Schools, Skills, and Synapses

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

James J. Heckman makes 15 points in his Schools, Skills, and Synapses (PDF):

  1. Many major economic and social problems such as crime, teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school and adverse health conditions are linked to low levels of skill and ability in society.
  2. In analyzing policies that foster skills and abilities, society should recognize the multiplicity of human abilities.
  3. Currently, public policy in the U.S. focuses on promoting and measuring cognitive ability through IQ and achievement tests. The accountability standards in the No Child Left Behind Act concentrate attention on achievement test scores and do not evaluate important noncognitive factors that promote success in school and life.
  4. Cognitive abilities are important determinants of socioeconomic success.
  5. So are socioemotional skills, physical and mental health, perseverance, attention, motivation, and self confidence. They contribute to performance in society at large and even help determine scores on the very tests that are commonly used to measure cognitive achievement.
  6. Ability gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged open up early in the lives of children.
  7. Family environments of young children are major predictors of cognitive and socioemotional abilities, as well as a variety of outcomes such as crime and health.
  8. Family environments in the U.S. and many other countries around the world have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
  9. Experimental evidence on the positive effects of early interventions on children in disadvantaged families is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms child outcomes.
  10. If society intervenes early enough, it can improve cognitive and socioemotional abilities and the health of disadvantaged children.
  11. Early interventions promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity and reduce teenage pregnancy.
  12. These interventions are estimated to have high benefit-cost ratios and rates of return.
  13. As programs are currently configured, interventions early in the life cycle of disadvantaged children have much higher economic returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, tuition subsidies or expenditure on police.
  14. Life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill and skill cross-fosters motivation. If a child is not motivated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, it will fail in social and economic life. The longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.
  15. A major refocus of policy is required to capitalize on knowledge about the life cycle of skill and health formation and the importance of the early years in creating inequality in America, and in producing skills for the workforce.

Arnold Kling says that “Heckman is one of the most careful researchers on the topic, and this paper is an outstanding summary of his findings.” He emphasizes a few points:

An important inference to draw from the paper is that trying to reduce economic inequality by, say, subsidizing more young people to go to college, is likely to be very ineffective. Even interventions at the primary school level are mostly too late.
One of Heckman’s themes is that while IQ is difficult to change with intervention, it is possible to affect what he calls socioemotional skills, and those in turn will affect performance on test scores and overall achievement.

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