babyblThe education reformers are determined to reduce the performance gap, to turn students who come from poor backgrounds into copies of students who come from advantaged backgrounds. They are trying to do it through funding redistribution, high quality teacher redistribution and focusing on attitudes, values and dispositions that are seen in students who come from an advantaged background. Studies have shown that students who can develop self control, practice delayed gratification and perseverance can have improved academic performance. But a new study published in the National Academy of Sciences shows that all that may come at the expense of a longer life.

This study, conducted at Northwestern University – Department of Psychology and Institute for Policy Research Evanston, IL,  and the University of Georgia -Center for Family Research Athens, GA looked at almost 300 for five years between the ages of 17-20  from rural Georgia who were evaluated for self control, substance abuse, depression, and aggressive behavior. They also looked at a specific biomarker that indicates epigenetic, or cell age. It is possible to have cells that display symptoms of greater age than the chronological age of the subject. (Maybe that’s why some people just feel so old.)

The authors, Miller, Yu, Chen and Brody, were interested in the effects of the latest focus on character traits in K-12 schooling. They knew that, “Relative to their affluent peers, children of low socioeconomic status (SES) complete fewer years of education, have a higher prevalence of health problems, and are convicted of more criminal offenses. Based on research indicating that low self-control underlies some of these disparities, policymakers have begun incorporating character-skills training into school curricula and social services.” They decided to look at a possible side effect of these policies on low SES students.

What they found in these biomarkers was startling. They obtained blood samples from the students when they reached 22 years of age to ascertain the epigenetic age of the cells. They found

Among high-SES youth, better mid-adolescent self-control presaged favorable psychological and methylation outcomes. However, among low-SES youth, self-control had divergent associations with these outcomes. Self-control forecasted lower rates of depressive symptoms, substance use, aggressive behavior, and internalizing problems but faster epigenetic aging… self-control may act as a “double-edged sword,” facilitating academic success and psychosocial adjustment, while at the same time undermining physical health.

The authors call this resilience only “skin-deep” for low SES students.  The outward indicators of success can mask emerging problems with health. They warned, “These findings have conceptual implications for models of resilience, and practical implications for interventions aimed at ameliorating social and racial disparities.”

Another study done at Northwestern University  by Johnson, Richeson, and Finkel Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University, looked at what happened to self control when students, who came from low SES backgrounds but were academically successful enough to be accepted at a prestigious university, had to focus on their academic competency. Through surveys they discovered that

“…individuals’ sensitivity to the relative privilege of their peers increased as their reported household income declined. More simply, individuals from relatively lower SES backgrounds are both aware of and sensitive to the fact that they differ from their peers along this dimension.”

In a complimentary study, they asked students to talk about a recent academic success and then afterwards offered them candy (under the pretense of rating the flavor.) The goal was actually to measure the consumption of what is typically thought of as an unhealthy but soothing food. They found that students from low SES backgrounds consumed more candy than those from high SES backgrounds.

They theorized that “relative to students from higher SES backgrounds in this academically oriented context, students from lower SES backgrounds are susceptible to cognitive depletion after engaging in a self-presentation task that involves the domain of academic achievement—a domain that triggers lower SES individuals’ academic competency concerns.” In other words the stress of being in the high pressure academic setting, in close proximity to students from higher SES backgrounds, was so mentally draining that they had little energy left to dedicate to self regulation in other areas.

One final related study by McEwen and Gianaros, Central role of the brain in stress and adaptation: Links to socioeconomic status, health, and disease, published by the National Institute of Health looked at factors prevalent in low SES homes, (early maltreatment, conflict-laden familial relationships, stressful life events, and adverse physical and social conditions) and found that these conditions “can influence the structural and functional plasticity of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—processes collectively referred to as neuroplasticity. In turn, alterations in the neuroplasticity of these brain systems can affect patterns of emotional expression and regulation, stress reactivity, recovery, and coping, and perhaps even the rate of bodily aging.”

These are the biological challenges that children from poor families face, the ones that highly qualified teachers are expected to overcome in a classroom with 25 other children and massive testing requirements that actually take away teaching time. And it appears that even if they are successful at overcoming those challenges, the results are only skin deep and may lead to other stress related health outcomes and shorter lives.

If only fixing our schools were a simple matter of finding the right turn around model to magically transform these kids lives so they all have a happy ending. Unfortunately it looks like the truth is much more complex, as is the long term solution.


Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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