That standardized test scores can accurately predict whether a student will attend college, be gainfully employed, and be successful in life have become the bulwark of educational policy in this country. How kids “measure up” on tests are linked not only to teacher performance evaluations, but also to determinations of whether or not a school is considered successful or a failure under No Child Left Behind. But standardized tests don’t tell the whole story about a student. In fact, some researchers now argue that a student’s grades are better predictors of overall success in life than standardized scores. Those seemingly intangible factors which keep a student in school and persevering—resilience, self-control, and grit--may be far more important in the long run than short-term mastery of course content.
Those clusters of skills that keep students in high school or help them earn better grades have been labeled by economists as non-cognitive skills, by psychologists as personality traits, and by neuroscientists as executive function. And scientists believe that unlike innate traits like intelligence, which are measured by IQ tests and generally remain a static number, these non-cognitive skills can be taught. The implications for teaching these skills can be huge. In particular, Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, suggests that mastery of these skills can counteract the effects of poverty for some students.
We are all familiar with the so-called achievement gap, where children raised in poverty overall do poorly in school or on standardized tests. Chaotic home lives and dysfunctional families create high stress for these kids as can be measured by their increased levels of cortisol or adrenaline (they are in a perpetual fight or flight response). And functional brain scans demonstrate that children who have been abused or who live in great stress have measurably smaller pre-frontal cortexes--the site in the brain associated with self-control, certain types of reasoning and memory, attention, and executive function—all skills necessary to be successful in school. Basically, it’s not the lack of resources in a child’s home which dictate that he will do poorly in school—it’s his levels of stress as he grapples with uncertainty and disorder. One University of Virginia law school professor has gone so far as to argue that federal education law should be changed to reflect that poverty is disabling to a child.
So how can these non-cognitive skills can be taught in a classroom? The National Center for Education Research studied a variety of school-based character development programs from the 1980s and 1990s and found that they were largely ineffective in changing students’ social and emotional competence, behaviors, and academic performance. Paul Tough acknowledges that we lack ideal models for teaching these traits and that some of the ones he feels are most effective are not-school based and instead rely on coaches or mentors. Additionally, Mr. Tough argues that some of this work needs to occur at a very young age, even before the child starts school.
A report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research titled, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance,” examines the literature in an effort to determine in a scientific fashion how teachers can help teens to develop non-cognitive skills, namely; academic behaviors, academic perseverance, academic mindsets, learning strategies and social skills. The report ultimately outlines five key learning strategies: study skills, metacognitive strategies, self-regulated learning time management, and goal-setting. How these non-cognitive factors interact with one another, the context (school and classroom) in which they can be developed, and what the critical “levers” are to improving grades are all considered. Ultimately, teachers need guidance an how to translate the research into practice within the classroom.
Not every child raised in poverty is doomed to remain in poverty, but the cards are stacked heavily against the child. But this new research and theories offer new hope for these children. According to a broadcast this past September on This American Life, from which most of the information in this blog comes, 87% of students in the Chicago public schools are low-income. Very few of these students can realistically aspire to getting a college degree because the reality is that only 8% Chicago high school freshman will go on to receive a four-year college degree. But by teaching these non-cognitive skills, as James Heckman said, we have the potential to shape human capability, not just provide financial handouts. Teachers can’t cure poverty, but perhaps they will have additional tools in their efforts to effect change in the lives of their lower-income students. The work of Mr. Tough, Mr. Heckman, and others may prove very important in this effort.