What it takes for kids to get ahead

Yesterday’s post reminded me of this terrific Thomas Edsall column from about a month ago that I had meant to share.  It’s about the role of non-cognitive skills in how children get ahead.  One of my favorite topics ever since reading How Children Succeed.  (Seriously, read it).  Edsall:

In a 2014 paper, “The Character Factor: Measures and Impact of Drive and Prudence,” Reeves and two co-authors, Kimberly Howard and Joanna Venator, focus on what they call “performance character strengths” and the crucial role played by noncognitive skills in educational attainment, employment and earned income. These character strengths — “perseverance, industriousness, grit, resilience, curiosity, application” and “self-control, future orientation, self-discipline, impulse control, delay of gratification” — make significant contributions to success in adulthood and upward mobility…

Paul Tough, a writer heavily influenced by Heckman’s work, noted last year in an essay in the Atlantic, “How Kids Learn Resilience,” that research reveals that “students will be more likely to display these positive academic habits when they are in an environment where they feel a sense of belonging, independence, and growth” and where they “experience relatedness, autonomy, and competence.”

This kind of environment is difficult to replicate in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Instead, Tough writes, many of the kids brought up in these desolate areas have developed “a hyperactive fight-or-flight mechanism,” which conveys the warning

at car-alarm volume: I don’t belong here. This is enemy territory. Everyone in this school is out to get me. Add to this the fact that many children raised in adversity, by the time they get to middle or high school, are significantly behind their peers academically and disproportionately likely to have a history of confrontations with school administrators.

The result is a vicious circle: family disruption perpetuates disadvantage by creating barriers to the development of cognitive and noncognitive skills, which in turn sharply reduces access to college. The lack of higher education decreases life chances, including the likelihood of achieving adequate material resources and a stable family structure for the next generation…

What is to be made of all these findings?

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification. Whether these factors are more or less important than extrinsic forces like globalization, automation and declining unionization remains unclear, but changing family structures are evidently leaving millions of men and women ill-equipped to ascend the socioeconomic ladder.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional. As a corollary, the failure of government efforts to affect or slow down negative developments has left an opening for conservatives to argue that government interventions make things worse.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

So, here’s the damn agenda.. figure out what policies and programs (and there’s increasing evidence and research on the matter) best promote non-cognitive skills (and if they are not government programs, figure out how to encourage them through public policy) and advocate like hell for these policies.

 

 

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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