The rich get richer — and smarter

Rich kids are widening the achievement gap, leaving middle class kids, not just the poor, farther behind, writes Sean Reardon, a Stanford education and sociology professor.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

Is it intensive parenting? asks Megan McArdle in The Daily Beast.  All the people who are really good at school are marrying the other people who are really good at school (and) having children who are really, really good at school.

The rich pulling away from the middle class is also exactly what we would see if test-taking ability has a substantial inherited component, and the American economy is increasingly selecting for people who are very, very good at taking tests.

A fan of the Little House on the Prairie books, McArdle recently reread Those Happy Golden Years in which Laura Ingalls meets and marries Almanzo Wilder. While Laura liked school and was good at it, ”

Almanzo hated it” and quit as soon as he could. “

There’s no evidence that he reads or otherwise occupies himself with intellectual pursuits in his spare time.”

Apparently, it was a very happy marriage. Today . . .

Laura Ingalls would quite likely have gone to an elite school, and probably graduate school, then moved to a coastal city, and eventually married another bookworm.  Almanzo Wilder would be married to someone like him, a hard worker who nonetheless found school tedious and left as quickly as possible.  And when their two sets of children showed up at school, their test scores would be very different.

The educational barrier to high-paying professions tie income even more tightly to educational proficiency, she writes.

Maybe the answer is not a quixotic attempt to somehow replicate the experience of being raised by two professionals with advanced degrees. Maybe it’s to question the great educational sorting, and the barriers it has erected.

. . . every additional year of schooling we require makes it harder and harder for those who don’t enjoy school to compete in the wider world.

More women than men are going to college and earning degrees. There will be more Lauras marrying Almanzos in the future.

Schooling makes kids smarter

Schooling Makes You Smarter, argues Richard E. Nisbett, a University of Michigan social psychology professor,  in the new American Educator.  Actually, lots of environmental influences make people smarter — or duller.

People’s intelligence is greatly affected by prenatal and immediate postnatal factors; by home environments; by education, inclding early childhood education; and by changes in the larger culture. How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.

As years of schooling rise — from eight years in 1910 to an average of 14 in 2010 — IQs rise too in what’s known as the “Flynn effect.”

. . . in nations that were fully modern and industrialized by the beginning of the 20th century, IQ has increased by about 3 points per decade from the end of World War II to the present.10 That amounts to a gain of 18 points, which is equivalent to moving from a 50th percentile score (IQ equal to 100) to a score at the 93rd percentile (IQ equal to 118).  . . . Nations that have only recently begun to modernize, such as Kenya, Sudan, and the Caribbean nations, have begun to show extremely high rates of gain.

In addition to more years of schooling, curriculum asks more of students and society has become more complex, making greater demands on  intelligence, Nisbett writes.

Culture matters. A study of high school graduates in 1966 found Asian Americans had slightly lower IQs than whites but scored 33 points higher on the SAT — they took more math in high school — and achieved more career success.  ”The picture that results is that Asian Americans capitalize on a given level of intellectual ability much better than do European Americans,” Nisbett writes.

Children from low-income families may not match the achievement of children with educated parents, but “most children in poverty aren’t living up to their genetic potential,” he writes. In experiments, “persuading minority students that their intelligence is substantially under their own control” can raise their academic performance.

“School affects intelligence,” Nisbett concludes. “Better schools produce better effects, and . . .  the caliber of the individual teacher is of great importance.”

 

Asian culture: Struggling shows strength

A Marxist slogan popular in my college days — Dare to struggle, dare to win! — applies to education, according to an NPR story. Struggling in school is seen as a problem in the U.S., but not in Asia.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. . . . struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds.  The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.

U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.

 . . .  in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Getting parents to change their beliefs about learning will be difficult. Americans try to build their children’s confidence by telling them they’re smart or talented. ”As soon as they encounter a something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates,” says psychologist Carol Dweck. Praising the struggle –  ”Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it” — gives children the confidence to cope with difficulties.

In Sweden, schooling boosts knowledge

Yep, School Makes You Smarter in terms of knowledge, writes Daniel Willingham.

Swedish 18-year-olds were tested on word meanings and reading technical prose, which uses “crystallized” intelligence (what you know) before military service. They also took spatial reasoning and logic tests, which use “fluid” intelligence (reasoning that is not dependent on particular knowledge).

Students of the same age with more days of schooling performed better on the crystallized intelligence tests; fluid intelligence wasn’t linked to schooling.

Are quieter students considered less intelligent?

Today’s issue of Education Week has an article by Sarah D. Sparks about quiet, shy, and introverted students in the classroom. It’s gist is that current pedagogy (and teachers themselves) favor the extraverted child. Teachers commonly perceive quiet children as less intelligent than talkative ones, according to studies cited here. The article distinguishes (up to a point) between introversion and shyness.

A 2011 study found teachers from across K-12 rated hypothetical quiet children as having the lowest academic abilities and the least intelligence, compared with hypothetical children who were talkative or typical in behavior.

Interestingly, teachers who were identified as and who rated themselves as shy agreed that quiet students would do less well academically, but did not rate them as less intelligent.

As many as half of Americans are introverts, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, located in Gainesville, Fla.

There’s a distinction between shyness—generally associated with fear or anxiety around social contact—and introversion, which is related to a person’s comfort with various levels of stimulation.

A shy student, once he or she overcomes the fear, may turn out to be an extrovert, invigorated by being the center of attention.

By contrast, an introverted child may be perfectly comfortable speaking in class or socializing with a few friends, but “recharges her batteries” by being alone and is most energized when working or learning in an environment with less stimulation, social or otherwise, according to Mr. Coplan and Ms. Cain.

I was interviewed for the article, but some of my points didn’t make it in. I find the denominations “introvert,” “shy” and even “quiet” limiting. There are students who speak very little in class on the whole but liven up when particularly interested in a topic. There are students who speak a lot but are not necessarily “extraverts”; they enjoy the exchange of ideas in the classroom. Many students who might classify as “introvert” do not desire “lower” levels of stimulation; rather, they find certain intellectual activities highly stimulating. And, of course, there are students who seem quiet in class but are social ringleaders outside.

What’s important is to stay alert to the students and to do what will bring out the subject matter. Most subjects require a good deal of focus and quiet thought. Even a class discussion can set the tone for that. Ideally, all students would learn to both speak and listen, to grapple with problems out loud and in quiet. But for this to have meaning, there must be things worth thinking and talking about.

As to whether teachers consider quieter students less intelligent, my experience says no, but this may be because my trachers, especially in high school, recognized the importance of thinking about the subject and not rushing to speak.

Bilingualism strengthens the brain

Being bilingual makes you smarter, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the New York Times. Juggling two languages gives “the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.”

The collective evidence from a number of such studies suggests that the bilingual experience improves the brain’s so-called executive function — a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks. These processes include ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

The cognitive benefits may even prevent dementia in old age.

I’m tutoring a bilingual first grader in reading. When she asked if Spanish was bad, I gave her a pep talk on bilingualism making the brain stronger.

“Dogs can’t really talk,” she responded.

“They can say ‘arf’,” I said. She was not impressed. “No, dogs can’t really talk,” I said. We moved on.

Study: Group discussion lowers IQ

Many people can’t express their intelligence in group discussions, concludes a Virginia Tech study.

If we think others in a group are smarter, we may become dumber, temporarily losing both our problem-solving ability and what the researchers call our “expression of IQ.”

Women and people with higher IQs are the most likely to clam up, according to the report.

I wonder if this holds true for students in middle and high school, when kids are conscious of their status within a group.

A costly way to identify intelligence

Most people don’t need a college education to do their job, but they need a degree to get hired, writes Daniel Indiviglio in The Atlantic. It’s a very expensive way to identify who’s smart enough to do a job, he writes.

. . . when high school standards declined and college became more popular, some applicants stood out above others as being more educated and potentially smarter than those with only a high school diploma. If the trend keeps up, however, a time will come when a college degree isn’t enough either: masters degrees will be commonly sought, as the value of college degrees fall to be worth as little high school degrees are today, since so many applicants will have them. If this trend keeps up forever, perhaps we’ll one day have locksmiths with PhD’s.

Waitresses with a college degree earn more money, but it’s probably not the degree, argues Andrew Gillen.

College is the best investment on the market (for those who complete a degree), counters  Derek Thompson, also in The Atlantic.  Over a working lifetime, “the typical college graduate earns $570,000 more than the average person with only a high school diploma.”

Let’s say you’re deciding where to invest $100,000 at age 18. Maybe you think to put it in gold, corporate bonds, U.S. government debt, or hot company stocks.

The $102,000 investment in a four-year college yields a rate of return of 15.2 percent per year, more than double the average return over the last 60 years experienced in the stock market” and more than five times the return in corporate bonds, gold, long-term government bonds, or housing, according to a report by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney.

Note that the associate degree’s rate of return is 20 percent, higher than the pay-off for the  bachelor’s degree. I’d guess that’s because the costs of attaining the degree are lower and many associate degrees go to nurses, who make good money.

Can exercise build bigger brains?

Can Exercise Make Kids Smarter? Several recent experiments link aerobic exercise with brain development, reports the New York Times.

In a University of Illinois experiment involving  nine- and 10-year-old students, the fittest children, as measured by a treadmill test, performed best on cognitive challenges; MRIs showed “significantly larger basal ganglia, a key part of the brain that aids in maintaining attention and executive control.”

Since both groups of children had similar socioeconomic backgrounds, body mass index and other variables, the researchers concluded that being fit had enlarged that portion of their brains.

A second Illinois study focused on complex memory, which is associated with activity in the hippocampus. The fittest children had larger hippocampi than the least-fit children.

A Swedish study of more than a million 18-year-old boys who joined the army, found “better fitness was correlated with higher I.Q.’s, even among identical twins,” the Times reports.

The fitter the twin, the higher his I.Q. The fittest of them were also more likely to go on to lucrative careers than the least fit . . . There’s no evidence that exercise leads to a higher I.Q., but the researchers suspect that aerobic exercise, not strength training, produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate the brain, said Georg Kuhn, a professor at the University of Gothenburg and the senior author of the study.

Aerobic endurance, not muscular strength, was linked to a livelier  brain.

According to a new UI study, not yet published, Wii Fit will not make us smart. Twenty  minutes of running on a treadmill improved test scores immediately afterward;  20 minutes of “playing sports-style video games at a similar intensity” did not.

Test-prepping for 'gifted' kindergarten

To get their children into “gifted” kindergarten classes, affluent New Yorkers are hiring tutors to test-prep three- and four-year-olds, reports the New York Times.  A “gifted” public education is free, while private school may cost $20,000 a year. So the cost of tutoring seems small by comparison

Bright Kids, which opened this spring in the financial district, has some 200 students receiving tutoring, most of them for the gifted exams, for up to $145 a session and 80 children on a waiting list for a weekend “boot camp” program.

New York City uses the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, or Olsat, a reasoning exam, and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, a knowledge test, to decide which children qualify for gifted programs. Applications have soared and the number of children scoring above the 90th percentile has increased from 18 percent to 22 percent.

If demand is so high for “gifted” classes, why not expand them? The easy-to-teach kids can learn in a larger class;  the non-gifted classes could get a bit smaller.

Education Week reports on a National Association for Gifted Children study, which says gifted students’ access to programs varies greatly depending on where they live.

Update:  The intelligence tests given to pre-kindergarteners don’t predict future school performance accurately, write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Nurture Shock. A few years down the line, only 27 percent of “gifted” students are high performers. That’s because little kids’ brains are developing.