Reconsidering the Achievement Gap: An Interview with Monica Ellwood-Lowe

Monica Ellwood-Lowe

Monica Ellwood-Lowe is a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology whose research focuses on differences between outcomes for students of different socioeconomic status, as well as the societal barriers that might hinder student success. Ellwood-Lowe tries to answer such questions as, what skills do children develop when they come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes, even in the face of societal barriers to success? Do children’s brains simply adapt to their respective environments?

Ellwood-Lowe is co-mentored by Professors Mahesh Srinivasan and Silvia Bunge. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University. Monica’s work is supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Fellowship, and the Greater Good Science Center.

For this episode of the Matrix podcast, Matrix Content Curator Julia Sizek spoke with Ellwood-Lowe about her recent research on the topic of children’s cognitive performance, and how we might think about removing barriers to children’s success. 

Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. More episodes of the Matrix Podcast can be found on this page.

A transcript of the interview is included below (edited for length and clarity).

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. Today, we’re recording at the ethnic studies changemaker studio, which is our recording partner on campus. I’m your host Julia Sizek. And today, our guest is Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a PhD candidate in psychology.

Monica’s research focuses on understanding societal barriers to student success and how to understand differences in student outcomes comparing students of different socioeconomic status. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Monica Ellwood-Lowe: Thanks for having me. So nice to be here.

Sizek: Let’s start out with one of the big concepts or ideas in this kind of study, which is the achievement gap. Like, first, what is the achievement gap? And how has it typically been studied in psychology?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, so the idea of an “achievement gap” and I might put quotes around that just for those who are listening is the idea that kids who grow up in higher socioeconomic status homes, so homes where their parents are more highly educated or have higher incomes, tend to do better in school than kids who grow up in lower socioeconomic status homes. I look at it in terms of socioeconomic status or SES, but people also study it in terms of racial and ethnic differences. But it’s this idea that kid’s test scores even by the time they enter kindergarten are higher when they come from higher SES backgrounds.

Sizek: Yeah, so you mentioned that people use tests to measure this. What are examples of tests beyond the SAT, which I assume they aren’t administering to kindergartners?

Ellwood-Lowe: That’s a great question. So even before kindergarten, lots of researchers measure children’s vocabulary. And so what they do is they look at how many words kids understand and produce. Starting even as early as 18 months, you can get some indices of the amount of words kids know.

But one thing I really want to emphasize about this is that vocabulary doesn’t have to mean the same thing as achievement. And one of the things that I think psychology does not do well compared to a lot of other disciplines is when we think about these big issues, like school performance or outcomes, we’re really focused on these individual level metrics, like vocabulary. And when you think about how big these issues are and how long-standing they are, I think it’s really important to zoom out and to think about the structural factors that are playing into all of this.

Sizek: Yeah, so in addition to vocabulary, what are some of the other ways that we can try to measure cognitive function or even children’s school performance?

Ellwood-Lowe: That’s a great question. So there are lots of different tests that measure something called children’s executive function, which is supposed to be a unbiased measure of children’s cognitive abilities. It’s gotten a lot of flack for not being unbiased for all sorts of different reasons.

I mean, typically, the people who have created it are white, upper middle class researchers, who have a certain idea of what cognitive performance looks like. But normally, it ends up looking like kids playing games basically, that tell us something about their cognition. So they might be doing some kind of matching game or there’s a measure where they see different sets of patterns and then they’re asked to fill in the missing set.

So what completes this pattern? That’s called the matrix reasoning task. Those are the kinds of tests that we usually use.

Sizek: Yeah, so you get the kids into some sort of lab setting. They’re doing these little games. You’re figuring out how they are doing their reasoning, how their brains are working. What are the ways that psychologists use to explain the differences in cognitive function amongst these kids?

Ellwood-Lowe: Great question. So that’s been something that psychologists have been really interested in. So we administer these tests and we find differences between kids from different backgrounds. And then psychologists come in and they want to know, why do we see these differences?

And when they’re happening even before school, it seems like it’s something that might be happening in the home. So psychologists, one of the things that people have really looked at is the amount of language that parents are directing to their children. So they’ll look at the very specific form of speech where parents are talking directly to their kid.

And this doesn’t include speech like parents talking to other siblings or parents talking to other adults. And that’s one of the things that we have found really correlates with how many words kids end up knowing. But I think one of the things that’s really limiting about this is that children are perfectly capable of learning from those other forms of speech. We just think that, that kind of learning might be happening more later rather than earlier.

Sizek: Yeah, so this is what people popularly call the word gap. And you actually worked on a study about this concept and what it does for how we think about children’s performance. What did you learn in that study?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, so like you said, this is popularized as something called the word gap. It was popularized in 1995 by Hart and Risley. And they did this huge study . And what they ended up concluding is that by the time kids are three years old, kids from higher SES homes have heard 30 million more words than kids from lower SES homes.

There are a lot of issues with this metric. It’s definitely come under fire. For one thing, we know that the gap can’t possibly be that big from more recent measures. For another thing, these were just numbers that were extrapolated from hour-long recordings in the home. And we now have better ways of quantifying kids all day language environments.

And for a third, this was, again, only looking at that very specific type of child-directed speech. And when you zoom out and look at the entire language environment, that gap totally disappears. That said, the general idea that higher SES parents talk more to their kids than lower SES parents has been replicated a lot.

A lot of different researchers even all around the world find this general phenomenon. And so that really led us to wonder, why is this such a stable phenomenon? Lots of researchers have looked at individual level mechanisms that might be promoting this. Like maybe higher SES parents have more parenting knowledge, whatever that is.

And so that leads them to talk to their kids more. And so maybe the solution to this is let’s go into the home and train lower SES parents to talk more to their kids. But when you think about just how broad this problem is, it’s been documented, really, since the 1950s in the US. It’s been documented again all over the world.

It’s been documented in rural areas and urban areas. It doesn’t seem like these kinds of individual level explanations can really carry that much weight. So we were interested in zooming out to think about, structurally, what does it mean to be lower SES?

I mean, when you think about socioeconomic status, this isn’t a characteristic of an individual. It really has to do with their access to societal resources. So this was a first pass at looking at, how might these structural barriers that lower SES parents are facing actually influence the amount that they can talk to their kid.

And so we focused specifically for this study on financial strain. So maybe just having parents think about finances is actually quite taxing and leads them to talk to their kid less.

Sizek: Yeah. So just in this financial stressors and figuring out how we can measure this, obviously, one thing you can do is in the laboratory setting. What did you do in the clinic to try to figure out what is going on with people thinking about financial stress and how that might play into how they talk to their kids?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, so this was a sneaky study on our part. What we were interested in is whether just the experience of being reminded of recent financial strain or not having enough resources would lead parents to talk less to their kids, regardless of their SES. So we actually brought higher SES families into the lab because these are the families that researchers in the past have said have the parenting knowledge to talk more to their kids or have whatever individual level characteristics might lead them to talk more to their kid.

And we assigned half of these parents to fill out a survey about times that they didn’t have enough resources in the last week or resources were scarce. So some of them did talk about finances, but they talked about a range of things. And then we assigned the other half to fill out a control survey, where they just reported on things they did in the last week.

And then after they filled out this survey, we left them in a room alone with their kid for 10 minutes under the guise of getting a second survey for them to fill out. We would say, like, oh no, we just realized the survey isn’t loaded. We’re going to have to go run to the other room and load it.

And so we would leave parent and child alone in a room together for 10 minutes. And we gave them a fun puzzle box toy for the kid to play with. So parents really had the opportunity to engage in speech with their kid.

They could narrate what was happening with the puzzle box toy. They could explain certain pieces of it. Or they could just sit quietly and sit on their phone and let the child play. And so we were interested in whether parents who had been thinking about their own experiences of scarcity would talk less during those 10 minutes than parents who just thought about things they did over the last week.

Sizek: Yeah. So just to give us a little more detail, like how many people did you bring in to the lab to ask these questions? And then what did you find once people thought about their experiences of scarcity?

Ellwood-Lowe: We brought in about 70 people to the lab. And what we found, I would call these very preliminary results. It’s a small sample. And it was our first pass at running the study.

But what we found in general is that parents who thought about financial scarcity in particular talked less to their kid than parents who thought about all other forms of scarcity. And these parents didn’t differ in their income, in their education. They were all the same on these kinds of individual characteristics. But something about maybe reflecting on financial scarcity might have led them to talk less to their kids.

Sizek: Yeah, so then let’s think about this outside of the lab. How might one measure this outside of the lab setting?

Ellwood-Lowe: There are a lot of different tools researchers have used to measure this. One of them is called a LENA recording device. So what this is, is it’s just a tiny little recording device that sits in kid’s front pockets. And you turn it on at the start of the day and then it records the entire day for 16 hours.

And what it has the capacity to do is just for that full 16 hour recording, it quantifies the number of adult words near the child, the number of child vocalizations, and the number of back and forths between the adult and the child, what we call conversational turns where maybe the kid says something and the adult responds.

Sizek: Great. So how would you measure using this LENA tool? How would you measure whether financial stress might be affecting a kid or a parent?

Ellwood-Lowe: That’s a great question. So that’s what we’re really interested in doing to follow up on this lab study. You can imagine that just bringing families into the lab and saying, OK, think about scarcity. That isn’t the most externally valid, meaning it doesn’t necessarily hold up in the real world.

So what we really wanted to do next was make use of already available data and see if we could find any evidence for this phenomenon in the wild, so to speak. So we used these LENA recording devices that other researchers around the country had already collected. And we used a few data sets where families had completed these LENA recorders multiple times over the course of a period of time.

So they ended up accidentally– they varied randomly in where in the month they fell. So some families recorded a couple times at the beginning of the month, a couple times at the end of the month, just in random order. The reason we cared about that is because there’s a fair amount of research in economics showing that families feel more financial strain at the end of the month compared to the rest of the month.

So we thought, if this was a real phenomenon, we should see dips in parent’s speech to their children at the end of the month when they’re likely to be experiencing the most financial strain. And what was really cool about this is because we had these multiple recordings for a single family, rather than comparing families to one another, we could really look within a family and see, do families talk less at times of the month that they’re experiencing more financial strain?

Sizek: Wow, that’s a really amazing tool to have at your disposal. So what did you find?

Ellwood-Lowe: So again, I would call this pretty preliminary evidence. But we found some possible evidence that parents do indeed talk less to their kids at the end of the month. It looked like what was really affected was this specific form of child-directed speech or conversational turns.

So there were fewer conversational turns back and forth, vocalizations between parent and child at the end of the month for a lot of these families. But things like the overall number of words adults were saying didn’t change. So it seemed like it might be specific to child-directed speech.

Sizek: Yeah, so they might be having conversations with other members of the family, but they aren’t thinking about talking to their kid or making sure that their kid is learning new words all the time.

Ellwood-Lowe: Exactly. And I should say that many of the kids in this study and in all of the studies that we’ve done are really young. So think about kids in the first couple of years of their lives, they’re not the funnest conversational partners. They don’t have that much to say. So it can take a little bit more cognitive effort and energy to engage kids at that age.

Sizek: Yeah. And if you’re stressed out that’s exactly the sort of thing that you wouldn’t have the capacity to do.

Ellwood-Lowe: Totally.

Sizek: Yeah, so I think this research about financial stressors obviously plays a role in terms of thinking about the broader research that you’ve also been doing on other aspects of socioeconomic status and how it might affect children’s cognition. So you did another study that uses this fMRI imaging to look at how kids’ brains are working when we ask them questions. Can you just tell us a little bit about the methods of that work?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah. So like you said, we took this finding. So maybe there are some structural reasons that we see differences in kid’s early environments. But then we wanted to know, OK, so a kid is growing up in that kind of environment, so a kid maybe is growing up in a lower SES environment, maybe they’re not hearing as much speech directed to them, maybe they’re getting other kinds of information that are not child-directed speech, we wanted to know how kids in those environments then thrive.

Because you’ll hear in the media that kids need to hear a certain number of words or kids need to be exposed to lots of child-directed speech in the first three years of life. And really, when it comes to language development, that’s not actually true. We’re capable of learning new words throughout our lifetimes.

I think anybody who’s ever started at a new job can identify times that they’ve learned words in later life. So we don’t think these kids are messed up if they’re not hearing lots of speech. But we want to know, what are the ways that they’re then succeeding because it might not be through the same mechanisms as higher SES kids?

So for the next study, like you said, we turn to the brain. And we used what’s called fMRI. So that’s functional magnetic resonance imaging. And it gives us a measure of– basically, we used resting state fMRI.

So what that means is kids sat in the scanner, they didn’t do anything. They just were– they sat there, they were instructed to look at a cross and do nothing else. And the brain never stops working.

So during that time, the brain is activating, things are happening. And we use what is happening in the brain during that time to make an inference about what their typical thought patterns are. So what fMRI allows us to do is it allows us to look at what regions in the brain are activating in synchrony with one another.

So where are neurons firing in the brain? And where are neurons typically firing at the same time as one another?

Sizek: Great. So for those of us who are maybe not experts in the different parts of the brain, what are some of the ways that we typically have thought about brains and how the neurons are firing, I guess, in relation to success or having higher cognitive function?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, so one of the things that we’ve learned about the brain is that there are a lot of different regions in the brain that perform really diverse tasks. But regions typically work together frequently. So we have something called brain networks, which are made up of a whole bunch of regions that typically work together to carry out certain tasks.

And one example of that is something called the frontoparietal brain network. So this is a set of brain regions, typically in the frontal and parietal parts of the brain, as the word would suggest that’s– think about your forehead and the very top of your head, those are where those regions are mostly located. And they are a set of regions that typically work together when we’re doing these externally demanding cognitive tasks.

So if you were filling out some kind of reasoning test, you would typically see a lot of activation from these regions in the frontoparietal brain network. So that’s one that we look to a lot. Another one that we think about, this is a different set of brain regions, we call it the default mode network.

And this is a set of brain regions that really work together. It has its name because people first identified it at rest. And they thought maybe this was the default brain pattern. Like, when you’re not doing anything, these are the regions that are activating.

But we now know they’re really involved in thinking about yourself or thinking about things outside of the here and now. Like, anything that’s really not external but more internal, these are the brain regions that will typically work together to do those kinds of thinking patterns. So these are the two brain networks, the frontoparietal network and the default mode network that we investigated in our next study.

Sizek: Yeah, so typically, if we think about a child having more executive function or cognitive ability, which parts of the brain do we think are doing that or that they’re using more?

Ellwood-Lowe: One of the things that’s been a pretty common finding in the literature, especially among kids, is that as kids grow up, the connection between the frontoparietal network and the default mode network gets smaller. So you can think about what that means, as, say, you are doing a really cognitively demanding task, you’re trying to do this intense reasoning task, lots of researchers think you want then the default mode network to shut down. You want thoughts about yourself to be really quiet.

You want thoughts that have nothing to do with what’s going on to be as distant as possible. So you want less of a connection between the frontoparietal network and the default mode network. And so researchers have indeed found that, that lack of connection develops with age.

So when kids are younger, the two networks work together more. And as they get older, they tend to separate more. And they found that at least among higher SES kids, the more separate those brain networks are, the better they do on cognitive tests. And they found that all the way into adulthood.

Sizek: Yeah, so your research focused on a potential connection between these two networks that we wouldn’t expect for cognitively high-performing kids. What was that connection?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, so what we were interested in is, what’s going on for the kids in poverty who are doing really well on cognitive tests? I think when we think about things like the achievement gap or kids test performance, we end up grouping kids off and saying, higher SES kids or lower SES kids. But there are lots of lower SES kids and in fact, kids who are living in poverty are still performing really highly on these strange cognitive tests. So we thought it would be cool to see what’s going on for them?

Are they achieving this high performance through the same mechanism as higher SES kids? So we went in looking at the connection between these two brain networks I was telling you about, the bilateral frontoparietal network and the default mode network. And we expected, based on all of the research that we had seen, that less of a connection between these two networks would be good for kids in poverty.

So we thought, maybe those kids in poverty who are doing really well just have a really strong lack of connection between these two networks. And what surprised us and what we think is so cool is, we actually found the opposite. So we found this expected negative association for the higher SES kids, which all of the literature had shown before. But for the lower SES kids, we actually found that the kids whose two brain networks were more connected to each other were doing better.

Sizek: Yeah, so why might that be?

Ellwood-Lowe: We don’t know yet. We’re still really trying to figure out what the mechanism might be. But one of the things that we know is that those two brain networks, even in adults, do sometimes work together. So they definitely work together for things like creative thinking.

There are certain kinds of thinking where you want to be both engaging a lot of cognitive control and thinking about things that are outside of the here and now. So you could think about designing something new, that’s a time that those two brain regions would be activated together. They would also be activated together, if you were maybe planning for the future. The future is not right in front of you, but you are planning it.

And so we think that maybe the kids in poverty who are doing better on these cognitive tests are doing so because they’ve really had to adapt to a set of structural constraints that haven’t been set up for them to succeed. And maybe one of the ways that they’re doing that is by thinking outside of the box about how they can succeed or really planning for the future. We actually found that this effect was strongest for kids who were living in more dangerous neighborhoods.

It was strongest for kids who were Black relative to white. And we think that both of these things are evidence of structural barriers to success. So it really points to kids having to adapt in creative ways, if they want to do well on these tests.

Sizek: Yeah, so I think this really shows, I mean, not only how adaptable kids are, but also some of the challenges of how we have traditionally thought about how brains work. Because this is like a new mechanism or a new relationship that we haven’t really considered for children’s brains. What do you think are the implications of this kind of research? And what are the possibilities for other future research in this same realm?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, that’s so important. So the thing about brain imaging research and, really, whenever you read studies about brain development, it’s pretty likely that they were done with kids who are higher SES. So if any of you have ever been in an MRI before, it’s a giant magnet.

It’s not the most inviting machine. It requires a lot of time. It requires a lot of patience. And it requires a lot of trust that the person who’s running the machine is not going to hurt you. And it just happens that higher SES families know more about research.

And they’re more willing to participate and more excited about participating. They have more time to volunteer. Whereas lower SES families, for often good reasons, and again, typically, this ends up correlating with race and ethnicity, don’t have a lot of trust in the research system to take care of them or to accurately report what’s going on for them. So a lot of our studies and a lot of what we know about brain development has really come from this very specific set of kids, whose parents are highly educated, wealthier, live near universities, and excited about the idea of participating in research. And it’s really limited the broader understanding of what healthy brain development really is.

Sizek: Yeah. And also that healthy brain development may not be only one set of things, that we can’t use universal measures to predict what is happening in someone’s resting brain state with how they’re going to perform on this cognitive test.

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah, exactly. One thing we know for sure about the brain is that it’s really plastic. And it changes a lot throughout childhood, but it also continues to change in adulthood. And it’s built to adapt.

I mean, humans have lived in all sorts of different contacts, all sorts of different cultures very successfully for a very long time. And we really think that one of the things that allows us to do that is the flexibility of the brain.

Sizek: So given that you’ve been working largely with children, what do you think are the implications for thinking about the brain’s development beyond children and into adolescence and adulthood?

Ellwood-Lowe: That’s a great question. So this last study I told you about was with 10-year-olds. So they’re just entering adolescence. And I think adolescence is a really cool time because we think that some sensitive periods, that’s what we call times in the brain or times where the brain is very, very sensitive to certain kinds of environmental input, we think that some of those sensitive periods happen during adolescence.

So that might be a time that, actually, these kids are super receptive to new kinds of information. So I think when you think about potential implications, if we were to make schools for adolescents, redesign them in a way that used skill sets they already had, I think that’s one way of thinking about it. But really, just taking a broader view on what it means to be successful and how society can be restructured and how it has been structured in the past.

Sizek: Yeah, so I think– I mean, one of the great potential applications for this research is it really is about that intersection of psychology and other disciplines. Have you made plans on how to work with other disciplines on this kind of research?

Ellwood-Lowe: Yeah. So we’re working a little bit with economists right now here at Berkeley. One of the things that we’re doing thinking back about the first study is, we are actually going to give some families some unconditional cash and see whether that affects their speech to their kids subsequently. That’s one very direct application is just giving parents more money, enough to change their behavior.

And there’s a big national study going on in that realm as well called the baby’s first years project. It’s an unconditional cash transfer study as well. So that’s one future direction. But I think it would be really cool also to pair up with educators and people who are in the schools to think about what kinds of skills kids are developing from all different contexts and how we can best measure that and support that.

Sizek: Yeah. Well, I would love to see the potential policy implications of this research. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today, Monica.

Ellwood-Lowe: Great, thank you so much.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about social science matrix, please visit matrixberkeley.edu.


Listen to more episodes on the Matrix Podcast page, or listen on Apple Podcasts.



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