Friday, November 16, 2012

Educational Public Health follow-up: David Berliner's Excellent Work

Just a quick note:

When I wrote about "Educational Public Health," I mentioned David Berliner in the first paragraph, as someone who has studied and written extensively on the impact of out-of-school-factors on educational achievement.  After I posted the essay, I wrote Berliner an email asking him the same question: shouldn't we be studying and working on the educational equivalent of public health?

Berliner wrote a kind note back, saying, "I am with you, 100%."  He also said that in some of his work he has argued the same thing.  In his words, "one of the proper models for educational research is epidemiology," and that the question of the role poverty plays in children's lives is an epidemiological question.

A lot of people have demonstrated the link between poverty and educational achievement, and one of the virtues of Berliner's work (here's a representative paper (pdf)) is the way he continues and extends this important demonstration.  He uses the PISA score data showing that students in low-poverty schools in the US do as well as those in Finland or Korea.  He cites UNICEF data on child poverty, showing that child poverty in the US is among the highest in the OECD.  I have looked at these data many times, and written about them before (  But Berliner has taught me new things as well.  I particularly appreciated his discussion of very interesting data about how much of IQ can be attributable to one's genes.  According to an extensive study of 50,000 pregnant women and the children they went on to have (including enough sets of twins to be able to study the role of innate genetic differences), variation in IQ among the affluent seems to be largely genetic.  Among the poor, however, IQ has very little to do with genes--probably because the genetic differences are swamped and suppressed by the environmental differences, as few poor kids are able to develop as fully as they would in less constrained circumstances.

Berliner has also, more than most other writers on the subject, tried to begin charting some of the specific causal links between poverty and educational achievement.  He points, in particular, to a number of medical problems that are far more prevalent among the poor than among the middle-class and the affluent; he discusses ear infections, asthma, lead and mercury poisoning, low birthweight.  He also points to the effects of growing up in a poor neighborhood.  Poor kids who grow up in rich neighborhoods do better than poor kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods, and as segregation by class has increased over the past few decades, this factor has become increasingly important.  Berliner also talks about environmental pollution, the way it affects people in poor neighborhoods far more than those in rich ones.

To level this tilted playing field, Berliner suggests a number of interventions, among them universal health care and a greater geographic dispersal of low-income housing. He also suggests universal free preschool, free summer school, and more programs to reduce food insecurity.  These suggestions are reasonable, and I support them.  We should be dealing with poverty directly, rather than thinking we can cure it through the schools. (1)  Perhaps if single-payer health care were seen, as it should be, as an educational program, it might get more support.

Last year, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times about the link between social class and educational achievement ("Class Matters. Why Won't We Admit It?" 12/11/11).  Since usually, as the headline implies, the establishment simply ignores this inconvenient truth, it was something of an achievement to get the link between poverty and education mentioned in the Times.  But in order to be "realistic" enough to get published, Ladd and Fiske had to elide the point that we weren't going to solve our educational achievement problems by changing our schools.  Instead, they proposed making our schools responsible for the poverty as well as the education!  This was a bit backwards, and I said as much in a letter to the editor, a letter that I was very proud to have published, since it was the only one that said the obvious, that it was more the poverty that needed to change than the schools.

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