Monthly Archives: January 2013

NPR Back to School: Part 2

I hope you’ve had a chance to listen to the following NPR story that I posted last week.

It’s about an hour long, so you can listen AND knock out some laundry-folding at the same time!  You can also view the transcript at

Here are my highlights from Part 2: The Solution.

Achievement Gap?
It’s not poverty, but stress, that creates the achievement gap.  Stress prevents the development of these non-cognitive skills.  Dr. Nadine Burke Harris provides a clear visualization with the following scenario.

“If you look on the molecular level, you’re walking through the forest and you see a bear, right? So you can either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s kind of your fight or flight system.  And your body releases a ton of adrenalin, right? Which is your short-term stress hormone, and something else called cortisol, which tends to be more of a long-term stress hormone. And this dilates your pupils, gets your heart beating fast. Your skin gets cold and clammy. That’s because you’re shunting blood from anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary to the muscles that you need to be able to run from that bear.

The other thing that it does– now, you can imagine that if you’re about to fight a bear, you need some gumption to fight that bear, right? So it kind of shuts off the thinking portion of your brain, right? That executive function cognitive part. And it turns on the real primal aggression and the things that you need to be able to think that you’re going to go into a fight with a bear and come out on the winning side.

And that’s really good if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night. Right? And for a lot of these kids, what happens is that this system, this fight or flight response, which is an emergency response in your body, it’s activated over and over and over again.” 

The repetition of this response creates pathways in the brain.  The effect of this repeated stress shows up on brain scans, specifically on the prefrontal cortex where a lot of the non-cognitive skills happen.  Basically, for these kids, the bear never goes away…even when they’re sitting in class.  This leads to things teachers see like difficulty paying attention or sitting still.

The rest of the story explains two significant solutions: one avenue that is more of a preventative one for younger children, as well as another that can be taught at later ages.

Studies have shown that a secure attachment relationship with an empathetic parent can significantly lower the affect of stress on the body.  So imagine a child who has grown up in these circumstances and now is possibly a teenage mother, again living in poverty and all the stresses associated with that. Often lacking role models of her own, she sees the baby as an incomprehensible bundle of need.  But the cycle can end if this mom is taught how to read her baby’s cues, and ways to respond, help and comfort her child—ways that enable the child to be more socially competent, confident, to make friends, rebound from setbacks, and engage in school.

But what if you’re dealing with a teenager now?  Paul Tough observed Kewauna Lerma in a Chicago school program called One Goal.  This program employs teachers as coaches, too, teaching leadership principles like ambition, resilience, professionalism, and resourcefulness.  Students learn grit, self-control, how to rebound from a setback, and more concrete skills like how to present yourself, network, and ask questions.  The idea is that it’s going to be difficult to make up how far behind this student is in cognitive skills and test scores.  Out of the 128 kids that started the program the same year as Kewauna, 85% are in their sophomore year.  That’s remarkable when you consider that 8% of high school freshman in Chicago get a 4-year college degree.

And it’s not just Chicago schools that need help.  The U.S. used to have a higher percentage of students graduate from college than any other country.  Now we have the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.

Heckman’s Conclusion:
Heckman and other educators believe these non-cognitive skills can be taught, making those kids able to seize a better future for themselves.

And this, I think, just changes the way we think about poverty and human opportunity and what can we do to open up more possibilities to more people…I think one of the reasons why people don’t think of this as a possibility is they think these traits are fixed at birth or fixed so early there’s not much we can do about it. 

And I think what we’ve learned is that these human capabilities can be shaped. And as an economist, what I like about it is that it has this possibility of reducing inequality, but not doing it through the standard mechanism of just handing out money and transfers from the rich to the poor. That’s ancient. The idea is you make the poor highly capable. That there really is a possibility of giving people more possibilities. That there really is the chance of improving their capabilities.  And I’m personally very excited by that. And a lot of the evidence comes together, whether it’s neuroscience, psychology, economics. It’s the confluence of these things. There are these happy times in science and social science and knowledge where different strands come together. And I think we’re at such a time.

One Hour Well Spent: NPR Back to School story

I recently spent about an hour listening to a podcast my husband downloaded from NPR’s This American Life.  I was hesitant to “waste” an hour of my time listening to a news story, even one highly recommended by my hubby.  But I’m glad I did.  And so I realize that you, too, might need some convincing.  Because I’d like to strongly recommend this Back to School story to you.

Have you ever had a discussion about standardized testing and the state of education?  If so, it’s likely that you’re either a parent (or family member) or taxpayer, or both.  This topic affects just about everyone.

This American Life’s Back to School news story is refreshingly not a political discourse on policy.

As kids and teachers head back to school, we wanted to turn away from questions about politics and unions and money and all the regular school stuff people argue about, and turn to something more optimistic — an emerging theory about what to teach kids, from Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed.

It begins by asking two huge questions:
How much should teachers be evaluated on standardized test scores? Host Ira Glass, a former reporter in Chicago, believes, “Where you stand pretty much comes down to whether you think teachers have a lot of power to raise those scores or not.  Are they lazy, excuse-making quasi-professionals or alternately life-savers…The truth is more complicated.”

And in light of the recent Chicago teachers strike, the question was:
How much could we expect teachers to actually accomplish…with the students they were given?

This story moves the discussion from teachers to focusing on the students in the “achievement gap.”  By looking at research from neuroscience, as well as social sciences like economics and psychology, it details the body of science that explores what a difficult home life can do to the actual biology of the brain of a school kid. The conclusions will excite you and give you hope as you learn the answers to: “What are the determinants of human success?  How fixed are these determinants?  How much can you change them?”

I hope so.  Here’s the link to the full story.

Not convinced, or perhaps short on time?  I’ve compiled some highlights that can paint the picture for you.  This post will cover part 1, The Problem.  Part 2 will cover The Solution.  You can also view the transcript at

What should kids be learning in school?
James Heckman came across the GED in the early 90’s and, as an economist, was amazed at this test.  It basically says that, by passing this test, millions of people’s cognitive skills are just as good as graduates.  But the average study time for the GED is 32 hours whereas the average study time for high school students is 1000 hours per year.  His logical conclusion: “All eighth graders should take the GEDs…instead of going to high school.”  This would save money and time.

This raised some questions in his mind, which led him to devise a study to follow these students into adult life.  After comparing graduates to people with GEDs, he found that those who passed the GED performed significantly lower in life: performance in earnings and occupation, success in college, success in marriage, and even the military.

But what struck Heckman is that this didn’t show up in the test results. Our entire education system is organized around the idea that testing and the kind of smarts that you can measure on a test, are the most important information we could have about a student. That’s how we evaluate whether a school is well-run. There are kids who do better on standardized tests. That’s at the heart of huge policy initiatives, like No Child Left Behind.

So Heckman concluded that these test scores don’t explain the full picture of what measures success.  There are other factors that public policy isn’t accounting for.  Heckman wanted to find these mystery skills.

And specifically, he was interested in finding skills that he could prove, empirically prove, help kids succeed– and succeed in the ways that an economist measure success. Things like how much money do you earn, and do you end up in prison, and are you on welfare? And he then wanted to try to understand how these things could be taught.

So what are these mystery skills?  We turn to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  He explains that there isn’t a master list but he gave a few terms and examples: non-cognitive skills, character, soft skills, social skills, and personality traits…they’re a bit hard to define with one word.  Examples would include things like self-control, delaying gratification, resisting impulse, keeping your temper, etc…



A famous example is the Marshmallow test.  Search for this test in YouTube and you’ll be highly entertained as children are given the choice between getting one marshmallow immediately, or 2 marshmallows if they can wait an unspecified amount of time.  The psychology professor at Stanford, Walter Mischel, who conducted the original test in the 60’s found that these kids’ ability to resist temptation as 4 year-olds had huge correlations to their SAT scores and earnings later in life.

Marshmallow test–

Theo has his meltdown at the 3 minute mark of this hilarious video–

Schools teach and test things that are measurable—cognitive skills like reading and math.  While these are important, the overemphasis leaves a large body of non-cognitive skills unaccounted for.

The next post will summarize Paul Tough’s and James Heckman’s solutions.