Ready To Be Counted: Why Non-Cognitive Skills Must be Incorporated into Ed Policy, Practice

Ready To Be Counted: Why Non-Cognitive Skills Must be Incorporated into Ed Policy, Practice
Story Stream
recent articles

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, co-chair of the Senate Career & Technical Education (CTE) Caucus, looks at Christmas ornament presented to him by a Head Start class for three-year-olds at the Original Walker-Grant school in Fredericksburg, Va., on Tuesday, Dec.15, 2015. Kaine toured the school and spoke about the importance of early learning and the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that will replace No Child Left Behind. (Dave Ellis/The Free Lance-Star via AP)

RCEd Commentary

The enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act reinvigorates a discussion as old as education itself – what skills do schools need to foster to enable students to succeed in life? 

The new ESSA law enables and requires all 50 states to develop their own accountability frameworks including at least one indicator of school or student success beyond those captured by standardized tests of academic skills.

An objective look at the research on the keys to success aligns with the intuition of nearly every teacher, parent and employer: there are interpersonal skills (such as the ability to collaborate well) and intrapersonal skills (such as the conscientiousness and self-control required to work diligently) that are vital complements to academic skills such as math, literacy and science.

This is not arguing that academic skills are not crucial as well; non-cognitive skills are both vital complements and contributors to those academic skills. It is not an either/or choice but rather a both/and case. We call for everyone involved in the imminent state-by-state conversations on how to best measure performance to consider the hard scientific evidence –and the judgment of parents, teachers, and employers -- that non-cognitive skills are crucial to students’ long-term academic, career and wellbeing success.

Transforming Education has compiled and organized that evidence in the study Ready to Be Counted: The research case for education policy action on non-cognitive skills.  We synthesized the most compelling findings about the impact of non-cognitive skills on lifelong success in three key domains: academics, career and lifelong well-being.

Consider these examples cited in our report:

-- The impact of being in the top versus the bottom quintile of self-control in the elementary years played out as a high school graduation rate of 95 percent vs. 58 percent and a likelihood of being convicted of a crime by age 40 of 43 percent vs. 13 percent;

-- Non-cognitive factors were equally predictive as cognitive factors regarding which young men went on to earn a college degree by age 30;

-- Kindergartners with high social competency were 1.5 times more likely to graduate high school and twice as likely to graduate college;

-- The odds of having an income over $2,000 per month at age 27 rose fourfold from 7 percent to 29 percent for those attending preschool, despite cognitive gains fading out by age 10; the likelihood of owning a home tripled and the frequency of ever having received welfare or similar public assistance was decreased by one quarter;

-- High quality kindergarten teachers led to significant income gains for those kindergartners as adults even as test score impacts faded out early. The researchers’ conclusion: “high quality classrooms may build non-cognitive skills that have returns in the labor market but do not improve performance on standardized tests.”

Educators agree. In a national survey of teachers, 93 percent said it is important for schools to promote non-cognitive skills, and 88 percent say their schools are trying to do so.  We estimate that schools currently spend $650 million a year on “social emotional learning” (SEL) curricula and professional development programs.  Further, the 10 percent of total teaching and preparation time that teachers estimate they allocate to SEL translates into an expenditure of $30 billion worth of school time.  

The problem is that we have had very little policy in place setting standards or measuring impact.  The Institute of Educational Sciences funded randomized controlled trials that showed that seven of the leading SEL programs marketed to and used by schools had no effect on student outcomes.  And with a cacophony of terminology (SEL, non-cognitives, 21st Century skills, soft skills, emotional intelligence, character, etc.) and programs, there is little clarity on what schools should prioritize.

We believe that the best way to advance the field is to deploy common, practical measures focused on a few of the most important skills.  This will help create a shared language and understanding while empowering educators to evaluate current practices and to focus on the highest-need students.  The pioneer in this approach has been the CORE Districts, a set of California districts that through a groundbreaking federal waiver created the first large-scale education performance monitoring system to incorporate measures of non-cognitive skills.

Transforming Education has been the strategic partner to the CORE Districts in developing, testing and refining these measures.  Analysis has shown that they are reliable and valid, statistically significantly predicting critical student outcomes such as GPA, test scores, attendance, and suspensions. We recently announced that together with the CORE Districts, we will soon be making the measures, the benchmark data from more than 450,000 students, and other useful downloadable tools all available online for free as open educational resources. 

Ultimately, states must decide which skills they believe students need to learn in school. Measuring these non-cognitive skills will help ensure schools have the information they need to foster success in academics, career and life for their students every day in every classroom.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles