Quick thought: Does education really make a difference?

For years development economists have preached at the importance of education in the development of a nation. In one of the most famous papers, MIT’s Esther Duflo exploits a natural experiment in Indonesia to show the importance that education has on future earnings potential. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that education is a vital element to unlocking the potential of a nation’s youth. 

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Even in the developed world, parents are spending on education in unprecedented amounts. Parents enroll children in elite schools before they are even born, but is there evidence to suggest that this is a wise decision? In his latest book Robert Plomin, arguably the world’s leading behavioral geneticist, provides a revolutionary view on education. Plomin argues that “schools matter, but they don’t make a difference”. He suggests that schools matter because they should serve as the foundation of our literacy and numeracy and because we happen to spend half our childhood in school. Plomin however argues that schools do not make children better.

There is little to no evidence that suggests that the best schools are the best because of their ability to make students better. Instead, the evidence suggests that these schools are merely able to attract the best students because the schools are already the best. A UK study that tracked high school results but controlling for the results with which students applied, showed little impact of the education they received there. 

Plomin instead argues that variation in educational outcomes can be more attributed to genetics than to variation in quality of schooling (that is after a minimum standard of schooling is met). Over almost four decades of research Plomin discovered that most of what we consider to be the most important environmental factors, such as our families and schools, “account for less than 5% of the differences between us in our mental health or how well we did at school – once we control for the impact of genetics.” This should be a touch surprising.

In fact, our genetics accounts for between 40 and 70 percent of variation in personality and psychological traits, depending on which trait we consider. The remaining variation must then be accounted for by environmental factors right? Not even Plomin disputes this, however the argument that he does make is which environmental factors these are. 

The environment that shapes us can be separated into two distinct parts, our shared environment (often referred to as nurture – and this is where education plays a role), and our unshared environment, or rather random and idiosyncratic events that we have no control over. According to Plomin, the evidence suggests that almost all of the variation between us in terms of traits (after genetics is accounted for) is down to idiosyncratic events. This is certainly a hard pill for most to swallow.

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How then can Plomin’s work on behavioural genetics be reconciled with Duflo’s work in development economics? It is all about a sufficient minimum level of schooling (SMLS). Politicians around the world should focus on setting guidelines and then meeting this level for its youth. In areas where schooling remains poor, it is vital to lift the level as to give every child a fair shot at life, however, in places where education has reached a minimum acceptable standard, it may be worthwhile to look elsewhere to continue improvement.

One may then ask what can be done to continue improvement if each individual’s genetic makeup is deterministic. The key is to understand that the argument does not aim to paint genetics as deterministic. Plomin is partly to blame by titling his book Blueprint, but he has already admitted to the title being misleading. Genes are not a blueprint, nor are they deterministic. Instead, genetics is about probabilistic propensities and therefore can be seen as an explanation of the world that is, but not the world that can be. He argues that if we were to understand our own genetic make-up better, we could make daily decisions and form positive habits to combat genes that we would rather not have inherited, and this on most occasions can make a significant difference.

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How can we understand our own genetic make-up better? It’s called a polygenic score, an incredibly interesting topic to leave for future discussion. I certainly cannot and do not aim to cover the nuances and brilliance Plomin’s work in this post, and therefore I recommend reading Blueprint. There is no doubt that the book will make you reflect on your childhood years in a way you have never done before.


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