Maternity is destiny?

Mothers’ education predicts children’s academic achievement — and the pattern is set by the age of three, writes University of Chicago economist James Heckman.

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, according to Heckman’s data.  As they go through school, they do slightly worse compared to children of educated mothers. (Researchers don’t track fathers’ education because so many children are growing up without their fathers.)

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.

John Goodman’s Health Policy Blog has the depressing chart. 

 Of course, disadvantaged children usually attend struggling schools (or schools that have stopped struggling).  It’s possible to believe that high-quality schooling would make a difference for the children of uneducated parents.

About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Message for Charles Murray. Message for Charles Murray. Message for….
    Watching from some distance the parenting my granddaughter receives, it is possible to think that a good deal of the difference might be a matter of parenting styles. Things have changed. I discovered that what I thought was a coloring book was actually “homework”.
    “Two of these owls are facing one way, one facing the other. Pick the one facing the other way.” The directions are meant to be read by the parent.
    Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough time by age three to cause the entire difference.
    Too bad.

  2. Ten More Weeks says:

    I am an out-the-door h.s. teacher, studying communication disorders. The literature on language disorders says that some 20% of the population will test one standard deviation below “normal”…and that these disorders appear to be heritable.
    The more I read, the more I think that the ed. folks are ignoring the obvious.

  3. I think that it is pretty much settled science that a significant percentage of intelligence is inherited (arguments exist about how much) and that levels of assortive mating (like marries like) have increased over the past 40 years. Both of those factors mean that the differences at both ends of the spectrum have been exaggerated.

    In urban areas, very young and very poorly-educated kids have been replicating themselves for multiple generations. In 1984, I listened to a report of a study on grandmother behavior wherein the average age was 34. Several were 28. None of the grandfathers and fathers (if known) were involved and a number of the gradmothers had kids the same age as their grandkids. None knew anyone who had ever been married, had had a full-time job or been to college (even HS grad was problematic) and this was not in the most disadvantaged area of DC.

    At the same time, in affluent urban enclaves and suburbs, physicians, academics, lawyers and business professional of all types have been marrying their fellow professionals over that same time period, as opposed to non-college educated spouses. Women who were formerly forced, by social norms, into nursing, teaching and secretarial work now have college and graduate degrees. The offspring of this pairing benefit both from the IQ of their parents and from the way they are raised. High-level verbal/parental interactions and rich exposure to a wide variety of learning situations (books, museums, arts, sports etc.) maximize the developmental opportunities. More importantly, these advantages continue as the kids move through school. The higher the academic ability and the greater the background knowledge about the world, the easier and quicker it is for kids to learn new things; these kids have lots of both. I know a number of such kids, in situations where they enter kindergarten already literate (reading and writing) and numerate, have taken lessons in various sports and fine arts and may already speak a second language (parent, lessons, nanny etc). They also have learned the social norms of the middle/upper middle class; language, deportment, delayed gratification and academic expectations. At the opposite end, kids bring none of this to school; their experiences have not been of the type that prepared them for school success and, in fact, make that success more difficult. (and that is ignoring the reality that some communities deride academic success as a betrayal of their racial/ethnic identy)

  4. Careful Joanne, this one will be hard to blame on teachers.

  5. I should also have emphasized the likely presence/absence of fathers in those two scenarios; the first is likely to have no regular or positive contact with fathers, the second is the opposite. Even if parents divorce, fathers are likely to be more involved than in the first scenario. The benefits of fathers have been well-documented and the disadvantages of mom’s serial boyfriends (likely in the first scenario) are equally well-documented. Obviously, there are exceptions in both cases,but I don’t think there’s much argument that the pattern holds.

  6. tim-10-ber says:

    I don’t think this is a new finding…

    But…isn’t this a strong case for changing the way kids are educated and giving the teachers the tools and time they need to catch the kids up that do not come to school knowing as much as those that have been exposed to more at a younger age? It doesn’t mean these kids are stupid they literally don’t know certain things…doesn’t mean they cannot learn…

    So…to Mike in Texas…this continues to put the pressure on teachers to educate these kids and educate them well…

    Ability grouping, more time on a subject before moving forward, more exposure to certain items — books, field trips, the arts, conversations, manners, language, music, etc…whatever it takes to give them the opportunity to excel along side those that have been exposed to more earlier…what the kids chose to do with this additional information will then be up to them when they get older…

  7. Genevieve says:

    I look at this and it seems as though the most important thing is preventing children from having children. How do we end or at least significantly decrease parenthood before parents are able to provide economically and educationally for their children.

    Speaking as someone that gave birth before they were ready (both myself and my daughter really lucked out in terms of dad sticking around, finishing education, having a stable life, etc), I really don’t have an answer, Except perhaps forced Depo injections starting at puberty; which opens up a whole different set of problems and concerns.

  8. Genevieve is right about the bottom-line cause of the problem (call it an illness) and the likelihood of a cure. Politics is HUGE in this area, especially because of the racial/ethnic component and I don’t think its effect on educational practices, such as ability grouping, acceleration, full-inclusion, spec ed, discipline policy, groupwork, the actual academic material that must be learned and the methods used to teach and assess it, can be underestimated. All kids, including the militantly uninterested, the criminal, the sociopathic and tthe cognitivel or emotionally handicapped, MUST be educated together, MUST be proficient across all student groups.etc. I hear a lot about the large influence of inner-city churches; why are they not addressing the problems of too-young procreation (both sexes), lack of marriage, lack of effort in school, criminal behaviors and lack of the habits/behaviors that lead to educated, employable, productive, self-supporting, law-abiding adults.

  9. Roger Sweeny says:


    I actually have my students imagine a world in which a government says that education is so important, it is injecting a drug into all 7 years which will delay puberty until they graduate high school (part of the scenario is that the drug is harmless and easily reversed). Then they write about it, and we talk. Some interesting stuff.

  10. Joanne says, “It’s possible to believe that high-quality schooling would make a difference for the children of uneducated parents.”

    Of course it is always possible to believe impossible things — six of them before breakfast, we have it on good authority — but given that adoption, which is about the most intensive intervention we can imagine — has next to no influence on adult intelligence, it is extremely difficult to believe. (There is an effect for young children, but it fades; as adults, adopted children resemble their birth parents more than the parents who raised them. Sorry, I don’t have a particular cite, but I’m pretty sure Steven Pinker discusses it in “The Blank Slate” (his point being, however, that the slate is not blank at all).