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Radical Eyes for Equity: The Science of Scarcity and Sleep That Education Reformers (Want To) Ignore

In the middle of the Obama years of education reform, I discovered and cited often Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir use the term “scarcity” for the conditions associated with living in poverty and “slack” for what most people would call “privilege.”

This book is an overview of the scientific research base around the consequence of being poor. This point has always struck me as incredibly important:

And to focus on the kernel point related to bandwidth: “Being poor…reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep.”

Imagine, if you will, that this is likely magnified for children—and when they are younger, even more so.

Now let’s place that science on scarcity into a recent student on sleep and students:

Although numerous survey studies have reported connections between sleep and cognitive function, there remains a lack of quantitative data using objective measures to directly assess the association between sleep and academic performance. In this study, wearable activity trackers were distributed to 100 students in an introductory college chemistry class (88 of whom completed the study), allowing for multiple sleep measures to be correlated with in-class performance on quizzes and midterm examinations. Overall, better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep correlated with better grades. However, there was no relation between sleep measures on the single night before a test and test performance; instead, sleep duration and quality for the month and the week before a test correlated with better grades. Sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance. These findings provide quantitative, objective evidence that better quality, longer duration, and greater consistency of sleep are strongly associated with better academic performance in college. Gender differences are discussed.

[abstract] Okano, K., Kaczmarzyk, J.R., Dave, N. et al. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 16 (2019).

Also focus on this: “Sleep measures accounted for nearly 25% of the variance in academic performance.”

Next imagine that children living in poverty are likely to be under the weight of poverty (similar to sleep deprivation) and to experience actually sleep deprivation.

And if we add some other recent data, that children accidentally born in a month earlier than their peers also contributes to variances in test scores (the most common proxy for learning), and data created under the value-added methods era (teaching impact on measurable student learning is about 1% to 14%), then we are being confronted again with the problems associated with test-based accountability and in-school-only education reform.

Poor children don’t need to be “fixed” (give them growth mindset and grit) and their teachers don’t need to have higher expectations, or higher quality, or the “science of reading”; poor children need their living conditions changed so that the negative consequences of scarcity (such as indirect and direct sleep deprivation) allow them the opportunities to learn and excel.

Almost all traditional education reform remains laser focused on blaming children, teachers, and schools in order to justify yet another round of in-school education reform.

We must not ignore the full and complicated science of learning just because it is inconvenient and fails to support the false stories we have almost always embraced.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...