Education policymaking has mostly overlooked the importance of noncognitive skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, social skills, persistence, and creativity, even though they are recognized as essential for children to excel in school, contribute meaningfully to society, and achieve success in the workplace. Together with cognitive abilities, promoting these traits is at the core of public education’s goal. To ensure that schools nurture children’s full development, noncognitive skills should be an explicit pillar of education policy. In The Need to Address Noncognitive Skills in the Education Policy Agenda, a new Economic Policy Institute study, EPI education economist Emma García explores the critical role noncognitive skills play in education and in adulthood, and how they are nurtured. García also proposes guidelines for how to design education policies that better nurture noncognitive skills, and describes the kinds of research needed to inform efforts on policy and practice.
“Today, many schools have narrowed their focus on a small set of cognitive skills like math, reading and science, and increasingly rely on testing to measure their success,” said García. “While it is increasingly clear that this overreliance on testing has not helped us attain our goals of improving achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, it has also disincentivized teachers from explicitly nurturing the noncognitive skills that represent traits we admire in our citizens.”
Noncognitive skills encompass traits that are essential for students to thrive in school and life, including communication skills, teamwork, academic confidence, respect for others, and willingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints. Moreover, noncognitive skills support cognitive development. Multiple studies identifying the interdependence between cognitive and noncognitive skills indicate that focusing on noncognitive skills may actually further improve cognitive skills. Additionally, employers stress the value of noncognitive skills in the workplace, and evidence suggests that noncognitive skills are associated with higher productivity and earnings.
Since these skills matter greatly—and since they can be nurtured in schools—developing them should be an explicit goal of public education. García recommends broadening accountability practices and policies to both allow and encourage schools and teachers to contribute to the development of noncognitive skills. Other recommendations found in the study include:
- Learning from and adapting policies and practices in the areas of early childhood education, afterschool and summer enrichment, and special education
- Looking to districts that are piloting noncognitive skills-related strategies as potential models, and to state- and federal-level policies that support such strategies
- Ensuring that policy is informed by those closest to the education system—particularly teachers, parents, and students
Lastly, García points out the need for further research on noncognitive skills to integrate them into the education policy agenda. This includes identifying a satisfactory and concrete list of these skills, as well as systems or scales to measure them.
“As policymakers, educators, and parents debate how to shape education reform to best meet the needs of our children, we must increase awareness of the important role noncognitive skills play in the education, development, and ultimately, the quality of life for our children,” said García. “If we really want to enact more effective education strategies, the development of noncognitive skills needs to become a core component of K-12 policies.”