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When It Comes to Non-Cognitive Skills, Enthusiasm and Caution Collide

Eva Harder

Can we talk about what we don’t test?

“The evidence is overwhelming that, whatever they’re called, skills beyond those captured by test scores play a critical role in supporting student success in school and in life,” Brookings fellow and Harvard professor Martin West said this week at an event sponsored by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings.

The topic: incorporating non-cognitive skills—or social-emotional learning, including character traits like resilience, optimism, and grit—into education policy.

“The question before us today is how, if at all, should policy makers at the state, local and federal level respond to this situation?” West said. “What would it mean to incorporate non-cognitive skills into education policy?”

Non-Cognitive Skills Matter

Harvard lecturer and nonprofit leader Chris Gabrieli presented evidence that non-cognitive skills are vital to student success.

Take self-control, for example. Gabrieli cited a study that found that 95 percent of students with high levels of self-control at a young age graduated from high school, compared to 58 percent of students with lower levels of self-control.  A second study found that students with low levels of self-control in the eighth grade are three times less likely to graduate from college.

“There is ample and compelling evidence that non-cognitive skills predict and influence success in academics, for careers and incomes, and life well-being,” Gabrieli said. “In light of that, surely schools and education systems must incorporate explicit and effective strategies to ensure that students gain these vital skills.”

After Gabrieli and two other non-cognitive learning experts spoke, three education leaders offered their opinions: Kaya Henderson (D.C. Public Schools), John King (U.S. Department of Education) and Russ Whitehurst (Brookings). All were cautious about adding policy to the mix.

Kaya Henderson (D.C. Public Schools): "I’m worried"

“Education policy scares the mess out of me,” Henderson said. “Sometimes we think a little too hard and a little too deeply about things that then get perverted in the practical execution,” she said. “So I’m worried.”

Henderson had two major concerns: that emphasizing non-cognitive skills would take the attention away from academics, and that policies would connect non-cognitive skills to accountability systems.

Henderson pointed to teacher evaluations and accountability as an example, citing “gross perversions of what it’s supposed to be.”

From a policy perspective, Henderson said it’s important to watch, disseminate best practices, and not rush to create accountability measures around non-cognitive skills. 

John King (Dept. of Education): Non-cognitive skills should not replace academics

King said that a focus on non-cognitive skills could threaten to replace academic priorities.

“The phrase non-cognitive skills or social-emotional learning could become an excuse not to do the academic work students desperately need,” he said. “They’re not going to grit their way out of not knowing how to do basic operations with whole numbers.”

King also warned that non-cognitive skills don’t take into account outside factors that determine a student’s behavior, such as poverty, violence, and stereotypes about race, class and gender.

“We are reluctant to have conversations where class, race and gender are squarely on the table, and it would be a mistake to do that in this discourse,” he said.

Whitehurst (Brookings): Schools can only do so much

When 50 percent of a person’s personality is predetermined by genetics, Whitehurst said, there’s only so much schools can do.

“If we get into the business of holding schools accountable for changing these traits, we’re on a fool’s errand,” he said. “We’ve heard some evidence this morning, and it’s solid evidence, of the strong predictive relationship of non-cognitive skills to later outcomes. What we do not know is how much of that predictive relationship is determined by personality components versus how much is determined by home and school.”

Where does that leave us? Gabrieli said it may be too late for caution—K-12 schools already spend $641 million a year and 10 percent of teachers’ time on social-emotional learning.  “The barn door is wide open,” he said. “The problem is, there’s zero information in scale about whether it’s helping kids.”

Eva Harder is a writer for America’s Promise Alliance