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A Report of Two Halves

Simon Burgess

We published some research last Friday showing that students perform less well in their crucial GCSE exams in years when there is a major international football tournament taking place at the same time. For example, the FIFA World Cup in the summer of 2010, or the UEFA European Championship next summer, both overlap in part with the GCSE exam timetable.

With the draw for the groups in the European Championship taking place earlier that day, much of the comment naturally and sensibly focussed on the specific issue of the impact of next year’s tournament on exam scores. This is important: we estimate that the concurrence of the exams and saturation media coverage of the football reduces exam scores on average by around 0.12 standard deviations of pupil performance and by a lot more for some groups who reduce their effort a lot. These groups tend to be from poorer areas and predominantly (but by no means exclusively) male students.  Since these groups are already lower-performing groups, this means that education gaps will widen. We think of this impact arising through a reduction in student effort, with that time being spent instead on watching the football tournament. The variation in impact arises because of differing tastes for football, arising in turn from cultural norms and idiosyncratic factors, and from the differential effectiveness of an hour of study on exam performance.

However, there is also a broader significance to the research: finding that effort matters matters.

Recent research by economists has broadened out from the previous focus on cognitive ability, and a great deal of work has investigated the role of non-cognitive factors in educational attainment. Non-cognitive factors can be identified with personality traits (see Heckman), and one of the ‘big 5’ personality traits is ‘conscientiousness’, with the related traits of self-control, accepting delayed gratification, and a strong work ethic. Conscientiousness has been shown to be an excellent predictor of educational attainment and course grades. These aspects of self control and ability to concentrate are clearly related to the broad notion of effort we are using here. Our results on the importance of effort strengthen this evidence by isolating the effect of decisions on effort and time allocation in addition to the general ability to concentrate and exert self-control.

There is a great deal of policy interest in England arising from recent studies of US Charter schools with what is called a “No Excuses” ethos. This includes the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) network of schools and schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone. These schools all feature a long school day, a longer school year, very selective teacher recruitment, strong norms of behaviour, as well as other characteristics. Some of the profession’s very top researchers have produced evidence showing that such schools produce very powerful positive effects on student achievement. While this overall effect could be due to different aspects of the KIPP/HCZ ethos, part of it is very likely to be increased effort from the students. Our results complement this by showing the impact of just a change in effort, and that that can have very substantial effects.

This matters for a number of reasons. First, unlike genetic characteristics, cognitive ability or non-cognitive traits, effort is almost immediately changeable. Our results suggest that this could have a big effect. The fact that we find changes in student effort to be very potent in affecting test scores suggests that policy levers to raise effort through incentives or changing school ethos are worth considering seriously. Such interventions would be justified if the low effort resulted from market failures due to lack of information on the returns to schooling, or time-inconsistent discounting.  Second, the importance of a manipulable factor such as effort for adolescents’ educational performance provides evidence of potentially high value policy interventions much later than “early years” policies. This is encouraging, offering some hope that low performing students’ trajectories in life can perhaps be effectively improved even after a difficult environment early in life.

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  1. December 6, 2011 at 10:34 am

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