Thursday, February 6, 2014

Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?

What would you think if your neighbor down at the end of the cul de sac took their young child to an ophthalmologist to get the child's brown eyes converted to blue? And what would you think of an ophthalmologist who claimed the most important factor affecting eye color was a good ophthalmologist and he took their money to make them brown eyes blue? Not much, eh?

And just why would that be? Is it because you like everyone else knows that what determines one's eye color is genetics? In fact genetics plays a pretty big part in determining lots of things. Gender, physique, hair color--in fact it plays some role in almost every aspect of what makes a person an individual.

Except education.

Or so the education establishment would have you believe. For some reason genetics is something we just will not talk about when it comes to education. Instead we'd prefer to think of teachers as if they are the educational equivalent of the eye color ophthalmologist. Screw genetics--the most important thing is the teacher. At least until test results paint a picture of some pretty incompetent teachers in which case the most important thing is the parents. But if that becomes politically unpalatable we'll just chalk it up to society or a digital divide or haves and have nots.

But now we really can blame the parents. Turns out that heritability has more effect on variations in academic achievement than all other factors combined. That's right, whether your little darlin' is the next Feynman or Goober Pyle we can all rest easy because he was born that way. These revelations come from the research of Behavioural Geneticists Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin who have published a book, "G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics On Education", providing an accessible overview (and some personal analysis) of their research into genetic influences of academic achievement. (Before anyone gets too hot under the collar this research was centered in England which being an island has long suffered from inbreeding and all manner of genetic issues thereunto appertaining. YMMV) But there is significant value in the material being presented (and for those truly interested the book itself should be given a read).

Everyone with more than one child or any siblings at all understands that genetic transference is probabilistic . No two sibs will learn to read at the same rate, with the same ease or to the same level of proficiency even though they draw from the same gene pool. Nonetheless it is each child's genetic makeup that is the single largest factor influencing their relative academic achievement.

Yet our education systems ignore this preferring instead to harp on the value of teachers, home environment, family makeup, income levels and supplied resources. Perhaps this is because of large interests who have much money and power at stake with the current system. If you've made your career selling the snake oil salve that "cures the academic ills of poverty" then you're not likely to be receptive to the notion that your snake oil is just that. Likewise if your constituency is the poor unappreciated teacher you will sing a chorus of "how great they art" giving a cold shoulder to any notion that their impact is as incredibly small as it really is.

Perhaps it is because speaking of genetic differentiation leads towards conversations that touch upon eugenics though for whatever it may be worth the term eugenics comes from the Greek roots for "good" and "generation" or "origin". While no one is recommending selective breeding or sterilization [ed: not yet] don't you think if you're going to do in vitro it would make sense to consider the implications of what you're doing?

Perhaps it is because genetics is poorly understood by the masses all too many of whom seem to think in simplistic terms and believe genes mean certain things are hardwired. Fact is there are so many genes involved that variations driven by genetics are probabilistic and not deterministic. It's still driven by genetics just not exactly the same way every time. Our gene pool has apparently dried up to the point that concept will not be widely understood.

Then there's the politics of the circumstances and let's be very clear--so long as governments fund and run our schools education will be first and foremost about politics. Politicians speak (and perhaps understand) in sound bites fostering an incorrect but politically convenient assertion that the role genetics plays in variations in academic achievement somehow drives policy. This obscures the facts regarding the role genetics plays in education and ignores the fact that policy is decoupled from genetics and is driven exclusively by our values. Using the same facts we could as a society chose to educate the best and forget the rest or we might decide that our values call on us to bring every member of our society to some minimal level of literacy and numeracy no matter what the cost. Or we could use what we know to provide the individualized education our technology can support.

As long as we ignore the single biggest factor influencing variations in academic achievement and we continue to elect school board members and other officials who focus on everything but this factor our schools will continually decline and our children and their future will be wasted.