April 10, 2009

Once More into the SES Breach

Here goes some new research on effects of positive parental efforts in their adopted children and the persistence of negative outcomes for these children:

The results show that parents invested more in adopted children than in genetically related ones, especially in educational and personal areas. At the same time, adoptees experienced more negative outcomes. They were more likely to have been arrested, to have been on public assistance and to require treatment for drug, alcohol or mental health issues. They also completed fewer years of schooling and were more likely to divorce. In adoptive families, it appears that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Parents invest more in adoptees not because they favor them, but because they are more likely than genetic children to need the help.

Razib of Gene Expression points out:

In Western countries adoptive parents are screened. Many of them are of higher socioeconomic status, and they adopt children from the general population, with a likely skew toward lower socioeconomic status biological parents. The traits which determine your social status are a combination of environment and genes, the latter mediated through various personality dispositions and attributes. In fact there is plenty of data to show that shared parental environment has a marginal long term effect. This is not to say that there aren't environmental inputs which matter, and which adoptive parents bring to the table, but their direct guiding is not the operative element.

This study is consistent with the results of other adoption studies, such as the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study which found similarly disappointing results.

Apparently, changing a low-SES child's environment to a high-SES environment is not going to magically convert the child to a high-SES child that can be plopped into a fancy suburban school and expect magic results. No, that's not going to happen.

Berliner can put "studies" like this out every year in which he pretends he has some secret anti-poverty potion that will cure the education woes of the low-SES.

If high-SES parents aren't capable of ameliorating the biological/genetic factors of their low-SES adopted children, what's the basis for our believing that any governmental sponsored poverty intervention could produce the same or similar results given that the children will still be saddled with their less-capable biological parents?

Berliner's out of school factors (OSFs) as not as powerful as he thinks or at least his cherry-picked research has led him to believe:

[O]ut-of-school factors (OSFs) play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps, and if these factors are not attended to with equal vigor, our national aspirations will be thwarted.

This brief details six OSFs common among the poor that significantly affect the health and learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics. These OSFs are related to a host of poverty-induced physical, sociological, and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic underdevelopment, and oppositional behavior.

Berliner is overselling the effects of prenatal care, the first of his OSFs.

The remaining OSFs would seem to have been taken care of in the adoption studies, and yet the achievement gaps persisted. In fact, the parents in the adoption studies would have been more likely to ameliorate the "linguistic underdevelopment" and yet they seemed to have been incapable of doing so. See Hart and Risley and Zig's explanation of the effect in the first six or so minutes of this video.

Most of Berliner's OSF's seem to be related to various distractions (hunger, sickness, bad peers, chaotic family environment) that low-SES children must contend with. Berliner seems to forget that middle-class kids and high-SES kids have their own distraction to contend with. We don't worry too much about those distraction but they certainly exist. And, with respect to the linguistic deficiencies, these deficiencies will remain in place unless there is some kind of high-powered instructional intervention put into place, i.e., the kind that form part of any preschool program that the the SES hustlers advocate.

So even if we were to follow Berliner's recommendations to the letter, we're still going to be left with children with instructional needs and language deficiencies that are different than the needs of high-SES children. These kids are still going to require compensatory education and improved instruction that takes into account their deficiencies. This is not the kind of instruction that you find even in high-SES schools.

The problem remains an instructional problem at its core.


Parry Graham said...

"Apparently, changing a low-SES child's environment to a high-SES environment is not going to magically convert the child to a high-SES child that can be plopped into a fancy suburban school and expect magic results."

Ken, I've read some of the twin adoption studies, but I'm not that familiar with them. My question is: while children from low SES backgrounds adopted by high SES parents may not, on average, experience the same level of positive outcomes as the natural-born high SES children, are their life outcomes (e.g., educational success, earning potential, etc.) better than they would have been had they stayed in a low SES environment?

And when I say "low SES" I don't mean lower-middle class. I'm assuming that what we're really talking about are children born into poverty, not blue collar households.


Dick Schutz said...

Yikes. Before drawing any conclusions on "twin studies" ya gotta read Richard Nisbett's book "Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count." I think I've touted the book here before. I can't begin to present the information he provides.

But his point re "twins" is that in the aggregate lower SES families don't adopt kids, they give kids up for adoption to higher higher SES families.

"Because the environmental variation of adoptive families has been mistakenly assumed to be as great as as the environmental variation in the population as a whole, the estimates of between family environmental effects are way off....correcting for the restriction of environmental range, as much as 50% of the variation in intelligence could be due to differences between family environments."

Berliner commits the very popular mistake of treating correlations as causal. And some of the correlations he reports are not there in the ECLS-K and ECLS-B data bases. Berliner is pitching ideology not evidence.

Which of Zig's videos are you referring to, Ken? I thought it would be his most recent interview. That tells about early-Zig, but not about anything else.

"The problem remains an instructional problem at its core."

Spot on. But the preceding paragraph is at the other end of the "spot on" spectrum. Trying to fill in "deficiencies" is a futile task. You're faced with the "Matthew Effect."

What can be done is to build on the academic pre-requisites that all but a few kids bring to the table. Any child who can speak in full sentences and participate in everyday conversation has the prerequisites to be taught how to read and learn the "usual" academic capabilities. It's not in the kids and it's not in the water.

"The problem remains an instructional problem at its core."

Anonymous said...

Doesn't changing the enviroment of the low SES children to a high SES indeed change the educational outcomes of these children? The twin adoption studies used IQ testing, which is the same tactic that Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray used in The Bell Curve to say that poor people would never be able to be as good as rich people (since IQ tests include the type of spatial/mathematical puzzles that rich kids are already likely to get right to begin with). The IQ tests aren't as reliable as normal standardized tests like the Terra Novas, MCAT, and the SAT & ACT college entrance exams. These would be better ways to see whether or not the enviroment could affect achievement because they include material actually learned in the classroom, which is what a high SES enviroment is supposed to increase.
Since you feel that the government should end Social Security, welfare, and other safety net mechanisms for the population since most intelligence is concluded by these studies to be genetic, would society really just suddenly be fair for everyone or would it be more likely that the rich just keep getting richer? Welfare was already cut by the GOP in the 90's and Bush tried to privatize Social Security. What would need to happen for NCLB (the program set up by Bush that runs along standarized instructional lines) to work in you view? It seems that your saying that because these studies have shown that poor kids will always be behind their more affluent peers even after years of schooling by age 17, that these kids will always be dumb. Doesn't that, however, cut into your argument for instructional solutions to solve poverty?

Anonymous said...

Curriculum is a classroom issue and not a social issue. I believe that is your point.

The DOE's model for curriculum development mistakenly assumed that math curriculum writing groups from different universities would outdo each other in attempting to create the very best programs for children. With fanfare, the DOE selected 13 of the programs that were most promising or exemplary. This list has been gradually whittled down to perhaps 5 or 6 textbooks. Each textbook was written to reflect for the diversity and SES of students - hence the motto - "Success for all".

25 years later we see continued declines in academic achievement. Fewer students are graduating with the necessary backgrounds to continue in technical fields.

It makes little sense to graduate from college without at least a year of calculas. Most of our students are lucky if they finish with a competence in algebra.

Most other countries worked to develop one curriculum for all their students - the countries that had to account for educating larger numbers of sheltered-English students did the best overall. The were educators in the true sense because they were realistic in their expectations of what they could accomplish and how to go about implementing to get the best results.

The US implemented thirteen curricula, and none of them were very good. Their results were overstated and it was all conjecture.

The 'Math Wars' was a ploy to generate controversy, so then nothing could be accomplished and critics were attacked and denigrated. The NCTM and NSF should learn some humility and admit that they failed.

Stephen Downes said...

> changing a low-SES child's environment to a high-SES environment is not going to magically convert the child to a high-SES child that can be plopped into a fancy suburban school and expect magic results. No, that's not going to happen.

That's because the impact of socio-economic status begins well before birth, with effects ranging from increased fetal-alcohol syndrome to stunted growth due to low nutrition or parental smoking.

This impact continues in the child's early years as he or she is stimulated only by the TV babysitter, and not the wider range of experiences and activities of well-heeled parents. And, of course, the nutritional neglect and exposure to toxins continues.

Simply moving a child from one environment does not magically erase the impact of that history, and it would be an error of reasoning to suppose that it does.

Addressing socio-economic statius means addressing the entire problem, and not merely plucking children out of it.

Dick Schutz said...

"Addressing socio-economic statius means addressing the entire problem, and not merely plucking children out of it."

Hmm. Any ideas on how to "address" the "entire problem" of "SES"? That's a very tall order. Maybe the Mother of all Reboots?

In none of the maladaptive conditions you list is SES causal--it's correlational. The reliable accomplishment of instructional aspirations is not contingent on SES, it's contingent on the elimination of flawed instruction.

KDeRosa said...

That's because the impact of socio-economic status begins well before birth, with effects ranging from increased fetal-alcohol syndrome to stunted growth due to low nutrition or parental smoking.

If you followed the link I provided to the study: Birth Weight and Cognitive Ability in Childhood Among Siblings and Nonsiblings, Seungmi Yang, John Lynch, Ezra S. Susser and Debbie A. Lawlor, Pediatrics, 122; e350-e358, 2008 you would have learned that your view is mostly nonsense.

"According to these data, after full adjustment for family characteristics, there was only a weak residual association between birth weight and childhood cognitive ability at ages between 5 and 12 years. Furthermore, a complementary family-based analysis found essentially
the same result, suggesting that the differences in cognitive ability in children are mostly because of family characteristics rather than intrauterine factors."

And if your post birth theory of the importance of shared family environment was accurate we would have seen an effect in the adoption studeies; and we didn't.

Anonymous said...

The problems in American society are not unique in this world - low SES is not all bad and it still provides a rich learning environment for children. If the US focused on improving instruction we would have more success.

Unknown said...

The problems in American society are not unique in this world - low SES is not all bad and it still provides a rich learning environment for children. If the US focused on improving instruction we would have more success.Seriously, what planet do you live on? May be the second "s" in SES has something to do with it?

palisadesk said...

I'm with you, Anonymous, never mind TFT's dismissive remarks (maybe s/he needs to get out more). Having taught in schools that range from the ultra-high SES through stable working-class, mixed middle and working class, rural poverty (different district), and several urban poverty schools, I think a lot of what passes for "concern" for "the poor" is elitist, condescending rubbish.

For one thing, "low SES" is not a unitary construct. "Poor" looks different and is different (in terms of lifestyle, opportunities, effect on children) in different places. The rural poor kids were probably more disadvantaged in pecuniary terms than any inner-city kids I have known, but since almost everyone was in the same boat they did not seem to feel deprived. They enjoyed the outdoors, had a freedom of movement city kids would never know, and a recognition that they were valued family members for their very real labor contribution to the family -- even small children helped with daily chores, school aged kids chopped wood, managed vegetable gardens, helped their dads with hunting, fishing, construction, vehicle maintenance and so on. Lots of urban kids have no meaningful work to do -- but also no sense of being valuable contributors to the family in a very vital way. These rural poor kids had real self-esteem because they WERE important and they knew it.

Of course there were many amenities they did not have, but as Anonymous pointed out, it was by no means all negative. The very wealthy children had downsides to their situation as well. Many saw very little of their parents, and were cared for by servants and nannies -- well cared for, yes, but the children would write longingly of their desire to spend some time with their mom and dad. They had everything money could buy, but that didn't prevent a number of them from showing clear signs of anxiety and depression (these were third graders).

I'll never forget the responses to an assignment they had to write about "My Three Wishes." You'd expect 8-year-olds to write about wanting toys, superpowers, trips to Disney World or a pet. One boy wrote, "My first wish is that I get into [blank] Prep School in sixth grade. My second wish is that I get into Princeton. My third wish is to get into Harvard Law School. And those are all my wishes." They were great kids, and certainly had many advantages, but their situation was far from enviable in many respects.

Even "urban poor" is not all the same thing. Families that are recent immigrants may have the same income as third-generation welfare families that have lost hope and have no aspirations for a better life -- but their worldview and values that they pass on to their children are very different. Often these families have an extended family network that more isolated middle-class suburban kids have never known. They may have strong cultural and religious identities that seem quaint or strange to us but which provide the children with emotional security and a sense of belonging.

Although the degree of social mobility seems to have lessened in the last decades, there is still a lot of it going on, and SES is not destiny. I'm all for working to improve the services and resources for people of all income levels -- nutrition, medical and dental care, access to libraries and recreational facilities and much more. But "the poor" do not need our condescending pity. Pockets of entrenched, multigenerational poverty ( native reservations, Appalachia etc) present special challenges -- but even those challenges are probably best addressed by the people who live there.

A sobering book for do-gooders (I number myself among these) is White Man's Burden by William Easterly. It shows how blundering American (and other Western) attempts to "help" have often backfired and caused many more problems than they solved.

Good instruction, however, is a no-brainer. Will it be enough to solve all problems? Of course not. But it is doable and a long step in the right direction -- the direction of empowering people to solve their own problems on both the macro and micro level.

I'm from your planet, Anonymous. Let's start a revolution:-) Data from my district shows instruction makes a real difference -- some low SES schools consistently outperform much higher SES schools, and school factors (including instructional quality) are responsible.