on September 11, 2012
Following the footsteps of Jonathan Kozol, Paul Tough employs his significant storytelling abilities to help readers see and feel the plight of children, families and communities trapped in cycles of failure and poverty. How Children Succeed challenges some conventional wisdom on causes of failure (poverty, teacher quality) and contends that nurturing character in children and young adults is the key to success. As a former NYC Teaching Fellow who has lived and worked in multiple communities of cyclical poverty, I'm convinced that Tough has nailed some critical pieces of breaking those cycles.
Here is the argument in brief:
There exists in our society a troubling and growing achievement gap between the have and the have-nots. The cause of that gap is neither merely poverty nor IQ, but a specific set of non-cognitive skills including executive function and conscientiousness, which Tough calls "character." Children who acquire these skills can break historic cyclical patterns of failure.
Malleability of Character and Intelligence
Whereas IQ is hardly malleable, executive function and character strengths - specifically grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity and conscientiousness - are far more malleable. These skills are better predictors of academic performance and educational achievement than IQ and therefore ought to be the direct target of interventions.
Attachment and Lifelong Health
Tough sees two key areas of influence for those who care for those trapped in cycles of poverty. The first is secure early attachment to parents. "The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical" (28). Specifically, children who experience high levels of stress but NOT responsive and nurturing parents suffer from a range of lifelong health and mental health issues. However, "When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of those environmental factors on their children seemed to almost disappear" (32). Tough cites one study in which "early parental care predicted which students would graduate even more reliably than IQ or achievement test scores" (36). Importantly, interventions that focus on promoting stronger parent-child relationships in high risk groups (including one in which just 1 of 137 infants studied demonstrated secure attachment at the outset) have shown promising impact. Of the 137 children in the study, 61% of those in the treatment group formed secure attachment by age 2, compared with only 2% of the control group.
Adolescent Character Formation
Paul Tough highlights the work of school and support programs that intentionally focus on forming the character strength habits that enable children to learn well in schools, form healthy relationships, and avoid the destructive decisions and behavior patterns modeled in their communities. Here, too, Tough sees a ray of hope. Just as early intervention with parents and young children yields wide ranging benefits for families in poverty, so character interventions in adolescence can and do enable young adults surrounded by cycles of poverty to learn self-control, perseverance and focus that are critical for escaping the gravitational pull of their communities.
Why You Should Read This Book
Paul Tough is tackling one of the most challenging - and contentious - issues of our time. His analysis will offend those who tend to blame poverty predominantly on the irresponsible choices of the poor by showing just how powerful the cyclical, environmental pressures are on children raised in these communities. His work is just as challenging to those who think that those trapped in cycles of poverty are mere victims of their environment who bear no responsibility for their decisions. Tough shows compellingly that parents and children in poverty can and do overcome the powerful environmental forces of their communities - and that this is a beautiful and essential component of breaking cyclical poverty. His call is for those with education and influence - the kinds of people who read books like his - to demonstrate motivation and volition (two components of character formation he extols) to recognize, celebrate, and nurture the character of children and families in poverty.
Author, The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone
Paul Tough sets out to answer a rather heady question in a rather slim 200 pages: what makes children succeed? To his credit, Tough packs in a dense barrage of different perspectives (economic, social, psychological, and medical) and he supports his points well with ample research. The resulting book is interesting reading and provides a great deal of food for thought. I appreciate Tough's contribution, but I have to quibble with some of his conclusions.
Tough begins his book talking about the rise of cognitive interventions in early childhood. Ever since some studies showed some positive effects of various kinds of early childhood stimulation, parents have rushed to play Mozart for their developing fetuses, companies have marketed products guaranteed to get your baby reading, and competition for the "best" preschools has become a blood sport. But Tough argues that these interventions, while well intentioned, are ultimately misguided. While cognitive skills are certainly important, and early stimulation can boost these skills somewhat, there may be a different, over-arching set of skill which may be more important to overall success in life. These skills are the non-cognitive skills commonly grouped under the rubric of "character".
As Tough dives into the meat of his exploration, he opens with a look at the negative effects of poverty, its correlations with trauma and adverse childhood events (abuse, witnessing violence, neglect, malnutrition, etc.), and how these factors affect an individual through his life - cognitively, emotionally and even physically. He explores attachment theory and the role of attachment in soothing and undoing the effects of early adverse events. I found this chapter fascinating, as I have long felt that trauma is one of the root causes of so many societal problems. If we could only figure out how to prevent and heal trauma, the gains - educational, creative, productive, social, etc. - would be astounding. Tragically, it seems instead that we are hell-bent on increasing trauma, our increasingly violent movies, television and news media being but some examples thereof. I had hoped that Tough would explore this area more in depth.
Tough, however, swerves into a detour and begins building his argument for "character". He acknowledges that there are many different definitions of "character" and disagreements about what should or shouldn't be included. Some definitions include more religious/"moral" values such as chastity or piety, while others strive for more universal values such as honesty and integrity. But what Tough seems to mean by "character" (although he himself does not always apply the term consistently) has to do with practical values that help people succeed: the ability to work hard toward a goal and stick to it in the face of adversity and setbacks, the ability to rebound after failure, the inclination to do one's best even in the absence of obvious external rewards, the ability to delay gratification.
Tough spends a good deal of time comparing and contrasting the KIPP charter school program with an elite, expensive private school in New York: Riverdale Country School. The schools are almost polar opposites demographically. KIPP is a free, public, open-enrollment charter school which selects students by lottery. The majority of the students are poor and minority. Riverdale, by contrast, is highly selective and enrollment fees start at $38,000. The student body is exclusively rich and nearly all white.
But the two schools have very similar missions: to prepare their students for college and give them the tools for success, including "character" tools (both programs define character in the wider sense of social values as well as Tough's characteristics). The differences in demographics, however, mean that this mission is often carried out in very different ways. Riverdale kids almost universally come from homes with two college educated professional parents, and their own college/professional destiny has been part of the air they've breathed since infancy. KIPP students, by contrast, are not nearly as likely to have college educated parents and have not been prepared for college - in fact, many may be actively dissuaded from college and may have barriers in qualifying for, applying for, paying for and succeeding at college.
In Tough's view, the challenge for the Riverdale students is often "character" issues, particularly those directly relating to success, such as grit, perseverance, and resilience. They come from a secure safety net which they know will always be there. They often find getting good grades and getting along with teachers easy, so they coast in school and don't develop the skills necessary to succeed. The trick for them, Tough argues, is being allowed to fail and having to get back up on their own, but this is often inhibited by "helicopter" parents.
KIPP students, on the other hand, have dealt with adversity and failure all their lives and have had to develop grit just to survive. They may in this regard have an advantage over their Riverdale peers. If students can be taught to develop and hone such skills, just like they're taught to develop reading and math skills, they may be able to narrow or even overcome the gap created by their deprived backgrounds and comparably poor prior education.
Tough then expands these ideas by exploring other contexts and other programs, such as a chess club at a public school in New York and an after school program in Chicago which expanded to become a full in-school curriculum. Many of these programs deliberately seek out not the highest achieving or the smartest students, but rather the struggling students who still seem to have some determination. Using intensive, nearly all-encompassing catch-up methods which focus on emotional and "character" issues as well as cognitive skills, these programs attempt to bridge the gap between rich and poor students and give poor and minority students a greater chance to get into, succeed at and graduate from college.
Tough lauds these programs for their efforts and their success, and, indeed, these programs have much to brag about. College attendance and graduation rates are much higher among students with access to such programs than the general population. But I think Tough overstates the effects just a bit. Even with all this intensive effort, and even for all their grit and perseverance, the low income students still struggle more than and drop out more than their affluent counterparts, even with their apparent relative lack of grit. Tough seems to be arguing that "character" matters more than anything else, but his own data shows that no amount of diligent application can make up for the advantage bestowed by affluence and a strong safety net. Not that we shouldn't try to teach "character", but maybe we should also try to figure out how to expand that safety net.
Another criticism I would make of Tough is his ready acceptance of big names and "recognized" leaders. For instance, he hails Paul Vallas and Bill Gates as recognized educational leaders, despite the fact that neither holds an education degree, Vallas had no prior education experience before being appointed to Chicago Public Schools on the strength of his budget reform, and Gates has no education experience whatsoever. (I question Arne Duncan's inclusion as an educational leader too, but, then, he is Secretary of Education.) Actual education experts - those who have dedicated their lives to teaching and studying the effects of educational policy - have long been skeptical of charter school expansion and high-stakes testing espoused by all of the above. In fact, Tough seems to accept charter schools and standardized testing with little question of their validity and effectiveness (although he does note that standardized testing measures intelligence and cognitive skills rather than actual achievement, which correlates better with non-cognitive skills as measured by, for instance, rote coding tests which measure perseverance and diligence).
Finally, Tough stumbles into the classic "centrist" fallacy of false equivalence:
"Finally, there is the fact that the new science of adversity, in all its complexity, presents a challenge to some deeply held political beliefs on both the left and the right. To liberals, the science is saying that conservatives are correct on one very important point: character matters."
No liberals are saying that character doesn't matter. Furthermore, conservatives often define "character" along social values lines equivalent to "morality", which Tough himself rejects. What liberals are saying is that it's not that easy. You can't just throw a bunch of slogans at students and expect that they're magically going to change. All of the programs Tough details in his book are intensive, wrap-around programs which provide near-immersion experience to help students catch-up both academically and socially/non-cognitively, yet still the gap is not eliminated and still the students struggle despite their best intentions. You can't simply tell students to "man up" and force discipline into them and expect it to overcome the lifetime of trauma and adversity Tough himself details in his first chapter. Education reform is not some easy, cheap package of "character" platitudes that we can bestow on disadvantaged "failing" students. It's a matter of taking students where they're at, recognizing how they got there, and caring enough to invest the time and effort to help them move on. Yes, character is a part of that. But people succeed when they care about themselves, and they care about themselves when somebody cares about them. Attachment, as Tough himself discovered, can overcome adversity and build resilience. But if attachment isn't formed when a baby is tiny and cute and adorable, it's a lot harder to form attachment with the confused, angry teenager that that baby grows into.
Tough is on the right track that it's about a whole lot more than just cognitive skills. Plunking disadvantaged babies in front of Baby Einstein isn't going to cut it. Tough is also right that "character" skills as he defines them: grit, perseverance, resilience, etc. can help to bridge the gap left by deficits in early childhood stimulation, cognitive skill building, and general education, and that those "character" skills can be taught and learned. But I think he needs to circle back around to his first chapter and explore more deeply the connections among trauma, deprivation, attachment and "character", and how those deficits can be healed and corrected.
on August 13, 2012
Why do some children succeed in life and others do not? Why does a bright child end up a failure as an adult while a more average student ends up a success? Paul Tough says that the answer is character. Traits like self-control, diligence, and perseverance are better predictors of success in life than IQ. In fact, those who are especially bright, may be set up for failure as they become used to everything in school coming easily to them, and are ill-prepared for the difficulties of the "real world."
I found the book absolutely fascinating, both informative and enjoyable to read. The book is full of research and example to make the author's point. It does a wonderful job demonstrating that character does matter and is as essential for a child to learn as any academic subject. This is not, however, a how-to book that goes into great detail about how to instill these traits in your children/students.
One of the groups that the author focuses on significantly is those of low socioeconomic status. He makes the case, convincingly, that the main problem that they have to overcome is the stressful circumstances of their childhood, such as violence, broken homes, etc. Most find themselves significantly impaired by the constant strain of their early environment. Yet those with close supportive relationships with their caregiver(s) and the opportunity to develop key character traits are able to rise above their circumstances.
The author also focuses on a low-income school in NYC that produces champion chess teams. Children who manage to apply themselves and become national masters are obviously bright. And yet it doesn't translate into test scores, which show them to be woefully behind their peers. I was saddened to see the national master in middle school who couldn't locate entire continents on a map or name a single European country. I felt that child was cheated by the hours a day spent on chess that could have been spent helping him to gain a basic education so that he can function in the world post-graduation. Still, the fact that someone so disadvantaged could achieve so much in one arena, shows what perseverance and diligence can reap.
Overall, this is an interesting book that makes a very good case that it is absolutely critical for children to develop character traits like curiosity, perseverance, etc. It's fascinating reading, even if I already agreed with that conclusion. Just don't expect a how-to book with 5 key steps to implement in your classroom or home.
on January 15, 2013
In the book How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough shares what he believes is needed to make successful children. Drawing from numerous studies and field interviews, the author conveys that character has more to do with success than IQ.
As a mother of six children, I bought this book hoping for some insight that might radically change my parenting style, or complement my parenting style to ensure success of my kids. That was not the case. This book, although extremely well written and easy to read, did nothing more than cite case studies that showed early intervention of children could propel them to higher levels of learning. Now, that's not something new. The author states that perseverance, optimism, curiosity and self-discipline are character traits that help a child succeed more so than IQ. Although probably true, why would that be thought-provoking? Most parents would agree that a lazy child with a high IQ is probably not going to succeed as much as a strong-willed child who has self-discipline and has overcome difficulties.
Here's what this book offered: a theory tested in the field, numerous case studies by credible psychologists and neuroscientists, and a lot of feel-good stories to support the theory. Here's what I liked about the book: in my opinion it's all true. Yet, I did not get out of the book what I had hoped to find: a clear-cut way to ensure my children succeed. After reading this book, I have not learned anything new that I didn't already know as a parent. I felt this book was written to motivate educators in the field and not as a helpful tool for parents
on December 21, 2013
Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is another in a long line of books which tries to determine how we can better serve “underperforming” children—specifically children in poverty and children of color. Tough posits a fairly new approach to this social problem: character. He draws a distinction between cognitive skills, which are most often expressed through academic ability, and noncognitive skills like perseverance, conscientiousness, and eagerness to learn. Over the course of some 200 pages, Tough explores how and why these noncognitive skills develop from a variety of approaches—interviews with students and educators, positive psychological research, studies of rats’ mothering habits and biological stress responses.
The context of the book, though, is as important to my reading of How Children Succeed as its actual content. This is a book I see around my workplace often. It was, in fact, loaned to me by a coworker. And last year, while I was on fellowship as an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow, some of my cohort read it in a book study. I work in the ed reform movement (something I have deeply ambivalent feelings about), and this book is fast becoming part of the ed reform lingo. It’s a natural fit. This book (and by extension its writer) comes from the same place as my TFA alum and Broad resident coworkers: this is a book written by a deeply privileged person who wants to fix education. That’s a noble goal. But the problem I see over and over in the ed reform movement is that these privileged people cannot see past their privilege, and so the ways they want to fix education continually read to me as shallow and ineffective.
Tough’s book is a great example of this tension. Tough grew up middle class, white, cisgender and male. At several points in the book, he discusses his decision to drop out of Columbia University as a tortured eighteen year old. The fateful dropout decision is not predicated on some external forces (a financial crisis or having to return home to take care of a relative in a tight spot) but on a vague notion that he wants to “try something that’s new”. Tough ends up bicycling halfway across the country, then returns to college only to drop out a second time. So, this is the author’s background. His research and reporting for the book takes him to the South Side of Chicago where he tries to understand the lives of struggling high schoolers. He seems to see these kids’ struggles mostly as a result of two things: the high levels of stress they’ve encountered in their short, violent, impoverished lives and the apparent absence of secure attachments to caregivers. Tough uses research on the HPA axis and biological effects of stress and research on attachment theory to largely explain why and how these kids haven’t yet developed the cognitive skills needed to get them to and through college. And while both of those things may play some small part in their current trajectory I believe he severely overstates the effects of both.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I am white, but I grew up poor and queer and struggling with my gender in a small, conservative town in Texas. My parents were both trapped in substance abuse. I was alternately neglected and abused by them, and as such, never developed a secure attachment to either. I also excelled in school (though I was a troublemaker). I got out—got into college, graduated, and then got a doctorate. I am what educational psychologists call “resilient”. I have what Tough calls character in spades. My sister is less resilient. The major difference between my sister and I? She is dealing with a different level of mental health issues than I am. She has a learning disability that was never diagnosed. She didn’t excel in school. In a word, she didn’t look like she could pass as middle class.
Tough makes the case that if poor kids have a positive adult role model to help them develop ‘character’ that they can ‘succeed’. He never stops to consider that what he has deemed ‘character’ is a very white middle-class idea of character. It is deeply steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic, for instance, and it may be that poor kids of color are developing a different kind of character, a set of noncognitive skills acutely attuned to the context in which they live. My avoidant attachment to my parents growing up, for instance, was a totally appropriate way of managing my relationship to unstable and unreliable caregivers. The same with his unspoken assumptions about what success looks like—this is a white, middle class idea of success. When Tough abstracts character and success from the context these people live in, divorcing it so neatly from the structural and institutional oppression caused by racism and classism, he presents the answer to our ‘education system’s failures’ as very simple. While reading the book, the message I got was that all we have to do is train poor black kids to act like well-off white kids and they’ll do just fine. The fact that this strips them of their culture, that it separates them from their families, that faking-it-til-you-make-it is another kind of colorblindness is not addressed. And I can say from my personal experience that I faked-it-til-I-made-it. That’s exactly how I got to and through both college and graduate school. And now I’m upwardly mobile but I’m still a kid who grew up poor. Navigating social class has only gotten harder as I’ve moved up the social ladder. I can’t imagine what it would be to be black or Latino on top of it and to have my marginalization so clearly written on my skin.
The heart of my issue with the ed reform movement, and this is something that Tough’s book falls prey to, is that it doesn’t see the American education system for what it really is. Today, the American Dream is synonymous with educational attainment. The problem is that the American Dream was never meant to apply to most of America. We’ve constructed our education system to explicitly create class divisions along racial lines. Our education system is not failing—it’s achieving exactly what it’s built to do. There’s no reforming it. No amount of character classes in charter schools attracting smart but impoverished kids of color is going to change that. The ed reform movement is a predominantly white, middle class movement and as such it is a movement that makes certain assumptions about the fairness and good faith of the institution of education as it currently exists that are false.
I succeeded in life because I am privileged enough to blend in with the privileged ruling class. I’m white. I’m academically gifted. I was an avoidantly attached enough kid that I was fully comfortable leaving behind my broken family. I worked very hard to lose my scraggly Texan accent when I arrived at college. The noncognitive skills that got me where I am today are largely those that let me forcibly blend into an unfamiliar environment ripe with opportunity. I am a fluke. I am the exception. And it’s not my kid sister’s fault or the poor black kid on the South Side’s fault that they didn’t make it. For other people it’s not so simple as just developing a better character, and on every page I felt insulted at the implication that Tough felt he’d found the silver bullet in this. There are no silver bullets. There’s no reform. The only thing that will work is rebuilding the system from the ground up. There’s no improving an inherently racist and classist institution—there’s only replacing it.
How Children Succeed - Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character is well worth reading. The author examines schools, family dynamics, and character and the way early childhood experiences can affect emotional and physical well being long after a child is grown. Various examples and studies are utilized to support the concept that children brought up in stressful environments are at high risk for repeating the mistakes of their parents. These might include drug abuse, gang banging, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy,etc. The good news is that intervention - if it is the right kind- can make a positive impact on the child. The work of Carol Dweck is mentioned, as is that of a host of educators, social reformers, and pure researchers. This book is a bit more pedantic than some psychology books for the layman. It explains how studies involving careful monitoring of rodent mothers and their offspring demonstrate that nurturing in early youth- even by a foster mother rather than a biological one- makes a dramatic difference in the resilience, curiosity, and intelligence of pups as they develop. Similar stories fill the pages and support the author's primary message- that character attributes such as perseverance (grit) can predict future success better than standardized test scores. The book has inspired me to pay more attention to the way I interact with children as a parent and educator.
on September 11, 2012
(NOTE: I was provided with a free ARC of this book prior to this review.)
Since my daughter entered an urban school district with many failing schools, I've been interested in how you can bring the whole system up given the challenges faced with poverty, lack of parental involvement, and the stress of living in high crime areas.
Author Paul Tough takes a look at the approaches being taken to help high risk students and comes away with the hypothesis that what helps kids at risk succeed is the following:
1) A life in which a child is shielded from stress as much as possible, both at home and in the surrounding environment.
2) Building qualities of character like grit, resilience, and optimism.
3) Community, school, and even medical programs that focus on providing support for these students and drive them to succeed rather than warehouse them until they reach the age where they're forced to fend for themselves.
Unfortunately, How Children Succeed spends so much time pointing to anecdotes that support these principles that the science and statistics that support it tend to get lost in the shuffle. While these ideas seem intuitively obvious, it would have been nice to read more about contrasting approaches to helping kids at risk and why those approaches may be failing.
One thing that the book makes clear is that as a country we seem to have spent precious little time analyzing what works in education and instead are focused on the next big thing in solving what ails many of our public schools. Paul Tough also calls both liberals and conservatives to task for politicizing education without addressing that the arguments of both sides have merit. Yes, conservatives are right when they say that kids can't succeed without building their character, and liberals who have difficulty discussing the role that bad parenting has in the failure of kids to achieve are not helping. But Tough also says that liberals are right in saying it takes a village to help these kids succeed, and that we need to invest money in programs to help provide the support they need.
How Children Succeed provides an interesting glimpse into the ways in which we can help our children and our public schools perform better. If nothing else, it makes it clear that there is no one miracle solution that will solve our problems in public education.
My husband is a public school teacher. Every few years the district adopts some new "program" that is supposed to boost student learning and improve test scores. What my husband has seen over the years is a constant dumbing down of the curriculum - and no better student performance. In fact, performamce is sliding.
Do kids need more hours at school? Year-round school? Better technology? Earlier introduction to reading?
This author answers all of these questions and more with the most up-to-date research and a resounding NO. Who succeeds in school and goes on to live a productive adult life? Kids with grit, curiosity, determination, whose earliest years were a time of safety and attachment to mom.
You'd think this was some fundamentalist Christian book but it is not. This is a secular book about secular schools and research by secular social scientists.
The author does not create a "how to" for helping failing kids and failing schools. He simply discusses what works and what does not.
Eye-opening, important book. I would highly recommend this book to school district officials, school board members, teachers, administrators, and most of all PARENTS.
on September 10, 2013
If you are looking for parenting "how-tos" this is NOT the book. The book contains several stories about people and their struggles. The author did cite research and studies; however, in my opinion, the author didn't connect the findings to what one can do to help their child or student succeed.
So many things are wrong with this book! It starts out with a clearly stated thesis but devolves quickly into frustratingly divergent, uncoordinated and sometimes blatantly unrelated material. The author's arguments about the flaws in intelligence testing have already been far better presented many other places, but are treated like startling new material.
The content meanders without clear purpose and slumps into un-engaging,disjointed, and overly detailed observations and interviews with disadvantaged students and their teachers for long stretches. It never recovers from that state into a coherent, cohesive or compelling conclusion.
Perhaps most frustrating was the completely glaring and incomprehensible gap between what the author's stories and cited research actually suggest and what he presents as a conclusion. Everything in the book clearly demonstrates that it is quality parenting in consistently safe and stable households that creates character, prevents the destructive impacts of a continuously overloaded physical stress response system, and provides children with the resources (emotional/mental/disciplinary) that they need to be successful - particularly starting at a young age when the child is most malleable and developing the fastest. This is true no matter where you live or what socioeconomic level you are. Yet the book's entire focus in on the education system, with an emphasis on middle and high schools mitigating and compensating for the damage done (and still occurring!) on the homefront. The clumsily written conclusion also unsuccessfully attempts to draw national spending on anti-poverty measures into the equation somewhere. After spending an entire book (albeit disjointedly)demonstrating that a lack of stable homes and properly equipped parents is the root of the problem, the author never so much as squeaks about addressing those issues in way.
In short, there are a lot of commonly discussed threads here, but they not capably handled and this is not worth your time. If you're looking to read about how our children are over-protected and never get the chance to learn how to make choices and handle failure, try Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. If you want to learn more about why our education system seems so inadequate to the needs of today, try The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling. If you're looking for a much better exploration of how home life and early physical/neurological development impact children's likelihood to grow up into either criminals or successful citizens, try The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Whatever you pick, skip this one!