A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by James Heckman and Tim Kautz looks at the relationship between “character” and student achievement as measured by test scores. Long story short: achievement tests don’t necessarily measure what will often matter most once students hit the real world.
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This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and boosting cognitive and noncognitive skills. The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills–personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences–that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills. Reliable measures of character have been developed. All measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task. In order to reliably estimate skills from tasks, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills when measuring any particular skill.
Character is a skill, not a trait. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments. Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years.
John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast ”How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”
The past 60 years in the U.S. has seen dramatic policy changes to the public-education system. The ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s saw desegregation and affirmative action, and since the ‘80s there have been efforts to increase school funding, the introduction of voucher systems, and the creation of countless charter schools. In between we’ve seen efforts to reduce class sizes, introduce technology into classrooms, improve teacher credentialing, and a massive attempt to leave No Child Left Behind.
What do we have to show for all this? That’s hard to say. Even though many programs have a high price tag, they were never implemented with an eye towards assessment. The data we do have shows that not much has changed over the past 30 years. The figure attached shows how the racial achievement gap in test scores has persisted for white and black Americans since the late 1970s.
If you don’t like the breakdown by race, then consider that the high school dropout rate among high-income families in 1972 was 2% and in 2008 it was still at 2%. For low-income families, though? In 1972 it was 14% and in 2008 it was still at 9%. This sort of trend (or lack thereof) is manifested in dozens of measures of academic achievement, all of which suggest that the past 60 years of educational reform has very little to show for itself. Read More »
Our most recent podcast was called “Would a Big Bucket of Cash Really Change Your Life?” It showed that the winners of a 19th-century land lottery did not appear to convert their windfall into intergenerational wealth. This challenges the modern argument that cash transfers are one of the most effective ways of helping a poor family escape poverty — and, therefore, as we said in the podcast, might be seen as a depressing conclusion.
Judd Campbell from Odessa, Texas, wrote in to dispute the depressing part, and offer some worthwhile commentary:
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I just finished listening to the latest podcast about the Georgia land lottery in the 19th century. I actually found it not to be depressing at all.
1. It would be depressing to me to know that poverty has existed into modernity, and the solution would be a simple one-time transfer of wealth. Surely, we could have figured that out by now and eliminated poverty. Clearly, the issue is more complex than that, and thus we have an excuse for not developing a solution. Yet.
2. While I don’t consider myself wealthy, I do make a healthy salary and live in a comfortable home with 4 kids. There are a couple of things that I believe about my life, that may or may not be logical or factual, but provides me comfort:
a. My financial success is not due to my parents. I did it on my own. I did grow up in a comfortable home with loving and supportive parents, my father has a master’s degree, and I appreciate what they have provided me. But in my gut I feel like I achieved my own success. This podcast was uplifting, because it seems to confirm that I am responsible for my own success.
b. On the other hand, I feel like my financial success will help my children be financially successful. Even though I don’t give my parents credit for my success, I believe that I can influence my children to be successful.
Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do Baby Girls Cause Divorce?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
This episode was inspired by a question from a reader named John Dolan-Heitlinger, who wrote the following:
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My wife has observed that in marriages where there is a son there is less chance of the husband leaving the marriage.
I wonder if that is true.
Thanks for your consideration.
A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Paul Gertler, James Heckman, and several other co-authors examines the impressive long-term effects of a Jamaican program that taught low-income parents better parenting skills. Here’s the abstract:
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We find large effects on the earnings of participants from a randomized intervention that gave psychosocial stimulation to stunted Jamaican toddlers living in poverty. The intervention consisted of one-hour weekly visits from community Jamaican health workers over a 2-year period that taught parenting skills and encouraged mothers to interact and play with their children in ways that would develop their children’s cognitive and personality skills. We re-interviewed the study participants 20 years after the intervention. Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psychosocial stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.
A reader from Wadsworth, Ohio, named Tom Morris writes with an idea. He is a lawyer and, he says, and an “occasional acting judge in a small town”:
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In my capacity as acting judge, I find myself repeatedly dealing with the same issues. Young adults irresponsibly having kids without any ability, either monetarily or emotionally, to raise them. These unwanted kids are left unsupervised, and are more likely to commit crimes and have more unwanted kids, which continues this cycle.
While I have not crunched the numbers to support this hypothesis, it is consistent with Dr. Levitt’s study made famous from your first book. Unwanted children are a bad thing. Preventing this “bad thing” would lead to a reduction in crime, reduction in poverty, and a reduction of just about every other social ill I can think of.
How do economic conditions affect the incidence of child abuse? While researchers have found that poverty and child abuse are linked, there’s been no evidence that downturns increase abuse. A new working paper (PDF; abstract) by economists Jason M. Lindo, Jessamyn Schaller, and Benjamin Hansen “addresses this seeming contradiction.” Here’s the abstract, with a key finding in bold:
Using county-level child abuse data spanning 1996 to 2009 from the California Department of Justice, we estimate the extent to which a county’s reported abuse rate diverges from its trend when its economic conditions diverge from trend, controlling for statewide annual shocks. The results of this analysis indicate that overall measures of economic conditions are not strongly related to rates of abuse. However, focusing on overall measures of economic conditions masks strong opposing effects of economic conditions facing males and females: male layoffs increase rates of abuse whereas female layoffs reduce rates of abuse. These results are consistent with a theoretical framework that builds on family-time-use models and emphasizes differential risks of abuse associated with a child’s time spent with different caregivers.
A working paper (abstract; PDF) from economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan advances another possible explanation for the lagging academic performance of boys — preschool boys, at least. Here’s the abstract:
We study differences in the time parents spend with boys and girls at preschool ages in Canada, the UK and the US. We refine previous evidence that fathers commit more time to boys, showing this greater commitment emerges with age and is not present for very young children. We next examine differences in specific parental teaching activities such as reading and the use of number and letters. We find the parents commit more of this time to girls, starting at ages as young as 9 months. We explore possible explanations of this greater commitment to girls including explicit parental preference and boy-girl differences in costs of these time inputs. Finally, we offer evidence that these differences in time inputs are important: in each country the boy-girl difference in inputs can account for a non-trivial proportion of the boy-girl difference in preschool reading and math scores.
The authors’ results also indicate that the time differences are not due to parents’ gender preferences, but may be related to the opportunity cost of the mother’s time. ”Given that time spent reading with children (primarily boys) increases after the introduction of a new child care subsidy, the parental time inputs we study may not be easily substituted by non-parental care,” they write. “Instead, this finding is consistent with a story in which boys are less rewarding to teach, and parents are more willing to persevere with boys once they are not responsible for their care throughout the day.”