New Review of Interventions that Improve Character

Nobel Prize winning economist, James Heckman, has been urging people to consider the importance of what are sometimes called “non-cognitive” attributes, like self-control, persistence, delayed-gratification, etc…  As it turns out, these qualities seem to be at least as important as traditional measures of academic achievement in predicting success in life and are things that schools can teach.

Now Heckman and fellow University of Chicago economist, Tim Kautz, have a literature review on NBER about how these important aspects of character might be measured and altered.

Here’s a taste from the abstract:

The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills–personality
traits, goals, motivations, and preferences–that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many
other domains. Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills. Reliable measures of character
have been developed….

Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments….

High-quality early childhood and elementary school programs improve character skills in a lasting
and cost-effective way. Many of them beneficially affect later-life outcomes without improving cognition.
There are fewer long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions, but workplace-based programs
that teach character skills are promising. The common feature of successful interventions across all
stages of the life cycle through adulthood is that they promote attachment and provide a secure base
for exploration and learning for the child. Successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments
offered by successful families.

The more that the education field narrows its focus to standardized achievement test scores, the more it detracts from these other essential aims of education.

4 Responses to New Review of Interventions that Improve Character

  1. Robin says:

    Jay-why is someone associated with the Friedman Institute pushing a paper funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking?

    Soros, Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Amartya Sen, Akerlof are all names Milton would recognize as having a dramatically different vision from him. Or the Tides Foundation’s Drummond Pike on the Governing Board.

    Careful here.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I don’t know if Jay does have an affiliation with the Friedman Foundation, but I am a senior fellow there, and was privileged to work for Milton during the last years of his life. I can state three things unequivocally for the record:

      1) Milton never hesitated to embrace the opportunity to make common cause on an issue with people who agreed with him about that issue, even if they disagreed about other issues. He was emphatic that vouchers deserved support from progressives who generally favor big government because vouchers would help the poor, and he encouraged us to build that coalition.

      2) Even aside from broader coalition-building, Milton cared about the truth more than he cared about political success. Milton was always careful to acknowledge the truth of whatever was in fact true in statements made by his opponents. That’s one of the most important reasons he was so widely respected.

      3) Down to this day, the Friedman Foundation carries on Milton’s legacy in both these respects. I have even published criticisms of Milton himself (not, to be sure, in publications sponsored by FF) and nobody at FF has ever said boo to me about it. At FF we follow Milton’s lead and value open, honest debate.

      • Robin says:


        I read that report and I am familiar with every name I mentioned and I guess I do not understand quite why Jay put up a report that was funded by people who want to dramatically change our political structures and social institutions. When I say familiar I mean I have read their recent books and articles and know their ed vision. And I recognize the names and intentions of the people being cited in the footnotes as the foundation of these “character” theories.

        There are some extraordinary concessions in that report that I intend to make the most of. But no think tank that has any intentions of holding itself out as conservative should be pushing that report. Friedman Institute or Bush or Goldwater.

        I am not being mean. Jay and I have met and chatted on more than one occasion. Careful means there is quite a lot that’s inflammatory in that report and I am not just talking about Tools of the Mind.

  2. Grant that adults can teach character. Why suppose that institutions will out-perform parents? Why believe that compulsory State-operated institutions will out-perform institutions that parents select in a legal environment without coercion (i.e., without compulsory attendance laws, tax support of schooling, child labor laws, and minimum wage laws)?

    There’s a huge gap I the argument between “good to have” and “good for the government to provide”.

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