Report: Non-Academic Skills Are Key Ingredient To Student Success

Report: Non-Academic Skills Are Key Ingredient To Student Success

A new report says that non-academic skills are just as important to long-term student success. In this 2013 photo, students line up to go to recess at Jay W. Jeffers Elementary School. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

A new report says that non-academic skills are just as important to long-term student success as academic skills. In this 2013 photo, students line up to go to recess at Jay W. Jeffers Elementary School in Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

BOSTON — There’s little doubt that skills that can’t be measured by standardized tests still play a pretty big role in a student’s education.

Skills like self-confidence, the ability to work well with others, attitudes toward learning, and control over one’s emotions. Beyond making day-to-day life easier to navigate, these skills have long term effects in one’s life.

They’re associated with high school and college success, likelihood of future employment, higher earnings, positive health and smaller chances of incarceration. In fact, being proficient in those non-academic skills can result in impacts 40 years down the line, according to a report released Tuesday by Boston-based education nonprofit Transforming Education (TransformEd).

“The skills students need to become successful not just in school, but in their careers and their lives, include, very significantly, a set of skills that are not the focus of schools when [schools] only look at test scores,” said Christopher Gabrieli, TransformEd co-founder and chairman.

Gabrieli, a one-time gubernatorial candidate, is also co-founder of the National Center on Time & Learning and a major player in the expanded learning time movement. He says his work in expanding the school day raised a very specific question: What skills do students really need?

While there is mounting evidence from researchers of the importance of these non-cognitive skills, there are a number of challenges when it comes to deliberately teaching, learning and measuring them in schools.

Intrapersonal Skills

Research and case studies that measure “soft skills” like self-control, openness to learning and teamwork show that mastery over these abilities can result in significant impacts in students’ lives.

Gabrieli says learning all of the skills are important, but finds some to have more profound lasting effects than others.

“Intrapersonal skills,” Gabrieli said. “In particular, conscientiousness and self-management.”

A long-term study of roughly 1,000 children born in 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, found that levels of self-control strongly predict outcomes later in life, like high school graduation, adult earnings and absence from criminal activity.

Researchers gleaned data from participant self-reporting, plus teacher and parent reporting.

According to the Dunedin study, almost all of those who rated themselves as having high self-control went on to earn a high school diploma, while just over half of those who said they didn’t have much self-control earned a diploma. The study says those who say they have low self-control are 2.5 times more likely to smoke by age 15, eight times more likely to drop out of high school, and four times more likely to be an unplanned parent.

“Those measures of self-control have extraordinary predictive power over the lifetime of these students,” Gabrieli said. “[It’s a pretty] major deal, both for the person themselves and for society.”

Notably, studies also show that self-control is a better predictor of whether a student improves academically over a school year than a student’s IQ.

But self-control can change; it’s not static and, in many cases, it improves. So if we can teach students self-control, they’ll do better at school and in life, right?

Well, kind of.

While the Dunedin study doesn’t prove that an outside influence, like a school-based program, would effectively change a student’s self control, it shows that long-term benefits are in place when a student’s self-control does change.

The report also finds that students’ mindsets about their intelligence can predict academic achievement. Research shows that students who have a “growth mindset” — meaning they believe intelligence can increase through practice and effort — do better than students who think their intelligence is fixed at a certain level.

“Saying to a kid who does well on a test ‘You’re smart’ is actually associated with negative developments versus praising a child, regardless of how they did, for where their effort shown,” Gabrieli said.

In a study cited in the report, the math grades of seventh graders with a so-called growth mindset increased over a two-year period, while those who believe intelligence is fixed stayed relatively flat. Other students who say they have a growth mindset are more likely to graduate than peers who don’t.

“When you look at all of that, you see these [skills] are really strongly validated,” said Gabrieli.

Measuring Up

Validated or no, how do you measure these types of non-academic skills? How do we know how a student is doing with self-control or whether they have a growth mindset?

To answer this question, Gabrieli and TransformEd turned to surveys. And this past spring, 450,000 students in California school districts took them.

“It turns out that just as we would have expected, these measures predicted the outcomes you would expect,” Gabrieli said. “Kids who rated themselves lower in self-management had higher absentee rates, suspensions and the like. Kids who rated themselves higher in growth-mindset had higher GPAs.”

Still, Gabrieli knows that surveys pose challenges. They’re hardly the same measures of hard skills typically used in schools.

“It’s a little bit like asking someone if they’re good at math,” said Gabrieli. “They may be roughly right … but most people feel a lot more comfortable determining whether you’re good at math by asking you to do math problems, not your opinion of whether you’re good at math.”

Still, TransformEd’s measure of students’ non-cognitive skills comes at a time when the national dialogue seems to be switching away from a focus on standardized academic testing toward embracing and supporting other measures of student success. Schools in all of Massachusetts’ so-called Gateway Cities now conduct classroom-based social-emotional learning programs each year.

And draft language from a new federal education bill would require all 50 states to add at least one non-academic measure to the mix when assessing schools.

“If we began to measure these things routinely, we could begin to identify where there are pockets of success above what you’d expect,” said Gabrieli. “There’s plenty of intervening already, it’d be nice to know which of that is working better than the others.”


  • CircusMcGurkus

    If we teach children to be kind and curious – and we instill this every day – at home and in school – everything else will take care of itself. Even if we teach them nothing else.

    • Michael

      I appreciate you sharing your own opinion. I also want this to be true. I would appreciate if you could point out to ANY reading supporting this notion. Thanks.

      • CircusMcGurkus

        We teach our children to be selfish and to mind their “own” business. We do not instill generosity of spirit unless it is in very controlled ways that adults manage. We teach them to excel even if it means cheating, we teach them that winning is everything, we teach them that curiosity is troublesome because it detracts from the day’s lesson or the little circle on the important test. We pretend we care about education but what teenagers go through today in regard to college applications is nothing short of child abuse. We are not raising better people either. We are not building community – even online “communities” have trolls and bullies and “mean girls”. We give lip service to doing good but what really stands out is “success” as defined by others. But we regard basic decency as exceptional in children (and even in adults) rather than what is to be expected in civil society.
        Kindness – not “niceness” means caring, genuinely, about the planet and how workers are treated and mindful consumption, giving back when we can; curiosity sparks the next great invention but also encourages understanding of the world around us, history and our fellow human beings everywhere around the Globe. Both cause us to pause and consider before acting, particularly in a way that will harm others and both cause us to feel remorse if, even unintentionally, we have done harm.
        We do not need metrics on this – it just is true that we learn from our environment and toxic environments breed more toxicity. No one is saying people should not earn high salaries or work to achieve goals, even if their goals happen to be fiscal only. It is simply stating that kindness and curiosity form the foundation for all that is good in humanity (because humanity is really screwed up) so it should be the foundation for how we educate our kids which we can only hope will inform how our business models progress. Kind kids will include all other kids in play. Curious kids will want to learn as much as they can – to read, write, explore, solve problems and figure out why and how things work not because there are good-paying jobs in those areas, just because.

        Even the idea that this needs to be validated by study is preposterous and antithetical to the concepts themselves. So – no – I cannot point you to anything to “read” about this but if we
        continue doing things the way we do them, we are doomed.

    • Annmarie Chereso

      So agree. Curiosity is the key to “successful” learning. Otherwise our kids are simply memorizing facts painfully to get thru. If we do not foster curiosity in the home and as importantly at school, we are stunting the natural desire to explore and therefore our kids ability to tune into their true passions.

  • Christine Langhoff

    Education gadfly Gabrielli has a product to sell, and it would be a refreshing change if these product endorsements did not come cloaked as research and promoted by those reporting on education.

    Every professional teacher understands and promotes these social skills in building a classroom community. It’s part and parcel of teacher education, child development and adolescent psychology. The constant “measuring and assessing” interferes with the work teachers do in the classroom, creating safe and positive learning experiences for kids. Teachers don’t need these products, but their producers sure do need the ability and opportunity to insert themselves into the lives of school kids to run their businesses – especially the businesses incorporated as non-profits.

    • CircusMcGurkus

      True (though qualified because you use the term “professional” which I take to mean not just paid but good – some teachers do NOT foster these skills – some teachers are mean and some encourage bullies and some do not really have these life skills in the first place but I am content to call them “unprofessional”). Teachers are not encouraged to teach, inspire and educate which is why most of them became teachers. You describe a travesty that harms so many generations: the new crop of eager educators and the children in their classrooms and how many more to come? If teachers cannot teach well then students cannot learn and will not want to.

  • Marsha

    I am the grandmother of a pre-schooler at your school and a teacher-trainer at teaching colleges in Israel, It is clear that non-academic skills are the foundations for learning and life and should be a focus both in schools and at home. It should be an integral thread in the planning and implementation of all domains of learning and development.