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Thompson: Heckman's Promising New Study on Teens & Self-Control

Heckman2A generation ago, Nobel Laureate James Heckman pulled together the social science documenting the need for high-quality early childhood education.  He explained the importance of programs for teaching character skills such as perseverance (“grit"), self-control, trust, attentiveness, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Now, Heckman and Tim Kautz, in Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition, evaluate the effectiveness of adolescent interventions. 

Building on previous findings, they report “programs that combine work and education are more promising and have been shown to have lasting effects.”

Heckman’s recent work, like his analysis of early education, finds that “successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.”

It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that graduating from high school became the norm.  It is only in recent decades that secondary schools became the prime institutions for socializing most teenagers. Previously, youth mostly found mentoring at home, the workplace, and on the farm. So, it should be no surprise that the time-tested apprenticeship methods show great potential for teaching children how to engage productively in society.

I will limit my discussion of Heckman’s and Kautz’s comprehensive analysis to some findings that seem most relevant for improving high-challenge secondary schools. They  identify the likely reason why the benefits of Job Corps mostly fade away. It promotes GED certification.  As Heckman has indicated earlier, passing achievement tests is not the path to success.  It takes both cognitive and character skills in order to develop the traits required for a healthy and fulfilling  life. 

Perhaps even more important is Heckman’s and Kautz’s analysis of the four reasons why the five-city Quantum Opportunity Program (QOP) largely failed. I was especially struck by the discovery that the program’s “mentors might have served as advocates when students were in trouble at school or with the law, lowering the cost of engaging in problem behaviors." 

On the other hand, the Wisconsin youth apprenticeship program helped young people develop problem-solving skills. It nurtured self-confidence, teamwork, the ability to take initiative, and other noncognitive skills. This taught teenagers to meet established disciplinary standards, to meet deadlines and to handle unexpected difficulties. The lesson for schools is that adults need to “scaffold the discipline protocol” for young people.  Mentors need to teach teens how to sequence their work and focus their attention. 

Successful programs motivate students to learn academic material, as they integrate them into the larger society. They break down the artificial barrier between the culture of American high schools and the rest of society. They reinforce the previous finding of Robert Halpern (2009) that “young people learn through observation, imitation, trial and error, and reiteration; in other words through force of experience." The lesson for secondary schools is that they should also respect and nurture students’ personal autonomy, sense of efficacy, motivation, realism, and hopefulness. 

Educators, like me, who come from the progressive tradition were correct in seeking schools that could be a buffer between the dictates of the “real world” and teenagers.  In my experience, however, most teachers believe we have gone too far in shielding youth from the adult world.  The inner city secondary schools that I know are consequence-free zones, or at least they are until they aren’t anymore.  We have done students a disservice by allowing so many of them to do pretty-much what they want, until an invisible line is crossed.  Perhaps students are let off the hook for one behavioral infraction after another, until they commit an offence at a time when adults are stressed out, and then they are held accountable for transgressions that had previously been ignored.  Or, perhaps students are granted amnesty for offences throughout their public school years and then have to learn the hard way that such behaviors are not tolerated anywhere outside of schools. 

Heckman's work has often been cited in support of  KIPP. I worry that their pedagogies degenerate into authoritarianism. So, I am doubly pleased that school-work apprenticeship models show great promise.  Teachers do not need to yield the field of teaching the socio-emotional to No Excuses schools. Common sense says that authoritative, supportive, and loving relationships are the key to success in school and life.   We should listen to Heckman and create a progressive alternative for teaching young people to become students.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via. 

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This is really good research and is not just born of theory; but, long-term experiential studies. Thanks for exposing us to this work, John. Progressive thought values the mentoring part of this; but, not the realization of how hard life is for someone who comes up off the street and tries to move beyond the dead ends. The need to mentor a young person to be mentally and emotionally strong does not come from constantly making excuses and covering for a student. Yet, it is critical to understand why especially poor youth want to give up so easily. Good stuff.

This jibes with common sense. Teens crave to spend all their time with each other, but what they need is contact with adults they can model themselves after. Teachers can be that model to some extent (and especially for teens who see themselves in that kind of occupation) but many need other types of models that they can find in apprenticeship (or even just employment) situations.

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