Student success not just a measure of hard and soft skills

In the United States, educational accountability has become almost synonymous with the use of standardized metrics to assess student knowledge. Pushed by both state and federal education policies, this testing-based conception of accountability has elevated math and reading within the school day.  The assumption of the testing culture is that a foundation of math and reading should propel students successfully into college and beyond. However, these core academic skills are not the only ones that colleges consider when compiling their freshman classes.  Most colleges tell prospective students and parents that they want a student body that is “well rounded,” and active socially, politically, physically and academically. Yet, what we see in most primary and secondary schools, as a function of the test culture (and against the better judgment of passionate and dedicated teachers), is a push for perpetually higher test scores on a few major subjects. This is sending a mixed message to students as they transition from high school to college, and it is a disservice to all students.

Adams’ essay on college readiness discusses the need to move away from the test-obsessed track toward a multi-faceted approach to cultivating school success. In so doing, she highlights a more balanced approach that is informed by decades of research, and which has gotten a surge in recent attention due to the publication of popular books, such as Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed.” The basic contention of the book, which synthesizes research from medicine, education, psychology describe the image and economics, highlights the need for students to have an educational foundation that is built on social and emotional readiness (non-cognitive or soft skills, such as “character: or “grit”), not necessarily academic knowledge.  Both Adams and Tough highlight the foundation of soft skills as keys that motivate students to success, despite risks, setbacks, and obstacles.  Soft skills can include problem solving, perseverance, emotional regulation, and working collaboratively. If these skills sound familiar, it is because these are the traits most valued both in higher education and the workplace.

The teaching of core academic subjects should certainly not be dismantled. But what the research shows is that there also needs to be time within the school day for soft skills development. While there are many ways to develop “character” and “grit”, one of the best mechanisms is through play. Play can be structured, unstructured, inside, outside, in small classrooms or large fields. Play can and should be a greater part of the school day, not only for very young children, but also for children of every age. Organizations in and around the Boston area specialize in the teaching of these kinds of soft skills, including a college student run program called Peace Through Play ( ), Playworks ( ), which offers structured recess activities to promote social skills, and the Playmakers ( ) , which uses play as a tool to foster resilience in children who have been impacted by poverty and trauma.

However, while these programs offer hope for a new and balanced educational agenda, this must not be used to obscure the structural problems that remain. The emphasis on teaching soft skills, while fundamentally necessary, does not address the core epidemic in American schools: inequality.  Our focus on developing resilience in individual students, while needed, cannot take the place of an examination of the impact of poverty on the success of individual children as they progress from primary and secondary schools to higher educational settings. Children living in poverty are less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or graduate from college. According to the Boston Indicators Project, African American and Latino youth in Boston have less than a 10% chance of graduating college within seven years of gradating high school.  These data suggest that educational inequality is not an individual problem with an individual solution.

What makes children successful is not just core skills in reading and math, nor is it grit (although all those things are relevant). What makes children successful is the opportunity to grow up without violence in their home or neighborhood, without hunger, without instability. What makes children successful is access to high quality and enriching school and community environments and access to opportunities to higher education and meaningful employment. Our single-minded focus on children’s skills (hard and soft) without the inclusion of environmental risk and protective factors will perpetuate our constant questioning: What makes children successful? We know the answer.


Emily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.  Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.