If We Had a Way to Increase IQ and Develop the Prefrontal Cortex of Inner City Youth Would We Implement It?

One of the founders of Montessori MadMen, a group of fathers who are passionate about promoting Montessori education, loved “The Creation of Conscious Culture through Educational Innovation” but was concerned that in an education market, the poor would be underserved:

I do want to say that while I found your manifesto persuasive, my natural liberal inclinations and skepticism continue to worry that the poor will continue to be underserved and that even in a true free market system, high quality learning environments and cultures will still be correlated with income and wealth. It is very easy to make high quality, low-cost consumer products available to virutally everyone in a modern society and the costs and consequences of innovation are increasingly low.

The first point to be made here is that the real comparison is not whether high quality learning environments and cultures will still be correlated with income and wealth; for the most part they probably will.  The real comparison to be made is whether or not the poor would be better off in an education market than they are now.  The answer to that is ABSOLUTELY and, under the right circumstances, much, much better off.

While there are diverse poor with diverse educational needs, here I’ll focus first on the urban underclass, arguably the greatest social challenge in the U.S.  Trillions of dollars have been spent on the “war on poverty” in the past fifty years and yet no significant progress has been made and by some metrics conditions have gotten worse.  Expenditures on K-12 public education have nearly tripled in the past forty years, and because of diverse programs focused specifically  on inner city schools, expenditures on inner city schools have probably more than tripled.  Is there any reason to believe that if we tripled expenditures again the results would be any better?

A friend of mine was in charge of a $10 million grant to Timken High School in Canton, Ohio, awarded in 1997.  Timken is a rust-belt urban school that is about 50% minority.  It is a relatively small urban school, with just around 1300 students.  The student teacher ratio is 13:1, unusually small.  At the time it was the largest philanthropic grant to a single school.  The conditions of the grant stipulated that it could not be spent on bricks and mortar:  It was to be strictly focused on improving instruction.

Although I have the highest respect for his work, he left after a couple of years, well before spending all of the funding.  He realized that although he could spend more than $100,000 per teacher on training, technology, new curricular materials, etc. he saw in advance it would not make a difference.  His specialty was Socratic Seminars, and he saw that no matter how much time and money he spent training these teachers, they would not be interested in nor capable of leading Socratic Seminars effectively.  They were nice, conscientious people who had gone through Ohio public schools and Ohio state universities and had never experienced intellectual activity or engagement themselves.  (I’ve been in many public school faculty lounges in which someone who reads Time or Newsweek is regarded as an intellectual:  “Oh, Jane would love that Socratic stuff, she’s so intellectual she reads Time and Newsweek!”).

Although he had $10 million to spend, he could not hire, fire, discipline, or promote the teachers.  They had absolutely no incentive to change their behavior and didn’t really see any reason why they should.  They were happy to get new books, new computers, and new software, and go to nice trainings with good food at cushy retreat centers, but in essence no matter how much money he spent they would still be the same people going through the same pedagogical rituals in the same classrooms.

In 2005 Timken High School made national headlines:  For the fact that 65 of the 490 female students enrolled were pregnant.

By contrast, I know that I can go into any inner city school in the U.S. and get students engaged in intellectual activity resulting in increased cognitive performance and the development of the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to “prioritize thoughts, imagine, think in the abstract, anticipate consequences, plan, and control impulses.”  I can raise IQ and SAT scores while improving behavior on fundamental cognitive functioning that is valuable for diverse aspects of a successful life.

Moreover, I can train arbitrary large numbers of other people to do the same:  But they need to be capable, articulate, intelligent people themselves.  I typically say that I’m looking for “bright, articulate liberal arts graduates” but many of my best teachers were mid-career professionals who had made enough money and were eager to try teaching.  All the schools that I created paid less than the prevailing public school teacher salaries in the regions I was in, and yet I never had a difficult time recruiting faculty.  Our society is awash with bright, capable people who would LOVE to teach under the right circumstances.  And leading Socratic Practice is an absolute blast!  It is one of the most intensely joyful experiences imaginable.

So I’m in this situation in which I have an incredibly powerful approach to improving the lives of the next generation of the urban underclass and yet I’m not allowed to implement it.  It is a solution that students love, teachers love, that brings meaning into the lives of students and faculty alike.  It is based on the traditional practices of thousands of years of western civilization while also being consistent with cutting-edge research in cognition and pedagogy.  Every time I pause to think about the situation I become apoplectic with outrage.  It is simply too painful.

How do I develop the frontal cortex and IQ scores of inner city kids?  By getting them to think, and think hard, for two hours per day.  I dare say that the vast majority of inner city high schools very little cognitive activity is taking place.  Thus I’m not claiming to do anything magical at all.  If one cohort of overweight people went to a program in which they engaged in vigorous exercise for two hours per day and another cohort simply watched television for the same two hours, no one would be surprised if the first cohort lost weight and the second didn’t.

Go sit in an inner city high school and watch class.  Observe how many students even seem to be intellectually engaged.  Or, if you please, simply watch an episode of “Beavis and Butthead.”  Are Beavis and Butthead getting smarter?  If not, why not?  Might it be because roughly 0% of their mental and emotional energy is focused on the content of schooling?

Now read “The First Three Days of Socratic Practice in an Inner City Classroom.”  Remember, these are just the first three days in which I move the dynamic of the class from a more or less unanimous “Beavis and Butthead” atmosphere to one in which leading personalities among the students are now aligned with me in enforcing a social norm in which we are going to get serious about thinking and talking about ideas while reading intellectually challenging material.  Now does it seem so outrageously unreasonable that two hours of this activity per day will result in more growth of the prefrontal cortex, and IQ, than would two hours of sitting in class putting “Beavis and Butthead” levels of cognitive effort every day?

But the skeptic can’t imagine that all of this is true:  Surely there must be something wrong with Michael’s story.  If he really had something this great, everyone would know about it, right?  Poor, misguided Michael . . .

And yet is it the case that better educational approaches are recognized and supported?  We’d all like to believe that if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door, but is that the case in the realm of education?

1.  Some of us believe that Maria Montessori had developed an absolutely brilliant revolutionary approach to education – more than 100 years ago – which is STILL functioning only at the margins of our educational system.  Maria Montessori toured the U.S. in 1913 and impressed Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Hellen Keller – she had the highest level of celebrity support for her work at the time, and Montessori education began to spread in the U.S.  Then William Kilpatrick, an exceptionally influential professor of education, wrote a devastating critique of Montessori education which mostly destroyed the first wave of Montessori in the U.S.

Although a handful of Montessori schools from the 1920s survived, it was only in the late 1950s and, even more so, in the cultural revolution of the 1960s that Montessori education was again revived in the U.S.  Gradually Montessori pre-schools were created in the 1960s and 70s, some of which grew into elementary schools in the 70s and 80s, a few of which added middle school programs in the 80s and 90s.  When I created a Montessori middle school in Palo Alto in 1999, the Montessori middle school movement was still young.  One of our parents was the CFO of Pixar who observed our middle school, full of students enthusiastically engaged in their own work, and he said, “This is exactly what I would like to see going on at my company.”  Just the other night I was having dinner with very satisfied Montessori elementary school parents who nonetheless believed that Montessori education was great, but that the kids were not getting enough mathematics.  I had to assure them that whatever was going on at their child’s Montessori school, when I was at the Emerson School in Palo Alto our students were among the most mathematically advanced students in Silicon Valley.

As someone who believe in the value of Montessori and its deep alignment with a child’s well-being and with 21st century job skills I don’t need to convince you that Montessori education is valuable, despite the occasional weaknesses of various specific Montessori implementations.  Moreover Montessori has survived and grown despite a combination of unremitting hostility or indifference from the mainstream education establishment.  Consider this all-too-representative quotation from a 1984 academic book, Current Topics in Early Childhood Education (L.G. Katz., ed.):

Both educators and parents should be suspicious of a system that a) ignores recent educational thinking, especially in regard to using a modern understanding of child development to inform educational practice; b) trains teachers in isolation from all other teachers; c) accepts a low standard of teacher preparation (as measured by level of intake, length of training, rigor of training, credentials of the trainers, and acceptability of the credential); d) conceptualizes teacher education as an exercise in learning how to present the Montessori materials to children; e) defines education narrowly, paying scant attention to gross motor development, social skills, language and literature, creativity, and the arts; f) uses a harsh, outmoded system of discipline; and g) limits parental involvement.

As a pleased Montessori parent and advocate, I expect that you would agree with me that this paragraph amounts to uninformed bigotry, and yet that is the level of understanding of Montessori education that was respectable in academia in 1984.  Although I’m sure there are a few exceptions, I doubt it has gotten much better since then.  Most of the education majors I meet are barely introduced to Montessori the educator or Montessori the method.

As an American, I was very much raised to believe that if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door.  But Maria Montessori built a spectacular mousetrap more than a hundred years ago, launched it to great celebrity fanfare in the U.S. nearly a hundred years ago, and it is still a tiny, marginal movement.  Hmmm . . .

2.  To take a very different case, consider the case of Burt Kaufman.  What?  You’ve never heard of Burt Kaufman?  Sadly almost no one has, despite being one of the most amazing mathematics educators of the 20th century.  Burt led the development of a completely original logic-based mathematics curriculum, the elementary school component of which was known as CSMP (Comprehensive School Mathematics Program) with a secondary school component for gifted students known as the EM (Elements of Mathematics).  Burt’s students developed a passionate lifelong love of mathematics and logic and many of them have either won or placed highly in national and international mathematics competitions.  He started by developing the mathematics program at Nova High School, an innovative public school in south Florida, and went on to obtain many millions of dollars in federal funding to develop his curricula and worked with some of the leading mathematics educators on earth, most of whom were passionate supporters of his work.

But the 1984 official evaluation of CSMP essentially killed the program:

CSMP is a difficult program to implement; it requires more money, a strong coordinator, training and additional preparation by teachers, and a change in teaching philosophy on the part of many teachers. The program does not seem to have much effect on standardized test scores. The program elicits a strong reaction from teachers, mostly favorable. The most important evaluation result is the improvement that CSMP makes in students ability to deal with various kinds of novel, problem-oriented, situations. Most mathematic educators consider this ability to be very important, very hard to bring about and very often ignored in favor of easy-to-measure computational skills.

WHAT?  In the banal bureaucratic language of the evaluation is hidden “various kinds of novel, problem-oriented, situations.”  You mean that CSMP is neutral with respect to standard metrics of computation BUT it helps kids to learn how to use mathematics to solve new kinds of problems in new ways?  But it is difficult to implement so we won’t do it anymore?  NOOOOOOOOO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But, yes, that is what happened, and now the millions of dollars spent on CSMP are considered yet another part of the failed history of pedagogical innovation because it was too hard to implement.  With one major exception:  Burt’s son and former colleagues continue to use CSMP at their for-profit after school mathematics enrichment program, the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science.  They have since franchised their operation with locations in Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina.  I looked into opening up a franchise when I was creating the Bronze Doors Academy but they said they had stopped because it was too difficult for them to support their franchises adequately to maintain the level of quality to which they were committed.  Incidentally my son took CSMP classes while there and loved it, and I was envious of him for having the opportunity – I wish that I had had the opportunity to develop my mathematical mind in that way (he went on to become a math major at Reed and is now the CTO of a software start-up).

So wait:  This program is a successful for-profit after school chain but it was rejected by the public schools because it was too difficult to implement and did not show results on the standardized metrics?  Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Montessori saga?

I worked alongside the IMACS staff from 1997 to 1999 while I was creating The Winston Academy, a school for highly gifted students which used IMACS mathematics.  There story was very depressing for me:  Not only had they had the world’s best mathematics educators behind them, and the enthusiasm of many mathematicians (who understand why the ability to apply mathematics reasoning to novel situations is non-trivial, to say the least), but they had also had millions in funding from the National Science Foundation and elsewhere.  Yet they had been reduced to a small private sideshow.  Maybe, just maybe, the problem was structural?

3.  So forget me and my Socratic Practice, forget the 100 year history of Montessori, forget the peculiar mathematics curricula of Burt Kaufman.  What happens when a teacher achieves spectacular results in an inner city public school and is recognized widely for doing so?  Well Jaime Escalante famously taught AP calculus with stunning success to students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, leading to a biography by  Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews that described him as “the best teacher in America” and the famous 1988 Hollywood film, “Stand and Deliver,” for which actor Edward James Olmos received an Academy Award nomination for “best actor” in his role as Jaime Escalante.  Surely once the Washington Post and Hollywood are on one’s side a great educator can create a great program?

Sadly, no.  Escalante’s AP calculus program, which started with a handful of students in the early 1980s, grew to over 400 students by 1990, had essentially vanished five years later.  Escalante himself left in 1991 and his hand-picked successor left the following year, both victims of political infighting at the school at which he had created his greatest successes.  The sordid tale is told here, a depressing story of institutional dysfunction undermining the work of an individual who was undoubtedly a brilliant educator.

I could go on and on with accounts of great educators whose work is thwarted by the system, with each story more sickening than the last.  The simple fact is that the highly politicized, bureaucratic governance structure of “public” schools does not reward quality or innovation.  Roughly 25% of Detroit public school students graduate from high school. Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, educating kids from exactly the same demographic, a private school chain that raises millions from private donors each year, manages to graduate nearly 100%.  Sure there is self-selection in such a situation.  But Jaime Escalante took kids that everyone thought were losers and turned them into some of the best calculus students in the U.S.  Maybe it is possible to do a MUCH better job than average of educating even poor, inner city students?

Maybe I’m not crazy?  Maybe our institutional systems are really the problem?  Maybe Brookings Institution scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe were right, more than 20 years ago now, when they courageously broke with mainstream left-liberal orthodoxy to advocate for school choice:

During the 1980s, widespread dissatisfaction with America’s schools gave rise to a powerful movement for educational change, and the nation’s political institutions responded with aggressive reforms. Chubb and Moe argue that these reforms are destined to fail because they do not get to the root of the problem. The fundamental causes of poor academic performance, they claim, are not to be found in the schools, but rather in the institutions of direct democratic control by which the schools have traditionally been governed. Reformers fail to solve the problem-when the institutions ARE the problem.

The authors recommend a new system of public education, built around parent-student choice and school competition, that would promote school autonomy-thus providing a firm foundation for genuine school improvement and superior student achievement.

As someone who could walk into a classroom tomorrow and start making a difference in the lives of young inner city youth, none of this is hypothetical.  For me, Maria Montessori’s 1912 rhetoric rings true with as much urgency for me today as it did for her then,

“To-day an urgent need imposes itself upon society: the reconstruction of methods in education and instruction, and he who fights for this cause, fights for human regeneration.”

But after a hundred years of unnecessary, and tragic, marginalization of Montessori education (along with the others listed above and countless other fabulous innovations that lie stillborn and invisible) we now realize that

“Today an urgent need imposes itself upon society:  The reconstruction of the institutions of education, and she who fights for this cause, fights for human regeneration.”

If we had a way to increase IQ and develop the prefrontal cortex of inner city youth would we implement it?  And if we don’t, who exactly is responsible for this decision?

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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One Response to If We Had a Way to Increase IQ and Develop the Prefrontal Cortex of Inner City Youth Would We Implement It?

  1. kayandron says:

    Great article Michael, there is such resistance to anything new or different in the educational system, it’s not about the students it is about teachers and their fear of change.

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