Since James Coleman’s landmark report about inequality in the 1960s, it has been common knowledge in education that there is a close relationship between parents’ socioeconomic status (SES) and and their children’s school achievement. The statistics have consistently shown the injustice of a system in which the children from the least advantaged economic circumstances attain the lowest levels of literacy.
Let’s turn the world on its head.
Recently, I came across a fascinating new investigation of the relationship between reading achievement and SES conducted by Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates and reported earlier this year in Psychological Sciences. They aren’t educators and they weren’t interested in explaining the determinants of school achievement (a la Coleman). Instead, they went the other direction. They set out to explain the determinants of SES; why are there differences in income levels?
Here is the abstract of the study:
“Understanding the determinants of socioeconomic status (SES) is an important economic and social goal. Several major influences on SES are known, yet much of the variance in SES remains unexplained. In a large, population-representative sample from the United Kingdom, we tested the effects of mathematics and reading achievement at age 7 on attained SES by age 42. Mathematics and reading ability both had substantial positive associations with adult SES, above and beyond the effects of SES at birth, and with other important factors, such as intelligence. Achievement in mathematics and reading was also significantly associated with intelligence scores, academic motivation, and duration of education. These findings suggest effects of improved early mathematics and reading on SES attainment across the life span.”
This study of more than 18,000 children/adults convincingly reveals the importance of early reading achievement in later educational and economic success. Not to put too fine a point on it: Better readers (at age 7) will out earn their classmates who don’t read as well.
Correlational studies cannot show causation—that would take experimental research, but there are things that researchers can do to increase the chances that the relationship may be causal. Thus, it is important that these second-graders’ reading scores continued to explain differences in later incomes even after their parents’ SES was controlled for. We often talk about a “cycle of poverty;” poor parents raise children who will themselves likely live in poverty. That these children’s early reading and math scores do a better job of predicting their futures shows the power of education to break that cycle; poor parents do tend to raise children who will live in poverty as adults, unless the kids master their reading skills.
Reading was measured three ways in the study: a 30-item word reading test, a 5-point scale in which teachers rated children from non-reader to avid reader; and the book level that the students were able to read. Individually, there appear to be only small differences in the correlations of these separate measures with later SES. In other words, all of these were meaningful assessments of reading (perhaps we could use these kinds of teacher rating scales to reduce the amount of screening assessment that we do?).
Of course, these data were based on children’s reading scores a long time ago (these 42-year-olds were 7 in 1965). However, in the U.S. the correlation between education and economic success has been increasing. In 1965, it was still possible to make good money without much education (working in a factory may have been boring but it could be lucrative). My guess is that how well 7-year-olds read is even more important today than it was for the children in the study.
Teaching someone to read is to give them economic power—even if they are only 7.