Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Did a Nobel prize winning economist mathematically prove that character matters?

See Opting Out of the 'Rug Rat Race': For success in the long run, brain power helps, but what our kids really need to learn is grit. It is from the WSJ last week. Heckman found that students who don't graduate from high school but who later go on to get their GED have the same cognitive ability as those who did graduate. But they are way behind in things like graduating from college. Exerpt:

"What matters most in a child's development, they (psychologists) say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character.

If there is one person at the hub of this new interdisciplinary network, it is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago who in 2000 won the Nobel Prize in economics. In recent years, Mr. Heckman has been convening regular invitation-only conferences of economists and psychologists, all engaged in one form or another with the same questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? And what kind of interventions might help children do better?

The transformation of Mr. Heckman's career has its roots in a study he undertook in the late 1990s on the General Educational Development program, better known as the GED, which was at the time becoming an increasingly popular way for high-school dropouts to earn the equivalent of high-school diplomas. The GED's growth was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis, on the belief that what schools develop, and what a high-school diploma certifies, is cognitive skill. If a teenager already has the knowledge and the smarts to graduate from high school, according to this logic, he doesn't need to waste his time actually finishing high school. He can just take a test that measures that knowledge and those skills, and the state will certify that he is, legally, a high-school graduate, as well-prepared as any other high-school graduate to go on to college or other postsecondary pursuits.

Mr. Heckman wanted to examine this idea more closely, so he analyzed a few large national databases of student performance. He found that in many important ways, the premise behind the GED was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Mr. Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he found that GED recipients weren't anything like high-school graduates. At age 22, Mr. Heckman found, just 3% of GED recipients were either enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of postsecondary degree, compared with 46% of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs—GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.

These results posed, for Mr. Heckman, a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, he had always believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person's life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group—GED holders—whose good test scores didn't seem to have any positive effect on their eventual outcomes. What was missing from the equation, Mr. Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits, or noncognitive skills, that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school."

No comments: