Can misbehavior in school lead to higher wages later in life?

Sept. 29, 2015

Have a child who misbehaves in school? He or she might be on the road to a lucrative career. At Brookings, Nicholas Papageorge, assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, writes, “Together with two co-authors, I have studied how classroom misbehavior relates to both educational attainment and labor market performance. Surprisingly, we find evidence that some non-cognitive skills that manifest as childhood misbehavior in the classroom (and are predictive of lower schooling attainment) are also predictive of higher earnings later in life. This finding challenges prevailing research, which has generally argued that misbehavior in the classroom reflects underlying skills that are bad for schooling and bad overall.”

The researchers divide the misbehavior into two categories: externalizing and internalizing behaviors—both of which lead to lower school attainment. Unsurprisingly, internalizing behaviors, like being withdrawn and unforthcoming, predict lower earnings later in life. However, externalizing behaviors, like aggression, predict higher earnings, despite their negative impact on school performance.

The researchers say the results show similar patterns for men and women, although children from low-income families do not exhibit any benefit from externalizing behavior.

Papageorge writes, “This research suggests several avenues for future caution in how we design policies targeting non-cognitive skills.” He concludes, “Finally, our results on externalizing suggest that schools do not always foster the sorts of skills that are valuable in the labor market.”

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