More evidence of the importance of non-cognitive skill development in young children

In a July 24, 2015 Opinionator piece published by the New York Times, David Borenstein reported on the findings of a major study by researchers from Penn State and Duke University that had been designed to understand how children develop healthy social skills.

The study tracked 753 children whose social and communication skills had been assessed by 50 kindergarten teachers across three geographic areas in the early 1990s to see what had happened to the students 13 to 19 years later.

As it turns out, the assessments in kindergarten predicted the likelihood of “whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teacher’s scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.”

“One major result: Children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college as those who scored low.”

Borenstein points out that “These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness – strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education and succeed in many other areas of life.”

The findings of this study are consistent with those mentioned in a 2012 essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” by James J. Heckman, published in the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of Boston Review. Heckman writes, “An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy…and participation in crime.”

“….both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment…..A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families…..and that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…”

Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is implementing in parts of Indiana). “Programs with home visits (like NFP) affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end.”

One randomized controlled trial of families that participated in Nurse-Family Partnership showed that NFP children had 67% fewer behavioral and cognitive problems at age 6 than children in a control group.

The two-generation approach practiced by Nurse-Family Partnership benefits the entire family in numerous demonstrable ways. For example, Goodwill’s implementation of NFP is resulting in an increase in earned income in 33% of participating households. In addition, among parents with less than 12 years of education at enrollment, 59% have increased their education attainment level as measured one year post-enrollment in NFP.

There’s a growing amount of solid evidence that investments in high quality early childhood development programs generate substantial benefits to society as well as to the participating children. Those programs, such as NFP, that also include wraparound services for other family members yield even greater benefits and, if scaled sufficiently, can go a long way toward reducing generational poverty and a lot of the social problems that accompany it.

Building Strong, Dynamic, Serving Institutions

Two pieces in the August 24, 2014 New York Times that were, on the surface, unrelated to each other offered insights on a topic I’ve been thinking about in recent weeks.

Tom Friedman’s column referred to the growing lack of order in the world – especially in societies that have overthrown autocrats, but not developed the values-based legal systems and institutions that enable people to grow and prosper. Tearing down the old order was much easier than building a new order with sustainable leadership and institutions.

The other piece, written by Stephanie Rosenbloom, was titled, “Dealing with Digital Cruelty.” It focused on how to deal with the nasty, often cruel barbs posted on social media by “trolls” who intentionally strive to distress or provoke and cause others pain. When I see comments of such people, I always think about how much easier it is to tear down an institution or the reputation of an individual than to build one. I take some comfort in the realization that most of those who delight in tearing down others have probably never built anything in their pathetically negative lives. But I’m also aware they can often do a lot of damage.

Three weeks ago I announced my intention to retire as President and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, Inc. in a little over 10 months. At that time I will have been in this position for 41 years. During those decades many talented colleagues and I have worked together to build an organization that is offering a wide array of opportunities to thousands of people who, in many cases, haven’t been dealt a very good hand in life. We haven’t succeeded at everything we’ve tried, but we’ve continued to learn, adapt as the world around us changes, and evolve to higher levels of impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate. Today we have a tremendous pool of dedicated, talented people who bring their heads and their hearts to their work every day.

Over 20 years ago I began thinking of what we were trying to do as building a strong, dynamic, serving institution. And with a lot of help, we’ve done that. In addition to those who work in our organization, our helpers have included tens of thousands of people across central Indiana who donate goods, shop in our stores, hire our graduates, serve on our boards, or contribute money. They, too, are institution builders.

There are some indications that trust in institutions of all kinds is at an all-time low. It’s no mystery why. While no institution has ever been perfect, today the flaws are much more visible and tend to receive much more attention in the ever-present 24-hour news cycle than do the positive attributes. Couple that with the pervasiveness of social media and the tendency of negative stories – the more scandalous the better – to quickly go viral, and it’s no wonder that a lot of reputations – of individuals and institutions – have suffered.

I have no idea what the long term implications of these tendencies will be. But I’m quite certain that a decent, stable society will continue to need strong, dynamic, serving institutions that can function well over time despite the inevitable criticisms – justified or not – that come their way.

I’m also convinced that we will continue to need teams of passionate institution builders who devote their energy and talents over sustained periods of time to helping create a better society. At Goodwill we have been blessed with many such persons over the years, and I have no doubt that will continue to be the case as this organization continues to learn, adapt, and evolve to higher levels of service and impact.

A perspective on the GED and why the Excel Center is a more effective option for many

The following excerpt from How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2012) is one illustration of why I believe Tough’s book should be read by anyone who is seriously interested in finding long term solutions to a lot of persistent social problems.

“(James) Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes – annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs – GED recipients looked exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person’s life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group – GED holders – whose test scores didn’t seem to have any positive effect on their lives.

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits – an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan – also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally.”

Obtaining a GED is a successful completion of an event – passing a test. On the other hand, a diploma takes consistent effort over time to achieve. Students must earn credits, stick to their goals, set targets and deadlines, and work to reach the goals. It takes more persistence, grit, and motivation to achieve.

Part of the job of an Excel Center “coach” is to help students develop the traits that will improve their life prospects. Even after graduation, the ongoing relationship we offer with a Goodwill Guide is intended to reinforce those traits.

Excel Center students dropped out of high school for a wide variety of reasons. Our schools offer a new path to those persons and other older youth and adults who did not think they would ever have another chance. Not all will succeed, but many will.

The scarce resource (Hint: It’s not money.)

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough presents research on the effects of poverty on a child’s development. He argues that the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them make a huge difference in how children’s brains develop and lead to later problems in school, health, and behavior.

Similarly, in an essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” (Boston Review, Sept./Oct. 2012), James J. Heckman notes that “early adverse experiences correlate with poor adult health, high medical care costs, increased depression and suicide rates, alcoholism, drug use, poor job performance and social function, disability, and impaired performance of subsequent generations.”

Other relevant quotes from Heckman’s essay include:

“An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy, … and participation in crime.”

“…both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…experimental evidence shows that intervening early can produce positive and lasting effects on children in disadvantaged families. This evidence is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms childhood and adult outcomes. Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…the benefits of later interventions are greatly enhanced by earlier interventions: skill begets skill…”

What are some of the implications for public policy? Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is now implementing in Indianapolis). “Programs with home visits affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end. Programs that build character and motivation, and do not focus exclusively on cognition, appear to be the most effective.”

What about programs for older children and youth? According to Heckman, “A growing body of evidence does suggest that cognitive skills are established early in life and that boosting raw IQ and problem-solving ability in the teenage years is much harder than doing so when children are young. But social and personality skills are another story. They are malleable into the early twenties, although early formation of these skills is still the best policy because they boost learning. Adolescent strategies should boost motivation, personality, and social skills through mentoring and workplace-based education.”

Heckman concludes the essay by noting that “Giving money to poor families does not, by itself, promote social mobility across generations….The scarce resource is love and parenting – not money.”

In a column titled, “Of Love and Money,” published in the New York Times May 25, 2006, David Brooks drew a similar conclusion: “Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults.”