The GiveWell Blog

Chess in the Schools

The New York Times recently profiled Chess in the Schools:

The Chess-in-the-Schools program has sought to foster analytical skills on the theory that these will help students succeed academically. The group teaches 20,000 children a year and calculates that it has taught 425,000 children since 1986. Children gather to learn the game at the group’s headquarters in Manhattan.

It seems like 20 years and 425,000 children is quite a lot of investment in the “theory that [chess] will help students succeed academically.” The Times feature provides a calming justification for the investment: “Chess helps promote intellectual growth and has been shown to improve academic performance.” Let’s look at the evidence for this claim.

The study we found

An early-1990s study looks at achievement test scores of chess-playing students over two years at District 9 in the Bronx. It observes that (a) the overall average reading score improved among chessplayers by about 5 percentile points, but didn’t improve among the set of remaining District 9 students; (b) 15 of 22 second-year participants improved their reading scores by some amount, while only 491 of 1118 non-participants in the district – and 245 of 655 non-participants with high reading scores, improved.

This study is riddled with major problems:

  • The numbers the researchers choose to compare seem arbitrary and possibly cherry-picked. Why do the researchers look at the “percentage who improved” among second-year chessplayers but not for both years? Why do they compare the second-year students to “high-performing nonparticipants,” but not give the same comparison when looking at all students?
  • The problem of selection bias is unusually obvious here. They’re comparing kids who volunteered to play chess against those who didn’t. Think of the chess club members at your school, and ask yourself if they would have been just like all the other kids had chess club not been offered. There’s no reason to think these two groups of kids are otherwise similar or would be expected to respond similarly to school.
  • This is a study of somewhere between 22 and 53 students at a single district in the early 1990s. Even if the study were highly rigorous, it would still be a long way from “proof that chess helps promote intellectual growth.”

The studies we couldn’t find

The Chess-in-the-Schools website states:

In 1991 and 1996, Stuart M. Margulies, Ph.D., a noted educational psychologist, conducted two studies examining the effects of chess on children’s reading scores. The studies demonstrated that students who participated in the chess program showed improved scores on standardized tests. The gains were even greater among children with low or average initial scores. Children who were in the non-chess playing control group showed no gains.

Another study in 1999, measured the impact of chess on the emotional intelligence of fifth graders. The results of the study were striking. The overall success rate in handling real life situations with emotional intelligence was 91.4% for the children who participated in the Chess-in-the-Schools program. In contrast, those who were not involved with the chess program had an average overall success rate of only 64.4%.

We’re guessing that the study we’re looking at is an update of the 1991 study since it references no previous studies and discusses results from 1991 and 1992. We can’t find the other studies anywhere. Chess-in-the-Schools provides neither links nor citations.

Even in the best-case scenario, it’s apparently been at least a decade since the last test of the Chess-in-the-Schools model.

“Chess helps promote intellectual growth and has been shown to improve academic performance?”

In researching charities, one of the more discouraging things we’ve learned is how little support it takes for a statement like “Chess helps promote intellectual growth and has been shown to improve academic performance” to be repeated by charities, donors, and even the media.

As far as we can tell, Chess-in-the-Schools is not a demonstrated success story. It’s just been promoted and scaled up like one.


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