Why mass inequality is unlikely to be overcome by kids studying hard

A sobering look at the prospects for kids not wealthy enough to fail upward.

Why mass inequality is unlikely to be overcome by kids studying hard
Photo credit: Brad Neathery on Unsplash
  • A study by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce demonstrates how much easier it is for upper-class children to attain successful adulthoods.
  • Test scores tend to drop for even the smartest kids from the lower economic percentiles.
  • By following kids through their education with support, the odds can be evened-out.

In America, work hard, get good grades, and you'll be well on your way to success. That's the story, anyway. According to "Born to Win, Schooled to Lose," a new study from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), it's little more than a fairy tale. These days, "To succeed in America, it's better to be born rich than smart," says CEW director Anthony P. Carnevale. The authors found that "people with talent that come from disadvantaged households don't do as well as people with very little talent from advantaged households."

"People tend to blame the schools, and they are at fault for not saving people who start out smart," he tells CNBC. "But there are also a variety of factors that have to do with race and class and gender and everything from books in the home to how many words you know when you're in the first grade, too. Disadvantage and advantage are very complex."

CEW’s definition of success

Even CEW's modest standard for success — getting a college degree, and then an entry-level job — is difficult for many kids of lower socioeconomic status (SES) to achieve. The odds are even worse for Black and Latino kids. It will come as no surprise to families from a lower SES that their children have to work harder and simply be better to stand a chance of competing with kids handed educations and opportunities, not to mention money. The deck is stacked against them.

"Stunningly, a child from the bottom quartile of socioeconomic status who has high test scores in kindergarten has only a 3 in 10 chance of having a college education and a good entry-level job as a young adult, compared to a 7 in 10 chance for a child in the top quartile of socioeconomic status who has low test scores," says the study.

Even for brighter children from poorer families who start out strong, "the chances of keeping those high scores are relatively slim." Fortunately, the fact that a child's test scores are likely to change over time suggests an upside: An opportunity for intervention with additional support. As Carnevale says, "When we follow these kids over all those years, grade by grade, what we find out is they all stumble. The difference is between who stumbles and gets back up again and who stumbles and doesn't." Children of wealthy families typically enjoy a softer landing when they fall, since any help they need is within their families' economic reach.

Image source: Freedomz / Shutterstock

Kindergarten

CEW's research indicates that many non-wealthy children with good grades in kindergarten are no longer among the best-scoring students by the time they get to high school. Therefore, CEW tracks students across this period.

Even in kindergarten, disparities already exist between the tracked SES quartiles, and these ratios remain throughout the period studied. The lowest scores are always found with the lowest SES, and the opposite is also true. Still, an impressive 43 percent of children in the next group up, the second SES quartile, attain high scores.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

8th grade

CEW's data shows that by the time students are in junior high, a clear shift has occurred, and 43 percent of the best students now come from the upper SES quartile, with the previously promising second quartile's high scores having dropped back to just 28 percent of its children. About 60 percent of that group never reaches the upper academic ranks at all, and others only briefly.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

High school

By high school the lifelong trend is pretty clear. By then the lowest quartile gets 63 percent of the bottom scores, and of the 37 percent who do maintain good grades, only 25 percent get a college degree by age 25, and just 31 percent wind up above the median SES level as adults. Of that same 37 percent, 75 percent don't get a degree by 25.

For the well-off, however, this is all flipped: Their bottom scorers have a 60 percent of getting a degree, and 71 percent end up in the above-median SES.

(Click image to enlarge)

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

What's to be done

CEW has four recommendations for leveling the playing field and giving the non-advantaged a better shot at success.

Image source: Center on Education and the Workforce

You can view the full report here.

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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