It’s All Connected….

One of the difficulties in crafting reasonable public policies is that the world isn’t nice and neat, so perfectly logical approaches to problem A often fail because the chosen solution doesn’t  take cause B into account.

This is especially true of efforts to improve public education. Those efforts are already fraught, because a substantial number of those arguing over reforms are acting on the basis of analyses based on political ideology rather than on evidence, and because there is no real agreement on either the nature of the education we’re trying to improve or the accuracy of efforts to measure it.

A persistent bone of contention in these debates has been the effect of poverty. Educators have insisted that poor children bring substantial barriers to learning into the classroom with them; their argument has been dismissed by reformers who respond that the “barriers” are just excuses for poor teaching.

If poverty makes it more difficult for children to learn, reform becomes considerably more difficult–so it is understandable that well-meaning people who want to do something now about low performance would be reluctant to consider how it fits into the mix. (One huge social problem at a time, folks!)

As long as this discussion was largely theoretical, reformers could focus on what happened in the classroom to the exclusion of the rest of poor kids’ lives. Aside from occasional acknowledgments of the role played by urban asthma and lead poisoning, there has been little recognition of the effects of poverty on IQ.

That may change.

Last month, the journal Science published a major study by researchers at Princeton, Harvard and the University of Warwick. (Science is a pre-eminent peer-reviewed journal.) The researchers concluded that “the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points.”

It’s important to clarify what that meant. Poor people don’t really “lose” those IQ points–mental capacities return when the stresses and preoccupations attendant to being poor lessen. The research compared human cognition to bandwidth–there’s only a finite amount of it, and poverty imposes a “mental load” that is the equivalent of losing a night’s sleep, or being a chronic alcoholic. As Princeton’s Eldar Shafir explained,

“When your bandwidth is loaded, in the case of the poor, you’re just more likely to not notice things, you’re more likely to not resist things you ought to resist, you’re more likely to forget things, you’re going to have less patience, less attention to devote to your children when they come back from school.”

This researchers studied adults, but obviously, the deficits they identified would affect the children of poor families in a number of ways.

The question is: what do we do to ameliorate the problem? Can we ever hope to “fix” public education without addressing poverty?

And why are our lawmakers so intent on shredding–rather than mending–the social safety net?


  1. Doesn’t matter. Evidence, like science, reason, logic, algebra, and statistics, are just liberal constructs meant to detract from Biblical- and billionaire-based “truth”.

  2. I once heard a statement something like “Americans do more research, and do less with the results, than any other country.” As a teacher, I have certainly found this to be true in education through the years.

  3. Thank you for noting and sharing this excellent research. Malnutrition, lack of health care,
    lead poisoning, asthma (to name a few) place a huge burden on young bodies and minds before one even considers various social and family dysfunctions that place still more burdens on children. So many kids must deal with situations that would overwhelm most adults.

    Re-sorting the kids into charter or voucher schools doesn’t address these underlying problems and may well exascerbate them as they drain funds from the public schools who used to be able to provide more services to needy students.

    More of America’s children are in poverty than the children of almost all other industrial nations.

    Empires without much of a middle class and where the gaps between rich and poor become too great don’t survive. I hope America wakes up soon before the problems of poverty overwhelm us all.

  4. another way of re-stating/expanding your comments is: complex problems require complex solutions. When policy makers try to address social issues, they seem to always focus on a single issue without considering the social context and the complexity of the issue. I would argue (not an original thought, though one that is seldom discussed) that “fixing” any single social issue must, simultaneously, take into account the entirety of the issues facing a community – poverty, disparities in education/health/healthcare, employment (and liveable wages), transportation, issues with the justice system, housing, … All of these factors are interrelated. Unfortunately, as Sheila has consistently pointed out, our policy-makers seem to have difficulty wrapping their brains around anything that is complex.

    Sheila – thanks for pointing out the article in Science, a journal I stopped reading when I stopped being a practicing neuroscientist (and started the journey to becoming a social scientist).

  5. Sheila and David remind me of the old H. L. Mencken quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”

  6. Len,
    Why is this wrong? What is your data? Where is it from?

    Please do not tell someone there are wrong with out any data.

  7. The the task of dealing with complexity were simple, then simplicity itself would become more complex. Even I have trouble understanding that sometimes.

  8. Ronald – the wrong I am pointing to is the simplistic notions proposed by so-called reformers. The data supporting my argument is exactly what Sheila was showing us.

  9. This is not news, nor will it get you much in this life; however, the word ‘data’ is plural! Shocker, eh? Ex: These data are important to the facts of the case.

    Sound strange? Yeah! The word ‘data’ is used incorrectly more times than not.

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