Study: Above All Else, A Child’s Academic Success Is Predicted By Family Status, Genes

YORK, England — A new set of research that investigated the main factors behind a child’s success in school finds, surprisingly, that the most prominent predictors of academic success are usually in place before the child is even born. According to the study, conduced at the University of York, both inherited DNA and parents’ socioeconomic status (level of wealth & education) are the biggest factors when it comes to how well a child will perform in school.

In fact, socioeconomic status was found to be an even more important element than inherited DNA traits. Only 47% of studied children with a “high genetic propensity” for learning born to poorer families were able to reach college, while 62% of studied children who lacked such education-centered DNA, but were born to wealthy and highly educated parents, ended up enrolling in a university.

Those born with both favorable conditions (educational DNA & a high status family) had the biggest advantage, with 77% going to college. Meanwhile, children born without such DNA and born to poor families had the hardest time succeeding academically (only 21% reaching college).

“Genetics and socioeconomic status capture the effects of both nature and nurture, and their influence is particularly dramatic for children at the extreme ends of distribution,” explains lead study author Sophie von Stumm, a professor within the University of York Department of Education, in a release. “However, our study also highlights the potentially protective effect of a privileged background. Having a genetic makeup that makes you more inclined to education does make a child from a disadvantaged background more likely to go to university, but not as likely as a child with a lower genetic propensity from a more advantaged background.”

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“While the findings of our study are observational, they do suggest that children don’t have equal opportunity in education because of their different genetics and family backgrounds. Where you come from has a huge impact on how well you do in school,” she adds.

Researchers examined data on over 5,000 U.K. children born between 1994-1996. Each child’s grades and test results were analyzed at various stages of their education, and their parents’ education levels and jobs were also recorded.

Additionally, a statistical technique called polygenic scoring was used to calculate how each child’s inherited DNA affected and or predicted their academic performance. Using this complex measurement of DNA variation, the research team noted that children born with more education-oriented DNA usually start achieving higher grades than other students around the age of seven. This “achievement gap,” as the study’s authors call it, only widens as time goes on and students enter high school.

“More research is required, but we hope that this paper will stimulate discussion around the potential to predict if children are at risk for poor academic outcomes – the basis of these discussions goes beyond purely scientific criteria to issues of ethics and social values,” professor von Stumm concludes. “We hope that results like these can open doors for children, rather than close them, by stimulating the development and provision of personalized environments that can appropriately enhance and supplement a child’s education.”

The study is published in the scientific journal Developmental Science.

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