Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAfrican American children may have reduced verbal ability compared to other children to a degree that is roughly equivalent to missing a year in school, according to a recently published paper. Is this evidence of a racial difference?

The study by Sampson et.al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences included more than 200 children aged 6-12 living in Chicago, and followed these children over seven years. The study controlled for poverty, and interestingly, poverty was not found to be a good predictor of differences in verbal ability.

The researchers consider the “Bell Curve” hypothesis, that “cognitive ability, or what they more generally consider the underlying dimension of intelligence [intelligence quotient (IQ)], is an important explanation for inequality in American society, and that its sources are largely genetic.” They point out that research on home environment and poverty explain some of the purported racial differences, but that very little research has been done on the effects of neighborhood and the racially based segregating effects of society.

They argue that severely disadvantaged neighborhoods involve repressed communication infrastructures (and other factors) that impair cognitive development in verbal areas. The study shows that a key variable affecting cognitive ability was “concentrated disadvantage” … a characteristic of neighborhoods, especially segregated neighborhoods.

The meat of the argument is as follows:

We hypothesize that residing in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood cumulatively impedes the development of academically relevant verbal ability in children. The theoretical notion underlying our work is that spatial disadvantage is encompassed not in a single concurrent characteristic but rather in a synergistic composite of social factors that mark the qualitatively distinct aspect of growing up in truly disadvantaged neighborhoods… To consider only neighborhood poverty as the causal treatment of interest is too narrow, because poverty is strongly associated with other ecological characteristics, such as percentage of single-parent families, percentage of family members on welfare and unemployed, and racial segregation … We leave for future research to investigate potential mediating mechanisms; the logically prior or first-order task is to assess the causal status of the link between concentrated disadvantage and verbal ability.

And the conclusion:

…exposure to concentrated disadvantage in Chicago appears to have had detrimental and long-lasting consequences for black children’s cognitive ability, rivaling in magnitude the effects of missing 1 year of schooling (3). Policy discussions of investment in children are to be applauded (1), but if our study is any guide, these discussions should be expanded to include a more comprehensive approach to investing in and thereby improving the neighborhood contexts to which children are exposed as they develop cognitive skills crucial for later achievement in life.


Robert J. Sampson{dagger},{ddagger}, Patrick Sharkey§, and Stephen W. Raudenbush (2007) Durable effects of concentrated disadvantage on verbal ability among African-American children. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0710189104. Open Access Article.

Comments

  1. #1 Billy
    December 20, 2007

    Did the researchers also check the teachers?

    When I was in middle school and high school in western Maryland, every teacher in both schools was white. The few African-American students in the school were treated very differently than the white students. When a teacher asked them a question, the phrasing was simpler, the vocabulary simpler, and the question itself was easier. I do not think this was conscious on the part of the teachers, but preconceptions by white teachers toward African-American students could, possibly, stunt cognitive abilities.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 20, 2007

    Billy, that is a valid point, and that sort of thing has been looked at (though not in this study) and it matters.

  3. #3 Woodlass
    December 26, 2007

    It’s interesting, though, that so much innovative brilliance with language — perhaps more than any other ethnic group with Eng. as its native language — comes from the African-Amer. community, in a lot of cases from the most disadvantaged groups within that community

    As a music teacher I did a whole lot of private study last year with rhyming and the directions its taken (battling, freestyle, Bronx style, LA style, etc.). How do they do it? How do their minds work to make language come out this way? The rhythms, new word usages and connotations, and the philosophies generating that poetry couldn’t in a million years come out of my brain. I am not a member of that community. Fell in love with it again, and have respect the energy source and the innovation, the common sense of it all within that artistic context.

    I also experienced something fascinating that I would like to explore further at some point, as it relates to Afr. Amer. kids who listen to these rhythms not only on their iPods but in the language rhythms of their environment.

    After this short immersion in freestyle videos, commentaries and poetry, I returned to a novel I was in the middle of and found that I couldn’t get through the page. I was stuck in a loop. The words weren’t coming into comprehension, and I kept reading and reading the same paragraphs, nothing was “sticking.” The words on that page were not fitting into the beats or the rhythms of that other language that I had been recently steeping myself in, the rhyming. The patterns and stylistics of the rhyming texts were somehow lying dormant in the back of my mind, and the rhythms of the standard fiction text I was now trying to read were just not dissonant with it. I found I had to force myself to get back into the “groove” of the standard English. If I was experiencing that dissonance, and I only worked in that other language environment for just a couple of weeks, can you imagine the dissonance the kids feel when they go back and forth between the two kinds of English every day between home and school?

    I think we are taking for granted that we can jump back and forth between these two kinds of language just because we understand the meaning of each word. There are really big differences, and we don’t understand the cognitive aspects of trying to juggle both kinds of English throughout the day. Because they are both worthy languages, but there are definitely two of them, not one.

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