Science-- there's something for everyone

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Can early reading and math skills predict future earning?

How well do early reading and math ability correlate with success later in life? Better than you might think, according to Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh. They found that reading and math achievement at age seven predicted socioeconomic status (SES) thirty-five years later. 

The study participants included over 18,000 children born the same week in 1958. In 1965, when the kids were seven years old, their parents filled out surveys to determine their childhood SES. The parents provided information on their type of job (professional, skilled or unskilled), whether the family rented or owned their home and how many rooms it contained. 

Also at age seven, the children were rated for math and reading ability, both on standardized tests and by their teachers’ personal evaluations. At age eleven, the kids were given intelligence tests, and at age 16, they were asked about their motivation and perceived ability to do well in school.

Finally, at age 42, the participants were asked how much education they had ultimately completed and to provide their current SES by the same measures indicated above. 

There was a definite correlation between both math and reading ability and SES at age 42. This was true even after accounting for childhood SES and intelligence. If achieving a high SES is your top priority, you'd better hope you were paying attention in second grade.

As usual, I have a few comments about this data. First, correlation is not causation, and Ritchie is the first to point this out. Second, even if the association between early academic skills and future earning potential turns out to be true, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other paths to success. Finally, there’s nothing magical about age seven. Kids in Finland don’t even start formal education until that age, and they have the best educated students in the world. I wonder what the results would have been if reading and math skills at a later age were included. In other words, would reading proficiency at age 12 correlate more or less strongly with future SES than reading ability at age 7?

While I agree that proficiency in math and reading are extremely important, I hope this study won’t be used to further stigmatize students who are not doing well. If this news galvanizes schools to make a greater effort to help students who are struggling, that’s all to the good.


Ritchie, S., & Bates, T. (2013). Enduring Links From Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic Status Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612466268.