The impoverished mind

By Michelle Chen Apr 06, 2009

The so-called academic achievement gap is a stark measure of the country’s deep racial and class divisions. Various theories have emerged—about institutionalized racism, educational inequality, family “culture,” and psychological stressors—to explain why some children thrive and others seem to lag in school and then adulthood. While the causes and effects of socioeconomic hardship are often jumbled, one study has revealed how social circumstances shape the minds of disadvantaged youth. Researchers at Cornell University, in the study “Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory,” analyzed a sample of children to track the impact of poverty on the development of cognitive abilities. They found that “childhood poverty is inversely related to working memory in young adults." The impacts were tied to the overall stress load these children carried—“cumulative wear and tear on the body that is caused by the mobilization of multiple physiological systems in response to chronic environmental demands.” Put simply, if your childhood is consumed by a constant struggle to survive day-to-day, your brain is less likely to develop the abilities you need to succeed tomorrow, compared to your economically better-off peers. This is empirical evidence that nature-versus-nurture is not an either or, but that social factors interplay with the brain’s biology throughout life. But the findings leave open many questions. First, the data is limited, based on a sample of white youth dealing with rural poverty. (Perhaps, fortunately, this means the public discussion won’t be immediately derailed by “race card” conjectures.) Second, the study isn’t conclusive on the causal link, nor does it point to interventions that might mitigate the cognitive impacts of poverty. Empirical research on the connection between poverty and intellectual development can cut both ways—leading some to write off poverty as biological destiny, and others to look deeper into missed opportunities to lift youth over economic barriers. Another recent study, for instance, stresses the link between academic achievement and health.Yet another looks at the environment of urban public housing as a factor in student performance. Yet federal education policy under No Child Left Behind fails to really broach these factors in the achievement gap. The policy implications for the growing body of achievement-gap research are fraught with the same tensions straining other civil rights issues: how do you emphasize systemic impediments without pathologizing communities and cultures? How do you make the case for structural inequalities without fueling reactionary accusations of victimology? There is evidence that the social environment impacts the schooling of students of color, to the extent that it shapes self-perceptions and expectations. In a 2001 article in Rethinking Schools, Harold Berlak, formerly of the Applied Research Center, draws from studies showing that achievement was aligned with race-based perceptions of academic ability—even more than school or neighborhood poverty—suggesting that the racialized “tracking” influenced expectations of, and in turn, actual, academic performance. But Berlak also cautioned against simplistic notions of bias:

The fact that scores on all commercially produced tests show the same 8-10 percent gap suggests that the gap cannot be fully explained by racial or cultural bias lodged in individual test items. Rather, the bias is systemic and structural — that is, built into in the basic assumptions and technology of standardized testing in the way the tests are constructed and administered, the way results are reported, and in the organizational structure and administrative rules of the accountability system itself.

This is no single right answer, here. Could we close the gap by infusing low-performing schools with new funding and teachers? Or transferring children from “failing” schools to privileged ones? Or revamping school curricula to give historically disadvantaged students a leg up? Or making whole communities better places to grow and learn? If the Cornell study broadens the discussion on poverty and opportunity, it could, and should, also complicate questions surrounding the racial achievement gap. Future studies could bring some scientific gravity to a politically garbled debate. Keeping an eye on not just poverty, but also family, community and racial dynamics, may lead to an understanding of the achievement gap as a real, but not static, sociological fact. Image: Economic Policy Institute