Liberals don’t want to admit it, and conservatives don’t want to pay for it, but building character—resilience, optimism, perseverance, focus—may be the best way to help poor students succeed.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp.
When Barack Obama campaigned for the White House four years ago, Democrats and their allies in education policy circles were embroiled in a fierce debate over how best to improve the educational performance of the millions of K-12 students living in poverty.
One camp, a coalition of researchers and educators formed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank, argued in a manifesto called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that tackling poverty’s causes and consequences was the way to free disadvantaged students from the grip of educational failure. “Schools can ameliorate some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement,” the coalition wrote. But, it continued, “[t]here is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.”
In sharp contrast, a second reform group, led by then school superintendents Joel Klein of New York and Michelle Rhee of Washington, D.C., and others drafted a competing reform manifesto under the auspices of an organization known as the Education Equity Project that stressed tougher accountability for schools and teachers, governance reforms for failing schools, and the expansion of charter schools. They largely refused to acknowledge that poverty rather than school quality was the root cause of the educational problems of disadvantaged kids, for fear that saying so would merely reinforce a long-standing belief among public educators that students unlucky enough to live in poverty shouldn’t be expected to achieve at high levels — and public educators shouldn’t be expected to get them there.
While one of the few reformers with feet in both camps, Chicago schools superintendent Arne Duncan, was named U.S. secretary of education, the Klein cabal won the policy fight. The Obama agenda has focused almost exclusively on systemic school reform to address the achievement deficits of disadvantaged students: standards, testing, teacher evaluations, and a continued, if different, focus on accountability. The administration’s one education-related poverty-fighting program, Duncan’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, is a rounding error in the Department of Education’s budget.
Duncan was right to align himself early on with both Democratic factions. Good schools can, of course, make a difference in student achievement just by being good. And the inadequate nutrition, housing, language development, and early educational experiences that many impoverished students suffer are real barriers to learning.
But in the last several years a new body of neuroscientific and psychological research has made its way to the surface of public discourse that suggests that the most severe consequences of poverty on learning are psychological and behavioral rather than cognitive. The lack of early exposure to vocabulary and other cognitive deficits that school reformers have stressed are likely no more problematic, the research suggests, than the psychological impact of growing up in poverty. Poverty matters, the new work confirms, but we’ve been trying to address it in the wrong way.
Former New York Times Magazine editor Paul Tough brings this new science of adversity to general audiences in How Students Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, an engaging book that casts the school reform debate in a provocative new light. In his first book, about the antipoverty work of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough stressed the importance of early cognitive development in bridging the achievement gap between poor and more affluent students. In How Students Succeed, he introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of characters—economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists among them — whose work yields a compelling new picture of the intersection of poverty and education.
There’s James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, who found in the late 1990s that students who earned high school diplomas through the General Educational Development program, widely known as the GED, had the same future prospects as high school dropouts, a discovery that led him to conclude that there were qualities beyond courses and grades that made a big difference in students’ success. His inclinations were confirmed when he dug into the findings of the famous Perry Preschool Project. In the early days of the federal War on Poverty in the 1960s, researchers provided three- and four-year-olds from impoverished Ypsilanti, Michigan, with enriched preschooling, and then compared their life trajectories over several decades with those of Ypsilanti peers who had not received any early childhood education.
The cognitive advantages of being in the Perry program faded after a couple of years. Test scores between the two groups evened out, and the program was considered something of a failure. But Heckman and others discovered that years later the Perry preschoolers were living much better lives, including earning more and staying out of trouble with the law. And because under the Perry program teachers systematically reported on a range of students’ behavioral and social skills, Heckman was able to learn that students’ success later in life was predicted not by their IQs but by the noncognitive skills like curiosity and self-control that the Perry program had imparted.
Tough presents striking research from neuroendocrinology and other fields revealing that childhood psychological traumas — from physical and sexual abuse to physical and emotional neglect, divorce, parental incarceration, and addiction, things found more often (though by no means exclusively) in impoverished families — overwhelm developing bodies’ and minds’ ability to manage the stress of events, resulting in “all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects, physical, psychological, and neurological.”
There’s a direct link between the volume of such trauma and rates of heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, smoking, drug use, attempted suicide — and schooling problems. As Tough writes, Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their yearperformance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses [caused in part by disrupted brain chemistry] and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.
In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.
The good news, Tough reports, is that studies reveal that the destructive stressors of poverty can be countered. Close, nurturing relationships with parents or other caregivers, he writes, have been shown to engender resilience in children that insulates them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment. “This message can sound a bit warm and fuzzy,” Tough says, “but it is rooted in [the] cold, hard science” of neurological and behavioral research, though such nurturing is often in short supply in broken, impoverished homes (and even in many intact households and communities).
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.