Education, Class, and Noncognitive Skills

One of the things parents care about, if not education reformers, is teaching students ‘life skills’, such as self-control, paying attention, and so on. These skills are called oxymoronically, in the technical literature, as noncognitive skills. A recent study from EPI shows, as you might expect, that that economic class is correlated with these measures:


We often hear about ‘breaking the culture of poverty.’ Well, if one believes in such things, it’s clear that closing these non-cognitive skills gaps matters:

Noncognitive skills matter for their own sake. They also matter indirectly (i.e., they correlate with other individual and societal outcomes). In particular, noncognitive skills support cognitive development; noncognitive and cognitive skills are interdependent and cannot be isolated from one another. Additionally, employers stress the value of noncognitive skills in the workplace, and evidence suggests that noncognitive skills are associated with higher productivity and earnings.

While the EPI report correctly observes that harsh punishments are at odds with nuturing these skills. But what the report doesn’t really dwell on is how our current methods of teacher assessment will fail miserably when trying to assess how well teachers do at improving these skills. While this isn’t well studied, one study that has looked at this has concluded that subject matter test increases and non-cognitive skills increases are so weakly correlated–which creates a serious problem for the teacher assessment crowd (boldface mine):

Teacher effects on test scores and teacher effects on non-cognitive ability are weakly correlated such that many teachers in the top of test score value-added will also be in the bottom of teachers at improving non-cognitive skills. This means that a large share of teachers thought to be highly effective based on test score performance will be no better than the average teacher at improving college-going or wages. Under reasonable assumptions about the importance of non-cognitive skills for long run outcomes, calculations indicate that test score based measures may understate the importance of teachers by between 50 and 80 percent.

In other words, in many states that use value-added testing based on subject matter, they are penalizing or even firing teachers, even though they are improving their students’ lives over the long term. It should also be noted that charter schools greatly emphasize subject matter test scores, which might also influence their students’ noncognitive development.

Maybe instead of opposing limited standardized testing, we should start including some of these noncognitive measures. At least on a trial basis, it would be very interesting to see how teachers would be assessed if these scores were also included.

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