Thursday, November 4, 2010

Schools, Skills, and Synapses

James Heckman's "Schools, Skills, and Synapses" is the most important, depressing, and possibly hopeful economics article I have read in some time. It won't come as a big surprise to those who follow Heckman's research, but it is a fantastic summary of his current thinking as well as a ton of work by others. It is rich in empirical savvy, theoretical clarity, and interdisciplinary creativity.

The article is important because it is a compelling explanation of the increasingly polarized economic prospects of Americans; depressing because the causes are deeply rooted in social trends that we cannot, and probably would not want to, reverse; hopeful, because we actually know cost-effective ways to address the problems; doubly depressing because there's little indication of the political interest, let alone will, to do anything.

Heckman's core argument is that the skills leading to lifelong success are both cognitive (smarts) and noncognitive (motivation, etc.), are formed very early in life, are acquired more in the family than in the schools, and are distributed increasingly unequally between advantaged and disadvantaged American children. The rest of the story is complex and subtle, and needs to be heard and understood.

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