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.

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