Earnings may be a flawed measure of an education’s value, but they’re about the only tangible measure we have. And the work that labor economists have done suggests that colleges do indeed deserve credit for much of the earnings gaps between their graduates and everyone else. The median earnings of full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees was nearly $47,000 in 2007, according to the Census Bureau. The median for someone who had attended college but failed to get a four-year degree was nearly $33,000, and the median for a high-school graduate was nearly $27,000. Compare these numbers with the typical education debt that a college student has on graduation day — $20,000 — and it’s clear that a college education is worth the debt. McPherson slyly points out that even the pundits and professors who suggest otherwise seem to understand this; they tend to send their children to college, often to quite expensive ones.
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.
There is a popular belief that executive-function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior. In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period. In laboratory studies, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps; when children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it. But when researchers try to take those experiments out of the lab and into the classroom, their success rate is much lower. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent the last seven years trying to find reliable, repeatable methods to improve self-control in children. When I spoke to her recently, she told me about a six-week-long experiment that she and some colleagues conducted in 2003 with 40 fifth-grade students at a school in Philadelphia.
Possible topics for essay #3:
What are the challenges of time-management for first-semester students at DCC?
What are the distractions for first-semester students at DCC? How can we overcome them?
How would you evaluate your executive function abilities?
How is this semester different from ________________?
How do we balance school, work, family, friends, hobbies, exercise etc.?
What is motivating us to come to college? Are we motivated externally of internally?
What should we do when we begin to feel overwhelmed at DCC?
Try to discuss one of the mentors at some point in the essay