Can Genetics Research Improve Education?

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The journal Nature Genetics published a study on July 23 that has sent the education observers into an uproar. The study was a collaboration by dozens of researchers using genetic data from more than 1 million people.  The researchers identified more than 1,000 data variants that are correlated with educational attainment. But is this a good thing?

In the New York Times, Dr. Kathryn Paige Harden laid out an argument for “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education.” She asserts that new genetic research can help create a more equal society.

…genetic results reveal the injustice of our so-called meritocracy. As a nation, we justify stark inequalities with the idea that people who stayed in school deserve more than people who didn’t finish high school or college — more money, more security, more health, more life.

But success in our educational system is partially a result of genetic luck. No one earned his or her DNA sequence, yet some of us are benefiting enormously from it. By showing us the links between genes and educational success, this new study reminds us that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit.

Second, knowing which genes are associated with educational success will help scientists understand how different environments also affect that success. The eventual development of a polygenic score that statistically predicts educational outcomes will allow researchers to control for genetic differences between people, so that the causal effects of the environment are thrown into sharper focus. Understanding which environments cause improvements in children’s ability to think and learn is necessary if we want to invest wisely in interventions that can truly make a difference.

Science journalist Ed Yong agrees that this new research may be helpful. He explained his argument in this piece in the Atlantic. Its ability to explain 11 percent of the population-wide variation in school, he says, is comparable to variations caused by household income and parental education. In the future, genetic variations between students can be included in empirical analyses of school performance alongside other demographic data, enabling scientists to isolate the effects of the policy changes or educational programs that they really want to study.

This, he argues, is the most powerful reason to study the genetics of education or cognitive ability—and ironically, it has very little to do with genes. Instead, it’s a way of making social science more powerful.

The team is essentially studying genes so they can more thoroughly ignore them.

John Warner, a writer for Inside Higher Ed, thinks scientists and educators should be more cautious. A new genetic “score,” he warns, will be a new “way to visit misery upon students.” There is no limit, he says, to the damage that might be done with this new genetic data. He argues that researchers already know sufficient information to help children, regardless of their natural aptitudes for learning, to succeed. He fears what might happen when such research gets into the hands of policymakers whose goal is to save money or libertarian economists who already believe that too many young people are going to college.

In other words, Warner is concerned that population-level data will be misapplied to individual-level decisions—and discrimination against those with less natural aptitude for learning. This isn’t an empty fear. Eugenics is still too recent to be brushed aside lightly. But Warner’s concerns seem overblown. The researchers, in explaining their results were extremely careful to say that it has no immediate policy uses.

I, for one, welcome this new tool that can increase our understanding of how learning and education work.

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