Friday, March 4, 2011

Building Better Kids

Kevin Drum, from Mother Jones, has a very worthwhile article called "Building Better Kids". He reviews a paper by James A Heckman, The American Family in Black and White: A Post-Racial Strategy for Improving Skills to Promote Equality, the abstract of which follows:

In contemporary America, racial gaps in achievement are primarily due to gaps in skills. Skill gaps emerge early before children enter school. Families are major producers of those skills. Inequality in performance in school is strongly linked to inequality in family environments. Schools do little to reduce or enlarge the gaps in skills that are present when children enter school. Parenting matters, and the true measure of child advantage and disadvantage is the quality of parenting received. A growing fraction of American children across all race and ethnic groups is being raised in dysfunctional families. Investment in the early lives of children in disadvantaged families will help close achievement gaps. America currently relies too much on schools and adolescent remediation strategies to solve problems that start in the preschool years. Policy should prevent rather than remediate. Voluntary, culturally sensitive support for parenting is a politically and economically palatable strategy that addresses problems common to all racial and ethnic groups.
 Drum says Heckman  does not say that "school reforms" are a waste of money but says that this chart "tells you most of what you need to know about educating our kids".

The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect:
[These] gaps arise early and persist. Schools do little to budge these gaps even though the quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes. Much evidence tells the same story as Figure 1. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps.
Heckman argues that these achievement gaps—between black and white, between rich and poor—are today less the result of overt discrimination than they are of skill gaps that open up very early in life and persist in the face of a wide variety of both good and bad schools. What's more, these gaps aren't purely, or even mainly, the result of differences in cognitive ability. At least equally important are soft skills: "motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, the ability to defer gratification and the like."

 Read the rest of the article at the link above and the original paper, also linked above. It seems that it is not just membership in "The Lucky Sperm Club" that accounts for our success in life, but also "The Lucky mDNA Club".  Spending on early childhood intervention is critical in closing this gap.


  1. At least a couple studies looking at what makes children successful in school found that having supper as a family three or more nights a week was one of those things that worked - and one they didn't expect to find, Simple as it sounds, it doesn't happen nearly often enough in some children's worlds.

  2. Having breakfast instead of going to school hungry is another. Good parenting is maybe the common thread? Poverty is both a cause of and a result of poor parenting. Neither giving people money nor not giving them money cures poverty. If only it were that simple.