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We Empirically Know that Academics Aren’t the Whole Picture of Long-Term Flourishing

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Last time, I demonstrated that we intuitively know that student long-term flourishing outcomes result not primarily from academic knowledge and skill, but rather from noncognitive factors (e.g., perseverance, the ability to focus, work ethic, kindness, bravery, and so on). As we discussed, it's not that academic mastery doesn't matter at all — it clearly does — it's just that it doesn't matter as powerfully as our systems for measuring school and student success suggest.

This time, I’d like to share the empirical evidence that supports this conclusion.

First, a Nobel Prize-winner's work. For the past couple decades, economist James Heckman has demonstrated that folks who earn high school credentials via the GED experienced markedly poorer life outcomes than those who earn them by completing high school. The problem, Heckman argues, is that earning a traditional high school diploma requires more than the general knowledge tested on the GED — it requires what he calls character skills.

From James Heckman et. al.'s The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life (p. xii):

Character skills— conscientiousness, perseverance, social skills, and the like — matter greatly for success in life. Raw smarts are rarely enough.

Heckman and his co-authors analyze more than half a dozen data sets to find that GED recipients end up with similar health, financial, and employment outcomes as students who drop out of high school and do not earn a GED.

As it turns out, Heckman's ideas aren't new. In 1838, American edu-founder Horace Mann wrote:

Arithmetic, grammar, and the other rudiments, as they are called, comprise but a small part of the teachings in a school. The rudiments of feeling are taught not less than the rudiments of thinking. The sentiments and passions get more lessons than the intellect. Though their open recitations may be less, their secret rehearsals are more.*

Mann, of course, was writing in a time when American public schooling was in its infancy, American slavery was decades from being over, and American legalized segregation had more than a century left. Nonetheless, even in the nineteenth century it was obvious to educational thinkers that cognitive achievement plus nothing would add up to far less than a flourishing life.

Alfred Binet, co-creator of the modern IQ test that formed the bedrock for whatever acronymic high stakes test your state uses, had similar concerns in 1916:

[Success in school]… admits of other things than intelligence; to succeed in his studies, one must have qualities which depend on attention, will, and character; for example, a certain docility, a regularity of habits, and especially a continuity of effort. A child, even if intelligent, will learn little in class if he never listens, if he spends his time in playing tricks, in giggling, in playing truant.*

(Side note: I appreciate that Binet was worried about students who spend their time playing tricks and giggling. Oh Alfred… if only someone could have shown you a student who has spent his or her entire weekend not sleeping while playing Fortnite or tending to their Snapchat streaks…)

Finally, let's quickly look at something economist Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University found when examining the impact of cognitive and noncognitive measures on long-term flourishing outcomes. Using an extensive database in North Carolina, Jackson looked at long-term flourishing outcomes (educational attainment, adult wages, criminal record) as they related to two measures:

  • Cognitive achievement on ninth grade standardized tests
  • Noncognitive achievement via combining four numbers: students' attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and GPA

Guess which set of measures did the best job predicting long-term good? The simple noncognitive set. (Thank you to Paul Tough, whose Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why pointed me toward Jackson's work, and to Character Lab, whose annual Educator Summit gave Jackson a keynote spot two years ago.)

So all that I’m saying right now is that we know that academics aren’t the whole picture. We know it at the gut level — which matters — and we know it because people way smarter than us** have demonstrated it empirically.

And yet, this doesn't mean we ought to stop measuring academic outcomes! More on that next time.


*Both Mann and Binet are cited in Heckman's The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life.

**I mean, has anyone reading this won a Nobel Prize? If so, please email me because it'd be cool to get an email from a Nobel laureate.

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