In the summer of 2009, a couple of weeks after my son, Ellington, was born, I spent the day in a prekindergarten classroom in a small town in New Jersey. The two events were unrelated--I was visiting room 140 at the Red Bank Primary School not to scope out the class as a new parent but to try to understand it as a journalist. At first glance, the classroom seemed entirely ordinary. The cinder-block walls were painted a cheery yellow; an American flag stood next to the whiteboard. Around the room, four-year-olds were happily engaged in the customary diversions of pre-K students: building towers of Legos and driving trucks through sand tables and piecing together jigsaw puzzles. But as the day progressed, I realized that what was going on in room 140 was in fact quite unusual, in ways both self-evident and subtle. To begin with, the students were remarkably calm and orderly. There were no tears that day, no meltdowns, no tantrums, no fights. Oddly, though, the teacher, a young, dark-haired woman named Ms. Leonardo, didn't seem to be going out of her way to maintain order, or even to guide the children's conduct in any overt fashion. There were no admonitions, no gold stars, no time-outs, no "I like the way Kellianne is paying attention!"--indeed, no rewards for good behavior or punishments for bad at all.
The students in room 140 were enrolled in a program called Tools of the Mind, a relatively new kindergarten and prekindergarten curriculum that was created by two educators in Denver and based on an unorthodox theory of child development. Most early-childhood classrooms in the United States today are designed to develop in children a set of specific pre-academic skills, mostly related to deciphering text and manipulating numbers. Tools of the Mind, by contrast, doesn't focus much on reading and math abilities. Instead, all of its interventions are intended to help children learn a different kind of skill: controlling their impulses, staying focused on the task at hand, avoiding distractions and mental traps, managing their emotions, organizing their thoughts. The founders of Tools of the Mind believe that these skills, which they group together under the rubric self-regulation, will do more to lead to positive to outcomes for their students, in first grade and beyond, than the traditional menu of pre-academic skills.
Tools of the Mind students are taught a variety of strategies, tricks, and habits that they can deploy to keep their minds on track. They learn to use "private speech": talking to themselves as they do a difficult task (like, say, forming the letter W), to help them remember what step comes next (down, up, down, up). They use "mediators": physical objects that remind them how to complete a particular activity (for instance, the two cards, one with a pair of lips and one with an ear, that signify whose turn it is to read aloud in buddy reading and whose turn it is to listen). Every morning, they fill out "play plans," forms on which they write or draw descriptions of that day's play: I am going to drive the train; I am going to take the dollies to the beach. And they spend long hours engaged in "mature dramatic play": extended, complex make-believe scenarios that the designers of Tools of the Mind believe naturally teach children how to follow rules and regulate impulses.
As I watched the kids in room 140, I found myself thinking, inevitably, about Ellington, the tiny life form cooing and burping and wailing away thirty miles to the north, in our studio apartment in Manhattan. I knew I wanted him to have a happy, successful life, but I didn't really know what, exactly, I meant by that, or just what my wife and I were supposed to be doing to help guide him there. I wasn't alone in my confusion. Ellington was born into a particularly anxious moment in the history of American parenting. And that anxiety had grown especially keen in cities like New York, where the competition over slots in favored preschools verged on the gladiatorial. A pair of economists from the University of California recently dubbed this nationwide contest for early academic achievement the Rug Rat Race, and each year, the race seems to be starting earlier and growing more intense. Two years before Ellington's birth, the Kumon chain of tutoring centers opened New York City's first Junior Kumon franchise, where children as young as two spent their mornings filling out worksheets and completing drills on letter and number recognition. "Age 3 is the sweet spot," Kumon's chief financial officer told a reporter for the New York Times. "But if they're out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them."
Ellington would be growing up in a culture saturated with an idea you might call the cognitive hypothesis: The belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills--the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns--and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible. The cognitive hypothesis has become so universally accepted that it is easy to forget that it is actually a relatively new invention. You can trace its contemporary rise, in fact, to 1994, when the Carnegie Corporation published Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children, a report that sounded an alarm about the cognitive development of our nation's children. The problem, according to the report, was that children were no longer receiving enough cognitive stimulation in the first three years of life, in part because of the increasing number of single-parent families and working mothers--and so they were arriving in kindergarten unready to learn. The report launched an entire industry of brain-building "zero-to-three" products for worried parents. Billions of dollars' worth of books and activity gyms and Baby Einstein videos and DVDs were sold.
The Carnegie findings and the studies that followed in their wake had a powerful effect on public policy, too, as legislators and philanthropists concluded that disadvantaged children were falling behind early on because of insufficient cognitive training. Psychologists and sociologists produced evidence linking the academic underperformance of poor children to a lack of verbal and mathematical stimulation at home and at school. One of the most famous of these studies (which I wrote about in my first book, Whatever It Takes) was conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, two child psychologists who, beginning in the 1980s, intensively studied a group of forty-two children from professional, working-class, and welfare families in Kansas City. Hart and Risley found that the crucial difference in the children's upbringings, and the reason for the divergence in their later outcomes, boiled down to one thing: the number of words that the children heard from their parents early in life. By age three, Hart and Risley determined, the children raised by professional parents had heard thirty million words spoken to them; the children with parents on welfare had heard just ten million. That shortfall, they concluded, was at the root of the poorer kids' later failures in school and in life.
There is something undeniably compelling about the cognitive hypothesis. The world it describes is so neat, so reassuringly linear, such a clear case of inputs here leading to outputs there. Fewer books in the home means less reading ability; fewer words spoken by parents means a smaller vocabulary for their kids; more math worksheets at Junior Kumon means better math scores. The correlations at times seemed almost comically exact: Hart and Risley calculated that a child who grew up on welfare would need precisely forty-one hours of language-intensive intervention each week in order to close the vocabulary gap with a working-class child.
But in the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that calls into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child's development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.
For certain skills, the stark calculus behind the cognitive hypothesis--that what matters in developing a skill is starting earlier and practicing more--is entirely valid. If you want to perfect your foul shot, shooting two hundred free throws every afternoon is indeed going to be more helpful than shooting twenty free throws every afternoon. If you're in fourth grade, reading forty books over the summer is going to improve your reading ability more than reading four books. Some skills really are pretty mechanical. But when it comes to developing the more subtle elements of the human personality, things aren't so simple. We can't get better at overcoming disappointment just by working harder at it for more hours. And children don't lag behind in curiosity simply because they didn't start doing curiosity drills at an early enough age. The pathways through which we acquire and lose these skills are certainly not random--psychologists and neuroscientists have learned a lot in the past few decades about where these skills come from and how they are developed--but these pathways are complex, unfamiliar, and often quite mysterious.
This book is about an idea, one that is growing clearer and gathering momentum in classrooms and clinics and labs and lecture halls across the country and around the world. According to this new way of thinking, the conventional wisdom about child development over the past few decades has been misguided. We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills. To call this a new school of thought is probably premature. In many cases the researchers adding to this growing store of knowledge are working in isolation. But increasingly, these scientists and educators are finding one another and making connections across the boundaries of academic disciplines. The argument they are piecing together has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.
If there is one person at the hub of this new interdisciplinary network, it is James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman might seem an unlikely figure to be leading a challenge to the supremacy of cognitive skill. He is a classic academic intellectual, his glasses thick, his IQ stratospheric, his shirt pocket bristling with mechanical pencils. He grew up in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, the son of a middle manager at a meatpacking company. Neither of his parents was college educated, but they both recognized early on that their son possessed a precocious mind. At the age of eight, Heckman devoured his father's copy of the popular self-help book 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, and at nine, he saved up his pennies and ordered Mathematics for the Practical Man from the back of a comic book. Heckman turned out to be a natural at math, more at home with equations than with anything or anyone else. As a teenager, for fun, he made a habit of taking long numbers and dividing them in his head into the prime numbers that made up their smallest factors--what mathematicians call resolving into primes. At age sixteen, he told me, when his Social Security number arrived in the mail, the first thing he did was resolve it into primes.
Heckman became a professor of economics, first at Columbia University and then at the University of Chicago, and in 2000 he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for a complex statistical method he had invented in the 1970s. Among economists, Heckman is known for his skill in econometrics, a particularly arcane type of statistical analysis that is generally incomprehensible to anyone except other econometricians. I sat in on several of Heckman's graduate classes, and though I did my best to keep up, most of the lectures were, for a layman like me, all but impossible to follow, thick with bewildering equations and phrases like generalized Leontief functions and Hicks-Slutsky substitution elasticity that made me want to put my head down on my desk and just close my eyes.
Although Heckman's techniques may seem impenetrable, the subjects he has chosen to focus on are anything but obscure. In the years since winning the Nobel, Heckman has used the clout and cachet the honor brought him not to cement his reputation within his field but to expand his pursuits, and his influence, into new areas of study that he previously knew little or nothing about, including personality psychology, medicine, and genetics. (He actually has a copy of Genetics for Dummies on his overstuffed office bookshelves, wedged in between two thick texts of economic history.) Since 2008, Heckman has been convening regular invitation-only conferences populated by equal numbers of economists and psychologists, all engaged in one way or another with the same questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? And what kind of interventions might help children do better?
Heckman oversees a group of two dozen mostly foreign-born graduate students and researchers scattered across a couple of buildings on the Chicago campus; they refer to their tribe, only half jokingly, as Heckmanland. Together, they're always working on several projects at once, and when Heckman talks about his work, he jumps from one topic to another, equally excited by the monkey study in Maryland, the twin study in China, and his collaboration with a philosopher down the hall on the true nature of virtue. (In one conversation with Heckman, I asked him to explain how the various strands of his research fit together. Afterward, as his assistant was walking me out, she turned to me and said, "If you find out, let us know.")
The transformation of Heckman's career has its roots in a study he undertook in the late 1990s on the General Educational Development program, better known as the GED program, which was at the time becoming an increasingly popular way for high-school dropouts to earn the equivalent of high-school diplomas. In many quarters, it was seen as a tool to level the academic playing field, to give low-income and minority students, who were more likely to drop out of high school, an alternative route to college.
The GED's growth was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis: the belief that what schools develop, and what a high-school degree certifies, is cognitive skill. If a teenager already has the knowledge and the smarts to graduate from high school, he doesn't need to waste his time actually finishing high school. He can just take a test that measures that knowledge and those skills, and the state will certify that he is, legally, a high-school graduate, as well prepared as any other high-school graduate to go on to college or other post-secondary pursuits. It is an attractive notion, especially to young people who can't stand high school, and the program has expanded rapidly since its introduction, in the 1950s. At the high-water mark, in 2001, more than a million young people took the test, and nearly one in every five new high-school "graduates" was actually a GED holder. (The figure is now about one in seven.)
Heckman wanted to examine more closely the idea that young people with GEDs were just as well prepared for further academic pursuits as high-school graduates. He analyzed a few large national databases, and he found that in many important ways, the premise was entirely valid. According to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates. But when Heckman looked at their path through higher education, he discovered that GED recipients weren't anything like high-school graduates. At age twenty-two, Heckman found, just 3 percent of GED recipients were enrolled in a four-year university or had completed some kind of post-secondary degree, compared to 46 percent of high-school graduates. In fact, Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes--annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs--GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts, despite the fact that they have earned this supposedly valuable extra credential, and despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts.
From a policy point of view, this was a useful finding, if a depressing one: In the long run, it seemed, as a way to improve your life, the GED was essentially worthless. If anything, it might be having a negative overall effect by inducing young people to drop out of high school. But for Heckman, the results also posed a confounding intellectual puzzle. Like most economists, Heckman had believed that cognitive ability was the single most reliable determinant of how a person's life would turn out. Now he had discovered a group--GED holders--whose good test scores didn't seem to have any positive effect on their lives.
What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits--an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan--also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally. As Heckman explained in one paper: "Inadvertently, the GED has become a test that separates bright but nonpersistent and undisciplined dropouts from other dropouts." GED holders, he wrote, "are ‘wise guys' who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks, or to adapt to their environments."
What the GED study didn't give Heckman was any indication of whether it was possible to help children develop those so-called soft skills. His search for an answer to that question led him, almost a decade ago, to Ypsilanti, Michigan, an old industrial town west of Detroit. In the mid-1960s, in the early days of the War on Poverty, a group of child psychologists and education researchers undertook an experiment there, recruiting low-income, low-IQ parents from the town's black neighborhoods to sign up their three- and four-year-old kids for the Perry Preschool. The recruited children were divided randomly into a treatment group and a control group. Children in the treatment group were admitted to Perry, a high-quality, two-year preschool program, and kids in the control group were left to fend for themselves. And then the children were tracked--not just for a year or two, but for decades, in an ongoing study that is intended to follow them for the rest of their lives. The subjects are now in their forties, which means that researchers have been able to trace the effects of the Perry intervention well into adulthood.
The Perry Preschool Project is famous in social science circles, and Heckman had encountered it, glancingly, several times before in his career. As a case for early-childhood intervention, the experiment had always been considered something of a failure. The treatment children did do significantly better on cognitive tests while attending the preschool and for a year or two afterward, but the gains did not last, and by the time the treatment children were in the third grade, their IQ scores were no better than the control group's. But when Heckman and other researchers looked at the long-term results of Perry, the data appeared more promising. It was true that the Perry kids hadn't experienced lasting IQ benefits. But something important had happened to them in preschool, and whatever it was, the positive effects resonated for decades. Compared to the control group, the Perry students were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year at age forty, less likely ever to have been arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare.
Heckman began to rummage more deeply into the Perry study, and he learned that in the 1960s and 1970s, researchers had collected some data on the students that had never been analyzed: reports from teachers in elementary school rating both the treatment and the control children on "personal behavior" and "social development." The first term tracked how often each student swore, lied, stole, or was absent or late; the second one rated each student's level of curiosity as well as his or her relationships with classmates and teachers. Heckman labeled these noncognitive skills, because they were entirely distinct from IQ. And after three years of careful analysis, Heckman and his researchers were able to ascertain that those noncognitive factors, such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity, were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave its students.
The Perry Preschool Project, in other words, worked entirely differently than everyone had believed. The goodhearted educators who set it up in the sixties thought that they were creating a program to raise the intelligence of low-income children; they, like everyone else, thought that was the way to help poor kids get ahead in America. Surprise number one was that they created a program that didn't do much in the long term for IQ but did improve behavior and social skills. Surprise number two was that it helped anyway--for the kids in Ypsilanti, those skills and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be very valuable indeed.