The most far-reaching shift in American education policy over the past 15 years has been the growth of the test-based accountability movement. That movement’s guiding theory, embodied on the federal level in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and President Obama’s Race to the Top program, is that students’ prospects for success can be accurately measured by standardized tests and that the most effective way to motivate students, teachers, and schools to succeed is to attach high-stakes accountability measures to those tests.
More recently, though, a counter-movement has emerged. Educators and scientists have embraced a growing body of evidence for the importance of a second, separate set of skills, quite different from the ones commonly measured on standardized tests. These qualities are variably identified as noncognitive skills, social and emotional skills, soft skills, or character strengths. And as we point out in our article, “Rethinking How Students Succeed,” there are clear indications that these skills not only are valuable in their own right; they also make students more effective learners.
After many years of effort—working too often in isolation and at cross-purposes—a number of leaders in the noncognitive field are beginning to exchange ideas and work together in a serious way. While there remain important disagreements about strategy, language, and emphasis, the commonalities within the field finally seem to be more urgent than the differences.
To my mind, the most important recent sign of this more unified approach is the gradual shift away from a conversation about skills toward a conversation about environments. The traditional way of looking at so-called noncognitive skills (such as persistence or self-control) is to see them as a close analog to so-called cognitive skills (such as language or math ability). The problem with that analogy, as we are coming to understand, is that noncognitive skills are not developed in the same way as cognitive skills. Traditional models of teaching that work very well in transmitting algebra skills to ninth-grade students are entirely ineffective when they’re applied to teaching ninth-graders how to, say, stick with difficult tasks or experience a greater sense of motivation and connection in the classroom.
Many of the initiatives highlighted in “Rethinking How Students Succeed,” by contrast, are based in the emerging notion that the best way to create more effective learners is to change the environments in which students learn—to change the tenor of the interactions students have with their teachers and other adults in their schools, and to change the messages students encounter throughout the day about their ability to succeed and to belong in an academic setting. This is not a simple process. As we wrote in the article, “Creating the right classroom environment starts at the top with district and school leaders who make noncognitive factors a system-wide priority. And it extends to every adult who is interacting with students throughout the school day.”
“Rethinking How Students Succeed” makes the case that teachers, in order to create those positive environments, need first to be encouraged and trained to model certain behaviors and habits and attitudes, like a growth mindset and a sense of self-efficacy. Right now, though, in most teacher training and professional development programs, that approach is a low priority, if it is present at all. Fortunately, some of the efforts highlighted in the report, including the 8/9TN initiative in Chicago and the work of the New Teacher Center, reflect a new approach to teacher training, one that is gaining in acceptance and impact.
If we want to help many more students succeed, particularly students who are growing up in disadvantaged circumstances, we need to do a better job of improving the environments in which they learn and the quality of the interactions they experience at school. That will be difficult to achieve without a significant change in how we educate, train, and support our teachers. The best news in “Rethinking How Students Succeed” is that leaders across the country are now working to bring about that change.