The Lost Einsteins

Now, we largely know that family characteristics and environment have a significant impact on a child’s career trajectory; in some cases, these factors even trumping the quality of schools they attend.
What is it about the poor families that makes children from these backgrounds less advantageous?
This is an important question because if the answer is good instruction at school, then fixing school will do the job. But, if the answer is that child’s disadvantages also arise due to out-of-school environment, then we need to expand the spectrum of our efforts.
My theory, as I blogged earlier is that the culture of expectations and exposure to opportunities in higher-income family environment, differentiate them from that of low-income family environment.
Culture of expectations is present in poor families too, who see education to get out of poverty but the exposure to opportunities is important. Such exposure does two things. One, it illustrates the wide range of possibilities and also removes mental barriers in process of deciding “what to do”. Two, the exposure demonstrates high likelihood of success building the confidence. Role models play an important role here. Prof. Anirudh Krishna has demonstrated its importance in Indian context.
Apart from income, the other social factors like gender, race, caste also are important.
Now, we have a new paper adding new piece of information to this analysis.
Raj Chetty et al. in his recent paper throws light on this question — what is it about the high-income families that makes their environment different from that of low-income families? [Read this for the summary of findings]
First things first, Chetty et al, demonstrate that there is a difference in the likelihood of success, based on income.
children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. There are similarly large gaps by race and gender.
To what extent is this difference due to the innate ability of students? The answer is — not much.
Differences in innate ability, as measured by test scores in early childhood, explain relatively little of these gaps.
Next, they explore the channels that drive the high likelihood of success in high-income families. They argue that the “exposure to innovation” is the key driving factor. They demonstrate it as follows
Growing up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class.
The fact that exposure to specific technology leads to success in the same technology class demonstrates that exposure is the key driver.
There are gender-differences in this.
exposure effects are gender-specific: girls are more likely to become inventors in a particular technology class if they grow up in an area with more female inventors in that technology class
Overall, there are two lessons from this new piece of research.
  1. Exposure to innovation or broad possibilities in general is the differentiating factor between low-income and high-income families. So, policies trying to bridge the income gaps, should focus on creating exposure to the kids. Role models and technology are important tools in this process.
  2. The closer the role models to the socio-economic characteristics of the child, the better.
At a given point of time, there might not be enough role models for all local communities. One idea can be to pick up the students with promising potential from each local community, give them all possible support and demonstrate their success. It’s a long term project, but it will have impact in the long-term.
It may seem vague and abstract idea but it’s important to do this as part of education reform. If not, we are “losing many Einsteins”.
I like the analogy of “oil drilling” here. We take huge pain to explore all over the earth to mine the oil and create value out of it. Education is something similar. The human minds are mines of intelligence, waiting to be explored. The more we nurture them, the better for us. We might be losing out a lot by the virtue of not exploiting this valuable resource!

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