The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., has published a major paper that describes a new vision for American education.
Instead of focusing on goals like raising test scores, which narrows the curriculum and produces perverse results (like cheating, excessive test prep, and gaming the system), educators should be encouraged to emphasize the development of the whole child. This is not a new idea; its roots go back to the early twentieth century. But it is a research-based idea that promises to change the direction of education and to align teaching and learning with what is in the best interests of students and society.
The report was written by Elaine Weiss and Emma Garcia of EPI.
Here is the introduction.
Traits and skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, persistence, and self-control—which are often collectively called noncognitive skills, or social and emotional skills—are vitally important to children’s full development. They are linked to academic achievement, productivity and collegiality at work, positive health indicators, and civic participation, and are nurtured through life and school experiences. Developing these skills should thus be an explicit goal of public education. This can be achieved through research and policy initiatives involving better defining and measuring these skills; designing broader curricula to promote these skills; ensuring that teachers’ preparation and professional support are geared toward developing these skills in their students; revisiting school disciplinary policies, which are often at odds with the nurturing of these skills; and broadening assessment and accountability practices to make the development of the whole child central to education policy.
Introduction and key points
The importance of so-called noncognitive skills—which include abilities and traits such as critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, social skills, persistence, creativity, and self-control—manifests itself in multiple ways throughout our lives. For example, having greater focus as a student improves the acquisition of skills, and creativity is widely associated with artistic abilities. Persistence and communication skills are critical to success at work, and respect and tolerance contribute to strong social and civic relationships.
But support for noncognitive skills—also commonly referred to as social and emotional skills—extends far beyond this casual recognition of their impact. Empirical research finds clear connections between various noncognitive skills and positive life outcomes. Indeed, researchers have focused on assessing which skills matter and why, how they are measured, and how and when these skills are developed, including the mutually reinforcing development of noncognitive and cognitive abilities during students’ years in school.1
At the same time, there are clear challenges inherent in this work, including those associated with data availability (in terms of measurement, validity, and reliability), the difficulty of establishing causality, and the need to bridge gaps across various areas of research. This points to the need to exercise caution when designing education policies and practices that aim to nurture noncognitive skills. Nonetheless, given the crucial role that noncognitive skills play in supporting the development of cognitive skills—as well as the importance of noncognitive skills in their own right—this is an issue of great importance for policymakers.
Moreover, there is increased recognition, both domestically and internationally, that noncognitive skills are integral to a wider conceptualization of what it means to be an educated person. Indeed, UNESCO’s Incheon Declaration for Education 2030, which sets forth an international consensus on the new vision for education for the next 15 years, states, “Relevant learning outcomes must be well defined in cognitive and non-cognitive domains, and continually assessed as an integral part of the teaching and learning process. Quality education includes the development of those skills, values, attitudes and knowledge that enable citizens to lead healthy and fulfilled lives, make informed decisions and respond to local and global challenges.”2
This policy brief, which focuses on a set of skills that can and should be taught in schools, is based on a body of scholarly literature that tends to use the term “noncognitive skills” over others. James Heckman, a prominent, Nobel Prize–winning economist, has dubbed these skills “dark matter” in recognition of their varied nature and the challenge of accurately labeling them. Various fields and experts call them social and emotional skills, behavioral skills, inter- and intra-personal skills, and life skills, among other terms, but this brief does not aim to settle this issue. We therefore use noncognitive throughout in many places, as well as social and emotional skills and other terms.
This brief explains why it is so important that we incorporate these skills into the goals and components of public education, and lays out the steps necessary to make that happen.
This is a report that will gladden the hearts of most educators. It calls for a paradigm shift at a time when policymakers are realizing that the past fifteen years of testing, carrots and sticks, and other efforts to raise test scores, has produced negative consequences. It is time to take another look at our goals and our vision. This is indeed a worthy project.