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.