NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 6, 2006

For as long as there has been a science of intelligence (roughly a century), prevailing opinion has held that children's mental abilities are highly malleable, or "unstable," says the Wall Street Journal.

Cognition might improve when the brain reaches a developmental milestone, or when a child is bitten by the reading bug or suddenly masters logical thinking and problem solving. But according to new studies, for the most part people's mental abilities relative to others change very little from childhood through adulthood:

  • Scotland tested 87,498 11-year-olds in 1932 to determine the distribution of intellectual ability and then tracked down 101 of those students in 1998; the correlation between scores 66 years apart was a striking .73.
  • In the United States, two long-running studies also showed the durability of relative intelligence; the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, launched in 1998, tested 22,782 children entering kindergarten and found that ranking stayed mostly the same from kindergarten to the end of the first and third grades.
  • The National Education Longitudinal Study tested 24,599 eighth graders on several subjects, including math and reading comprehension, in 1988 and again two and four years later; again rankings hardly budged.

Thomas Hoofer of the National Opinion Research Center suspects that the way schools are organized explains some of that. Eighth-graders who show aptitude in math or language are tracked into challenging courses, increasing the gap between them and their lower-performing peers.

That leaves the question of how current education practices (and, perhaps, parenting practices) tend to lock in early cognitive differences among children, and whether those practices can be changed in a way that unlocks every child's intellectual potential.

Source: Sharon Begley, "Do School Systems Aggravate Differences in Natural Ability?" Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2006.

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