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Not every kid can be a math genius

November 6, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
A British education official is in some hot water this week for saying about 70 percent of how well a kid does in school comes down to genetics. Dominic Cummings, an adviser to UK Education Secretary Michael Gove, wrote in a report that Britain's education system should be tailored to children's IQs and the size of the country's education department should be downsized. An individual child's performance, says Cummings, is largely related to his genetics and whether the child has self control and the ability to keep working when he is frustrated.

Cummings' report would probably not go over any better with educators in the United States than they have in the UK, probably because he makes it sound like all of their efforts to improve the education system will have little impact. Educators in the United States, like the UK, have spent an enormous amount of time and money on trying to boost student achievement with programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core standards. A lot of attention is devoted to improving the test scores of kids who are vulnerable to having lower school performance, such as kids from minority groups, kids from lower income families, kids who speak English as a second language and kids who have disabilities. All of those efforts are based on the assumption that the right educational methods can make a real difference in school performance for kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Cummings' remarks are also controversial because the heritability of intelligence is an extremely sensitive topic, in Britain as well as the United States, often because racists have claimed that certain racial groups are more intelligent than others on average. Cummings didn't make any statements regarding race, but I'm sure his critics have remembered those past claims and are rightfully afraid that Cummings' report could lead to minority children being denied educational opportunities.

While I don't think anyone's educational opportunities should be limited, I do think Cummings makes a few good points. Cummings is right, as far as it goes, that intelligence is highly heritable, though environment plays a not inconsiderable role. Every scientific study I've seen in the past two decades indicates that this is the case. Biological siblings often have IQs that are within a few points of each other, even when they have been raised in separate households. But, since each child inherits a combination of genes from each parent, there are no guarantees that a genius will have children who are also geniuses. Regression to the mean would suggest that the genius's children might be bright but a bit closer to average than their father. Parents with below average intelligence also often have children who are a bit brighter than they are, again because of a unique combination of genes inherited from each parent. There is no way to say for sure how an individual child might turn out.

However, it would be foolish to remake policy based on IQ alone. IQ tests themselves are somewhat problematic, since critics say they can be culturally biased and are not necessarily a true measure of a child's future success. IQ is also variable and can be influenced up to a point by early environment. A child raised in poverty will likely have a depressed IQ; a child raised in an optimal environment has the best chance of reaching his genetic potential, which is largely influenced by the genes he inherited from his parents. Quality early childhood education programs like Head Start can make a big difference for kids who come from impoverished families, because they help them reach their genetic potential, but Head Start also can't turn every kid into a math genius.

Cummings is also right that the educational system should take into account the different needs and interests of the students they educate. Not every child will be best served by being required to take advanced math or science classes when business math and nutrition might be more practical and better suited for their interests and future careers. It is popular right now for educators to claim that kids will rise to meet high expectations, which is true, but not every kid will be capable of achieving at the same level. By high school, kids and their parents have a pretty good idea of their strengths and their weaknesses and they ought to have the option of choosing classes that are best suited to their future goals.


Cummings' entire essay, though a bit long-winded, is an interesting read. It can be found at


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