The Academic “Success Sequence” – Get Lucky at Birth, Mostly

Matt Bruenig critiques the concept of the “Success Sequence” quite convincingly here. There are a lot of just-so stories in our culture about what it takes to be a success. Typically, these stories are confusing the lines of causation all over the place, failing to see that confounds and covariates are doing most of the explaining.

I sometimes get anxious emails from parents, wondering what they need to do to make sure their children are going to be OK academically. And because of networking effects and the nature of who reads this small-audience education blog, I can mostly tell them accurately that they don’t really have to do much of anything; they’ve already set up their children to succeed simply by virtue of having them. Here’s the real Academic Success Sequence:

  1. Be born to college-educated parents.1
  2. Be born to middle-class-or-above parents.
  3. Be born without a severe cognitive or developmental disability.
  4. Don’t be exposed to lead in infancy or early childhood.
  5. Don’t be born severely premature or at very low birth weight.
  6. Don’t be physically abused or neglected.

If you are one of those lucky enough to tick off these boxes, congratulations. You’ve got the vast majority of the accounted-for variance breaking in your favor. Is everything accounted for? No. We’ve got a lot of variance in cognitive and educational outcomes that never seems to be systematically explainable. I actually think that’s a good thing – perfect determinism is contrary to the fight for human meaning – but it’s important to say that this variance is not only not currently accounted for, it is likely never-to-be accounted for. This is what the behavioral geneticists call the “gloomy prospect“: the possibility that large portions of unaccounted-for variation in psychological traits like intelligence are the product of truly non-systematic events, like particular psychological traumas, getting a concussion, meeting the right person, having the right conversation at the right time….

Thus it’s the case that some people can “win” in all of the above categories and still suffer from real hardship in life, just as some can be on the wrong side in many or all of them and flourish. Still: if you’re an educated, employed parent raising a healthy child in a stable home environment, the odds are strongly in the favor of that child’s eventual academic success. Of course, none of this stuff is stuff that individuals can control, and much of it is not stuff that parents can control either – particularly given that the parents were once the children whose outcomes were similarly conditioned….

Now many people will say, well yeah, of course these things matter. But what do we do beyond that stuff? How do we set our kids up to succeed? I’m not going to say that nothing you do matters. But in terms of moving the quantitative indicators that people are, sadly, most fixated on are stubborn and hard to move. Some things appear to work – intensive one-on-one or small-group tutoring seems to me to have the most promising research literature – but we’re playing with small effect sizes here, particularly in comparison to the influence of the factors listed above. Of course you want to bend as much of the variance in a positive direction as you can. But the effects tend to be so small, and thus so subject to being offset by minor random fluctuations in uncontrolled variation, that it’s just not worth worrying about them. The best thing you can do for your kid is to be present and kind and supportive and then stop stressing out.

The great irony is that we’ve seen this growing culture of panic on the part of bourgie parents about their child rearing practices at the exact historical moment that we’ve learned conclusively that these practices just don’t mean very much.

In particular, the Baby Einstein stuff, trips to museums, violin lessons, edutainment software – my understanding is that there just is little to no rigorous research that shows that this stuff works to move the needle on SAT scores or GPA or similar, once you control for the kinds of confounds listed above. Does that mean that this stuff doesn’t matter, that you shouldn’t do them? Of course not. Children should all have the opportunity to lead intellectually enriched, challenging, and varied lives. I’m very grateful that I had that chance myself. But you need to appreciate them for their own sake and on their own terms, not as a means to goose test scores. And obsessing over getting your kid into the right preschool is pointless too, as is worrying over selective high schools. It may make you feel like the right kind of parent to fixate on this stuff; it may, more cynically, help you feel competitive with other parents. But extant evidence suggests it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving your child commitment, love, structure, and a moral education, because life is about so much more than where you go to college.

Of course, many people in our society are not lucky enough to have been born into the kind of advantaged position described above. Given that fact, you’d think that our system would be set up to minimize the impact of these unchosen factors. Instead we work to maximize their impact and call the resulting system “meritocracy.”


  1. Some, but not all, of this controlled variation stems from the fact that years of education is a fairly linear predictor of IQ, and like all cognitive traits IQ is significantly heritable. College-educated parents also helps because of heritability moderating effects.

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