Let's advance the discussion by trying to accurately state the issue at hand.
We know that low socio-economic status (SES) correlates with low student achievement. But, does a low SES cause (or significantly contribute to) low student achievement and can student achievement be improved by artificially increasing the child's SES?
SES is a function of family income, parental education level, parental occupation, and social status in the community. Often, when discussing this issue, most advocates focus on the family income part/social status part of the equation and conveniently forget about the parental education/occupation part. Thus, the favored bromide of poverty advocates is to increase the family income of poor families and hope that the parental education part might follow, along with a bunch of associated behaviors which we believe to be associated with high-SES families. Wash. Rinse. Repeat and in a few generations everyone will by high-SES. Or at least act like they are high-SES. The formerly poor will perform academically as well as the rich.
At least that's the theory. We've been testing this theory for forty years now by providing massive injections of financial assistance to the poor. The gains in academic achievement, however, have proven to be elusive.
Some will argue that we don't provide enough to work the special magic. This is a ridiculous argument based on the actual amount of cash, noncash, and post tax transfers, not to mention all the income we don't count. We could squabble over how much is enough all day long, but that's not going to be productive.
What if we had some student achievement data from placing low-SES infants in high-SES households, replete with highly educated parents and lots of lots of earned income, and allowing the high-SES parents to nurture the low-SES children over their childhood? Might that settle the issue?
In fact we do have just this sort data from various adoption studies, for example, the Minnesota Twin Family Study and Brouchard's Reanalysis, the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research Project and Willerman's various analyses, and the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study.
The results have been consistent. About three quarters of the variance in IQ and student achievement is attributable to genetic factors. While the variance attributable to familial factors is about zero.
The contribution to the correlation between twins caused by similarity in rearing environments was estimated by multiplying the square of the environment-score correlation by the correlation between twins in the environmental measure. It was found that the contributions to the correlation between twins in g by familial cohesion, expressiveness, conflict, independence, achievement orientation, intellectual-cultural orientation, active-recreational orientation, moral-religious emphasis, organization, and control (all dimensions of the Family Environmental Scale) were all zero to within two decimal places. The contributions by family size, parental occupation, parental education, and possessions in the home (including material, cultural, mechanical, and scientific possessions) ranged from zero to 0.02.
So which aspects of the environment are important:
Behavioral genetic studies have demonstrated which aspects of the environment are not likely to be important. The aspects that are not likely to be important are all those that are shared by children who grow up in the same home: the parents' personalities and philosophies of child rearing, their presence or absence in the home, the number of books or TV sets or guns the home contains, and so on. In short, almost all of the factors previously associated with the term environment, and associated even more closely with the term nurture, appear to be ineffective in shaping children's personalities.
Apparently, not the ones we think are important. Which is not to say that abusive parents and ghetto life aren't going to have a detrimental effect.
But the data is not encoraging when it comes to improving outcomes for low-SES children.
Let's look at the data from the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study
The study was conducted by researchers well-known for their environmental opinions. The study analyzed White, Black, and Mixed-race adopted children in more than 100 White families in Minnesota. The study was an egalitarian's dream, because the children's adoptive parents had prestigious levels of income and education and were anti-racist enough to adopt a Black child into their own family. The children were first tested in 1975 at age 7. In 1985, 196 of the original 265 children were retested at age 17. The parents were also tested along with the children and had a measured of IQ of 115 and 120 (depending on the test used), a standard deviation above the mean. Here are the results.
Age 7 IQ
Age 17 IQ
Age 17 GPA
Age 17 class rank %
Age 17 school aptitude %
|Nonadopted, with two White biological parents|
|Adopted, with two White biological parents|
|Adopted, with one White and one Black biological parent|
|Adopted, with two Black biological parents|
The testing instruments used in 1975 and 1985 were different, so the scores between the two periods are not directly comparable.
What is important to see is the 13 and 17 point gap between the children with two white parents and two black parents. That's about a standard deviation (15 IQ points) which is what we typically observe. Notice also how the children with one black and one white parent fall in between the two extremes, which is also a consistent finding.
In no case do we find that the lower-SES adopted children perform as well as the high-SES biological children. The achievement gaps are what you would predict from genetics in the absence of the adoption and years of nuture with the high-SES families.
My conclusion is that low-SES does not cause or or significantly contribute to low student achievement. Further, student achievement will not be significantly improved by trying to artificially increase a child's SES. Clearly, environmental factors play a role in student achievement, but the factors associated with high-SES parents that we think are the important ones, aren't really the right ones. Moreover, genetics is a large fly in the ointment that has a more significant effect on outcomes than the environmental factors in any event. (Bear in mind that one environmental factor that might play a role is the quality of the school the child attends and the instruction that takes place there.)
It's all well and good to attempt to ameliororate the plight of the poor. We do quite a bit already, perhaps too much. Just, don't expect that it's going to improve student achievment or improve real SES in the long run across generations. Let's stop wasting time with these misguided schemes and focus our efforts elsewhere.
Let the comments begin.