While I was traveling in the Midwest, visiting states like Ohio and Michigan where public education is under attack, I read Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. I read it the way I like to read when a book is important, with frequent underlining and occasional stars and asterisks.
I found much to like in it. For one thing, Tough directly refutes the privatizers’ claim that poverty doesn’t matter. The book makes clear through the personal stories of young people he interviews that poverty has a devastating impact on their lives. Some can pick themselves up and move on, but others are destroyed by the events in their lives over which they have no control. His book is a rebuke to people like Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan who repeatedly claim that poverty is an excuse for bad teachers. When you meet these young people whose lives are so hard, it is impossible to blame their situation on their teachers or their schools.
I was also impressed that Tough has evolved since he wrote the adulatory book (Whatever It Takes) about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. There is certainly much to praise about what Canada has accomplished and about the comprehensive services that the Zone offers to many children and families. What struck me as odd when I was reading the book was Tough’s dispassionate account of Canada’s cold-hearted decision to dismiss the entire entering class of his first charter school. Canada tried everything to get their scores up, and nothing worked. So, at the insistence of the rich benefactors on his board, he called the kids in and tossed the entire grade out. When the kids got the boot, decisions had already been made by high schools in New York City’s Byzantine choice process, and the kids had to scramble to find a school that would take them. (When I asked Canada about this incident on television before the Education Nation audience in 2011, he denied it and claimed he had closed the entire school, which was untrue.)
The present book is roughly organized in this way. First, Tough reviews the complex scientific research that shows how young children are affected by stress and trauma. Then he writes about how the leaders of KIPP and the Riverdale Country Day School inaugurated programs to teach character. Then he describes the remarkable success of the chess team at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn. And last, he discusses programs in Chicago that are helping young people survive and make it to college.
I liked the first section best, the one that summarizes and explains the research on how stress and trauma affect the minds, spirit, and cognitive development of young people. He writes: “…children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.” What he reports about the physiological effects of anxiety and depression is important. The reformers who claim that poverty is unimportant should be required to read what Tough writes about how poverty hurts children and undermines their ability to learn. Under present circumstances, with so many families and children mired at the bottom on society’s lowest rung, with no hope of ever ascending, poverty is destiny. Anyone who dares to claim that poverty doesn’t matter should have their mouth washed out with soap and be sentenced to live in poverty for at least a month before they return to their lives of pate and cabernet sauvignon. Those who claim that charter schools and teacher evaluations by test scores can cure poverty should be sentenced to live in poverty for six months.
Some teachers have told me that they hated Tough’s book. Katie Osgood really didn’t like it. One teacher wrote to say she returned it and got her money back. I wanted to try to understand why.When I got to the section on KIPP and Riverdale, I understood why so many teachers complain. David Levin, one of the founders of KIPP, is situated in relation to his privileged upbringing. Now he pairs with the headmaster of one of the city’s most expensive, most coveted private schools to try to develop a character program.
Frankly, public school teachers are sick of reading about the miracle of KIPP. They know that KIPP has much more money than their own school. They know that Arne Duncan gave KIPP $50 million; they know that KIPP is the darling of countless Wall Street hedge fund managers who shower money on it. The teachers know that KIPP doesn’t take all the children who are in the local public schools—the ones in wheelchairs, the ones on ventilators, the ones who are behavior problems, the ones who don’t speak English, the ones just released from incarceration. They also know that most KIPP franchises are non-union, and that their teachers work 50-60-70 hours weekly and burn out. And they hate, absolutely hate, having KIPP held up on a pedestal before them.
I understand all that.
And yet I still think it is very valuable that Tough, who is admired by the privatizing reformers, makes two big points: First, that poverty matters; and second, that non-cognitive qualities may be just as important, and perhaps even more important, than IQ and test scores. The people now leading the reform-privatization movement deny both. They need to read Tough’s book.
Teachers already know that poverty affects the academic performance of their students. And they already know that character, habits and behavior matter more than test scores. Shucks, when I was a child in Houston, our public school report card had two sections: One was a list of grades in every subject; the other was pluses and minuses for conduct and behavior and other proxies for character.
In his final chapter, Tough recognizes that schools like KIPP are for the motivated, not for the downtrodden kids who have almost given up hope. Earlier in the book, he points out that Fenger High School in Chicago has been reformed again and again and subjected to every “reform” strategy, without any success. He also understands that the current obsession with evaluating teachers by test scores is not based on evidence and is likely (I would say certain) to fail.
Paul Tough understands that the “reform” ideas don’t work. They skim the motivated, the ones with “grit,” but far more children will be left behind.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Tough is smart. He knows what is going on. He knows the “reform” ideas don’t work. His book is a major indictment of current national policies. He understands that none of the school reform orthodoxies of the moment will make a difference. He recognizes that government must set an agenda that tackles the terrible conditions in which so many families and children live. Schools alone can’t do it, even with character education programs. And for those reasons, I applaud his new book.