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‘How Children Succeed’ — Q&A with Paul Tough

Q) Thanks for agreeing to talk about the book. Briefly, what is it about?

A) The book is about two things: first, an emerging body of research that shows the importance of so-called non-cognitive skills in children’s success; and second, a new set of experimental interventions that are trying to use that research to help improve outcomes for children, especially children growing up in

disadvantage. Some of this research is decades old; some is very new. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to show the connections between fields of research that are generally kept quite separate, including various branches of economics, neuroscience, pediatrics, and psychology.

Q) What kind of non-cognitive skills are you talking about and are these things that can really be taught in a classroom?

A) The skills I’m talking about include grit, curiosity, perseverance, conscientiousness, self-regulation, and optimism. I do think they can be taught in the classroom – I think most of us can think of a teacher in our past who helped us develop one or more of those skills – but I don’t think we yet have an ideal model for exactly how to teach them in the classroom. There are a couple of experimental classroom interventions that I think seem particularly promising, including Tools of the Mind, which uses extended make-believe play and other teaching strategies to develop self-regulation in 4- and 5-year-olds, and OneGoal, the Chicago-based high school program that teaches juniors and seniors a particular set of non-cognitive skills designed to help them persist in college. But I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the interventions I write about aren’t classroom-based, but are the work of mentors or psychologists or pediatricians or coaches. And the book points out that the most effective time to help a child develop healthy non-cognitive skills is in early childhood, before the first day of school.

Q) That raises a number of questions. First did you identify any particular population of students that is lacking these healthy non-cognitive skills more than others? 

A) The development of non-cognitive skills is highly affected by a child’s environment growing up. So children who grow up in significant adversity are more likely to have difficulties with those skills.

 Q) If early childhood is the best time to teach these skills, should we be talking about teaching parents how to instill these in their children?

A) I think we should definitely be working more with parents to help them help their children develop non-cognitive skills. But I don’t think that necessarily means “teaching” parents what to do. At the end of chapter one I write about a variety of interventions that provide emotional and psychological support to parents – from child-parent psychotherapy to Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up to attachment-based home visiting. There’s experimental evidence that suggests that when stressed-out parents get that kind of support, they are better able to give their children, in turn, the kind of support they need to develop these skills.

Q) I find it interesting that something like “grit” would be seen less in children who live in poverty vs. children who don’t. You mention in the book a woman named Madeline Levine who writes about the problems affecting children who grow up in affluence, and it seems as if they have the same sorts of problems with grit, perseverance, self-regulation, optimism. What’s the difference in the populations? Your book also describes two different schools — a wealthy one and a charter school that caters to low-income students. How different are the students in terms of these issues? How different are the interventions at these schools? 

A) That’s a good point. I do think there are plenty of kids in poverty who have lots of grit – arguably more than the average well-off kid. But the problem with focusing too much on the resilience and grit of disadvantaged kids is that we run the risk of minimizing the often quite harmful consequences of growing up in poverty. Some children do become more resilient as a result of growing up in difficult environments – but many others are simply worn down and worn out by the experience. (That’s especially true for disadvantaged children who grow up without a close and supportive relationship with a nurturing adult.)

That said, you’re quite right that kids who grow up in affluence face their own set of challenges in the realm of character. Madeline Levine and I both draw on the work of Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Columbia University who has studied affluent children in depth. Luthar found significant psychological problems at the high end of the income spectrum, and in fact in one study she found higher rates of depression and substance abuse in high-income adolescents than low-income adolescents. These problems arise most often in those high-income homes where children feel simultaneously a great pressure to achieve and an emotional distance from their parents – a particularly toxic combination, according to Luthar and Levine.

So rich and poor kids both face psychological pressures that often express themselves in difficulty persevering and overcoming setbacks. The profound advantage that rich kids have is the family and neighborhood resources that allow them to do well in material ways – to graduate from college, for instance – despite those struggles. They have a social safety net that catches them when they go off course. Most low-income children do not. And so for them, I would argue, these character challenges are more urgent.

The schools I write about in “How Children Succeed” that are collaborating on a character initiative are the KIPP charter schools in New York City, which serve a mostly low-income student population, and Riverdale Country School, a private school in the Bronx that serves a mostly high-income student population. Together, they have come up with a list of seven character strengths they are trying to encourage in their students. But the intervention at KIPP is much more fully developed than the intervention at Riverdale. A couple of years ago, as I describe in the book, KIPP developed a character report card – which they now call a character growth card – and a few times a year, every student at KIPP’s New York City middle schools is evaluated on all seven character strengths by each of their teachers. Character language permeates the KIPP schools.At Riverdale, there’s no character growth card. Administrators and teachers do talk about these character strengths in class and in assemblies, but the strengths have much less of a noticeable presence at the school than they do at KIPP Infinity.

Q) I’ve heard people question the idea of grading children on their character traits, seeing it as some form of social engineering. Your thoughts? 

I don’t think it makes sense to “grade” kids on character in the traditional sense, and I don’t think anyone is really arguing that we should. I think the folks at KIPP may be right that if you want to get serious about helping kids develop these skills, you need to have some way to measure those skills; without that, character-development programs can easily devolve into vague nostrums about being good. (As I point out in the book, a recent study by the National Center for Education Research found that none of the many large-scale character-education programs in use in American schools produces any significant positive outcomes.) But I’m not convinced that a numerical assessment is the best approach to developing these skills. It’s certainly not the only approach: OneGoal, for instance, which I think is doing as good a job as any organization of developing these skills in students, doesn’t use a numerical measurement tool for those skills.

What I observed in my reporting at KIPP Infinity was that in practice, the character report card seemed to function more as a conversation piece than like a traditional report card. In the book I describe some of the conversations that were taking place on report-card night at KIPP Infinity the first time the character report cards were given to students. In the conversations I observed, the simple fact of having this numerical assessment in front of them seemed to give parents, teachers, and students a way of talking about these important skills in a positive, non-confrontational, growth-oriented way. And that’s a rare occurrence in any school; those are often difficult conversations for teachers and parents to have. If the report card provides a vehicle for that kind of deep and collaborative discussion between parents and teachers and students, then it’s performing a valuable function.

Q) You looked at a public charter school and a private school for this book, both of them institutions that are not in the mainstream of public education. There was a character education movement in traditional public schools for years, but, apparently, that kind of curriculum didn’t seem to change the dynamic that it was intended to improve. How do you assess the character education programs in the past? How do you know that the it is the character education at KIPP that is responsible for its results and not other factors, such as entrance policies that choose specific children, attrition rates, etc.? 

First, let me point out that while you’re right that I did some of my reporting for the book at a public charter school and a private school, I reported in more depth at two traditional public schools (Fenger High in Chicago and I.S. 318 in Brooklyn). And of course much of my reporting for the book didn’t take place in schools at all, but in pediatric clinics, neuroscience labs, living rooms, and fast-food restaurants.

I write in the book about the earlier character education movement that you’re referring to: In the 1990s, partly because of the encouragement of President Clinton and Hillary Clinton, schools across the country took up character education as a mantra. I describe in the book how those programs tended to get caught up in accusations of bias and political battles between left and right, and how most of them wound up being pretty watered-down. And I describe that NCER report that concluded that most current character-education programs and curricula (and there are lots of them even today!) are ineffective.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “How do you know that the it is the character education at KIPP that is responsible for its results?” That implies that in the book I credit the character program at KIPP for certain results. I don’t think I do that. (Please let me know if there’s a passage where you think I do.) I do point out that the college-graduation rates for KIPP’s New York City alumni cohorts have improved somewhat over the last four years, but I don’t offer an opinion for why that has happened; if anything, I connect it to the intensive work of the mentors at KIPP Through College more than anything going on right now in the middle schools. (By definition, the recent middle-school project I write about in the book can’t possibly be responsible for any recent change in college-graduation rates; the kids receiving character growth cards at KIPP Infinity are many years away from college.)

I admire the way that KIPP has been so candid as an institution in the last couple of years about their disappointing college-graduation rates. I think they’d be the first to admit that they don’t yet have the problem solved. But I think it’s a crucially important question to take on, and I’m glad they’re taking it so seriously.

Q)You say early in the book that reform efforts based on content have failed to affect achievement gaps, and, that an emphasis on character in some way seems like a better alternative. I would note that I don’t think the decade of No Child Left Behind was really about content, but rather about how to assess what kids learn which turned into being too much about test prep, but I’m curious why you think that helping kids develop grit, optimism, etc., will help them learn how to read Homer or understand and use the Pythagorean Theorem. 

I would disagree somewhat with your characterization of my argument. I don’t think I ever argue in the book against “reform efforts based on content.” (Though again, please let me know if there’s a particular passage where you think I do so.) I certainly think content is a crucial part of education! But in the book I do argue against the intense national focus on standardized tests, which measure a fairly narrow range of cognitive skills and turn out to be not very effective predictors of the educational goals that I think we should care about, especially college-graduation rates. I draw on the work of many analysts, including Melissa Roderick at the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research and the authors of the book “Crossing the Finish Line,” to suggest that doing a better job of developing non-cognitive skills in students could be a particularly fruitful way to increase college-graduation rates. The reason that I focus so much on the Chicago organization OneGoal is that they are trying to put that research into practice now in a very direct way, and their results, though quite preliminary, look promising.

As for the question of how helping kids develop grit and optimism might help them learn how to read Homer or learn geometry: I don’t go into this too deeply in the book, but I do think there’s pretty strong evidence in the psychological literature that if we can help young people improve their sense of self-efficacy – if we can help them develop what the psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset – they do better not just in the long run, but right away, in class. Dweck’s data shows that students who believe that they can improve their own abilities deal better with setbacks and apply themselves more energetically to difficult tasks – all of which would be very useful to a student about to tackle Homer or the Pythagorean Theorem.

In June, the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research put out a report on these questions titled “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review.” It came out too late for me to include any reference to it in my book, unfortunately, but I would recommend it as a good resource for any of your readers who want to delve more deeply into the research around these skills and how they can play out in the classroom. (Here’s a link.)