a college degree (as the policy apparatus often pushes for), the financial value of a college degree would fall to zero. What’s more, America has always sucked at international educational comparisons, including during the periods of our greatest scientific, economic, and military dominance, undermining the basic claim that we need to succeed in school to succeed in general.

The Cult of Smart is self-serving. If we get rid of the influence of environment and assorted, we’ll be left with a system that prizes… what the people advocating for that system think makes them look best. All of those think tankers and politicos and journalists and “consultants” that push education as our great economic sorting system are themselves people who flourished in education. In many ways these people seem unwilling to think deeper than “this worked for me, so it can work for everyone.”


First, and simply, different people are better or worse at educational tasks of all stripes. Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t; some kids learn the alphabet faster than others; some kids crunch through equations more accurately; some score in the 25th percentile on their state standardized tests and some in the 75th percentile. Nothing controversial there, and nothing contrary to a purely environmental vision of what produces educational outcomes. But it’s important to remember that we have never observed educational equality of outcomes, whatever that could mean, in any context.

The second observation is vital, blatantly obvious to most career educators, and conveniently ignored in a great deal of our educational debates. As I argue in the book, people tend to think that what we care about in education is absolute learning — can a kid who could not do long division/recite the state capitols/tie his shoes do so now? But in fact what we are more concerned with is relative learning — are the bronze reading group kids catching up to the gold group/is the racial achievement gap closing/what percentile did you score in on the SAT? People constantly complain about poor scores on standardized tests without knowing the slightest thing about the content of those tests. That would make little sense if they were primarily concerned with absolute learning, with content. Instead, they care about how different groups perform relative to each other, and about the relative performance of their own child to his or her peers. And what you find, again and again, is that academic performance relative to peers is remarkably static. That is, kids tend to sort themselves into a given ability band early in their academic life and they tend to stay there.

“Tend” is an important word; there are plenty of exceptions. Individual students exceed their previous academic standing (or fall back in the pack) fairly often. But at scale, from the point of view of the system, it’s remarkable how static relative educational position is. There are tests you can give to very young children that predict how well they’ll do in kindergarten. The grades students achieve in the earliest grades tend to produce performance distributions that persist all the way through their academic lives. Indeed, data gathered the summer after kindergarten provides useful predictive information about how students will perform in college. Third grade reading group (age 8/9), by itself, is a strong predictor of how a student will perform by the end of high school (age 17/18). SAT results don’t just give us quite accurate information about how well test takers will perform in their first year of college. They give us useful predictive information about whether test takers will ever hold a patent or write a bestselling book. Kids sort themselves into an educational hierarchy and they mostly don’t move. That this is not the first thing mentioned in every educational discussion is a function of the fact that it is not polite.


  1. McChuck says:

    I care about the rapidly and consistently dropping scores on standardized tests. This simply shows that educators do not educate, they indoctrinate.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    USA has bad students, not bad schools.

  3. Goober says:

    One of the greatest injustices ever perpetuated on the youth of America is the widespread belief that:

    1.) College is the only way to financial success;

    2.) A college degree is a college degree and it doesn’t matter what you get it in;

    3.) Working with your hands is a shameful sign that you are a loser who has failed at life.

    College, when applied with a greater overall plan, and when the degree sought is specialized for a specific career, CAN be a way to financial success, but it isn’t the ONLY way.

    I still remember my Dad telling me things like “you need to go to college or else you’ll end up digging ditches for a living.”

    What’s so damn wrong with digging ditches for a living? An excavator operator makes good money, has low stress.

    I joined the plumbing apprentice program out of high school. My Dad was beside himself, telling me that I didn’t want to be a plumber, essentially that plumbers were “losers” and that I’d be working in hot, dirty conditions all the time and wouldn’t make enough money to support a family.

    That’s a lie. Journeyman pipe fitters routinely make over 100K a year. I ended up going to college for engineering to please him. I became an engineer and ended up working as a Construction Project Manager for huge projects (40 plus million dollar buildings). I don’t particularly like it. Long hours, high stress, massive responsibility for all sorts of things outside of your control, tiny mistakes leading to massive consequences, traveling all the fuck over the place and being away from my family… But at least I don’t turn wrenches for a living. /s

    There is no shame in being a craftsman. There is no shame in being an unskilled laborer, if that’s what makes you happy. If you’re willing to work hard, and you bother to get good at what you do, you will make an acceptable living doing lots of different things that don’t require a college education.

    Welders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters (a tragically undervalued occupation, I’d argue), mechanics, etc.

  4. VXXC says:

    Goober is absolutely correct. College is a banker’s scam, with the high school counselor as assistant loan shark.

    I can’t emphasize enough to young people get a trade first…then, then go to college. Perhaps as to build expertise or an engineering or business degree in that trade.

    Frankly the entire education system is a fascist scam, with the criminals dressing themselves in socialist clothing.

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