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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.

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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Image source: Sereno, et al
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A neural crêpe

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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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