Title

Genomics of Education in Education: ELSI Concerns about Genomic Prediction in Educational Settings

Publication Date:
Updated:

Collection Editor(s):

Collection Editor(s)
Name & Degree
Lucas J. Matthews, PhD
Work Title/Institution
Assistant Professor of Bioethics, Columbia University; Presidential Scholar, The Hastings Center; Research Scientist, Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene
Name & Degree
Natalie White
Work Title/Institution
Research Assistant, Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene
M.S. in Clinical Research Methods Candidate, Fordham University

Introduction

Polygenic scores (PGS) for educational traits and outcomes (e.g., math ability, reading ability, and educational attainment) are currently available to the public via direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies, such as GenePlaza. A PGS is a DNA-based genetic predictor in the sense that it places an individual’s sample of DNA on a spectrum from low to high. So, in theory, people with a high percentile rank PGS score for educational attainment would be likely to accrue more years of schooling in their lifetime than people with lower ranked scores. Similarly, children with low PGS scores for math ability would be less likely to do well in math classes than children with high scores. 

Although polygenic prediction of highly complex educational traits and outcomes—which are known to be strongly influenced by social and environmental factors—are extremely limited in predictive accuracy, high profile research scientists have already begun to entertain potential applications in educational settings. Perhaps the most sensational among these has been Robert Plomin’s call for “precision education,” in which he suggests that technology will soon be able “to use DNA ‘chips’ to…

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Polygenic scores (PGS) for educational traits and outcomes (e.g., math ability, reading ability, and educational attainment) are currently available to the public via direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies, such as GenePlaza. A PGS is a DNA-based genetic predictor in the sense that it places an individual’s sample of DNA on a spectrum from low to high. So, in theory, people with a high percentile rank PGS score for educational attainment would be likely to accrue more years of schooling in their lifetime than people with lower ranked scores. Similarly, children with low PGS scores for math ability would be less likely to do well in math classes than children with high scores. 

Although polygenic prediction of highly complex educational traits and outcomes—which are known to be strongly influenced by social and environmental factors—are extremely limited in predictive accuracy, high profile research scientists have already begun to entertain potential applications in educational settings. Perhaps the most sensational among these has been Robert Plomin’s call for “precision education,” in which he suggests that technology will soon be able “to use DNA ‘chips’ to predict strengths and weaknesses for individual pupils and to use this information to put personalized strategies in place for them” (See Asbury and Plomin, 2014 below). Think of a child’s individualized education plan (IEP), only with the inclusion of PGS for math and reading ability. Proponents of potential applications of polygenic prediction in educational settings suggest genetic tests could be used to identify children who are likely to struggle in specific areas so that they can be delivered educational interventions to help “lift them up.”

Although some may be quick to dismiss calls for precision education as sensationalist and unlikely to come to fruition, we think it is of the utmost importance that the potential intersection of genetics and education is taken very seriously before these ideas are applied to practice or policy. For one, the use of genetic predictors in educational settings could contribute to unnecessary stress and self-doubt among students about their intelligence or capabilities. Moreover, dissemination of test results could lead to discrimination against children with disappointing results, perhaps through stereotyping, isolation, and stigma. Further, fruitful applications of PGS in education rely heavily on predictive accuracy. Although optimistic behavioral geneticists suggest that predictive utility will come eventually, at present, the accuracy of PGS for educational outcomes is so limited that they are practically useless for predicting the educational performance of individuals. Worse, the portability of these genetic predictors is a serious problem. Because the data used to derive the scores is contributed almost entirely by individuals of European ancestry, polygenic scores are most predictive in individuals of European descent, and least predictive in those with African population genetic ancestry. 

Major caveats regarding predictive and explanatory limitations aside, a significant portion of ELSI scholarship has already begun to consider potential applications of the genomics of education in education carefully. The following collection includes some of the seminal works in which the notion of precision education is first defined and promoted, as well as historical and conceptual perspectives from the rather long-standing study of the application of genetics in educational settings. Another significant portion of scholarship has considered the practical utility of the very idea itself: are polygenic scores predictive enough to be useful in educational settings? Even if polygenic scores were highly predictive (which they currently are not) would their application in educational settings be as beneficial as their proponents suggest?

Another significant portion of ELSI scholarship on this topic focuses on potential harmful outcomes—not just of applications of genetic tests in educational settings, but merely, individual exposures to test results. Given the longstanding concern in educational psychology regarding the capacity of teacher’s expectations to influence student performance—a type of self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes referred to as the “Pygmalion Effect”—there is a parallel concern regarding the potential for disappointing polygenic score results to give rise to similarly harmful self-fulfilling prophecies. There are similarly important questions about how individuals (and parents) internalize the results of genetic information for education-relevant traits and outcomes, such as ADHD. 

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Calls for “Precision Education”
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Teachers on the Front Lines
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Practical Utility
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Potential Psychosocial Impacts, Misunderstanding, and Misuse
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ELSIhub Collections are essential reading lists on fundamental or emerging topics in ELSI, curated and explained by expert Collection Editors, often paired with ELSI trainees. This series assembles materials from cross-disciplinary literatures to enable quick access to key information.

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