Non-cognitive skills can’t be overlooked! Part I

Better Education Overseas Doesn’t Explain Outsourcing

Reformers are obsessed with cognitive measures of student achievement.  The reform movement maintains that ELA, math and science scores must be raised in order for American to be a world class competitor on the international scene.  I recall this same theme being promoted in the early ’70’s when New York began the Regents Action Plan to improve test scores.  I listened to state ed department experts justify higher standards in social studies by saying that if our students didn’t know more history, they couldn’t compete with other nations in manufacturing.

That was bunkham, and its essentially the same argument in replay we’re hearing today.  I earned much of the cost of my college education working in a skilled labor setting building machinery that went into automobile production factories.  I rubbed elbows with auto workers.  The skills they needed to manufacture cars had nothing to do with history or social studies, and for that matter on ELA, science or math.  Today, the low wage earners assembling iphones for Foxconn or sewing our clothes in Bangladesh need not be writers or mathematicians–they need to be willing to work in conditions that are, frankly, abysmally unsafe, without benefits, and accept that they have no recourse.  In other words, American jobs have been lost to countries with working conditions Americans would consider slave labor if they were found in U.S. factories.  The educational achievement of Americans is not the issue here at all–profits are the issue.

SCANS Skills–What do Employers Want From Workers?

Now that we are testing the life out of schools at all levels, what evidence is there that cognitive skills might translate into better jobs?  Let’s start this exploration with a look at the skills employers want their workers to possess.  Since schools are eliminating courses, programs, or activities that promote noncognitive skills, what role do noncognitive skills have in the lives of successful wage earners as described by employers?

We should take another look  at a report that came out in 2000, when the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education formed the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) to study the competencies and skills that workers need to succeed in today’s workplace. The results became What Work Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000.  The link above provides a summary of those skills, which start with five competencies, each of which is broken down into additional elements that I’ve not included.

  1. Resources: Identifies, organizes, plans, and allocates resources
  2. Interpersonal: Works with others
  3. Information: Acquires and evaluates information
  4. Systems: Understands complex interrelationships
  5. Technology: Works with a variety of technologies

Examining the detailed breakdowns of these competencies will enlighten the reader–they are virtually all skills that are not taught in schools when the emphasis is on passing state or federally mandated tests.  The information competency comes closest to something we emphasize in K-12 programs today, but the SCANS versions are side-effects of the K-12 content rather than primary goals.

In a second level of SCANS skills, also found in the summary link above, a three-part foundation for SCANS skills is suggested.  I’ll list the three foundations here–italicized elements should be a part of Common Core competencies, and in red, I’ll identify those skills that are not built into the implementation of Common Core curricula that can be tested.

SCANS Foundational Skills

Basic Skills:

Reads, writes, performs arithmetic and mathematical operations, listens, and speaks

Thinking Skills:

Thinks creatively, makes decisions, solves problems, visualizes, knows how to learn, and reasons.  One might argue that Common Core curricula is moving toward these kinds of skills, but when you examine the detailed descriptions of each of these skills, you will see that they are, except for solving problems and visualizing, not particularly testable, and hence are unlikely to be a part of the curricular changes that the CCSS will inspire.

Personal Qualities:

Responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  There’s nothing here that is a direct focus of the Common Core, nor are these qualities testable with measures of academic achievement.

Looking at the foundational elements of SCANS skills, you’ll see that employers have identified 17 foundational skills, 10 of which are not academic measures and are not likely to be a part of Common Core curricula or Common Core tests because they simply are not measurable in any easy way.  They are skills that might be incidentally and indirectly learned in schools, but are infrequently or never explicitly taught.  When the SCANS report first came out, there was considerable interest among those who were involved with Career and Technical Education–folks had to show how SCANS skills were incorporated into their CTE programs.  Sadly, with cognitive skills taking the main role in testing, SCANS skills and CTE programs are on the back burner once again.

Social and Emotional Learning

However, there are lots of programs available that explicitly attempt to teach these skills and that have a reasonably strong evidence base supporting their use in schools.  The social emotional learning movement (SEL) is among the best researched.  Find out more about SEL from  At the bottom of this edutopia page you’ll also find organizations that promote SEL. 

If we can wrest education reform away from the profiteers and politicians, perhaps we can balance our K-12 goals to reinstate noncognitive education once again.  When is the reform movement going to pay attention?