by David Safier
Family income affects student achievement. That's as close to an established fact as you get in education. Not only in the U.S. but all over the world, there's a direct correlation between family income and student test scores. But that doesn't explain why it's true. Certainly, lots of factors come into play. Here's one: Stress.
Today's Star has an AP article about how financial stress can cause adults to lose the equivalent of 13 IQ points — temporarily, of course.
[According to] Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist and study co-author, “When we think about people who are financially stressed, we think they are short on money, but the truth is they are also short on cognitive capacity.”
If you are always thinking about overdue bills, a mortgage or rent, or college loans, it takes away from your focus on other things. So being late on loans could end up costing you both interest points and IQ points.
If you're preoccupied with anything, it's hard to focus on something else. If your preoccupation is something that stresses you, intense concentration on anything else is almost impossible. Kids from low income families have to deal with hunger and food insecurity, stressed adults, lack of sleep, a dangerous environment, and so on. Even if the stressors don't cause permanent damage — though some people think they do — they stop these kids from concentrating on and committting themselves to what's going on in school. Any day you walk into the classroom with a lower IQ — even if it's temporary — you're going to miss out on what's going on. Day after day, year after year of that kind of intelligence/concentration deficit, and you're going to slip further and further behind.
Will great teachers help? Sure, that'll help some. More school funding? Absolutely, that'll help as well. But if students lug around those backpacks filled with stress caused by poverty, nothing in the school is going to compensate for what they're losing. School is important. It's vital. But decreasing income inequality, especially by raising people out of poverty, is going to do more to raise student achievement than all the school-based educational fixes in the world.