Natural smarts can only take a child so far if they are also attending a poor school

In fact this new study doesn’t have a big new insight, but it’s one important enough to repeat: genes have a big influence but that doesn’t mean the environment isn’t important: good genes can give a young child a head start when it comes to learning to read, but it’s not enough to overcome the effects of a poorly rated school.

  • This study demonstrates the role of school grade (e.g. ‘A’), an omnibus index of school quality assigned by state governments, as a moderator of the genetic and environmental influences on children’s early literacy skills.
  • A large and representative twin sample was used to show that school grade moderates the genetic and environmental influences on pre-reading skills, outside of the influences of socioeconomic status (SES).
  • There was a consistent trend of greater environmental influences on pre-reading skills in non-A schools, arguably representing ‘poorer’ environmental contexts than the A-schools.
  • Minority and low-SES students may be disproportionately affected by school grade due to the large populations of these groups in lower performing schools. These groups may, in turn, be significantly more impacted by the more variable environment when learning early reading skills as opposed to students in higher graded schools, thereby contributing to the achievement gap.

From the press release:

Those are the findings of Florida State University researchers who looked at whether schools or genetics play a greater role in influencing a child’s ability to read. The research is outlined in a new study published in the journalDevelopmental Science.

The study indicates that while attending a top or “A” school will help a child’s natural intellectual abilities flourish, that same child might falter if he or she attended a school with a lower ranking.

“The letter grade a school receives has such power — from the funding the school will receive to the autonomy it is allowed to the home prices around the school and real estate purchases,” said Assistant Professor of Psychology Sara Hart. “We wanted to see if school grades actually mattered to children’s reading achievement.”

Hart, who is also a part of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR), and FSU doctoral student Rasheda Haughbrook, the lead author on the new study, wanted to see how students do in different learning environments and whether that critical school ranking reflected a child’s reading performance.

They found that genetic factors had a greater influence on pre-reading skills for students who attended “A” schools than on those children who attended lesser ranked schools. In lower ranked schools, environmental factors appeared to be more varied, leading to inconsistency in pre-reading skills among students.

States’ ranking systems can vary to some degrees, but many school scores are reflected with an “A” through “F” score. These rankings play a significant role in the country’s current educational framework, but there has been little information on whether these school grades influence how individual children learn to read.

“Often, it seems that the way these grades are measured is based on arbitrary cutoffs and calculations,” Haughbrook said. “We wanted to know if school grades really made a difference for student performance.”

To do this research, Hart and Haughbrook focused on a very special segment of the population — twins.

They examined 1,313 sets of twins in kindergarten through third grade who were given five reading assessment tests, including knowing letters of the alphabet, recognizing and producing the first letter of a word, segmenting a word into groups of syllables, fluidly reading text and correctly reading syllables of made-up words.

Of the group, 34 percent of the twins were identical and 66 percent were fraternal. They were spread out among schools with “A” through “F” rankings.

Because twins typically share both genetics and environments, the researchers compared identical and fraternal twins to better understand the influence of genes, shared environments — such as the school or home — and non-shared environments — such as different classrooms or friends.

They determined that if identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins in how they learn to read, it is likely genetic influences have the greatest impact. If fraternal twins and identical twins are more similar, it is likely their shared environments are the biggest influencer. On the flip side, if identical twins differ in a given area — such as their reading abilities — it suggests that the non-shared environment is the deciding factor in reading development.

Abstract of the study:

Recent research suggests that the etiology of reading achievement can differ across environmental contexts. In the US, schools are commonly assigned grades (e.g. ‘A’, ‘B’) often interpreted to indicate school quality. This study explored differences in the etiology of early literacy skills for students based on these school grades. Participants included twins drawn from the Florida Twin Project on Reading (n = 1313 pairs) aged 4 to 10 years during the 2006–07 school year. Early literacy skills were assessed with DIBELS subtests: Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF), Initial Sound Fluency (ISF), Letter Naming Fluency (LNF), and Phoneme Segmentation Fluency (PSF). School grade data were retrieved from the Florida Department of Education. Multi-group analyses were conducted separately for subsamples defined by ‘A’ or ‘non-A’ schools, controlling for school-level socioeconomic status. Results indicated significant etiological differences on pre-reading skills (ISF, LNF, and PSF), but not word-level reading skills (ORF and NWF). There was a consistent trend of greater environmental influences on pre-reading skills in non-A schools, arguably representing ‘poorer’ environmental contexts than the A schools. Importantly, this is the case outside of resources linked with school-level SES, indicating that something about the direct environment on pre-reading skills in the non-A school context is more variable than for A schools.

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