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Focus on Fade-Out (Part 4): An ESSA Role for Social-Emotional Development

This is the fourth in a series looking at research on why the effects of successful education interventions often diminish over time. You can read the first installment here, the second here, and the third here.

For those who want to find interventions that actually change students' long-term academic trajectory, the Every Student Succeeds Act may offer an important new path: students' social and emotional development.

ESSA requires states to use at least one nonacademic indicator, such as student engagement or class climate, to measure schools' success. And researchers say new longitudinal measures to track nonacademic aspects of learning could finally help us understand—and ultimately prevent—educational benefits from fading out. 

"It's super important to look at other measures besides IQ," said Andres Hojman, a senior researcher in the lab of James Heckman, one of the original researchers in the Abecedarian Project, one of the only early-learning programs whose intelligence gains did not fade completely over time.

Hojman and his colleagues found in a meta-analysis of noncognitive benefits from early-childhood programs not only were more sustained throughout the students' later school years, but also may explain so-called "sleeper benefits," such as higher high school graduation rates, lower adult crime rates, and higher employment for adults who had previously been in preschool.

For example, in a working paper released last month, Hojman, Heckman, and colleagues reported that students in the Perry Preschool Project showed significantly higher levels of academic motivation, and lower levels of "externalizing behavior"—a measure of self control.

  • For girls, the higher academic motivation was associated with 30 to 40 percent of the difference in their academic achievement and employment as adults, compared to girls who had not participated.
  • For boys, the higher levels of self control was linked to 65 percent of their lower violent crime rates, 40 percent of their lower arrests, and 20 percent of their higher rates of employment compared to boys who had not participated in preschool. 

Yet Hojman noted there has been virtually no study of whether nonacademic benefits fade out as academic ones do, or how they interact with cognitive benefits over time. That's something the ESSA initiative might change. 

"Part of the reason we haven't studied fade-out of nonacademic [skills] measuring nonacademic skills is harder," he said. "It's easier to talk about IQ because everyone kind of knows what an IQ of 100 means."

ESSA may encourage states to develop a common language and common metrics for academic motivation, growth mindset, and other nonacademic factors that sit in the sweet spot of the "trifecta skills" identified as critical to interventions with long-term results. 


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