I'm aware there is a body of research concerned with measuring the returns to schooling in general, and there are theoretical pronouncements about what the most valuable things to learn at school are.

Have there been any empirical attempts to estimate the value of being taught specific skills - for example, phonics or solving algebraic equations?


2 Answers 2


Have there been any empirical attempts to estimate the value of being taught specific skills - for example, phonics or solving algebraic equations?

If I may be brazen enough to challenge the basis of this question. We first need to have an economic criteria to evaluate a subject in a curriculum before we start analysing its relevance to the labour market .

I got all this information from the University of Mumbai- Economics of Education for M.A Education . (free download and an easy read).

In terms of how an economist should view a curriculum, the criteria is twofold, as stated in the course kit:

One needs to asses the value of the subject and its existence in the system. There are two criteria for a particular subject being studied or taught in a given course of study.

1) Theoretical consideration:
The subject should be a body of fundamental knowledge which is a prerequisite for the understanding of other subjects.

2) Practical consideration:
The subject should have a practical significance in the sense that its understanding would be useful in taking efficient decisions in some of the practical problems. (pg.108)

This being said, its inappropriate to measure productivity on the basis of knowledge of phonics and algebra as these are studies which are only prerequisites of more prerequisites for another subject with labour market implications.

Hope this helps

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I'm 100% with you on it being inappropriate, but your comment made me think that the value of my example skills could be add in a nonlinear manner - learning phonics could be of quite low value unless you go on to learn to read, at which point it becomes quite valuable. Are there attempts to measure the value of broader but still relatively well defined curricula? $\endgroup$
    – David J
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 6:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidJ Haven't found anything over the past two days. however it may be more of a question for an educationalist, at this point, than an economist. $\endgroup$
    – EconJohn
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 3:12

In economics, I have not seen an evaluation of particular skill like the one you mention. However, there is a large literature evaluating the effect of cognitive and non-cognitive (or socio-emotional, as others call it) skills on wages. This is not as fine as you are asking for, but it is clearly a way forward from established approaches like "years of education" or "type of degree".

A very recent reference, and very comprehensive in terms of methods (albeit a rather complex paper) comes from the man himself, Heckman. Here is the paper. An important result is here (from page 43):

enter image description here

Very interestingly, cognitive ability are much more important than socio-emotional ability for contemporaneous wages, ceteris paribus. However, the next graph (not shown) highlights that for the present value of wages (so, including career progression), socio-economic ability is as important as cognitive ability.

As I said, there are hundreds of papers on this area. Here is just one other example, comparing cognitive and non-cognitive ability and labour market returns in Sweden. If you google (or search in http://econpapers.repec.org/) "cognitive non-cognitive ability return wages" or related, you get tons of hits.


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