Analysis Of Cognitive Abilities Education Essay

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Over the years, I have heard the "achievement gap" described quite simply as the apparent disparity in academic performance amongst varying groups of students. In my experience, this term has entered conversations to describe the noticeable performance gaps between many African-American and Hispanic students, at the lower end of the performance scale, and their white peers at that the upper end. Similarly, I have come across many scholarly works that associate the achievement gap with the academic divide that separates students from low-income and economically advantaged families. The achievement gap shows up in grades, standardized-test scores, course selection, dropout rates, and college-completion rates. It has become a focal point of education reform efforts. But, in analyzing and observing the achievement gap debate, I have found that there is very little consensus as to what causes and perpetuates such an obvious separation of students along racial and socio-economic lines.

In this course, I have been introduced to several thought provoking explanatory sets for the achievement gap. The explanation sets have been founded in literature on social reproduction, cognitive ability, inequitable educational practices, out-of-school factors, institutional racism, and the differential investment of resources. Some of these sets are compelling when examined by themselves. Yet, if these factors are studied and considered in isolation, they fail to convey the full weight and complexity of the achievement gap. It is my contention that all of these factors are interconnected and that each are root causes in the existence of the achievement gap.

Regardless of which factors have the greatest impact on the creation or perpetuation of this gap, it is clear that students of color or low socio-economic classes are more likely to find themselves at distinct disadvantages in society when compared to their white, upper-middle class peers. The work going forward for educators and policy makers is to clearly define the core values at work in the achievement gap and to create and successfully implement suitable interventions for reversing the powerful effects of inequality. In this comparative analysis I will focus on the role of cognitive abilities and non-school factors in the current framing of the achievement gap. Through these two sets of information, I will demonstrate that the current and historical approaches to education have dramatically failed to meet the needs of students from backgrounds where access to resources and adequate living conditions are limited.

While planning this paper, I had a difficult time deciding which angle would give me the most complete view of the achievement gap. Through critical reflection, of both my own lived experiences and the literature at my disposal, the explanations regarding cognitive abilities and non-school factors gave me the most accessible and practical applications for understanding the achievement gap as it currently plays out in American schools. The cognitive ability set, as I will explain throughout this paper, is one of the primary factors that has historically influenced and reinforced inequitable educational practices. Cognitive abilities explanations, especially those rooted in questionable or incomplete intelligence testing, have been at the heart of many programs and initiatives that offer limited benefit to students that fall outside of the suitable test score ranges. Explanations for apparent disparities in test scores have often been based on theories of genetics and hereditability. This approach means that test scores are low amongst certain groups due to inherent genetic characteristics and that there is very little that can be done by way of intervention. Many argue that such thinking is dangerous and loaded with deep prejudices.

As I have previously mentioned, the achievement gap that is discussed by policy makers and politicians is usually defined along the differences that manifest themselves between the standardized test scores of upper-middle class white students and their lower-income minority peers. This notion of achievement is somewhat troubling because high stakes and achievement tests do not give a comprehensive understanding of student knowledge and, more importantly, the factors that might be causing score disparities from group to group. Moving forward, the achievement gap discussion must be shifted from a focus of dominated completely by standardized testing and school performance. A more comprehensive and thorough examination of factors both inside and outside the school is necessary.

Until recently, very little attention has been directed to the numerous factors outside of school that potentially impede a child's ability to learn and improve critical thinking skills. Analyses of non-school factors have shown that there are a number of environmental and conditional elements that go into an individual's intellectual and psychological make-up. Such factors are not always registered by testing and by no means do these factors limit an individual's possibility for growth given improved circumstances. In this sense, incorporating non-school factors with theories of cognitive abilities paints a more complete picture of what learning is like for a greater and more diverse number of children.

Through my discussion of the cognitive ability set, I do not wish to completely discredit the idea that cognitive ability plays a role in a person's ability to achieve. I only intend to show that it is not the only primary factor in determining individual outcomes. My hesitance in accepting a complete approval of the cognitive ability set begins with the selected readings from Herrnstein and Murray's (1994) book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Herrnstein and Murray argue the importance of IQ testing and that such tests should be taken as serious scientific evidence to support that heredity, and not environment, is mainly at the heart of societal problems. However controversial this argument might appear to the reader at first glance, the authors proceed with their examination based on the assumption that intelligence is "a reasonably well-understood construct, measured with accuracy and fairness by any number of standardized mental tests" (p. 1). The intelligence tests, in their estimation, are unbiased and will ultimately provide the data necessary to explain societal stratification and behavior. This is a gross miscalculation of the other factors that might determine a person's ability to develop aptitude and excel.

In the chapters I read, the authors show a concern about the growth of economic and social inequality in American society. Through their scientific analyses they attempt to probe more deeply into the sources of inequality. Herrnstein and Murray give considerable weight to the genetic component of personal differences in intelligence. The authors state that their research will improve the condition of society, "The issue is not simply how people who are poor through no fault of their own can be made not poor but how all of us, of all abilities and income levels-can live together in a society in which all of us can pursue happiness" (p. 142). Herrnstein and Murray would have the reader believe that intelligence is intertwined with socio-economic status to such a large degree that it is practically impossible for individuals from a low social class to break-out of their socio-economic condition. Taken at face value, their research contends that IQ, as a genetically inherited factor, rather than socio-economically influenced construct, plays the dominant role in generating differences in a variety of socially important outcomes among individuals. The Bell Curve argument contends that factors of social class and difference are taken into account in the conducted research. However, these authors down play the strong circumstantial evidence that intelligence is a malleable or fluid construct, instead of an immutable constant.

The Bell Curve provides an almost completely psychological and cognitive explanation for social class. This perspective which promotes race or social class as the principle determinants for test scores and the strong supposition that intelligence is directly correlated to heredity draws attention away from the socio-economic and environmental problems that lie at the root of the achievement gap. Knapp, Kronick, Marks, and Vosburg (1996), in a rather pointed response to Herrnstein and Murray, state, "Those arguments [hereditarism] attempt to counter the understanding that most social problems stem from vicious cycles of poverty that must be broken" (p. 4). Such a blind loyalty to the empirical science of testing actually perpetuates the gap between the "haves" and "have nots."

Knapp et al. establish a number of clear and tangible reasons for success and failure in American society. Obviously, their most passionate argument is that genetically acquired abilities are not the most powerful predictor of success. They approach the discussion with a sociological methodology. As such, their response to Herrnstein and Murray emphasizes social structures and socialization processes. The authors also present figures that, in their opinion, show the "self-reinforcing cycles of deprivation at the aggregate and individual levels" (p. 72) and "the forces that have affected race inequality in the last two decades" (p. 114). In fact, Knapp, Kronick, Marks, and Vosburg contend, "Unless these tendencies are counteracted, a cycle of self-reinforcing privilege is established at the top and cycles of self-reinforcing deprivation and powerlessness at the bottom" (p. 5). The achievement gap is not located in elaborate scientific test results. Believing that it does only projects the negative effects of the achievement gap onto future generations. To remedy the situation, social and educational reforms should look at the factors of inequality that press downward on underprivileged groups.

Throughout The Assault on Equality, the authors play up the strengths of a "sociological approach" to inequality, emphasizing the importance of socialization and social structure in a fashion that is quite persuasive. Knapp et al. point out a number of logical inconsistencies in The Bell Curve and make a convincing case for the existence of rhetorical and methodological fallacies throughout the book. Upon further reading, I found that, by replicating The Bell Curve's analysis of poverty and IQ, which suggests that cognitive ability supersedes socioeconomic status as a predictor of subsequent poverty status, Knapp et al. show that when earlier intelligence indicators are substituted for scores on the later tests, the effect of cognitive ability looks to make much less of an impact. Therefore, cognitive abilities are not always dependable for predicting future outcomes of students.

In one selected case, when scores on tests taken in elementary schools were analyzed the relationship between poverty status and cognitive ability is almost completely insignificant. While these results are open to alternative interpretations, they do call into question Herrnstein and Murray's assumption that cognitive ability is prominent and accurate means of establishing outcomes. Such findings lead to the conclusion that the continued emergence of achievement gaps through testing is the result of social hierarchies that fail to recognizes the realities of social inequality. In order for social change to occur, the cycles that reinforce poverty and class must be dismantled.

The one critique that I have regarding The Assault on Equality is that, despite all of the powerful social arguments made, the authors fail to provide any alternative plans for reducing the social divide. The work of Knapp et al. reads mostly as a scathing review of political and philosophical ideologies. In Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, Richard Nisbett (2009) also offers a sharp critique of the hereditary nature of intelligence promoted by Herrnstein and Murray. But, unlike Knapp et al., Nisbett offers a number of possible measures for reducing the achievement gap and redrawing the applications of intelligence testing. Nisbett's counterclaim takes shape in what he calls "new environmentalism," which stresses the importance of nonhereditary factors in determining I.Q. "New environmentalism" is founded on three central principles: schools can be improved by implementing more appropriate interventions for at-risk students, cultural and educational environments have changed in such a way that people are becoming smarter in different ways than in the past, and there exists the possibility to reduce both the achievement and I.Q. gaps between the white population and some minority groups. The challenge is to find educational programs and other interventions that effectively address the gap.

As Nisbett highlights throughout his work, the I.Q. debate is volatile and difficult to navigate. Concepts like heritability are so difficult to frame that even so-called experts like Herrnstein and Murray have trouble. Nisbett contends that many of the allegedly accurate tests and evidences supporting hereditary notions are loaded with biases. This makes any conclusions drawn from these tests ambiguous, thus it is all the easier for ideology to influence scientific judgment and objectivity. Liberals hope that social policy can repair life's unfairness. Conservatives hold that natural inequality must be accepted as inevitable. With such a tenuous foundation, cognitive ability explanations fail to hold up to scrutiny.

Nisbett seems to scoff at the notion that I.Q. is 75 to 85 percent heritable. His belief is that the real figure is less than 50 percent. The estimates used in his work come from comparing the I.Q.'s of blood relatives, such as identical twins, fraternal twins, siblings, that grow up in different and separated families. The one caveat is that, as Nisbett observes, "adoptive families, like Tolstoy's happy families, are all alike" (p. 29). These "happy families" are traditionally more affluent and have access to a wider range of resources. Such families tend to give children higher levels of cognitive stimulation. It is little wonder that children from these environments test at higher I.Q. levels. Thus, data from these types of studies are skewed and give hereditability higher values. This leads Nisbett to argue that hereditability really has no fixed point. It can make some impact, but this would only be noticeable within groups. Heritability of I.Q. is higher for upper-class families because lower-class families provide a wider range of cognitive environments, from terrible to good.

As mentioned in the example of Tolstoy's "happy families," adoption does offer one form of environmental intervention, but it is impractical to use adoption as a large-scale solution for the achievement gap. Nisbett is confident that environmental interventions can further increase I.Q. across groups. Government or institutional interventions can only hope to replicate the apparent advantages adoption might provide, and even Nisbett is cautious about the effectiveness of many government interventions. He admits that Head Start and other intensive intervention like the Perry Preschool failed to produce lasting I.Q. improvements. He does describe other programs like the Milwaukee project, the Abecedarian project, and the Infant Health and Development Program as examples of interventions that have raised I.Q. However, there is still a lack of longitudinal data that shows the long term effects of such program.

Nisbett grants that genes play some role in determining I.Q. differences within a population, but this acceptance does not also explain average differences between populations. Nisbett discusses the example of corn seeds planted on two plots of land. One group of seeds is planted in fertile soil and the other in lower quality soil. Within each group of seeds, differences in the height of the corn plants are genetic. Yet, the average differences, when comparing the two groups of plants against each other, are entirely environmental. Nisbett, using the example of the corn, argues that the racial I.Q. gap is also "purely environmental" (p. 100).

The challenge is to discover and develop educational programs that are effective in raising I.Q. Nisbett observes that almost all early in-school interventions have yielded underwhelming results. Ideally, more systems and communities would adopt intensive early-childhood interventions. These programs would begin at birth and focus on such aspects as low birth weight, breast feeding, and improving the home environment. In the author's estimation, it would cost less than $100 billion a year to extend numerous effective programs to the neediest third of America's preschoolers. This would most assuredly lead to greater socio-economic gains. By de-emphasizing the role of nature in determining intelligence, Nisbett tries to reduce I.Q. to little more than an achievement measure on par with other types of test scores. There is limited external value in using such test as a measuring stick for aptitude or knowledge. I thoroughly agree with Nisbett's assessment that achievement can be raised by better textbooks, better teachers, better home environments. Genetic make-up should be the last thing that enters our minds when we are trying to determine the effectiveness of programs or student ability.

 Many researchers acknowledge the correlation between non-school factors and cognitive abilities. The next important step in the research is to identify specific elements within the wide array of non-school factors. One popular field of educational inquiry looks at the relationship between exposure to poverty, the time period at which such exposure occurs, and cognitive abilities. Understanding the timing of the influences of poverty on children's cognitive outcomes has especially important policy implications for the American education system. Guo (1998) contends that by identifying the relationship between developmental stage and exposure to poverty research "will shed light on the debate over the benefits of early intervention programs such as Head Start" (p. 279). Guo readily admits that Americans already have an idea that early childhood is a crucial point at which to combat poverty because the American public spends more than two billion dollars each year on Head Start and early intervention programs. Unfortunately, after several years of promoting and funding Head Start, there is still great uncertainty about the program's true impact. Any evidence that early childhood is indeed the critical period in which poverty has the most damaging influence on cognitive development would lend support to early education programs like Head Start. Conversely, if early childhood was not a key site for critical interventions, resources and attention could be turned to more pressing areas.

Guo (1998) suggests two time patterns for analyzing and understanding the effects of poverty on cognitive development. Poverty experienced from about birth to early adolescence or poverty experienced in the early stages of adolescence has a noticeable impact on achievement. Guo's findings support the idea that poverty experienced during early adolescence after childhood is particularly important for achievement and cognitive development. The effects of poverty are especially noticeable when they are experienced in early adolescence because "achievement is correlated with motivation and opportunity" (p. 278). Impoverished environments are more likely to affect a child's motivation because opportunities and resources to pursue desires are often limited.

Likewise, Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) find that non-school factors, primarily family income, effect children across a wide variety of educational, physical, social, and psychological domains. They contend that the negative effects of poverty are more substantial in some domains like school achievement and even cognitive abilities. The powerful effects of poverty may also vary greatly depending on the severity and length of a child's exposure to impoverished conditions. One of their more alarming findings states that low income during infancy through the early school years tends to be a stronger predictor of low rates of high school completion than low income during other periods of a child's life, including adolescence. Their analysis of a number of poverty related studies suggests that early childhood interventions may be the most critical in reducing the impact of low income on children. Identifying and intervening in such matters as low birth weight, nutrition, and reducing the effects of lead-based paint poisoning are just a few of the basic interventions listed as potentially influencing greater outcomes in early childhood. Policies directed toward narrowing the achievement gap will be most effective if they are instituted early.

Others agree with Brooks-Gunn and Conrad in the sense that achievement gap interventions must address serious external economic factors. Rothstein (2004) states, "Demography is not destiny, but students' social and economic family characteristics are a powerful influence on their relative average achievement" (p. 16). Rothstein also asserts that Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve does not adequately account for the factors that influence an individual's access to resources which can dramatically improve his or her life. If educators and policymakers want to really eliminate the achievement gap, they must not merely attempt to reform school practice. Real change can only occur if sub-standard socio-economic conditions are eradicated.

McLanahan (2002) makes an important case for taking the argument about non-school factors beyond discussions of poverty. Parental and family structure can be just as impactful on a child's cognitive ability and well-being as any other socio-economic factor. McLanahan's work is based on longitudinal and correlational evidence taken from prior studies on the role of family and income on child development. From this data, the family structure seems to be far more influential in a child's well-being in some domains but does not exercise equal influence in others. In many cases, the studies showed that children of single-parent families demonstrated higher levels of behavioral problems, such as increased hyperactivity. It is further noted that these types of behavioral issues occur over a very small period of time and are most likely due to interruptions in the normal family structure. Family disturbances seem to have more noticeable effects on educational attainment than any other of the analyzed categories. This suggests that problems that occur in the educational attainment domain have a strong correlation to behavioral problems rather than lowered cognitive ability. Explaining as much as 50 percent of the variation, across all studied domains, income is the most important factor for describing the differences in the educational achievement of children raised in single-parent families.

McLanahan argues that less parental supervision and decreased social capital cause the differences between single or never-married parent and complete families. Poverty status is more critical than family structure when it comes to outcomes of childhood cognitive ability and school achievement. However, family structure has a tremendous effect on behavioral problems, psychological problems, and physical health. A variety of intervention strategies arise from this type of research. Children dealing with difficulty in the home due to the lack of a parent or a disrupted family structure might benefit from additional types of counseling or emotional supports. Such interventions might limit or remove much of the developmental impediment. As increased analysis and differentiation is drawn between family structure and income related issues, children might receive more individualized and comprehensive assistance.

Many educators and parents support strategies and interventions that focus more on the individual student and his or her motivations. Lauren Resnick (1995) offers a few possible ways in which schools can be used as tools for reversing the effects of social inequalities. Resnick supports a total overhaul of the school environment and its fundamental operating philosophy. She contends that the best possible solution is for schools to move toward an effort-oriented approach. Changing to an effort-oriented approach also means that clear, public standards for minimum student achievement must be established. According to Resnick, newly established standards should be coupled with five central factors that will increase student motivation: "1) clear expectations for achievement; 2) fair and credible evaluations of achievement; 3) celebration and payoff of success; 4) as much time as is necessary to meet learning expectations; 5) expert instruction" (p. 58). As such a program takes hold, students will gain the confidence and the skills necessary to achieve.

Resnick's plan for effort oriented educational programs does not necessarily push the use of testing out of the schoolhouse. Instead, traditional approaches to teaching and learning, as well as assessments for achieving, would be augmented by more what the author perceives as more inspiring and motivating programs. One slight adaptation, specifically in regards to testing, mentioned is the incorporation of "some externally set exams graded by people other than the students' own teachers, along with an external quality control of grades based on class work (as in an audited portfolio grading system, for example)" (p. 59). Such an approach would make tests scores more credible for everyone. This change in student assessments would provide students from diverse backgrounds a sense of equity with students that might have greater access to resource.

Resnick contends that old methods of pushing children through the system do not adequately prepare students for the real world. The dynamic in the majority of public schools dictates that students have a specified time to learn a certain set of skills or data. That given period of time is followed by assessment methods that typically are not relevant to the actual knowledge presented to or learned by most students. Resnick recommends that this dynamic be flipped on its head. In her argument, schools would set an absolute standard of expectation and allow time and other resources to vary. This system would allow students the opportunity to learn at their own pace and receive the types of interventions that would enhance learning. Struggling student might eventually even be encouraged to participate in results-oriented programs outside of the school.

While I do not find a complete solution in the Resnick piece, I leave with some solace that there are possibilities for moving education policy and school practice away from a reliance on the traditional systems of the past. The intent of Resnick's argument is noble. If everyone has the same standards, then technically no one will be discriminated against based on ethnicity, social class, non-school factors, or inadequate access to resources. Thus, the cycles reinforced through I.Q. testing and the "bell curve" theory of intelligence would be broken. The so-called enriched programs would no longer be the sole domain of the gifted and talented, as determined by testing.

Early in the course, I took a defensive stance against much of the literature regarding the cognitive abilities set. I tended to agree with authors, like Knapp et al., whose work was grounded in sociology. The work of Herrnstein and Murray seemed incomplete and lacking of any real substance. Though I still am opposed to much of The Bell Curve, I have since come to the conclusion that going too far toward either extreme is a dangerous move. Cognitive abilities explanations, as seen especially through practices of standardized testing, provide invaluable insight into the abilities of children. Using fair and equitably obtained test data, educators can determine the effectiveness of programs and the progress of students. Interventions can be instituted and many societal gains can be achieved.

However, if intelligence or aptitude test results are taken out of context from the surrounding socio-economic environment, said results can have dramatic consequences that reinforce stereotypes and inequality. Likewise, social scientists cannot simply fix the problem by pushing ill informed social reforms. There must be established means for assessing the progress of students and interventions. In this sense, I advocate for assessments similar to those promoted by Resnick, assessments which are fair and place the student on equal ground with his or her peers. Such assessments would ideally include a wide range of samples of work and would consider external, non-school factors that might influence a student's ability in some way.

Establishing relationships between the core issues of the achievement gap debate is a vital and necessary part of moving the American educational system, and for that matter society at-large, forward. Understanding how in-school performance and test related data can be influenced by factors outside of the school will help breakdown barriers of class and race, thus making education itself more accessible and equitable for students regardless of background. The relationship between cognitive abilities and non-school factors can also be used to inform the types of interventions that schools, communities, and families use to improve the life experiences of children. The work of narrowing the achievement gap is not easy, and it requires a paradigm shift in the way we approach thinking and learning. It would be quite easy to focus our attention and resources solely on one possible explanation, such as cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, that type of isolated thinking is partially responsible for the condition of our current system. The boxes of individual explanatory sets are much too small to incorporate all of the issues.

In conclusion, this paper only includes a small portion of insight into the factors that have created and continue to reproduce the achievement gap. The two sets that I discuss here, cognitive ability and non-school factors, only represent two of the numerous possibilities for unraveling and dismantling the complex issue of societal inequality as it is demonstrated through educational practices in the United States. After much reflection, I must correct my earlier opinion that these two explanations were on two very different and opposing sides of the achievement gap debate. This was a giant miscalculation on my part. In reality, cognitive abilities and non-school factors are intimately bound together as part of a complex web. Cognitive ability explanations, especially those associated with standardized and intelligence tests can be helpful, but they do not paint a complete picture of the aptitudes and potential of an individual. Likewise, non-school factors, such as race and poverty, influence many parts of a person's life, from schooling to personal health. In determining remedies for social injustices and inequalities, it is difficult to ignore the role of class and environment. Policies and reforms must seek improved educational outcomes that coincide with improved socio-economic conditions. If these conditions can be met, society might finally be able to put itself closer to equality.

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