Do Genetics Define Success in Life?

Friday, May 11, 2018
Jennifer Stablein

If your kid’s high school was outfitted with computer labs fit for Silicon Valley or a gym suited for the Olympics, do you think their chances for success in life would increase?

For decades the general belief has been that good education resulting in successful life results stems from well-funded schools.

Whether superior funding manifests itself as state-of-the-art equipment, award-winning teachers, or a masterfully designed cafeteria – the ethos of education has been that by increasing financial input, cognitive output will increase proportionally.

Of course, only a certain percentage of a population can benefit from such financial input. What about the majority of kids who don’t even have a chance to participate in a well-funded district to begin with?

Alas, this is an old school frame of thinking. Yet, despite its old school nature, the debate on whether funding improves education has been challenged by sociologists since the late sixties and continues to be disputed today.

The controversial conclusion is simple, when it comes to rates of success throughout education and life- student success runs deeper than just a zip code.

Genes and socioeconomic background may be at the root of it all.

What’s At Stake in a Zip Code?

It’s no secret that inequality between neighborhoods is a big issue. In the United States, a recent study conducted by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California showed that income disparities in communities increased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010. This is mainly due to the desire people have to live within the boundaries of top-performing schools.

Of course certain schools will get on their state’s “needs improvement” list but Owens study shows that once a school is on that list, it remains there forever. Or, of the 20 percent that get “improved”, they end up back on the doomed list within only a few years.

So the zip code, a code that determines who may or may not be able to attend a school, can still be an indicator for the success of the students who lie within its range.

Yet rather than the value of amenities that a certain school’s zip code offers, it is the social class (already inherent in a student’s family) which determines that student’s success.  

Britain’s Liberal Democrats party set up the Social Mobility Commission to monitor progress towards improving social mobility in the UK.

The SMC points out that billions of pounds have been spent over the last decade in an attempt to reduce child poverty and invest more purposefully in “equal” education.

However, the results indicate that it is middle-class children, not working-class children, who are benefiting from the funds.

Between the early 80s and the late 90s the proportion of poorer children to graduate university has only gone up 3 percent compared to the 26 percent for wealthier children.

In North America and the UK, despite attempts at reducing child poverty and investing in equalized opportunity for education, research continues to show, that a child’s chance at success is still largely dependant on the background and earnings of their parents.

Meaning the same philosophy towards family you may feel if you don’t get along with your brother or sister (“I didn’t choose to be related to you”) applies to your education (“I didn’t choose to be born into this school system”).

The Coleman Report

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of recent research’s discoveries is that this is all old news.

James Coleman, a John Hopkins sociologist behind the influential late 60s study, The Coleman Report, concluded long ago that schools do little to affect a student’s academic score. Rather it is the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment that affects educational success.

In the sixties, the postwar baby boom moved through schools like a swarm. As a result, a lot of improvements were made to the school system from teachers’ salaries to school buildings to per-pupil expenditures. Seemingly the only thing that didn’t improve was standardized test outcomes.

Which is in part why, in 1964, Coleman was handed the unprecedented task of surveying the entire United States to determine whether public education was fair.

Authorized under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and with only a little over a year to meet the congressional deadline, Coleman assembled a team and began conducting one of the largest social science surveys conducted to date.

Little was known about public education at the time, funding and resource distribution was a mystery. Coleman wanted to look even deeper than the resources and funds going into schools. He wanted to understand outcomes.

So Coleman started asking questions.

  • How well are kids learning?

  • What might influence a child’s capacity to learn?

  • Do teachers influence the child? Peers? Families?

Two years later, holed up in a motel outside Washington D.C., Coleman pieced together surveys filled out by 600,000 students, 60,000 teachers, and 4,000 national public schools.

After analyzing all the data, The Coleman Report came to a conclusion that is essential to our understanding of the relationship between student and school.

Social science cannot tell us what to do, it can only tell us the results of what we are already doing. Yet the results Coleman did find were groundbreaking and they continue to be today.

Coleman’s report found the best predictor of a school’s outcomes were the quality of the children’s families.

Despite an overflow (or lack of) funding to schools, student’s achievements are influenced by the social capital (habits, educational ambition, etc) that their classmates bring to the school.  

The Coleman Report suggests looking at the cultural ramifications of early childhood rather than solely sinking money into a school establishment for greater success of its students.

To Coleman schools are reflections of, rather than cures for, the failure of families to function as the primary transmitters of social capital.

A more recent study conducted by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute dissects social reports of the 60s even further, claiming that “as a society we are wallowing in the political consequences of a bifurcated society in which many do very well while many others are unable to reach even the lowest rungs of the ladder of upward mobility.”

As profound as Coleman’s report was, it wasn’t received well by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and was released to the public with the hopes of it slipping through the cracks permanently.

Yet, some fifty years later Coleman’s findings are just as pertinent to today’s political debates about class, education, and social mobility.

And while Democrats (such as Britain’s Liberal Democrat’s Social Mobility Commission) respect social science surveys- it is only once these surveys validate polices that are of favored interest to one’s party until the topic gets remotely scratched on the surface.

DNA Plays a Major Part in Education Statistics

While social inequality reigns strong in our society, to merely recognize the role that social class plays in a child’s overall life success is not sufficient.

For any change to be addressed the government must both recognize that a school (public or private) is not the sole provider of success for its students. They must fully accept that this is the case and take action.

Many social surveys set out to prove this notion by using groundbreaking statistics on genetics.

For example, researchers in Britain selected over 4,000 unrelated individuals from the Twins Early Development Study (an ongoing project gathering information, including DNA and intelligence test results, from British twins born in the mid-1990s).

Using this information, researchers calculated a genetic score taken for each child by adding up thousands of minor variations in their DNA that past studies have linked to educational success.

They found that students attending private schools had significantly higher genetic scores than those in public, or comprehensive, schools.

They also calculated and compared the standardized test results of 16 year-old students between private and public schools. Researchers calculated there was a 7.1% boost in scores of students with private school backgrounds.

So, does this mean that, yes, the quality of the school does influence the success of the child?

Not necessarily.

The fact of the matter is that many of the traits in which selective schools are screening for are the types of genetic traits a student inherits from their parents (most of whom attended these types of selective schools themselves).

So, what kind of DNA can affect your intelligence you ask?

Things like a weak or strong bladder. Researchers consider questions like; how often does a child have to pee? Are they sensitive about it? Does it distract them from learning?

Or, consider the shape of your ears. To possess flat, rather than Dumbo-esque ears, calls for less bullying, which contributes to a better educational experience overall.

To most, it’s a disturbing idea that unconscious, biological forces contribute to our personal beliefs, actions, and ultimate success.

That a pre-written genetic code is responsible for our success in the world can be problematic.

What if personal responsibility, will, ambition, and desire collapse completely just because we’ve been born with these certain set of genes and “that’s that”?

Yet, researchers believe it’s not just our genetic makeup that affects the outcome of our life. A very important concept to focus on in the world of genetic studies is the term heritability.

Heritability is the proportion of observed variation between individuals in a given population due to genetic variation.

For example, an IQ has 70 percent heritability on average. But if you’re looking at the population around Harvard, heritability is at 90 percent. This is because most students selected at the university are from middle-class backgrounds with similar upbringing and educational opportunities.

Alternatively, in the Detroit suburbs (where deprivation and drug addiction are common) the IQ heritability is close to 0 percent. This is not to say that every citizen of Detroit has a low IQ, it simply demonstrates that for either Cambridge or Detroit students, the inherited genetic factors mean little when compared to the socioeconomic environmental factors.

Many of these genetic differences that might contribute to social mobility may not necessarily be associated with social intelligence. Yet, to concentrate on the idea may help shift educational success, even if just slightly, for that large portion of the population who do not benefit from wealth or access to selective education.

Is There a Solution?

While there’s decades of research on the issue of inequality in education and poor social mobility, solutions are hard to come by.

Britain’s Social Mobility Commission believes that one step towards ending a perpetual cycle of education inequality is for ministers to give more money to schools with the poorest pupils, and to the teachers who work within them.

Yet, as we’ve learned from the Coleman Report and other studies from the States- this is a concept that only scratches the surface and gets no where close to solving the deeper issues of social inequality, which children unfortunately get caught up in.

The Social Mobility Commission suggests other methods of battling the issue, such as tax credits available only to low-income families or state-funded internships that help graduates from destitute backgrounds. However, the SMC are the first to admit that although they have raised the glass ceiling, no one is close to breaking through it just yet.   

As researchers have proven, funding for schools is not the only predicator of success for its students. Genetics and socioeconomic background play a major role in any attempt towards shifting the perspective on equal education and life opportunities for children.

Whether genetics affect our ability to succeed in life is still up for debate.  

If you were born with Dumbo ears, a small nose, or a poor bladder- don’t fret. The relationship between genetics, education and ultimate life success is still at large. Yet it’s definitely a topic worth investigating if there’s any hope in reshaping the landscape of equal opportunity within the future of education.