Study finds social skills important in future earnings

By Alissa Groeninger

Educators have begun to challenge the emphasis placed on testing.

According to a study by Christy Lleras, Assistant Professor of Human and Community Development, social skills in high school are better predictors of future income than test scores.

Lleras said her findings are important because schools have cut extracurricular activities and fine arts in their quest to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on standardized testing scores.

“(I want) to provide some kind of clarity on the (emphasis) on testing,” Lleras said.

Lleras’s data comes from a National Educational Longitudinal Study that focused on participants’ social skills, beginning in 1990 when teachers rated their 10th graders’ social skills. The study ended in 2000 when the participants were around 28 years old.

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    Lleras’s study only includes the students who graduated from high school or college before entering the labor market, around 95 percent of the original participants.

    According to the data, students with better noncognitive skills, which include work habits, ability to relate to others and participation in extracurricular activities, as rated by their teachers, earned about 12 percent more money than their peers with similar test scores.

    Extracurricular activities teach kids to be motivated, to work with others and to problem solve, said Patrick Sullivan, academic hourly in Human and Community Development. Sullivan’s research has focused on high school age kids. He said programs may teach these skills because kids are participating in programs of their own choice that they enjoy.

    “Kids get to choose and match the programs with their own person interests,” Sullivan said.

    Lleras said the findings are important because schools need to help students develop social skills because employers are looking for compatible, motivated people.

    “(We need) to highlight what employers are telling us they want,” Lleras said.

    Among extracurricular activities, athletics are important to human development, said Art Kramer, professor of psychology and neuroscience. Kramer has found exercise to improve memory and alertness by increasing brain structure and functioning. While Kramer has tested adults over the age of 60 and children between the ages of 8 and 10, he believes the effects apply to teenagers as well.

    “Getting rid of the Phys. Ed periods doesn’t seem to be such a hot idea,” he said.

    Lleras said a possible explanation for the findings is that people with better social skills form ties with one another and can use those ties to move ahead in the workforce.

    “Enhancing the quality and extent of your social network (helps people find jobs),” Lleras said.

    Students not going to college, mostly lower-income students, often come from schools that have larger class sizes and higher rates of teacher turnover, hurting the quality of education. These schools often have to cut resources and focus their attention on testing to meet No Child Left Behind standards, which requires a specific number of children to pass a state-issued test. As a result, schools are cutting extracurricular activities, Lleras said.

    After school programs and strong curriculums can teach social skills that are especially important for students entering the workforce directly after high school, Lleras said.

    Kelly Bost, professor in Human and Community Development, has found that social skills are developed early on. Her research has shown that preschool-age children with better social skills are more likely to be comfortable in the classroom, and thus perform at higher levels.

    “Schools originally were (about) socialization; it was about creating better citizens,” Lleras said. “If (testing is) all we think schools do we will miss the boat.”