The Hidden Advantages of Staying in School

In 1942, the G.E.D. program was launched to enable World War II veterans return home after serving in the military to complete their high school education. By 1947, the state of New York allowed civilians to enroll to get their General Education Development (GED) and earn a high school diploma equivalency.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson began his “War on Poverty” program and later expanded the GED program to enable teens in underserved areas who dropped out of high school to get their diploma. It worked. More and more disadvantaged kids graduated. More education was completed, and a larger population succeeded.

At least academically.

When researchers decided to do some longitudinal studies on those GED graduates and see how they were doing as established adults and citizens, we all learned something disconcerting.

It was discovered that those kid’s life outcomes remained unsuccessful. Years and even decades after those young adults earned their GED, a disproportionate amount couldn’t keep a job, or sustain a marriage or stay healthy. In the “school of life” the GED kids were still behind.

In other words, academics are not enough. Mere diplomas are insufficient.

What the Research Tells Us

Those who stayed in school received something more than a diploma. It was more than discussing academic subjects like reading, writing and arithmetic.

The students who stayed in school and finished their high school education possessed something the GED grads didn’t have. Something was happening in the twelve years of a K-12 school experience that wasn’t occurring in someone with a GED diploma.

As economist James Heckman (from the University of Chicago) reviewed the results of longitudinal studies, he drew a few conclusions. I will summarize them here:

  • Academic success does not necessarily predict future success in life.
  • Students gain and mature greatly when they remain in a disciplined routine.
  • Improvement and maturity occur in relationship with a cohort of people.
  • Social and emotional learning are a large part of the education process.

In other words, there are hidden advantages to staying in school.

Students Need Time to Reveal What’s Developing

Heckman and his team also learned that programs tried and measured after just two years didn’t see much improvement. But when researchers evaluated those kids decades later, they showed measurable improvement. This is huge. We’ve found that schools who try new programs today (even our Habitudes® program for Social and Emotional Learning) may not see enough results in a year or two to accurately assess if the program is helpful or not. Students need several years (five or more years according to Heckman) to genuinely be able to measure a program’s impact.

James Heckman saw that staying in school led to several positive outcomes. Better jobs. Better marriages. More earnings. Less likely to go to prison.

May I remind you that Horace Mann said in mid-1850s that reading, writing and arithmetic play a relatively small part of the educational outcomes of school. The essential outcome for him was American citizens with character.

They had life skills. They possessed virtue.

Let’s be sure we enable our kids to complete what they’ve started and realize how much is happening besides academic learning in any educational process they’re in.

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The Hidden Advantages of Staying in School