Friday, September 05, 2008

Vox - Schools, Skills, and Synapses

An excellent article from Vox, arguing in favor of early childhood focus in eduction, with studies to support their stance.

I am a huge fan of this -- children are most sponge-like up until about six years of age, shortly after we send them to school. We should take more advantage of those early years, either through an organized, state-run program or through more parental involvement in in-home education. Politically, I prefer the parents taking on the role, emphasizing education over entertainment, and recognizing that the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Schools, skills, and synapses

America has a growing skills problem. This column emphasises the importance of early environments in determining skills. It suggests that to promote skills, public policy should refocus attention to the early years of childhood and away from its current emphasis on the later years.

America has a growing skills problem. One consequence of this skills problem is rising inequality and polarization of society. A greater fraction of young Americans are graduating from college. At the same time, a greater fraction are dropping out of high school. Trends in the production of skills from American high schools coupled with a growing influx of unskilled immigrants have produced an increasing proportion of low-skilled workers in the US workforce. More than 20% of American workers cannot understand the instructions written in a medical prescription. A further consequence of the skills problem is a slowdown in growth of productivity of the workforce.

The origin of this skills problem lies in the decline of the family in American society. Dysfunctional families retard the formation of the abilities needed for successful performance in modern society.

The importance of cognitive and noncognitive abilities

American public policy currently focuses on cognitive test scores or “smarts.” Yet an emerging literature shows that much more than smarts is required for success in life. Motivation, sociability, the ability to work with others, the ability to focus on tasks, self-regulation, self-esteem, time preference, health, and mental health all matter. In an earlier time, these traits were part of what was called “character.” A substantial body of research shows that earnings, employment, labour force experience, college attendance, teenage pregnancy, participation in risky activities, compliance with health protocols, and participation in crime are all strongly affected by non-cognitive as well as cognitive abilities. Heckman, Stixrud and Urzua (2006) show that in many dimensions of social performance, noncognitive traits are as important, or more important, than cognitive traits in predicting success.

Compelling evidence on the importance of noncognitive skills comes from the GED (General Education Degree) programme (Heckman and Rubinstein, 2001, and Heckman and LaFontaine 2008). GED recipients are high school dropouts who pass a test to certify that they are equivalent to high school graduates. Currently, 14% of US high school certificates are issued to GEDs. Previous research shows that the cognitive test scores of GED recipients and the cognitive test scores of persons who graduate from high school but do not go on to college are comparable. Yet GED recipients have the earnings of high school dropouts. GED recipients are as “smart" as ordinary high school graduates, yet they lack noncognitive skills. GED recipients are the “wise guys” who cannot finish anything. They quit the jobs and marriages they start at much greater rates than ordinary high school graduates. Most branches of the US military recognise this in their recruiting strategies. Until the recent war in Iraq, the armed forces did not generally accept GED recipients because of their poor performance in the military.

Ability gaps open up early in life

Gaps in both cognitive and noncognitive skills between advantaged and disadvantaged children emerge early and can be attributed, in part, to adverse early environments into which an increasing percentage of US children are being born. Figure 1 shows the gap in cognitive test scores by age of children stratified by the mother's education. Similar patterns are found for noncognitive skills (see Heckman, 2008, and Cunha, Heckman, Lochner and Masterov, 2006). Gaps in ability emerge early and persist. Most of the gaps in ability at age 18, which substantially explain gaps in adult outcomes, are present at age five. Schooling plays a minor role in creating or perpetuating gaps, even though American children go to very different schools depending on their family backgrounds. Test scores for children with very different family backgrounds are remarkably parallel with age.

Figure 1. Trend in mean cognitive score by maternal education, IHDP study

[click image to enlarge]

Note: Using all observations and assuming that data are missing at random.
Source: Brooks-Gunn, Cunha, Duncan, Heckman, and Sojourner (2006).

How do these early and persistent differences in abilities arise? Is the difference due to genes as Herrnstein and Murray claimed in The Bell Curve? Evidence from the recent literature in psychology and biology suggests that the genes versus environment distinction that was once much in vogue is obsolete. Extensive recent literature suggests that gene-environment interactions are central to explaining children’s intellectual development. For example, breast-fed children attain higher IQ scores than non-breast fed children. This relationship is moderated by a gene that controls fatty acid pathways. Identical twins are affected by life experiences that substantially differentiate the genetic expression of adult twins. Further, the impact on adult antisocial behaviour of growing up in a harsh or abusive environment depends on the absence of a variant of a particular gene. A substantial literature shows that family environments play an independent role in creating adult abilities. Adverse family environments of children create problem adults.

Read the whole article.

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