Murray characterizes educational romantics as people who believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive and has little to do with their intellectual capacity. Educational romantics believe the current K-12 education system is in need of vast improvement.
Murray describes two types of educational romantics, one set on the Left and one on the Right, and differentiates between the two thusly:
"Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers' unions (Murray, 2008)."
Both of these accounts fail to take into account the vast differences in intellectual ability that permeates the average American classroom. Murray calls the No Child Left Behind Act a reaction to the misguided beliefs of both the Left and the Right. This legislation mandates that by 2014 all students will be proficient in math and reading. By definition this means that all students will be above average. "The No Child Left Behind Act transcended optimism. It set a goal that was out of touch with reality" (Murray, 2008). To emphasize his point Murray reminds his readers that there are no examples of intensive in-school programs that permanently raise intellectual ability during the K-12 years. Intelligence is fixed. The author further notes a mandate included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act called for a nationwide study of the effects of inequity of educational opportunity on student achievement. The resultant Coleman Report found that the quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Further data and studies confirm this conclusion.
Murray believes the roots behind the No Child Left Behind legislation and educational romanticism can be traced to different phenomenon. The first is the notion of the "mythical" good old days. This belief extols the virtues of a time when teachers were strict and all students learned the three R's. The reality at the turn of the twentieth century only about a quarter of adults had a fifth grade education and half had not reached eighth grade. In today's classrooms almost one hundred percent of children are in school and all are tested albeit some with accommodations. We test everybody, and this will lower the average.
The second phenomenon is the periodic discovery of the "magic bullet." This encompasses the belief that intellectual differences can be alerted through teaching methodologies and practices. As an example Murray cites a 1968 study by Robert Rosental and Lenore Jacobson which describes the positive effect of teacher expectations on student achievement. While this belief is still highly held in the educational community subsequent studies have established the fact that the effect was either non-existent or very small. Murray also notes the belief that fostering self-esteem is another magic bullet. While the belief that one is a worthwhile individual is certainly a laudable goal, the ensuing movement focused on having a favorable self opinion regardless of what the empirical data indicated. A 2003 study found that improving self-esteem had no discernible effect on raising grades. A third educational "bullet" is the idea of "stereotype threat." This is the notion that group differences in test scores are illusions stemming from the projection of stereo types on children who are racial minorities. While there is no definitive resolution to the effects of stereo type threat on academic performance, Murray concludes their also is no way to mitigate the problem within the day-to-day activities of the K-12 education system. While some students have negative reactions to having to takes tests and other alternate assessments, the reality is that assessment is an integral part of education.
The third and event that supports educational romanticism is Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner's theory, introduced in 1983, postulates that there are seven (it has since been expanded) areas where humans may excel. While this theory is useful to educators in providing a curriculum that affords opportunities in these areas, a majority do not play an integral part in allowing students to learn material in English literature, American history, chemistry, civics, and advanced algebra. Murray asserts the recognition of different kinds of ability has "been transmuted into breezy assertions that different children learn in different but equally valid ways and that everything will work out if only we tap the special abilities that reside in every child."
Finally, the progressive education movement was fostered out of a sense of guilt for the deplorable treatment and violation of blacks that surfaced with the Civil Rights Movement. This national guilt manifested itself in a number of ways including affirmative action, and the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as the advent of educational romanticism. This "elite white guilt" is responsible for much social policy from the last half of the 1960s onward and has driven education reform. Before this era a group of white politicians would see a class where a number of white students were doing poorly and not be compelled to intervene. Now school failure is a political and social issue.
The disparity between the haves and the have-nots is a grave concern in our society. As of 2010 the top one percent of households owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth while the top 20% owned 89%. That leaves only 11% for the bottom 80% of American households (Wolff, 2012). This data indicates the end of the middle class in our country. Whether this issue will be resolved through education or other political means is yet to be determined. However, as Young forecasted in 1958 this growing inequality of income distribution will only breed social discontent and conflict (Bluestone, 2001).
Bluestone, B. (2001, December 10). The inequality express. The American Prospect. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from http://prospect.org/article/inequality-express
Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Education and inequality. In Schooling in capitalistic America: Educational reform and contraditions of economic life. New York: Basic Books Inc., 347-352. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from http://homepage.smc.edu/delpiccolo_guido/Soc1/soc1readings/education%20and%20inequality_final.pdf
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities. New York: Random House.
Murray, C. (2008). The age of educational romanticism. The New Criterion, Vol. 26, Issue 9, 35-42. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from http://ehis.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=c1982738-7db5-4e79-a111-f63982ce3e61%40sessionmgr111&hid=106
Vison, K.D. & Ross, E.W. (2001, March). What we can know and when we can know it: Education reform, testing, and the standardization craze. Z Magazine. Retrieved April 23, 2013, from http://www.zcommunications.org/what-we-can-know-and-when-we-can-know-it-by-kevin-dvinson
Wiliam, D. (2010, April-June). Standardized testing and school accountablity. Educational Psychologist. Vol. 45, Issue 2, 107-122. Retrieved April 19, 2013, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=1f83bfe8-b95c-46cf-b054-bb96b46958c6%40sessionmgr13&vid=4&hid=13
Wolff, E.N. (2012). The asset price meltdown and wealth of the middle class. New York: New York University.