Charles Murray vs. Michael Oher

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side tells a fascinating story about poverty and education through the lens of football. Lewis focuses on two main stories. First, on the legendary coach Bill Walsh’s struggles in the 1980s to overcome the most fearsome defensive force of the era. Second, on an incredibly disadvantaged young man who beat the odds.

As head coach of the San Francisco 49ers Bill Walsh had one big problem: New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor (LT). Attacking from the left–the blind side of a right-handed quarterback–LT humiliated linemen and punished quarterbacks with bone-crushing sacks.

Lewis’ tale becomes truly fascinating when he goes inside the world of the NFL’s talent search for born left tackles–a rare combination of size, speed and agility. These rare men would rise to become the second highest paid positions in professional football for their ability to protect the quarterback from men like LT. This is where the story intersects with education.

Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis. In and out of foster care, Michael’s lucky break came when his dying grandmother extracted a promise from a family friend to get Michael into a private school.

Michael was enrolled in a private Christian school called Briarcrest. On a cold day, a parent of another Briarcrest student found Michael breaking into the school to stay warm. The parent, Leah Anne Tuohy, a successful interior designer and wife of a Memphis businessman, took Michael in. Despite the fact that Michael scarcely spoke, a bond developed between the Tuohys and Michael and they eventually adopted him.

Although he had never played sports Michael was a natural athlete and was identified immediately by college scouts as a potential NFL left tackle. If Michael could get to college and play football, he was very likely to win a multimillion dollar contract to protect a quarterback’s blind side.

The Tuohys and the faculty at Briarcrest engaged in a Herculean effort to make Michael eligible for college. When Michael came to Briarcrest he had only erratically attended school, could scarcely read and knew little about anything.

Lewis skillfully explains the role of poverty in education, writing, “Michael wasn’t stupid. He was ignorant, but a lot of people mistook ignorance for stupidity, and knowingness for intelligence. He’d been denied the life experience that led to knowingness, which every other kid at Briarcrest took for granted.”

Michael was not unintelligent, but he was profoundly uneducated. Leah Anne would, for example, take Michael to an Italian restaurant and order multiple meals in order teach him the difference between different types of pasta dishes.

The implications of Michael’s story for public policy are profound as well. Lewis writes, “Michael Oher was in possession of what had to be among the more conspicuous athletic gifts…and yet, without outside intervention even his talent would likely have been thrown away…If Michael Oher’s talent could be missed, whose couldn’t? Those poor black kids [in the inner-city] were like left tackles: people whose values were hidden in plain sight.”

With a committed family, school, and private tutors, Michael was accepted to college.

Today he is approaching his senior year at the University of Mississippi, made all-conference as a sophomore and junior, and carries a 3.7 grade point average.

Michael made it. But he is very much the exception. For every six inner-city Memphis public school kids with the athletic ability to play college sports, only one qualifies academically to attend college. This says something about the state of inner-city public education.

“Pity the kid inside Hurt Village [in Memphis] who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds,” Lewis wrote. The success of Briarcrest in helping Michael exemplifies the hope that school choice can give to troubled youngsters.

The hole Michael dug himself out of might not have been so deep if not for the dysfunctional Memphis public school system. One cannot help but wonder if Memphis public schools would be so completely indifferent if every student had the opportunity to attend private schools.

Our current education system limits school choice to parents who can afford to buy homes in good neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. Our best teachers often flee the classroom in frustration, or cluster in suburbs far from the students who need them most.

Kids should not require Michael Oher’s incredible luck to make it. Neither should they be stuck in inner-city schools run for the benefit of the adults rather than the kids in the system.

So how does Charles Murray fit into this?

Murray knows far more about IQ testing than I do. I know next to nothing. From what I’ve read of Murray’s works, it does seem obvious that everyone has an upper threshold for academic achievement, a ceiling if you will, and that those ceiling vary from person to person.

It also seems obvious to me, however, that these ceilings are of little practical importance for many inner city children who have never attended a decent school, and who often have parents and grandparents who have never attended a decent school.

In other words, children like Michael Oher have been operating so far below their ceilings that we have every reason to radically improve our education system, especially in the inner cities. I’d even be willing to bet, despite Murray’s characterization of the academic literature on the subject, that if we had before and after adoption IQ tests on Oher, that there would have been substantial growth. I could be wrong about this, and I’d welcome correction, but Michael Oher’s experience begs the question in my mind exactly what it is that IQ tests are actually measuring.

Regardless of such concerns, however, it seems clear to me that efforts to make much more effective use of the huge and tragically mismanaged resources put into inner city schooling should be accelerated.

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23 Responses to Charles Murray vs. Michael Oher

  1. I had a piece in Education Next last Fall comparing Charles Murray and Richard Rothstein, called “The Odd Couple.” You can see it here:
    http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/9223746.html

    And Checker Finn has a piece on Murray in the current issue of The Gadfly. You can view it here:
    http://www.edexcellence.net/institute/gadfly/index.cfm#3998

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    The book on Oher is wonderful.

    Oher’s tested IQ rose by between 20 to 30 points. I think what may be throwing Murray off is that he tends to underestimate (woefully) just how bad some kids’ home and school environments are. To quote from the NY Times article that spawned the book:

    Big Mike, in company, seemed as lost as a Martian stumbling out of a crash landing. Simpson had tried to shake his hand. “He didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “I had to show him how to shake hands.” . . . .

    He didn’t know what an ocean was or a bird’s nest or the tooth fairy. He couldn’t very well be taught 10th-grade biology if he had no clue what was meant by the word cell, and he couldn’t very well get through 10th-grade English if he had never heard of a verb or a noun. It was as if he had materialized on the planet as an overgrown 16-year-old. Jennifer Graves had the same misgivings: the boy reminded her of a story she had read in a psychology journal about a child who had been locked away inside a closet for years. “That child didn’t even have tactile sense,” she says, “but it felt like the same sort of thing. Big Mike was a blank slate.”

  3. Another brilliant book by Michael Lewis is Moneyball. On one level it is about how the Oakland A’s managed to perform so well despite such a low payroll by making better use of data. On another level it is about how any organization could improve through superior collection and analysis of data. If only educators and policymakers would read it and think about how it applies to schools.

    And in the spirit of Moneyball I should note that my Florida Marlins currently are tied for having the best record in the major leagues despite a total payroll of $20 million. That’s less than the annual compensation of a single star player on other teams.

  4. KDeRosa says:

    It is highly unlikely that Oher’s actual IQ increased at all. A highly g-loaded IQ test like Raven’s Progressive Matrices would have likely shown substantially the same IQ. This should not be confused ith IQ’s based on achievement tests which can be increased by teaching effects, especially when severe environmental effects have been artificially depressing IQ, as appears to be the case with Oher.

    • John Zadeh says:

      Actually, it is scores on conventional IQ tests (WAIS, Woodcock Johnson, Binet, SAT), that tend to stay relatively (to age) constant, as they are highly loaded in ‘crystallized’ content (75% crystallized, Blair estimate). These tests reflect, predominately, short term memory capacity and are hardly influenced by environment and training.

      In contrast, there is plenty of evidence that has accumulated over recent years, which suggests that ‘fluid intelligence’ is highly permeable, and can increase with schooling and training. Fluid intelligence has been linked to the various structures of frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, and significant discrepencies have been documented between conventional measures of IQ, and tests saturated in Gf. A range of mental disorders show largely negative correlation with Gf. On the other hand, it is not uncommon in individuals diagnosed with High-functioning Autism (Aspergers, HFA), to show differences of 30 or 40 points between the two factors (results, specifically, from the Raven’s, where the autistic sample showed higher fluid scores). However it is becoming more clear from theoretical work, that even among neurotypical (normal) individuals, there must be cases where through, at least some interval of time, large gf-gc differences exist. (Definitely , through childhood, and even at late adolescents and late teen, early adulthood as well). This is all very interesting, because it has come to challenge the ‘law’ of intellectual constancy, which has long been a convenient postulate, regarding general intelligence.

      Intelligence is a poorly defined term, and especially so in the hands of the subset of elitist, who have aimed and ,arguably, succeeded, in monopolizing the concept. (The agenda they have, goes beyond the scope of this post) It’s value can never be measured by any written test (especially, through any arbitrary hour, posing an arbitrary set of problems). Maybe one day, we can scan a person’s brain, and infer individual limitations by elements of structure and reflex. Until that day, I think there are better measures of intelligence (and I won’t waste more time, describing this), and especially, for individuals in their adolescent and early adult years, when the brain is more plastic with regard to Gf.

      But back to Michael Oher, with an 80 IQ. From what I saw in the movie, just for fun, I would guess he had a peak of about 105 and it would have been somewhere between his senior year in high school and first year in college. But to be fair, I should mention that someone who came from such an unprivileged background, was quite manageable. And such a fact, ultimately, further complicates the topic of intelligence.

  5. [...] over at Jay P. Greene’s Blog, the author talks about the importance of identifying students’ talents, whether they’re a left tackle or potential honor [...]

  6. matthewladner says:

    KDeRosa-

    Let me ask you a question out of pure naive ignorance: if Tarzan were lost in the wilderness as a young child and was given an IQ test as an adult with an extremely limited vocabulary, how could you hope to test his “intelligence.” Or more to the point, if you tested him before and after teaching him a language, I’m trying to imagine a test in which his score wouldn’t go up.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Well, they do have intelligence/ability tests for nonverbal children. But they’re not going to give you a standardized IQ score; they’re used for much broader purposes (e.g. to try to determine why the child is nonverbal).

    Of course the thrust of your question wasn’t really language so much as it is education.

  8. mouse says:

    This is a straw man post. You threw Charles Murray into this for no reason. The Blind Side isn’t a story about IQ, even if it is a story about the tragedy that many inner city youth can’t escape from without the MASSIVE intervention of a very rich supportive family. Michael Oher is never going to be a gifted writer, gifted bond salesman, or gifted mathematician. Murray’s arguments aren’t about individuals. They are about the issues that come up when you treat everyone as if they have the same IQ when they do not–and therefore, you do nothing to teach to them differently, or create job training for them, or god forbid,help them to understand the 1040, and what happens as the top strata move farther and farther away. If you take Oher to be an example of “just another person Murray would put in the bottom quintile”, you’d be stuffing words in his mouth at the very least. If your point is “if adoption by a well off family and massive 6 hour a day intervention could save Oher, then Oher could be saved, therefore others could be saved, and therefore Murray is wrong” , then you’re again missing the point: neither personally nor through the government can we create that kind of massive intervention for people, let alone for “only” the people who need it most. Murray states over and over again that the issue is: given the SAME amount of intervention, those with high IQs will outperform those with low.

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Where will you find the resources to do this intervention for every child who needs it? With what money? what time? what people? How as a society are we going to deny more intervention to those with high IQ while giving it to those with less?

    Your post has one big innacuracy: Oher was NOT identified as a gifted athlete. He was identified as a PHYSICAL MONSTER so large that it simply did not matter what he did or didn’t understand about athletics. The book points out that it was exceedingly difficult to teach him anything at all about plays, or passes, or how football was executed. It just didn’t mater–he was so damn huge that that was all the NFL was looking at.

  9. matthewladner says:

    Mouse-

    An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Oher might never have needed what you correctly identify as a massive level of intervention if he had a high quality school to attend from the beginning. KIPP schools take disadvantaged children at an earlier age than Oher’s intervention and send them off to college as well without having them adopted by a wealthy family.

    Murray is a brilliant guy who knows much more about IQ testing than me, given that I know nothing. Nevertheless, I simply don’t buy into this IQ fatalism line of argument that Jay discusses in the linked article above.

  10. KDeRosa says:

    You’d test the tarzan child with raven’s colored progressive matrices which are non-verbal and design to test children.

    I don’t agree with Murray’s views on education. I also like Kipp, but KIPP schools are charter schools and just having an admission form is going to weed out those students with parents at the bottom of the curve and those parents who don’t want t o abide by KIPPS strict rules. It’s a selection bias problem. Plus, the data seems to indicate that KIPP isn’t exactly boosting college graduation rates among its students.

    Lastly, there are plenty of adoption and twin studies that show that massive interventions like Oher received tend to wash out by the end of adolescence.

  11. matthewladner says:

    KDeRosa-

    That’s interesting on the IQ testing.

    The original KIPP in Houston had a student body that was almost exclusively free and reduced lunch eligible Hispanics at the beginning. Yes, they may have been low-income kids who were willing to work and sign up for the program, but let’s keep that level of selection bias in context. Income segregation in the public schools is pervasive, and the fact that KIPP is able to outperform leafy suburban schools with lots of kids wealthy two parent families is very impressive.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    If it’s randomized trials you’re looking for, there have been a whole bunch of them with school voucher programs, and they’re pretty solidly positive. The magnitude of the effect is not revolutionary – one would hardly expect it to be, since existing voucher programs are not revolutionary in scope – but it’s also well above zero, so clearly education makes a difference to outcomes.

  13. [...] Side is put into context over the debate on school reform and the debate over the nature of IQ.http://jaypgreene.com/2008/05/10/charles-murray-vs-michael-oher/Michael Lewis – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaMichael lewis may refer to: michael lewis [...]

  14. [...] Charles Murray vs. Michael Oher ” Jay P. Greene’s Blog Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side tells a fascinating story … This is where the story intersects with education. Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis [...]

  15. John_Stamps says:

    The schools are not the problem. Academic success always has and always will begin at home. This is one situation where conservatives and liberals are wrong. Neither more money nor charter schools will fix the problem. Discipline is the answer.

  16. Greg Forster says:

    If it were true that home influences were the only thing that mattered to educational outcomes, random assignment studies of voucher programs would show that vouchers make no difference. But they consistently show the opposite. Yes, home influences are important. That doesn’t mean other influences are not also important. The empirical evidence consistently shows that both home influences and school quality (and other factors as well) make a difference to educational outcomes.

  17. Golem says:

    It’s not education that is failing these kids. It is their parents and the predominant culture in which they grow up.

    Ohr’s mom was a drug addict and his father wasn’t around. The statistical probability of one or both of those situations occurring is much higher in the Black community within the United States. This is a systemic problem of ‘Culture’ rather than one of education.

    Regarding vouchers, they work precisely because they allow parents who aren’t willing to let their kids remain part of that culture, remove their kids from those cultural influences and into more positive environments where those influences are muted.

  18. John Zadeh says:

    Actually, it is scores on conventional IQ tests (WAIS, Woodcock Johnson, Binet, SAT), that tend to stay relatively (to age) constant, as they are highly loaded in ‘crystallized’ content (75% crystallized, Blair estimate). These tests reflect, predominately, short term memory capacity and are hardly influenced by environment and training.

    In contrast, there is plenty of evidence that has accumulated over recent years, which suggests that ‘fluid intelligence’ is highly permeable, and can increase with schooling and training. Fluid intelligence has been linked to the various structures of frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, and significant discrepencies have been documented between conventional measures of IQ, and tests saturated in Gf. A range of mental disorders show largely negative correlation with Gf. On the other hand, it is not uncommon in individuals diagnosed with High-functioning Autism (Aspergers, HFA), to show differences of 30 or 40 points between the two factors (results, specifically, from the Raven’s, where the autistic sample showed higher fluid scores). However it is becoming more clear from theoretical work, that even among neurotypical (normal) individuals, there must be cases where through, at least some interval of time, large gf-gc differences exist. (Definitely , through childhood, and even at late adolescents and late teen, early adulthood as well). This is all very interesting, because it has come to challenge the ‘law’ of intellectual constancy, which has long been a convenient postulate, regarding general intelligence.

    Intelligence is a poorly defined term, and especially so in the hands of the subset of elitist, who have aimed and ,arguably, succeeded, in monopolizing the concept. (The agenda they have, goes beyond the scope of this post) It’s value can never be measured by any written test (especially, through any arbitrary hour, posing an arbitrary set of problems). Maybe one day, we can scan a person’s brain, and infer individual limitations by elements of structure and reflex. Until that day, I think there are better measures of intelligence (and I won’t waste more time, describing this), and especially, for individuals in their adolescent and early adult years, when the brain is more plastic with regard to Gf.

    But back to Michael Oher, with an 80 IQ. From what I saw in the movie, just for fun, I would guess he had a peak of about 105 and it would have been somewhere between his senior year in high school and first year in college. But to be fair, I should mention that someone who came from such an unprivileged background, was quite manageable. And such a fact, ultimately, further complicates the topic of intelligence.

  19. Daniel Earley says:

    Too many hairs are being split in this discussion that simply aren’t relevant to the weightiest independent variables and outcomes. Even the most carefully constructed and intricate study design is only as good as how close the researchers come to asking the right questions. With regard to measuring intelligence, I doubt anyone disputes that within every species a natural range of innate limitations exists.

    Our understanding of plasticity, however, is itself plastic. Indeed, the evolving model shifts almost annually toward more of it in one aspect or another than believed previously. But the independent variables that trump, or rather, magnify biological potential into blossoming are the intangible and trite sounding “motivation” and more importantly, the *trigger events* that act as an environmental wild card. The most potent of these stem from relationships with mentors — the ones who enter a person’s life and set them on fire.

    These can be parents, yes, but quite often they are not. The best schools come stocked with a high percentage of such mentor candidates pre-selected, primed and trained for that role. For example, in the charter high school I co-founded a few years back, this was a non-negotiable attribute we screened for in all of our teachers. Frankly, many private and charter schools do this as a matter of course. And no, this mentoring should not be confused with mere “massive interventions” that later wash out statistically. It is qualitatively different.

    At this point, Michael Oher has been inspired by several mentors. He is still developing, and the fruit will compound and be reaped for decades — even generations. After all, is that not the case with each of us?

  20. [...] a white family to magnanimously welcome him into the home, where he found compassionate people who cared for his well-being: “Michael Oher grew up in inner-city Memphis. In and out of foster care, Michael’s lucky [...]

  21. KD says:

    Where did you find this picture? I’m trying to find the person who took it for liscensing purposes.

  22. [...] over at Jay P. Greene’s Blog, the author talks about the importance of identifying students’ talents, whether they’re a left tackle or potential honor [...]

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