Building Better Kids

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 4:01 AM EST

We are obsessed with education in America. We are obsessed, in particular, with the notion that our schools are failing and have to be fixed. We need to test kids. We need to identify and fire bad teachers. We need merit pay. We need charter schools. We are all waiting for Superman. Philanthropists and the federal government spend billions of dollars per year on programs to promote better schools.

James Heckman doesn't quite say that this is all a waste of money. But he comes close. In a new essay summarizing his recent work on skill formation in children, he says the chart below tells you most of what you need to know about educating our kids:

The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they're three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect:

[These] gaps arise early and persist. Schools do little to budge these gaps even though the quality of schooling attended varies greatly across social classes. Much evidence tells the same story as Figure 1. Gaps in test scores classified by social and economic status of the family emerge at early ages, before schooling starts, and they persist. Similar gaps emerge and persist in indices of soft skills classified by social and economic status. Again, schooling does little to widen or narrow these gaps.

Heckman argues that these achievement gaps—between black and white, between rich and poor—are today less the result of overt discrimination than they are of skill gaps that open up very early in life and persist in the face of a wide variety of both good and bad schools. What's more, these gaps aren't purely, or even mainly, the result of differences in cognitive ability. At least equally important are soft skills: "motivation, sociability (the ability to work with and cooperate with others), attention, self regulation, self esteem, the ability to defer gratification and the like."

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