It is Impossible for Our Current School System to be Accountable for Non-Cognitive Skills

It is becoming more and more obvious that student test scores do not capture all of educational quality.  Since educational institutions can shape non-cognitive skills such as self-control, determination, conscientiousness, effort, and respect, we need to find an effective way to hold schools accountable for these outcomes.  While we can attempt to hold residentially-assigned public schools accountable for shaping non-cognitive skills, I argue that the current system makes the act impossible.  Indeed, attempting to hold public schools accountable for these types of skills in the current system will destroy the measures and even harm individual students.

There is a growing school choice literature indicating a disconnect between student achievement and long-term outcomes.  Some evaluations have found small or zero impacts on test scores with large positive impacts on graduation and crime reduction (Chingos & Peterson, 2013; Cowen et al., 2013; DeAngelis & Wolf, 2016; Wolf et al., 2013).  Others have found large impacts on student test scores, but no impacts on long-term outcomes such as graduation (Angrist et al., 2014; Dobbie & Fryer, 2014; Tuttle et al., 2015; Unterman et al., 2016).  If test scores do not predict later life outcomes, it is not clear whether they are important for the overall well-being of individuals and societies.

This disconnect has led many scholars to identify ways to more-easily measure the things that we actually care about.  Angela Duckworth created a scale[1] to recognize non-cognitive skills of students through self-reported grit.  Zamarro, Hitt, and Mendez (2016) realized that survey and test answer patterns could measure non-cognitive skills.  In particular, they used survey non-response rates, survey careless answer patterns, and decline on tests to measure student effort on the PISA test and student survey.  While these are all honorable attempts to come up with ways to measure non-cognitive skills of students, using them to hold schools accountable will not work.

The Problems

The first problem with using such measures for school accountability has to do with Campbell’s Law.[2]  Whenever a measure is used for social decision-making, the measure becomes susceptible to corruption pressures, making it eventually useless.  Test scores are subject to this law; however, these non-cognitive measures are especially corruptible (Duckworth & Yeager, 2015).  For instance, a teacher could make sure that students do not skip questions and could entice them to describe themselves as hard-workers.  These measures would be very easy for a teacher to influence, but simple manipulation would certainly not indicate that students are actually improving character skills.  The very act of linking accountability to these non-cognitive measures would destroy them.

Even if these measures could not easily be manipulated, it is not clear what they are actually capturing.  Scholars claim that non-response rates and careless answering patterns could capture conscientiousness (Hitt, Trivitt, & Cheng, 2016), but it could very well be described as compliance or obedience.  In fact, we may not want to maximize these types of outcomes.  A highly obedient citizen is great in that they will be less likely to break the law and listen to authority; however, they will also be less likely to invent self-driving cars or other technologies.  In other words, altering the education of children in order to maximize these measures will result in large positive and negative externalities.  Similarly, Angela Duckworth’s self-reported grit scale could simply be capturing confidence, which is also beneficial, but only up to a certain level.  In addition, researchers have noted that reference group bias could harm our ability to use these types of measures for evaluation and accountability (West, 2016).

Obviously, when a teacher focuses on shaping certain skills that are deemed important by the experts, they put less effort into shaping other abilities.  As a result, focusing on things like obedience and respect could harm students academically and intellectually.  Similarly, focusing on compliance could even harm other non-cognitive skills that are arguably more important such as creativity or critical-thinking.  The biggest problem here is that the political process needs to determine a standard to hold teachers and schools accountable.  The creation of the standard assumes that all students need to focus on the same skills and abilities.  Clearly, some students will need more focus on character skills, while others will need more focus on academics.  Children are unique.  Assuming otherwise is toxic.

Only focusing on test scores assures that children will be harmed through receiving lower levels of character education.  Focusing on character education assures that the measures that we have will become obsolete, and that many children will maximize skills that are not socially optimal.  In addition, focusing on character education will ensure that many children will be deprived of academic achievement and some unmeasured skills such as creativity.  This is the dilemma.  So what else can we do?

The Only Solution

Understanding that the dilemma is inherent to the current system of residentially assigned public schooling is paramount.  All of the described problems illustrate the fact that we cannot centrally-plan what is best for every individual in society.  Even the best-intentioned leader cannot acquire the necessary knowledge, especially since children and families have largely diverse interests and needs.

The only way to make sure that needs are matched to desires is to allow individuals to choose their educational products.  If families value character skills such as self-control and determination, they will choose schools that are known to have a culture that fosters non-cognitive growth.  If, on the other hand, a particular family recognizes that they have the resources necessary to improve those skills at home, they can choose an institution that focuses more on academic achievement.  If a school is not providing the necessary non-cognitive development for its students, the institution will have to alter its model or shut down in the long-run.  If a school does a great job at providing character development, demand for their service will increase, and they will be rewarded with the ability to charge a higher price.  The raise in tuition will entice other educational institutions to adopt their best practices and even incentivize innovative schools to enter the market.

It is obvious that creating accountability standards centrally is an economically inefficient solution.  Nonetheless, should schools be held accountable to parents or bureaucrats?  After all, parents may choose schools that do not maximize social welfare since they are self-interested.  However, controlling the decisions of families in order to prevent wrong choices damages the lives of millions of children through forcing them to deal with the problems that are inherent to the political process.





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