HCEO Director James J. Heckman and ECI member Tim Kautz, with their co-authors, have published a new OECD report on skill development in young people.  "Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success," published on December 3, 2014 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, reports 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. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments. Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years.

Skill development is a dynamic process. The early years are important in shaping all skills and in laying the foundations for successful investment and intervention in the later years. During the early years, both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are highly malleable. During the adolescent years, non-cognitive skills are more malleable than cognitive skills. The differential plasticity of different skills by age has important implications for the design of effective policies. 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 report reviews a variety of interventions targeted to different stages of the life cycle. The authors interpret all of the studies they examine within an economic model of skill development. While it is difficult to compare different interventions because they are often multifaceted and target different populations, nonetheless, four conclusions emerge:

  1. The evidence base is larger on the long-term effectiveness of interventions that start in early childhood and elementary school compared to their adolescent counter-parts.
  2. When evaluating skill enhancement programmes it is vital to consider outcomes other than IQ or achievement test scores. Only interventions that start long before kindergarten begins have been shown to have long-term effects on IQ. Many early programmes improve later-life outcomes, even though they do not improve IQ.
  3. The available evidence suggests that the most successful adolescent remediation programs are not as effective as the most successful early childhood and elementary school programs, although adolescent mentoring and the provision of information can be very effective. Building an early base of skills that promote later-life learning and engagement in school and society is often a better strategy than waiting for problems to occur.
  4. Adolescent remediation is possible for children who grow up in disadvantaged environments in their early years. The available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programmes that offer mentoring, guidance and information.