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?