Ira Glass and his This American Life team produced a dynamite program for last week’s broadcast. Their Back To School episode described the work of Paul Tough and his new book How Children Succeed. According to Tough and the other guests on the show, traditional cognitive skills of the sort most often measured by standardized tests don’t completely account for the real-life outcomes of adults.
Economist James Heckman described his research on the outcomes of students who get a GED. Those students, who presumably have achieved a certain level of cognitive skill, don’t have economic and social outcomes markedly different than students who drop out of school. That result caused Heckman to look deeper and understand why. His hypothesis is that cognitive skills don’t tell the whole story. He concluded that non-cognitive or “soft” skills such as self-control, determination, and impulse control contribute significantly to adult outcomes.
Another guest, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, described the effects of poverty and childhood stress on brain development. Ira interviewed Kewauna Lerma, a young woman who had all of the risk factors as a child and has benefited from an intervention program designed to teach non-cognitive skills.
I don’t think anyone who works in education can doubt the truth of the stories told in this episode. Perhaps Ira’s Back To School program presents an opportunity to communicate that to folks who don’t share our perspective.