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Upending the Bell Curve

While many policymakers such as the authors of the infamous text, The Bell Curve, are trying to draw a link between race and intelligence, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Teachers College is one of the leaders in disproving basic Bell Curve assumptions. The Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor in Child and Parent Development and Education at TC is also producing studies that aim to lead policymakers in the creation of ways to get families with children out of poverty.

In an article published in the April issue of Child Development, Brooks-Gunn and her coauthors, Pamela Klebanov, a research scientist at TC's Center for Children and Families, and Greg Duncan of Northwestern University, suggested that poverty and early learning opportunities, not race, account for the gap in IQ scores between blacks and whites.

The article said adjustments for socioeconomic conditions completely eliminate differences in IQ scores between black and white children.

The study includes data, from birth to age five, on 800 black and white children who were born prematurely and with a low birth weight. Collected from eight health care sites around the nation, it is the only data set that combines high-quality measurement of development outcomes (i.e., full-scale IQ tests) with longitudinal data on family economic status, neighborhood conditions, family structure and home environment.

As in many other studies, black children in this research had IQ scores a full 15 points lower than their white counterparts. Poverty alone, the researchers found, accounted for 52 percent of that difference, cutting it to seven points. Controlling for the children's home environment reduced the difference by another 28 percent, to a statistically insignificant three points in essence, eliminating the gap altogether.

Debate over the IQ gap has been highly charged since the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, who view the difference in IQ as genetic and impossible to change.

Brooks-Gunn and her colleagues argue that there is much that can be done to change the educational status of children born in poverty. First, they point out that poverty itself is not a static environment for families and children. Many people do not understand that families move in and out of poverty all the time, Brooks-Gunn said.

The professor also says that most welfare policy has focused on the adults in families and has not asked what happens to children, especially during periods when mothers are receiving job-training or education.

In recent studies, Brooks-Gunn and her colleagues have called for more coordination between programs for disadvantaged parents often aimed at getting them into the workforce and programs for disadvantaged children, which typically focus on cognitive functioning.

Even though disadvantaged children are usually living in households led by disadvantaged parents (mostly single mothers), Brooks-Gunn and others say many programs treat these two groups as distinct.

Here are some examples of how the effects of such programs overlap:

Young mothers in job-training programs often improve their literacy skills, which can lead to these mothers reading more often with their young children. Mothers who learn more about their children's development may also feel more comfortable in dealing with school authorities.

Mothers who have the opportunity to continue their education or enter the workforce after job-training also have different attitudes toward education, attitudes that are related to their children. At least one longitudinal study completed in Baltimore has shown that these more positive attitudes about education among some mothers resulted in the children of those mothers staying in school and receiving high-school diplomas at a higher rate than their peers.

According to Brooks-Gunn and her colleagues, their studies have shown that even young women who are raising a child alone can escape poverty if they delay having a second child. Delay it until they finish their education, delay it until they have been trained for a job, delay it until they have some job experience, Brooks-Gunn said.

Much of the professor's latest research on children, poverty and federal policy is included in Escape From Poverty: What Makes a Difference for Children? The text, published by Cambridge University Press, is edited by Brooks-Gunn and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale of the University of Chicago.

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