Jacob and Parkinson Doth Protest Too Much: Science Does Link Executive Function and Academic Learning

Our current educational methods aren't working well: the achievement gap between lower-income and higher-income communities continues to be unacceptably wide and our international rankings are embarrassingly low.
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Co-authored with Tamara Spiewak Toub, Brenna Hassinger-Das, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

"Look before you leap!"
"Think before you speak!"
"Look both ways before you cross the street."

We often tell ourselves and each other to "proceed with caution." The skills involved in carefully reflecting and planning instead of acting based on impulse are called "executive function" skills. They include focusing our attention on our goals, thinking flexibly, and avoiding distraction. "Executive function" (EF) has become a buzz-word - gaining attention in popular press and educational communities. Have you seen videos of adorable preschoolers faced with a Marshmallow Test - when they must decide between eating a couple of treats now or waiting for more treats later? Some children show a remarkable ability to delay gratification, using strategies like looking away and biting their nails, while other children cannot resist gobbling down that tasty treat immediately.

Years ago, Walter Mischel and colleagues found that young children who were able to wait for a greater reward grew up to have higher grades, SAT scores, and other signs of "success." Intuitively, it makes sense that EF and achievement are related: successful students must focus attention, carry out plans, control impulses, and follow directions. So, if we want children to be strong students, shouldn't we strengthen their EF? Indeed, some programs have been developed to do just that.

But now, researchers Robin Jacob and Julia Parkinson caution us in a recent article that the evidence for a causal link between EF and learning is weak at best. Reviewing studies from the last 15 years on relationships between EF and math and reading achievement, they looked for overall patterns. What did they find? Strong correlations but not enough evidence to support claims that improving children's EF skills results in achievement gains. They then conclude that we should not be spending money on EF enhancement programs. To be fair, Jacob and Parkinson make some important points. We need stronger agreement about how to define EF, and correlation does not equal causation. Thus, we should not draw causal conclusions without more scientifically rigorous tests of causality.

But Jacob and Parkinson's review is itself on fragile turf. Their decisions about which studies to include versus exclude are a bit problematic. And their conclusion is based on the studies they chose to review! For example, they searched databases for studies using the term "executive function." Yet many who do research in this area dub the concept "self-regulation," a term that was not included in their searches. Jacob and Parkinson call for more randomized control studies to examine causality and yet fail to mention the 2014 randomized control study by Blair and Raver. This research investigating EF in 759 children from 79 classrooms provides compelling evidence that EF training improves achievement. Either this work did not meet Jacob and Parkinson's inclusion criteria or they did not know about this study.

Jacob and Parkinson's method is also suspect because they selected studies covering a wide range of ages (3- to 18-years-old) which were then analyzed based on three smaller groups that fail to distinguish between 6-year-olds versus 11-year-olds or 12-year-olds versus 18-year-olds. Surely, the ways in which EF is related to achievement outcomes for 6-year-olds is different than it is for 11-year-olds. And if an effect is strong at one age and less evident at another, these results would be masked or wiped out entirely in the current analysis.

Finally, the authors note that the relation between EF and achievement is weakened when you statistically control for children's IQ. Of course it is! Removing differences between children in their performance on intelligence tests is controversial because IQ tests often require EF skills. By controlling for IQ you are partially controlling for EF, and when you control for EF - you are unlikely to find any remaining effects of EF!

The bottom line? Jacob and Parkinson doth protest too much. At best, their cautionary notes are premature. After all, even Jacob and Parkinson report consistent correlations across 15 years of data showing a strong relationship between EF and achievement. We know that those kids who waited longer in the famous Marshmallow Test had higher SAT scores a decade later. 'Tis true that scientists need to better define EF and to better explain the links that have been uncovered in the literature. But it would be folly to heed the message that we should stop using EF interventions.

Our current educational methods aren't working well: the achievement gap between lower-income and higher-income communities continues to be unacceptably wide and our international rankings are embarrassingly low. EF enhancement will surely not lower children's academic or social acumen. So, why not do it? Is it really problematic to improve children's ability to focus, wait, plan, and not just do whatever their impulses suggest? And might these learning-to-learn skills be even more important in the 21st Century where children are deluged with information? To borrow a hackneyed cliché, please don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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