Hard Thinking on Soft Skills


A recent report from Brookings explores the research behind and the challenges with schools taking up the responsibility of enhancing students’ soft skills. Below is a brief summary of the report and its recommendations:

The nation’s PK-12 education ecosystem is poised to embrace programs intended to enhance soft skills. Soft skills are personal qualities other than the formal knowledge transmitted by schools that affect student adjustment, i.e., the effort that students put into their work and their social skills. Such soft skills are far too important for the education reform effort associated with them to suffer the fad-like fate of far too many education reforms of the past. There are danger signs in that regard.

One problem is that advocates of soft skills reform have approached the conceptualization and measurement of soft skills in ways akin to how psychologists approach human personality, i.e., as relatively enduring, trait-like individual differences in broad patterns of behavior. Such patterns of behavior are highly heritable, meaning that schools will have difficulty influencing differences among students. They are also abstract and general, meaning that they provide little of the specificity that is needed for the design of curriculum for students in different grades or for the provision of useful feedback to teachers or students. Further, the theory and measurement of soft skills in schools is in its infancy, with many critically important questions unanswered.

Also troubling are recent research findings that charter schools that are both effective in raising student achievement and focused on character development either have no impact or a negative impact on students’ self-reported soft skills. Such findings conflict with the implicit theoretical model of soft skills reform in which the causal path to better academic achievement and life outcomes flows through students’ soft skills as enhanced by schools.  

A prudent way forward for educators given the many acknowledged unknowns in soft skills reform is to substantially enhance efforts that fall within traditional school practices and responsibilities rather than to boldly make risky bets on unproven programs and measures. Practical steps for school and district administrators include:

1) focusing on improving student behavior, not personality traits;

2) implementing schoolwide rule systems focused on respectful social interactions;

3) using measures of soft skills that are naturally occurring and useful as feedback at the classroom and individual level;

4) establishing priorities around students who are significantly off-track in their social-emotional behavior or self-management skills;

5) establishing priorities around remediation or removal of teachers whose interpersonal behavior toward students is likely to be doing harm; and

6) putting in place systematic ways to learn from and improve the reform efforts.

For the full report, see Hard Thinking on Soft Skills