Research and Policy - Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education

The New Public: “Cognitive” vs. “Non-Cognitive” Skills
and the Limits of High School Interventions
Most current education policies focus heavily on
boosting a narrow set of so-called “cognitive” skills, students’
knowledge of reading and mathematics, in particular – with
little attention to other subjects or skills. They largely ignore
other subjects and abilities. This “reform” agenda ignores
decades of research showing that education must nurture a
broader set of skills and knowledge to be effective. Recent
economic studies affirm that children develop multiple
domains in tandem. And neuroscience research confirms that
place an image, maybe from the film
cognitive skills develop and interact with evolving social, emotional,
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The “reform” agenda also is fundamentally disconnected from
the brief.
expected of public education. The Founding Fathers saw public schools
as the institution that would
create a civically engaged populace with common values and a sense of history, as well as impart
skills and knowledge. Modern-day market demands echo those broader goals. According to surveys,
employers seek workers with “noncognitive” skills and traits like problem-solving, critical thinking,
persistence, teamwork, and capacity for oral communication. And parents asked what they want
their children’s schools to deliver cite a broad, rich mixture of academic and nonacademic skills,
especially a love of learning, creativity, critical thinking, good values, and physical and emotional
health. They want schools to enable their children to thrive not just academically, but in life. Most
courts that have weighed in on the issue have emphasized the broad-based citizenship skills that
policies largely ignore.
By highlighting the foundational importance of these often-ignored noncognitive skills, the
documentary film The New Public encourages new directions in education policy. The film depicts a
class of demoralized students who join a new school hoping to knit back together lives torn apart by
past personal and school experiences. The dedicated teachers clearly understand how their students’
capacity for attention, ability to control emotions, and effective communication with authority figures
affect their academic progress. Indeed, the teachers draw on their own experiences to structure the
new school to address their students’ needs directly. The result is some real breakthroughs with
students who would otherwise have dropped out. In a few cases, kids who probably would not have
graduated from other schools go on to college and appear likely to succeed. Teachers’ help with
dealing with adversity and balancing academic skills and emotions probably was a big factor, the film
Even in these best of circumstances, however, many students continue to fall through the
cracks. And the teachers in the film recognize the need revisit some of their earlier strategies and to
tweak them. Therein lies what is perhaps the film’s second key lesson: Even with the best intentions,
the most devoted teachers, visionary leaders, and a well-tailored curriculum, high school is too late to
save some students who have experienced many years of failure and disengagement. Interventions at
later times often require extraordinary resources and intensiveness. The film also illustrates that
there is no final “fix”; teachers and schools must continually learn, and none will succeed entirely.
Brief research findings
Noncognitive skills are the foundation for learning. A growing body of research at the confluence of
multiple disciplinesi highlights the importance of noncognitive skills as predictors of learning. A metaanalysis of socio-emotional learning interventions found that participating students exhibited higher
achievement.ii Ongoing research conducted at the Economic Policy Institute suggests that noncognitive
skills improve cognitive performance, which, in turn, further boosts noncognitive skills. Beyond school,
noncognitive skills influence later earnings.iii In general, then, as The New Public shows, these skills are
predictive of success in life.iv
Early intervention matters. Research from multiple
disciplines confirms that critical connections and
foundations for learning are established long before
kindergarten. vvi The capacity to trust, to interact with
others, and to translate experiences into knowledge are
among fundamental building blocks for learning set in place
in these early years.vii The recent surge of interest in
ensuring that children read at grade level by third grade
(when they transition from “learning to read” to “reading to
learn”) reflects a reality illustrated in the film: Students who
Source: Heckman 2008ix
have not yet mastered the basics by third grade often face
insurmountable odds.viii In addition to not learning to read, years of “failure” have ingrained in these
students the belief that they cannot succeed. With each year of “failure,” efforts to overcome these odds
require increasing amounts of personal, time, and economic resources.
How education policy needs to change
Development of noncognitive skills must be a fundamental goal of education
 Policies must better support parents’ work to nurture children’s social and emotional capacities
 Social-emotional learning must also be a central focus of schools and embedded in curriculums
 Focus on a broader portfolio of assessment tools that incorporate noncognitive development
 Enact policies to engage and re-engage at-risk students, especially at the middle and high-school
levels, through measures that target student motivation and enhance school climate.
 Advance alternative disciplinary policies that address the emotional challenges behind problem
behaviors and that keep students in school.
Education policy must prioritize preventive, foundation-laying over remediation/catch-up
 Federal policies should support and enhance state-level investments in early childhood development
 Ensure intensive, enriching, holistic, “literacy-soaked” curriculum, classrooms in early years
Think more broadly.
 About “expert” input: Learn from and structure school based on educators’ experiences.
 About school reform: Engage parents and students in a multifaceted, comprehensive educational
improvement process.
 About research: Reconnect policy with evidence based on real-life experiences and research.
Almlund, M., A.L. Duckworth, J.J. Heckman, and T.D. Kautz (2011). "Personality Psychology and Economics." Handbook of the economics of
education. Amsterdam: Elsevier, and Borghans, L., A.L. Duckworth, J.J. Heckman, and B. ter Weel (2008). "The Economics and Psychology of
Personality Traits." Journal of Human Resources 43, no. 4 (Fall): 972-1059.
ii Durlak, J. A., R. P. Weissberg, A. B. Dymnicki, R. D. Taylor, and K. B. Schellinger (2011). "The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional
Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions." Child Development 82, no. 1: 405-32
iii Gintis, Herbert (1971). "Education, Technology, and the Characteristics of Worker Productivity." American Economic Review 61, no. 2: 266-79.
iv Heckman, James J, and Tim Kautz (2012). "Hard Evidence on Soft Skills." Labour Economics.
v Hart, Betty and Risley, Todd R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of American Children.
vi Shonkoff, Jack P. & Deborah A. Phillips (eds) (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. National
Academies Press.
vii Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. In Brief: The Science of Early Childhood Development.
viii Annie E. Casey Foundation (2011). Third Grade Reading Success Matters.
ix James J. Heckman & Lance J. Lochner & Petra E. Todd (2008). "Earnings Functions and Rates of Return," Journal of Human Capital, University
of Chicago Press, vol. 2(1), pages 1-31.