Toronto-born journalist Paul Tough has produced a very thought-provoking new book, How Children Succeed, and one that attempts to break the ideological gridlock currently paralyzing North American education reform. Grit, curiosity, and character, he contends, are as critical as academic “smarts“ in explaining why children succeed in achieving “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.” It’s already been hailed by The New York Times as the breakthrough book of the fall season, but will it produce the “shock treatment” needed to resuscitate reformers committed to raising educational standards?
With the American presidential election behind us, Tough’s book is not only timely but germane to the larger public dialogue about improving teaching and learning in all schools, public, private and independent. If public schools are in crisis, it may well be because school reform lurches from cause to cause, from standardized testing to differentiated classrooms, from all-inclusive public schools to charter schools, and everything in between.
Tough’s How Children Succeed is being hailed as a revelation because it effectively challenges how schools now teach and how they measure student learning. Building upon recent research discoveries, he claims that traditional measures of academic ability and achievement, including standardized tests, miss an ingredient crucial to future success –the “non-cognitive skills” of perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control and optimism.
Students who master the academics in decent schools tend to do well in high school, even if they are from lower socio-economic communities. But, as University of Chicago professor James Heckman discovered in 2001 going over Perry Pre-School Project (Ypsilani,Michigan) student success rates, certain character traits and social behaviours were a much better predictor of improved life outcomes.
Tough’s book, like his 2008 offering Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, focuses on raising success rates, particularly in low income urban neighbourhoods. He recognizes the formidable odds stacked against kids with “ACEs – adverse childhood experiences.” Such stresses and disadvantages, the book reports, alter brain chemistry and can lead to self-destructive adult behaviour, marked by anxieties, and depression.
Tough was heavily influenced by the famous rat experiments of McGill University neuroscientist Michael Meaney, demonstrating that high grooming (HG) rat mothers, who rush to lick and groom pups after they are handled by researchers, tend to raise offspring that are bolder, more alert, more curious, and longer-living.
While IQ remains reasonably set by age eight, Tough points out that children enrolled in “a high quality, two year pre-kindergarten program” performed better in the long-run. It was particularly true when pre-school teachers acted like the mother rats, grooming kids in “personal behaviour” and tending to their “social development” needs.
Public education reformers have latched upon Tough’s book and used it in the campaign against overdone standardized testing. His book, however, is actually based upon personal journeys and in-depth research in two radically different schools, neither of which is from the public school system.
He closely examines the innovations of David Levin at the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a charter school founded in 1999 in the South Bronx. Here, through a focused program of “high intensity teaching” and “character education,” the first graduates graduated from high school in record numbers, only to flounder a little in college.
After studying the life pathways of KIPP graduates, Levin found that the ones with grit and resilience fared better than the more academically gifted. That led to changes specifically designed to boost “performance character” using a “grit index,” a “C.P.A.” (character point average) report grades, and related resilience-building activities.
Further important insights were gleaned from Dominic Randolph’s Riverdale Country School, a prestigious Bronx private school at the other end of the spectrum. Leery about the KIPP model of “charter metrics,” Randolph adopted a more nuanced approach, better suited to rather privileged kids and totally engaged “helicopter” parents. Based upon Martin Seligman’s philosophy of “learned optimism,” he adjusted the progressive “CARE 2.0” formula (Be Good, Avoid Gossip, Respect Others) into a more “performance character” model, striking more of a balance than at the KIPP academy. That way, Randolph embraced “performance character” development with traditional “moral character education “ espoused in such schools.
American educational “progressives” are attracted to Paul Tough`s How to Succeed because of its critical perspective on standardized testing and its advocacy of early learning, beginning in the pre-school years. Once again, we see how important American charter schools and even forward-looking private schools are in initiating an “incubating` the most stimulating ideas in North American school reform.
Bold and innovative schools like KIPP South Bronx Academy and brave private school leaders are venturing into areas rarely ever explored in regular public schools. Vocal Canadian public school defenders should think again before rejecting truly innovative ideas and manning the barricades to resist genuine alternative schools and programs in Nova Scotia and other inwardly-focused Canadian provincial systems. That is why this book is well worth reading.
Tough`s How Children Succeed is really a book for innovative educators and parents interested in `big ideas` and real change. It`s also the flavour of the season in public education, so it will likely also be mined by `systematizers` for insights and examples that support preconceived notions about what`s best for today`s students.
Will Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed be the wake-up call we need, alerting us to the blind spots in current North American education reform? Should schools be focusing on raising the bar instead of addressing the glaring learning deficits in students? Would a reform initiative aimed at developing “performance character” serve all students better? Have we been missing the significance of “grit” in improving our students’ life chances?