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What Don’t People Get about the Ovarian Lottery?

Alison Gopnik shared her latest research, “The Potential of Young Intellect, Rich or Poor“, in the Wall Street Journal today, and while the research is encouraging, readers’ reactions to the story were quite disappointing.

Gopnik begins by noting that in 2015, 23% of American children under 3 grew up in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. By the time children reach first grade, there are already big gaps, based on parents’ income, in academic skills like reading and writing.

Gopnik and her colleagues at Berkeley have been interested in studying whether schooling can reverse these gaps, or are the gaps doomed to grow as the children get older? In particular, they wanted to see if certain skills are the birthright of all children, rich or poor?

The study tested 4-year-old Americans in preschools for low-income children run by the federal Head Start program. These children did worse than middle-class children on vocabulary tests and “executive function”—the ability to plan and focus. But the poorer children were just as good as their wealthier counterparts at finding the creative answer to the cause-and effect problems.

They also studied 4-year olds from low-income families in Peru, and found the same results – they solved even the most difficult tasks as well as the middle-class U.S. children.

Gopnik notes that although the children tested weren’t from wealthy families, their parents did care enough to get them into preschool.  The results suggest that children didn’t need middle-class enrichment to be smart, that all children may be born with the ability to think like creative scientists. But those abilities need to be nurtured, not neglected.

I view the results of Gopnik’s research as mostly positive; it’s good to know that young children are inherently good at creatively solving cause-and-effect problems – a critical skill for school success. But it’s also concerning that students in preschools for low-income children did worse on vocabulary and executive function tests, also critical skills for school success.

So to me it’s clear that students from low-income schools are behind those children from middle and upper income schools when it comes to certain academic skills.

It’s the ovarian lottery, as Warren Buffett has called it, simply playing out as expected. And this disadvantage that the low income children faced was through no fault of their own.

Yet when I read the comments, I became quite disappointed in people’s reaction to the research.

Here’s part of one comment:

These children are not victims of inequality. They are not lesser persons, they do not have restrictions on their actions, they are not forced into servitude.

No one is saying the children are lesser persons, but the idea that they have no restrictions on their actions? The children in the study are four-years old! And yes, they are victims of inequality, at least as far as income is concerned.

Here’s the start of another comment:

This study from communist Berkeley University is pathetic.

You expect me to read anything else you have to say?

Here’s another comment:

Conversely, losers who breed out of wedlock and are poor role models  with limited IQs then wonder why their offspring are substandard.    Losers = losers.

Seriously? I don’t even know how to respond to such a comment, except to say that I am saddened that there are people who think like this.

There were a few comments that tried to turn this into a political issue, such as this one:

It is not in the Democrat’s interest to force schools to nurture kids’ abilities. 

Talk about a conspiracy theory…

Other comments note that it is not different income levels that cause such problems, but lack of parental involvement. I agree that parental involvement is critical, but once again, a 4-year old doesn’t have much say in that, so why should they face a lifetime of difficulty because of a lack of parental involvement in their upbringing?

I know there are many situations when children succeed despite their economic background or lack of parental involvement, but the odds are certainly stacked against them. How about showing them a little empathy, instead of sharing disparaging comments about their parents? And how about thanking the majority of teachers who are trying hard to make a difference in these children”s lives, regardless of the children’s economic or family status?

The ovarian lottery, the luck of birth, call it what you want. The simple fact remains that where you are born, when you are born, and to whom you are born, are likely the biggest determinants of success in life.

And yet it is something that children have no control over, yet many suffer as a result, and perhaps even worse, some people don’t seem to care.

 

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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