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Now & Next: can science break the class ceiling? – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 17 December 2021

The gap in educational achievement between "rich and poor" children has not changed for decades. While understanding and addressing the reasons for this gap has traditionally focused on differences in social environment, new approaches are exploring factors such as neuroscience and genetics. But can this science-based model really help break through the class ceiling – and can it be used safely and ethically, improving social mobility rather than exacerbating existing inequalities?

The race is on to use neuroscience and technology to plug the learning gap between poor and rich children.  Recent research shows children’s life chances may depend less on showering them with knowledge and words…

Kite.  Key.  Koala.

…and more on opportunities to interact with adults. 

Lindsay Paris
Community Liaison
Mesquite Independent School District
That specific type of communication is what is going to really benefit the child long-term.

But is this enough?  Could a controversial focus on genetics be what’s needed to break the class ceiling?

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
We are at a tipping point in terms of how genetics is going to shape our lives.

NOW & NEXT
Can Science Break The Ceiling Class?

Shadarra James
Let’s put your shoes on, okay?

It might look like Shaddara and her son, Kevin, are getting ready for a trip to the playground but this is no ordinary day.

Shadarra James
Oh my goodness, let’s play.  What do you want to play first?

Every word they say is being recorded on a tiny device known as a talk pedometer but instead of tracking steps, it counts words.

Shadarra James
The microphone is in the front and you don’t want to obstruct it.  You don’t want anything to block the sound.  The device picks up how many adult words he’s hearing, how much electronic noise, how much electronic noise is in the background and how many turns he’s taking in talking to me when I communicate with him.

The pedometers continuously collect data and are part of a scheme to transform how children learn language. 

Shadarra James
It makes me more mindful so now I’m always considering when I’m getting him ready, I’m like, am I talking to him enough?  So let’s go play with our toys.

One influential study found that in the first three years of a child’s life, those from wealthy families will have heard around 30 million more words than those from poorer backgrounds and this word gap can set them back for years to come. 

Lindsay Paris
Community Liaison
Mesquite Independent School District
Kids in poverty hear fewer adult words and it’s not because their parents are bad parents, it’s because mum or dad is working two jobs.

While the pedometers can be used by all families, including middle class ones like Shadarra’s, the scheme helps poor kids to bridge this word gap.  Every week Shadarra gets a breakdown of exactly how much she has spoken to her son while he was wearing the device. 

Lindsay Paris
Community Liaison
Mesquite Independent School District
We’ve had several teachers in our district go through the programme and when I’ve talked to them after they get their first or second report, almost all of their comments are “I thought I was talking with my kid way more than this report actually shows.” 

One study found this use of technology and data analysis led to a 32% increase in the number of words a child hears per hour. 

Everybody, listen to me, what?

But it’s not just about increasing the number of words children hear.  The scheme’s organisers are looking out for the number of so-called conversational terms. 

I tried to tell you last night papa but…

Lindsay Paris
Community Liaison
Mesquite Independent School District
The area that we really encourage and try to promote the most growth in is that back and forth conversation between an adult and a child.  There is tonnes of research that shows that that specific type of communication is what is going to really benefit the child long-term.

Neuroscience has shown the benefits of conversational turns as they appear to get round some of the disadvantages of growing up poor.  It is well-established that if a child grows up in poverty, this affects their growing brain. 

Rachel Romeo
Assistant Professor of Human Development
University of Maryland College Park
Low socioeconomic status of other types of disadvantage or adversity affect the developing brain.  Parts of the brain that respond to threatening environments tend to accelerate so that children can be more resilient than their other parts of the brain showing slower growth when exposed to adversity. 

Through it, one, two, three.

But when children are engaged in high numbers of conversational turns, these differences in brain development caused by their background, don’t seem to matter and regions of the brain associated with language development expand.

Rachel Romeo
Assistant Professor of Human Development
University of Maryland College Park
Conversational turns is something directly in the child’s everyday environment that seems to have an affect over and above socioeconomic status. 

Yet despite these insights from neuroscience and new tech, the gap in achievement between rich and poor kids hasn’t changed for decades.  By the time they are ten, in Fourth Grade, lower income students will have a reading score around 28 points below their richer classmates and this gap hasn’t really changed in the past twenty years. 

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
We’re surprisingly ineffective at that, at closing the differences that we see between low income and high income children.  In some cases those gaps have actually gotten worse in the US in the last 25 years. 

So what else could help level the playing field?  Professor Kathryn Paige Harden is a psychologist and geneticist who argues a new approach is needed.  She believes understanding children’s genetics could be key. 

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
From a genetic perspective, we can see that people who happen to inherit certain genetic variants are more likely to graduate from college.  I think we’re really used to thinking about the role that a child’s family background plays in equality and inequality over the course of their life and what we’re seeing with the research now is that genetics plays just a bigger role in shaping these types of inequalities and life outcomes. 

Professor Harden argues genetics could be used to identify the children least likely to do well at school and that this offers the potential for better and more effective interventions to help them.

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
You have children spit into a tube and for less than 75 American dollars you can get a readout of their DNA which can be used to see, okay, we know for some reason, these kids with these genetic variants are less likely in 30 years to have graduated from college or gotten a PhD. 

Shadarra James
Is this so exciting?

She says that some existing interventions, which don’t take account of genetics, could be improved. 

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
Is that intervention working disproportionately for people who are most likely to succeed in school or least likely or is it working about the same for everyone?  So far those questions are really unknown because interventioners haven’t really incorporated genetic tools into their research design. 

There’s nothing that the State of North Carolina can do to justify what they did to me.

The idea of using genetic information to shape social policy provokes strong reactions.  It has a very dark and uncomfortable past.  In the twentieth century, genetic traits were used to promote the idea of racial superiority, sometimes in disturbing propaganda.

Adrian Wooldridge
Political Editor, The Economist
I think many people worry because they say that’s a way of dismissing a large chunk of the population.  They talk about genetic determinism being right-wing. 

But Professor Harden believes it doesn’t have to be like this. 

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
We see these real fears that genetic information will be used to naturalise hierarchy.  At the same time, we see an increasing embrace of thinking about our biology in relation to sexual orientation in relation to weight.  How does my genotype affect my difficulty in keeping off weight?  So, what I’d like to see is for that trend to continue but around things related to achievement, achievement or educational attainment.

Using genetic information like this is still a long way off.  Its advocates will have to show that it can be done in a safe and ethical way and that it will improve social mobility rather than increasing existing inequalities. 

Kathryn Paige Harden
Author, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
Parents and children see that the DNA revolution is here.  They want to know how it’s affecting them.  I expect it to be a really scientifically interesting and productive area of research moving forward.

Adrian Wooldridge
Political Editor, The Economist
Hi, I’m Adrian Wooldridge, Political Editor here at The Economist.  If you’d like to read more about social mobility, then click on the link opposite and if you’d like to watch more in our Now & Next series, click on the other link.  Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe.

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