Yesterday saw a veritable plague of stories in the media relating to a report published by the Productivity Commission titled “Deep and Persistent Disadvantage in Australia.” Sensationalist media reports touting “rich kids do better at school than poor ones” emphasised the role of genetics in determining students success whilst failing to adequately address the context of the article.
In an effort to obtain column inches and airtime many members of mainstream media exploited the facts of the article.
The Productivity Commission report addresses disadvantage as a whole, acknowledging the complex interplay of factors that contribute to disadvantage, simultaneously acknowledging that when combined these factors have a compounding effect. Poverty is just one aspect of disadvantage.
The Commission report emphasised that disadvantage is influenced by personal capabilities, family circumstances, support they receive, the community in which an individual presides (including the opportunities it offers); life events; and the broader social and economic environment. Not the black and white rich = smart, poor=dumb mentality presented in the media, presenting these two facets of society as diametrically opposite and insurmountable to travass.
At 246 pages I doubt many members of the media have read the report thoroughly. The ‘inherited abilities’ section, so eagerly referred to in the news articles I read, (commencing page 111) is hardly controversial. Amongst a plethora of contributions for discrepancies in achievement is the statement “one explanation for differences in educational attainment between children of low and high socio-economic backgrounds is parents’ cognitive abilities and inherited genes.” A number of members of the media have latched onto this statement, slamming the government and researchers for producing classist diatribe. I can hear the letters to the editor and the talkback hosts now: “our tax dollars are funding this Un-Australian garbage,” “where’s the fair go?”
Yet the concept of genetics being linked to intelligence is hardly groundbreaking.
A 2011 paper by Dr Neil Pendleton and colleagues studied more than 3,500 individuals in England and determined that 40-50% of differences in intelligence could be traced to genetic differences. As a teacher and student I have consistently witnessed identical siblings achieve near-identical assessment results.
Statistics linking low SES to lower school achievement are nothing new. NAPLAN, TIMSS and PISA data indicates that students from the lowest are up to eight times more likely than the top quartile to fail to meet the minimum standard for literacy and numeracy. Students with university-educated parents do better in school. The National Curriculum Board considers the characteristic disparity in achievement between students of high and low economic status to be contradictory to the Australian ethos of equity of opportunity in education.
It is hardly surprising that children from a high SES do well in school, and genes are just one factor. Successful parents want success for their children. Success breeds success. For each additional year of schooling there is an 8-10% increase in earnings for an individual. 84.3% of university graduates are in full-time employment. Just 50% of individuals who do not complete year 12 are in full-time employment.
It is interesting to note the anomaly of adoption when considering SES, genetics and academic outcomes. If we were to follow the logic of the article presented in the media, one would assume that adopted children obtain lower test scores, due to their inferior genetic composition.
Quite the contrary.
Richard Nisbett addressed this concept in his book “Intelligence and How to Get it,” specifically the chapter “Heritability and Mutability” which stated that children adopted to parents with a high SES averaged IQs 12 points higher than children adopted to low SES parents.
The National Institute for Family Literacy conducted an Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and concluded that 62% of parents with a high SES read to their children. Comparatively, 36% of parents of low SES read to their children. Given the high influence of reading on literacy development and scholastic achievement it is hardly surprising that children from a high SES are more likely go on to do well in school.
The divide in educational achievement between students of high and low SES is deeply concerning. It is a crisis in education. However, to paint the issue as black and white and to simplify the matter to “Rich kids are smarter because they’re genetically superior” is to deny the complex, multifaceted nature of this issue. It is frankly unhelpful to all involved, further perpetuating a cycle of apathy and learned helplessness.
The Productivity Commission’s does not meant that disadvantaged or impoverished students are doomed to failure. However, the diversity of factors contributing to disadvantage mean that it is an uphill battle to success. But success IS possible. One has to look no further than Anthony “Albo” Albanese, who in his deputy leadership acceptance speech described himself as “a son of a single parent who group up in a council house in Inner Sydney can rise to the position of deputy Prime Minister.” Albo considers it a testament to the ‘fair go’ ideaology that typifies the Australian culture.