Feature                                                       Pages 28-33


Grit, Character and Other

Noncognitive Skills 

The author of How Children Succeed on an alternative way of thinking about those factors that contribute to student success


Paul Tough
Paul Tough, in his book, argues that teaching and testing cognitive skills in math and English isn't sufficient, especially for children dealing with the effects of poverty.

Over the past decade and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists have produced evidence that calls into question much of the conventional wisdom about child development. What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not the student’s cognitive ability or how much information we can stuff into the student’s brain in the first few years of schooling.

Instead, what matters is whether we are able to help her develop different qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

To call this a new school of thought is probably premature. In many cases, the researchers adding to this growing store of knowledge are working in isolation. But increasingly, these scientists and educators are finding one another and making connections across the boundaries of academic disciplines.

The argument they are piecing together has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools and how we construct our social safety net.

Breakthrough Thinking
If there is one person at the hub of this new interdisciplinary network, it is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman might seem an unlikely figure to be leading a challenge to the supremacy of cognitive skill. He is a classic academic intellectual, his glasses thick, his IQ stratospheric, his shirt pocket bristling with mechanical pencils.

Heckman grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, the son of a middle manager at a meatpacking company. Neither of his parents was college educated, but they both recognized early on that their son possessed a precocious mind. At the age of 8, Heckman devoured his father’s copy of the popular self-help book 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, and at 9, he saved up his pennies and ordered Mathematics for the Practical Man from the back of a comic book.

Heckman became a professor of economics, first at Columbia University and then at the University of Chicago, and in 2000, he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a complex statistical method he had invented in the 1970s. Among economists, he is known for his skill in econometrics, a particularly arcane type of statistical analysis that is generally incomprehensible to anyone except other econometricians.

Meanwhile, the subjects Heckman has chosen to focus on are anything but obscure. In the years since winning the Nobel, he has used the clout and cachet the honor brought him not to cement his reputation within his field but to expand his pursuits and his influence into new areas of study that he previously knew little or nothing about, including personality psychology, medicine and genetics. (He actually has a copy of Genetics for Dummies on his overstuffed office bookshelves, wedged in between two thick texts of economic history.)

Leveling Effects
Since 2008, Heckman has been convening regular invitation-only conferences populated by equal numbers of economists and psychologists, all engaged in one way or another with the same questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? And what interventions might help children do better?

The transformation of Heckman’s career has its roots in a study he undertook in the late 1990s on the General Educational Development program, better known as the GED, which was at the time becoming an increasingly popular way for high school dropouts to earn the equivalent of high school diplomas. In many quarters, it was seen as a tool to level the academic playing field, to give low-income and minority students, who were more likely to drop out of high school, an alternative route to college.

The GED’s growth was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis: the belief that what schools develop and what a high school degree certifies is cognitive skill. If teenagers already have the knowledge and the smarts to graduate from high school, they don’t need to waste their time actually finishing high school. They can just take a test that measures that knowledge and those skills, and the state will certify that they are, legally, high school graduates, as well-prepared as any other high school graduate to go on to college or other postsecondary pursuits.

This is an attractive notion, especially to young people who can’t stand high school, and the program has expanded rapidly since its introduction in the 1950s. At the high-water mark, in 2001, more than a million young people took the GED test, and nearly one in every five new high school “graduates” was actually a GED holder. (The figure is now about one in seven.)

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.

However, when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren’t anything like high school graduates. At age 22, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed a postsecondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high school graduates.

In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider important future outcomes — annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate or use of illegal drugs — GED recipients look exactly like high school dropouts, despite the fact they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high school dropouts.

A Missing Element
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, he 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 good 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. As Heckman explained in one paper: “Inadvertently, the GED has become a test that separates bright but nonpersistent and undisciplined dropouts from other dropouts.” GED holders, he wrote, “are ‘wise guys’ who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks or to adapt to their environments.”

What the GED study didn’t give Heckman was any indication of whether it was possible to help children develop those so-called soft skills. His search for an answer to that question led him almost a decade ago to Ypsilanti, Mich., an old industrial town west of Detroit. In the mid-1960s, in the early days of the War on Poverty, a group of child psychologists and education researchers undertook an experiment there, recruiting low-income, low-IQ parents from the town’s black neighborhoods to sign up their 3- and 4-year-old kids for the Perry Preschool.

In this study, the recruited children were divided randomly into a treatment group and a control group. Children in the treatment group were admitted to Perry, a high-quality, two-year preschool program, and kids in the control group were left to fend for themselves. And then the children were tracked — not just for a year or two, but for decades, in an ongoing study that is intended to follow them for the rest of their lives. The subjects are now in their 40s, which means researchers have been able to trace the effects of the Perry intervention well into adulthood.

The Perry Preschool Project is famous in social science circles, and Heckman had encountered it, glancingly, several times before in his career. As a case for early-childhood intervention, the experiment always had been considered something of a failure. The treatment children did do significantly better on cognitive tests while attending the preschool and for a year or two afterward, but the gains did not last, and by the time the treatment children were in the 3rd grade, their IQ scores were no better than the control group’s.

However, when Heckman and other researchers looked at the long-term results of Perry, the data appeared more promising. It was true the Perry kids hadn’t experienced lasting IQ benefits. But something important had happened to them in preschool, and whatever it was, the positive effects resonated for decades.

Compared to the control group, the Perry students were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age 27, more likely to be earning more than $25,000 a year at age 40, less likely ever to have been arrested and less likely to have spent time on welfare.

Noncognitive Skills
Heckman began to rummage more deeply into the Perry study, and he learned that in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers had collected some data on the students that had never been analyzed. These were reports from teachers in elementary school rating both the treatment and the control children on “personal behavior” and “social development.”

The first term tracked how often each student swore, lied, stole or was absent or late; the second one rated each student’s level of curiosity as well as his or her relationships with classmates and teachers.

Heckman labeled these noncognitive skills, because they were entirely distinct from IQ. And after three years of careful analysis, Heckman and his researchers were able to ascertain that those noncognitive factors, such as curiosity, self-control and social fluidity, were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave its students.

The Perry Preschool Project, in other words, worked entirely differently than everyone had believed. The goodhearted educators who set it up in the ’60s thought they were creating a program to raise the intelligence of low-income children. They, like everyone else, believed that was the way to help poor kids get ahead in America.

Surprise No. 1 was that they created a program that didn’t do much in the long term for IQ but did improve behavior and social skills. Surprise No. 2 was that it helped anyway — for the kids in Ypsilanti, those skills and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be valuable indeed.

A Radical Premise
How do our experiences in childhood make us the adults we become? It is one of the great human questions, the theme of countless novels, biographies and memoirs, the subject of several centuries’ worth of philosophical and psychological treatises.

Until recently, though, there has never been a serious attempt to use the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of childhood, to trace through experiment and analysis how the experiences of our early years connect to outcomes in adulthood.

That is changing, with the efforts of this new generation of researchers. The premise behind the work is simple, if radical: We haven’t managed to solve these problems because we’ve been looking for solutions in the wrong places. If we want to improve the odds for children in general, and for poor children in particular, we need to approach childhood anew, to start over with some fundamental questions about how parents affect their children, how human skills develop and how character is formed.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), from which this article is drawn, with the publisher’s permission. Twitter: @PaulTough. E-mail: inquiries@paultough.com


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue