Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success
Tim Kautz, Baster Weel, James J. Heckman, Lex Borghans, Ron Diris, Lex Borghans
This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and fostering cognitive and non-cognitive skills. IQ tests and achievement tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills—personality traits, goals, character, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. For many outcomes, their predictive power rivals or exceeds that of cognitive skills.
Evidence from the General Educational Development (GED) testing program in the United States shows the importance of non-cognitive skills. The GED is an achievement test which dropouts can take to certify that they are equivalent to secondary school graduates. The program is based on the widely held belief that tests capture the important skills learned in school. On the surface, the program is successful. Based on test scores, GED recipients are just as smart as high school graduates. When it comes to outcomes that matter, such as college completion and labor market success, GED recipients perform much worse in the labor market and in a variety of other life domains than traditional secondary school graduates. Achievement tests like the GED do not adequately capture valuable non-cognitive skills. This evidence should cause policymakers to think twice about relying on achievement tests to evaluate the effectiveness of educational systems.
Reliable measures of non-cognitive skills are available, and they are discussed in this paper. In developing any measure of non-cognitive skills, it is essential to recognize that all measures of skill are based on performance on some task. Traditional personality tests are based on the performance of the task of self-description. Performance on any task depends on multiple skills as well as the effort expended on it. Effort, in turn, depends on the incentives offered to exert the effort to perform the task. Since all measures of cognitive and non-cognitive skill are measures of performance on some task, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills that determine performance on the task in measuring any skill, yet this is rarely done in conducting skill assessments. Standard measures of cognitive skill have been shown to be sensitive to incentives and levels of other skills. Test scores for young children can be improved by one standard deviation by offering candy for correct answers. The responsiveness to incentives in turn depends on a child’s levels of conscientiousness. Using measured behaviors to capture non-cognitive skill is a promising approach that has been shown to be empirically effective. Such measures are available in administrative data that are collected routinely by schools and government agencies.
Skills are stable across situations with different incentives, although manifestations of skills vary with incentives. Though stable at any age, skills are not immutable traits that are set in stone over the life cycle. They have a genetic basis but are also shaped by environments, including families, schools, and peers. Skill development is a dynamic process. The early years are important in shaping all skills and in laying the foundations for successful investment and intervention in the later years. During the early years, both cognitive and noncognitive skills are highly malleable. During the adolescent years, non-cognitive skills are more malleable than cognitive skills. The differential plasticity of different skills by age has important implications for the design of effective policies.
This paper reviews a variety of interventions targeted to different stages of the life cycle. We interpret all of the studies we examine within an economic model of skill development. While it is difficult to compare different interventions because they are often multifaceted and target different populations, nonetheless, four conclusions emerge.
First, the evidence base is larger on the long-term effectiveness of interventions that start in early childhood and elementary school compared to their adolescent counter- parts. Many evaluations of early programs measure a diverse set of outcomes and have follow-ups lasting more than 20 years. Evidence on adolescent interventions is more scarce. Follow-ups for them are typically shorter and fewer outcomes are analyzed over shorter horizons. For this reason, we can draw stronger conclusions about the long-run efficacy of early programs and how they work.
Second, when evaluating skill enhancement programs it is vital to consider outcomes other than IQ or achievement test scores. Only interventions that start long before kindergarten begins have been shown to have long-term effects on IQ. If IQ were the only measure of success, most intervention programs would seem futile. Using a diverse set of outcomes presents a more optimistic point of view. Many early programs improve later-life outcomes, even though they do not improve IQ.
These programs work because they foster non-cognitive skills. Some have annual rates of return that are comparable to those from investments in the stock market. Parental involvement is an important component of successful early interventions just as successful adolescent mentoring is an age-appropriate version of parental involvement.
Third, the available evidence suggests that the most successful adolescent remediation programs are not as effective as the most successful early childhood and elementary school programs, although adolescent mentoring and the provision of information can be very effective. Building an early base of skills that promote later-life learning and engagement in school and society is often a better strategy than waiting for problems to occur. Prevention is more effective than remediation if at-risk populations are sufficiently well targeted.
Fourth, adolescent remediation is possible for children who grow up in disadvantaged environments in their early years. The available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that offer mentoring, guidance and information. Many adolescent programs that focus on academic skills or temporarily change a participant’s environment are only successful in the short run although the short-term results can often appear to be spectacular. Workplace-based programs that teach non-cognitive skills appear to be effective remedial interventions for adolescents. They motivate acquisition of work- relevant skills and provide for disadvantaged youth the discipline and guidance which is often missing in their homes or high schools. Successful interventions at any age emulate the mentoring and attachment that successful families give their children.
Skills enable people. They are capacities to function. Greater levels of skill foster social inclusion and promote economic and social mobility. They generate economic productivity and create social well-being. Skills give agency to people to shape their lives, to create new skills and to flourish.