Boost Cognitive Skills, Boost Grades—Right? - Pacific Standard

Boost Cognitive Skills, Boost Grades—Right?

The link between cognitive ability and academic performance is an intuitive one, but a new study says there's little evidence to support or refute the value of "executive function" curricula.
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(Photo: Brad Flickinger/Flickr)

(Photo: Brad Flickinger/Flickr)

Curriculum development companies and at least some education researchers seem to agree: Working on high-level cognitive skills improves a kid's overall education. That's certainly plausible, according to a new analysis, but there's little in the way of hard data to support that claim—or the money spent on programs to improve so-called executive function in kids.

To be clear, there is a connection between executive functioning and student achievement; studies show a strong correlation between grades, test scores, or other measures of performance and executive functions such as the ability to form plans, focus attention, or control impulses. And it's relatively easy to improve those skills—there's evidence that computer-based training or even martial arts will help develop a child's executive functions. But as the University of Michigan's Robin Jacob and Julia Parkinson of American Institutes of Research point out today in the Review of Educational Research, none of that implies that boosting executive functioning will have any effect, positive or negative, on how well students do in school.

"The question is, if you intervene with children and try to change [or] improve their executive functioning skills ... would that actually lead to improvements in achievement?" Jacob asks.

"Although investing in interventions that target executive function as a way to boost academic achievement has strong intuitive appeal, a more critical assessment of the benefits of such interventions is needed before substantial investments are made."

To answer that question, Jacob and Parkinson reviewed 25 years worth of studies of executive function in children from preschool to high school age conducted in the United States and elsewhere. Those studies were almost entirely correlational, however, meaning that they couldn't established whether changes in executive functions actually caused changes in achievement. Many didn't even control for other factors such as socioeconomic status or how well-educated a child's parents are. Without those controls, Jacob and Parkinson note, the studies don't even establish a real connection between executive functioning skills and achievement, let alone that one actually causes the other.

On top of that, education researchers have conducted few randomized experimental studies—the gold standard in the field—on executive functions and school performance. What few experiments there've been, on programs such as Tools of the MindHead Start REDI, and Red Light, Purple Light, suggest that targeting executive function has little if any impact on student achievement.

Perhaps none of this would matter that much if schools had plenty of time and money to spend trying to figure out how to improve outcomes for their kids—but of course they don't. "Given the severe budget constraints faced by many schools today, it is critical that school leaders invest in programs that have the greatest promise for improving outcomes for children," Jacob and Parkison write. "Although investing in interventions that target executive function as a way to boost academic achievement has strong intuitive appeal, a more critical assessment of the benefits of such interventions is needed before substantial investments are made."

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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