One of the hottest topics across the American education system is a set of cognitive skills called executive function. Curriculums based around improving executive function have been deployed in some of the country’s top schools to make their top students even better. And it’s been rolled out in poor schools to help close the yawning achievement gap between underprivileged students and their well-to-do peers.
Some researchers liken executive function to an air traffic control system, which coordinates the thoughts and impulses arriving on the different runways of the brain’s busy airport. It allows us to stay focused in the face of distraction, resist urges, control emotions, and direct our actions toward a goal. Not surprisingly, scientists have found that these abilities are highly correlated with academic performance and success in later life. And executive function also appears to be malleable, meaning it can be strengthened through targeted training exercises.
The prospect is tantalizing: Improve executive function, better reading and math skills should follow. And the pressure is on. The standards movement demands schools, teachers, and curriculums to produce results, close performance gaps, boost achievement, and get more bang for the educational buck.
But despite the promise and the hype — not to mention the many millions of dollars spent — it turns out there isn’t solid evidence that improving executive function actually leads to better grades. That’s the startling finding of a new meta-analysis, published in the journal Review of Educational Research, which looks at 67 studies of school-based programs that target executive function. In fact, this latest research found no support for the idea that improving those skills can lead directly to better test scores in reading or math.
“We’re really surprised by the lack of support for the notion. Even though intuitively it is super appealing, there just isn’t a lot of really solid evidence out there that shows the link,” says Robin Jacob, a scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, who conducted the review along with Julia Parkinson, now at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. She called the findings disappointing.
Executive function is a seductive idea, and along with growing interest on the part of educators and researchers and the general public, the past several years have seen an explosion in books, software, and curriculums designed to whip children’s executive function into shape. KIPP, an acclaimed nationwide chain of charter schools with five campuses in the Boston area, stresses a set of character traits, including grit and self-control, that overlap considerably with executive function. Tools of the Mind, a buzzy preschool and kindergarten curriculum used by more than a dozen school districts in Massachusetts, promises to develop children’s self-regulation through regimented dramatic play. Lumosity, the hugely successful San Francisco startup, and Cogmed, a subsidiary of textbook giant Pearson, claim their apps and video games can train the brains of children and adults alike; they and other computer-based programs are now used in hundreds of US classrooms. Meanwhile, the K-12 sector of the cognitive training industry is predicted to grow to $600 million by 2020 up from $175 million in 2012, according to a study from SharpBrains, a firm that tracks the market.
Most of the studies Jacob and Parkinson reviewed found a correlation between executive function and academic performance, and many showed that children’s executive function skills can indeed be improved (at least in the short term) by interventions like a specially designed curriculum or games meant to flex certain cognitive muscles. None, however, demonstrated a causal relationship with achievement in reading or math.
One takeaway is the need for more research, Jacob says, noting that, while they looked at 15 years worth of research, more than half date to 2010 or later, an indicator of how new this line of inquiry still is. Jacob and Parkinson also found that only a handful of studies used randomized, controlled trials, the scientific gold standard. More of these will be needed to prove whether or not executive function training ultimately can boost reading and math skills.
Nonetheless, the meta-analysis holds significance beyond academia. Schools are already investing lots of money and valuable classroom time in programs that target executive function. Jacob argues that both might be better directed elsewhere. “It’s so intuitively appealing, and it’s easy to move ahead,” she acknowledges.
In fact, the impetus for the study was her own work, along with colleagues at Michigan and Harvard, on a curriculum called SECURe (for “social, emotional, and cognitive understanding and regulation skills”) that combines reading instruction with lessons on self-regulation. “It’s not that I don’t think that there is a potential,” she says. “I think there really is. But if you’re choosing among a variety of different interventions that you could be using, I think we should be choosing the ones that have the strongest evidence behind them. I’d rather see more cautious experimentation, and let schools intervene in ways we know work before they invest a lot of money in programs that we’re really not sure about.”
It’s a message that many in education’s trenches may be loath to hear, but they would do well to listen, says Douglas Fuchs, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. “If I had a kid who was struggling in school, and I had a choice between some sort of executive function training and traditional tutoring, I would not choose executive function,” he says. “Right now, it would be a poor bet, a poor use of resources. This meta-analysis goes against the grain of popular wisdom, on which you’ve got companies like Lumosity making God knows how much money. Robin’s study punctures that.”
Clancy Blair, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, shares Fuchs’s concern. “This field of executive function and self-regulation is really hot, and it will take a while until it irons out,” he says. But Blair, a coauthor on several of the studies Jacob and Parkinson examined, also believes that the meta-analysis is flawed. “Methodologically, it’s very well done,” he says. “But it’s far too inclusionary. It measures several things that are like executive function but [aren’t] executive function.”
The paper may be controversial in some circles — “I’ve heard from lots of people,” Jacob says, “and they either really like it or they really hate it” — but Blair’s concern speaks to something that most in the field agree on: Executive function is slippery to define and even harder to measure.
Neuroscientists locate executive function in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, right above a person’s eyes. It is generally broken down into several sub-skills, which interact and overlap and are hard to tease apart from other abilities, especially the sort of general intelligence that IQ tests aim to measure. Among the commonly recognized processes that make up executive function, inhibitory control is the ability to suppress automatic reactions — like the urge to call out an answer in class without raising one’s hand first. Working memory, which seems especially crucial for problem-solving, is the ability to hold information in the mind and manipulate it — putting a list of numbers in order, for example — over a short period of time. Attention control allows us to ignore distractions and focus on the task at hand, while cognitive flexibility lets us shift our attention and change our responses as the situation requires.
Since executive function was first recognized four decades ago, psychologists have developed various ways to assess it, some of which may appear a little absurd to an outside observer. In the so-called Walk-a-Line-Slowly task, for instance, children are asked to walk along a 6-foot-long piece of string taped to the floor, then to repeat the performance as slowly as they can, suppressing the natural urge to move more quickly. Other tests ask people to sort cards, or to watch a parade of images on a computer screen and press a button only when an assigned target — say, a chair — appears.
The problem, Blair says, is that many of these tests only gauge executive function indirectly. “A good example is delay-of-gratification — the famous marshmallow test,” he says, referring to an experiment first conducted by the psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford in the 1960s. Children were told that if they resisted eating a proffered treat, they could have two treats later. “People love to call that executive function, but it’s kind of hit or miss. For some kids, a major form of getting through that task is distraction. Distracting oneself is not an executive skill.”
While some more narrowly targeted tests are useful, Blair says, “Executive function is most noticeable by its absence. When individuals have damage to the prefrontal cortex, or some other neurological issue, they have pronounced difficulties in their lives — making decisions, dealing with emotions, coming to conclusions based on reasoning.”
The stark evidence provided by people with profound pathologies drives home the importance of executive function, and even those who urge caution believe it’s important to continue developing and testing school-based training methods that could strengthen it.
“The fact that we have a lot of different ways of measuring executive function is a reflection of the fact that we don’t really understand it,” says Fuchs, who like Jacob is involved in a major study of an executive function-based curriculum, funded by the US Department of Education. “That means there needs to be a lot more work done.”
While Fuchs has harsh words for commercial enterprises attempting to profit off the popular fascination with cognitive training without the backing of solid science, he understands why schools are reluctant to wait on something with so much common sense appeal. It remains an attractive idea that, by tinkering with children’s brains, we can help them learn skills faster, retain more knowledge, and overcome circumstances like poverty and prejudice that might otherwise hold them back.
“It’s hard to say to schools, ‘Take a break for five years while we figure this out,’ ” he says. “The school bus still comes every morning. You have to do something with these kids.”
Amy Crawford is a writer in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.