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.
As important, Tough contends, is research demonstrating that resilience, optimism, perseverance, focus, and the other noncognitive skills that Heckman and others have found to be so important to success in school and beyond are malleable—they can be taught, practiced, learned, and improved, even into adulthood. Tough points to the work of Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of Learned Optimism, and Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research has demonstrated that students taught to believe that people can grow intellectually earn higher grades than those who sense that intelligence is fixed. This commitment to the possibility of improvement, Seligman, Dweck, and others contend, invests students with the ability to persevere, rebound from setbacks, and overcome fears.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth, a protégé of Seligman’s, has done a range of studies—on college students with low SAT scores, West Point plebes, and national spelling bee contestants, among others—and has found that a determined response to setbacks, an ability to focus on a task, and other noncognitive character strengths are highly predictive of success, much more so than IQ scores.
That’s why some of the schools in the highly regarded KIPP charter school network have added the teaching of such skills to their curricula. And they’ve coupled their traditional academic report cards with ”character report cards” developed by KIPP cofounder Dave Levin, Duckworth, and others. Concerned about their students’ inability to make it through high school and college even though they’re prepared academically, they grade students on self-control, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, grit, zest, and social intelligence. Other experts add conscientiousness, perseverance, work habits, time management, and an ability to seek out help to the list of key nonacademic ingredients of success in school and beyond. Students from impoverished backgrounds need such skills in larger doses, Tough argues, because they often lack the support systems available to more affluent students.
To Tough, the logic of the importance of noncognitive qualities to students’ futures is clear: we need to rethink our solutions to the academic plight of impoverished students. The studies of Dweck, Duckworth, and others support conservative claims that individual character should be an important part of policy discussions about poverty. “There is no anti-poverty tool that we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable that character strengths,” Tough writes, a claim that won’t be easy for liberals to stomach.
But, Tough adds, the contributions of character traits to students’ success goes a long way toward refuting conservative “cognitive determinists” like Charles Murray, who claim that success is mainly a function of IQ and that education is largely about sorting people and giving the brightest the chance to take full advantage of their potential.
The research that Tough explores also undercuts claims by Klein, Rhee, and other signers of the Education Equity Project manifesto that we can get impoverished students where they need to be educationally through higher standards, stronger teachers, and other academic reforms alone.
What we need to add to the reform equation, Tough argues, is a system of supports for children struggling with the effects of the trauma and stress of poverty. He urges the creation of pediatric wellness centers and classes that help impoverished parents build the emotional bonds with their young children that are so important to the development of children’s neurological and psychological defenses against poverty’s ravages. He supports KIPP’s efforts to engender resilience, persistence, and other character strengths in its students, both in school and then beyond through support programs like KIPP Through College. Work by David Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin and others have shown that even modest interventions, like teachers writing encouraging notes on student’ essays, motivate children to persevere academically.
Above all, Tough makes a compelling case for giving poverty greater prominence in the education policy debate. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has talked mostly about school choice and states’ rights in education, playing to conservatives and Catholics, as every GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan has done. But the new science of adversity could be the basis of a compelling reform agenda in a second Obama term—one that merges the competing progressive agendas of the last presidential election cycle.
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