August 24, 2005

Early Childhood Performance and Parental Contributions

I've been listening (yes, listening) to the book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner this past week in my car on the way to work. A fascinating look at social phenomena from an economist's point of view. Among many other things explored in the book, the authors examine the impact that parents have on the intellectual development of childen, particularly during the "most formative" years between birth and kindergarten. They use a massive data set - the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS)- collected over the past decade in a very large cohort of children in the US to determine what parental factors contribute to a child's success in school (at least in elementary school). The results are surprising in some ways because they refute some of the "conventional wisdom" regarding parental behaviors that are believed to increase a child's chances of success in school.

Eight factors that appear to matter (and were significantly correlated with performance):
1) The child's parents' educational attainment (positive correlation)
2) The child's parents' socioeconomic standing (positive correlation)
3) The child's mother was > 30 years old when she had her first child
4) Low birthweight (negative correlation)
5) The child's parents speak English in the home
6) The child is adopted (negative correlation)
7) The child's parents participate in the PTA
8) The child's parents have many books in the home

Eight factors that do not appear to matter (e.g. no correlation was found):
1) The child's family is intact (e.g. mom and dad are married and live in the same household)
2) The child's family recently moved to a better neighborhood
3) The child's mother did not work from the child's birth to kindergarten
4) The child participated in HeadStart
5) The child's parents regularly take the child to museums
6) The child's parents regularly spank the child
7) The child regularly watches TV
8) The child's parents read to the child nearly every day

The authors contend that these data indicate that who the parents "are" is more important than what the parents "do" in determining how well their child will do in school. This would suggest that our intellectual ability and our performance in school is determined more by genetic and general social factors (e.g. socioeconomic class) than any specific behaviors that our parents engage in to prepare us for school. At least in childhood. But do these same factors hold true in adolesence, early adulthood, and beyond? Are we "formed" early in our lives and the path of our existence irreverisibly established? Or do other factors play more important roles later in life? And most importantly, from my perspective as a teacher, does the power to develop and grow primarily reside within the learner or is it determined by the environment created by the teacher. What do you think?

1 comment:

Christine Choy said...

Hi there! Just wandered onto this blog today during my lunch hour and it got me thinking. With regard to your question, here are my 2 cents. Some may say that I’m taking the easy way out, but I say that both the internal drive of the learner AND the environment created by the teacher play a crucial role in learning. Internal drive can be choked by the environment, but those with a strong desire to learn will (sooner or later) disengage from “dead-end” pursuits and seek out other avenues for growth. Alternatively, an environment designed to be conducive for learning may not achieve its purpose if the individual absolutely does not want (or is not able) to engage himself/herself in the learning process. Admittedly, these scenarios represent the extremes. In situations with a moderately-interested learner (as is usually the case with adult learners), the environment created by the teacher probably has a much greater influence on the learning process … I have less to say about childhood development, as I’ve never read about the ECLS study and cannot speak with authority about parenthood . But from what I’ve observed from strong families, it’s impossible to separate parents who “are” from parents who “do”. However, the converse is not necessarily true. That is, parents who “do” are not necessarily parents who “are”. … so there ya go, the late night musings of a pharmacy resident who really should be going to bed … Thanks for the providing some good food for thought.