Good news. A child's IQ isn't written in stone. Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, can move up or down depending on what happens in a child's life.
That's very important news, because when IQ goes up, so does a person's ability to do well in school, go to college and end up in a high wage profession. If a child's IQ can grow, parents and teachers can have a huge impact on the future success of the children they raise and educate.
Not everyone believes IQ is flexible. A 1994 book, The Bell Curve, maintained our intelligence is fixed at birth. It claimed people are poor because they don't have the inborn intelligence rich people possess in abundance. It also claimed people with African ancestry have genetically inferior intelligence, so they will always lag behind other groups in education, jobs and income.
The theories in The Bell Curve are taken apart in a wonderful new book, Intelligence and How to Get It. The author, Richard Nisbett, creates a convincing, well-researched argument that a child's IQ can vary by as much as 12 to 18 points depending on home environment and schooling.
Nisbett compares IQ to height. We've all seen how children of U.S. immigrants tower over their parents. The overall height increase can't be genetic, since they inherited their parents' DNA. More likely, their increased height is due to better nutrition, better health care and a host of other environmental factors. The same thing happens all over the world. When living conditions improve, children grow taller than their parents.
IQ scores have grown right along with height. In this country, children generally have higher IQs than their parents. In fact, over the past 100 years, IQ scores have risen about nine points every generation, for every group of Americans. Why? Better health and nutrition are factors. So is increased school attendance. And our ever more complex world engages and stimulates children's minds. Say what you will about video games, they're linked to recent increases in IQ scores.
Is a 12 to 18 point difference in IQ important? The answer is, it can make all the difference in the world. Take a child with a 95 IQ. That child will probably struggle just to graduate from high school, and there's a good chance the 95 IQ adult will end up in a low-paying job or be supported by the state.
If that same child has a 110 IQ – 15 points higher – graduating high school should be reasonably easy, and he or she will likely go on to college, then end up in a professional job with a good income.
When you raise a child's IQ, closed doors open up and new opportunities beckon.
I was hoping Nisbett would offer an easy "magic bullet" to raise children's intelligence and achievement. Unfortuately, he doesn't. He says the two most important ways to increase children's IQs are to raise families out of poverty and improve the quality of our schools.
Not only do low-income children suffer from poor nutrition and poor health, but they tend to be talked to and read to less than children from higher income families. They're also less likely to be asked the kinds of thought-provoking questions at home they will be asked at school. Very simply, they enter kindergarten less educationally prepared, and fall further behind every year.
While education can't wipe out the effects of poverty on children, according to Nisbett, it can do a lot to close the IQ gap. Quality preschool experiences, excellent teachers and lower class sizes are his three essentials for improving students' intelligence.
Nisbett's solutions aren't new, and they won't be cheap or easy, but they come with this assurance: if we do the right things for our children, at home and at school, we can raise their IQ and achievement and make their futures brighter.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.