Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

The mechanisms of learning

Jim Heckman and co-authors Rodrigo Pinto and Peter A. Savelyev have a new study in which they return to the famous Perry pre-school experiments in order to trace out the mechanisms by which the Perry interventions made such a huge difference to the lives of the participants over the next forty years. This new work continues Heckman’s effort to demonstrate the importance of noncognitive skills to success in life.

It’s becoming particularly important as schools focus more and more on measurement that we not get trapped by looking only at the measurement of cognitive skills. In this regard, Heckman shows two results from the Perry experiment.

  1. The experiment did change personality traits. So kids can be taught better noncognitive skills.
  2. The personality changes brought about by the Perry intervention explain a sizeable portion of the improved adult outcomes many years later.

Here’s a neat picture by Heckman et. al. on that first point.

The top row shows the changes in cognitive ability for boys and girls. Nothing happened to the boys. For the girls, there is weak evidence of a noticeable improvement.

The next two rows show two elements of noncognitive behavior. “Externalizing behavior” improves quite a bit. “Academic motivation” also improves for girls; the evidence for the boys is positive but weak.

School is about “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” But as Heckman once more reminds us, that’s not all it’s about.

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