STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Economists publish a new, comprehensive guide to the research on the importance of character


You may have noticed a paradigm shift lately in the thinking about what kids need to succeed in life. 

The old paradigm was all about reasoning and acquired knowledge. The new paradigm, which burst into the mainstream with Paul Tough's  hugely successful 2013 book, "How Children Succeed," is all about character skills such as perseverance, curiosity and - everyone's new favorite word - grit. 

Tough's book had an impact in part because it was highly readable and compelling. By contrast, a new research paper published today by the National Bureau of Economic Research is daunting, long and full of jargon. 

But this paper could still be very useful.

It doesn't add to the body of research backing up Tough's claims on the importance of teaching character skills. Instead, it offers a comprehensive look at what researchers have found so far. What it lacks in the quality of writing, it makes up for with the sheer quantity of empirical conclusions. 

The four main takeaways are summarized near the top. Basically, it's this: 

  1. We know more about the effectiveness of teaching kids character in preschool than in later grades.
  2. A program can have a big impact on a kid's life, even if it has no impact on traditional test scores.
  3. Starting earlier is better; prevention beats remediation.
  4. If the child is older, put the focus on mentoring and attachment, not academic skills. 

Beyond those broad points, there's a load of analysis about what research tells us so far about the importance of character, and the challenge of measuring it. 
The full paper runs more than 80 pages, plus nearly 40 more pages of references. It's probably not the kind of thing anyone is going to want to read on a Saturday afternoon. But it's a good reference to keep on hand whenever the topic of character-driven education comes up. 

You can read the paper HERE.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.