DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, when we think about disparities in American education, we think about things like race, gender. There is also income, which is one of the most persistent disparities. Children from more affluent families do better in school on average than children from poor families. And there's new social science research exploring why this is the case. To talk about it, I'm joined by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So dig into this research for us. What are we learning here?
VEDANTAM: Well, we've known for a very long time that family income really matters. This could be because schools in richer neighborhoods are better schools. But it could also be that rich parents are able to give their children more learning opportunities outside of school. I was speaking with the economist Barbara Wulf. She's at the University of Wisconsin. Along with Jason Fletcher, she recently decided to explore another explanation. She asked if income disparities might also be linked to disparities in what are sometimes called non-cognitive skills. Many researchers think that it's these skills that undergird not just academic performance in school but a host of other abilities later in life, including in the workplace. Here's Wulf.
BARBARA WULF: When we think about who is a good employee and who's likely to succeed in the workplace, you hear a lot of attention paid to these what I'll call non-cognitive skills. So they pay attention, they are persistent, they are eager. So they have a set of characteristics that make them good employees.
GREENE: OK. So people who have these non-cognitive skills - better employees. But tie this to American education and sort of the income disparity.
VEDANTAM: Wulf and Fletcher analyzed data from a national survey, David, that tracked children from kindergarten through the fifth grade. The survey data allowed the researchers to track the effects of family income on what parents and teachers were reporting about these children as they went through elementary school. The researchers find there's a very strong correlation between family income and these non-cognitive skills. In other words, when it comes to being cooperative or dealing with conflict productively, children from wealthier families on average seem to have more of these skills than children from poorer families.
GREENE: OK. So this is actually making the connection. We've always known that there's this income disparity. Now we're sort of understanding that income disparity might be because if you're less affluent, I mean, you're just not developing these skills you're talking about.
VEDANTAM: Yes. And the question of course is why is this happening? Why are children from richer families demonstrating more of these skills? The most obvious explanation, David, is that poverty creates stresses in people's lives. If you have Mom or Dad working two jobs to make ends meet, it's going to be harder for Mom and Dad to be spending time helping children develop these kinds of non-cognitive skills.
Wulf also said there's evidence of peer effects, meaning that if you're a kid who lacks these skills it would be helpful to be around kids who have the skills. But the way our schools are set up, children in poor families tend to live in poor neighborhoods, which means that their classmates at schools are also likely to come from poor families. Here's Wulf.
WULF: So if we were to have individuals who attend schools where other children are doing better, they themselves would be likely to do better.
VEDANTAM: One implication of this work, David, is that a lot of schools currently track scores in things like math or reading. Not many are systematically tracking these non-cognitive skills, seeing how they change over time and systematically trying to teach those skills. And yet, it may be that those skills are actually central, not just for doing well at school but doing well throughout life.
GREENE: Especially if you catch them early and then maybe you'll see better math and reading scores later on in schooling.
GREENE: All right. Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.
GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam. He is NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It is called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.