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Interview: Nobel Laureate James Heckman Weighs in on a "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education"

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HeckmanPicture.jpgOver the past few weeks, Public School Insights has been interviewing signers of a recent statement calling for a "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education"--an approach that combines ambitious school improvement strategies with out-of-school supports for student achievement--such as early childhood education, after-school programs, and health services for children.

A few days ago, we had the privilege of interviewing Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, a signer whose recent work on topics such as graduation rates and the benefits of early childhood education has attracted close attention from education advocates.

Heckman devotes many of his remarks in the interview to what he considers the boldest aspect of the "Bold Approach": Its focus on both the non-cognitive and cognitive skills that influence student success both in and beyond school. He faults current education policy for giving non-cognitive skills short shrift, citing recent research that demonstrates their positive social and economic impact. Excellent early childhood programs, he suggests, can help disadvantaged children develop the broader complement of skills they need to prosper later in life.

Heckman, of course, says it best: "Environments outside the school, and environments before schooling begins, play a very important role in shaping [this broader set of] skills--and essentially working with the schools to shape these skills. So...part of the boldness of the proposal is to...try to understand the much wider array of actors that are actually producing this much wider array of skills that are so essential to success in life."

You can listen to highlights from our interview (5 minutes), or check out the transcript below.

Or you can listen to previous Public School Insights interviews with the co-chairs of the task force that created the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education":



PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Let me begin with a very general question, and that is: what is your view of the significance of the task force's statement? 

HECKMAN:  I think the most important [aspect] is probably the emphasis on understanding something besides cognition, something besides smarts, is important in life.  There's a category of skills-of traits-called non-cognitive traits, that have to do with behavior, with self-control, with motivation, with conscientiousness...And these factors turn out to be incredibly important in predicting academic and social success.  In fact, American educational policies of the last 25 years, and probably longer, have focused almost exclusively on measures of cognition, and not on measures of performance.  So this proposal essentially says, "Train the whole person."

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Is there any way of quantifying the influence of these non-cognitive abilities?

HECKMAN:  Oh, for sure.  I have, in a series of papers, and psychologists now working with economists have quantified, in a very precise way, how much these non-cognitive factors affect things like wages, test scores in school, grades in school, whether or not people finish school, use of drugs.  But certainly the idea that environments outside the school, and environments before schooling begin, play a very important role in shaping these skills and [are] essentially working with the schools to shape these skills.

So again, part of the boldness of the proposal is just really try to understand the much wider array of actors that are actually producing this much wider array of skills that are so essential to success in life.

[And] one thing we've certainly learned-we could think of other institutions in society, especially preschool programs, [as these actors].  I recently concluded a study of a very influential Peri-preschool program.  This program was targeted towards disadvantaged inner-city youth in a poor area just outside of Detroit.  What we found is this program had substantial effects on the earnings, employment, [involvement in] crime, and other social aspects of participants, compared to non-participants.  But what we also find is that the main mechanism through which the program operates is non-cognitive skills.

So yes, it's a school and we could imagine that schools have a role to play here.  I think it'd be a huge mistake for the educational system to turn its back on raising educational standards, on trying to incentivize schools, trying to motivate children in traditional academic learning.  However, there's nothing that human beings do that doesn't have some element of cognition.  Some of the success on achievement tests is actually highly motivated by the structure of a personal motivation-behavior, aspects of personality.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  To turn to a topic you were discussing earlier, pre-K education: were you able to look at the kinds of programs that are most successful, and what constitutes a successful program-how it might look?

HECKMAN:  Yes.  Actually, you've raised a very good question.  There are plenty of bad programs.  And it's certainly true that an under-funded, low-quality early childhood program can actually cause harm.  But a high-quality program can do a great deal of good.  Especially one that is trying to cultivate the full person, trying to develop in every aspect the structure of cognition and non-cognitive skills.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  One of the criticisms of the task force's statement, particularly as pertains to pre‑K education, was that there was little effort to describe a continuum from pre-K through K-12 so that you could sustain the gains made in pre-K through the K-12 system.

HECKMAN:  Oh, I think that's false.  There was no specific proposal about excluding integration.  In fact, what we've come to understand in the early years of the child is there indeed is a continuum.  Some of the important work done by researchers at Johns Hopkins, for example, has shown that the first two years of school-regular formal schooling-and the last few years of pre-school naturally blend in as a time of transition, a time of growth and a time of enormous challenge for the child.

The proposal is very supportive of the idea of actually trying to integrate not just pre-K and K and then later years, but as well the family environment, the neighborhood environments, and the school environment in both pre-K and K through 12.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  So there's strong advocacy here for a much more coordinated system of supports.

HECKMAN:  Coordinated, but I think you have to be careful about coordinated.  Coordinated in the sense of having one monopoly organization-one group, one set of ideas imposed-I think that's not part of the curriculum that we're talking about.  It's coordinate, but coordinate in a sense of really understanding the whole rich fabric of society on which a school system is based.  It's not exclusively the province of one organization.  You know, if you look at some of the work that's being done in Minneapolis by Art Rolnick, on child development, you are really finding an involvement of businessmen, local community leaders, and community groups of both religious and cultural diversity.