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Non-Cognitive Skills Crucial

September 8, 2012

Within the past week, both Joe Nocera of the NYTimes and Diane Ravitch wrote about non-cognitive skills, basing their writing on two different sources— evidence that the importance of these skills is again appearing on the public radar.  Nocera used Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, as the basis for his column, summarizing Tough’s premise as follows:

Rather, tapping into a great deal of recent research, Tough writes that the most important things to develop in students are “noncognitive skills,” which Tough labels as “character.” Many of the people who have done the research or are running the programs that Tough admires have different ways of expressing those skills. But they are essentially character traits that are necessary to succeed not just in school, but in life. Jeff Nelson, who runs a program in partnership with 23 Chicago high schools calledOneGoal, which works to improve student achievement and helps students get into college, describes these traits as “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.” “They are the linchpin of what we do,” Nelson told me. Nelson calls them “leadership skills.” Tough uses the word “grit” a lot.

Ravitch’s initial blog post on non-cognitive skills, “Not Just Test Scores”, was prompted by the release of Columbia economist Henry Levin’s similarly named monograph “More than the Test Scores”. Unlike many of his economist colleagues, Levin does not conclude that test scores are the be all and end all of schooling, as this quote from the abstract of the monograph indicates:

The practice of restricting the meaning of exemplary schools to the narrow criterion of achievement scores is usually premised on the view that test scores are closely linked to the provision of a capable labour force and competitive economy. In fact, the measured relationships between test scores and earnings or productivity are modest and explain a relatively small share of the larger link between educational attainment and economic outcomes. What has been omitted from such narrow assessments are the effects that education has on the development of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and capabilities that affect the quality and productivity of the labour force.

The importance of non-cognitive skills is not “news”. I can recall that in the early 1990s the Business Roundtable in one of its frequent white papers citing the failure of public education lamented the lack of a work ethic among high school. The heartening part of the article is evidence that Tough provides indicating that these character traits can be taught and can be taught as late as high school…. but my fear, as I indicated in a comment I posted, is that since these traits cannot be measured easily they will continue to be ignored.

In our test and data driven measurement of school performance, important traits like “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition” fall by the wayside because they cannot be easily measured or packaged into an online format. The development of these traits require human interaction— but a different kind of human interaction than teachers provide when they provide direct instruction to students to prepare them for a standardized test. We need to change from our factory model of schooling and the testing mania that supports that model.

When “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition” are the goals of education, teaching is an art and it’s value cannot be measured with test scores. When easier to measure cognitive skills are the goals of education, teaching is more of a science. The best teachers I had were artists.

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