Arnold Kling  

What Causes Educational Inequality?

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WHO's Health Rankings... Hal Varian's Words of Wisdom...

Brink Lindsey writes


the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid's environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.

Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley have tested the effect of class on the differences in how parents interact with their young children. After observing several dozen families with toddlers over the course of a couple of years, they were able to document dramatic differences in the intensity and nature of the verbal stimulation the kids were getting: Professional parents directed an average of 487 "utterances" per hour toward their children, as compared to 301 for working-class parents and only 176 for welfare parents. The quality of those utterances was also very different: Among professional parents, the ratio of encouraging to discouraging utterances was six to one; for working-class parents, the ratio slipped to two to one; and welfare parents made two discouraging utterances for every encouraging one. The consequences were predictable: By the time the children in the study were around three years old, the ones from professional families had average vocabularies of 1,116 words; the working-class ones averaged 749; the welfare kids, 525.


I think that my co-blogger would go ballistic over this "nurture assumption" methodology. In fact, in about an hour I am going to be talking to my AP statistics class about the difference between an observational study and an experiment, and this will be a good illustration of what is problematic with the former.

Instead, suppose that a sample of welfare kids were adopted by professional parents, and vice-versa. Anyone care to bet that at age three the ratio of the vocabulary of the welfare kids adopted by professionals to that of the professional kids adopted by welfare families would be 2 to 1? I bet it would be 1 to 1 or less.

In an email, Brink says that he finds genetic fatalism "completely unpersuasive." I view genetic fatalism as a null hypothesis that is very difficult to reject. That is, it is extremely rare to find interventions with reliable long-term effects on cognitive ability.

I believe that culture matters. However, I also believe that culture evolves slowly, and it's not something that responds in predictable ways to the policy dials being twisted by legislators and bureaucrats.

Still, I can't disagree with Brink when he says,


libertarians have their own good ideas for boosting human capital and fostering assimilation. Among them are: greater competition in the school system, cessation of the drug war that so needlessly fosters criminality, and elimination of occupational licensing restrictions that block opportunities for entrepreneurship among the less credentialed.

I am somewhat pessimistic on competition in the school system as a panacea. I favor it, of course, but I suspect that the benefits would show up more in lower costs than in better outcomes.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Alex J. writes:

I predict that school competition would dramatically improve the social environment of schools. (more scholarly, less violence, less bullying etc.) A big problem with the tone of public schools is that many of the students have no interest in getting an education. Everyone would be better off if they just got jobs. Everyone, that is, except those who gain a sense of virtue from piously proclaiming the goal that all children should be well educated in a collective effort -- i.e. the bulk of the voters.

Floccina writes:

I am somewhat pessimistic on competition in the school system as a panacea. I favor it, of course, but I suspect that the benefits would show up more in lower costs than in better outcomes.

This has been my belief for a long time.

It might also benefit in that it might lead to teaching children useful things. As I see it now school is a big test. Maybe we cannot teach children to make them smarter but perhaps they can learn more useful things. The miracle of compounding growth and how to repair a car, the useful simple basic principles of physics and chemistry, simple algebra. Skip the quadratic equations, spelling (never proven to help and obsolete in the computer age) etc.

We should not think that children can learn more in school but maybe they can learn more useful things.

manuelg writes:

Minor point, not central to your post's main thesis...

> ...I also believe that culture evolves slowly...

Compared to what?

I would assert that culture evolves much faster than _any_ genome change, detectable by _any_ method.

People often find themselves bewildered at cultural changes during their reproductive years, even smaller than a human lifetime.

Assertions about speed of cultural change benefit from explicit contrast.

> That is, it is extremely rare to find interventions with reliable long-term effects on cognitive ability.

I am not sure what "rare" means, in this context. There are some interventions with very dramatic effects...

* Outrageous neglect to an infant, compared to even minimal attention by an adult caregiver

* Availability of primary education, compared to children working to provide family subsistence

How many "interventions" are required, when the obvious ones have such dramatic results?

(It is extremely "rare" to find different modes of trans-Atlantic travel, not much interest in ballooning and hovercraft, because jet airplanes are effective and sufficient.)

> In fact, in about an hour I am going to be talking to my AP statistics class about the difference between an observational study and an experiment, and this will be a good illustration of what is problematic with the former.

Of course experiment is superior, or else it nobody would bother. The "experiment" you lay out ("suppose that a sample of welfare kids were adopted by professional parents, and vice-versa") is impossible to do in the civilized world.

Buzzcut writes:

Brink says that he finds genetic fatalism "completely unpersuasive."

Wow. "Completely unpersuasive"? Completely?

And why would that be, exactly? Because you're an idealogue who care more about a certain interventionist political agenda than, say, the correlation coefficients of what research has been done on the subject?

I mean, LOOK AT THE DATA! It's pretty dog gone persuasive!

BGC writes:

I second buzzcut's comment. Most people are scared-off looking at the evidence for the reality, importance and heritability of IQ. And conisdering what happened to Charles Murray or (just recently) James Watson it is easy to understand why they are scared.

I hope Brink Lindsey is one of these who are scared.

Because if he *has* studied the evidence on IQ and still finds it 'completely unpersuasive' then he is either not very smart, not competent to evaluate the evidence or ideologically blinkered - in exactly the same way that a creationist who finds natural selection completely unpersuasive would have to be not very smart, not competent to evaluate the evidence or ideologically blinkered.

Studies such as Lindsey cites simply *must* be controlled for inherited factors - since the main biological way that parents affect their offspring is via genes. After all, why would biology rely on something so hit and miss as education when the same effect can be obained reliably via genes?

So there is no scientific value in studying the generational transmission educational differences without controlling for parental and offspring IQ.

Jim writes:
it is extremely rare to find interventions with reliable long-term effects on cognitive ability.

Getting rid of lead paint and leaded petrol appears to be an excellent example.

zach writes:

"Anyone care to bet that at age three the ratio of the vocabulary of the welfare kids adopted by professionals to that of the professional kids adopted by welfare families would be 2 to 1? I bet it would be 1 to 1 or less."

I do. I'd bet you any sum that (Welfare kids raised by professional parents/professional's children raised by welfare parents) would be greater than one.

For example: Take the hearing children of educated deaf parents. Their verbal development is delayed. They'll be in command of far fewer words than a similar child of similarly educated hearing parents, even accounting for signs they'll know. In that case, nurture is the difference, not nature.

How do you learn a foreign language? Take a class with other native speakers for a semester, or go to where that language is spoken and immerse yourself in the words of native speakers?

While I 100% agree with you that there is a genetic component to intelligence, at least in this case, I think you dramatically overestimate the contribution of nature to nurture.

Troy Camplin writes:

My wife is Mexican-American and is a bilingual teacher, and she said one of the biggest problems with poor Hispanic children is that when she gets them in pre-K or K, they don't know what anything is called, because their parents just tell them "Give me that thing." (But in Spanish, of course.) She says that this cultural practice is a real barrier to education, because she ends up having to teach them all the things they should have learned from 18 mo. to when the gets them, in addition to what she has to teach them -- and English too. There are several cultural factors like this among the poor that are true barriers to learning. In places like the U.S., I would argue that the true differences between the rich and the poor are cultural -- and this is true of poor whites, blacks, Hispanics, etc.

KDeRosa writes:

It has proven to be extremely difficult to teach vocabulary and underlying concepts to low-SES/low-IQ students. The reason is because it is difficult to accelerate the learning of vocabulary.

From Wes Becker's seminal article Teaching Reading and Language to the Disadvantaged—What We Have Learned from Research:

In contrast to the general-case learning involved in decoding, arithmetic, grammar, and spelling-by-sounds, the learning of vocabulary and concepts usually involves a “linear-additive set” (Becker & Engelmann, 1976, p. 58). In a linear additive set, the learning of one element gives little advantage in learning a new element. To be sure, there are families of words that have common root meanings and common meanings of affixes, which permit some limited general cases to be generated. But, by and large, the learning of proper names, new concepts, and the learning of synonyms for concepts already known by another name, involve linear additive sets in which each new element must be taught. Knowledge of the English language, which is absolutely essential to oral and written comprehension, serves largely to define intelligent behavior (Miner, 1957). Teaching this language involves a task of the first magnitude.

Bear in mind that Becker was part of the team that successfully improved the educational outcomes of low-SES students a feat that has been rarely duplicated since.

Dr. T writes:

I believe that Arnold Kling got this mostly correct. The data I've read show that genetics determines nearly all of a person's potential or maximum IQ. A great nurturing environment adds almost nothing to this maximum IQ, though it helps the child attain it. However, a bad nurturing environment throughout childhood can prevent a child from coming close to maximum IQ. A baby with a potential IQ of 130 who is raised in a horrible environment could end up with a 90 IQ.

TGGP writes:

Brink Lindsay should be laughed at. For a very long period of time.

Libertarian solutions are indeed not panaceas. They are improvements on the margin, and they should be pushed as such.

jb writes:

This post takes me back to a visit to IKEA in Woodbridge, VA, just before Christmas. I'm standing in line behind a man and his 4yo son, and the boy is acting like any other 4yo boy, asking questions, fidgeting, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.

The kid wanders a few feet away, not particularly far, and the father snaps at him. The little boy scurries back and says "Am I a good kid?" The father says "No. You're a bad kid."

I was certain I had misheard him. But the poor boy says "I'm a bad kid?"

Immediately, I was relieved. I was sure the father would relent, and tell his son he was just teasing, ruffle his hair, give him a hug.

But instead the father said "Yes. You're a bad kid."

"Oh." The boy responded.

Heartbreaking.

Justin Bowen writes:
This has been my belief for a long time.

It might also benefit in that it might lead to teaching children useful things. As I see it now school is a big test. Maybe we cannot teach children to make them smarter but perhaps they can learn more useful things. The miracle of compounding growth and how to repair a car, the useful simple basic principles of physics and chemistry, simple algebra. Skip the quadratic equations, spelling (never proven to help and obsolete in the computer age) etc.

We should not think that children can learn more in school but maybe they can learn more useful things.

I'd say that it's about time for a sequel to The Theory of Education in the United States. I won't hold my breath waiting for changes in this direction, though.

J writes:

If I recall correctly, Herbert Gintis's research has shown little-to-no correlation between IQ and economic achievement when controlling for other factors.

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