We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1927)

The majority of our teachers are hardworking and effective. But the previous estimates point clearly to the key imperative of eliminating the drag of the bottom teachers.

Eric Hanushek (2011)

One common strain of modern education reform has a direct, yet familiar logic: An education crisis persists despite more spending, smaller classes, or curricular changes. We have ignored the major cause of student achievement: teacher quality. Seniority and tenure have diluted the pool of talented teachers and impeded student learning. Reformers such as Michelle Rhee have acted on this assumption, implementing test-based accountability measures, merit pay, and lesser job protections. Unfortunately, the current educational reform movement shares its logic with the early-twentieth-century American eugenics movement, which in efforts to improve our gene pool, wrote a horrific chapter in our history.

In suggesting this provocative comparison, I hope to guide readers through three shared errors. Both eugenics and modern school reform view education too deterministically, share a faith in standardized tests, and exaggerate the fixedness of traits. Considering this comparison requires a reconsideration of early eugenics, not as merely precursors to Nazis, but as an optimistic and Progressive movement. What is now disdained as pseudoscientific racism was once widely accepted. To learn from history, however, we must not dismiss our ancestors as evil or senseless. Recognizing the noble intentions of the past allows us to compare it to the present and find the same misguided assumptions about human nature.

Left: Oliver Wendell Holmes

What was eugenics? In the decades after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) loud protests became acceptance, and many hoped to combine Darwin’s findings with newly re-discovered genetic mechanisms of inheritance. Scientific research satisfied a collective urge for deterministic explanations; if our genes determine our intelligence, our personalities, and our futures, this knowledge could be used to improve humanity. How could a society use these discoveries to improve livestock, but refuse to use them for the betterment of society?

The first error of the eugenicists, and of the school reformers, is a deterministic view of a complex and uncertain process. The eugenicists began with Darwin’s animal models and findings that diseases run in families and jumped to the conclusion that genes determine everything from criminality to genius. Today’s school reformers begin with the finding that the teacher is the relatively largest in-school predictor of academic achievement as measured by test scores, and quickly jump to: ". . . the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher." Without a doubt, teachers matter. But to argue that a child’s teacher is the single most important factor in school success writ large is an unsupported leap from suggesting that certain test scores are more influenced by good teaching than by other conveniently measured variables.

If good genes singly cause success, and good teachers are responsible for student learning, then how do we define "good"? Many eugenicists and school reformers dismiss the problem. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton wrote, "There is a sufficient consensus of opinion as to what kind of human beings are desirable in an ideal state, so that we need not trouble ourselves about further details for some time to come." The school reformers agree: We all know the difference between a great teacher and a poor one; we can worry about the details later. A great teacher imparts great learning, a poor teacher doesn’t.

The second common error becomes apparent once the need arises to concretely measure quality. Both eugenics and modern school reform share an overabundant faith in standardization, and in testing in particular. Eugenics arose just as the first intelligence tests were being created. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, who adapted a pioneering French intelligence test into the IQ test, was an early supporter of eugenics. Many statistical techniques now used by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek to measure teacher quality through student achievement were invented by Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and Raymond Cattell, all pioneers in intelligence testing, and often supporters of eugenics ideas. Of course, "achievement" is now used instead of intelligence, as if the tests are entirely different from intelligence tests of days past. The tests have changed, but the unbounded faith in testing has not.

Right: Alexander Graham Bell

I do not wish impugn the statistical techniques themselves, or doubt progress in measuring what we aim to measure. However, in each moment, a refinement of the science of testing has been mistaken for readiness to apply to public policy and specific individual cases. A strong general relationship between conveniently measurable variables becomes riddled with errors when applied to individual personnel decisions. As these tools leave the lab (or the economist’s model) and enter policy reality, the uncertainty magnifies the bias and corruption that science is supposed to prevent. Whether using early IQ tests to reject immigrants at Ellis Island, or using Value-Added Measures (VAM) scores to fire or reward teachers, policymakers convinced they are using the latest microscope, are later seen holding a distorted mirror.

The third error is a belief that important traits are fixed rather than changeable. Eugenics advocates regarded many human traits as fixed and hence sought to manage reproduction. Early supporters of eugenics began positively, by encouraging society’s winners. Galton’s book Hereditary Genius documented how genius ran in families, using the latest statistical techniques (some of which he invented; his contributions to statistics were impressive). "Positive" eugenics found acceptance among Progressives eager to use the tools of science improve their country’s future. Contests for "Fitter Families" and "Better Babies" were a staple at state fairs from 1915 through the 1920s. Another example of positive eugenics was a bonus (bankrolled by a conservative, segregationist organization) given to Air Corps officers. Some officers were offered a $4,000 bonus for fathering a child in 1940.

Although these relatively harmless positive eugenics efforts remained limited, negative eugenics became the most popular aspect of the eugenics movement, "successfully" promoting involuntary sterilization. Tens of thousands of poor women in mental institutions were involuntarily sterilized. In the Deep South, the "Mississippi appendectomy" was part of a systematic effort to reduce the "undesirable" population. These efforts were only accepted because of the premise of rigid and unchanging genetic traits (race, but also intelligence).

Left: Cynthia G. Brown, Secretary Arne Duncan, Kati Haycock and Mayor Michael Bloomberg by Ralph Alswang at Flickr.


School reformers are not so stark or broad. For example, involuntarily sterilization is different from telling someone to find another job. Further, overt racial resentment and competition is mostly absent from the current wave of education reform. But their writings and policies make it clear that reformers often regard good teaching as a permanent trait. This position is evident in the priorities of standard-bearer Teach for America, which places far more emphasis on recruitment and selection than on their five-week training program. Rhetoric that refers to "teacher talent" instead of "teaching effectiveness" reflects different assumptions about the possibility of improving teaching skills. These assumptions suggest improvement through performance bonuses and firing as opposed to support for training or classroom resources. Modern reform hopes to shape teacher selection, not behavior in the classroom. While suggesting "lowering barriers to entry" by reducing certification requirements, many reformers seek to improve the teacher corps through selection pressures, via increased competition from better teachers.

Both sets of reformers share good intentions. Just as many of the current school reformers consider themselves to be progressive, American eugenics was considered a progressive movement, and was often couched in terms of concern for the children and for the future of society. Like modern school reform, eugenics supporters included billionaire philanthropists (John D. Rockefeller), government luminaries (Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, President Theodore Roosevelt), non-profit activists (birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger), and eminent scientists (Alexander Graham Bell, Francis Galton, and several Nobel Prize winners).

Stephen Murdoch discusses IQ testing at Ellis Island:


I contend that policy efforts urgently focused on improving through selection, rather than supporting all who have chosen a profession, are doomed to fail. Despite confidence that we know the right people, and that science can reliably identify them, science has taken only small tentative steps using convenient measures. There is some genetic basis for intelligence. Teacher quality does matter. But the uncertainty and flexibility of both intelligence and teachers makes policy applications counterproductive. A few bold scientists, hoping to apply limited findings to solve social problems, make ridiculously confident assertions (e.g., "Getting rid of the bottom 8% of teachers would be worth 100 trillion dollars for our economy"). A few wealthy individuals, eager to use their fortunes for social good, support these assertions.

The three errors above are human errors, often stemming from sympathy and a desire to see a simple yet hidden lever to alleviate injustice in our society. We see a monster guarding that lever, behaving poorly as we try to move it. Yet despite our noble intentions, we will not be remembered as heroes or Supermen, striking down a monster. We will be not be saluted for our urgency. The monsters in our society are not unintelligent degenerates or teachers unions. When teachers are fired in front of crowded classrooms, escorted out by security guards, when standardized scores are printed in the newspaper to shame "ineffective" teachers, when we say that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing to happen to education in New Orleans, we will not be remembered for putting students first. When we agree that we need a dictator to slay those monsters keeping us from greatness, we are the monsters. And as our children get older, if they aren’t too busy taking a reading test to read a history book, they will look at us with uneasy shame and ask us why we didn’t do anything to stop it. :

About the Author: Cedar Riener is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College, where he teaches General Psychology, History of Psychology, as well as courses in Sensation and Perception. His academic research focuses on embodied perception, or the way in which the state of our body influences our perception of the world. He holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Virginia and an A.B. in the History of Science from Harvard University. Several members of his family are teachers and involved in public education, which might explain his occasional lapses from scientific detachment into passionate advocacy for the profession of teaching. He blogs at Cedar’s Digest and can be found on Twitter (@criener)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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